Interview: Andrew Altman of Railroad Earth
Just last week, we had the opportunity to sit down with Andrew Altman, the bassist for one of our favorite bands, Railroad Earth. Andrew was kind enough to give us some of his time to discuss his new selt-titled 5-track EP, recording and touring with the legendary Warren Haynes, and a few of the things he's most excited about for the second half of 2015.
Interview and Photos by Jordan Kirkland - Live & Listen
Lets start by talking about The Andrew Altman EP, your debut solo recording that was released back in February. I would imagine that this experience was much different than any other past recording sessions. How long had this material been in the works, and how did the recording process play out with you and Tom Hamilton?
Andrew: It was definitely a different thing. I had been working on some of those songs for nearly 5 years, while some of them were only a few months old. So it really varied, because I am always trying to write, and I do that just to give myself something to do when I'm at home. It's a great new challenge, a new creative outlet. I've been doing that for a while, and I finally got to a point where I felt comfortable putting something out there. And Tom is the right guy to "get it into shape." I played with American Babies a few times, and I really like his records.
So I went down to Philly from New York, and it was a really cool experience. He would just hit record and I would start playing. He would hand be a guitar and say "play it," and my first thought was "well you're a better guitar player than me." He would tell me "Just play it. Don't worry about it. If it sucks, I'm going to delete it, and we'll do it over." Which seems like a no brainer in the studio, but you get accustomed to playing live that you don't think like that. So in a lot of the takes, I'd play a rhythm part or something, and it would be fine. We would keep it. Tom still played most of the guitar on the record. He'd even sit down on the drums and I'd tell him "You're not a drummer. You're a guitar player." To which he would respond, "Just trust me. If you don't like it, we'll do something else." And I ended up liking it. There is just nothing to be scared of, and that was what made it such a great learning experience.
So much of my career has been in the live moment, with tapers all around, and if you don't get it right the first time, it's all over the internet and you hear about how bad it sucked. It kind of trains you to think that way, especially with the way media is nowadays, but the studio just isn't that way. It's kind of awesome, and it seems obvious, but it takes a while to unlearn those habits. You have to get in there and say "Who cares. Let's do whatever the hell we feel like." And sometimes we listen to it and say "Wow. That's sucks," and no one ever hears it.
What does it mean as an artist to finally put all of your most personal, individual material on the chopping block and hammer it out in the studio? I would imagine it can be an emotional ride.
Yeah it can be, but it's fun. When you get the recording part, the emotional part is already done, which was also a testament to Tom. Since I trusted him, I knew from the minute that I stepped into the studio, something good was going to happen. I know his work. It was really fun in the studio because I could kind of step back into the role that I am used to, which is almost like "the session guy." I would just let him tell me what to do, and I would do it. When you have somebody that you trust like that, you already know it's going to sound cool. There's no other way to describe it. There is no worrying about what other people think, because people are always going to judge you. There will be people that hear it and say it sucked. There will be others who hear it and love it. You're just an artist and can't obsess about that. You have to trust yourself and as long as you're having fun, that's all that matters. As long as I am having fun and being myself, we're good. After that, everyone else can do what they want. You can't let either side throw you off. That goes for the people that love your music and the people that say it sucks.
As we progress further into the world of digital music, where the concept of purchasing music continues to fade, being involved in multiple groups or projects is a must. How do you go about planning and balancing out your time for these things with the vigorous touring schedule with Railroad Earth?
Andrew: Well right now, it's not a balance, it's all Railroad Earth. I wasn't even able to work it into the schedule to play any shows to support this release, which I hope to be able to do in the future. I would like to have a couple different projects that I work with, and when time presents itself, it can be booked. Railroad Earth is a lot of fun though and it's a lot of our time, all of us in the band. There are very few weekends that you get free, and when you do, a lot of that time is spent catching up on other things. And actually, a lot of the guys that I would like to play with and have that chemistry with, the few weekends you're free, they're on tour and aren't free. It's weird, because the kind of music that we all make, you want it to feel organic. You want to be a part of a project. You want play with your friends. I am very fortunate to be surrounded by my friends, in Railroad Earth as well as many of the bands around us.
It's fortunate in some ways and unfortunate in others. For example, just to get this record done, it took us six months just to get the tracks done, and then another 6 months to finish them. We could only work on it for a day or two each month. We didn't spend an insane amount of time in the studio. It would just be like, "Hey you're in town this week, I'll come down for two days." And then the next month it would be two more days. There's only so much time, and that's just two people, much less a band, and you're trying to line up the schedules of three, four, or five people.
The experience of recording a full album with Warren Haynes must have been special. The material is clearly personal for Warren, some of which dates back many years. I read where you guys officially met when Railroad Earth opened up for the Allman Brothers in Colorado several years ago. Was this before or after you joined the band? What was the ultimate sequence of events that led to this collaboration?
Andrew: That was actually before I was in the band, but they opened up for the Allmans, and I believe that Tim (Carbone) may have sat in with them. But the first time that he reached out to us was when did DelFest a few years ago. He was playing an acoustic set and asked me, Tim, and John (Skehan) to sit in on 3 or 4 specific tunes. That was the first time we had a kind of premeditated collaboration with Warren. We practiced a little before the set and then joined him on stage. Shortly after that, probably 4 or 5 months later, he was playing a two-night run at the Capitol Theatre. He was doing an acoustic show the first night, followed by Warren Haynes Band show the next night. He asked me, John, Tim, and Andy to join him, and we ended up playing half of the show with him. It really started to evolve from there.
After that, I guess when he was looking towards this record, he was more familiar with who we are and what we do. He's mentioned it in interviews, but he had been trying to do this record for a long time. He initially planned to record it with Levon Helm and T-Bone Wolk, and unfortunately they both passed on. Warren is one of the hardest working guys out there, and I think he just reached a point where he had some free time and saw that we would all be available. We were able to coordinate everyone's schedule, and obviously there was at least somewhat of an understanding of what we do. It was funny, the way it came down, I think it was a Friday. There had been some talk about the record. He actually came by Todd's (Sheaffer) place to work on some material, which ended up being "Word On The Wind", which is on the record. So there was some talk about it, but we didn't hear much for a while. Until one Friday, they called and said "So yeah I think we are ready to do the record now." We weren't really expecting it, but thankfully we all had some time and we said "lets do it." It was pretty last minute. That was my understanding anyway.
I read where Todd was unable to play a handful of the most recent shows. Can we expect to see him out there for the future shows with Warren?
So with this most recent run of shows, Todd had some important things to tend to back home, but these were really just promo shows. He needed to be at home and asked if he could do so. Those shows were really different that some of the ones we have coming up. There are several coming up that have Warren featuring our band, and some with us playing our own set. There will be more collaborating and more of a presence from everyone. The timing worked out pretty well that we were able to play those shows without Todd, because you can't have a Railroad Earth show without Todd. He will definitely be there for everything moving forward.
You’ve regularly shared the stage with an amazing resume of musicians at this point; from Col. Bruce Hampton and Bobby Lee Rogers; to Tom Hamilton and your current RRE bandmates. How would you describe the experience of recording and sharing the stage with Warren Haynes? What effect has he had on you, and how has this impacted you as a musician?
Andrew: Anytime you get out of your normal zone, you always learn something. We spend so much time on the road, playing live, that none of us get to spend as much time in the studio as we would like. So it was fun to have that opportunity to be in studio with him. It was cool, because he really embraced what we do. So it was fun to be on a record where I played upright, all of my electric basses, different tunings. I used the bow a lot, at his request. So that was fun. And of course just being around someone that has been at it as long as Warren has. He's played with everyone. It's cool to just sit and chat with him sometimes. He's got some hilarious stories. That's the big thing though, to just be in the room with someone who has had that type of experience. You hope that someday, 20 or 30 years down the road, you could be that guy to someone else in the younger generation.
How is the remainder of the year looking for you and Railroad Earth, and What are you most excited about as we roll into the second half of 2015?
Andrew: Definitely some of these upcoming shows where we are going to be doing more of the Railroad Earth thing with Warren, you know, where we are doing some of our stuff with him. That will be cool. Of course our Hangtown Halloween Ball. Thats our own thing and really kind of our little festival. Hopefully, there is some talk right now, but hopefully getting started on some of our own new material. Hopefully getting in the studio with the band and doing some more recording, which only happens every few years for us.
As far as Alabama is concerned, we are actually coming down there over Labor Day Weekend and playing at the Lake Martin Amphitheater in Eclectic. It's a Sunday night show. Alabama always treats us well. Every time we come through there, at least for the five years I've been in the band, every time we have played there the vibe has been really great. You can't just say that about any place, and thankfully we have great fans everywhere, but Bama never lets us down.
With the world of live music continuing to grow, the level of competition and potential struggle is as real as ever. What advice would you give to young, aspiring musician in this crazy day and age?
Andrew: I love that question because honestly, I was one of those people not that long ago. Sometimes I still feel like I still am. It feels like thats all it is nowadays. We are all aspiring. None of us have "made it." We're all "making it." It's just a different world, you know what I mean? Anyone that has made so much money playing music that they can afford to never play again are people that are so far out of my realm. I don't know what that's like. You just have to do it because you really want to. I sounds kind of cliche. People have always said that, but it's true. It's more true now than ever.
It's not one of these things that in 10 years you can make so much money that you can slow down. You've gotta want to do it for your entire life. It takes you at least 10 years to be established enough that it feels even semi-comfortable, with a heavy emphasis on semi. So much can change. I wish I would see more young players dedicating themselves to the craft. If you're a song writer, spend all day writing songs. If you're a singer, spend all day singing. If you're a bass player or drummer, spend as much time as you can while you're young playing your instrument...all day day everyday, as much as you can. I feel like it's tough because young artists, if they get any type of draw, they get sucked into the thing where you have to drop everything, quit your job, go out on tour. If you made any money, you have to keep touring now to pay your bills. You don't get the chance to develop your craft, you know?
If you're into laptops and electronic music, learn an instrument too, so you can probably make even better electronic music, and you understand the fundamentals. When I was growing up, my generation was one of the first that had really prevalent electronic music. I listened to it when I was younger, and sometimes I still do. I incorporate some elements of that in different things that I do. But I also learned how to play jazz, and I really learned my instrument. I know theory and can read music. It just helps you speak the language. If the language comes through on a laptop, so be it, but at least you know the language.