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Saturday, March 10

Interview: John Skeehan of Railroad Earth


Recently Phish and The Dead had the chance to chat with epic Railroad Earth Mandolinist John Skeehan. We talked splittin' wood, festival season madness and the criticisms of Miles Davis.  
JB- John Bolin
JS- John Skeehan

D&JB -Hey John! Thanks for taking the time to do this interview for us at  How are ya today?
JS - Oh I’m all right, I’m at home. We actually ended tour about a week ago in Minneapolis.

JB-So when you’re chilling at home what do you like to do? What are your hobbies?
JS – Well I have an old harpsichord that I spent, oh two winters ago refurbishing, so I like to tinker around with that, although it’s a rather cantankerous old thing. I do what I can as far as writing, working on a little home recording and whatnot. This past, oh before just Christmas I went to work on a couple classical pieces for piano and mandolin. But I try to keep my hands on things like that, but there’s also, in the winter time here a lot of wood to be split up and hauled around, and just trying to get your head back together after being away for a couple weeks at a time.

D- When you do instrumental wring for Railroad Earth, do you usually have and emotion in mind, or do you just let it flow and see what happens? What’s that process like?
JS- Just try to let it flow I mean there’s definitely an emotion in mind, but I keep more often with the beat. It might be something I’ve just been messing around with that came from improvising, or just something that I might want to hear, like something that catches my ear and I try and shape it into something. A lot of times it will start with just a random idea, a little melody or riff, that strikes ya, and you think about where it can go. Usually it’s a process of turning it inside out, try to add to it, or shorten it, or lengthen it, and find as many different ways to develop it until you hit the right thing. Often times you work your way around in a circle to the simplest and first thing you did was the best. But from there, then if it’s something worth developing, the next thought is to hear it in the context of the band, how each of the players would contribute to it.

D – Do you ever write lyrics?
JS – No I never have, never really have been a singer, so it hasn’t really crossed my mind. I like to stick to melodies.

D- Who are your biggest influences right now? What’s in your cd player at the moment?
JS – Oh, well, (Laughter) you know, at the exact moment probably what I was working on two nights ago is in there. I like to put stuff down on tape and then try and figure it out. There’s a great record by Frankie Gavin and Alec Finn the fiddle player and bouzouki player from Ireland. The great Strength In Numbers record, it’s called the Telluride sessions, it’s kind of a super group of Bela, Sam, Edgar Myer, and others. I heard somebody once describe it as the “Kind Of Blue” of acoustic music, or string band music. Another record by a Scottish mandolin player named Dagger Gordon.

JB – I see you guys are playing some festivals this summer, like Wakarusa, Del Fest, and All Good, what is your take on playing these big festivals as apposed to playing a head lining tour?
JS– Well the festival thing is great, it’s the whole thing. When the weather is right is great to be playing outside. There’s something about the bands music that totally lends itself to an outdoor setting. You know things like Del Fest are just such a huge honor to be a part of, and the fact that they’ve wanted us there every year, because Del McCoury is an absolute hero of mine, and the Del McCoury band was one of the first that made a huge impression on me when I used to go out to the Grey Fox Bluegrass festival and hear them and say wow, that’s the power of a bluegrass band, that’s the power of this music. So just to be there and be able to interact with, well you asked about influence before and Ronnie McCoury is a great super hero of mine, he’s a great mandolin player, and to be at their festival and always receive a welcoming greeting from him and Del and the rest of the guys is just a thrill. The festival allows us to cross paths with a bunch of other musicians and players and connect with people, sometimes share the stage. It’s different from being on a headlining tour because, well some of the festivals we do our sets are 2 hours long, or 90 minutes, or sometimes just an hour, but you’re getting up getting out there and trying to put your absolute best in a short amount of time with a tremendous amount of other music and other kinds of music, where as a headlining tour, where the band is playing 4-5 nights in a row a week for a couple weeks on end, you start to really focus in on what you can do differently and you know it’s just you, with the exception of a supporting band or opener. We try very hard to mix things up and to look at them like if it’s a three night run or if the cities are close enough together, were going to have the same people coming out, so we’ll think about how does this fit with what we did last night, what should we repeat, what should we absolutely not repeat. It has a different feel, a different vibe when you get going and you’re playing every day like that, the band will really start to crank away in a different fashion then a festival set where you kind of rely on the charge and adrenaline and say ok, here’s our time, we gotta go hit it hard and do it right now because, you know, you might be playing right after something different or right before Del McCoury band or something so you have to go and make your statement, one shot.

JB – Do you like to get out there and jump in the crowd and check out the other bands at a festival?
JS – I try to, it depends on how long were there and often there’s a lot to be done before your set, like what your gonna do, so I don’t get as much time to go out and wander, but if were there for a little while, then yeah its always fun to go hear something new or check in on any of our friends from the road.

D- What is your favorite festival to play? Do you have a favorite?
JS– They’re all so different, but Del Fest will always hold a place in my heart because of the connection with Del. It’s really cool to see a festival growing and really coming into its own. You know there are some that are stunningly beautiful; like Telluride, some that are endlessly fascinating like High Sierra, where the people are so endlessly involved, with the parades and people in costumes, and people building their own installations and campsite There’s just an endless array of arts and fun stuff happening all around. One thing we started to venture into this last year was trying to approach the idea of getting our own festival going, or a festival that we would host. We had our first ever Hangtown Halloween Ball last fall in California just outside of Tahoe, and, you know, putting on a festival is a difficult thing especially the first year, second year, it takes a while to make everything work and get the word out there. It really went surprisingly well, we had a great weekend, and great weather, and a great line up of bands. To me one the wonderful thing was a lot of the people we know came along and pitched in to enhance the whole scene. There were some art installations like a ghost train in the back of the field behind the main stage that lit up and had smoke coming out of it. One guy made these amazing portals, as entry ways to the different stage areas, like there was one to the main stage that looked like a great big stone monolith portal entry way. It’s really cool to see people coming together and pitching in and turning a regular county fair ground into a festival and into our own, something were hoping to make into an annual tradition.

JB – If you could jam with any musician, living or dead who would it be?
JS – Hmmmmm, uh, wow. That’s a little tough because I mean I’d be just as scared to play with anyone I can think of. Man I don’t know, Jethro Burns, who unfortunately left us a little while ago. Django Reinhart, I’d like to have sat down and played with him. I wouldn’t want to play with Miles because I think he’d probably say something really mean or critical. (Laughs)

D – In the last couple years you’ve been playing with Andrew Altman, I’ve noticed the music moving in a new direction. How do you feel the dynamic has changed with the addition of Andrew?
JS – Well, Andrew, you know, brings a great authority to the bass, and talk about a guy who showed up at an audition and said I’ve got about 64 tunes that I’ve got down and am real comfortable with. As soon as we start to say, well lets do this one, but live we do it a bit differently and we’d start to explain it he’d say no I know, I listen to all the live recordings, I got it. (Laughs) So we started out with a guy who took it upon himself to learn everything and learn the way we do it and also bring his own voice to it. He comes from a jazz background so he stepped into the improvisational role of music very well in terms of really playing the bass. You know, the sound of the band has changed a bit as were going through the process of recording our last album and experimenting with a little more electricity and with Andrew playing the electric bass brings a different dimension to things.

JB – Are you guys working an a new album now or anything?
JS – No were cranking away on the road, don’t have any set plans for that right now. We’ve been out touring so much that we haven’t had the opportunity to spend time at home. Some of the newer focus that I had there, I guess last year, went towards getting a couple of our own festivals off the ground, like Hangtown and we have been doing an annual thanksgiving weekend in Stroudsburg Pa, which is pretty close to home for us in New Jersey, this year we decided to step it up where as we for several years made it a 2 night run, with a couple of friends opening up for us, we decide to expand that and take over the entire town of Stroudsburg and had 3 or 4 different venues involved that had music, people we brought in and a bunch of other activities from poetry readings and bicycle trips to kind of make it a festival oriented weekend but within the context of the town.

D – I have one more question. What is your take on the modern electronic music scene and it’s incorporation with the jam scene?
JS- I can definitely see, you know, the logical appeal of it in the jam scene. I have kind of always had an interest in, well not strictly acoustic music, but in small ensemble music, of course acoustic music too, so I never really gravitated to the electronic side of things, a long time ago, as a teenager I guess...I became very obsessed with an early electronic group called Tangerine Dream. Which I don’t know of they’re known now, but uh very hypnotic, trancy electric music, all keyboards and synths, not the big bass and drum kind of sound you get in contemporary stuff. When I her a lot of it, like Sound Tribe Sector Nine I think back to my old Tangerine Dream albums I used to get into, because it is such an other worldly sound. I can certainly see how it would appeal to the jam crowd.

D&JB – Right on John, I really appreciate your time here. By the way Stringer says Hi!
JS– (Laughter) Right on. Tell him hi for me.  

After wrapping up 2 nights at San Francisco's Fillmore this weekend, RRE heads out to Aspen on March 16th for a 2-night showing at the Spring Jam Core Party, and The Belly Up.