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Back on track
The Return of the Legendary Trainhoppers
By EA Poorman
Fort Wayne Reader
There's nothing better than being with a group of friends you connect with on a musical level. Maybe you don't go have a beer or a cup of coffee after practice, but when you get in a room with instruments in hand things just click. Those creative juices flow and magic is made.
The Legendary Trainhoppers were a group of friends that made magic together for a short while many years ago. Back in 2006 a bunch of guys from other local bands such as Go Dog Go, Brown Bottle Band, and Definitely Gary, as well as Matthew Sturm got together and started playing a mix of Americana and folk music. Guys switching from guitar to banjo to mandolin, the music was an earthy and organic ode to down home, buzzing country jangle music you might've heard in juke joints or backyard barbecues. The guys released one album, Ramble On, and played their final show on February 24th, 2007 at Fort Wayne's Down The Line concert — covering the music of Bob Dylan and The Band, natch.
Well nine years later and The Legendary Trainhoppers are riding the rails once again. The band might look a little different, but they sound as great as ever. The Legendary Trainhoppers 2.0 are Chris Dodds, Dan Smyth, Phil Potts and Matt Kelley as multi-instrumentalists and singers, with Casey Stansifer on bass and Connor O’Shaughnessy on drums. They have self-produced a new album called Family Tree and it's great. It's definitely not picking up where they left off back in 2007. They've surpassed that and have moved forward.
E.A. Poorman: So how did The Legendary Trainhoppers get back together?
Phil Potts: I had been listening to an album called Middle Brother, a band that is similar to the Trainhoppers in many ways. The more I listened, the more he thought it was time to get back together. I brought the idea out to Matt and Chris at their Go Dog Go holiday show in December 2014, and a year later we have another album.
E.A. Poorman: Did you guys ever see the band getting back together?
Matt Kelley: I never really thought we’d get back together. But, you start seeing things in your life, people getting older or getting sick, and you start thinking if you can, maybe you should. I don’t think any of us wanted to wake up one day and wish we had. And truly, it’s been just incredible. So fun, so creatively rewarding, so collaborative. We don’t want to just come back and play the old songs—we want to do all of it better than we ever did before, and we’re restless in making sure that happens.
E.A. Poorman: It must have been hard on some level bringing the Trainhoppers back together without friend and former bandmate Damian Miller (Miller passed away in 2014.)
Matt Kelley: I think it’s fair to say we all think Damian would love this new record. There were moments throughout writing and recording Family Tree where I’m sure he was in the room with us. And we move forward. Casey was a close friend to everyone in this band during its initial run, and he’s been an incredible and spirited addition to our lineup.
E.A. Poorman: Let's get into the new album Family Tree. It's one thing to get the band back together and play some shows, but something completely different to write and record a new album. How did the album come together? How different was the writing process this time around from Ramble On?
Chris Dodds: The writing process this time around has seemed to be more rewarding in the sense that it was truly more collaborative, from the arrangements all the way down to lyrics/instrumentation and so forth. While we are still incredibly proud of Ramble On, Family Tree has bound us all together even moreso than just playing in a band together. I feel like everyone has a stake or personal connection to these songs that will carry on for a long time. Having this many songwriters in one band is usually not the norm, so I'm glad we are taking advantage of it, and able to have the problem of having too many songs to choose from. Is a triple- double album a thing? I think we could do it!
E.A. Poorman: Who produced the album? And where did you record?
Phil Potts: We recorded the album at a great space called The B-Side at One Lucky Guitar. It’s a very comfortable environment where we wouldn't feel rushed, as sometimes happens in a studio. We produced it ourselves and used Tyler Berggren, who works with Phil at Sweetwater Sound, to engineer it.
E.A. Poorman: Mature may not be a musician's favorite thing to hear when someone is describing their music, but the songs on 'Family Tree' do have a maturity to them. There's a lived-in vibe here. A guy in his early 20s doesn't write a song like "I Don't Do That Anymore". Someone who's lived a bit does. Someone who's made some mistakes but learned from those mistakes. Could 'Family Tree' be seen as an ode to middle age? And maybe kind of enjoying getting older?
Matt Kelley: You know, this is an interesting question. I think there’s certainly some perspective to this album, and it’s perspective that comes with age, yes. “I Don’t Do That,” “My Come Monday,” “Flow River Flow” are all songs that may have been more difficult to write—or at least to fully inhabit—earlier in our lives. The flipside is, we’re honestly having more fun and are more loose than before. We’re confident. This band feels youthful. It’s kind of like that Dylan line, “We were so much older then, we’re younger than that now.”
E.A. Poorman: Are there any great stories behind any of the songs you could share? Something like "C'est la Vie", "New York City", or "One Time In California" seem to have interesting stories within them.
Matt Kelley: Well, “One Time in California” was the first song we wrote for the album. I wrote those lyrics, and put them in an envelope with a letter (a call to arms) and mailed it to everyone in the band. So everyone kind of arrived at our first meeting with some ideas on that song, and I think in my iTunes, I have about 18 different versions of that song, as it evolved. Different keys, different tempos, wildly different chorus ideas that became bridge ideas that led to a new approach to the verse. And that was really them mantra of making this album—no song is so precious that we can’t beat it up, put it through the test, to see how we might make it better. So there are not really “Dan songs” or “Matt songs” or “Chris songs” or “Phil songs”—there are only “Trainhopper songs.” And that’s pretty awesome. “NYC” is another like that. Phil had the chorus, and that’s it. Dan came up with the first verse, and then we cracked the code on the way the song works tempo-wise. Next thing you know, we all wrote a verse about an experience we had in the city, and passed the mic. It was a ton of fun.
E.A. Poorman: Are there any favorite songs amongst the band on Family Tree? Any that hold a certain significance? Was there a favorite moment while making Family Tree you could share?
Matt Kelley: I think the best bit is probably “Keep a Light” which, again, was written very collaboratively, over a very long period of time. When we had finally locked in an arrangement, we moved toward recording. Phil was on vacation during our first day of tracking, so when he came back the following week, he said, “Hey, I had this idea…just follow me.” And that became “Don’t Fade on Me”—what you hear, literally, is the second time Casey and Connor ever heard or played the song. We wrote some new words, and Phil cut a new vocal, and it kind of became this companion piece to “Keep a Light.” It was pretty remarkable and is one of our favorite parts of the album. Bob Dylan’s ‘The Cutting Edge’ box set had just come out when we were recording the album, and hearing the way Bob would rework songs on take after take—I mean, I’m not trying to compare us to Bob, but the idea that a song is never truly finished is an idea that drove us and inspired us repeatedly. And now, we get to play ‘em live, and rework them some more!
E.A. Poorman: The Family Tree release show will be at the Phoenix on February 20th. What's in store for that night? Who else is playing the show with the Trainhoppers?
Matt Kelley: So we’re playing with Metavari. It’s a bit of an odd mix, I suppose, on paper—us with our Americana and rock, them with their electronics and synths. Fact is, we’re just really great friends, and we’ve wanted to do a show together for a long, long time. They’ll open the night, and then we’ll go on—we’ve got some surprises planned, it’ll be very loud, and sometimes very quiet, and always very loose, and we’re just gonna try to keep the thing moderately on the rails. I expect it to be one of the best nights of music in FW this year.
E.A. Poorman: So will the Legendary Trainhoppers be hitting the road to support Family Tree?
Matt Kelley: Well, one thing our band always did was push back on what the traditional bar circuit was back then—we strove to do non-traditional gigs, all ages shows, outdoor shows, gigs with touring artists, etc. And we’re planning to do the same this time. So we’ve got Down the Line 10 on February 27th covering Springsteen, we’re opening for MARAH at The Brass Rail on June 9th, and we’re working on some pretty cool ideas for
a vinyl release in the summer.
E.A. Poorman: As well as the album came together and as much fun as you all had, could you see another album happening in the future?
Phil Potts: We actually debated making this a double album initially. So, yes, album number three is brewing. We've really hit a stride songwriting as a band.
Make sure to head out to the Phoenix — 1122 Broadway — on February 20th for the Legendary Trainhoppers album release show with special guests Metavari. Grab a copy of Family Tree while you're at it.
And don't miss the Trainhoppers covering Bruce Springsteen at this year's Down The Line show on February 27th at the Embassy Theater.
Oh, and flip that calendar forward and mark down June 9th. You don't want to miss the Trainhoppers opening for the always excellent and exuberant MARAH at The Brass Rail.