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The Legendary Trainhoppers ready new album Let it Breathe and music doc
By John Hubner
Fort Wayne Reader
I always look forward to talking with Fort Wayne's The Legendary Trainhoppers. That's a group of six guys that are at an age of mature comfort. What do I mean by that? I mean they're middle-aged dudes with careers, kids, mortgages, and all the dad life fixings, but are still willing to take risks for the sake of the muse. After a years-long hiatus from the Trainhoppers, in 2015 the guys broke out the mandolins, Telecasters, and tube amplifiers to find that magic they used to
make together. They found it and then some. Family Tree was a sweeping and rugged collection of dusty Americana and buzzing rock and roll. It wasn't a weekend warriors kind of record where dad hangs in the garage with his pals and swills Natural Lights and jams on Petty hits. The boys really did get the band back together and it was glorious.
We're barely at a year and some change since Family Tree was released and they're already readying a new record they recorded back in March with Jason Davis at Off The Cuff Sound. It's called Let It Breathe and it's their best yet. It features contributions by Cassie Beer and The Hoppin' Horns. But not only did the guys record an all-analog warm and fuzzy beauty of a long player, they had filmmaker Brad Bores document the whole process. On June 10th at Artslab you'll be able to hear the guys debut the record, pick up a copy of the album on CD (or download code if that's your thing), and see the film and relive the making of the Trainhoppers beautiful new record.
I talked to Matt Kelley and Phil Potts about the record, as well as Brad Bores about the music doc and how he got involved.
J. Hubner: So we're just a little over a year from the release of the last Trainhoppers album Family Tree and now thanks to the wonders of internet voyeurism I know you guys have been recording a new record. The Trainhoppers are in one hell of a creative streak. How did this new one come about so soon? Was it a strike while the iron's hot sort of situation?
Is this a whole new batch of tunes?
Matt Kelley: We definitely felt like we were on a streak, and even when promoting Family Tree, we continued to write— fear that if we stopped, we might lose momentum. All of these songs but one were written in the 15 months since recording the previous album. I think our velocity has been helped by a couple of things; for starters, we’re a six-piece and everyone contributes song ideas (rather than there just being one songwriter), and second, we’ve hit a really great
collaborative place where we share ideas very early in the process, and pass ‘em around to be made different and better.
Phil Potts: There are 6 of us in the band and we're all songwriters, so while having so many creative voices has its challenges, the upside is there is a lot of material. It was a challenge just picking which 10 to record. . .so we recorded 11.
J. Hubner: So the album's called 'Let It Breathe'. You recorded this time around over at Off The Cuff Sound with Jason Davis. What made The Trainhoppers decide to go full-on analog? It seems like a perfect fit. How was the experience with Jason?
Phil Potts: It was a very different process than our last album. With the last one, we made the conscious decision to produce it ourselves. We recorded it in a more modern way, digitally. On Let It Breathe we decided we wanted input from someone who could help us best shape the songs for recording. Not everything that is great for a live performance translates well to the studio, so having someone like Jason who has so much experience in that realm was revelatory.
Having input from fresh ears was helpful because we'd been living with these songs for a year now. The real artistic benefit to recording to tape in an analog studio, in my eyes, is not some fetishization, it’s that there are limitations. Constraints can be immensely beneficial to creativity. You can't have 100 tracks. You can't Auto-Tune a bad vocal. You don't make everything mathematically perfect and that's what makes it beautiful.
Matt Kelley: Well, we’ve known Jason and known about Off the Cuff for a very long time, but had never been to the studio. We had the option to record in The B-Side again—it’s comfortable (it’s where we write and rehearse) and convenient, and there’s no clock running. Which is to say, it’s an easy option. So, we checked out Off the Cuff, considering it part of our due diligence. About 10 minutes into the studio tour, we were in love, and sharpening our resumés in hopes that we might work there someday. Of course, folks often thing “analog tape” immediately when they
hear about Off the Cuff, but it turns out that’s the smallest part of the story. It all starts with Jason Davis and his perspective and approach and process to making a record. The incredible collection of instruments is a blast, too. Using real instruments and real gear slows everything down, forces you to make more deliberate decisions, and cranks up the pressure.
So yes, The B-Side would have been the easy choice for us. But easy is a four-letter word, and we felt Off the Cuff was the more challenging direction, and could lead to a better album. We certainly believe that to be the case. It was an experience—grueling, hilarious, brilliant—that the seven of us (band + Jason) will never forget.
J. Hubner: Song-wise did the Trainhoppers go into Off The Cuff with completed songs ready to hit record or did you guys leave space to experiment a bit? What's the overall vibe of Let It Breathe?
Phil Potts: We had the songs completed, but we were open to changes. And they did change. Off the Cuff Studios is an inspirational environment.
Matt Kelley: The songs were ready to be performed live. But live, The Trainhoppers are often pretty busy—very loud, everything and the kitchen sink, loud. The studio often gave us the chance to actually play a little less, and be very purposeful with what we played when, and how. Also, of course, the studio’s collection of gear gave us the opportunity to experiment more than we might in a digital environment. If you have a million options, you might just choose the one
you know. When you have a dozen, you might find you want to try ‘em all…
Vibe-wise, you know, it wasn’t quite spring, and definitely not summer, when we recorded. Our final pre-production and early studio days were when winter was hanging on, and the rainy season had begun. I think there’s part of that in the album, but it’s also jubilant, and it’s got some real fight to it. We stretch into some places we’ve never been before, including a song pretty much without guitar, and working with a horn section. But hey, if The Replacements could bring
in the horns with Jim Dickinson on “Can’t Hardly Wait,” we can do the same, right?
J. Hubner: The album release is Saturday June 10th at ArtsLab. Besides the album, the band will be premiering a film on the making of the LP that evening, too. How did the film come about?
Matt Kelley: I first met Brad Bores when he attended a Rayland Baxter show at The B-Side with some dear mutual friends. We hit it off, and share a love for a certain loose Americana music. We were getting the band together and talking about why we did, after almost a decade off, and I left Brad a five-minute voicemail essay about it, and it just seemed like there might be a story worth telling here.
J. Hubner: Is there any 'I Am Trying To Break Your Heart' drama in the film? No personnel changes or vomiting mid-mix I hope.
Phil Potts: Unfortunately for the Brad Bores, the filmmaker, we all get along and had a blast making the record.
Matt Kelley: Fortunately—I think—Brad wasn’t there on those days, lol. But really, this band is far more in simpatico in 2017 than it was in 2007. We did have conflict in writing and making this record, but it was always ultimately in service of the song, and the album, and ideas bigger than any of us as individuals.
J. Hubner: So what can folks expect on June 10th at Artslab?
Matt Kelley: We’re really excited to present a very focused show—a concert performance, rather than a gig. We’re doing two shows, one at 6:30 and one at 9:30. Each will open with Brad’s film, which will be around 15 minutes. We’ll then have a Q&A with Brad, and then the band will perform the album in its entirety, and maybe a couple of requests. It’ll be a fun, all ages show. The ArtsLab is an awesome venue, and we’ll have a bar by The Brass Rail.
Phil Potts: They can expect the rain to stop falling and the clouds to part. We advise bringing extra socks because we will have rocked them off by the 3rd song. All of the ladies in the first two rows run the risk of immaculate conception just by looking at our drummer, so sit accordingly.
J. Hubner: After June 10th where can folks pick up copies of Let It Breathe?
Matt Kelley: We’ll have hard copies at shows and at TheTrainhoppers.com, hopefully Neat Neat Neat and Wooden Nickel, and digital copies on all the usual outlets, including streaming services. I’m pretty proud of the album cover, so I do recommend the CD to those who still have a way to play such a thing…
J. Hubner: Any favorite memories of making the album?
Phil Potts: There was a game of HORSE. I was draining long distance shots over and over again while missing 5-footers. I think that's a metaphor for this album. As John Irving said "If you don't feel that you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then probably what you are doing isn't very vital."
Matt Kelley: A long, long time ago I worked on the website for a studio in Nashville that was up in the holler surrounding the city, a getaway, a destination studio that was down-to-earth, outside the music industry and all about the song, and the art. This was when I was first discovering this guitar I had picked up was lucky. Well, I never had the chance to be part of recording there, but working with this band, with Jason at Off the Cuff, I really felt like I finally got to live an experience like the one I had daydreamed about all those years ago.
So June 10th, Artslab, and bring extra socks. And if you don't want to be carrying an immaculate Trainhoppers baby sit in the back row. Seriously get out there. It's gonna be great, and you'll get to see the great film about the making of 'Let It Breathe' which was directed by Brad Bores, who I talked to as well.
J. Hubner: So how did you get involved in documenting the Trainhoppers recording sessions for 'Let It Breathe'? Were you a fan of the Legendary Trainhoppers prior to the film?
Brad Bores: Yes but I wasn't living in the Fort Wayne area for the first coming of the Trainhoppers so I am a newer fan. I met Matt Kelley at a B-Side show back in 2013(?) and when I heard his band was making a comeback a few years later I knew I would dig the music, just from knowing Matt and his musical tastes that align pretty closely with mine. Last summer the B Side hosted a screening of another music doc I made on Fort Wayne Musician PJ Sauerteig. While I was setting up Matt was talking about the Trainhoppers recording a 3rd album and I think it just clicked that this could make a great short film.
J. Hubner: Were there any music docs you were pulling inspiration from while filming?
Brad Bores: There are quite a few music docs I admire and I'm sure subconsciously elements may show up, but I was more focused on the inspiration coming from the Trainhoppers story and how the visual elements of Fort Wayne (trains, rivers, winter) are connected to the themes of their music.
J. Hubner: Did the filming take place specifically with the recording process or were you involved before that?
Brad Bores: I was filming sporadically the entire process starting last fall when they were still writing and assembling the songs. I also spent the winter chasing down countless shots of trains, bridges and rivers leading towards downtown Fort Wayne as well as the harsh winter vibes in general. The last phase of filming was in the studio this spring as they recorded the songs.
J. Hubner: How long have you been making films? Who were some of your early inspirations? Do you prefer docs to scripted films?
Brad Bores: I have been making films on some level since my college days back in the mid 2000's. My first serious project was a feature length documentary titled "When the Bell Rings" completed in 2013. The Maysle brothers and John Cassavetes would be earlier inspirations with Roberto Minervini being a more contemporary filmmaker I have followed. I enjoy all types of films but only create docs.
J. Hubner: Will you be documenting the album release show on June 10th?
Brad Bores: Nope. I plan to just relax and enjoy the evening.
J. Hubner: What's your overall takeaway from this experience? Could there be another music doc in your future?
Brad Bores: This isn't my first music doc and I'm pretty certain it won't be my last. There is such a strong relationship between film and music that when the right story or theme lines up it makes the process very conducive. I'm excited to screen this film as it is a departure from my typical style of verite into something more visual and stylistic.
Get to Artslab on June 10th for either the 6:30pm or 9:30pm all ages performances. The cover is $12 and includes a CD copy of 'Let It Breathe'(or a download card.) Brad Bores' short documentary will be shown first, followed by a Q&A with Bores and then a performance of the full album by the Trainhoppers. Don't miss this one.