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Traindodge 
Interviewed by Dan Singleton 

You’ll never hear anyone say, “Traindodge sounds like (insert other band here).” But their unique blend of rock, featuring the heavy strumming and intense vocals of Jason Smith, the technically superior drumming of his apparently five-armed brother Rob, and the intuitive bass leads of Chris Allen, sounds like a recipe for some great rock albums. Traindodge has six releases to their name, including the full-length About Tomorrow’s Mileage, the EP Torch and last year’s B-side compilation Emblem Corners. I recently had the opportunity to talk with them about their band, their beliefs, and their brand-new full-length album, On a Lake of Dead Trees

Tollbooth: You guys have six releases that I’m aware of, but this is only your second album in the traditional sense. Why have you taken that approach, putting out more songs on EPs and such?  

Jason: A couple of reasons. One, being that we get asked a lot to do compilations and split releases (the Torch EP was initially supposed to be a split, but by the time it was recorded, the other band had broken up! I think opportunities like those are a good chance to do something that an album may not allow. For example, I think "Cactus Flag" from the Torch EP would be a tough one to put on a full-length. Where do you put an 11-minute song like that in the context of an album of five-minute songs? With EPs, you don't have to ask yourself that. They're a little less formal and they provide an avenue to display a side of your band that might get eclipsed otherwise. 

And the other side of that is, good albums take time to write. I've always looked at movies as a good parallel. In both cases, you're asking your audience to pay attention to you for over 30 minutes. Making sure that the pacing and the right dynamics are in place to keep people's attention from straying during that whole time can be a tough task. 
 
Tollbooth: What is On a Lake of Dead Trees about? I have to tell you, I get a Blair Witch Project vibe from the cover. 

Jason: I thought the same thing too! It reminded me of that and the promo poster for The Last Temptation of Christ, just kind of dark and heavy. Rob came up with the title and did the artwork, so he might be able to give you some background. Rob: I just thought it sounded cool and thought it was a cool image.  It begged a question. It just looked really interesting and I thought J. would be able to use it to theme together the songs since a lot of the songs, at the time, didn’t have lyrics yet. 
 
Jason: When Rob first suggested the title, I immediately liked the paradox that it conjured up. Trees need water to grow. A lake is an abundance of water. The guy in the canoe on the cover is in the middle trying to get some sense out of it. The perspective I took is one of trying to find your own definitions or your own direction in the midst of these opposite extremes—the ebb and flow of complexity in the form of circumstances that life seems to throw at you. Society tells you to do one thing. Your heart and instincts tell you another. Coming to terms with a lot of these conflicts—internal and external, maybe more so internally—can be extremely stressful and demanding, and ultimately it just drains you. It's a pretty common theme with me, albeit it's a tad vague perhaps. > 

If there's a message in the album, loosely, it's to take charge of your life and your emotions and summon the initiative and try to work, or "run" if you will, towards the forces that drive you and speak to you the most. And above all else, act on them and don't apologize for it. But I would encourage everybody to interpret the lyrics to their liking and mold their own meaning out of them. 

Tollbooth: It’s hard to think of any other artists to compare with Traindodge, especially this new album. I think I detected an increased King Crimson influence in the song-construction, especially the way you weave in lyrics outside of traditional verse/chorus frameworks. 

Tollbooth: Who would you consider your influences? How would you characterize your style? 

Jason: The hybrid that I always think is fitting in describing the roots of our sound is the dischord stuff out of Washington D.C. like Fugazi, Jawbox and Rites of Spring crossed with the early-to-mid ‘90s Kansas City stuff like Molly McGuire, Season to Risk, Giants Chair, Shiner—that sort of stuff. That's a good starting point, if nothing else. But we listen to everything—Killing Joke, Van Halen, Neil Young, lots of prog (King Crimson, Yes, Rush), Miles Davis, OLD, DJ Shadow, The Police, Aphex Twin, Hendrix, Coalesce, >Steely Dan, Godflesh, Bjork, Led Zeppelin—too many to mention, anything good! 
 
Chris: Rush, of course. I really don’t think it shows through, but the Flaming Lips have also been an influence. But as far as direct influences go, I'd say the same ones that J. mentioned. 
 
Jason: But as far as characterizing our style, when people ask me what we sound like, I just tell them that we're a loud rock band. > A plain description like that usually weeds out a lot of boneheads. Tags have become so cliched and meaningless that I think they actually hurt bands that subscribe to them. A band can either write good songs or they can't. 
 
Tollbooth: How has Traindodge evolved as a band? 
 
Chris: I would say we’ve evolved as players and as songwriters. It’s been a fairly basic evolution. It also helps that we’re friends. I'm not sure how related that is to our evolution, but it has helped. 
 
Jason: I think being friends and knowing each other this long has made it easy to progress. Over the years, we've gradually gotten better at playing with one another. And we've developed a language with each other that has let us focus on our goals stronger and quicker. 
 
Tollbooth: How is this album different from your previous work? 
 
Chris: I think we’ve learned to take all our ideas and put them into shorter songs. Before, it would take us seven minutes to cover all the ground we wanted to cover. Now we can get them into a four- or five-minute song. 
 
Rob: I think we’ve gotten good at saying what we want to say quicker. We’ve gotten better at being concise. Overall, I just think the songs are better. We’re branching out a little. Different instruments being added to the mix has helped. 
 
Jason: I would agree with all of that. I also think there's a unity to this record that comes across in sound and in mood that our other recordings don't have. Overall, it just sounds a lot more confident and focused to me. 
 
Tollbooth: You’ve also just released a split-EP with Gunfighter. I love the irregular time signature (is that 5/8?—the one that’s five beats per bar) on “When the Wicked Walk With Fire.” How did that EP come about? 
 
Jason: I usually don't keep track of our time signatures. I sometimes wish we really were the "math-letes" that people make us out to be. I know the end of "United Skeletons" is in 5/something, but I'm not sure about "When the Wicked Walk With Fire." 
 
Tollbooth: You’re right, it was “United Skeletons” I was thinking of. 
 
Jason: But anyway, we've known the Gunfighter guys from when they were called Molly McGuire. Over the years, we've gotten to know (Gunfighter guitarist/vocalist) Jason Blackmore fairly well, and we've been lucky enough to play with them a few times in Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri. The split was his idea. He's a big Traindodge fan and thought it would be cool. We freaked when he brought it up. It's an honor for us, all of us being big fans. It's not every day that one of your favorite bands asks you to do a split release with your band. We couldn't say no. We'd been talking about it a while, even before Rob had joined Gunfighter. Rob ended up playing on both bands’ songs. And Hieu Nguyen at Ascetic Records was kind enough to put it out. 
 
Tollbooth: The last time I saw you guys play, you were opening for Stavesacre, who have a lot of spiritual and Christian themes in their music. Since the Phantom Tollbooth tries to give a Christian perspective on music, and not just limited to the contemporary Christian scene, I think our readers would be interested in your perspective on spiritual things. Would you guys say you share similar views with the members of Stavesacre or that you have a personal relationship with God? What is your take on spiritual issues? 
 
Jason: That was actually a pretty frustrating tour for us. As far as receptive crowds go, you caught us on one of the top three nights on that tour. I think we sold more CDs in Orlando than any other show. But for the most part, we were in the position of playing for kids who were waiting for Stavesacre. These kids would watch us play, get into it or whatever, and then afterwards, ask us if we were a Christian band. I would always level with them and explain that, even though there are no direct Christian references in our lyrics, that I still thought that Christians could easily walk away from our songs with something positive. 
 
That bummed so many kids out. Kids who, during our set, would be up front and really enjoying themselves and would later come to the merch table with money in their hands, all excited and find out that our songs had no direct Biblical references whatsoever, and would lose their steam entirely, pocket their money and walk off. I had a problem with that. Not because I saw it as lost CD 
sales, but I just couldn't see how someone could be freaking out over a band one minute, ready to meet you and talk to you about music and then, the next minute, turn away and not even discuss these things with you, strictly on the basis that our songs weren't directly about Christianity. It's like, 20 minutes ago we rocked. But now we don't? 
 
Tollbooth: Yeah, I mean you have to wonder if they tore the book of Esther out of their Bible because it doesn’t contain any direct references to God. 
 
Jason: Imagine the frustration of this going on for a whole month. Night after night, this would happen. I would try and try and try to get through to any of these kids. I'd say to them over and over, "You can get your own meaning from these lyrics, translate them however you'd like." To myself, I was thinking, "Why do you want this stuff spoon-fed to you?! Take the initiative and assign 
your own reality to the words!!" Really, I think the lyrics are ambiguous enough for almost anybody to relate to. But it was almost like because the lyrics weren't exclusively for them, they felt cheated or tricked into liking a band for 30 minutes, liking a band that they would have to share with a secular audience. It made me wonder how many thousands of Stavesacre fans out there really like them for their music. 
 
But anyway, answering your question, I think a personal relationship with God, or any spiritual equivalent, should be just that—personal. I think the Bible and Christianity have plenty of great things to offer—as do Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism. What I mainly have a problem with is the structure of modern Christianity, how much emphasis there is on going to church, the ritual, how so many people's saving grace is simply sitting in a pew once a week. I also find the recent commercialization of Jesus in the last few years to be a bit distasteful. I think it's more meaningful to figure out how your preferred spiritual force exists and works in your own psyche and try to cultivate some kind of relationship that way. My mom is in Jungian analysis right now. A lot of the stuff she shows me is fascinating.  I have a tattoo on my back called the “oneness symbol.” It's the number “1” in the middle of an infinity symbol. The infinity represents all of the various spiritual paths there are, all of which I think are valid, and the one represents the same one reality that they all go back to. That pretty much sums up my standpoint. But I don't think that any of this should get in the way of someone liking our music. A band either rocks or they don't. I thought one of the most phenomenal bands from the ‘90s was Roadside Monument. I could never imagine their spiritual beliefs ever getting in the way of me loving their music. 
 
And just to prevent any confusion, we are friends with the Stavesacre guys. We see them whenever we can. They're great people and one of the most consistent live bands we've ever played with. 
 
Tollbooth: If you could play a show with any band, who would it be? Any chance of getting an opening slot on the new Rush tour? 
 
Chris: I would say Fugazi. I would also say the Flaming Lips, but I’m not sure how much their crowd would dig us. So if it had to be one, I'd say Fugazi. 
 
Rob: Fugazi. 
 
Jason: Fugazi would be my top choice. And what's completely tormenting about answering that is that it almost happened four years ago. The promoter was a guy that we went to high school with. He had told me that it would happen if he ever booked them. He eventually did book them, but they brought two other bands with them so there was no room on the bill for a local band. 
 
Tollbooth: I believe you (Jason) told me a few months ago that this was going to be the last Traindodge album, at least for now. What’s next for the members of Traindodge? 
 
Jason: I think I jumped the gun when I announced that we were breaking up. I was so jaded and burnt and stressed from all the touring we did in 1999 and the “Torch” tour that I think all I needed was a break. We all feel strongly about this new record, and we want to push it in any way possible. Rob is leaving Gunfighter to come back to play with us. We just added a second guitarist, Carl Amburn, who also recorded the record. He's a phenomenal musician and engineer. He's thickened our live sound up a whole lot. He plays keyboard with us live also so we've been able to do some songs that we probably wouldn't have considered doing before. 
 
We're just going to keep writing and recording and playing regionally when we can. I think our days of touring for weeks at a time are over. Chris and I are in school, and Chris and Rob are both married. We got so hell-bent on touring for so long that I think we lost sight of having fun. At this point, we're unconcerned with how much we sell or what label picks us up. We just really like writing dynamic songs and playing them live. Thankfully, we've been around long enough to where, regionally, there are a few people who look forward to seeing us. Granted, it's a pretty small crowd, but those who do show up really seem to enjoy themselves. 
 
Tollbooth: How can people get a hold of On a Lake of Dead Trees or your other releases?  

Jason: On a Lake of Dead Trees is a split release between Ascetic Records and No Karma Records. Ascetic Records' web site is www.asceticrecords.com.  Ascetic is also the home of a great band called Riddle of Steel,  who all of us just worship. It's been a long time since a new band has blown me away like they do. They have an EP for sale that I'd recommend to anybody serious about their rock. 
 
No Karma's web site is www.nokarma.com. They've put out most of our releases. Lately they've put out some pretty great stuff—Slackjaw's new record. They're a band from Portland who've been around for 10 years. Really mellow and melancholy and moody but, above all, great songwriting. Also, you should go to No Karma's site anyway and check out their online store. They carry a lot of great indie stuff (from other labels) and are very efficient in getting it to people. Check Amazon or eBay for used, or new if you're lucky, copies of our first record, About Tomorrow's Mileage, which is out of print.  
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 
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