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
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
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
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.
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.