Breathe Easy : The Legendary Trainhoppers Ready New Album ‘Let It Breathe’

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 not even 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(0r download code if that’s your thang), 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 of  is 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 ten 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back On Track : The Return of The Legendary Trainhoppers

by E.A. Poorman

 

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.

I spoke to the guys about the record and getting back together. Here’s what they had to say.

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. TheLTH-002_FT-cov 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 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.