Railroad Earth‘s bassist Andrew Altman isn’t one to waste time or words. As a musician, he has always maintained the philosophy that serving the group first makes the entire band better. That spirit of teamwork has made him a valued member of RRE and a well respected part of the music community at large. He’s also marked by the diversity of his projects, from jazz, to bluegrass, and keeps things fresh with by collaborating with the likes of Warren Haynes and Matt Butler‘s Everyone Orchestra. He has gigs coming up with Everyone Orchestra and Andy Falco from The Infamous Stringdusters, and a packed summer schedule with Railroad Earth, but somewhere along the line he found the time to wander into the studio himself and record a brand new single, “The Middle,” which you can watch below. We spoke with this versatile player about his past, present, and crazy future.
Live For Live Music: Before Railroad Earth you were a member of Blueground Undergrass. Did you have to watch the cussin’ and fightin’ since you had an actual Reverend in the band?
Andrew Altman: I did actually, but it was more to keep up with them, honestly. Before that I was in a band called Codetalkers…that’s how I met the Railroad Earth guys actually.
L4LM: Is life on the road with Railroad Earth as unhinged as it was with those other acts?
AA: No, no…it is definitely MORE hinged.
L4LM: More hinged?
AA: Yeah, that’s why it is still going.
L4LM: It’s been a couple years, but can you remember your thoughts on the decision to join RRE full time?
AA: It was really their decision, not mine, but their bass player left. They had auditions and looked at a few people. I was at a crossroads in my life. I loved being in Blueground Undergrass with Jeff and those guys. Fun bunch of guys. But Jeff wasn’t really looking to run that big a band, and all it entails. He was looking to do something a bit smaller scale, and we weren’t doing as many dates. When you are the bass player in a band, and that band doesn’t do a lot of shows…you don’t make much mone. And you gotta live too, you know? So there was this opportunity there so I went for it. It was a really simple decision for me. But the important decision was really made by them. They decided who they were gonna bring in, and they decided on me.
L4LM: There are a lot of moving pieces in Railroad Earth. What was it like integrating yourself into such a multi-faceted band?
AA: In some ways it was actually beneficial. A band that has been around that long…usually a band like that becomes a family, like Railroad Earth has. Like any family there are some members you are closer with than others. For me coming into it…it’s like I was adopted. In that situation you’re lucky because you don’t have those alliances or whatever. You can be objective about things…at first at least. After a while you’re just in it and part of the family. It helped at the start though.
And I think it helped in an organizational way too. I’m more of an outside looking in guy, at least I was a bit more at first. I didn’t have favorite songs, or songs I was just sick of playing. It was all new to me. I mean, I knew their songs but I didn’t play them every night for years. So when I could offer my opinion I could be totally objective in my perspective. The only thing I know is that if everyone does well, that means I am doing well. And that’s a good thing, obviously.
L4LM: It’s easy to picture you getting called into settling every long-running band argument.
AA: Well, I’ve never seen anyone get called in to settle any arguments. It’s a lot calmer than that. No, it’s more about just focusing on succeeding as a band. It isn’t about what I want, or what is best for me…it’s about what is best for the band. That’s the way any band should be, but it is not easy. And when you spend such a large amount of time around any one group of people it’s tough. We are all individuals and we all have our own lives and lifestyles. We all have our own musical identities and a band that succeeds is a band that does a great job of blending those things.
L4LM: You wasted no time in joining the writing side of the band as well. Do you try and write to the flavor of the band or is it more your personal song-based structure?
AA: I started writing to give myself a new challenge. You reach a point when playing bass where you have a certain level of facility with it. If you limit yourself to playing or doing just one thing, you limit what you can do when you’re not off playing with a band. I mean, do I want to just sit in the room and play bass by myself with a metronome and practice all day? I still do plenty of that, you have to keep up the skills you worked so hard for. It’s not intrinsically fulfilling to sit and play by yourself, for me anyway.
I played guitar at first. And the same holds true with that instrument, or my bass playing or my songwriting. Anything I work at every day I get better at. It’s rewarding. The amount of time you put in you get so much more out. You get better. I had these songs lying around, and to answer your question I just write what I like. Some of what I have kinda fit with the band, and I tried to pick stuff to bring in that vein. You want a song to sound like it belongs with a band. I want it to really BE a Railroad Earth song. Being in a band with Todd (Sheaffer) who is a great songwriter. He is a great songwriter and that is why he is the main voice of the band, obviously. He’s an influence on me. After seven years they lines start to blur and it all becomes the same.
L4LM: You painted a bit of a lonely picture there, describing sitting alone plucking away at your bass. Do you see it as a “lonely” instrument?
AA: It is kinda lonely. In most settings it is an instrument that needs other instruments with it to utilize it best. Which is cool…that’s why I gravitated toward it. I definitely spent like ten years doing what you just said, sitting there lonely in a room hammering away at the instrument to gain a certain level of fluency on it. With the bass…once you establish your skills with one particular band, you don’t have as many freelance opportunities compared with other instruments. And if you are out playing with groups, one night you may be playing jazz, one night you may be playing bluegrass, and so on.
I don’t want to sit home and practice playing “Mighty River” for the one hundred thousandth time, you know what I mean? I try to keep all my skills sharp…but I do let some of them fade. I have a degree in jazz, but I don’t sit around practicing jazz standards because I am not doing a lot of those gigs right now. I’m gonna keep sharp on music that people might actually hear.
L4LM: Your instrument certainly doesn’t lend itself to many camp fire jams. Not as easy to just happen to have an upright stand up bass with you.
AA: You’re totally right. I went through that with the jazz jam sessions I hosted as well. Logistically speaking it is very inconvenient. Besides that, playing bass in a band is usually a labor of love. You have to know all the songs but never get a solo. But that’s good for perspective. It isn’t always about you, in a band or in life. It’s not about taking the solos, or people looking at you. And obviously, I play the bass so I dig it.
L4LM: Besides RRE you have worked with some pretty impressive characters. What’s your secret for getting folks like Warren Haynes and Tom Hamilton to join you? Is it blackmail? It’s black mail right?
AA: Yeah, I got the Russians to hack their email. The music community gets pretty small after a while, especially the festival scene. You’re waiting around to play your show, they are waiting around to play their show. It’s smaller than most people think, y’know?
If you get to a certain level, you put a lot of work into getting there and your peers recognize and respect that. In the case of Warren, I think we saw some musical kinship. It’s funny, that is one of the cool things about the guys in Railroad Earth being older, more seasoned in the scene. [Warren has] that same seasoned sound that Railroad Earth has. There are a lot of young bands out there that are great at being themselves. Warren and the Railroad guys have been doing this a long time and have gotten really good at everything along the way. That is one of the RRE’s strengths–having done so many things. Neither way is better, just different.
L4LM: Your first EP, the self titled Andrew Altman disc, did well and got great reviews. I understand you have some fresh solo music on the way?
AA: Yeah, I got a new single coming out right as your readers will probably be seeing this. Dave Butler–he was in the American Babies. He plays with Guster now. He has done stuff with Marco Benevento and Anders Osborne…he lives in New York. He is a good friend of mine and he helped me produce it and Andy Goessling plays some acoustic guitar on it. We’re going to be doing some shows together with Andy Falco from The Infamous Stringdusters in a couple weeks. I’m sure we’ll be playing that track and some other new stuff we’ve been working on. So we wanted to get a song out before then, to give folks a teaser of what might be.
L4LM: Speaking of fresh music, when are we getting a follow up to RRE’s Last of the Outlaws? It’s been a couple years now…fans are getting antsy!
AA: Oh yeah. Railroad Earth just released a new single a couple weeks ago as well. “Blazin’ A Trail” is out. That one is one of six we recorded which is coming out as an EP this summer. We’re just staggering their release to get them out there on their own. There should be a physical hard copy sometime mid-summer.
Check out the new tune “Blazin A Trail” from Railroad Earth below:
We’re doing a lot of dates this summer. We have a lot of festivals and shows already booked, and we have a tour we are gonna announce fairly soon. We’re hoping to record another five or six songs sometime later this year. So basically an albums worth of material over the course of the year, just not released that way.
L4LM: Do you think the band is adopting a more “on-the-fly” style of releasing new material? You see a lot of bands going that route these days.
AA: For us…I mean some people are doing the work to put out one big album a year. I think it is just a function of the times. The way people consume entertainment has really changed. Back in the day, a Number One single could be on the top of the charts for months. Now it is weeks or even days. It just makes more sense to put a new song out and let people be excited about that. And then after a month or so, put a new song out. It takes a lot of effort to make a full record, and if you do that, then the public cycles through it quickly…it just makes a lot more sense to keep people engaged.
This summer is seriously jam-packed. We have a festival or something like basically every weekend, and more besides those dates. It’s gonna be the craziest summer I think I have ever seen with Railroad Earth, but we are gonna try and fit in some writing and recording in there as well.
L4LM: Well, you sound swamped! Thanks for taking a few moments to catch us up with all the fun you have in the works.
AA: No problem. Thanks for listening!
Photos by Ojeda Photography