Railroad Earth’s dexterous bass player, Andrew Altman has been a busy guy lately. Over the years, Altman (formerly of the Codetalkers) has lent his signature bass prowess to bands like Blueground Undergrass and American Babies, and since 2010, has replaced Johnny Grubb as the bassist of Railroad Earth. Now, Altman is embarking on a new effort; a five-song EP of original solo material. The Andrew Altman EP, released Feb. 10th 2015, is an excellent introduction to Altman’s songwriting abilities.
Working with producer Tom Hamilton (American Babies, JRAD, Phil Lesh), Altman has selected five of his most worthy solo compositions and has laid them all down for his debut solo EP. Hamilton and Altman’s time in the studio has formed a creative bond between the two, and the result is a satisfyingly cohesive record that leaves the listener hungry for more. “I sent Tom ten songs and told him to pick five, tell me when to play and when to shut up” says Altman. “We worked off and on about six months at Peter Tramo’s studio in Philly, and it was a liberating experience because it put me in the mindset of a session player even though it was my own session. If you trust the person leading it all, as I did with Tom, then it’s perfect because you can drop all the obsessing and doubt that, for me, usually comes with making decisions about your own music.”
From the catchy first track, “Better Man” to the intricate and uplifting sound of “Sing to Me,” the five-song Andrew Altman EP is a sturdy listen. With expert instrumentation and clever and honest lyricism, Altman is developing his solo sound proficiently. “Sailboat,” the third track, is a fine example of the diversity within this collection of songs. Starting off with an acoustic Americana sound, it then suddenly explodes into a thunderous, blistering rock song. “I’m not the cast away, I am the pirate of this ship” sings Altman on the remarkable third song. Nothing could be truer. This isn’t Railroad Earth, Blueground Undergrass or the Codetalkers; this is Andrew Altman. It is a steady and sincere reflection of his own personal musical vision.
Track four, “Mother May I” is slow burning, bluesy rocker with a chorus that is larger than life. With boisterous guitar, strong bass lines and drums crashing like relentless roaring waves, it is most definitely a surprising and refreshing change of pace on the EP. Followed by the quick-changing, multi-layered final song, “Sing To Me,“ where Altman’s exceptional songwriting is most evident. In this final song we are sent whirling into the intricate bass virtuosity of Altman’s musical mind. These five songs are a perfect beginning to a new chapter for Andrew Altman.
We contacted Altman and talked more about this most impressive solo debut EP:
L4LM: How would you describe the difference between the songs on the EP and the songs you’ve done with Railroad Earth?
Well, with Railroad Earth, it is definitely a group situation. So, if I bring a song to the band, the intention is that there is opportunity for others to contribute something or make any changes that they may hear. I actually enjoy that dynamic because hopefully you are creating something greater than you could on your own. It is actually much harder on your own, at least for me. There is obsessing over details and some kind of subconscious feeling that everything you do is a direct reflection on you as a person…which is insane. That is why I started to think that it would be good to have someone take on a producer’s role.
L4LM: How was it working with Tom Hamilton?
Tom was the perfect guy for the job in this situation. Aside from the fact that we come from similar backgrounds as far as our musical influences go, he has no fear about just trying things and deleting what doesn’t work. Once again, that was a good influence given my previous background in playing live in bands where you have to always nail it and there is no delete button. It might sound like a “duh” moment but that approach isn’t necessary in the studio. There are no rules. Just trying anything and if you like the sound of it then keep it. If it sucks just do it over.
L4LM: Were the five of ten songs that Tom selected your favorites as well?
They are now! I was into all the ones that I sent to him, but now the final five sound like something greater because they have that collaborative element to them. Tom helped them reach another level. Studio recordings are funny like that. It’s almost like you have a kid and then when the final record is pressed they are all grown up and out on their own…no more trying to change them.
L4LM: Some of the songs seem to delve into personal subjects and lyrics. What do these songs mean to you?
I hadn’t stopped to think about that until you asked but it is definitely a snapshot from a certain time period right around when I joined Railroad Earth. I didn’t think about it like that because I just sat down and wrote something when I had something to say, but I guess overall there is something there that is kind of a document of that early period when I moved to the Northeast because of the band. Up-ending your entire a life is never easy but it is the right thing to do if you are presented with an opportunity that you have spent so much time working towards.
L4LM: Any plans to record more solo material?
Definitely! I already have all the songs written for the next EP. Now it is just getting the time to record and figuring out the approach. Railroad Earth is still a pretty all-consuming venture, but I had so much fun making this EP that I’m definitely ready to do it again and play some shows as well.
L4LM: My favorite track was, “Sing To Me.” What was the writing process behind that song?
That is actually the first one we did and were still getting the process together. Tom just had me play the song on acoustic and then everything else was built around it. He played the main acoustic part later and added all the drums and keyboards and that weird slide guitar thing in the middle that is actually a microphone not a slide. The funny thing about the track was that I had just bought the Dingwall bass that I now play in Railroad Earth and did the first bass track with it. I didn’t really like what I played and much later I wanted to replace the track with another take that I did on my old Fender Bass, but when we listened back Tom forgot to mute the original that I didn’t like and it actually sounded kinda cool with the new one since they were so much alike. He panned them to each side and we just left it! So that track actually has two different electric bass tracks going at the same time.
L4LM: What is going on now and in the near future with Railroad Earth?
We are right in the middle of Winter Tour and are releasing our Live At Red Rocks DVD this week. I think the band is playing great right now and we are hitting some new venues for us on the west coast like The Fox Theatre in Oakland in March. Hopefully this summer we’ll be doing more dates with Warren. We are trying to sort our schedules out right now and see what works, but it has been fun working in the studio with him and I am excited to hear how the final release sounds.
L4LM: How was it collaborating with Warren Haynes? What was your recent performance with him at The McKittrick Hotel like?
Being in the studio with Warren has been great because it is the exact opposite of the approach we took on my EP and that keeps me on my toes I guess. We learn the song right there in a couple listens and then try to get a great take in just a handful of tries. It’s definitely old school and super fun in that swing-for-the-fences kind of way. The McKittrick show was even more pressure because it was our first show as a band playing with him and it was being filmed! I guess that just goes to show how fearless Warren is, but I enjoy that too because you either rise to the occasion or fail. Personally, I didn’t make it this far to fall on my face so I enjoy getting a bit of challenge being outside my comfort zone.
Railroad Earth is currently on tour. They just finished up a 3-night run at Brooklyn Bowl in New York and as always, will be all over the festival circuit this summer. Keep an eye out for them as well as for the next move from bassist, Andrew Altman. From the looks of things, we see only more good music to come.
By Joseph Conlon