Interview with John Skehan of Railroad Earth

As Railroad Earth sets out on there Spring/Summer tour, we interview John Skehan, mandolin player, of Railroad Earth. He explains the times on the road, his feeling at festivals, and states how everything leads back to Garcia.
Blue Sparks over Good Homes for Railroad Earth:
An Interview with John Skehan
Interview by Jordan Stutz

You are the mandolin player of Railroad Earth. What made you decide to pick up the mandolin as an instrument?

John Skehan: Well, I played guitar for most of my life, I studied piano out in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania at Susquehanna University. Piano was my main instrument for a while but I always enjoyed playing guitar and I had an interest is roots music, folk music and in particular I started to get real interested in the old Irish fiddle tunes and the whole Celtic creation. However, a lot of those fiddle tunes, those jigs and reels, don't really fit all that well under your fingers on the guitar. A friend of mine, who I used to play guitar with, happened to put a mandolin in my hand that he had picked up somewhere cheap and said 'Hey John, maybe you can figure this out'.
Sure enough, as I went back to some of my Irish jigs and reels that I had in the book there I said 'Wow, this makes a lot more sense". One thing kind of lead to another throughout the years and I just gradually became really hooked on it.

HGMN: If it works for you man, then why not stick with it right? So then how about influences? Who did you listen to the most when you were starting out your mandolin playing to pick up your style?

JS: You know, in the beginning, a lot of David Grisman and Andy Statman. I really actually didn't necessarily listen to a whole lot of different mandolin oriented music, I just kind of picked it up and started fooling around with it. At that time I was playing with a lot of singer/songwriters kind of doing the guitar duo thing. So gradually, as I began learning a little more about the mandolin, I would use that to supplement my guitar playing as I started to learn which keys I could and could not play on the mandolin. So I just played and fooled around and approached it with no real particular bluegrass or set mandolin tradition. I then eventually got turned onto a lot of really cool stuff through a good friend of mine named, Todd Collins, who is an phenomenal mandolin player and composer, and I started studying with him in the beginning and he kind of opened my eyes to a whole lot of bluegrass oriented music beyond just Old and in the Way which I had gotten hooked on. Somehow it all ties in with Jerry Garcia no matter what you do.

HGMN: We're looking at your tour schedule now and it seems pretty hectic and all over the place. May, June, July, and so on, so how is life on the road to the band?

JS: It's strange, there's a whole lot of everything all at once, which means it's really fun sometimes but it's also really twisted every now and then. You run into various little dilemmas like vehicle breakdowns, to weather, you name it. Good food, bad food. Good coffee, lousy coffee (laughs). It's good though, we're looking forward to heading out again and especially getting out across this big great country. There is a lot of ground to cover out there.

And on the tour schedule we see that you are playing Bonnaroo Music Festival this summer...

JS: Yeah. That's a new festival for us. It's going to be exciting because I have been led to believe, anyhow, that it is the biggest festival of its type in the whole entire country.

HGMN: We have been there and it's insane; you're going to have a great time. If you get a chance to just get out there and watch the other bands...which brings me to my next question. You have played festivals before, the Celtic Festival you played. So when you play festivals, do you get out there with the audience and actually watch other bands perform?

JS: Absolutely. I always try to as much as possible; again it often depends on the tour schedule. One of the great things about festivals, compared to just running through bars for one night shows, is that typically you're there for a whole day, if not two or three days. So, when you're doing a lot of touring, and moving across the country, festivals are often the first time you get to cool your gears for a few days and enjoy the great big playground that a festival can be. You get to hear a bunch of bands and quite often we come across fellow "Road Warriors" like Hot Buttered Rum and the Greensky Bluegrass Band and we all get the chance to sit in with them. So yeah, whenever possible we try to get out there and catch as many bands as we possibly can.

HGMN: The classic interview question, how did you guys (Railroad Earth) all meet?

JS: Most of us all knew each other and had worked together musically and in one form or another as side-men on other projects or in the studio, and we all were certainly playing in different bands, different groups, at the same time. So, if we weren't working with one another, we were probably going out and seeing one another's bands (laughs) on any given night. The drummer, Kerry Harman, and our fiddle player, Tim Carbone, and I played together in a couple of different groups you know working with different singer/songwriters and working in the studio together. Timmy produces quite a few records in his off-time. Jimmy and Andy, Andy being our multi-instrumentalist and plays absolutely everything with strings, mandolin, banjo, guitar, dobro, you name it, and also all woodwinds, have played together for many, many years and they had a very popular band together called Blue Sparks from Hell. And of course Todd was the lead singer and front man of From Good Homes, which is one of the best, if not the best local roots bands to come out of New Jersey. So we all certainly knew From Good Homes and I had seen them many times and I had also worked quite a bit with other members of From Good Homes in various side projects. We were all very mixed in with one another to begin with (laughs).

HGMN: So that explains the fruition, if you will, of the band. Where did the name Railroad Earth come from? Was it the workings of one man or a group effort?

JS: Well, Jack Kerouac came up with it actually from a poem of his called October in the Railroad Earth. It just sort of had a ring to it.

HGMN: Let's backtrack about two years back to New Years Eve 2005. Railroad Earth played a show at the Theatre of Living Arts in Philadelphia. The stage production, which was a very Pink Floyd-esque visual with the big heads, the costumes, the videos...

JS: That was certainly one of the first times we had gone as far as bringing in something of that nature to the extent of that lighting rig. Like a lot of what we do, it was an experiment. We've used similar style of productions a couple of times for different things like New Years Eve when you always just want to try something a little bit bigger. Due to it being New Years Eve, and just a party, we had a variety of friends join us to kind of bring their own thing to it. I had forgotten about the giant head. I didn't even know what was happening until I turned around on stage and it scared the hell out of me (laughs). I remember walking in that day and seeing the big screen, I remember thinking 'Oh no'. I hadn't seen anything like that since I had been to a Pink Floyd show over 10 years ago. It's something you know we have done on all different levels. You know this past run-through of New Years we brought in some people with some lighting rigs and kind of took a different approach, more of a stripped down stage backdrop with lights. And instead of video this time we just had the shifting color palettes and things like that. It's something fun for us to experiment with which hopefully brings an extra dimension to the show.

HGMN: Any words of wisdom for your fans to hear?

JS: We are kicking off the tour all over the country starting off March 30th up at State College in Pennsylvania. We are excited to get back out there. It has been a number of years and we have played State College and I believe the University (Penn State University) in the past, but it has been a while. We have spent so much time out west just trying to make tracks around the great big U.S.A. We are looking forward to getting out there for sure. We have been working on a good bit of new material here and there so we'll be starting to try some of that out as we head that way. So enjoy.