Photo by Susan Skidmore

Andrew Altman is best known as the bassist of New Jersey roots/jam outfit Railroad Earth, but he’s also a songwriter at heart. During some recent downtime, Altman entered the studio with American Babies/Brothers Past/Joe Russo’s Almost Dead guitarist Tom Hamilton to lay down a set of new, original numbers under his own name. The result is a self-titled EP that feels spiritually connected to the bassist’s work with Railroad Earth but also nods to his interests in modern Americana and indie.

“My time as a bassist has afforded me many things. An intimacy with other people’s music is certainly one of them, but these songs reflect the beginnings of an intimacy with one’s own thoughts,” Altman says of the new EP. “They’ve always been there, just never had the time to be hatched. Some of these songs were written in a matter of minutes and some over the course of years, but no matter their age, a time comes when they have to be kicked out of the nest.”

Shortly after the EP’s release, Altman spoke with Relix and about his solo project, Railroad Earth’s new live DVD and how he ended up recording with Warren Haynes.

Let’s start by talking about the original idea behind Railroad Earth’s new Red Rocks DVD. Did the band always plan to record the DVD at Red Rocks?

The Red Rocks thing came together very naturally. We were going to film the shows—we filmed the year before, too. We used NoCoast, the same people who did this DVD, and we liked the way it came out. We just used them for promo videos the previous year. [This year] they had a bigger production package, so we were like, well, let’s go with this and see what it comes out with. And we liked some of the footage, so we said maybe we should just press this thing. And the fact that the show ended up selling out, and we had the horns, it just sort of came together, really. We were just trying to do something new at Red Rocks there, as far as bringing out the horns. We played a few times, and we just want to try to give people a different experience every time, and it just so happened we had the film crew there and everything, and everyone showed up.

The best concert recordings are really about capturing the moment there.

Right, actually that’s a good point. Because I think if we would’ve been like okay guys, let’s make a DVD of Red Rocks, it probably would’ve been terrible. [Laughs.] We just thought, let’s just film this, and when we got on stage we didn’t think we were going to release it as a DVD, so I don’t think people were [thinking about it]. I know that happens to me sometimes—I’d be thinking okay, this is going to be filmed, so we got to play great. And you’re thinking about that and not playing great.

Shifting from the DVD to the EP, we were psyched to hear that Tom Hamilton was involved. I know you’ve played with him in American Babies. Can you talk a little bit about your decision to record, when you started working on this batch of songs and how Tom got involved?

Yeah, I’ve been sitting on these for a little while. I studied the whole bass thing pretty heavily when I was younger. I played jazz and really tried to get around both the electric and the upright bass. After a certain point, when you find yourself playing in bands that are really about songs, and not just about shredding the bass, you reach a point where you think, I feel pretty good about everything I have on this instrument—I need a new challenge.

That’s the whole point of what I love about music, just growing everyday, having something that you can improve and get better. So I was like, “Well, I’m not a great singer”—of course this was years ago—“Let me work on that, let me write some tunes.” This is something where I’m almost a beginner again, you know—like I said, when I started, years ago. And it was fun to have something new to challenge myself with. Now, after what were probably six or seven years, I had some tunes, and I wanted to record them. It’s hard to get players together, with my schedule and their schedule, and I had tried a few times and nothing every really happened. I found out Tom was really the driving force behind the American Babies record, and I like the way they sound. I was like, “Dude, I’m going to send you the songs, and you tell me what to do.” [Laughs]

In terms of the songs that actually made it on the EP, over how many years were they originally conceived?

I would say they were all written over the space of a couple years for sure. And I sent him like ten, and that was part of the producer thing—I was just like, pick the ones you feel the most strongly about. And those are the ones that eventually [got] on there.

Tom, like you, has played jazzy, out-there stuff as well as more songwriter-driven material. How did he and you first connect, and can you talk about your working relationship—him as producer, and you being the musician/writer in this situation?

The thing that really connected us was discovering his background and influence in music when I went out with American Babies. I met him through Dave Butler. American Babies opened for Railroad Earth, and then Dave and I would get together and play a little bit, just messing around, jamming and stuff. And they didn’t have a bass at one point, and I was off, and I was like, “I’ll play with you guys, that sounds fun, whatever, just to do something.”

So, riding around—we did a little tour—riding around and talking to Tom and listening to American Babies records, I figured he was not really like a jam dude, because they don’t really sound like that. But we’re in the van, you know, we’re listening to the modern stuff—more like indie rock and stuff—but then he’s listening to a lot of the Grateful Dead and stuff and I’m like, “Really?” I don’t hear that in the records, and that’s kind of the point. That’s how I am—I grew up listening, as a kid, to a lot of the jam stuff, but if you want to play music, you can’t just listen to one thing, you know, and I had to put it away for a while and kind of get my thing together as a musician. And when I had opportunities to play in bands that were doing that kind of thing, I was like, “Oh, I get this. I used to love this shit.” So I was able to draw on that. And he’s very much the same way, you know, grew up with all that stuff, but I wouldn’t say that it’s the bulk of what he listens to now, so we had sort of a similar thing there.

Can you talk about the recording process—who was involved, how long it took, where you recorded?

That was another great experience from working with him—it totally changed my perspective. And it’s almost a no-brainer kind of situation once it happened, but you don’t think of it, as a bass player and traditionally a side guy. I was always of the school where you go and you get your players together and you rehearse, and you try to nail it, and then if you want more overdubs, you just sort of add what’s missing. So I figured we’d be bringing in players, sort of doing it that way. But I got there [and] he just sort of hands me the guitar, and it’s like, well I wrote them on guitar, so I can play, but Tom’s obviously more of a guitar player than I am. He hands me the guitar, he’s like “Play the song.” I’m like, “Uh, I thought you were going to play guitar.” He’s like, “Just do it, don’t worry about it.” [Laughs].

The whole record kind of went that way. He would sit down at the drums and be like, “No you’re going to play drums.” [Laughs] There were some keyboards and I said, “Maybe we needed like a piano or something.” Then he said, “Oh yeah, okay,” and then he would pull a keyboard out and just play some stuff. So it was just me and him. I played some guitar, I played bass. Tom played a lot of guitar, keyboards. He even played bass on a song because he came up with a part I liked, and I was like, “There you go, I don’t have to play bass.”

That’s cool. Kind of reminds me of the old school approach where a musician would come in and play a variety of instruments themselves and not worry about what instrument they’re known for, or what necessarily would be interpreted as the live band version of it.

That is exactly how it went down, and that’s really cool, honestly. I love that approach, but it’s just something—being a guy who has always been in bands—it’s something that never occurred to me. It sounds really simple, and really dumb, and it actually kind of is. You go in there, and you just start throwing stuff at the wall, and if it sticks and you like the way it sounds, then that is all that matters. If it sucks, then you delete it and do it again, and if you can’t do it then you hire someone, or get some friends to come in. Tom is really great at that. He’s got that confidence to not worry about it. There were a lot of cool accidents that happened because of that where we were just playing stuff and it would end up being a part when he was really just figuring out the song.

Where did you guys end up recording?

We recorded it with Pete Tramo in his studio in Philadelphia. You know where the Underground Arts venue is? It’s in the basement of it—it’s called Lorelei Studios. It’s his name for it, but it’s part of the Underground Arts thing going on there. It was in a small, little place, but it had everything you need. That was another great thing about it, because he gave us a great deal. The recording process was an open-ended thing for the most part, because it was only five songs, and we would go in and work on and off it until we were done. It was like one or two days a month over six or seven months, and we would go down there and we would mess around with the tune and Pete just put things together. He played bass, he’d play drums, and he would add a part here and there.

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