Read the full thing at DustHouseStudio.com and see a great Mudhoney/Altamont Speedway/Traindodge poster from 1999. The interview is re-posted with Dust House’s permission.
It was nearly 15 years ago when I saw Traindodge for the first time. It was 1999, and I had just moved to the city with my family from Asher, an incredibly small town about 60 miles south east of OKC. Even though the salad days of grunge were long gone, my cultural isolation in rural Oklahoma had protected me from any exposure to underground music aside from the bands name checked in Nirvana interviews and highlighted in the cut-out section of BMG CD-of-the-Month catalogs. Excited to take part in all the shiny new things the city had to offer, my brother and I begged our dad to take us to go see Mudhoney who were playing a gig at the Will Rogers Theater. Traindodge opened the show, and while I don’t remember a whole hell of a lot about their set, I do remember my amazement at seeing a real life local rock band who weren’t just playing Alice in Chains covers through practice amps in their garage.
In the 14 years since that show, I’ve seen seemingly hundreds of bands come and go, yet Traindodge still stands, and unlike many bands whose quality of output peters off after a few records, Traindodge seem to get better with age.
Jason Smith, vocalist and lead guitar player in the band, was kind enough to answer a few questions for me. Here’s how it went down:
AT: Traindodge has been a consistently active band since 1996. After nearly twenty years of playing, you’ve surely seen musical trends, and a shit-ton of bands, come and go. All the while you’ve been consistently putting out quality releases that all have a very distinct sound to them. What has kept you guys motivated this long, and how have you managed to keep finding inspiration in the Traindodge “sound”?
JS: At this point, it’s largely our own endurance that keeps us motivated. After each record, we’ve seen the results of what works – and what doesn’t – when we push ourselves. We’ve learned that we can try all sorts of different things sonically and stylistically but somehow our skill set keeps it sounding like Traindodge, for better or worse. Knowing that makes it exciting to keep going. An album like Wolves was out of the question at the time we were making About Tomorrow’s Mileage. That should keep happening. I’m already thinking about the next record.
AT: Every release of yours has always been rooted in a complex rhythmic style, but it seems like Wolves marked the beginning of a full on shift in style from mathy post-punk to more of a blatantly prog approach to song writing. Was this ever a conscious decision, or is it something that just naturally evolved over time?
JS: For me, the prog thing really started on The Truth and there’s even bits on Dead Trees that sort of smack of pre-synth Rush. I think we just accentuated those influences more heavily on the records that followed. I don’t think we ever discussed it out loud. We were probably just more concerned with not making an album that we had already made. Adding keyboards and samples was just our way of escaping that. For me, the biggest line in the sand with ‘Wolves’ was the consolidation of our songs. Every album up until that point had been long. We finally decided that if we couldn’t get our point across in 40 minutes, we were probably doing something wrong. Learning how to edit ourselves was a wise move. Since then, we’ve been committed to staying concise.
AT: What can people expect musically from Supernatural Disasters? How does the writing process work for something like this seeing as how Rob lives in Atlanta?
JS: I’ve been comparing the new record to On a Lake of Dead Trees in that its largely an aggressive guitar, bass & drums record. I think we’re finished with our heavy duty prog phase – for now, anyways. Rob was tired of being tied to a click track live in order for all of the electronics to be in time. It was a fun phase to be in and some cool things came out of it. But it was time to strip it all down and see what was there. So, this time we made a balls-out rock record. That approach was suddenly fresh again. And I still think it’s different – our songwriting skills had gone through ten years of growth since Dead Trees. Musically, this is probably the most straight-forward thing we’ve ever done but I still think the album is proggy in spirit. There’s a heavy 70s hard rock influence…70s Priest & Sabbath, it’s a little dark and doomy in places. But there are a couple of major-key songs, too. And there is still synth on the record but it’s just almost never the main part of the song. It’s mostly there as texture. But musically, the album is slightly dark but very immediate and rocking.
It wasn’t that challenging having Rob in Atlanta. The entire album was demoed on Garageband and we would just email demoes back and forth and tweak things until they were right. It actually worked towards our advantage – knowing that full practice sessions were limited, it forced us to make sure the songs were thought-out and complete. The physical side of playing the songs was secondary. We’ve been playing together so long that we just know how we all click as a unit. We can go weeks without playing and within a day or so, we’re back up and running.
AT: It seems like you guys have a lot of friends up and down the Midwest, Do you feel like you’ve ever been part of a larger scene or musical movement?
JS: At times, yes but It’s really hard to tell. Our early style was very Kansas City-based. Giants Chair, Molly McGuire, Season To Risk, Shiner were enormous influences on us in the beginning. It confused people here because nobody knew what bands we were referencing. In Kansas City, we were fooling nobody but we were genuine about it so we got by. For a while, I sort of considered us as some sort of distant extension of that scene. We felt accepted up there and got to play shows with some of those bands. So, that crowd clearly knew where we were coming from. And fans of that style in other Midwestern places seemed to ‘get it,’ too. I don’t know if that’s large enough in the context that you’re asking – that scene and that core wave of bands are long gone. And in the past few years, we’ve picked up fans who are too young to even know about those roots. And since we’ve been on the prog trajectory, it’s even gotten a little weirder. Now we have a few serious modern prog fans that couldn’t care less about the Fugazi/post-hardcore side of the band. So, it’s been hard to tell for a while. I used to think that every fan we had was somebody who had bought a cd at a show of ours. When Ascetic started selling albums of ours in places that we’d never been, I‘ve learned that I don’t really have a complete idea of what scene or movement that we might be a part of.
AT: Can you elaborate more on how you were introduced to the Kansas City scene in the early days of the band? Was it simply a matter or proximity, or was there something very specific about the style that you guys gravitated towards?
JS: A little bit of both, I’d say. Living relatively close by was important, mainly because it allowed us to see those bands a lot. It was not uncommon for us to drive up to KC in the mid-90s to see a show…and then drive straight home. But stylistically speaking, all of those bands had a certain something that just grabbed us. Most of them had punk backgrounds so that ethic was there. But they were just writing smart, cool rock music – heavy but thoughtful and introspective. They weren’t like anything that was trendy at the time. They had their shit together and worked hard. They were all smart about gear and had their tones and sounds all dialed in – these bands were killer right off of the floor. I saw them all without P.A.s and they all slayed. But all of them wrote moody, dynamic songs – that’s what really drew me in. I wanted to write songs that ebbed and flowed like theirs. Keep in mind, I was also an impressionable early 20-something. I think all musicians go through similar things during those formative years. Whatever you get exposed to during that window is probably going to be with you forever. I sometimes wonder how different of a musician I would be today if I had lived in Portland or D.C. in my 20s.
Specifically, my point of entry into that particular scene was in October of ’92. I saw Prong on the ‘Prove You Wrong’ tour here in the city. On tour with them as their opener was Season To Risk. I really dug them and kept their name in mind. They were on a label called Red Decibel who had just signed a developmental deal with Columbia Records – suddenly, they had major label distribution and were touring constantly. They came through a jillion times, either by themselves or opening for Barkmarket, Corrosion of Conformity, Fudge Tunnel. They even opened up the very first Fugazi show I ever saw. I started getting their newsletter and they were constantly praising their local KC bands. I eventually began checking them out. Thankfully, they weren’t kidding.
AT: Can you explain how the relationship with Ascetic came to be? Is Ascetic still around, and if so, are you guys still working with them?
JS: Right before our first album came out, we played a show in Arkansas with this band Five Deadly Venoms. They were from St. Louis and had an album on Thick Records. Their bass player was Jimmy Vavak. At the time, he had a club in St. Louis called The Rocket Bar and told us he’d book us there if we wanted to come up. So, we gradually started playing St. Louis a bunch – as such, I was in constant contact with Jimmy. One day, he called and told me that he had a new band, which was Riddle of Steel. We immediately started playing shows together. Around that same time, Hieu Nguyen, a friend of theirs in St. Louis, was starting Ascetic Records and had plans to start working with Riddle. He had already seen us play before we knew he had a label. We had just finished our second record and were having trouble finding a home for it. I called Jimmy looking for ideas, figuring that as many bands as he dealt with coming through his club, he could perhaps suggest a label that I hadn’t thought of. The only suggestion he gave me was to call Hieu. One phone call later, we were on Ascetic. We wouldn’t have guessed it then but Ascetic’s turned out to be one of the top three things ever to happen to us. Hieu was great, still is. He took care of us for the better part of a decade. He believed in us and put a lot of time and money into getting us distribution and promotion. Whatever momentum we gained in the last ten years, we owe a ton of it to Hieu. There’s no telling what would’ve happened to us without him. He made it possible for us to keep cranking out records. Unfortunately, he closed up shop a couple of years ago. Otherwise, we’d still be there. That label had a great run. I guess the Ascetic years, too, were a time when we felt there was sort of a bigger, broader scene happening. If you were a Riddle or Traindodge fan, you were probably also into Roma 79 and The Stella Link and Dropsonic. Each of those bands had their own distinct style but we all had a lot of the same fans.
AT: It seems to me that there’s definitely a stylistic theme to Ascetic’s roster. Despite their differences, most the bands seem rooted in a style that emphasizes hard hitting, tight rhythm sections and a more pop approach in the vocals and overall songwriting. How do you think these similarities amongst bands came to be? Was there ever a consistent engineer producing records for Ascetic?
JS: Past a certain point, I can only speculate. I would say it had more to do with influences than it did production. I know we all were definitely in tune with a lot of the same things…Shiner, Jesus Lizard, Jawbox were ever-present when we were all starting. All of those bands had insanely great rhythm sections. How could you not take the lesson? From there, each band took a unique spin with it. Dropsonic took it on a Zeppelin detour, we took it on a prog detour, Riddle took it on a melodic Van Halen detour.
Paul Malinowski from Season To Risk and Shiner recorded Riddle’s last album. He did the Stella Link album, too, so right there you have a direct connection to somebody who has the right experience and the ear for what the bands are going for. Carl Amburn recorded a lot of the other Ascetic albums. For I Am Forever, we went to John Congleton.
AT: In the years that you’ve been playing, have you noticed a shift in attitude and approach to the Oklahoma City/Norman music scene? After all these years do you even feel like you care or are a part of it?
JS: I’ve definitely noticed a shift in the local scene. The mid-90s were miserable! It’s only gotten better since then. 2000 – 2010 was a way better period than 1990 – 2000. Easy. I’ve never seen the DIY circuit this alive. We would’ve killed for this kind of network when we were 24, 25 years old. Overall, the bands are just better and cooler and they’re making things happen. I feel like we’re a part of it to some extent, although we do feel like we’re well past the point of having to play locally every six weeks. So, we’re definitely not as visible as a lot of other bands are. But really, our main goal when we started was to get on the road and tour. Back when things were worse, the first really great shows we had were out of town. And that just fueled our love for touring and that’s really where our focus has been. But as someone who’s been attending local shows for 20+ years, things are definitely better now.
AT: What do you consider to be the major turning point for the scene here starting around 2000? Was there anything in your opinion that marked a major sea change?
JS: Easy – Music Dimensions and Reggy Wheat. Before we knew it, there was a Green Door and a Size Records and a Conservatory making things happen. The lack of a permanent venue in the late 90s was thoroughly depressing. Thankfully, people like Gianni and Dustin were making things happen prior to this but the rooms were always moving. Any semblance of a ‘scene’ felt vaguely temporary – “Where is this place?” was a constant conversation. It seems minor but a permanent address really does work wonders.
AT: Are there any plans to tour in support of the new album?
JS: Yep, we’ll be out there. Already got a handful of dates set for the Midwest this summer. We’ll evaluate the rest from there. We’d really like to go to Europe on this album. We’ll see what we can cook up. However we splice things up, we’ll try and get to everybody before we make another record.
Traindodge releases Supernatural Disaster this Saturday, June 29 at The Conservatory, 8911 N. Western in Oklahoma City. Self-Evident and Found Footage will support.
The Oklahoma Rock Show will interview Jason Smith this Thursday (June 27) and play Traindodge’s entire new album, Supernatural Disasters. The show runs from 7-9pm CST and can be heard on KOSU (91.7FM in OKC, 107.5FM in Tulsa, 88.3FM in Stillwater) and online at thespyfm.com.