Murmur magazine 2008
By Chris Herd
It looks like “the hardest gigging band in Savannah” is finally making it. Last, August, the Train Wrecks released their debut album, Whiskey and War, to glowing reviews (just read last month’s issue) and are now planning on mounting a full-fledged tour of the Southeast this year. For a band that started out their career with an unrehearsed toss-off gig, it’s remarkable how wonderful an album the band was able to work up to. The Train Wrecks are undoubtedly one of the best bands in town.
Just a few days after Christmas, on a typically warm and sunny December afternoon, three of the band’s four members hung out with me in Chippewa Square to talk about their current CD, their next record, and their aspirations for ’08. The square was full of activity and distractions, but the interview went smoothly despite our party being constantly surrounded by bustling tourists, as well as unexpectedly joined by their sound engineer, and interrupted by a panhandler. It was a small price to pay for a relaxing spot in the shade where the band could kick back and smoke.
The Train Wrecks are Jason Bible (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Mark Kuhlmann (drums, vocals), and Eric Dunn (bass, vocals). Their dobro and banjo player was out of town and thus unavailable for an interview.
Bible came from Ft.Worth, Texas, where he honed his skills playing acoustic shows in coffee shops and bars and produced two solo records. “I got a guitar when I was 14 and I learned ‘The Times They Are a’ Changing’ by Bob Dylan,” Bible tells me.
“It took about six months to play it and sing it and it was on a right handed Hondo guitar, so I turned it left-handed. I played this talent show my freshman year of high school. I’ve got a video of it that’s freakin’ hilarious. It was terrible, but somehow I got a standing ‘O’ and that’s where it started.”
After playing Dylan and Woody Guthrie songs in coffee shops for a while, the singer got a little help from Robert Lee Cobb, who produced Edie Brickell and New Bohemians. Bible recounts, “He gave me this drum machine when I was 18 and said ‘Listen man, stop writing these protest songs and start writing danceable and happy songs.’”
This advice helped shape Bible’s song-writing abilities. “We have this thing in the Train Wrecks where it’s like that Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash formula where you hit ‘em with short two-and-a-half to three-minute songs and get out of there. Cut all of the fat out of the song and make it condensed like a Ramones song. Have everybody get crazy for 2 minutes, let them take a drink and then hit ‘em again.”
Kuhlmann, who also plays in the locally renowned Hazel Virtue and Prodigal Suns, has been playing guitar, piano, and drums for 25 years. He has an architecture degree from Clemson that he doesn’t use and is thrilled to be doing what he’s doing. As Kuhlmann puts it, he has gone from working in firms and office jobs to playing in a rock band six nights a week. “It’s fantastic. As long as I don’t have to crawl into work at eight o’clock in the morning, I’m happy.” jokes Kuhlmann.
“Even on its worst days, it’s the best job ever.” Dunn doesn’t have as much experience as the other guys, but has progressed rapidly into a solid musician. He’s been playing bass for seven years and got his start playing open-mic nights with Bible. “We played three songs,” Dunn recalls, “A Ben Harper song…”
Bible adds, “A Morphine song, anything with two chords.”
Dunn moved to Athens for awhile and played with several bands, getting a few gigs under his belt.
Bible says to Dunn, “When you got back from Athens you were a bass player.”
“Yeah I was ready to rock,” Dunn responds.
Being immersed in such a tight knit music community, Dunn has picked up pointers from the bass players in other bands like Perpetual Groove and Bottles & Cans and has developed a bouncy melodic style. Recently, he purchased an upright bass and looks forward to using it at an upcoming acoustic show.
After forming the band, the Train Wrecks spent the next two years playing as much as humanly possible in any joint that would let them. Since their first impromptu, ramshackle show, they have preferred to almost never rehearse and instead have developed as a band by playing almost every night. Often times they’ll play multiple shows in one day, and in typical bar band fashion, churn through three to four-hour marathon gigs. “We needed to get our shit together before we played better places”, explains Kuhlmann, “It was a good way to get some free beer, put some change in your pocket and get some practice at the same time.”
After busting their asses on stage, the Train Wrecks entered Elevated Basement Studios with producer Miles Hendrix, to bust their asses on tape. Kuhlmann describes the recording process as “like giving birth to the biggest, ugliest baby ever.” The basic tracks were laid down in a day, but the mixing and fine tuning took the better part of a year. Several talented local musicians lent their help to enhance the bands already tight songs with accordion, organ, fiddle, and other colorful country-fried sounds.
The resulting album is the culmination of all of their hard work and growth as a band. It’s a hopping blend of twangy Americana and modern alternative rock. The Raw and Rocking playing by the band is beautifully complimented by rich production and the Boss himself would be proud of their excellent interpretation of “The Ghost of Tom Joad”.
Some of the bands best original songs are featured on the album and the guys gave me some insight into the inspiration for these tunes.
“The first song ‘She Was the One’ was completely made up, but it sounds like it’s autobiographical”, says Bible. “I was inspired by coming to Savannah and I wanted to write something with the word Savannah in it and which talked about the city a bit.”
It was raining out in Savannah on
The time just seemed to stand still and my
Heart was ready to burst
She shook her head and walked away and
Got into a cab
It was raining down on Bay Street when I
Realized what we had
“I didn’t even write the song on February 1st, “Bible laughs.
The story behind what may be the groups catchiest tune is that they were at (River Street bar) The Warehouse one night when someone bought them a round of shots. One of the band members groaned, “Man, whiskey ain’t my friend no more”, and an accompanying song was immediately born. “We had to quit drinking whiskey at our gigs for awhile,” Dunn says, “it was around this period we wrote the song.”
Bible adds, “Yeah, I was standing up on tables, my guitar would get unplugged, I’d fall back onto the stage and keep playing, so we stopped drinking whiskey at shows. “
The Train Wrecks love being a part of the Savannah music culture. The city is perfectly attuned to their lifestyle and ambition. Kuhlmann says, “It’s a small town so it’s easier to actually make a living doing this. Once you get a little professional respect from playing out then you can get gigs on your name alone. You don’t necessarily have to get a day job if you don’t want to if you really want to play music for a living.”
“In Nashville you’re only going to make forty bucks a night,” Bible says.
“Yeah, there the homeless guy on the corner plays guitar better than you. It’s a smaller pond, but there is defiantly a community and everybody know everybody and once you get established here it’s easy to really make it work.”
Continuing this line of thought, Kuhlmann makes an unusual, but apt comparison. “With Georgia, you think hillbilly, redneck, rural, but Savannah is almost like the Vatican. It’s this enclave where it’s still small, but it’s a city. It’s got the art school so it’s got that kind of edge to it and it’s more of a melting pot. You get the best of both worlds. You get that down home feeling, but you have arts and culture, too.”
The band has benefited from a good relationship with SCAD and its students. The Train Wrecks, of course, have played at various University functions. A few film students directed the Train Wrecks first video. A local designer-?????Jason Statts????- Whose work has been featured on Camel cigarette packs, designed their album cover. And the band recently composed an instrumental soundtrack for a SCAD alumni film called Faster Pastor. “That was a blast. It would be great to do more films,” Bible enthuses.
Whiskey and War has been selling pretty well considering that so far it is only available in Savannah. The next logical step is to branch out a little bit in the region. When discussing the future the normally laidback Kuhlmann gets more business-minded. “We’re trying to get that market within three or four hours of us- like Athens, Atlanta, and Jacksonville. We want to hit them every five to six weeks, make our presence known and develop a proper following.”
“Most labels want you to be present in ten different markets, so that’s kind of the goal for 2008,” adds Bible.
In addition to constant touring, the Train Wrecks have a handful of new songs written and are already half-way through the pre-production for their next album. That’s something else to look forward to in 2008. The hope is to perfect the new material on the road during the spring and record the album quicker than last time.
As terrific as their studio output it, the Train Wrecks remain a hard playing bar band first and foremost. “The live thing is what I enjoy,” says Bible, “I love the studio. It’s a great place to hear music and record, but the live thing, when Stuart gets that dobro fired up and we’re playing and the people are responding, that’s when the Train Wrecks really shine. That’s when we really feel like we’re all a unit, really putting out everything we’ve got. That’s what we are trying to do every time we play and we hope people receive it well.”