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Traindodge still reaching for new heights

Lisa Smith

Oklahoma City’s Traindodge will perform Thursday, July 28, at Wave on a bill that includes Wichita’s Easy Killer and Daikini.

With more than two decades of recording and touring under its belt, Traindodge remains not only one of the longest-running regional bands but also one of the most beloved. By mixing elements of heavy metal, Kansas City-style indie rock of the 1990s (the band Shiner was an early touchstone) and doses of progressive rock, the quartet has broken new ground with each of its recordings following 1999’s “About Tomorrow’s Mileage.”

Since its 1996 formation, the core of the group has been brothers Jason (guitar/vocals) and Rob (drums/keyboards) Smith and bassist Chris Allen. Guitarist/keyboardist Ross Lewis began performing with the band around 2011 and remains a member today.

The band completed work on a still-unreleased album earlier this year, working with longtime friend Dan Dixon (Dropsonic, PLS PLS) at his studio in Atlanta.

Jason Smith pointed out in a recent conversation with KMUW that although the record is finished, it remains months away from release – due to long delays at pressing plants and an industry slowly recovering from the initial shockwaves of COVID-19.

Smith discussed some of the lyrical content on the new record as well as why the band’s 2002 album, “On a Lake of Dead Trees,” holds a dear place in the hearts of Traindodge fans some 20 years after its release.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlight

I know the new record won’t be out yet when you come through Wichita on Thursday, but I’m guessing that you’re already performing some of the material in the live set. 

We did a few shows about six weeks ago; we went up north. We had four new songs in the setlist. That’s pretty much what we’re going to be doing when we get to Wichita. As much as we’re excited, we do feel like the record is officially behind us at this point. We’re trying to pace ourselves a little bit to make sure that we don’t share too much of this too far in advance because months are going to pass before the thing finally comes out.

So we’re trying to find a balance between giving everyone a sneak preview [and having them wait]. Given the turnarounds for pressing records, which are so bad right now, one thing that did cross my mind is that it’s the 20th anniversary of “On a Lake of Dead Trees.” So, I thought, ‘Maybe we book a show and play that thing all the way through. We just do it. That in and of itself would kill a lot of time.’ ”

“On A Lake of Dead Trees” has a strong standing in the band’s catalog. When you talk to people about Traindodge, it’s synonymous. What do you think it is about that album that has allowed it to endure like it has? 

When people ask me what I think our best record is, (it’s) always “On a Lake of Dead Trees” and whatever the new one is at the time. That’s still the case. That record is the one where we most sound like we know what we’re doing. It’s where we sound the most confident. I think whatever we were trying to do in the first five years of the band we got it on that. That’s also that record’s downfall -- in that it does one thing fairly well. As much as I love that record, I couldn’t tell you, to this day, the sequence of the middle four songs.

I like all those songs. I know how the record starts and how it ends, but I get to the middle, 20 years later and, after “The Visit,” I say, “What’s next?” I don’t do that with Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy;” I don’t do that with Van Halen’s “1984.” I think since then we’ve learned how to pace records -- you should be looking forward to the next song when the song before it hits. There’s just not enough stylistic change on “Dead Trees.” It does one thing really well for a long time.

Since we’ve taken some creative swings where you can sense some of the unsureness, but we would rather swing and fail than make five more “Dead Trees,” which we could have easily done. It became more challenging to say, “Let’s evolve and let’s make this smarter, better. Let’s make it more intelligent. Let’s make it do more.”

We can’t really talk about the record and live shows without talking about 2020. I don’t think I’m going to be driven by the same timeline as before. I still get things done, but looking at the clock or looking at the calendar and believing what they tell me? That’s kind of off the table now. 

I would say that for people our age it’s the same sense as 9/11. There’s going to be a before and after, and it’s not going to look the same. It doesn’t mean that life isn’t going to go on. The scariest part, I think, is that none of us knew what the after was going to look like. We knew less about the virus back then. My wife and I had breakthrough cases of it last October, and I was more relieved than anything. “Now I know what this is like.” But if you had asked me in 2019 what the next two years of my life were going to look like? No, no, no. Not like this.

I can’t speak for you but for me all of this highlighted how deeply ingrained my friendships and music are. That’s where the greatest memories are. I realized that I still have to go to shows now and again and I still have to be part of a music community. 

I guess I inherently always think those things are true. But you set those things up for yourself and no one’s going to ask you to check that you’re still stoked about it. “This is how you’ve defined your adult life thus far. Are you happy with it?” Anytime that happens I’m like, “Yeah, that’s why I’m here.” But, after two years of all that being taken away, you’re like, “Man, this is a bigger part of me than I thought.”

If it was suddenly gone, I don’t know what I would badger people about. If I’m at a party and I don’t know anybody, I’m not going to talk your ear off about what I figured out at work that week. I’m going to ask you about what you’re listening to. “What’s the next show you’re going to see? What’s the last show you saw? Best show?” That’s going to make me never leave your party. I’m going to talk your ear off about it. Going through the last few years, it’s like, “If this isn’t your life, then what has it been?” I think in terms of iconic concert bills, that kind of stuff, that’s American history. You can have a very rich life if you just immerse yourself in it.

It’s an obvious question, but did you feel like elements of the pandemic or your life, at the height of the pandemic, are reflected in the new lyrics?

I did start therapy late last year. I was in a depression after 2020: The election, the pandemic, everything going on—the social unrest. All that stuff. I just found myself in a pretty black place. Dark. I started feeling better after about two months of therapy. Then I noticed that some of the lyrics, after I read them, were about being lost and stuck, and all of a sudden you’re seeing a source of light or an improvement, and it’s so foreign because it’s been so long since you’ve seen it that you can’t quite recognize it. Some of that stuff [is in there].

But it’s been so long that this feels super now, feeling happy again. It was foreign. Almost.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.