“It’s kind of a cosmic joke that we still have an audience,” says Traindodge guitarist and vocalist Jason Smith, speaking from his Oklahoma City-area home. “It’s all over the place. It’s a small one, a tiny one, but it’s everywhere. I’m mailing records this week to Canada, Tennessee, Los Angeles.”
Now more than 22 years into its career, Traindodge has released a series of albums, including The Truth, On A Lake of Dead Trees and Wolves, remarkable for its creative breadth and vision.
Though the band remained a trio for much of its first decade, guitarist Ross Lewis joined circa 2011, rounding out the core lineup of Smith, his brother Rob (drums, keyboards) and Chris Allen (bass). Speaking about Lewis’ entrance, Smith offered, “He’s such a solid guy. All three of us love him and we figured we’d be fools not to at least give him a shot at fulltime membership. It’s worked. He’s fantastic.”
Traindodge performs at Barleycorn’s, 608 E. Douglas, on Wednesday, May 1 with The Over, the first in a series of dates throughout the region that will see the group perform in Minneapolis, Chicago and Kansas City before the last hours of the weekend.
You played your first show as Traindodge in 1996. What was the Oklahoma music scene like then?
There was not much happening around town at all. We took a shining to a certain breed of bands from other cities. We were coming up with our own version of what those bands did and it just soared over peoples’ heads here. The more dedicated people in the scene here at the time would give us compliments like, “You guys are a tight band! You guys really know how to play together!” But they didn’t have a clue where we were coming from, creatively. That was frustrating but, in the grand scheme of things, I view it as a plus because it fueled our hunger to tour. We were touring within our first 12 months as a band.
That was in the 1990s, a different time for touring and communicating with fans.
That was before every band had a dot com. We’d travel around with a mailing list. People would come to the merch table, pick up a sticker and add their name to this list. We’d go home and make postcards with upcoming dates. We’d mail the postcards and a third of them would come back because they’d gone to someone’s college dorm room. It’s pretty insane, what we used to do back in those days. The Internet could not have come soon enough. [Laughs.]
What were some of the places that adopted the band early on, after you started touring?
The Kansas City music scene was the one that we were totally head-over-heels with. There were six or seven bands in particular that we were really infatuated with. Our music flew over the heads of people in Oklahoma City but when we started playing Kansas City, people were, like, “Ah! Got it!” There was no fooling anybody up there. They knew exactly what we were doing. They could tell what bands we liked and we got to play with some of those bands in fact. One of the best compliments I ever got was from Billy Smith of Dirtnap, he ended up playing bass in Season to Risk at one point. He said, “Traindodge is an honorary Kansas City band.” That meant the world to me.
How long did it take you before you started making records?
About two years. We had a bumpy beginning. I formed this band never expecting to be the singer. We actually had a frontman, then he was out and I was at the mic. We started writing a little bit differently because we didn’t have to cater to a vocalist and wonder what he was going to do over a particular part. We got all indulgent and noodle-y and started to explore all kinds of stuff. Once we’d been a band about two years we said, “What would the creative stamp of this version of the band be?” That gradually became All Tomorrow’s Mileage, the album we put out in 1999. I envy the bands we hear about that started off and were raw and perfect and the first 15 songs they wrote became their first album. That’s just not our story.
You’re doing a run of dates right now but you’re also working on new material.
Since October of last year, we’ve been big-picturing what we hope will be the next album. We can play about four of the new songs we have right now. We’re hoping to try some of them out on this run. If all goes right, I expect to have the next album in the can before this year’s up.
What do you see as the direction for this new release?
We don’t make missions statements with albums, other than, “Let’s not make the record we just made. Where we end up is where we end up.” For better or worse, we’ve never made the same record twice. There was something really collaborative about Time Will Never Know Your Name, the last one. That record was very much the product of the four of us facing each other in the room and hammering it all out. That felt so refreshing because, with the previous two-three records, we took demos from individual people. Super Natural Disasters for me and I Am Forever with Rob. Those records lean very heavily in one direction. I really learned on the last album that the material has a more natural pulse with everyone’s stamp on it. My only goal this time is that I want that same sort of spirit. I want everyone to participate in songwriting. I can demo songs all day long but it’s going to be better when Chris puts his two cents on it because he’s a different bass player than I am. Rob will interpret drum parts better than I can tap it out on GarageBand. I want all four of us to have a foot in the pool.
You mentioned earlier that initially there was a sense that Traindodge went over the heads of most people in Oklahoma City. Do you still feel that way now?
Yes and no. There are people who recognize that we’ve put records out, that we’ve been to Japan. I think the longevity thing has its blessings and curses. There are people who are willing to check us out because they know we’ve been around for a long time. The flip side is that I have friends who have not seen us in 10 years. We don’t have any examples of what bands that have been around this long on this level are supposed to do. We don’t have any peers. We don’t have anyone to ask, “How many shows a year should we be doing? Should we be asking for bigger shows?”
What do you think has kept the band together this long? Obviously you and Rob are brothers but that doesn’t guarantee longevity.
I’ve had a lot of talented friends whose bands broke up and, for whatever, reason they haven’t found the right outlet, the right combination of players after that. It’s made me take a step back and realize that we have a certain chemistry that works. I really appreciate that.
Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.