Five Questions with Train Company

Chicago’s Train Company is “more than a blues band.” (NPR said that.) Their new album, The Remains of An Effort, is a sweeping (at times sprawling) collection that harnesses influence from jazz and pop to rock and, well, blues. The band (Mark Alletag on sax, Mike DeWitte on bass, Rob Lejman on drums, John Zozzaro on guitar and vocals, and Sam Wyatt on keys) plays Emerald Lounge on Friday, July 19 (as part of a Downtown After 5 after-party, featuring Pierce Edens & the Dirty Work. 9 p.m., $5). In advance, Zozzaro talks about recreating the album for the live show, tour favorites and how Chicago molds the group’s sound.

Photo courtesy of the band.

Mountain Xpress: Remains of an Effort covers a lot of ground, from the lush, fanciful folk-informed opener, “October” to the much jammier “Steve.” Have you ever felt pressured to chose a genre? And how do audiences respond to the band’s different moods? 
John Zozzaro: We’ve never really felt pressured to stick to a certain genre. Our music has changed drastically since our first release and I see it getting more mature as we continue to write as a band. We managed to get just about 24 tracks done over the two years spent recording The Remains of an Effort. It was more or less a collection of songs we felt moving us in the right direction. I think the audience has a very positive response to our different moods. At any point in time you could be dancing and really groovin’ to songs like “Steve” and “City Down by the Shoreline,” but then we have songs like “October” and “Face in the Crowd” where people pay closer attention to what we’re doing.

When you play live, do you try to recreate the album version of your songs, or do the songs evolve from night to night as you tour them? (If the latter, how does that happen?)  We all wish we could recreate the album on stage every night. Unfortunately, we don’t have the budget for 12 other musicians every night! We were fortunate enough to be able to play the album “as is” the night of our CD release show at the Arcada Theater in St. Charles, Ill. The songs definitely change as we play them more and more. For example, there’s a section of “Steve” we do live that isn’t even on the album. We’re constantly reworking our current material to keep it fresh while we work on new material in the studio. There’s no certain method we have of choosing songs to rework. It usually starts with someone saying, “hey we should probably do something new with this song.”

Since your van has its own name (George Harrison Ford — very cute), I get the idea touring is something you enjoy. Are there any stops on your current tour you’re especially excited about? Any past tour stops that have been a big surprise in terms of coolness or audience response?  Good old Harry! We love touring. Not only is it a chance to go somewhere new with a group of best friends, but we get to do what we love for new people which is always exciting. We are looking forward to all of the stops this month since we haven’t been to any of these cities before. I’m always overwhelmed with the audience’s response everywhere we go. The music has always been well received and we’ve never played a show with chicken wire in front of the stage. Austin is my personal favorite so far. 

You all are based in Chicago, which is known as a music town and evocative of iconic styles. In what ways (music-wise, architecture-wise, scene-wise, vibe-wise) does Chicago inform the sound of Train Company?  This is a fantastic question. Chicago influences our music in many ways. We all believe you don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from. We take a lot of traditional styles of music and really put forward our own interpretation through Train Company. One of our biggest influences is the blues.You can’t be in Chicago and not be a fan of the blues. Well, I’d like to think you can’t anyway. Still, Chicago has such an eclectic scene other than the blues. It has a world renowned symphony, some great jazz clubs, and rock venues ranging from tiny to arena. This list could go on and on. The variety of music in Chicago influenced the song choices for Remains. We didn’t really care how different all the songs were because it felt natural to us. The Chicago vibe is a lot like any other metropolis vibe but it also depends on where you are in the city. It’s usually fast paced, full of late night bar enthusiasts, full of culture, and high on the culinary totem poll. All of our surroundings play a fair role in shaping content within our songs.

Train Company has some great design work for merch and album art. Do you work with one artist? Did you set out to create a certain style or brand with your art? What story do you think it tells?  Thank you. We’ve had the pleasure of working with many different artists who have helped us shape our own ideas. I’d like to give a quick shout out to the fabulous Brett Manning for putting together the artwork for Remains. We had a concept for the album artwork when we first approached Brett. We explained to her what we envisioned instead of having anything at all drawn. She took the idea and ran with it and did a great job. There is definitely a story on the album, but I think that story is best left to be interpreted by the listeners. It is far more interesting hearing everyone’s individual take on a piece rather than having one definitive meaning or story behind it.



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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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