When I asked lead vocalist, Justin Suitor, to sit down with his band members of Railroad to Alaska, and discuss their songwriting process and philosophy, he chose to bypass the standard Q&A setup. Was he being difficult? Perhaps. But I think the choice involved an idea bigger than that. In the end, Suitor wanted the music to speak for itself, instead of attempting to explain it. And if you watched the songwriting procedure belonging to Railroad to Alaska firsthand, you would understand exactly how difficult that process is to put into words.
Each song takes on a life of it’s own. The style stays similar, but the intricate structure is so lengthy and diverse, no song ends up being alike. Imagine two fingerprints side by side. They may look similar from afar, but put them under a microscope, and the differences become apparent in every detail. Recent pop hits tend to be carbon copies, that focus on simple structure and a catchy melody. Let’s say those songs would be the equivalent of having a coffee table mass-produced in a factory in China. Railroad’s music is like having the finest wood-worker make a table from the finest materials, taking months at a time to perfect each and every corner with his own two hands and expertise, until at last, there is perfection.
“Think Jimmy, think Pinkly Smooth,” Suitor relays to the band, as a reminder that, no matter how far they reach into the metal realm, it is important to keep making the music strange, and with no real constraints. That way, the mood of the music isn’t forced, it’s organically developed with honesty and passion. Somehow, Railroad is able to constrain themselves, wrestling every section of every composition until it is technically sound down to the last minute detail. With the help of band artist, Ryan Williams, the band eventually finds their footing for the intro, then the next step might be a prechorus, or chorus, depending what specific structure fits the particular mood of that distinct song. The chorus may flow smoothly, until reaching a dropping point, that then flows into a time change and a completely different direction of guitar riffs that never seemed possible to merge together seamlessly until now.
Slowly, like a funnel, the song is beaten and adjusted from beginning to end right there in the studio. If a correction needs to be made, these musicians are so technically tight, it’s sometimes only a few seconds of inner speculation, and the rhythm necessary is achieved. This allows the band to move past each part, and begin to pillage the next tricky section, until it too is clean and precise. Occasionally, Lyman or Morales will step up and call for a change, an addition, or a harmony here and there. But most times, it is Suitor that has the full sheet music in his head, constantly manipulating and directing the other three to do his bidding. When the collaboration is harmonious, the music produced is heart-wrenching and honest. But the moment Suitor steps too far in his leadership, the room fills with more testosterone and frustration towards each other, and it shows in a brief moment where the musical tightness between members suddenly becomes a little more lax. It is then that Suitor knows to pull back and regroup the guys with a few positive words.
Blocking the doorway, surrounded by stacks of journals, a small dictionary, and a thesaurus, is Ryan Williams, band artist and lyricist. This poet has attended every practice thus far, and is always helping the lyrical development, as well as the overall mood and band philosophy. While he is not a technical musician like each of the Railroad members, he does have a keen sense and understanding of musical structure and sound. This, in turn, helps Suitor keep the lyrics and melodies fresh, instead of falling into the safe vocal patterns that he tends to spout out during the early stages of construction. The timing and notes of his melody are not set in stone, but by testing out the vocal waters as he plays, it allows him and Williams to create a clear map of the proper scales for each song. From there, it is easier for Williams to find a rhyme scheme that will fit within the fast-paced tempo. Most times, Railroad will stay within a 4/4 timing, but enjoys throwing in a quick 5/4 riff here and there to unbalance the listener and keep them anxious. But no matter how people categorize the band’s musical genre, Railroad to Alaska definitely is deciding to keep it eerie.
As the clock rolls over into the new day, Railroad decides to call it a night. More than four hours of straight practice, and it’s time to let the fingers rest. This is only the second of three practices this week, and another show is right around the corner. Recording will be happening in the next few months, so the songs must be perfected by then in order to cleanly capture the designated sound. Until then, the four guys are headed home, and will continue to keep rehearsing their parts by themselves so they are prepared for the next practice.