If rock ‘n’ roll kept a statistics sheet, like in baseball, the numbers for Traindodge would be impressive: 14 years as a band, five full-length albums, four EPs and several compilation credits to date. These post punk rockers have also played over 500 shows covering 38 states and two continents.
Yet, Oklahoma City-based Traindodge isn’t all that well known. It seems that, despite their impressive numbers, the game of music, like baseball, isn’t played on paper.
However, the latest release from Traindodge – Jason Smith (guitar/vocals), Chris Allen (bass) and Rob Smith (drums, keyboards) – takes a new turn. I Am Forever is their fifth longer player on their label home Ascetic Records, and in most regards it continues the progression of Traindodge’s two earlier releases – the double album The Truth and 2006’s Wolves. Only this time, the math rock band incorporates a heavy dose of synthesizers and ambient soundscapes.
“I don’t think the other guys agree with me 100 percent on this, but I tend to look at each of our last four albums as a creative reaction to whichever album came directly before it,” frontman Jason Smith said.
“Wolves was a very stripped down, simple and short album, and I have no doubt that it was a result of The Truth being a marathon double album, which came off as unfocused and disjointed at times. With Wolves, we were so hell bent on going as far in the opposite direction as possible, we ended up oversimplifying a little. We were getting a little too excited about ideas being basic and simple and not paying enough attention to how strong they were as songs.
“With this album, we ended up having a lot of time to sit with the songs to make sure they were strong enough on their own. Stylistically, I don’t really think this record is as big a leap as Wolves or The Truth was, but I think it’s more focused than either of them.”
The nine-song disc is a collection of songs that are well thought out and very structured; the synths help convey such a sound. Sound effects really stand out on this record, reminiscent of prog-rock throughout.
“We didn’t actively discuss it (the prog-rock sound). None of that really occurred to us until after the songs had all stacked up,” Smith said. “We just write things that excite us or interest us. We’ve been playing with keyboards and synths for awhile now. For whatever reason, we just ended up accentuating them a little more with this album.
“Sonically, I also have to credit John Congleton for mixing the record the way he did. His initial mixes were not always what we had in mind, but they were usually more interesting than what we had in mind,” Smith said. “After he played us a mix of the first song, I stepped back and just let him do his thing.
“I spoke up a couple of times, but for the most part, his initial interpretation of what needed to be upfront made me look at a lot of the songs in a whole new light. A lot of things that I envisioned as straightforward ended up being mixed in a more effect-y way. It was a really fun process, and we got a very unique result. I’m happy with it.”
Even with a great producer like Congleton, sometimes more is needed. Some bands have a hard time mixing the atmospheric synths with the driving guitar. But with Traindodge’s I Am Forever, the two styles of music seem to go hand in hand. All things considered, we could be hearing, dare I say, a more “mature” Traindodge.
“We didn’t go into this album thinking it was going to end up ‘mature’ sounding,” Smith said. “I wasn’t afraid to make any sort of leap because like I said, I don’t really think the album is that different – I just think it’s better.
“For me, the maturity is more in the songwriting than it is in any stylistic choice we made. As far as mixing the synths with the guitars, Chris and I tend to come up with parts that just feel natural. If Rob brings a synth-heavy idea to the table, we just experiment until we find things that are comfortable for us to play yet somehow fit with what we’re playing against.
“It can often take a while – months sometimes – but when we get to the point where all three of us are comfortable with what we’re playing, it doesn’t matter what the sonic backdrop is, it will still sound like us.”
As great as the music is on I Am Forever, the lyrical content is limited, which is one of the reasons the music stands out even more.
“The vocals are certainly more sparse this time,” Smith agreed. “On the last two records, I ended up doing a couple of things vocally that were pretty in your face and direct. And some of those ended up being the major things I regretted about those records.
“So, when writing and recording this record, I was definitely keeping my eyes open for ways to be more subtle without seeming like I was hiding. Fortunately, the music we were writing was more intricate and layered. The songs were instrumentally interesting and did most of the work, so I was comfortable enough with having the vocals take a back seat.
“I’m sure our methods (to writing songs) probably aren’t that unique. Usually, one of us will present a core idea – if it’s exciting enough, it inspires the others to come up with secondary supporting parts. Sometimes jamming through it as a unit will get us there. “Insisted Away” and “Wolves” are examples of songs that largely came from jams. Other times, jamming will get us on a sidetrack, and a whole new idea will be born. We have one riff that has yet to make it into a song but has given birth to three separate songs. The riff itself is actually a joke at this point. We refer to it as our “song fountain.” It will probably never end up in a song.”
Their process of writing songs and experimenting beyond that initial “post-punk” label could very well be the key to Traindodge’s longevity, not to mention their underground following. And maybe their I Am Forever album title is homage to their no-quit attitude.
“It’s interesting – a couple of people have brought that up, yet somehow, we never did. The title actually came from an “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” episode from five or six years ago. I just thought it sounded hilarious, and I started quoting it aloud to be funny to people who knew what it was. One day, I ended up writing it in an email to a friend to be funny and thought that the phrase looked really interesting as a sentence. Out of context, it took on a new, almost cryptic personality, but it was still vague-sounding.
“We sort of struggled with the title this time. Every other record we’ve done, as soon as the final title came up, we would all unanimously agree on it and the discussion would be over. We never had any long talks about the title on this one. I Am Forever was the default title for months. It felt like we were half-expecting for another title to come down the pike but it never did.”
In the end, despite their initial label of math rock being long gone, Traindodge continues to write intricate and original rock songs and put out consistently beautiful albums like their latest.
“Not only would I concur that the math rock genre is dead – I would say anyone saying that is about 10 years late. I was never comfortable with that tag. We probably had one foot dipped in that pool in the late ’90s. But even then, there were hundreds of bands who were far busier and much more technically proficient than we were.
“I mean, we were a tight unit, and we had a lot of stops and starts and the occasional polyrhythm, but we were never on par with Dazzling Killmen or Craw or anything like that. We’ve always had a fairly straightforward rock side and because of that, I never really felt like we could pull off ‘math rock’ with a straight face. I think that by the time our second album came out, we were pretty comfortable just rocking out in 4/4 a lot. I just figured we were off of that scene’s radar by then. With that said, however, some of the most difficult things I have ever had to play on a Traindodge record are on this album, so who knows what the score of that game is!”