Tag, You're It: Steve Carson of Echo Echo Interviews Justin Suitor From Railroad to Alaska

Categories: Tag, You're It
Tag, You're It is Heard Mentality's new weekly interview feature. The concept is simple: One local artist picks another local artist to interview, then the interviewee becomes the interviewer of an artist of his or her choice the following week.
Steve Carson/Echo Echo

I honestly couldn't tell you the exact moment I met Justin Suitor.  I'm pretty sure we were never formally introduced.  It started with a few nods to each other at Billy Kernkamp's store a couple of years ago when Billy would host events for local artists, and Justin and I happened to be performing on the same night.  At that time, I knew he was talented, but I had no idea of the capacity of his ability.  It wasn't until my first Railroad to Alaska show that I saw the real magic.  Growing up, I spent a few years listening to different incarnations of metal, but it had been years since I felt the power.  From the amazing musicianship to the well-crafted, well-executed songs, I quickly became a fan of this powerhouse fronted by Suitor, who's joined by Derek Eglit on drums, Jeff Lyman on guitar and Justin Morales on bass.  

I was hooked. I was approached at one of their shows by a guy who asked me, "Why are you here listening to Railroad? You're not into this kind of music."  He was surprised when I told him Railroad to Alaska was one of my favorite OC bands and the best live band I'd seen in years.  I love their energy and commitment to being true to themselves.  As soon as I found out Billy Kernkamp was going to interview me for the "Tag, You're It" column, I knew who I was going to interview when it was my turn.

All I knew about Justin Suitor was what I heard through the grapevine and what I witnessed at shows.  Besides sharing pleasantries on occasion at shows, I've never really had the opportunity to sit down with him, share a smoke and a cocktail, and see what he was all about.  This was my chance. 

I met him at his home in Costa Mesa as it was approaching midnight.  He took me for a tour of his house, the surrounding grounds and the bomb shelter two stories below, where he creates in solitude.  I got barked at by his dog. He made a sandwich for himself, opened a bag of chips and poured me some Crown, and we sat down to start our three-and-a-half-hour conversation. It seems I wasn't prepared for what was to come.  My pen ran out of ink, my recording device ran out of space, and I probably should have taken the sandwich he offered to make me.  Nevertheless, I embarked on an informational journey to learn about Justin Suitor.  My goal was to ask questions that not only I wanted answers to, but that his fans and fans of Railroad to Alaska would like to know as well.  I hope you enjoy.

Justin Suitor/Railroad to Alaska

Steve Carson: What do you listen to that would surprise us?

Justin Suitor: The past couple of weeks, I've listened to Dethklok, which is Metalocalypse (an animated television series, which won't be a surprise to anybody). But the past couple of weeks, I've also been listening to Morricone, songs from all those spaghetti westerns and Morricone's greatest hits.  I listened to a little Devendra Banhart, Mars Volta (which I'm sure won't surprise anyone), the Melvins . . . but I think the one that people probably wouldn't expect is Lyl Wyte. He's a dirty south rapper. He's got delivery like nobody else. He's hilarious, and he's tough as shit--you know, he's really tough. He really is that way; he's not like playing up his shit. Every time he drops something, I laugh my ass off in amazement. He really does sell something, and I'm interested in that. I wonder how people get into that? How do they go from being a normal person to still being normal with an air of something around them?

Do you see yourself as an artist first or a musician?

I've had very distinct periods in my life, and one of them just only involving music. With music, I was an artist for the first part of my adult life, and then I was a musician second. Now, I feel like I've kind of reconciled both of them. You know, age 18 to 19 is when you're getting serious about music and trying to learn how to play. From 21 to 25 . . . it's pure art.  I didn't play with anyone. I played in metal bands that didn't get off the ground. I played drums, guitar . . . whatever. On my own, I wrote some of the most amazing music I've ever written. Ryan would feed me pieces of writing that he wrote, and I would write music around it and perform it at parties. It wasn't even a real musician's career. I was purely an artist. I think that was the most unique I've ever been. I have trouble going back and thinking about what I was doing back then.  

From 25 to 28, I became a musician and distanced myself from all that wildness and creativity. I just learned how to play with people. I ended up doing cool things like playing with various bands around here, such as Billy Kernkamp, Stanley Lucas Revolution and Honeypie. There are distinct periods that have beginnings and endings, and I'm in the middle of this one. I hope this one doesn't end. I hope this is how I live the rest of my life--being able to pull from both of them, to be unrestrained and free to think of something that doesn't have anything to do with rules. It's how I feel, how I think, and that's what I want to capture---I want to be able to use musicianship to attain it, understand how to arrange it and orchestrate it. That's where we're going in the band, too; all of us want to be able to hear something imaginary and make it real.  

When did you start writing songs?

My first band was when I was 14, so pretty much right away. I used the most basic techniques. It was a ska band in high school. I wrote the songs, and I wrote the words and wrote everything. For some reason I got elected to do that because I had the desire to learn how to do it. I wasn't the front man, but I got pushed into that position. We had a song called "Mommy's Underpants," and people will still sing it to me. It's sad 'cause that's fucking 14 years ago. It was a funny song with a hook that stuck in their heads; maybe not every day, but when they would see me, that's what would pop up. When I was 14, I had already written a song that was a hit at my high school. It was a joke, but . . . [Justin starts to sing] "every day while sitting in class, all I think about is your mommy's ass."  It's ridiculous.

Austin Bauman

Does a head change make a difference in the creative process?

For me, I smoked weed for 10 years, and that may have helped or hurt, but that's not really the point. The point for me is that I've always just rode the inspiration when it happened to me. If I felt upset, depressed or angry, those are the times when I wrote the beginning inspirations of those songs. Now I'm developing into an adult with songwriting stuff, and it's coinciding with becoming more of an adult in life. I've got something going for me now that I write at practice with a mature group of dudes. So when I'm at practice, I feel creative, I feel in charge of myself, I feel I know who I am and what I'm doing. Now, at home, I have this underground bomb shelter, which is a setting, and I live with my best friend and creative partner upstairs. Above me and below me, there are these places, when I come home, where I feel like it's okay to think what I think; it's okay to go down there, where no one is going to judge me, no one's going to hear me and say, "good job; good one, buddy."  I can get weirder than anywhere else.  So that's my adult songwriting inspiration, the setting, and I'm just working with what I got, and those ones are working for me right now.

What are other musical incarnations of yourself besides metal?

There are three sides, and they're very specific. There's one side I went through for a big period of time that is very theatrical. When I was at a party with my close friends, I would narrate and improvise stories--like a Jack Black kind of thing. I would just go off and sing while someone was playing the piano over and over and get the whole room going crazy. I'm a theater nerd sometimes 'cause I do improvise and I sing fucking theater bullshit and musical humor. Then there's super-dark depressing manic music that I've written since I started writing music. It's, like, slow, creeping folk. It's about suicide, depression and drug use. Then there's the funk side. I do soul singing sometimes.

I also wrote some songs for Honeypie. It's pop. I wrote some of the most cheery, happy shit you've ever heard. If you knew that I wrote it, like, literally the hook in this one song is [Justin starts to sing again] "I'll have you know these hills are not mountains; I'm just trying to brighten your day." I wrote those lyrics.  

If Railroad to Alaska could get in a time machine and travel back to any rock era, when would you travel to?

In the band's best interest, the best place for us to be on a time line of music would only be based on fan reaction and devotion. I would say that would be from '92 to 2002, with Orange County's underground straight-edge hardcore scene. It was just, like, 1982 in LA in the punk shows or Gun 'N' Roses at the Rainbow Room. When I was 16, I went to a show in Long Beach at PCH Club, and my mind was blown. That's 300 kids losing it--no care, no thoughts, purely immersed in the music. If we could play how we play as a band now but back in '96 in the underground Orange County hardcore straight-edge scene, we would have a fucking army of gnarly dudes who wanted to kill for us.

Austin Bauman

What would people find interesting that they might not know about Railroad to Alaska?

What people might not know is that we have a fifth member. His name is Ryan Williams, and he writes a lot of our lyrics and is at every practice. He's a childhood friend of mine. We've know each other for 25 years. We needed that fifth position to spread it out from being an obvious square of thoughts. We didn't just want our brains on it. He's an extremely creative and talented writer. When you read his lyrics alone, you definitely get the strong sensation it's a writer writing it. We inspire each other to do what we do 'cause we've been writing music and doing art together for a long time.

[Note from Steve: Justin also added throughout our conversation that Ryan doesn't only contribute with lyrics, but he also contributes to the concepts that go into all graphic design used by the band. He also fills that space normally used by a producer.]

Where do you see Railroad in five years?

We could play together until we're dead. I don't know what the endgame is. I think I speak for the band when I say we're all satisfied for now, and we're all looking to be satisfied in the future. Satisfaction is a dumb word. It's not about being content; it's about feeling what you did is worth something. We're still fresh, and we're putting in work. There are goals we set from short term to long term. Our short term goal is to record a full-length album on a small label, get it distributed and tour with bands we respect. That's obviously going to take a lot of work, and we'll have to tour on our own and with bands we don't respect. We're going to have to record a couple of shitty EPs that we're half-proud of, and we're going to have to fund that until we get a label. That's the short term goal: get to the point where somebody wants us to record what we're playing, and they know that we are fit to do so. Someone that wants us to tour with their band that they represent. When that happens, we can set our sights on bigger things, or we can call it quits, or whatever the fuck happens. We're humans; we make plans and care what people think about us regardless of how we want to portray ourselves to people--we do care. At the same time, the most important thing is us being satisfied.

If you could say one thing to your fans about yourself, what would that be?

My whole adult life, all the mistakes I made, all the decisions I made that brought me here were based on two main life-altering events. One of them was life-altering for everyone in its own way, and one of them was life-altering for pretty much only me. It was Pinkly Smooth; the creative explosion that came out of Jimmy Sullivan when I was an 18-year-old kid. There's nothing that will ever change that for me. If people knew that Jimmy Sullivan was my main inspiration that wouldn't hurt. I wouldn't necessarily go around telling people I only do this for Jimmy or I'm trying to be like Jimmy. I don't want people to think that. I want people to know that Jimmy Sullivan is a big influence to me on his own and that I want to sing like him. That's what I want; it's what I try for, but also, I want to sing like myself, too. It's those weird things where you idolize someone: you feel comfortable about yourself because you feel like you have something in common with them or you can relate to them. There's that profound respect for Jimmy Sullivan and how that changed me as an 18-year-old kid.

Then there's 9-11, sending me on a conspiracy rampage in which I spent four years alone in my own mind, researching and writing and reading about political corruption and the events of that day and the cover-up of it. The mass murder of American people by the American government. I'm a conspiracy theorist, and I owe everything to Jimmy Sullivan.

What color is your monkey?

Purple because it's royal.

You can download Railroad to Alaska's music here. You can download Echo Echo's music here.

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