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Orange Pop: Railroad to Alaska raises the bar
For Railroad to Alaska, a rock quintet based out of Huntington Beach, 2011 has proven to be productive year, filled with both triumphs and lessons learned the hard way.
The group started off strong, winning best new band at this year’s OC Music Awards, held at City National Grove of Anaheim in March, and seizing on an opportunity to perform four Southern California dates on the annual Warped Tour.
Now that they're forging ahead with plans to release a full-length album sometime in the near-future, vocalist and guitarist Justin Suitor says the band – including drummer Derek Eglit, guitarist Jeff Lyman, bassist and vocalist Justin Morales and songwriter Ryan Williams – has also upped its game on stage. Fans and newcomers alike can catch Railroad to Alaska live as the Monday resident band at the newly finished Constellation Room inside the soon-to-be-renamed Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana.
“It’s good to have more large-sized venues for bands because it gives them the opportunity to grow into them,” Suitor says of being one of the first acts to perform in this new venue-inside-a-venue. “You can only play House of Blues so many times in a year, so the fact that the Galaxy now has a smaller room that’s about 300 capacity is great. Usually rooms that size have sound systems that don’t do the bands justice, but from what I’ve heard – and we’ve played in the venue a bit – it sounds great in there.”
This year, the band also decided to more widely publicize Williams, its often unseen fifth member, one of Suitor’s oldest friends as well as his roommate. Williams has created all of the artwork for the band as well as written lyrics and helped arrange some songs. “He just doesn’t play live with us on stage,” Suitor points out.
The duo has written songs together for about eight years in various projects. According to Suitor, in the beginning they would often sit in his car in front of his parents’ house working out lyrics.
“We could talk for hours, until people were getting up for work,” he recalls. “We’ve always been interested in a lot of the same things, like conspiracies and the occult. We both have a pretty heavy sense of, I guess, humanity when we’re trying to write lyrics, too. We don’t write about very fickle or materialistic things; we try to probe psychological defects and the undercurrent in political conspiracies, so we have a safe tone with each other."
But he adds “we do argue a lot. There is a lot of venom and hatred that goes into it. But that’s what makes the music serious – that we have to convince each other that things need to be a certain way. The whole band has to deal with it sometimes, too – they sit around and listen to us go back and forth. But our writing process has been refined this past year. I think we finally found the way that we will continue to do things.”
The debut full-length, Suitor says, is a departure from Railroad to Alaska’s two EPs, Luckybearclawdoom, issued in February 2010, and Salvation, which came out this past March. The band has been writing for the album for the past eight months and has managed some pre-production to solicit small labels and producers. Both Williams and Suitor agree this particular body of work exhibits the group's growth.
“The first two EPs ... I think ultimately we were trying to put together a lot of different styles and trying different approaches,” Williams says. “Those were the first attempts at trying to figure out what we were doing and how we were going to do it. The full-length will be a good opportunity to show people really where we’re coming from.”
“It’s not a concept album, but there is a very consistent through-and-through theme,” Suitor adds. “We just definitely want to provide depth for listeners – our EPs and the stuff that we’ve put out before, we feel, has been surface level stuff for us.”
For the band, playing a side stage at the Warped Tour over the summer proved to be an enlightening experience. Suitor says they showed up the first day completely unprepared; when they left their final date, they felt a sense of accomplishment.
“The first date was in Pomona and it was 102 degrees – and we brought a case of water, some beef jerky, a poster and a tub full of our T-shirts,” Suitor says. “When we got there, there was a whole tent for us to fill up, and we were lucky for the tent because we would have all been cooked in the sun. We didn’t have (anything) – we had the poster taped to the tent and we were all sitting on the ground on a blanket like a bunch of hippies. Everyone there knew we were rookies. When we were playing, all of that compounded on us and there was a lot more pressure.”
After becoming extremely malnourished and dehydrated on that first run, they were better prepared for the next show. Aside from needing more water, sunscreen, food and merchandise for its Warped stint, Suitor says the biggest challenge was maintaining the interest of preoccupied Warped Tour fans while performing.
“You’re fighting for attention because there are so many bands and distractions,” he says. “When you get someone to stop, you feel like you need to perform to them personally. That doesn’t happen at other shows; you don’t feel that urgency to keep them there. So that really pushed us.
"I think we took a step up on the performance level and we played really hard for it – we played better and entertained more than we ever have, and we had a good time doing so. It was rough but it was worth it, and we needed that experience, too.”
As for the OC Music Awards, Suitor says that just because Railroad to Alaska was named best new band this year doesn’t mean the group won’t ferociously compete in next year’s competition.
“It was great exposure and we’re happy to be involved. Next year we want to play in a showcase, and we’d love to advance to the finals and play at the ceremony. I don’t think any of us is set on winning, but we will compete because we’re all very competitive people.
"If we get nominated again, that would be great. It’s an affirmation that people enjoy what we do and people can share in it with us.”
Photo by Kim Conlon.
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