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Over the past eight years, Stephen Gardner has turned his fascination with trains into both a career on Capitol Hill and an indie-rock avocation.
An Amtrak train lumbers through the L’Enfant Plaza Virginia Railway Express station, heading south on a warm November day. On the open-air platform are a few commuters, anticipating the first suburb-bound VRE train of the day, and two musicians, Stephen Gardner, 25, and Ben Bailes, 27, eating lunch and answering questions. Both are members of Chessie, which makes semielectronic, not-exactly-ambient instrumental music that conjures the movement of trains. Only Gardner, however, has arranged his entire life around a fascination with railroads.
Robyn Hitchcock often dreamt of trains. Johnny Cash heard the trains chug past Folsom Prison. The Velvet Underground and the Feelies harnessed the rhythms of the uptown local. Kraftwerk rode the Trans Europe Express. These are but small monuments of devotion to rail travel compared with those of Gardner, who’s done track-maintenance work for the Buckingham Branch Railroad, a central Virginia short line, and worked as a dispatcher for the Maine Central Railroad. When he finally abandoned such employment last year, it was for a job on Capitol Hill, working on transportation policy for a legislator he doesn’t name.
Gardner, who has changed out of his congressional-aide suit for an interview, speaks as soberly about Chessie’s music as of the country’s “need for a redundant, multimodal network” that balances trains with cars and planes. Bailes says less, but he’s the more likely of the two to crack a joke.
“I’ve been trying to amass experience,” Gardner notes. “I haven’t stayed anywhere very long. It’s what they call in railroads being a ‘boomer’someone who goes from railroad to railroad, working as the opportunities exist.
“I see myself as being involved with railroading for a long time,” he adds. “So to be effective and really understand the industry, I wanted to get nuts-and-bolts, firsthand understanding of it. That means as many crafts as I can. I haven’t done mechanical, and I haven’t done marketing yet. I’d like to do both. And I’d like to get certified as an engineer.”
Gardner looked a bit like an engineer on the 9:30 Club stage in June, opening for Mouse on Mars. That night, he was controlling sounds rather than trainsbut sounds that evoked trains. Chessie’s three albums1997’s Signal Series, 1999’s Meet, and the new Overnight, which will be officially released next monthall boast titles that are more immediately understandable to train buffs than to electronic-music fans. The latest one was inspired in part by a sojourn in Germany that Gardner took before accepting his current job; from his temporary base in Berlinwhere two Overnight tracks were partially recordedhe rode night trains across the continent.
Named after the sleeping kitten that once embodied an East Coast railroad’s promise of a comfortable ride, Chessie began as a solo project in 1993. At the time, Gardner was still a member of Lorelei, one of the many D.C. bands of the era that were heavily indebted to My Bloody Valentine and the Too Pure label’s cadre of artists. “To me, the early ’90s was like a neutron bomb in terms of interesting musical ideas,” Gardner says. “I just had a huge opening vision of what could be done.
“I started doing Chessie originally just because I wasn’t able to do everything I wanted to do in Lorelei,” he recalls. “We had a really strong division in terms of instrumentation. I played bass, and that’s what I did. We were a true democracy, which was great. It was a tremendous relationship. But it didn’t give me all the options I wanted. Particularly, I couldn’t play guitar.”
“Were you not allowed to play guitar?” asks Bailes.
“Yeah. I was actually banned from playing guitar. They outvoted me. But they also couldn’t play bass. We decided our areas, and that was it. In terms of being productive, it helped. We all knew what we could do and where we could influence it. But I wanted a way to experiment.”
Inspired by his “radical” high school, Arlington, Va.’s, HB Woodlawn, in 1994, Gardner decided to go to Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., to study alternative education. First, though, he did an internship at Amtrak headquarters in Washington. After arriving at Hampshire, he switched his studies from education to acoustics. He made the first Chessie album by himself but asked Bailesa friend from his Woodlawn days who was working as a recording engineer in New Yorkto assist with the second one.
“I had access to a pretty interesting studio in Northampton, [Mass.],” Gardner says. “I asked Ben to come up. We had always had a sort of affinity. We were both really interested in sounds generally. The studio that I worked at is sort of a vintage, early-to-mid-’60s electronic-music studio, with lots of reel-to-reel tape machines, analog synths, a lot of outboard analog equipment. So we just went in and basically I was just doing what I normally do in there, which is kind of mayhem, really, and Ben helped out to engineer and produce.
“Given the way that I work, if anyone else is there it just becomes sort of collaborative. Ben not only really helped to enhance the quality of the recordings, but also to give shape to some of my ideas and bring some of his own ideas to the process. And also, frankly, after being locked up in basements alone for 48 hours at a time, it was nice to have someone to share in the vision. It just worked out, and right away it felt really comfortable.”
After the completion of Meet, Bailes was one of three musicians Gardner enlisted for a 2000 Chessie tour. “The challenge with the Chessie stuff,” Bailes says, “was that basically it’s made from an abstract piece of sound or an abstract idea, and then it gets built on from there, one piece at a time. So it’s a very studio-oriented project. But we were going to go play live, so Stephen asked me and two other friends to figure out how to do it. We sort of reverse-engineered the stuff so we could play it as a group.”
With the demands of their respective jobs, Gardner and Bailes (who is with the Magic Shop studio in New York) are not making plans for another Chessie tour. “We don’t have much time anymore,” says the former. “Which is fine. We don’t need to do a five-week tour, playing at some shitty bar in Tampa.”
Many of Chessie’s compositions are titled after railroad terminology”Brake Test,” “Pantograph Up”or specific locations: “K Tower” and “Ivy City Interlocking” are both places in the rail yards north of Union Station, and “Northern Maine Junction” is a site where Gardner “spent many a cold night” while working as a dispatcher. Yet these tracks aren’t programmatic soundscapes of steel-wheel click-clacks and blowing whistles. Some of the music even evokes the dream state suggested by a title such as “Between Asleep and Awake on SP 7591.”
The natural is important to Chessie’s sound, the two maintainwhich is why they use guitars and keyboards and seldom employ sequencers. “Chessie’s music is made in a way that’s totally different from the way that most [techno] music is prepared, because it’s built around tape loops of live playing,” Gardner explains. “Hand-played. That’s a conscious decision. The whole idea of using railroads as an aesthetic base. I try to build a process that reflects the idea of mechanization through nature, the idea of interactions of organic and nonorganic elements. I try to have a balance, both in the process of making the music and in the instrumentation involved, of organic and nonorganic elements. Playing live, I really wanted that to be the case, so we had two people doing electronics and two people playing instruments, or some configuration of that.”
Chessie’s new label, Plug Research, calls the duo’s music “a swirling, indistinct realm of sonic abstraction with influences ranging from the Beach Boys to My Bloody Valentine and Satie.” My Bloody Valentine is a longstanding model, and anyone looking for Satie need only play Meet’s “Katy (For Satie).” The Beach Boys, though, are less immediately evident in Chessie’s style.
It’s “more in theory than in sound,” Gardner explains. “Sure, Pet Sounds is a big influence to meand everyone else in the freakin’ universe making records at the moment. It’s not particularly interesting or revealing to say that. Except that I really am still profoundly moved by the care and detail devoted to sound beyond the composition and lyrical content. I feel like that record opened up a whole new dimension of pop music. I’m still inspired by that.”
The Beach Boys, of course, were known for their singing, but Gardner and Bailes prefer to keep their mouths shut. “There just isn’t voice in Chessie stuff,” says Bailes. “There just isn’t. I don’t know. We could sing if we wanted to. There aren’t rigidly defined roles for us. In another project, we might sing.”
“I like vocal music,” Gardner agrees. “Absolutely. But I’ve never found space in any tracks we’ve ever done for vocals.”
That hasn’t prevented Chessie’s music from getting noticed, however, even by those outside the indie scene. “I keep getting e-mails from Plug Research,” Bailes notes. “Overnight’s on playlists from Dublin and France and everywhere.” One state transportation agency, he adds, is considering “using the music somehow. Either on the train or for marketing.”
“The record’s doing really well so far,” Gardner says. “All the press has been really good. I don’t have a sense of how many other people listen to the music. We do think that if it’s delivered in the right way, people can find interest in this kind of stuff.”
“Delivered in the right way, like put it in the CD player and press Play,” interjects Bailes. “If you press Stop or Pause, you won’t be able to hear the record.”
Gardner laughs. Of course, he allows, “phenomenal record sales for our genre of music would be 10,000 copies. The other two Chessie records probably did something about 10,000 combined. Even if we sold tons of records, we’ll never make any money at this. We’ll always be losing tons of money. We’ll always have to have day jobs. But our day jobs are not day jobs. We’re both doing what we’re passionate about.”
The 1:37 VRE is just about due, and Gardner has to return to work on the Hill. One last question: Are any of the evocative chugs, clacks, or whooshes in Chessie’s music sampled from actual trains?
“No,” replies Gardner. “Never.”
“There has never been a sampled train sound on a Chessie song,” concurs Bailes.
“That’s cheating,” Gardner says. CP