Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

The Legendary Trainhoppers

Steve Penhollow

Whatzup Features Writer

Published October 28, 2015

Heads Up! This article is 7 years old.

Roughly a year after the Legendary Trainhoppers performed their last gig, the band’s bassist, Damian Miller, got into trouble with the law. He and his brother were sentenced to prison for robbing a Walgreens pharmacy in Indianapolis.

Offers for the band to perform came in thereafter, but Matt Kelley, one of the band’s string players and the current owner of One Lucky Guitar, resisted the urge to reunite.

“I felt that the Trainhoppers just don’t play without Damian,” he said. “Even going down the bad path that he did, he was the spiritual center of the band.”

Miller was eventually released from prison in early 2013.

The following winter, Kelley was in Austin, Texas on a photo shoot when he got a call from his former bandmate, Chris Dodd.

“He doesn’t call that often,” Kelley said. “I saw him on my phone and thought, ‘What happened?’”

Dodd told Kelley that Miller was dead, killed in an early morning altercation outside a bar. 

This incomprehensible incident only steeled Kelley’s resolve that the words “The Legendary Trainhoppers” would never again appear on a marquee. 

The year 2014 turned out to be a difficult one for Kelley beyond what had happened to Miller. His father suffered a stroke and his friend, Denise DeMarchis, fought and ultimately succumbed to cancer.

“I started feeling these feelings, especially being around my dad,” he said. “I started feeling like, ‘I don’t want to be in his situation and have regret.’”

Just before last Christmas, Kelley shared a stage at an annual holiday show with several ex-Trainhoppers and was reminded of how much he enjoys their musical company.

“It was kind of a celebratory thing, that show,” he said. 

After the performance, Kelley said the Trainhoppers’ former guitarist Phil Potts grabbed him by the shoulder and whispered in his ear, “It’s time we made the second Trainhoppers album.”

Despite his earlier reluctance, Kelley said, “I was excited immediately … I was suddenly obsessed with the second Trainhoppers album.”

And so it came to pass that the members of the Legendary Trainhoppers, one of Fort Wayne’s few genuine supergroups, started batting around musical ideas again after the better part of a decade had passed. 

A much-delayed and heretofore mothballed follow-up to the Trainhoppers’ debut, Ramble On, should be ready for download and phonograph needle early next year.

And the band will perform new and old material the day after Christmas at the B-Side, One Lucky Guitar’s intimate concert venue.

More live dates will follow. 

The creation of album number two has been quite a bit different from the creation of album number one, Kelley said. 

The band members hadn’t actually written any songs together before now, he said. 

“It didn’t necessarily end very well for the Trainhoppers,” Kelley said. “That album we made, everybody had kind of brought finished songs to it and then we recorded them.”

Ramble On was produced in California by Grammy winner Scott Mathews, a contribution that was as flashy as it was troublesome.

“Working with Scott Mathews was a wonderful experience,” Kelley said, “but his hero was Brian Wilson. It probably would have been neat if we’d had somebody whose hero is Keith Richards.”

Kelley said the Trainhoppers could not subsequently agree on what artistic direction the band should take.

“We were trying to come up with songs together and people had differing ideas,” he said. “They ranged from very arty to the notion that the second album should be our Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It was a large band and very democratic and it was like, ‘Wow. This is why there aren’t large bands.’”

Supergroups – which is to say, groups fashioned out of musicians who are already part of other successful groups – aren’t built to last.

The storied participants usually find many more reasons to swiftly depart than to remain together. 

The reenlisted members of the Legendary Trainhoppers (who have largely decommissioned their other bands: Go Dog Go, The Brown Bottle Band, The Matthew Sturm Band and Definitely Gary) have grown up a lot, Kelley said.

“We’ll just record ideas on our phones,” he said. “We have a website and we’ll just throw them up on there. What people are doing is saying, ‘Here’s a melody idea’ or ‘Here’s some lyrics. Somebody take them and do something with them.’

“That never would have happened before,” Kelley said. “It’s been much more collaborative.” 

This time around, the Trainhoppers have been intentionally not finishing songs, he said.

“It’s been, ‘Let’s beat ’em up,’” Kelley said. “‘Let’s be tough enough that some songs must die, some ideas must die.’”

The band has been trying to infuse writing sessions with Miller’s spirit, he said.

“He was creative and fun,” Kelley said. “He liked to move things forward. He wouldn’t get mired. That spirit is in the room, that attitude of ‘Let’s make sure we’re all having fun doing this, and let’s do things that are important but also enjoyable for all of us and for the people we eventually play to.’”

He said the Trainhoppers are building a new song out of a snippet that Miller recorded long ago at Jon Gillespie’s Monastic Chambers Recording Studio in New Haven. 

Kelley said that the band is currently looking for a bass player to replace Miller in the live setting.

Sturm, who now works for Apple Computer in California, will contribute ideas to the new album and may put in a guest appearance or two, Kelley said, but it is not logistically possible for him to return as a full member. 

“We will, however, have a Matt Sturm hologram,” Potts said.

The re-formed band has no intention, Kelley said, of becoming a staple of the live music scene.

“We want to keep it special, keep it something you can’t see all the time,” he said.

Kelley believes they could “build a little cottage industry where you can buy a recording of the show you were at.”

Smyth said the men have aged long past the stage where a musician dreams of “getting discovered,” whatever that means in the digital age. 

“You give up a lot for that big paycheck,” he said. “And even then, maybe the big paycheck might not be so big after you pay them back.”

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