Storytellers; An interview with Joshua Powell & The Great Train Robbery

Indianapolis, Indiana, folk collective Joshua Powell & The Great Train Robbery recently delivered Alyosha, a psychedelically-tinged, avant-folk record based on a character from Russian novelist Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The literature obsessed band and are set to perform the songs during a January run that brings them to Dayton twice in a month.
Ghettoblaster recently caught up with Powell to discuss performing at his eight grade dance, being a little pretentious, and his fondness for brunch.

When did you first realize that you had an aptitude for music?
Momma started me in piano lessons at age four, but it didn’t really take. Then I picked up a bass in middle school to start a punk band and more or less determined then I wanted to do that forever. I have probably a hundred horrifyingly bad demos I made in my bedroom in high school in a freeware program with a hundred dollar acoustic.
Then I remember playing a handful of punk songs at my own eighth grade dance and feeling like I was on top of the world. All my friends in those various punk and emo and hardcore lineups always loved playing but I always thought, “This is the one, this band is real, we’re going to make it.” The collaborators, bandmates, friends, and fans who have supported me in the last four years have been the ones to help me realize that the spark I felt at that dance in Vero Beach’s Old Courthouse could actually become a career. Cornball alert.
What prompted you to move from Florida to the Midwest?
I went up to Anderson, Indiana for college and spent the first two years wishing I was still at the beach. But the Midwest, and especially Indiana, worked its way into my heart. There’s a spirit here of people—a sort of hard-working, hopeful ethos that says, “We believe in this land and this culture and we’ll do whatever it takes to realize that potential.” I got to have a conversation recently with Scott Russell Sanders, a brilliant writer and conservationist, who told me, “It takes a special kind of person to realize the beauty of a place like this.” Places, like people, can become celebrities. Look at California. What’s to love there is so obvious. But Indiana is subtle in its charm, and it creates a sense of ownership, of belonging. It feels like what I imagine being adopted must feel like. And Indianapolis is a brilliant city, which people are only just recently realizing. Besides its own culture and offerings, it’s a wonderful hub. We can tour to about 15 major cities any given weekend. It’s practical and affordable for a touring artist. But mostly it just feels like home.
Has the Indiana independent music community embraced your band?
Absolutely. Indy is at a key point in its coming of age. The people who are here right now have the unique opportunity to build this scene into what they want it to be and we’re thankful to get to be a part of that. There are so many talented bands, artists, entrepreneurs, and thinkers here, and they’ve treated us like their own and we’re very grateful.
For the uninitiated, how would you describe your sound?
Psychedelic indie folk. A postmodern Neil Young. Hyper-literate mid-Americana with plate reverb and a chorus pedal. If Henry David Thoreau’s ghost made love to Feist on a Navajo blanket by the White River on the night of the first frost. Pretentious. Kidding. Kind of.

What are the predominant sounds and creative ideas that have helped shape the evolution of your craft?
The writings of Dostoevsky, Bradbury, Tolstoy, Ginsberg, Franzen, Slater, Miller, Berry, and countless others. The lyrics are central to our music and I’m largely informed by the giants that have so much more wisdom and skill than me. I take a lot from the Bible, that’s a touchstone both literarily and spiritually for me. I grew up on the Beatles and James Taylor, then got sucked into Neil Young, and eventually got into Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens, and David Bazan. Recently our sound has been extrapolated upon because I got really interested in dream pop and chillwave. The philosophies of transcendentalism, Christian mysticism, minimalism, zen, and pacifism are all synthesized in my writing. And the rise and fall of “folk” in mainstream culture has coincided with our evolution as a band. We put out Man is Born for Trouble when Mumford and Lumineers were kings. When that faded with the genericana trend, I knew we weren’t done with folk. But we also recognized it needed to evolve. That’s what we’ve been trying to pioneer the last two years.
Did you find any of the music released in 2015 particularly inspiring?
Jason Isbell is obviously a brilliant craftsman and I always enjoy his lyrical explorations. I was thrilled to see Sufjan return to his whispery folk roots—I was one of the only people I know who loved Age of Adz, but I also realized after my second spin of Carrie & Lowell that it was already one of my top 10 favorite records ever. Beach House and Youth Lagoon both released highlights of their respective discographies in Savage Hills Ballroom and Depression Cherry. And I discovered Eskimeaux and Alvvays.
What is your latest release what catalysts inspired the record?
We released Alyosha in October. Sonically, it was a statement that “folk” is an ethos and not a constraint. Thematically, it was a rumination on the cognitive dissonance of wanting to be a certain type of man and not feeling like I’ve lived up to that ideal. It was spiritually informed by reading The Brothers Karamazov and seeing Alyosha as a type of Christ figure, but identifying with his degenerate and cynical brothers. So people think it sounds like a wintry album. Some reviewers called it “bleak and beautiful,” which I really appreciate. That seems to reflect life to me. And life and art are supposed to reflect each other, right?
Where did you record that record?
Varsity Recording Co. in Anderson, IN. We were really proud to keep it “in house.” Anderson helped make me, and the producer, Jonathan Class, has been a friend and partner since day 1 of this band. He’s had a hand in all of our records, and he’s all over this one. This was our first record made entirely in a studio and I think it shows. We really got to experiment. One of us would do something, like play a synth part, or ask Jacob (the drummer on the record) to give us input on a time signature. One of us would say, “That’s really weird,” and the other would say, “Yeah, but I love it.”
You will be in Dayton for a couple performances in January. What are you looking most forward to at those shows?
We dig Dayton immensely. WinterFolk will be an awesome show because we’ll get to watch all these other talented folks and make friends with other Midwestern indie bands. And then we’ve been playing Trolley ever since our first tour in 2012. I have a friend from college in town and we have a tradition of making him get onstage to do a song or two. Then we buy a case of PBR after the show and hit up brunch and bookstores the next morning. Dayton is awesome for brunch and bookstores.
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