Alaska, Featured, Music

Blackwater Railroad Company: New music, new projects, new members, same love

By Allison Sayer for Seward City News –

Between personnel changes, community projects, real estate, and of course, more music, this has been an unbelievably busy year for Seward’s Blackwater Railroad Company. Two of the band’s founding members, JW Frye and Tyson Davis, took time this spring to catch me up with their happenings and talk about what drives them forward.

AS: So can you tell us a bit about what the band has been up to recently?

JW:  Blackwater just purchased the Mason’s Temple, a 5,000 square foot commercial space across from the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] on Fifth Avenue with a 100 person shotgun theater in there. You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown was the first time the space had been used in years.

AS: That sounds like a lot of work.

JW: More than you could ever imagine! Also, we are putting out 3 EPs, not an album this year. There’s a big shout out to Seward in the new EP.

AS: You guys have been touring for a few years now, and your fan base has expanded. What has changed for you on tour and what has remained the same?

JW: First of all people know the words to the songs. Over the last two years Blackwater has sold more music than any other band in the state by a large margin. When you’re a certain size band people aren’t listening when they’re driving around. It’s another whole experience when you have a fan base built in that are buying and streaming and listening to your music and they know it word for word. There’s no better experience than when there’s a crowd coming out waiting for their favorite song.

People are anticipating the songs. [In the early days] people loved Blackwater because they were going to go out and just dance all night. It was the soundtrack of the summer, but in bars. Now people are interested in songs.

AS: What are some highlights from the past year so far?

JW: New Year’s Eve at Williwaw this year was enormous…

It’s been a lot of lowlights and highlights putting this building back together. It was not in good shape. Tyson and I were in there ripping out walls and stuff.

AS: What are some things you are particularly proud of?

JW: The Alaska Music Project for Youth. It’s a statewide not for profit that takes kids from “interested in music” all the way through recording, producing and playing live. It involves mentorships teaching kids, instrument drives, and putting 6 mobile recording studios in 6 villages by 2018. It started at the TYC (Seward Teen Youth Center). Andy went in as a substitute music teacher when the school lost their funding for a music teacher. Basically we started playing at the TYC and now new bands have taken up that mantle. So many bands come through the city of Seward. They play at bars and then they leave. That’s why we created a public arts space open for all ages where Blackwater could continue to do adult workshops and kids’ workshops. Now we have a full arts and learning center. No matter how many budget cuts there are in the future we’re going to be on the upswing as far as what Seward youth are getting in the arts.

You can only be a popular band for so long. Blackwater is not going to be the darling band forever because old guys aren’t cool. There has to be a new generation that comes up but they don’t learn to play instruments in school anymore. We gotta train up our replacements.

We also partnered with the Anchorage downtown partnership and now we have a thing in Anchorage called The Storefront. We’re putting a band practice space into a storefront so bands can come play throughout the day. It livens up what would be an empty storefront. You can hear it through a speaker. It livens up this depressed area and gets people to stay. Different businesses have now snapped up what have been empty storefronts for months. Then we move on to a bigger, better space.

Tyson’s taking time out of his schedule and playing in Peratrovich park Wednesdays in the afternoons and bringing friends. When national acts come through, they’re doing an hour of free music in the park.

We’ve been using music as an engine for economic development in Anchorage.

It’s up to us as artists and people with a platform to leverage that attention.

AS: What events are you most looking forward to this summer?

JW: We’ve got new music coming out and we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if this wasn’t our best recording. We always get super excited. We’ve been able to take a step forward each time. I know we won’t be able to do that forever. It’ll plateau at some point. But this is a huge step forward. And we’re not releasing a new album, we’re releasing 3 EPs.

AS: Why is this a step forward?

JW: The new members of the band are virtuosic players and so the skill level and the tightness of the sound is unlike anything we’ve made to date. So there’s that aspect of it. We were able to arrange the songs as they were initially envisioned. With earlier compositions, the songs would be written and then the band would sort of just “play it.”

We have a full complement. Like on Nenana, we were able to bring in studio players to play very specific lines. Now we’re really able to select down to the detail every kind of sound we want and instruments play off each other. Now we have two soloing instruments: the mandolin and fiddle, not just the fiddle. These [tracks] are much closer to the original design of how the song is supposed to sound from the perspective of the songwriters.

AS: When will the EPs be released?

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JW: At The Mermaid Festival. We started working with Shelly Shank on how to create a huge win after the winter, like an economic shot in the arm to Seward. We thought, “We should bring back the boat harbor opening.” Now The Mermaid Festival has blown up. Thousands of people are interested, there are 30 vendors, a pub crawl the night before, beer gardens, bands all day, Major Marine tours is doing a special trip, etc etc, It turned into this huge thing. All the hotels are sold out.

We love our town. We’re nerds for Seward.

AS: Sounds a bit like you have the Midas Touch.

JW: We’ve definitely been pretty successful. But you don’t always see the failures. For every one of those huge successes there’s some trying times. Losing band members- that was a moment when we were thinking, “What are we going to do? Are we still going to have a band? Is it still going to be Blackwater?” That was tough.

I think we’re lucky and as corny as it sounds it goes back to Seward. If we didn’t have Seward behind us supporting us every step of the way… Everything’s built on that. If it wasn’t for everybody helping with that building, we wouldn’t be in a position to buy it. Or if the Chamber hadn’t put us in touch with the National Forest Service and the Christmas Tree People, we would never have done the [Capitol] tree lighting ceremony or had that huge national tour.

Every time we try to do something to repay Seward it blows up and now we have to repay you even more. Maybe it’s a little “Midasy” because that “Stars we Are” competition was a massive success and that led to a lot of big businesses in Anchorage paying attention. They started to look at how we’re very community minded- Seward first but also Alaska- and also can say “Wow, their charitable stuff is bona fide, they really care, they can draw, they can deliver.” 

I think that doing the national tour breeds confidence and that confidence becomes a self fulfilling prophesy. People see us succeeding and put us in a position to succeed more. Seward told us we were winners and the best band in the world with none of us even playing that well and bought us a PA and told us we were rock stars. And eventually it convinced us we were rock stars and we went to the rest of the state like, ”We’re rock stars!”

The city got behind us to do “Adventure Venue” shows and they keep being like, “You guys can do anything!” and we’re like, “We can do anything!”

We do really need community support for Temple studios. It’s an enormous cost. That’s going to take everybody in the community coming together. It’s so huge and there’s so much work to be done. We know the community will rally around it. There are two capital improvement campaigns we’re going to have to undertake: the roof and a facade. [We want to] make it a viable arts and learning center for a new generation of Sewardians.

AS: It sounds like you are really, really busy.

JW: It’s been 80-100 hrs per week: three 10 hour days for the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, then drive to Seward, work on the building. But it’s one of those things. It’s scary and stressful where Tyson and I took our life savings to create an arts center and we’re in waist deep snow on our 5000 square foot flat roof. In the beginning you’re so buried you don’t know how to tell people how to help. You have to put in a million hours just to get to where you can tell people what you need. To raise up the amount of money we needed we had to come to Anchorage. The Seward winter economy was in the dumps. The whole state’s in recession. Luckily we were able to find the right partners and make sure they felt like they were getting value.

*** After giving me the scoop on the band’s who what where and when, JW suggested I talk with Tyson Davis to learn more about the “Blackwater Ethos.”***

TD: I first came to Seward for a seasonal job in 2007 and really ever since then Seward- and Alaska of course- but mainly Seward has been a huge huge influence on my music.

The new EP contains quite a few references to Seward and its geographical features, and some of its personalities as well. Also of course things I’ve experienced since being here whether it’s loss, family passing away on the other side of the country, or relationships lost or relationships gained since I’ve gotten here. All those things play into it.

That all plays into it and also I write a lot about just the process of being a writer and what things influence me because I’m just pulling from all the things around me and that’s why Seward has such a presence in my songwriting

I make it all work into these melodies and these stories that I tell.

AS: Can you share some lyrics?

TD: The first EP is a song called Adorn which tells the story of meeting a girl and trying to entice her into coming to Seward and spending time here, kind of selling the town. That would definitely be the one that best encapsulates what we’re talking about. The second verse: “Seward is my rainville, my haven, my windmill” which is kind of an inside reference to the conversations me and this particular girl had had that really only the girl would understand. Things that seem simplistic are also very weighted. It goes on to say “I hope you join me if you’ve ever got some time to kill.”

AS: You have lost some band members and gained new ones over the past year. What makes it still Blackwater?

TD: It’s definitely the stories. A lot of the music comes from my upbringing in North Carolina which heavily influences the sound and the reason why certain instruments were picked. What I bring to the table is what i call my “song skeletons” and it’s up to the band members to give it flesh, to give it life. That’s a big determining factor in what Blackwater becomes as much as my stories.

It’s been a trying year as far as losing band members, people I knew well before the band. To have them move away from Seward was tough. But JW and Isaac, we still felt like we had unfinished business and felt motivated to continue on with Blackwater and music as well. Since Alaska is such as small state- a small state socially!- we already knew all the musicians in the state, at least working musicians. Since Blackwater is at such a high point it was just a matter of finding the chemistry: people who weren’t just good musicians but who had the capacity to be good friends as well. That’s the nice thing about this new version: not only people who can play the parts but people that we’ve known for awhile, not just strangers.

[We’ve been] having [the new members] come down to Open Mic nights at The Pit for awhile to have them get to know Seward. We’ve been working on that just as much as learning the music. It’s important in a place like Seward to have that connection. When you tell people from town we have 3 band members from Anchorage they’re on guard a little, but Seward’s such a rad place full of such great people they are very very accommodating, very very welcoming, and eager to hear what they have to say and play. This last Saturday at at The Pit was case in point: one of the first shows in Seward they got to experience. It was a raging success, fantastic turnout, everyone had a great time. A few alcoholic beverages were consumed. It was pretty awesome.

[Seward] has a way of attracting people… people who find their way here are usually somewhat like minded. The people that spend time here usually have common ground here, especially people that didn’t grow up here. You don’t get to choose where you’re born, but you do get to choose where you live.

I guess for us it’s been kind of overwhelming… We started off as kind of a community band for Seward. Caines Head was kind of breaking up when we started and we saw a need for a community band so we just kind of pieced it together. Once we started playing we saw the goal of being a working musician was very attainable. It grew outside of Seward very quickly and even outside of Alaska, having music online. To see that progression in just over 4 years from our first practice. To see that grow- not just the music but the not for profit work to grow not just our music but music in the state in general. To see these things we talked about become a reality. It’s pretty unreal. I pinch myself every day. It’s a pretty special thing to be a part of.

It takes buying in on a level that I’ve never really bought into anything before. I’ve worked hard my whole life- I’m the son of a dairy farmer- but buying in on a dream on a whole new level, being self motivated, it’s pretty special. Something I’ve always wanted to do is work for myself, for the good of other people, people around me.

It’s been a long and quiet winter in Seward. I’m excited to see everything come back to life and everything being green. It’s definitely an exciting year for Blackwater. Every day that gets closer to summertime we can feel the excitement growing. We’re definitely excited to see what 2017 brings.

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