Rockin' geology

Posted: Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ray Troll and Russell Wodehouse accomplished a unique feat last fall after holing themselves up for a week in Ketchikan to write music - the world's first bluegrass song about trilobites.

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Courtesy Of Ray Troll
Courtesy Of Ray Troll

"I know it's not the first trilobite song, but I'm pretty sure it's the world's first bluegrass trilobite song," Troll said. Trilobites are extinct marine arthropods that first appear in the fossil record during the Early Cambrian period some 540 million years ago.

"Trilobite" appears on the new Ray Troll/Russell Wodehouse & The Ratfish Wranglers album "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway," released last month. The album features the same name as a book by paleontologist Kirk Johnson and Troll, published in 2007, that documents their fossil-seeking road trip across the American West.

The book spawned an exhibit currently showing at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington through May 31, and Troll decided a pseudo soundtrack would be beneficial to the project.

"I just think that, I don't know, you walk into a space and look at art, sound is the other aspect to it," he said. "Basically my job is bringing fun."

Troll contacted Wodehouse, a previous musical collaborator and Ketchikan expatriate living in Washington, and the two set out on a journey to create the sound of the Fossil Freeway. Wodehouse returned to Ketchikan for a week in October and they set up a makeshift recording studio in Troll's house and let the music begin to flow.

"We set up shop in his living room and didn't sleep a lot, drank a bunch of wine and wrote," Wodehouse said.

The "Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway" book wasn't necessarily a roadmap for the musical adventure the two embarked upon, Troll said.

"It is pretty closely tied. They pretty much go hand in hand," he said. "That said, we weren't like, 'Chapter 2, we've got to write a song.' We basically used it as a starting point. A lot of it was as things would kind of come together."

Wodehouse had some of the music already written before arriving in Ketchikan and the two took images and ideas from the book and turned them into lyrics over the course of a week.

"It was one of those things that we were lucky because the muse was there," he said. "It was one of those things where things just kept rolling. So it was like, 'Sweet, let's not stop.'"

Troll decided to depart from the Ratfish Wranglers' previous album - "Where the Fins Meet the Frets" released in 2008 - and wanted to work behind the scenes more on the latest release.

"Part of the whole M.O. this time is I learned things from the first CD," he said. "I like being more of an almost producer kind of guy on this one, realizing my musical abilities are only so limited."

Troll wrangled musicians together from throughout Southeast Alaska and Washington to create a musically diverse sound that differs from song to song like changes throughout the geologic ages.

The album's namesake song kicks off the 16-track CD with a blend of bluegrass, ska and doo-wop, juxtaposed to the electronica and hip-hop sound of "40,000 Mammals" and the hard-rock sound of "Hell Pig."

"We did everything except for opera on this one," Troll said.

The song "Ages of Rock" takes Troll's passion for science a step further by blending music with a lyrical cadence of the different geologic ages that may soon be finding its way into science classrooms.

"I kept thinking it really needed kids on it because it's kind of, 'Hey kids, let's learn your geologic ages,'" Troll said. "It really is a song that's kind of easy to remember and by the end of the song you know your geologic ages. So that was a fun one."

Troll said the new album is a true collaboration of musical talents, with Dave Rubin, Shauna Lee, Andrew Heist, Alejandro Chavarria, Patricia Clark, Curtis Edwards, Stephen Jackson and Wodehouse all providing lead vocals on the CD. The album also has tremendous talent on a wide variety of instruments, he said, including his son, Patrick Troll on guitar, Juneau's violin impresario Bob Banghart and standup bass player Maridon Boario.

Johnson also appears in a spoken word explanation of his job on the track "I am a Paleobotanist."

"We put a microphone in front of him and said, 'Alright in two minutes tell us why it's cool to be a paleobotonist, tell us why it's cool to collect plants and dinosaur bones," Troll said. "So off he went. I think he talked for like 45 minutes, but then from there Russell culled the best bits. By the end of the song you have a real appreciation for why plants are cool."

Troll said the project united his passions of art, music and science. A lyric booklet that accompanies the CD contains a colorful collection of his signature art that helps bring the project full circle.

"It's science rock-and-roll like you've never heard before," Troll said. "It's just plain fun. You will be smarter by the time you finish this CD, more than you wanted."

Wodehouse said he hopes people have as much fun listening to the album as they had making it.

"People can hear you smiling when you're singing," he said. "People know when you're having a good time and I really think that's what happened and translated. I think it's a fun album because it sounds like we were having fun, because we were having fun. I think that's infectious."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or

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