Trains and Tunes

So, I am curious what readers of my blog do to get themselves going at the workbench. During the daytime, I know I can’t listen to music while I am doing my day job, I lose focus on the work. I listen to podcasts on sports, car racing, technology and Ontario Current Affairs, basically self selected talk radio. I think this works for me because its easy to pause if the phone rings, or for meetings, and I don’t focus on it nearly the way I do to music. I have, in the past few weeks however, been reminded that when I am at my workbench working on models, I seem to find a nice groove (pun intended) with music on instead of the TV or talk radio.

My record player, nothing fancy, but it does the job. My latest vinyl addition, a limited release of Big Sugar’s “Five Hundred Pounds”, and my vinyl collection, not big, but it makes me happy.

I am, pretty boring in my musical tastes. Big Sugar is probably my favourite band of all time, though The Tragically Hip, Foo Fighters, and U2 come pretty close to them. I am however, a bit all over the place on my musical tastes and eras. I listen to bands from the 60’s on (yes, if you dig enough through my record collection/phone you will find Johnny Cash, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, The Clash, Queen, Our Lady Peace, Nirvana, Wynton Marsallis, Notorious BIG, and all kinds of things that would make you scratch your head about my musical tastes! That said, the music that broke me out of a funk a few weeks ago and reminded me how the guilty pleasure of singing along…and dare I say dancing a little around the layout room to music as I work was the Beastie Boys! I was scrolling on my phone trying to think on something to listen to, and somehow, their Greatest Hits album that I bought in University was calling to me, and it was the right decision. After a while where the drain of working all day in my layout/workshop was keeping me from working on trains, one Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, a bit of music, probably on too loud, and all of a sudden I was puttering and doing things on the layout. It was the day I just decided to install bullfrogs on all my switches. The music has strange powers!

As I was writing this tonight I was rocking out to Big Sugar, not on vinyl, but over the Bluetooth speaker at my workbench, music just brings me back to good times. Listening to the album “Brothers and Sisters are you Ready?”. This was their most recent album when I was at Oxford Brookes University on exchange in 2002, and I listened to the shit out of the CD on my travels. Every song brings me back to happy memories of a great time in my life with my university classmates. We got into so much trouble…the good kinds mind you in the pubs of Oxford, London, Dublin and all points in between! Turns out when you have two classes on a Monday, a mandatory all day Wednesday field trip, and Tuesday/Thursday-Sunday off, you can cover a lot of ground during a six week half term! This was, almost certainly my best memory of University, and not because the other parts were bad. I actually look back on almost the entirety of my University of Waterloo experience fondly, but because this six weeks was so exemplary above and beyond what I had hoped. My birthday fell during the trip, and my friends all know I am not much of a birthday person, even 20 years ago, but the party they threw for me at The Stumble Inn campus bar at Harcourt Hill…well, what I remember is mostly the next days hangover!

University of Waterloo Oxford Exchange 2002 at South Park with the dreaming spires of Oxford behind us. This was a great group of classmates. I am probably in touch with about 1/4 of them still as friends or professionally. I miss my hair…and I didn’t have a beard back then (no, I’m not going to circle myself in the picture!)

So, I guess my point, other than some rambling about my tastes in music, is I am curious what you do at your workbench, and what gets you going while you are working? Leave a comment, let me know how you find your mental mood to work on your hobby, I am genuinely curious to know!

13 thoughts on “Trains and Tunes

  1. Interesting question. I have a small TV screen above one of my workbenches. My modeling is mostly on weekends. Saturday I tune into the old westerns on MeTV. If I am in the hobby room on Sunday, I listen to various music on my iPod Classic. (My adult children like to point out everything I have is Classic!) I put it on shuffle and let play whatever it wants. I am a child of the 60s so I have a lot of classic 60s and 70s rock but there are some bluegrass and other varieties that pop up.

  2. Wow, a lot more folks went to Oxford than the 2 other UW Eng students that accompanied me on exchange to Braunschweig, but that 91/92 year is also probably right up near one of the best of my life!

    Musically, anything goes, although to get me going Sex Pistols, Cake, or Gary Clark Jr. show up on my Bluetooth speaker with regularity. Having said that, with no monthly car trips to Montreal for the past year+ I’ve tended to do my F1 and model railroad podcast listening evenings in the train room (or more recently, our laser room) in order to stay caught up.

  3. We could, can, and absolutely should be hanging out more. I’m such a big Big Sugar fan too. Immediately I think of road trips where their cassettes were company in the car. I remember chasing trains in New England in my old fifty dollar Honda Prelude–the one with no working (anything let alone stereo) so I had a really cheap tape deck strapped into the back seat and on it played Big Sugar. It takes nothing to remind me of the composition of both those amazing albums and the racket from that car’s “performance” exhaust while bombing through Maine. I’d go see that band as often as I can.

    At work, I alternate on whether or not I can listen to anything while trying to concentrate on the latest urgent request. Depending on the cadence of my day I alternate between classical or something extremely heavy, loud, and fuzzy sounding.

    I’m hardly the most productive modeller and most of my time, when I am getting something done, is very late at night when the affairs of the day past or day future are occupying my mind so I’m trying to calm my mind through exercising energy out and into some sort of modelwork project. It’s often too late at night to rev up the speakers but often there’s some song I’m thinking of in my head (last night I was working and singing along to a Ben Caplan album that was still playing in my head).

    I love listening to music and doing so as we might otherwise watch a film or a show on TV. It feels like such a wonderful use of time. In a comfortable chair, glass of cheap red wine in hand, and slipping deep into only what is washing over me from those speakers. I love it.

    Fantastic idea for a blog post. I’m going to enjoy spending the rest of my day today reflecting on this and probably spinning a few new albums here too.


    • You know you are always welcome when your travels bring you Ontario way. Who knows, someday we may even get to turn my wife’s home office back into something that resembles a guest bedroom! Though we do also have the guest suites we can book at our condo!

      Whenever you do come run trains, we will most definitely be doing it to the sounds of Gordie Johnson and Big Sugar!


  4. Hi Stephen,
    An interesting question and it will be fun to read all the replies…
    It’ll probably be of no surprise to you, since you have operated here, that Swing is King. I think there is no other music that clearly defines a particular era better than Swing (1935-1945) and, as you know my layout is set in 1942, part of the Fillmore operating “experience” is the background music – Barnet, Basie, Dorsey (both of them), Ellington, Goodman, Herman, James, Shaw, and all the Greats.
    But, I suppose there are operators switching autoracks right now, with Megadeth blaring away; there’s all kinds out there.

    • Swing is king. I read your comment Rick and drifted back toward our record collection to send it in that direction. What fun.

      Your comment about the music also being of the right era reminded me of a thought I had on layout sound. “Layout sound” is often from within the layout so ambient things like birds or car horns plus those train sounds from our sound-equipped locomotives. I once thought it would be better to replace that with music of that era. Not played so loud that it’s distracting but loud enough to be recognizable. While a certain whistle or horn is something we hear and associate as “train” our popular culture appetites might be more richly accessed when instead of “train” we heard something like the albums you suggested and then that music becomes the connection we’d need as operators working on the layout during the operating session to help us feel like we’re connected to that place and time.

      Then my mind wandered into other layout and record combinations. I pictured British suburban layouts that we operate on to Bowie albums or the question of whether or not Springsteen might be the right album for an operating session along the waterfront.

      But I’m rambling.


      • Chris, you get it…the background music played during ops here (when we could get together to operate) is as you describe, low but easily recognized. In between the chuffing of a Hudson or the whistle of a Mohawk one will recognize a chorus from a famous Dorsey tune. And the intent is to connect subconsciously with the war years. This is all too easy to do with Swing. I’m not so sure it would work so well with psychedelic music and Penn Central or grunge and Conrail.

        I must give credit, though, to our friend Trevor. Back in 2015 (I think) he was operating here for the first time and the layout wasn’t quite finished. He saw that I had some Big Band CD’s on a book shelf and suggested playing era-specific music during ops. It was a brilliant idea.

        • Trevor is a fantastically wonderful enabler isn’t he? I dunno, if I had a giant layout room and sweeping curves and was running massive 1980’s and newer freights with six axle diesels, I could totally see me playing grunge and 90’s alternative as the sound track!

          The swing music just kind of hiding there in plain earshot definitely works at your layout Rick, but so many things work about your layout it’s hard to choose just one!


  5. It’s interesting how you listen to podcasts and such when you work, and not music. I am the complete opposite. I cannot listen to podcasts while working because they distract me; I always have music going in the background while I’m working. Normally it’s what you’d call “classic rock” from the 1970s and early 1980s, AOR type bands like Journey and Styx and Supertramp, venturing into prog rock and singer-songwriter territories.

    On the rare times that I actually work on my layout, I’ll be listening to podcasts.

  6. Big Sugar featured in some of the best shows I ever saw – and was a soundtrack to my youth as well. At the workbench (as rare a time as it is) I have quiet tunes or podcasts running. It used to be a 4-for-3 movie rental night at The Movie Studio back in the day when I’d go all night while my partner worked night shifts… usually films more than music. Lately, it has been “A Modeller’s Life” podcasts. Whatever it takes though, keep up the progress and keep us posted!

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