By Alec Wooden
It’s often no coincidence when a band releases an eponymous record a few releases deep into its discography (save Weezer. There’s nothing deep there … just a total loss of creativity – wait, did I say that out loud?). It’s also not rocket science unlocking the underlying meaning — a rebirth, a remake, a fresh start, new beginning – choose your metaphor. Steel Train follows this maxim, and for the New Jersey rockers, the shoe fits. Recently split from long time label Drive Thru Records, the quintet is happy on its own, feeling born again and free to explore new musical territory on Steel Train, self-released on June 29. Frontman Jack Antonoff talks to AMG about the band’s transformation, touring habits, and what the future holds for Steel Train.
I’m curious how your outlook on Steel Train’s “sound” has changed over the last six or so years since the release of 1969 EP, an homage to the year that was said to define “your sound.”
The way we felt making [1969 EP] is probably the opposite of how we feel now. At the time, we were younger and just sort of coming up, and it’s really easy to look towards the past. Now, there’s a really exciting round of great bands coming out with new and interesting music — and I’m way more concerned with being a part of something current. It’s a confidence thing. You’ve got to reach some level of confidence personally and also within your career that allows you to say, “Well, maybe my generation isn’t a joke.” I don’t think anyone ever made anything really, really inspiring just by picking up where someone left off. Any band that I listen to right now that sounds like something else, I always just end up putting on an old Beatles record or something because it made me think of that.
What can we expect from the just-released record?
[We’re] really excited about it. We did it all ourselves. The last record was made in a moment of real turmoil in terms of us getting off our label and dealing with the whole business of the industry outside of trying to create music. That really impacted the process. So I think now, we’re really emotionally connected to this record on a level that I couldn’t have anticipated. I feel like we really enjoyed the process more. Not doing something for a label I think really pushed us to have a good time and make the music that we really wanted to hear.
Where and for how long was it recorded?
March, April and May of 2009 in Los Angeles.
Talk about the Terrible Thrills, Vol.1 record that consists of a handful of female artists covering Steel Train songs. What was behind the idea for that?
It’s interesting and it’s fun to do something beyond your record. And that’s not a new concept, obviously. People make remix records, the put DVDs with their records, etc. We wanted to do that but try to think of our own idea. We didn’t really notice anyone doing the female artist thing, which was a really easy decision because, for me, that’s my favorite type of artist and what I listen to the most. I’m thrilled with the way it turned out, and so excited at how seriously everyone took it and made the songs their own. When we did the project, it wasn’t like, “Here, remix this and slap your name on it.” We really wanted them to take songs and make them their own. It’s their record – our songs were just the platform.
Describe Steel Train’s mentality on the road and how you’ve gotten better at touring.
We’re really good at it at this point [laughs]. We all know what to expect from each other at this point. Nowadays, I look back at all the huge mistakes we made early on and it’s funny. Everything, really – where we ate, what hours we chose to drive, whatever it was. People always get so stressed out about it, but touring is really not that hard. It’s sort of what you make of it. It’s our job, and our job involves a lot of traveling [laughs].
You’ve had the good fortune to tour with some great names over the last few years (Tegan and Sara, Ben Folds, The Fray, Silversun Pickups, Hanson, The Format, Gomez, O.A.R., Barenaked Ladies, to name a few). Do you make it a point to pick something up from each of those bands as you go along? Or does that sort of thing happen naturally?
It definitely happens. Every band is like their own little industry in a weird way. Everyone does things a different way, so you pick up and learn things. From bands that support us, we learn about having good times. And from bands that we support, we learn much more about business, especially if they’re a band that’s at or been at a higher level.
What is it that generally drives you to create? Are there certain moods or situations to which you default?
For me, it’s about hard work. I’ve never worked well in term of forcing myself to create. I think it’s like anything else where it becomes a habit and becomes second nature. If you’re forcing yourself to write, you sort of forget how to do it or you get embarrassed around yourself writing lyrics. But if you put a work-like quality to it, it’s hugely helpful. I wake up the morning, eat breakfast, and go to work for five hours. If I think of things, great. If I don’t, I’ve learned something, anyway.
You’re in one relatively high profile side project — the band called “fun.” How important are side projects for you? What do you gain as an artist?
One thing that I’ve learned is that having other outlets for music and art makes it easier to be more mature within each outlet. Now, it’s not like I’m vomiting every idea into one thing. Like with this new Steel Train record, I feel like it’s really specific, and a really specific sound. I felt no pressure in getting every last concept or idea I ever had onto this record. So that’s one really nice quality about it.
Define success for Steel Train over the next six-12 months.
There’s all different levels of that. The core level is for people to understand and appreciate the record and the live show and support us, hopefully. I know that will happen with a few people, but I hope that will happen with a hundred million people [laughs]. Success for us is just to continue on the road we’re on.
It’s amazing the amount of bands who release records with a total lack of confidence in the industry to which they’re releasing it. What’s your take on the exciting and depressing sides of the industry?
The things that are depressing are the very same things that are exciting about it. Like any situation, you can focus on the negative elements or you can focus on the positive elements. Ya, the music industry is completely dying and no one wants to buy records. But it’s not that no one gives a fuck, it’s just that everything is different. In many ways, you’ve gotta pick a side: you’re either angry or bitter, or you’re going to make the best of it. It’s ridiculous at this point to try to fight it, and the labels and people that are [trying to fight it] are probably coming up really short and having a hard time. I’m just super, super excited that we are a band active in a time when the rights have been diverted back to the bands. The rights are being given back to the bands, and you’ve gotta be brave enough to take them.
Steel Train plays with Young Giant and Rachel Goodrich at Drunken Unicorn on July 13.