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Published: 2007/12/20
by Jeff Waful

Steel Train: Teetering on the Edge of the Box

Steel Train is a perfect example of a band in transition. If you’ve heard the group’s first album, Twilight Tales from the Prairies of the Sun, and pigeonholed them as being all over the map, you may want to hear them again for the first time. The New Jersey-based quintet has undergone a personnel change (guitarist Daniel Silbert and drummer Jon Shiffman joined the fold), but much more importantly has matured both musically and personally. While the first record is a bit of a hodgepodge, the band’s new release, Trampoline, is an intimate portrait; a concise statement. It’s a big step in the right direction towards the seemingly unattainable: artistic identity.

The young musicians aren’t quite there yet very few are but they’ve certainly made one hell of an album, regardless if it’s a bit derivative in certain spots (hell, even Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” sounds eerily similar to Spirit’s “Taurus"). The songs on Trampoline cut right to chase, often utilizing Beatles-esque chord progressions that sway gracefully from minor to major and back again. And, there’s nothing frivolous here. Every note was methodically calculated, dissected and polished to perfection. (“Kill Monsters in the Rain” and “A Magazine” in particular are highlights).

Bassist Evan Winiker, as friendly and unpretentious a musician as you’ll ever encounter, isn’t shy about crediting his influences, eloquently referring to the musical process as “the recycling of art.” Winiker spent weeks in the studio with lead vocalist and principle songwriter Jack Antonoff along with producer Mark Trombino. The result is a gorgeous album that succeeds not only sonically, but lyrically. As is often the case, tragedy was a source of inspiration as Antonoff lost both his sister and cousin shortly after 9/11 and also infamously broke up with movie star and high school sweetheart Scarlett Johansson. (There. I said it). He was understandably shattered, but expressed his sorrow through a wealth of new material, which ironically, sounds rather triumphant.

Evan, meanwhile, was by his side every step of the way, recording multiple versions of the songs in Jack’s home studio and seeing the process through to the very end. He’s excited about the results. He checked in with to giddily discuss the details.

JW: There is a stark contrast between your new album and the previous one.

EW: Yeah, the last CD we put out was really not a representation of us. It came out a little more than two years ago, but we recorded it like five years ago. It took so long to come out, that by the time we released it, we were done with those songs. I was afraid to give it to people because I didn’t think it sounded like us.

JW: When you went in to record the first record was there a unified vision or were you just trying to document where the band was at that period in time?

EW: Honestly, this band has had so many interesting cycles. There’s no beginning or end. That was such a weird part of it because at that time we were really into CSNY and The [Grateful] Dead and we honestly wanted to do something old school. It wasn’t even about the songs for us at that time; it was more about wanting to be that type of a band. At that time we wanted to be, like, a jam whatever, you know? I don’t know what we were thinking. We got the guy [Stephen Barncard] who produced a couple Grateful Dead records and we thought that might help us, but it really didn’t. We were excited at that time, but I remember the record coming out and just not being into it. I was like, Oh, man. What did we do?’

JW: Well you’ve had some time to mature as a group and it seems as though the approach in the studio was radically different this time around.

EW: Yeah, we had started writing these songs almost two years ago so we had a lot of time to fix parts and change parts. Plus, with the last album, a few of the songs were actually written in the studio, whereas with this album, we literally recorded it three times at Jack’s house before we went into the studio. So, we knew exactly the sounds we wanted. We knew exactly every part of the songs. Everything was thought out beforehand.

JW: As counterintuitive as it sounds, did you find that it was a freeing experience having more structure and less improvisation?

EW: Yeah. It sort of was. When we started out, we were in the punk scene, but weren’t really doing punk stuff. We were into Coldplay and were trying to write stuff like that. Then we got into the jam thing and were trying to write stuff like that and our punk fans didn’t really understand that. You know what I mean? They were like, Why are they going to become a jam band?’ Wait, what was the question again?

JW: Well, talk about the different way in which you approached this album. I think a lot of time young musicians have a tendency to over-play and over-write because there’s this belief that the more complex it is, the better it is. As musicians mature, they typically simplify and that’s where a lot of the emotion comes through. It seems like this album is radically more mature than the first album and I wanted to get your perspective on how that evolution occurred.

EW: Yeah. A lot of it was that Jack, who is the band’s main songwriter, had a lot going on in his life. I can literally look at the track listing and pinpoint which time period each song is from. It’s really interesting that you should say that about simplifying. It’s almost tougher to do the shorter version. To do a two-and-a-half minute song is really hard.

*JW: There’s more pressure to get your point across it in a shorter amount of time.

EW: Yeah. I enjoy that. I think it’s cool. I really enjoy the first couple tracks on the album, which are three- or four-minute pop-y songs.*

JW: What is your role in the songwriting process? I know these were all Jack’s songs. Does he write out all of the bass lines or does he welcome input?

EW: Basically, on the new album, the way that we worked on most of the songs was this: Jack would come up with the shell of the song. He would bring it to the band, play if for us, we would go into the practice room at his house, and we would change a couple of things. Each of us would add our own part, but the shell of the song was there. Being at the studio was really interesting because it was really only Jack and I there the entire time, which was definitely a different experience for us. On the last record, we had five people there and it was really like too many cooks in the kitchen. It was crazy. Everyone wanted [to propose his] own idea. This time around, we had a vision for each song before we went into the studio so we knew what we wanted. We weren’t really fighting or anything. There was no conflict.

JW: Because the songs are so personal to Jack, did you feel more hesitant to put in your own two cents?

EW: Everyone is welcome to say how they feel, but you’re so right. It is very tough when the song’s about your sister dying. I’m [not going to be] like, Well that lyric doesn’t really make sense.’ Everyone’s different. I can say that stuff to Jack because we’ve known each other for like 15 years. But, everyone can say that stuff. We’re very democratic in that sense because a year from now when we’re playing that song live, Jack knows that if someone doesn’t like that part, they’re not going to enjoy it. So it’s better to work on it when you still have the chance.

JW: It’s weird how heartbreak yields great art. It seems like that’s always the case. You don’t wish it on anyone, but it sure makes for great music, more than the hippie-dippie songs.

EW: One of my really close friends was going out with this really great songwriter and she broke up with him yesterday. She called me up and said, I don’t know what to do. He’s so sad.’ And, I told her, Don’t worry, this is the best thing for him. He’s going to write an entire album’s worth of songs.’ It’s really funny.

JW: So, you and Jack really see eye to eye musically?

EW: Oh yeah, absolutely. We listen to a lot of the same stuff. It’s pretty cool because we get each other into the same music. If I’m listening to a new CD, I’ll be like, Dude, this is amazing. Check it out.’ Sometimes he likes it and sometimes he doesn’t.

JW: What have you been listening to as of late, and especially leading up to the studio sessions?

EW: I just got into this new band called The 1900s, who I really, really like a lot. They’re like psychedelic pop from Chicago. Have you ever heard of them?

JW: It’s funny you should ask. I was researching your band and stumbled across your MySpace page by way of the Steel Train page. The first thing you list under the “Music” section is The 1900s. I thought that was your clever way of citing the entire century as an influence.

EW: laughsYeah, I love everything. But, yeah, I know specific songs that influenced songs on our album. It’s so interesting because it’s like when people write songs, they don’t write them out of thin air. Everyone was inspired by someone.

JW: I often think about how much harder it gets with each passing year for musicians to say original things. Fifty or sixty years ago when rock was finding its voice, there wasn’t The Beatles or Dylan or The Rolling Stones to be influenced by. As time goes on, mathematically, there’re just more notes floating around and odds of sounding like someone else get greater and greater.

EW: Absolutely. It’s sort of a beautiful thing: the recycling of art. It sort of keeps getting better. Some of my favorite songs are songs that have sonic soundscapes, where you hear all of these different elements. As songs go through the years and one song inspires another, it just gets better and better. The Arcade Fire is a great example of that. They’re taking old stuff and putting even more elements on it. But, as far as specific bands that influenced this album, one hundred percent The Mountain Goats, Arcade Fire, Spoon, Doctor Dog they’re a huge influence on us. They’re one of our favorite bands.

JW: I heard a little bit of U2 in “Alone on the Sea.”

EW: Yeah, absolutely. That beginning is basically “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

JW: How was your relationship with [producer] Mark Trombino? What did he bring to the table?

EW: It was really great actually. One of the reasons we chose Mark was because he was such a departure from what we did on the last album. Mark is a producer that is really well known for doing Blink 182; Pro Tools type stuff. He’s very concise. He’s very in-the-box. That’s what he’s known for. When we came to him, he wanted to do our project because he wanted to go outside the box. It’s funny because we came to him to go inside the box. So we sort of found this great middle ground where we recorded almost everything digitally, but there was still a lot of analog stuff. He really wanted to do a lot of that stuff. He was a great producer. He had a vision for the songs just like us. It was actually really cool because we were out in L.A. three weeks before we started recording. We were having these meetings with him where we’d basically talk about each song and what we wanted to hear. It was really thought out, which was very different from our last album. Whereas, Stephen who was a really cool producer and a great guy was sort of like Alright guys, these are your songs, do what you gotta do.’ It was very different.

JW: Some of the new songs were recorded five or six times before you even went into the studio. If you were to listen back to the original demos, which track underwent the biggest transformation?

EW: The one song that sounds totally different might be “Alone on the Sea.” That’s one of the songs that we worked on with Mark in the practice studio for literally two days. At first, the song didn’t have any choruses and then, by the time we were done with it, it was way too long. So we had to cut it down and cut some choruses out. We added an intro. We added a bridge. That song definitely overtook the most transformation.

JW: Take us through the recording process from the basic tracks to when you and Jack were working alone with Mark.

EW: Basically the other members of the band would come in for their stuff. We picked a song to do first. I think the song we worked on was “I Feel Weird.” We would do each song differently. Some songs, we would start out with laying down a piano, but other songs we’d start with the bass. Most songs, after we had the skeleton, we just started layering them with different things. We would basically stop working on the track when we had everything done except for vocals. Then we’d do vocals in the end.

JW: Generally a new approach gives bands a whole new set of songwriting ideas.

EW: Absolutely. We already know that we want to record with Mark again. This experience was so fluid. He’s such a great producer.

JW: What’s been the fan reaction to the album?

EW: I honestly think for the most part that our fans love the album and a lot of the new people are getting into us even more because of it. It’s probably more accessible than our last album. I definitely think that there are some fans of ours who are jam people who are like, Why’d you guys change? Why is there no more jamming? Why is David Grisman not on this album?’ But this is what we’re listening to now. This is what we want to play. I think, for the most part, it’s been a really good reaction.

JW: By knowing the songs so intimately in the studio, have you noticed a difference in the live show?

EW: Absolutely. There are some songs that are tougher to pull off live. There are some songs that are more fun to pull off live. We definitely also have a good thing going for us in the sense that not all of our songs sound the same. Some of our set is a capella or really Americana. Then we’ll switch it up and do some indie rock stuff.

JW: Do some of the shorter album tracks stretch out in the live setting?

EW: Yeah, that’s another thing. I think we’ve done a really good job of varying our live set. Some of our fans go to a lot of the same shows. For example some people who come to see us in Baltimore, would come to our show the next night in D.C. So we definitely change the set. We always put in a lot of time during sound check to add a couple minutes to a song or stretch out each night. Our catalogue of songs is not that extensive where we can play different songs each night. So if we’re practicing for a tour, we’ll probably practice about twenty songs and then play about 13 or 14 a night. There are a few that we love to play and then there are some songs that our fans want to hear that we don’t love to play that we still have to play.

JW: There are definitely pros and cons to being on the road. What has your experience been like?

EW: It’s such an interesting life. We’ve been touring for like five years now, which is so hard to believe. I’ve looked at our tour dates and we’ve done a pretty good job of playing at least 150 dates every year. There are things to love and things to hate, but we learn what to do. We’re staying at nicer hotels every night. We never drive at night. We learn what not to do from our friends. You know, a lot of our friends have had accidents so we don’t drive at night. I don’t know. I love and hate the road at the same time. It depends what moment you’re asking me.

JW: Walk us through your typical day.

EW: Well, the typical we wake up around 11 a.m. and go to Waffle House.

JW: I’m a big fan [Editor’s note: For many years, JW delivered a steady column on this site entitled Waful House].

EW: Huge fan. I love the waitresses. After that, we’d probably drive about three hours, get to the venue, load in, sound-check for about an hour-and-a-half, walk around the town, find a nice place to get dinner, try to see the sites, which is so rare. It never really happens, but I always like to imagine it does. Then we get back to the show. We’re definitely a personable band. We’re not like the dudes who hang out backstage all of the time. We’re always by the merch table hanging out with people, which is probably why our fan base feels like we’re not one of those bands that’s hard to talk to. We have a friendship with a lot of those people. It’s cool. So then we’ll play the show and after the show we’ll usually go back to the hotel room, rent a movie and go to sleep. Start over the next day.

JW: So moving forward what is an attainable goal for the band in the next couple of years?

EW: We definitely want to be a band that draws nationally. Since we’ve been touring for so long, we’ve sort of found out the formula. You support in a market, support, support, support. Then you go back and headline. If there’s 150 kids there after you’ve played there three times then you’re pretty excited. We’ve gotten to a point where we can draw 200 to six hundred people in about 30 markets across the country. Our goal for this year is to take all the markets that are 200 and make them 600 and to take all of the 600-person markets and make those 1,200.

JW: The music industry is just in shambles these days. Even if you put out this amazing record, at the end of the day, you’re really going to make your money on touring. What are your thoughts on the direction of the recording industry?

EW: It’s really an interesting question. I’ve had so many friends in the past two weeks that have been laid off. You don’t even know what to think. Did you hear that Wal-Mart, Best Buy, all of those stores are going to carry 20-percent less records? Bands like us are lucky because we have an indie label behind us that really cares. They put money into videos. They put money into radio marketing and stuff like that. So, we still have that in our corner, but you’re right. It’s really all about touring. If you’ve got a good booking agent, you’re really lucky and if you don’t, you have to get one. What do you think is going to happen in the industry?

JW: Well, I think there needs to be a major seismic shift in the way that bands make money. Certainly Radiohead took a big step by releasing their album directly to the fans, but they are one of the biggest bands in the world and can afford to give away their album. Plus they don’t really need promotion at this point; there is enough of a buzz. Smaller bands wouldn’t be able to follow their model, as of yet anyway. I also hate the way MP3s sound. People are favoring portability over quality. There’s just no sonic range and the subtleties get lost. Live music, if mixed correctly, still has depth and texture. What did you think of the way Radiohead released their record?

EW: I thought it was really cool, but at the same time, not every band can do that. Radiohead is a band that got big because of major labels. I’m not a fan a major labels. I think it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens in the next two years when CDs as a medium are going to be completely thrown away. I remember ten years ago I was into collecting CDs and then a few years ago I was into collecting DVDs. But, our kids aren’t even going to have collections. They’re going to have a little box that’s a hard drive and they’re going to have all their things on it. It’s so weird.

_Jefferson Waful is the lighting designer for moe. and co-host of the Jam Nation radio program, which airs Sunday mornings at 10 a.m. on XM Satellite Radio

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