An interview with Jack Antonoff of Steel Train
by Andrew Daniels
Nervous, awkward and maybe in just the slightest of a rush, Jack Antonoff fumbles his words around on the other end of the telephone line, half a world away in California.
“Well … I,” he trails off, with broken sighs and pauses so audible you can hear the motors in his head turning, scanning around for the right thing to say before deciding, “I legally can’t say much.” It’s hard for him to even get to that point.
“We’re a band that exists doing our own … ” there’s another ellipsis, “thing,” he says, referring to his band, Steel Train, for which he’s sung and played guitar since 1999. “I’m stuttering, I’m sorry,” he admits. No kidding.
It’s hard for Antonoff to disclose much about his time with Drive-Thru Records, the once-venerable, now-vulnerable record label that very nearly killed Steel Train. Yet pain and resentment clearly linger in the front man’s words, however veiled they must be.
“It would be pretty easy for anyone to look at the past couple of years, just do a little research and make an opinion on how all parties feel about this,” Antonoff says.
For the rest of Jack's interview, including the inspiration behind the band's new self-titled album and why New Jersey was instrumental in its creation, continue reading after the jump.
A little research yields this: After Antonoff formed Steel Train in high school, Drive-Thru snatched the band up in 2002, smack-dab in the middle of the label’s heyday. Hoping to vault the young, shaggy-haired New Jersey folk act into the same spotlight as its other successful bands at the time – chief among them New Found Glory, Something Corporate and The Starting Line – Drive-Thru took a bet on Steel Train.
But it never quite worked. For starters, it didn’t make sense to pigeonhole the band in the same snug pop-punk genre as the other names on Drive-Thru’s roster. Steel Train’s first three releases on the label – 2003’s For You My Dear E.P.; 2004’s 1969 E.P., a covers collection featuring songs from the titular year; and 2005’s Twilight Tales from the Prairies of the Sun – were psychedelic, slow and often acoustic, a far cry from the fast, heavy sounds that had come to define Drive-Thru. The label scarcely marketed the releases, opting to fund some of the band’s touring but little else.
Things didn’t change much with the release of 2007’s Trampoline, which found the band transitioning into its current indie rock sound. While the album landed the band high profile festivals including Chicago’s Lollapalooza and Tennessee’s Bonnaroo and a performance on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” Drive-Thru hardly paid attention to the band post-release, slowing the momentum it had earned with the album.
“There were so many things back then that seemed like a necessity for a band that we were never able to do,” Antonoff says. “Like releasing music. We could never release any music! All of the music we released had to be thought out, planned out, and that’s why only a few records ever came out.”
Somewhere in between Trampoline and the present (when exactly is unclear) Steel Train finally split with Drive-Thru. Though Antonoff must be vague with details – “one of the agreements with the label as part of the whole thing,” – he is remarkably candid and positively flighty when conversation moves to the band’s forthcoming self-titled album, which was recorded in the most uncertain of times.
“We went in to make this record at a time when our label was really falling apart, and didn’t understand what we were doing artistically,” Antonoff says. “We really sort of bet on ourselves and spent our own money on it knowing there was a chance it could never come out and we could find ourselves in a lawsuit. Without sounding cheesy, we just made the record we were dying to make.”
Steel Train, produced by Steven McDonald (Be Your Own Pet) is being released on the band’s own label, Terrible Thrills, on June 15. The first song released from the album, “Turnpike Ghost,” is larger than life, the sound of the band bursting out of the cage it was in for the better part of last decade. “You don’t have to live like that,” Antonoff sings repeatedly during the chorus, a snapshot of self-assurance when he needed it most.
“When [the album] was all done, there was so much turmoil and intensity that went into making this record that it’s sort of like when you go through a really, really horrendous experience in your life and you come out of it and sort of don’t know how you did it, but you did,” he says.
Antonoff and his band mates – bassist Evan Winniker, guitarist Daniel Silbert, keyboardist Justin Huey and drummer Jon Shiffman – also drew inspiration for the album from their roots in New Jersey.
“We came up at a time that was really important,” Antonoff says. “Going into this record, we realized our little niche in musical history. New Jersey in the late 1990s is just as important as London in the late 60s or [Washington,] D.C. in the early 80s. Something really happened there, and we’re lucky to be a part of it. That’s something we wanted to bleed into our music as much as possible, and in many ways it’s sort of the biggest thing on this record.”
He proudly refers to Steel Train as a “late 2000s music industry Cinderella story,” and is the first to admit he’s kicking his band’s newfound sense of freedom into overdrive.
“Now that we’re off [Drive-Thru], it’s absolutely incredible and amazing to do what we want,” Antonoff says. “We always had to put all our cards into touring and merchandise and stuff like that. The biggest part of being in a band, which is music, was the part that we could never fully share. And that’s something that was really devastating to us, so we’re overcompensating for lost time with releasing and touring as much as we can.”
Somewhere in his absurdly packed schedule, Antonoff also manages to regularly record and tour with his other band, fun., which includes ex-members of The Format and Anathallo, and date celebrities like Scarlett Johansson and “Arrested Development’s” Alia Shawkat. Though, for the record, he says he isn’t in a relationship right now.
“I have no problem literally giving my whole life to all this stuff,” he emphatically says.
The Jack Antonoff who has to get off the phone now – because Steel Train needs to prepare for its upcoming performance at the Coachella festival (his reason for being in California) – is decidedly different than the uncomfortable, guarded one from fifteen minutes ago. This one is confident and eager for the future of his band, his baby; he’s as sunny as the weather must be over there.
“We’re standing out here and saying, ‘we’re gonna make this happen.’ We believe in ourselves,” he declares. “Whatever success we have is already heightened a million times because we’re the ones doing it.”
Steel Train will open for Ben Folds this Saturday, April 24 at Lehigh University's Sundaze festival, which begins at noon at Sayre Field in Bethlehem, Pa. The festival is free to the public.