With the release from their former label and the release of their self-titled, Steel Train have certainly overcome the odds. They've also shown that longevity is based in good songwriting through growth and pushing through all the elements against you in the industry. On their recent headlining tour, and just hours after getting a call to perform on Letterman, Jack Antonoff and Evan Winiker sat down to talk a bit about the career and lessons learned from their band.
Up to speed, let's talk about coming off of Drive-Thru and launching into Terrible Thrills, if that's okay?
Jack Antonoff: Yeah, we'd be happy to talk about it...We're not vindictive and we're not out for vengeance. We're here to make music. All we care about, and all we've ever cared about, was getting a way to release our records. What I will say about, which I think AP.net readers will take a long way, is that it doesn't leave a lot to the imagination if you do your research. I think you can look in the past and what went wrong with Drive-Thru and why we shouldn't have been there. Without saying anything myself, we never belonged there. They gave us our start, but we were kids. They put money into us. We signed at a time where there was still money. We came around at the end of the "golden age."
You guys got signed with Jenoah...
Evan Winiker: No, way before that.
Antonoff: We got signed with The Early November. We were right there with the real golden era. It was really frustrating for us, because we were never going to be a part of it. We sold 20 or 30,000 copies of For You My Dear just because we were on Drive-Thru. There's always a weirdness there. When we went to make this record, everyone knows the state of Drive-Thru for the past couple of years, and it got to the point where we found ways to do things without them. Even when we were on the label, we functioned without them...we found ways to breakout of that scene. We went to make the record and they weren't having it. They wouldn't pay for it. We went into the studio with our own money to record this record, knowing there was going to be a 99.9% chance [that they weren't going to release it]. It didn't work out that way by a miracle. I've said it a lot in interviews, that making this record and getting off Drive-Thru has been an emotional process that I can't even begin to know where to start. The process was so intense and there was so much on the line. In a weird way, it was like putting a bubble around the band and kind of saying, "Fuck it." As a band, we got real insular. We're just going to move forward. I'm talking about on the phone with our managers and lawyers, them saying, "This record is not going to come out. You're going to go over to L.A. and spend all this money and it's not going to come out." We were like, "We're still going to do it." [Laughs] It's kind of like going to a casino and winning a million dollars. We seem like heroes. We could have easily went and lost a million dollars and seemed like losers. It really worked out.
Wasn't there an issue with Trampoline's release?
Winiker: We recorded it two years before it came out.
Antonoff: No. No. That was Twilight Tales. Trampoline was a very frustrating recording cycle for a couple of reasons. The first reason, which didn't have to do with Drive-Thru, we were almost a different band artistically. We made For You My Dear when we were really young, and we had grown up a bit and changed our sound - and people get really upset when you do that. Not even your fans. People just have this attitude like, "You think you can change your sound?" kind of attitude. We felt like we weren't promoting the record as much as we were promoting that we were a different band. That was the "changing opinions" record. It turned into a transitional period. With the Drive-Thru distributors in the middle of it...well, yeah. We were kind of just left to our own devices.
So at this point, it's like, "Why can't we just do the damn thing ourselves?" Now that Terrible Thrills has come in, why the name and where was the worry in taking on a task like this?
Antonoff: Terrible Thrills is a line from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's something I love. I remember walking out of the Universal offices with our manager thinking, "You know, we can do this." I think we really understand what band we are now. I don't mean that like we're going to sell 5,000 records, I think we're way more a My Morning Jacket than we're going to be a OneRepublic. We are always going to be a disappointment to someone looking to make 30 million dollars off a single we put out. We took those meetings and we saw that world...
Winiker: Bands like us don't need those labels. We're not going to have a really big single that's going to be the biggest in the world like OneRepublic or The Fray. I think that it's really cool that we put a bet on ourselves and took the risk. We don't need to put that much money into it, so we don't need to take the risk.
Antonoff: [To Evan] You know the number. I think the opposite. I think it is a huge risk. There's so much on the line. Even more so than just money, we used to be able to stand by the old line, "Oh, the label fucked up," or this didn't happen or that didn't happen. Everything comes back to us [now]. From the material the record comes in, to who took the photos for the album, to who mastered the record, to who mixed it. There's not literally one thing that we're not on the phone with our manager everyday trying to work out. You can't find one thing that doesn't come back to us. That's a massive responsibility. We had an opportunity to jump in the future of music. We're not crying in the corner trying to hold onto some archaic system that's useless. We were hesitant for a second and then just said "fuck it" and went for it. We haven't really looked back since.
The song writing process for this record, especially with the departure of Scott, there seems like there were other factors in the shaping of this album, along with the fact that damn thing sounds like it belongs in a John Hughs film from the '80s...
Antonoff: Love that.
Why this direction for this record coming off of Trampoline?
Antonoff: [To Evan] We don't really talk about it that much do we? We don't really talk about it that much. We don't really talk about how we want to sound, we just make demos. We talk about them. After we have a bunch of demos made, we then sit down and have the "how is this record going to sound" discussion. We're very concerned with what we do live and how to make that happen on record. It's just really natural. That's what we enjoyed writing at the time. That's what everyone liked and we moved on with it. The record could have come out any way. There was some stuff [on the demos] that was super Dr. Dog-y, but we just wanted to go bigger and bigger. Sometimes you get more pressured to go more standoffish, more indie. That's not who we are. We're loud people. When we're in a restaurant, we're going to be the loudest people. We're going to be cursing and making jokes. It's who we are in life. Finally it's something we're starting to embrace in our music. We wanted to push that further. For me, it gives me a better perspective. I don't have that pressure to bat off the idea of having to cram every idea into this one thing. There are other projects I can do. I can look at Steel Train and say, "This is exactly how it should sound. Just like this." We don't have to jam all these influences in. It's also [about] getting older, but I don't feel that pressure anymore.
What about comparisons coming out saying that this is kind of this year's Dog Problems?
Winiker: I saw that. It made me so happy.
Antonoff: When Dog Problems came out, we were on that tour...
I saw that show in New Orleans.
Antonoff: When you go back to that time, we had put out Twilight Tales. Limbeck had put out Let Me Come Home. The Format had put out Interventions and Lullabies. They're all good records, but they're still immature records compared to where everyone went. Dog Problems, out of that whole group of friends, was like, "Okay, here's this." I think we all kind of challenged each other.
Winiker: I think people are comparing it to that, because I don't think the songs are similar at all, but it's the same producer for the record.
It's still very theatrical. Maybe that's the comparison people are looking at. Was that something you guys were going for?
Antonoff: The thing with "theatrical," with Dog Problems and fun. and stuff like that, it is very specifically theatrical. It uses instruments from Broadway. It tell stories like a play. We're theatrical in a sense that we're very grand and dramatic. I see the comparisons on a broad scheme in terms of choices we're making. I don't see the comparisons in terms of like I see fun. as a sort of pop-thought out thing. I see Steel Train as sort of an unhinged creation.
What do you guys think of the reaction so far to the record?
Winiker: Unbelievable. Did you see that AP.net chat we did?
I was at work that night. But I know that the site was extremely grateful for the time you guys spent on it.
Winiker: It was one of those things where everyone was asking so many questions, and we didn't want to stop because everyone was saying such nice things.
Antonoff: I feel like we have a lot to explain. I think we want to take those opportunities to express where lyrics come from and why we did this or that. Part of being in a band and doing it yourself, you don't want to hide it. The fact that we paid for our own record and bought out of our label, that's a story we want to tell.
When I first heard Steel Train, I was not into it. After Twilight came out, I turned an ear to it. Then after seeing you guys on that Format bill, I was quite impressed. With the album now, it seems you guys have really grown into something special. Not only my opinion, but do you feel like you guys have grown into very comfortable positions and was the idea for naming it your self-titled?
Antonoff: Naming it the self-titled, you hit the nail on the head with that. The whole point of this record, and being off Drive-Thru, is we were never part of this whole punk scene, so we said "fuck it." But we did grow up in New Jersey playing Legion Halls and what not. Our first big tour was with Brand New, and we grew up in that whole punk scene. This record is out and it's us and finally we started saying, "This is where we have come from. We have a torch worth carrying." We grew up in a very special time in this really amazing scene. We thought it was everywhere. We went on tour and saw that it sucked everywhere. New Jersey is incredible. This record is about that. The cover art with the old show posters in my childhood room. It's just a big return to that. It's embracing this New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen, punk sound. It's a torch worth carrying. We feel that deeply. As for the [early releases], it doesn't bother me, because we don't like Twilight...We really liked Trampoline. We really like this record. I think for a long time, we were so visible on Drive-Thru and on a lot of big tours, people were just like, "Yeah, I hate them." So many people come up to us at shows and are like, "That was such a great show. I once hated you guys." [Laughs] I feel like we're just sort of sailing right now...
Do you think you're enduring a reverse model to the industry, where right now everyone is having a first big hit record and dropping off...
Antonoff: Now I do.
Winiker: I feel like we're one of those career bands. We're not one of those bands that comes out and you see a full page in Alternative Press...
Antonoff: I've been in a band for six or seven years. We've been [gradually climbing] and we've seen bands [go up and down and out]. One of our first tours was with Finch. There was something like 4,000 people. Then that was that. I feel like we're on a highway. We're on the frontage road and every now and then we'll look over [to the highway] and our friends are in a car accident. Believe me, I'd like to jump on the highway, but look at our history...
Winiker: Are we on the highway now? [Laughs]
Antonoff: I feel like we're on the highway now...For a long time it bothered us that everyone was getting big around us. Then it was like, "Oh, we just did this big tour and got to do this and be on television and play this festival." You see all these people, and you realize that you've held it together. We've never had a moment where we've fallen apart. We've never been a band where we're drawing thousands of people and then hundreds of people and been like, "What's going on?" People come to our shows, and they don't stop coming. That means a lot to me. It's definitely funny, because in six or seven years, I can tell you about 100 bands that were huge and we toured with and are friends with...
Winiker: I wonder what it is with all the bands we've toured with that have broken up...
Antonoff: That's what people have said. We break up bands. Every band we toured with on The Format run. What other bands? Finch. The Early November.
Winiker: We should make a list.
Antonoff: I'm happy we're here. It hasn't been easy. There's markets we still don't do well in. This record is another step, we just don't know what step it is yet.
Having the companion album of Terrible Thrills Vol. 1 to go along with the album, and having all these bigger, possibly more mainstream stars on it, how did that come about and what does that say about you guys at this point in your career?
Antonoff: It's more of a community thing. I think community is lost in music [these days]. With the Internet and self releasing, bands have become these little industries. I think it's really easy to forget about community. If you look at that Format tour, we got on stage together and we were playing together. We re-experienced that on the Tegan and Sara tour, which we hadn't for a real long time. The idea [for the companion album] is separate. I've always loved a girl's voice. I wish I had one. I had the idea even back with Trampoline, but there was so much planning that it dropped off. When we were on the Tegan and Sara tour, I brought it back up. So many bands have their remix album, but this is our way to kind of do that.
Winiker: I don't think it's ever been done before...
Antonoff: I know. It blows my mind. There's the community element to it. [That album] is no different to us than playing Coachella or being on tour with Tegan and Sara. They're just pieces of the puzzle. It's just another way to make us feel artistically satisfied. It's not a publicity stunt. It makes us a) Terrible Thrills defines who we are and b) feel more connected to our generation of music. We're always there when this happened or when this happened in this scene. Even our scene. We talk about it, but we're not always insular...We always talk about it, where we should say, "Fuck it. Let's create our own scene." We're not the band that rolls up to the venue and plays and then smokes pot backstage afterward. We do this because we love music. This is our lifestyle.
After six or seven years of this, do you feel like you've graduated in a way? [Laughs]
Winiker: We're in graduate school. We're like doctors now. [Laughs]
What's the one piece of advice to all these up and coming bands that are in the situation you once were in?
Winiker: Here's what I'm going to say, honestly, the most important things are your songs. I hear people playing stuff all the time and sometimes it sucks. Every now and again I'll hear someone play something for me and they'll be like, "Yeah, that's my friends band," and I'll be like "What? That's amazing." It's just a song.
Antonoff: That's the thing, you can have all this stuff happen, go on big tours, have big producers, but all of that doesn't matter. You could be in the studio where Weezer recorded last week. Are your songs as good as Weezer? No? Then it doesn't matter. That's something that we've learned. Be focused on the songs and the live shows. The main thing I would say is nothing is how you expect it, but at the same time we've never expected the things we've done. We always talk about doing these big tours and playing with these people, etc. and none of that is going to happen, but there is also all this other stuff that has happened that we couldn't even anticipate. We just try to get through it all. The business of a band is trying to get you to give up and get a job at the Citgo or something.
Winiker: It's sad. I have a lot of friends in bands that do that.
Antonoff: I know! It's just begging to do that. I don't know people who are talented that have not given up have ended up somewhere well. Try to be delusional. We were delusional for so many years. Now we get to go play Letterman on Monday.
Winiker: I feel like as much advice as you would like to give, you have to have those years doing bad shit to get there.
Antonoff: And if you don't, you're a fucking asshole. [Laughs]
Winiker: Exactly. In everything you listen to, you know the first thing they've done isn't their best.
Antonoff: We're playing to 200 people tonight in Austin. We remember so many times, coming through and playing to 20 or 50 people. We have so much respect for bands like Tegan and Sara and Hanson that keep pulling through. Tegan once told me they drove two days in Canada to get to a show that was just canceled. Those are the moments when God is telling you to give up. [Laughs] We did an entire tour where like two people came to each show. I hope people see that's who we are. We're relentlessly pushing through that. We remember where we were. I look at guys like Brian Fallon of Gaslight Anthem and I know where he comes from and I feel really good that they're pushing forward. That's not a guy that says, "We're famous!" He knows about stuff. Like the New Found Glory guys. We love those guys. They're doing everything for the right reasons. They're still D.I.Y. It's great.
To Steel Train (because I know you guys lurk around here):
I don't think you could do anything else to make me love you any more than I already do. I am absolutely in love with the new album (and older albums. <3 the song, "Angelica"), the show you did last week in Philly just blew my mind, you all were (and are) incredibly genuine and generous guys, and this interview proves just how real you are. We've all seen these bands that make great music, but are so full of it and act like they deserve more than what they are handed. You guys are the ones that deserve all the glory. It's bands like you that I want to see succeed and stick around for many, many years, and I believe you will.
Thank you for being as sweet as I hoped you would be. It's always a liability meeting bands/musicians you admire, because a lot of them turn out to be dicks. I will continue to keep pushing your album on my college radio station! Keep up the great work, boys!