Steel Train: Wheels Keep Turning

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By: Andrew Bruss

Steel Train
For anyone who's followed the gradual growth of Steel Train, the New Jersey rock outfit fronted by guitarist Jack Antonoff, the currently unfolding chapter is going to be remembered as a monumental turning point. After a hefty bout of touring that followed their 2005 release, Twilight Tales from the Prairies of the Sun, the group hit a pretty significant bump in the road. As plans to follow up Twilight Tales started coming together, drummer Matthias Gruber and rhythm guitarist Matt Goldman left the group, leaving a significant void in the Steel Train lineup. "Matt and Matthias leaving was something that was happening for a really long time," says Antonoff. "It may have seemed abrupt, but it was very premeditated, and by the time it happened, everyone was really comfortable with it."

As Antonoff chilled out backstage at a recent Boston show, surrounded by friends and family who regularly visit him on the road, he answered questions with confidence, yet carried a hesitant tone that spoke to the realities the group is currently undergoing and the recent developments that have gradually turned the world of Steel Train upside down.

Following the departure of Gruber and Goldman, the group went into the studio to record their follow-up to Twilight Tales, aptly titled Trampoline (released October 16 on Drive Thru Records). Gruber's beat keeping duties were taken over by Jon Shiffman, while Goldman's rhythm guitar work was usurped by the group's longtime friend and tour manager, Daniel Silbert. "The making of this record is one of the biggest reasons why Matt and Matthias parted ways. [They left] about eight months before we went into the studio. A big catalyst was the songwriting process. It changed a lot," observes Antonoff. "I broke off and was writing alone and it was a totally different process. As a result, when they left the band, they hadn't touched the material we decided to record. All the parts they did touch we went back and rewrote. My theory on art is that if you're going to change something, there's no holding on to any of it. Even on the song 'Diamonds in the Sky,' which Matt wrote a big lead part on, we cut it out and put something else in. I don't know if it's better or worse but that's how it had to happen."

Jack Antonoff - Steel Train
Lineup changes have always been a fundamental component of rock band politics and Steel Train has had to deal with this reality very early on. "When you start a band, it's very easy to be like 'We're the band, we're The Beatles!' or whatever, but as you get more professional and serious about it you discover the realities of things, and you have to change accordingly," says Antonoff. "We used to write together, and I stopped wanting to. Not for any bad reason, but I just felt less pressure and felt I was doing better work on my own. I wrote this whole album on my own, and I think it's the best thing I've done. I think it's safe to say that by the end, Matt and Matthias wanted a role that sort of changed, and that was one of the big reasons for their departure."

The changes in their songwriting process had begun to show even before the new album surfaced. Recent set staples like "I Feel Weird" find Antonoff expressing his feelings about the events of September 11th and his relationship with his significant other simultaneously. The immense loneliness Antonoff exposes on "Alone on the Sea" suggests a degree of alienation that would have been much harder to come to terms with in a group context. As a result, regardless of how you take to the new material, it is clearly the result of a songwriter who went off on his own direction.

As beneficial as Antonoff feels these new developments have been, the socio-political habits groups tend to develop has been a continuing source of frustration for him.

"[Being in a band] gets political, and that's what pisses me off about Twilight Tales. It's a political record, which is the irony about it, because we set out to make this cool, relaxed album, and in the effort to keep everyone happy, we fucked up the art," comments Antonoff. "There's nothing democratic about songwriting or painting or making films or any of it. You have to be able to sit in a room and say, 'That's not good, this is good, that's my opinion.' Those aren't the most pleasant conversation but we have those now."

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