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Before fun. and Bleachers, there was Steel Train

June 01 2016, 11:00 AM EDT By Colin McGuire


Before there was fun.—and before there was Bleachers—Jack Antonoff led a group of friends called STEEL TRAIN. The band were signed to Drive Thru Records, where they put out two full-lengths before self-releasing 2010’s self-titled record, which proved to be their last. In 2013, the quintet called it quits for good. On June 18, the New Jersey natives will congregate for a one-time reunion at the Shadow Of The City Festival in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. We recently caught up with members of the band to discuss why they wanted to play this show, why they broke up in the first place, and how they feel about the band’s legacy.

ON WHY THEY BROKE UP

Daniel Silbert (guitar): It was sort of organic. Jon was leaving to pursue something completely different from music. Jack and I and Evan were going to continue and we were going to change names—Jack was already working on stuff that was Bleachers music, and I met my wife at the time. I knew fun. was starting into their record cycle with Some Nights, and [we] didn’t really want to be on hold, so I sort of bowed out. There were no ill feelings at all toward anyone.

"The universe was not telling us to keep going. We were just doing it because we really loved it."

Jack Antonoff (vocals, guitar): We had put out our self-titled album, we had done a bunch of tours on it, and fans really liked it, but the band wasn’t really moving forward. We were all sort of getting to a point in life where it was tough to be out on the road, not being able to support ourselves. Then fun. made Some Nights, but it hadn’t come out yet. Steel Train was at the end of the album cycle and everyone was looking at it like, “Where do we go from here?” I remember Jon came over and he was like, “I just can’t do it anymore.” And I understood because it was always hard, and it gets harder as you get older. When you’re 17, you can hang out at the merch table and say, “Anyone got a house I can sleep at tonight?” When you’re 22, it gets a little harder. When you’re 25, it gets really hard. The universe was not telling us to keep going. We were just doing it because we really loved it.

ON WHY THEY ARE PLAYING SHADOW OF THE CITY

Antonoff: I started this festival, and I always want to be at the festival, but I don’t want to headline it because I want the festival to exist beyond me. So, I was thinking, “Do I just do a weird set with some friends?” Then I was in bed and I remember texting everyone, like, “Do you guys just want to do this one show?” and everyone was like, “Yeah, great.” There’s also been a renewed interest since Bleachers has been out there. It seemed like a lot of people went back and got the Steel Train records, and it seemed like the right time for those people.

ON IF STEEL TRAIN WAS AHEAD OF ITS TIME

Read more: Bleachers (Fun.‘s Jack Antonoff) unveil debut single, tour dates, announce Yoko Ono collaboration

Evan Winiker (Bass): One hundred percent. I think when we started, we were writing songs that were influenced from years past. Early Steel Train stuff sounds like many different bands.

Antonoff: I don’t know if we were ahead of our time or if we just sort of never made it digestible enough for people. At every turn, we made it almost impossible for any casual listener to latch onto what we were doing. Steel Train was, by design, only for insane, hardcore fans, and I don’t even really mean that as a positive. [Laughs.] We would have loved to have had more fans, but we never made it easy for anyone. We never defined who we were.

Jon Shiffman (Drums): I don’t know. I wouldn’t say that. I do know that the people who really enjoyed it, enjoyed it, and that’s the coolest part about making recorded music. It was definitely doing something that not everyone does—with mixing the styles, I think we tried to stay true to just being a band that doesn’t really think too hard about trying to catch the newest trend or regurgitate a sound that’s popular at the moment.  

ON STEEL TRAIN’S LEGACY

Silbert: I think that if we’ve influenced anyone through the years, then we have succeeded in the history of the music. Jack, having the success he’s had writing for other people and throwing that influence of Steel Train into artists you hear on the radio—there is a sound. I just hope that people remember our shows and our music. We never wanted to make the same record twice.

Winiker: I would hope that our greatest legacy is that we inspired a lot of other people. The best part is I know we did, because there are so many people I meet along the way who still say stuff like, “I really like this record. I really like this song. It meant this much to me.” People who met at our shows got married. That’s a special thing.

"We were a real product of our time, and that time is over."

Antonoff: We were really sort of the last of our kind. When I think about Steel Train, we were in the heyday of that “get in the van and tour” era. The way we survived was we opened for other bands. All that mattered was, “Can we get on tour with the Format? Can we get on tour with Motion City?” That, to me, is our legacy. We were a real product of our time, and that time is over. alt

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