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More powerful than a locomotive…

Steel Train remembers Jersey roots on path to fame

 
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From left are Justin Huey, Jon Shiffman, Evan Winiker, Jack Antonoff, and Daniel Silbert. Lindsey Byrnes

Steel Train, a band of brothers — OK, classmates — from northern New Jersey, began in
the proverbial garage and now
is on the fast track, with late-night spots on David Letterman and Conan O’Brien.

The band’s concert tomorrow night at Webster Hall in Manhattan marks another 2010 accomplishment. Already this year they’ve released their third full-length CD, “Steel Train,” played at Radio City Music Hall, and performed their single “Bullet” on the Late Show with David Letterman.

The Steel Train nucleus had modest beginnings. Jack Antonoff of New Milford and Daniel Silbert of Tenafly first crossed paths in elementary school at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, where they also met Evan Winiker, whose family moved to Teaneck in time for him to begin the sixth grade at Schechter.

“We began playing music together in middle school, and Schechter was always extremely supportive,” said Silbert, who still lives in Tenafly. “They let us play at school events and graduations.”

Silbert and Winiker went to the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union for high school, while Antonoff commuted to Manhattan’s Professional Children’s School. Antonoff and Silbert started a punk rock band called Outline, a high-school band that moved out of that proverbial garage.

“Outline was the first real taste of being in a band,” said Antonoff. “We even toured in our parents’ minivans all the way to Florida and Texas. Seriously. I can’t imagine letting my kids do that. Our parents must have been out of their minds.”

Said Antonoff, “We learned so much being kids and playing shows. We worked so hard, practiced all the time, played tons of shows. It was only about the performance and the music in those days. We really didn’t consider anything else. That’s a sentiment that still exists at the core of us today. I don’t know where we would be if not for the lessons we learned growing up in the New Jersey scene.”

At the same time, Winiker was cutting his teeth in Random Task, a group he formed with Matt Goldman, Ben Jorgenson, and Jeremiah Glazer, all classmates at Schechter. Silbert also passed through the band for a brief period.

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Shira, Rick, jack and Rachel Antonoff after David Letterman.

Eileene Leistner, Winiker’s mother, said, “In their senior year, the Schechter school gave the band [Random Task] the chance to work as part of their second semester [work-study program] doing the marketing and promotion of the band. The principal [Dr. Joyce Raynor] was very supportive of the kids, and they used to play a lot at the school. By the time Evan got to college it was clear music was very important to him.”

Added Winiker, “A lot of people have asked if Schechter had any influence on who we are, and I think it really did. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would have been a different person if I went to a high school where I was one in 400. There are benefits to going to a smaller school, and one of them is the friendships you make. In my case I’m lucky because they’ve already lasted a lifetime.”

In 2001, Winiker started college at Rutgers University. It was a particularly fruitful time for local music, with a wellspring of talent like Antonoff, Silber, and Winiker’s turning small venues into hotbeds more typically associated with larger cities.

“New Jersey at the time that we all started playing music was an absolutely magical place,” said Antonoff. “We had no idea how special it was until we went on our first tour and realized that amazing local music scenes were not happening everywhere. At the time that we were a part of it, New Jersey was experiencing an incredible awakening. Amazing bands were popping up out of nowhere, and there was an intense sense of brotherhood in the scene. All the same kids going to the same shows every weekend, supporting the local bands.”

Antonoff and his friend Scott Irby-Ranniar formed Steel Train and secured a deal with Drive-Thru Records around the time that Winiker and Silbert went off to college. Shortly thereafter, Antonoff and Irby-Ranniar recruited drummer Matthias Gruber and placed a call to Winiker, who had just begun his freshman year, to offer him the bassist position.

Said Leistner, Winiker’s mother, “He turned to us and said, ‘This is the most important thing in my life. In order for me to do this I’ve got to leave school.’ And although we weren’t thrilled with him leaving school we said, ‘You really need to follow your passion.’

“The biggest question we got from friends and family was, ‘How could you let him do this?’ But how could we not let him do this? It was deeply important to him, so how could we not support him in something that was extremely important in his life?”

Winiker left school and came back to Bergen County to start working with Steel Train. Guitarist Matt Goldman, who had played with Winiker in Random Task, joined as well. However, just as the band was working through its nascent stages, explained Shira Antonoff, Jack’s mother, “our family sustained an enormous loss — our 13-year-old daughter died.” In an unusual and therapeutic response, the Antonoffs gave Steel Train their living room as a rehearsal space.

“Having the band working, rehearsing, and creating music in our house was an extraordinary gift,” said Shira Antonoff. “It brought so much life into our home. I hope the guys all know how much this really meant to all of us.”

The band pulled Silbert away from Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania in 2003 to serve as tour manager. Two years later they released their first full-length album, “Twilight Tales From the Praries of the Sun.” They set off on tour in support of the album, playing premier summer music festivals like Bonnaroo and Wakarusa.

Near the end of 2006, Goldman and the drummer Gruber left the band. Silbert shifted from tour managing to full-time guitarist, and the band reached out to an old friend, Teaneck resident Jon Shiffman, about their drum vacancy.

Shiffman, who previously served a stint as drummer for the popular Jewish folk-rock band Soulfarm, had already played a number of gigs with Steel Train as a percussionist. By most standards, he got his musical start early, but still a bit later than the Schechter cadre.

“The Teaneck public school system had an incredible music program for young students,” said Shiffman. “I started playing percussion in the school orchestra in sixth grade, while the rest of the guys in Steel Train were already writing music and playing in their own bands. I was a late bloomer, at least compared to them. After high school, I studied jazz at The New School University and toured the U.S. and U.K. with several bands.”

Shiffman estimates that he had played in “maybe 20 or 30 bands of various styles” by late 2006, when he officially joined Steel Train. “I had known the guys because of similar backgrounds, mutual friends, and mutual musical tastes. We had played music together before, so when they needed a drummer it was a very natural fit.”

Silbert and Shiffman hit the studio almost immediately, recording guitar and drums, respectively, on “Trampoline,” Steel Train’s second album. The tragedies of 2001 — the death of Antonoff’s sister and Sept. 11 — made their most overt appearance yet in the music, particularly in the opening lines Antonoff sings in “I Feel Weird”:

“When I was 18 everything was alive/Then the planes hit the towers /Then she died then he died/A part of me disappeared /Six feet in the ground.”

Antonoff had the chance to recite those lyrics in front of a national audience in July 2009, when Steel Train performed “I Feel Weird” on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.

“Playing on both of those shows [Conan and Letterman] was somewhat of a milestone for us because you grow up watching bands on these shows, and you’re saying to yourself, ‘Man, one day, one day,’” said Winiker. “If you watch the end of our appearance on Conan we’re like giddy school kids.”
Added Shiffman, “Aside from getting the chance to play for millions of people, it really helped our confidence level. It was another one of those ‘OK, this business is extremely difficult, but we’re definitely on the right track’ moments.”
And besides, said Antonoff, “things like Conan and Letterman make our grandparents stop worrying about us.”

Indeed, national TV exposure is a great way to announce a certain level of success and sustainability, and while it can serve to assuage a worried grandparent it can also provide immediate perspective on how far a group has come over many years.

“Moments like Conan and Letterman have been incredible for the band and for all of us parents,” said Shira Antonoff. “There is a funny picture of me crying 30 seconds into their song on Letterman. It’s a bit embarrassing, but the picture speaks volumes about pride.”

Also in 2008, the band played the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago and made one final personnel addition: keyboardist Justin Huey. Like Shiffman and Silbert before him, Huey wasn’t in the band long before hitting the studio. After some writing sessions, Steel Train started recording the “Steel Train” CD, which came out earlier this year.

The group’s third album features a wider expanse of styles and orchestrations than either recording before it, as evidenced in the ornamental excess of the song “Behavior.” The track repeatedly exhorts the listener — or someone — to “wake up,” and confirms the urgency with a massive, string-driven crescendo.

The jaunty “Soldier In The Army” breaks down into a Celtic-themed, rolling string passage, an orbiting classical mass that breaks up an otherwise fuzzy, jovial selection. Perhaps most notable for its arrangement is “Fall Asleep,” a soft lullaby supported by a plucked guitar and spare piano.

“The reception to the record on tour has been beyond what I expected,” said Silbert. “We actually played ‘Bullet’ live before we recorded it. We got so many positive reactions to that song, we had to put it on the record.”

According to Antonoff, one of the most formidable challenges about releasing new material is, in a sense, convincing the listener to once again offer his or her trust. “The emotional connection people put on music is so intense that it can be very hard for them to open up to newer music from the same artist,” he said. “It’s almost like being in love and then breaking up. That’s one record. The next record is like crawling back to the person and begging them to give you another chance, begging them to let you back into their heart. The listener is always going to be scared to reinvest themselves. I understand that. It’s how I feel about my favorite bands.”

Antonoff’s comments are characteristic of the consideration Steel Train gives its audience. Their credo at live performances is to be unfailingly well-rehearsed and energetic, and they’ve generated considerable buzz online for the quality of their performances.

Said Leistner, “At the core of it they care about their audiences, and anybody who goes to hear them perform knows it and feels it.”

Those at Webster Hall tomorrow night will be part of the next crowd privy to that care. Following that will be crowds in Montreal, Toronto, Washington, D.C., and Boston, as Steel Train continues to play in support of their album — and of one another.

“One of the most gratifying aspects is that the band members have been friends for years, and they really love and respect each other,” said Janys Gelberg, Silbert’s mother.

“They spend so much time together on the road, and I know that they take care of each other. That is reassuring for me as a mother. I don’t worry when they are traveling, but it sure is great to have those cell phones to say hi any time.”

 
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