HitFix Interview: Steel Train talks Scarlett Johansson collaboration, new album
When fans of Steel Train buy the rock act’s new set, they’ll get a little something from the ladies.
The New Jersey natives tapped female friends, tour mates and colleagues for a companion album “Terrible Thrills Vol. 1” to their self-titled album, released Tuesday (June 29); a dozen unique voices re-made the set’s 12 songs.
“Especially over the past couple of years, I almost pretty much listened to only female singers. I wish I had a female voice” explained co-founder and singer Jack Antonoff. “When you write or create anything, you carry your influences with you. Particularly on this record, I hear them as a girl singing them.”
Hence the extra disc’s worth of material, from artists like actress/singer Scarlett Johansson, Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer, Tegan and Sara, impressive Brooklynite Holly Miranda, Verve Forecast up-and-comers Elizabeth & The Catapult and the Go Go’s Charlotte Caffey.
It started with a wish list.
Antonoff went to high school with -- well, more specifically, was high school sweethearts with -- Johansson. She has most recently collaborated with Pete Yorn on their collaborative album “Break Up” and with producer Dave Sitek on her Tom Waits covers set “Anywhere I Lay My Head." “I love her voice, and she loves the song [opener ‘Bullet’].” Tegan and Sara tapped Steel Train to open for them on tour over the past year. Palmer liked the idea of recording and posting her cover as a webcast experiment. And so on.
It’s a move that the band had only dreamed of before they shined off their contract with now-defunct Drive Thru. Now under the Terrible Thrills label banner, the band has felt at leisure to “grow up” into their sound.
“Having [Terrible Thrills] is the most exciting thing ever for us. We were with Drive Thru in its last hurrah but because we were still signed to them, there were still these stupid expectations. In a good way, we’re gonna go off the deep end, sonically. We had so many of these kind of ideas for so long,” Antonoff says, bringing up that the band was still in high school when contracts got signed.
“We were part of this whole New Jersey punk scene, and then we turned away from it. What most bands do in their garage, we do on tour and on this record: we’re still kids, but we’re finally finding our sound.”
And “Steel Train” has really graduated the band into a sonic realm that’s moved beyond that Jersey sound; you’ll hear strings and overdriven distortion, choirs and tricky rhythms overtop the quintet’s passionate rock ‘n’ roll. But you’ll also hear strong songs, stronger enough to withstand 12 covers from diverse female artists.
Is the extra material supposed to be a statement, like a Lilith Fair, or commentary on the industry?
“Not initially, not when I first thought of it. But people still are really subconsciously discriminatory toward female artists, like they’re all ‘cute.’ It’s really offensive. I just couldn’t see it more the opposite… [female artists] must feel pressure to present themselves as more than just musical artists. Because of our world, there’s gross emphasis on the way women look. It’s offensive and off subject, like people noting that Fiona apple is some sort of a comic of a crazy girl or overgeneralizing about Tegan and Sara and their audience on tour,” Antonoff continues.
What do you think of “Steel Train” versus the all-female companion “Terrible Thrills Vol. 1”?