Pancakes and Whiskey sat down with the fun-loving, energetic folk-punk band Out of System Transfer this week to discuss the debut of their music video, “New Train Blues.” The video — an ode to the NYC subway system and the New Yorker’s who embark on these long journeys — has a Scooby-Doo vibe as the band members are chased throughout the city by a police man named, “Officer Buzzkill.”
I spoke with band members Jesse Sternberg (guitar, vox), Danielle Kolker (ukulele, clarinet, vox), Jon Good (trombone, vox) and Jesse Jacobsen (bass, mandolin) over drinks to learn more about their story. Whether we were talking about the history of the band, the subway system, briskets or shooting down pigeons in the street and serving them to wedding parties (please read on for more context), nothing was off limits.
P&W: How did you guys meet one another?
Danielle: Well we all went to college together. We went to Oberlin College in Ohio.
Jon: Me and Danielle were in a ska band together and Jesse [J] and Jesse [S] were in a blues band together. And we all worked in various kitchens together.
Danielle: Jon’s being modest. Jon ran an underground sandwich delivery business and Jesse [Sternberg] and I worked for him.
P&W: What kind of sandwiches? Did you make them yourself?
Jon: Reuben’s, tuna melts, burritos…
Danielle: Delicious sandwiches. Jon’s a great cook.
Jon: So I had a job at a startup after college in the town of Oberlin and then that startup very quickly stopped being able to afford paying me.
Jesse J: A stopdown.
Jon: Haha yeah it was a startup and then it was a stopdown. So I was in town with nothing to do and I was feeling like, ‘Oh my god, I’m just this freaky guy who graduated and is still around. What am I gonna do? How am I gonna pay rent?’ So the whole town shut down at 10 p.m. pretty much and after 10 p.m. about at least 15 percent of the campus was stoned and had the munchies so….
Danielle: That’s where we came in! …Yeah, but I mean we were friends before that.
Jon: We started cross-pollinating when Jesse [Sternberg] and Danielle started dating. They’ve been together for nine years.
P&W: That’s awesome!
Danielle: It is awesome, thank you.
P&W: Yeah, I mean I’ve only been with my cat for nine years.
Danielle: That’s like much more of a commitment. Yeah, Jesse and I met and basically started dating September of my freshman year of college and he and Jesse [J] were in this party band that would play at house parties. I actually got him to come to my room and I asked him for guitar lessons, which I did not need.
Jesse S: Because I needed to be tricked to go to your room…if you were just like, ‘Hey want to go to my room and have sex?’ I’d be like no!!
Jon: No, I’m a serious musician.
Danielle: Yeah, but these guys played in a band and Jon started this ska band that was kind of legendary and they asked me to join my sophomore year so we all were just kind of running in the same circles.
P&W: When did each of you get involved in music? Was it a young age?
Jon: I burst out of my mother’s womb with a trumpet in my hands. It was cesarean section by trumpet.
Danielle: That’s our new logo.
Jon: But we all sort of came up through the various punk, ska and hippie-alternative jam whatever themes that got us excited about music and got us interested in political stuff.
P&W: Yeah, and I have to ask. Your band name–it has, I read, a political meaning.
Jesse S: Yeah, the political meaning is secondary. The main meaning is that on the New York subway system when you transfer from one train to another where you actually need to get out of the station and swipe your card again it’s called an “out of system transfer.” So it’s meant to evoke the lives of us outer borough dwellers who are taking long rides and taking multiple transfers and making all these weird subway, bus arrangements to get where we need to go. And then secondarily, you could think of it as a transfer outside of our political system.
Danielle: Getting out of like oppressive systems.
P&W: Speaking of trains, your new video, “New Train Blues.” I thought the song was pretty cool because you guys pretty much helped me understand the subway system. It’s pretty catchy and I was thinking I need this in my life.
Jesse J: It’s very educational.
Jesse S: You’re lost [on the subway] and you start humming the songs and you’re like dadadada…oh that’s right!
P&W: What gave you the idea behind that?
Jesse S: Well the song was like…more and more artists and all kinds of people are spreading themselves out further and further in the city and it’s becoming much more of a way of life to be riding the subway for a long time every day and there’s, you know, a positive element to that where people are exploring more of the city than they ever used to. I mean, a lot of people, who if they had moved here 20 years ago they would have settled somewhere in lower Manhattan and probably hardly ever gone to boroughs at all, are now seeing all parts of Brooklyn and Queens and all sorts of under appreciated parts of the city. But on the other hand, it also sucks. I mean, I probably spend at least like five hours a week on the subway. It’s sort of acknowledging both of those — earnestly celebrating the freedom that the transit system gives you to explore all aspects of the city at a relatively low cost and also at the same time sort of tongue in cheek, sarcastically [pointing out] how annoying it is to get to some places.
P&W: And tell me a bit more about the video.
Danielle: I guess we were sitting and we were talking to George, who’s the director and the guy who filmed the whole thing and is amazing. He’s my sister’s boyfriend and they make great films together. So we were sitting talking to him and my sister about the…we didn’t have much of a concept for the video besides we wanted a kind of literal exploration of the things we say in the song, like we’re gonna go here and then there and we want shots of all these places. But we knew we needed a story and one of the lyrics is, ‘Bring a bright red solo cup and hide your beer when the law shows up.” So we thought it’d be funny and kind of cute and provocative to have the band be caught drinking on the beach and we also love going to the beach and drinking. So the plot line is this police officer named “Officer Buzzkill” catches us with beer and he chases us all over the city and we’re playing our instruments on the train.
Jon: There’s sort of the hard day’s night kind of vibe and the slapstick comedy and Scooby-Doo vibe.
P&W: Oh wow I didn’t even think of Scooby-Doo…that just blew my mind.
Danielle: You know the chase scenes where like they go into one door and go into another…
So it’s this idea of…unlocking systems of authority
P&W: It seems like you guys have a fun attitude toward music, not like this super serious, strict mindset…I mean you guys take it seriously, but you like to have fun with it. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Jesse S: If anything, this is probably the most serious band I’ve been in a while. Well, we certainly have fun songs, but we also have songs about politics. I think our bands in college, well for most of us, were party bands.
Danielle: Because we went to Oberlin and a bunch of us took classes in the conservatory, but none of us like majored in music — it’s a very uptight, stifling environment, and a lot of my musical projects since playing very serious classical music at my school has been kind of a reaction against it and getting back more to the roots of the punk scene that I came up in and it’s folk music too so it’s simple, and you don’t have to be an amazing musician.
Jon: Which is one of the things, where like folk and punk overlap real nicely — is the sense that anyone can play it and that music is a fun and participatory activity, not like this snooty…we should be, you know, deferential of all these people who can play music like Gods.
Jesse S: The words folk and punk even practically mean the same thing. Folk means it’s of the regular people and a punk is someone who’s an amateur, inexperienced.
Jon: Music for assholes.
Danielle: Not that…
Jon: It’s not that our audiences are assholes.
Danielle: Well I was gonna say not that we’re into poor musicianship. I think that we all want to be tight and we want to be rehearsed, not stifling.
P&W: Awesome, and I saw on your guy’s Facebook a picture of a brisket…going back to the sandwich shop, do you guys cook a lot?
All in unison: Ohhh yeah!!!
Jon: I do private catering. I hire Danielle for most things I do. This past weekend, we did a big, fancy wedding at a punk bar.
P&W: What did they order?
Danielle: Squab. These tiny little birds.
Jesse S: They were local [pigeons].
Danielle: Yeah, Jon and me go out in the street with a shotgun….no, I’m just kidding.
Jesse S: Yeah, but like we cook a lot. We support local foods and farmer’s markets. The brisket was actually from a meatshare we’ve gotten involved in where we’ll get together and order a significant fraction of the animal from a farm.
Jon: We’re all kinds of different nerds and food nerds is one of the things that we are.
P&W: You guys have such an interesting sound and you said you used to play in a ska band…what intrigued you about this genre because you don’t really hear polk and funk and immediately think they’d go together.
Jesse S: For me, it was actually something I’ve been doing a long time and was actually trying to get back into after having done some different stuff. My first band in high school was a punk band and after that band kind of fell apart and I auditioned for another band that was a total disaster I kind of was like, “You know what? Fuck bands!!” I was like I’m gonna pick up the acoustic guitar and I’m gonna write songs and I’m just gonna be a solo punk-folk singer, like Billy Bragg. And then when I got to college and I met some of these guys, I was like alright fine, bands. Then we did that band for a while, which was also diving deeper into the roots — not necessarily folk music, but like blues. Just American roots. After college, I was getting a bit more into punk again. Not that I was not into punk.
Danielle: Well, you started getting back into punk after the World/Inferno show. That’s how it happened. He took me to see World/Inferno and I was like this is the best thing I’ve ever seen. The first time I saw them was at this bar that’s sadly no longer there — this boardwalk on Coney Island and people were swinging from shit that was hanging from the ceiling and they got the whole thing shut down about five seconds in — they paraded us out onto the boardwalk and we all waltzed and it was beautiful.
Article by: Liz Dennerlein