Satellite Train. Indie rock pioneers on freedom, fusion, and future plans

"Satellite Train is a very unlikely and out-of-the-box​ thing. There is no common goal or direction. It’s more of a jam session from​ beginning to end"
12 April 2024
Satellite Train's Michael Paytner

‘The Melbourne Sessions’, their remarkable album, was recorded in just one or two takes

We had the chance to speak with the members of Satellite Train, a Melbourne-based indie rock band comprised of seasoned musicians from various acclaimed groups.​ Satellite Train is formed of veterans of Icehouse, James Reyne, Paul Kelly and The Black Sorrows, along with a few US friends: Michael Paytner, Susan Turner, Randy Jacobs, Shane O’Mara, Jamie Muhoberac, John Mcall, Pasquale Monea, John Watson. Unfortunately, frontman Michael Paynter couldn’t join us due to the arrival of his new baby. Nonetheless, the rest of the group shared their insightful perspectives with us.

Satellite Train’s music delves deep into real-life experiences and emotions, with each song capturing a distinct moment or feeling. While their style leans towards indie rock, they infuse elements of classical, jazz, pop, and gospel, reflecting their diverse musical backgrounds.

Their stunning album The Melbourne Sessions focuses on freedom, highlighted by the lead single Wings, symbolizing individuality and liberation. Recorded in one or two takes, it delves into self-expression, empowerment, and overcoming challenges with raw authenticity. Despite diverse musical backgrounds, the band collaborates spontaneously, blending influences to craft a unique sound. Reflecting on their journey, they acknowledge both the rewarding and challenging aspects of uniting musicians from iconic bands like Icehouse and The Black Sorrows, along with their US friends.

Looking ahead, Satellite Train aims to evolve musically and convey meaningful messages to their listeners. They plan to release experimental tracks while staying true to their innovative spirit and artistic vision.

The current single, ‘Wings’, had personal significance. It was one of those rare vocal performances by Michael and it surprised us a bit

How would you say Michael Paynter’s experiences supporting stars like Miley Cyrus, The Script, and Seal contribute to the creative process and leadership within Satellite Train?

Michael’s experience performing with established artists has made him a natural frontman for Satellite Train. He has mentioned to us he thrives on live performances and doesn’t get nervous at all when on stage, even in front of very large audiences. This aligns perfectly with Satellite Train’s raw, unprocessed approach to recording, where capturing the current moment is key.

Could you provide insights into how Michael Paynter’s role in Icehouse has influenced his approach, especially considering Satellite Train’s diverse music styles?

Michael’s time in Icehouse definitely influenced his vocal style on The Melbourne Sessions. The similarities to Icehouse lead singer Iva Davies can be heard throughout Satellite Train’s debut album, The Melbourne Sessions. This is likely due to Michael’s years of consistently performing live alongside Iva Davies. In a recent discussion with pianist John McAll while we were recording new material, he described Iva Davies as one of the most talented Australian musicians. Working alongside Iva has definitely rubbed off on his vocal style, at least when it came to The Melbourne Sessions.

How does Michael Paynter, as the lead singer of Satellite Train, ensure the authenticity of the narratives in the band’s music, which are deeply grounded in genuine life experiences and emotions? Additionally, could you discuss a track that holds personal significance in this regard?

His raw and live approach to performing the vocals ensured the authenticity of the song narratives! The band’s music is very personal, drawing from everyday life experiences and Michael’s approach to the vocals reflect that. Very raw and live! The current single, Wings, had personal significance. It was one of those rare vocal performances by Michael and it surprised us a bit. I believe both the song’s sound and subject matter played pivotal roles in helping Michael achieve that.

Regarding The Melbourne Sessions, could you elaborate on your personal connection with the themes of freedom and individuality explored in the album? Furthermore, what inspired the decision to emphasize these themes as the focal point of the album?

The Melbourne Sessions explores various themes such as freedom, self-expression, overcoming challenges, empowerment, embracing individuality, pursuing dreams, breaking barriers, and dealing with emotions like anxiety and loneliness. The music was recorded in just one or two takes. And Michael’s unfiltered and live vocal delivery perfectly complements these concepts. The focus on these themes wasn’t a deliberate choice, it just sort of happened organically during the creative process.

With band members boasting varied musical expertise from classical to jazz, and pop to gospel, how do you collectively navigate integrating these distinct sounds into Satellite Train’s signature indie rock style?

The album for the most part was recorded over a weekend. We didn’t rehearse the songs or had ever played them before. Each band member had basic sheet music, just rough outlines of the songs. We didn’t talk about how the songs should sound or have a specific plan for the music. If we had recorded the songs on a different weekend, “The Melbourne Sessions” would have been a completely different album. The first few songs had a rock/pop vibe. We started with this idea of chanting vocals, which we did for a few songs like Superstar, Freedom, and Cry. But then we organically moved away from that and the songs took on different styles. Everyone in the band has their own musical influences. One of the band members would start playing in a certain style, and the rest followed along. This approach led to a real blend of styles and influences on The Melbourne Sessions.

The creative process for Satellite Train involves quickly capturing specific feelings or moments in time. How do you find this method compared to your previous experiences in music creation? Does it pose any unique challenges or advantages?

“Quickly capturing specific feelings or moments in time” is indeed an insightful observation on your part! The Melbourne Session” was the first time we had this approach and it sort of happened naturally. Our earlier efforts were focused on music being the foundation and took much longer. It was very challenging and wasn’t really working and although the recordings have quality musical performances they completely lacked feeling or emotion or any connection with the lyrics, other than for one song. That song captured a feeling at that moment in time. Tapping into that became the foundation of who Satellite Train became from then onwards and eliminated the type of challenges we were previously having.

With the single Wings embodying the theme of freedom, how do you personally interpret this song, and why was it chosen as the lead single for The Melbourne Sessions?

Michael’s excited response following his performance significantly influenced the decision to make Wings the lead single. It was one of those rare vocal moments where he effortlessly connected with the song’s essence, both in its sound and lyrics. In a sense he soared alongside the song. It made it the obvious choice. With Wings, one interpretation might be that lyrically there are two opposing forces. One that expresses a fear of letting her go, wanting to keep her safe and “like a child”. And another voice that recognizes her yearning for flight, her sense of “wonder” and “love,” a “wild” and “magical” nature. The song deals with concepts such as “clipping her wings” would make her lonely and sad. Ultimately, you could interpret the second voice as winning out, with repeating lyrics about wanting to see her “spread her wings” and “fly.” Lyrics like “Her lonely cries” can be interpreted as having two meanings also. The girl’s yearning for freedom, a cry that can only be silenced by letting her fly. And on another level, the potential loneliness she might face after leaving the protective embrace of those who love her. Wings explores the conflicting emotions of watching someone you love chase their
dreams, even if it means they might get hurt or fly away from you.

Satellite Train’s music includes a wide range of musical elements beyond indie rock. Can you discuss a moment during the recording of The Melbourne Sessions where blending these genres was particularly impactful for you?

The song Beautiful would be a good example! Beautiful was initially envisioned as potentially having a haunting and authentic indie-pop sound and vibe. However, it turned into a mix of different things. During the final stages of completing the album The Melbourne Sessions, American guitarist Marc Bonilla assisted with the engineering. While in the studio, woodwind player Alex Budman happened to hear the song Beautiful. He liked the song, and we received a call asking if he could play on the song, to which we gladly agreed. Marc asked if he could add guitars also, and he followed Alex’s lead in interpretation. Alex and Marc’s performances steered the song more towards a jazz direction, resulting in a blend of jazz and haunting indie elements that complement each other nicely.

Reflecting on your journey with Satellite Train so far, what has been the most rewarding part of bringing together musicians from such iconic bands as Icehouse, James Reyne, Paul Kelly, and The Black Sorrows, along with your US friends?

It has been incredibly surreal! Satellite Train is a very unlikely and out-of-the-box thing. There is no common goal or direction. It’s more of a jam session from beginning to end. Growing up, there was a band that used to rehearse their songs regularly in their garage and the entire neighborhood could hear. Satellite Train has never ventured out of the garage in a sense to evolve the project beyond that and never will. So when we are asked traditional questions, we don’t have great answers. What you hear is what we happened to be jamming that day. But this is where it can be challenging as much as it has been rewarding. There has always been this fine line where you just might be wasting the time of incredibly talented musicians with this approach. One of the musicians early on was frustrated with this approach and exited the project because he felt the band had no direction at all beyond just seeming to jam and experiment with ideas. And he wasn’t wrong at that time because the material sounded very out there and experimental. So upon reflecting, although rewarding, sitting on that fine line has also been very challenging to this very day.

Looking ahead, what are your personal aspirations for Satellite Train, both in terms of musical evolution and the message you hope to convey to your listeners?

The one thing we felt we lost a fair bit in the evolution leading to the release of the debut album The Melbourne Sessions is that early experimentation. We were trying to do something a little different, and although the album is freeform and improvised for the most part, it lost some of that experimentation. So, we hope to release some experimental side tracks in the years ahead. It might be material that very few people like or bother to listen to, but it’s something that truly defines who Satellite Train is. As for the message we hope to convey to listeners, the songs are about experiences We all share, so we hope they inspire and resonate with a few people along the way.