“Why Not Us?” Train Approaching 30 Years of Pop Rock (Part 1 of 2)

Vocalist and songwriter Pat Monahan formed Train in San Francisco in 1994. The pop-rock band worked hard to develop its sound and cultivate its Bay Area fan base for a few years, eventually signing with Columbia. That major label then reissued the band’s self-titled debut, originally recorded on a shoestring budget and marketed independently by the band.

By 1999, the group caught fire with a national audience, and that momentum has sustained through the years. To date, Train has landed more than a dozen of its singles on Billboard’s “Hot 100” charts, and the group has scored three prestigious Grammy Awards, two Billboard Music Awards and an ASCAP Pop Music Award. Train has even broken through to the country music audience: in 2011 the band received a nomination for “Performance of the Year” at the CMT Music Awards.

While Monahan is the sole founding member still with the band today, the current lineup has been remarkably stable: bassist Hector Maldonadao, multi-instrumentalist Jerry Becker and vocalists Nikita Houston and Sakai Smith have all been with the group since 2009. Drummer Matt Musty joined in 2019, and guitarist Taylor Locke came on board nearly two years ago.

As Monahan explained in a recent conversation a few weeks before the kickoff of a nearly three-month run of dates, Train’s original plans for this year didn’t include a tour at all. But the band’s ardent fan base demanded it. The band’s 11th studio album, AM Gold was released in early 2022, and this tour will give the band an opportunity to bring the songs from that well-received album to the stage, along with fan favorites from across the group’s nearly 25-year history.

Train’s music has explored a number of different styles. You explored a country vibe on “Angel in Blue Jeans,” and leaned in an acoustic direction with “Marry Me” and “Hey, Soul Sister.” There’s an orchestra backing the band up on “Drops of Jupiter.” You even did an album of Led Zeppelin songs. With AM Gold, you’re showcasing another dimension of the band’s character, a modern take on classic pop. Is that eclectic approach a product of your wide influences, musical restlessness, or something else?

Musical restlessness is probably a pretty good way to put it! I love so many different types of music that thinking about being in one lane doesn’t seem nearly as fun. It’ll still be my voice and words and melodies, but maybe with different instrumentation and a different take on it. When we were writing the AM Gold album, my manager, Jonathan [Daniel] recognized the style that we were writing in; he said, “This sounds like an ‘AM gold’ album!” I was like, “I don’t even know if I know what that is.” But then I explored it, and that sounded right to me.

So you weren’t setting out to write songs in a particular style?

Right; the [initial songs] came out that way. And then once I recognized what the style was, we were able to continue down that road and finish the album.

Does having such a widescreen approach to a musical style make it difficult or frustrating for your record company to market you?

At this point in my career, I don’t think there’s much of a marketing plan. People who like Train as something they listen to: those are the people that we’re marketing to. It’s less of a marketing plan and more of, “How do we get this heard?”

There’s an old saying that it takes years to become an overnight sensation. Train was together for five or six years before you broke through, producing and initially releasing your first album independently. Were there ever times in those early years when you were tempted to give it up and move on?

There weren’t give-up moments. I didn’t have another opportunity. I was painting houses in the Bay Area, and painting houses was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I did enjoy it, but it didn’t seem like it was something I would be able to continue with and not feel terrible about [missing] an opportunity that I might have been given by whatever the spirit world is. The frustrations were really difficult to bear through, but when you don’t have a choice, then you figure out how to get through it.

In those early days, did you have a vision of where you wanted the band to go?

I did interviews [back then] and told writers, “We will probably never be the biggest band in the world, but we will outlive all of them!” Even in the early days, it wasn’t bragging; it’s just that I have a desire to learn. I listen to a lot of young artists that people probably haven’t heard of, and I’m getting a lot out of it all the time. So my desire to continue — to progress and try to tap into different things and even in myself — creates longevity.

Not only does AM Gold have that kind of early ’70s kind of pop feel, but it also feels very new and contemporary. That’s not a common quality among bands that have been around for 20-odd years. Is that by design?

Well, you can’t compete if [the music] sounds like it’s not current. Even if it is a throwback, it has to sound like you did it today. And that kind of always comes naturally to me. When you listen to classic rock or pop songs, they’re so good, and they’re so well thought out. I’m trying to emulate that, but with a “current” sound: my manager always jokes, “Kids don’t like real drums.”

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