Pretend to be as cool as you want, but there is little to no chance that anyone reading this right now can’t hum along to Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” when it comes over the radio. But for a band that could rest on its laurels and play sold-out shows every summer to parents with babysitters for the night, lead singer Pat Monahan’s biggest fear at one time was becoming just another act slotted into a free spot on random nostalgia tours playing mid-market sized cities around the country.
Monahan and the rest of the crew from Train – who are scheduled to play tonight at Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek – aren’t worried about their coolness factor. They’ve seen both the highs and lows in a career that has stretched nearly two and a half decades now, and Monahan says the easiest way for a musician to fall into irrelevance is to chase current trends and attempt to sound twenty years younger than your age.
We had a chance to speak to Monahan before Train’s show tonight for an interview that ranks at the top of the most open and honest conversations I’ve ever had with a musical artist. Some of the topics touched on include San Francisco versus Los Angeles; the fear that comes with taking a break; and rumors of musical projects that never go anywhere.
Isaac Weeks: San Francisco doesn’t seem to have the same reputation of pumping out musical talent as Los Angeles. How did coming out of the San Francisco music scene affect you as a performer trying to make that leap commercially?
Pat Monahan: We actually started in LA. Well, I met the previous members of Train in Los Angeles, anyway. They already had a record deal, and I was impressed by that. When you don’t succeed in LA after scoring a record deal, you kind of have to leave, because you’ve tainted the water and have to go somewhere new. We all decided that San Francisco was worth a shot, with the idea being that even if we weren’t successful we’d still be living in what may be the most beautiful city in the country. The venues at the time that we were coming out were perfect for what we were doing, because we started out acoustic. We were able to play a coffee house every day – sometimes five a day – and if you don’t get a chance to perform in front of people to get a sense of whats working and if people are liking you, i don’t know how you can ever become successful. So San Francisco definitely helped shape us, at least out of the gate.
IW: I’ve actually wanted to interview you for a few years now, because something that I’ve always wondered about is the two year gap from 2006 to 2008 where you guys took a hiatus from writing any new material after the album For Me It’s You failed to make an impact commercially. Coming back in 2009, how worried were you that taking that break may have led to the band being viewed as just another nostalgia act from the late 90s, trying to sell concert tickets on the strength of “Meet Virginia”?
PM: Everything about what you just said is right. One of the worst times of my life, yet the best times of my life, were during those two years. The worst was my making bad decisions; I felt very alone, we had the wrong manager, we had lawyers who were getting paid not to do anything. We were hemorrhaging money, while not making any money. Our fans were disappearing, or at least the crowds were thinning out, so the only way to run away from it as the leader of the band – which is a bad thing to do as the leader of anything – was to make a solo record. That wasn’t a good idea, because the intention behind it was dishonest. It would have been one thing if I had said, “Hey guys, I’m doing this by myself, because I want to explore a different sound,” like a country album or something. It was, “I’m going to write songs with different people, which I do anyway in Train, but I’m going to do this album as a way of excluding you so I don’t have to deal with this.” That didn’t work, either. I needed guidance, and a guy named Jonathan Daniel – who is still my manager – said that he would manage me if I would listen to him. I told him, “Man, I’ve been waiting for someone to listen to for my entire career.” So, he told me what he thought the mistakes had been on the previous road and how to avoid those going forward. The one thing I told him that I wanted out of anything was that we came out of San Francisco, but we had forgotten about that, and so anything that we do means having to go back home. He backed that idea, and then he heard a few songs that he thought could become something special. Originally “Hey Soul Sister” was just me and a ukulele, and he thought by doing a few of the right things, it could become a really special song.
The songs that have always broken through for us have always been weird songs. “Meet Virginia” was not something that should have worked; “Drops of Jupiter” shouldn’t have worked; “Angel in Blue Jeans” didn’t work, because it sounded too safe. The things that work for me have always been the things that sound like they shouldn’t, and he recognized that. Instead of me walking around apologizing for being myself, he said, “F*** that, man. This is when you have to embrace it. The thing that we need the most right now is you.” So, that was the shift.
IW: How often do you get the urge to ignore the voice in your head that is trying to lead you in a direction musically that Train fans are more open toward? You wouldn’t be the first band who has over a decade under your belt to suddenly release music that was openly grasping for more current relevance, like a bass drop in the middle of a song for no reason. I’m not saying that Train would do that, necessarily, but a band desperate for a hit might.
PM: If I do have any sense of myself at all…look, if this was all about money or ego I’d be fine with just making the same record over and over; it’s not that hard to rewrite the same song. But striving to record the best song you’ve ever recorded, every single time you walk into a recording studio? That’s about wanting to be something better for myself. I’m still trying to prove to myself that I’m worth having been given the gift of music, when my six siblings didn’t get it. I have to go out and earn that, and keep going out there and earning it, otherwise that is shame on me.
I will point out that, if a musician is trying to do their best work today, that probably means that they can’t have the same sound that they had in 1998. If you do, no one will ever hear it, except for the same people you’ve been preaching to for the last twenty years. What I do is try to put myself in rooms with people that I haven’t done that with, people who are typically younger than me that can make things sound great, and then if it sounds like I’m trying to be their age I have to tell them that that doesn’t work for me. Because I don’t want it to sound like I’m trying to be something that I’m not. However, I don’t want to sink to the bottom of the soup either.
IW: Speaking of the projects that you’ve recorded lately, I wanted to ask you about last year’s Train Does Led Zeppelin II. I know for years that rumors had circulated that, with Robert Plant not being interested in doing a Led Zeppelin reunion tour, your name always came up as the replacement vocalist on a reunion tour. Were those rumors what put the idea of this album in your head?
PM: Honestly, I’ve been wanting to do a Led Zeppelin album for a long time. Train is more different now than its ever been, having evolved with the people who share the stage with me today as more of the originals leave. If you come to a Train show, you’ll see some really special musical talent, and I wanted everyone to hear what a blessed band I have musically. Sometimes people wouldn’t associate Train with great musical talent; I don’t knock that, I get it. We weren’t out there doing Yes arrangements, or shit like that. I did this project to show both how big of a fan I was of the original album, as well as how great a band Train is.
As far as the rumors go about my singing on a Zeppelin reunion tour, I never really heard anything from anyone that would have mattered, like Jimmy Page never called me. In fact, I sent him a letter when we made this record, just so I could have his blessing. There had been rumors in the past about me singing for Van Halen for a while. I have no idea where these things come from, but I’ve never heard anything from the people that could actually make it happen.