Train: The Little Band That Could - Rolling Stone
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Train: The Little Band That Could

With two hit albums, five Grammy nods and a slice of intergalactic white soul called “Drops of Jupiter,” Train have proved they’re here to stay


THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 2129 -- Pictured: Musical guest Train (l-r) Rob Hotchkiss, Charlie Colin, Scott Underwood, Pat Monahan, Jimmy Stafford performs on September 26th, 2001.

Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

T HE GRAFFITI on the white stone gate outside London’s Abbey Road Studios has multiplied, dotted with goodbyes and thankyous that George Harrison will never see. In Studio One, a massive orchestra records the score to Star Wars: Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones. In Studio Two, Train record “Fall Out,” their contribution to the soundtrack for the Mel Gibson Vietnam movie, We Were Soldiers.

In the spacious, boxy room where Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and most of the Fab Four’s greatest work were committed to tape, the members of Train – singer-percussionist-saxophonist Pat Monahan, guitarist-pianist Rob Hotchkiss, bassist-guitarist Charlie Colin, guitarist Jimmy Stafford and drummer-keyboardist Scott Underwood – have set up on the worn wood floor. In a kind of vocal phone booth at one end of the room, Monahan stands with his silver tenor sax in hand and cracks a wry smile as Hotchkiss warms up on piano with a Beatles medley. “He’s going to call his wife after this and shit his pants,” Monahan says, his voice ringing in speech as it does in song. ” ‘Honey, I was in Studio Two, and I played “You Never Give Me Your Money” right where they recorded it – can you believe that!’ “

Train have two utterly hummable radio hits – “Meet Virginia,” a jangly tune from their debut, and the five-times Grammy-nominated “Drops of Jupiter,” a slice of white soul simultaneously reminiscent of Dobie Gray’s 1973 classic “Drift Away” and the polished ditty the Black Crowes never wrote. “Jupiter” – the title track from their second album – landed the San Francisco band in the same Grammy terrain as U2, in such categories as Song of the Year and Record of the Year. But the song they’re recording today is a spacey departure from the rootsy rock they’re known for, with a distinctly Beatlesque piano line and a lush Pink Floyd-style guitar-driven chorus. Monahan sings a verse of the sad, pretty Irish-drinking-song melody before the chorus opens into an expansive, seesaw lullaby.

“You know,” Underwood says, scratching his blond mop during a break, “I can’t think of another band that rips off Pink Floyd and the Beatles quite like that.”

“I know,” Colin says, breaking into the sunny laugh that peppers his speech. “Radiohead don’t do it quite the same way.”

Later that night, at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a 1,200-strong capacity crowd ages fourteen to fifty mill and swill. The venue is Old World gorgeous – purple stained glass in the ceiling, detailed moldings, red walls, three balconies, statues of silver griffins in relief – as far a cry from the Tenderloin-district dives in San Francisco where Train got their start as Abbey Road is from the garage where they cut their demo with a guitar mike made from an espresso cup, Monahan singing in an upstairs bathroom and their amps inside a jeep.

Onstage, Monahan moves with a rumpled shuffle. Behind him, the band members switch instruments regularly, Underwood cuing up a drum loop and playing a Wurlitzer electric piano on the cinematic “Mississippi,” Stafford shifting from mandolin to guitar midsong on “I Wish You Would.” Train capture the timeless elements of classic rock – the singalong melodies, universal stories and hands-in-the-air choruses – that have a building full of Britons singing “na-na-na-na” like they’re American kids growing up in the heartland.

For a band that has been around, slogging it out in dives and finally getting over, Train don’t have a shred of bitterness about them. If anything, they’re overly “aw shucks” about it. At the same time, they’re not a bunch of Doogie Howsers. They’ve lived their rock & roll debauchery – unlike younger bands that find themselves insta-stars, Train partook in excess before they had success. After the group played a picnic show with Hootie and the Blowfish – for a horde of Saturn employees in the Midwest – Colin and Underwood decided to alter the afternoon with hits of Ecstasy. “It was just too G-rated a day,” Colin says. “We had to do something.” By the time they played that night’s club gig, they were orbiting in a Herbie Hancock alternate dimension. “We played our version of a free-jazz Train set,” Underwood says. “Everyone else kept turning around and looking at us, wondering what band we were in.” There was also the time that Underwood rollerbladed through a window. “I was trying to make Charlie laugh,” he says. “He was depressed. We actually billed our management for it as a band expense.” And then there’s the time that Hotchkiss and Stafford ate their remaining blocks of hash on the way to the airport in Amsterdam. “I started writing my last will and testament on that plane,” Hotchkiss says. “I could no longer speak or move. My eyes were so purple they made me put sunglasses on.”

It is clear that they all dig one another’s company, though they hang in separate units – Monahan is usually on his own, spending his off time keeping in close contact with his wife and kids. Colin and Underwood are inseparable, a testament to ten years of playing together in other bands. Hotchkiss and Stafford are another pair, having done time together before Train in an L.A. band called the Apostles.

All of them hail from different locales: Monahan is the baby of seven in an Irish Catholic family from western Pennsylvania, Underwood is from upstate New York, Stafford from Illinois. Hotchkiss grew up moving around, his family accompanying his Pan Am pilot father as far as Berlin before ending up in Southern California, while Colin and his mother, who is a jeweler and artist, moved eleven times before Charlie was in the fourth grade and eventually landed in Newport Beach, California. Hotchkiss and Colin met at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and later played with Stafford in the Apostles. After they broke up, Colin high-tailed it to Singapore for a year to write jingles, then ended up in Durango, Colorado, determined to play music as far from the industry as possible. Monahan, who grew up dreaming of California and making it in music, was, by twenty, the star of Erie’s best covers act. “We played a show once, and David Shelley from Cher’s band saw me singing, gave me his number and told me that I might be able to make it if I went to L.A.,” he says. “I’ve never seen him again, but that guy telling me to go did it.” Monahan, his band and his then-girlfriend (now his wife) made the cross-country move with about $1,000 to their name. After three weeks, the band left.

“My wife is the reason Train is a band,” he says. “She started teaching, and met Rob’s wife and introduced us.” It was a few years before the pair worked together – Monahan and his wife moved back to Erie and had their first child, and he left music behind for a while. “Rob called me and knew I didn’t really have music in my life,” he says. “We wanted to work together, so it was just a question of where. We thought about Austin, Denver – places we would be happy settling down in case our collaboration didn’t work out.” That place turned out to be San Francisco, where they began writing and playing wherever, whenever. “We just started playing coffee-houses, bars,” Hotchkiss says, “anywhere they’d pay us with free beer. Those places eventually realized they should pay us because we were drinking far too much of their booze.”

As the group began to come together, Hotchkiss called Colin and Stafford, telling them he had something special on his hands. When they heard the music and Monahan’s voice, both agreed, Colin bringing Underwood with him from Durango. At first, vocal duties were shared, but soon the natural front-man emerged. “We’d play coffeehouses where people would be talking,” Monahan says proudly, “and I’d go stand on their table until they shut up. It comes from being the baby in the family and knowing how to get the attention.” Monahan’s father, Jack, agrees. “Well,” he says, “whenever he played football, he always wanted to be the quarterback. He’s been playing music since he was a kid. You know, his mother was his biggest fan. She died three years ago, and we’re all pretty sure she’s the one doing all this for them now.”

In the last two years, Train have played more than 400 shows and have the stage panache to prove it. “These aren’t guys who want to do this for two or three years and cash out,” says Train manager Jon Landau, who also manages Bruce Springsteen and Shania Twain. “They’re serious songwriters, they’re serious album makers and they’re serious about putting on a musical, high-quality show.” The Grammy nods – none of the members expect to win – have already sent more attention, more appearances (including at the Olympics) and a longer tour schedule their way. “I can’t even believe we’re in any category with U2,” Stafford says. “I’m hoping Bono will give me one of them if I sit next to him and get him very drunk.” The nominations hit Colin closer to home. “I celebrated by calling my dad for the first time in five years,” he says. “That, and a taco at my favorite stand.”

I WOULD HATE TO THINK THAT ‘Drops of Jupiter’ says it all,” Monahan says. “It doesn’t. It’s not my favorite song. It touched a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, I hope, but I don’t want it to be what it all means for me. I tell people less and less what songs mean anymore, because it doesn’t matter what I think. I don’t know that I care what ‘Kashmir’ is about.”

For Train, the stakes are higher now – Grammy nominations, soundtrack songs, major-league management – and whether Monahan likes it or not, people will want to know what his songs are about, what he thinks about, the type of herbal tea he carries by the case on the road (answer: Butterfly brand Tuocha Yunnan). But spend any time with Train, and it’s clear the attention won’t change them. “We’re the only five people who know what it was like from the beginning,” Monahan says. “You become a family. You’re friends, but nobody’s going anywhere, like in a family.” He stops to make fun of Underwood as his band mate passes through the dressing room after the show. “You get along like brothers sometimes, where you fucking hate each other,” Monahan continues. “Sometimes it will last for months, being kinda pissed at somebody, but then everything’s cool. That’s the way it is in a family. You can really fight without feeling that they’ll leave.”

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