Resurgent Train Appreciates New Wave Of Success

Even though Train is responsible for the ditty that by some measures was last year’s most popular song – the ubiquitous “Hey, Soul Sister” – the trio has yet to experience that kind of massive mainstream popularity.

Photo: AP Photo
NBC’s "Today" show, New York City

Although Pat Monahan has fronted the group for over a decade, he’s never been a household name, and people who know the chorus of “Soul Sister” probably wouldn’t be able to name Train’s other two members, guitarist Jimmy Stafford and drummer Scott Underwood.

Monahan acknowledges that kind of anonymous success used to grate on him – but he puts the emphasis on “used to.”

“Being under the radar as a celebrity isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you. I think that maybe that’s the reason for the longevity,” says Monahan.

“For a long time I was disappointed about it. It was like, ‘How come I can’t get on Us Weekly, how come we’re not on the cover of Rolling Stone? What did we do wrong?’ But now I think that we just don’t care like that. That’s not why we started this. … So we’re learning how to have a lot of fun with it and keeping in mind that thinking about celebrity is thinking about the wrong thing. Thinking about the music is thinking about the future.”

Keeping the focus on music has led to a rebirth for Train. The group is nominated for a Grammy Award for best pop performance by a duo or group with vocals next month for a live version of “Hey, Soul Sister,” which is still No. 1 on the adult contemporary chart a year after its release. While it never reached that spot on the overall pop chart, the song permeated pop culture and showed its dominance in other ways: It was featured on “CSI: New York,” in Samsung commercials, was the most downloaded song on iTunes in 2010, and has been certified quadruple platinum.

“Even in other countries where they don’t speak English, that song has been very successful,” said Stafford. “I attribute it to the melody, some really catchy hooks … the ukulele is (also) a really unique sound that people just seem to be drawn to that.”

Photo: Chris McKay /
Center Stage, Atlanta, Ga.

The notion that they’d have one of the biggest-selling songs of any year was doubtful a few years ago. Monahan, Stafford and Underwood, founding members of the band (it started out as a quartet), decided to part ways after a tour that saw Train starting to unravel. The band was coming off an album, 2006’s For Me, It’s You, that didn’t garner the sales or the hits of their previous records, the gold-selling 2003’s My Private Nation, which featured the hit “Calling All Angels”; 2001’s double-platinum breakthrough CD, Drops of Jupiter, which included the Grammy-winning song “Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me)”; or their 1998 platinum, self-titled debut.

“It was really clear to us. We were not getting along and we were not enjoying the process. … We just knew,” Underwood says of the decision to take a break. “It was a really scary choice to make because it was kind of a leap of faith that we would ever get back together again. Also, taking time off in the music business, it’s a very fickle audience. We didn’t know if anyone would ever want to listen to our music again.”

Monahan made a solo record in 2007, Underwood got into real estate and Stafford wrote a novel. But the pull of Train brought them back together, and they started working on what would become the CD Save Me, San Francisco in 2009. Monahan had started writing many of the songs, including “Hey, Soul Sister,” but was unsure of the material. That’s when he had a fateful conversation with Jonathan Daniel, who would become their manager.

“He kept saying, ‘I don’t know if I have the record or not,’ and I said, ‘Let me see what you have,'” Daniel recalls. “He had the record, he had plenty of great songs. … When you’re in something, it’s harder to see the big picture.”

Though Monahan was the lead writer on most of the songs, he decided to tap other producers, including OneRepublic hitmaker and songwriter Ryan Tedder, for assistance, a change from the days when Train’s approach was “only us, no one else is allowed to touch it.”

“We were always a part of every song, but we included other people who were great at it, and now we look at it as a very positive thing,” Monahan said.

Photo: Joey Foley
2010 WNCI Jingle Ball, Columbus, Oh.

They’ve already started working on their next record, collaborating with R&B hitmaker Dallas Austin on some preliminary tracks. While they hope to build on the success of Save Me, San Francisco, which went gold, becoming superstars isn’t their priority.

“They probably haven’t had some of the glory that other people have had, but at the same time they’ve had so much success,” says Daniel. “At the end of the day, if you’re a musician and you play music as a living, it’s pretty great to be successful whenever you get it, whether you get the cover of Rolling Stone or not.”