A Conversation with Pat Monahan

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By Gary Graff  

Over the past twelve years, Train has grown from the little band that could, into a multi-platinum locomotive, scoring hit singles ("Drops of Jupiter," "Calling All Angels") and Grammy Awards. The ride began in 1994, when frontman Pat Monahan left his native Erie, Pa., and headed west to Los Angeles, where he met a band called the Apostles, whose guitarists, Jimmy Stafford and Rob Hotchkiss, were looking for a new creative situation.

After some low-key woodshedding on the coffeehouse circuit, they filled out the lineup and won a grass roots following in the jam band community, which led to opening dates for the likes of Blues Traveler, Counting Crows and Barenaked Ladies before Train's first album ever came out. Train arrived in 1998, making waves with "Meet Virginia." Three years later, however, "Drops of Jupiter" made a big splash, going double-platinum and winning a pair of Grammy awards, including Best Rock Song for the title track.

Their next release, My Private Nation, kept the hot streak going, and the concert documentary Alive At Last captured the current Train lineup, which still includes Stafford and founding drummer Scott Underwood along with keyboardist Brandon Bush and former Black Crowes bassist Johnny Colt. All five are still on board for the band's latest release, For Me, It's You.

Q: What's your sense of what's at stake when Train puts out a new album?

Pat Monahan: I don't know. (laughs) Hopefully we've got everything to gain. I think of bands like Pearl Jam and think, "Man, I'd love to be able to tour like those guys." They can do arenas all over the world, and they don't try very hard. They don't really do videos and they don't really go to radio and all that stuff. But I like writing songs that appeal to radio. I like being part of that world, the pop culture. So I'd like a little bit of both. But I don't think that there's much at stake, because I feel like we've already established ourselves as a career band, and we'll continue to do that.

Q: Do you feel that the music industry is set up to accommodate a "career band" that may or may not regularly deliver hits or substantial record sales?

Monahan: Well, I know a lot of artists that blame their record companies for their lack of success, and I never really agreed with that. I don't think that's a fair way to view it. When you sign a record deal you're not signing a deal with anybody in any way that you don't know what their goals are. And their goals are different than your goals, so somehow you have to try to meet in the middle. Occasionally you get lucky, where a band and a record company have the same things in mind and the record company is very music-oriented. I think (Columbia's) Donnie Ienner is a very musical leader. He's always been very musical and gets this band. So his goals and our goals are vary similar. He wants us tot be very successful, not just in a record-selling sense, but he wants us to be a band that is known for great songwriting and performing.

Q: What makes the current lineup work so well?

Monahan: It might sound silly, but where we are in our lives as far as development and sobriety is a big deal. Not everybody in the band is sober, but three of us are. I've been sober for eleven years, and when Johnny Colt joined the band, here's a bass player form a debaucherous band, the Black Crowes, and he had been sober for the same amount of time as me. When you're sober, your goals become different. It's less "How rock 'n' roll can I be?" and more, "How much work can I get done?" And when you change, then everybody starts respecting talent, their own talent and everybody else's talent. So in this lineup it has a lot to do with how we respect each other, and we show each other that by the work that we do and by being sober.

Q: Did you have any particular creative goal in mind on For Me, It's You?

Monahan: We really didn't plan on making an album. When we went in to record, it was just to do a couple of songs. We really wanted to see what would happen. And (producer) Brendan O'Brien was like, "Man, this is the best version of this band by far," and he was excited and that's why we continued to make the album.

Q: So did you have to scramble to come up with material?

Monahan: Not really. I moved to Los Angeles last February, and my goal in moving was maybe to pursue acting a little bit, not worry about writing or performing or anything musically. I just wanted to massage a different part of whatever I could be artistically. That's when I did my best writing, when I didn't feel like I needed to scramble.

Q: Were you working alone or with the other guys?

Monahan: By the time we started the album, I had written with Brendan O'Brien and I wrote with Brandon Bush and Johnny Colt, and I've always written with Jimmy and Scott. We just did a lot of different combinations of writing, but we did it in a way that was fun. We weren't really sweating anything. We'd write a whole bunch and see what was great and what was good and what was just plain bad, and then after awhile we just had a lot of material.

Q: How did "Cab," the first single, come about?

Monahan: The first two songs that I think got written on this album were "Cab" and "All I Ever Wanted." I left my marriage two years ago, and they were two of the first songs to kind of reflect that. "Cab's" music was written by Brandon Bush. I actually just played it all the time, just 'cause the music sounded so good, and then I would sing to it and record what I was singing, and the words were just fitting for that time of my life.

Q: It definitely has the sense of separation -- a classic "road" song.

Monahan: Definitely. It's difficult, the transitions of being on the road and being at home, or whatever one would call home when you don't really have one. I call myself a gypsy with a lot of overhead. I don't know that I have a home, but I have a house in Pennsylvania, where my ex-wife and our children are, and a house in Washington state, where my girlfriend lives. It's lonely when you don't have a real home and feel like you actually are the only cab on the road. I think I'm not the only one who feels that way.

Q: How do you insure that such personal songs are universal enough?

Monahan: I don't think anything comes easily, but it does come naturally. I remember listening to James Taylor when I was a kid, probably eight years old, and I loved the way he sounded to me. Those were not songs for an eight-year-old -- they were just songs for everybody, and I just thought that's the kind of writing I wanted to do. I missed Bob Dylan for awhile, 'cause maybe it was too complex for me, and when I listen to Bob Dylan now or Bruce Springsteen now, I go, "Jesus, they're incredible writers." But the kind of songwriting that was making an impact on me was more, like, Cat Stevens or James Taylor. Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith were great, but I don't know if they were speaking to my soul as much as they were just incredible rock bands. I always want what I write about to mean something to more than just myself.

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.