Nowadays, bands that indulge in old-school, radio-ready pop seem to be something of a rarity. The music biz tends to embrace acts that are outrageous, ostentatious, and unusual. And because Train takes a traditional tack that dictates it provide a steady supply of chart-topping hits, it's managed to reach the highest rungs of stardom without resorting to hype or gimmickry.
Still helmed by the original core trio — singer Pat Monahan, guitarist Jimmy Stafford, and drummer Scott Underwood — the band began its trek to the top in San Francisco with a self-released debut album 15 years ago. Six albums on and the Train keeps rolling with tunes like "Drops of Jupiter," "Calling All Angels," and "Drive By."
Fresh off its latest venture, the Sail Across the Sun music cruise that they curate, the band is making a rare return to South Florida for the second-annual Tortuga Festival on April 12.
New Times recently caught up with guitarist Stafford for a discussion of the Train template.
New Times: You seem to have this genuine populist appeal, in that you've cultivated a very devoted group of fans. What do you attribute that to?
Jimmy Stafford: We started out playing clubs and small gigs and literally gaining our fan base one fan at a time. We would play these weekly gigs in San Francisco and our following would grow and grow, but it was so slow that in the early days we literally knew every one of our fans. We would finish a gig and then hang out and have a beer at the bar with members of the audience.
It started out as a very close-knit community at the very beginning before things got bigger and bigger for us and we became a little more detached from our fans. Then the internet happened, things like Facebook and Twitter, and the band developed a website that we were very active on. We would write blogs from the road, and to this day we are very involved with Twitter and Instagram with our fans. We try to make it like they're part of it too, like they're along for the ride with us.
And of course, throughout the years, especially with the last couple of albums, we've begun attracting a younger fan base, and they're computer-savvy, so that they follow us on Twitter anyway.
That seems to be the way bands connect these days.
It's different from when I was a kid. I can't imagine Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith in their early days having been in touch with their fans like we are. I'm not sure it's all a good thing, because it does take away the mystique. Bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd had such a mystique, and I think if they were tweeting with fans the way we do, that would have diminished that mystique to a certain degree. But it's a different age, and we appreciate our fans, so we like to stay in contact with them as much as we can.
Your songs seem tailor-made to secure that embrace. They're filled with these anthemic hooks that practically beg the audience to sing along. Has that been an intentional tack that you've taken?
I don't think so. Our first album had some darker things on there. It's always the poppy-sounding songs and the more upbeat songs that make it on the radio. I think all of our albums have had the darker and more serious material on the records, and those tend to be my favorite songs.
But it's always the happier, more upbeat songs that radio has gone for, so that's really what the public has mostly heard. They hear "Hey, Soul Sister" and on the same record there's a song "Just Saying Goodbye." Or they'll hear "Drops of Jupiter" and on the same album, there are songs like "Mississippi" and "Let It Roll" that are much deeper but not quite as poppy. "Drive By" and "50 Ways to Say Goodbye" were on the radio instead of "We Were Made for This" or "When the Fog Rolls In." We go there, but radio doesn't.
Didn't you guys put out your first album independently because your longtime label Columbia initially turned you down?
Yup. We always say that they made the right decision... twice. We went to New York, and we were told we would have to do a showcase gig for them, and we weren't great at that showcase. That was back in our partying days, and we had been drinking all day, kind of an early celebration thinking we were going to get a record deal. And we went home empty-handed. We weren't ready when they rejected us, so we made our own record, and a year later, they signed us and they put that record out. At that point, we were ready, and we've been with them ever since.
You also seemed to hit it big right out of the box. You had hit singles, you made it to the top of the charts, and garnered some Grammys in the process. Did that set a high bar so that now, whenever you record a new album, you're thinking that somehow you need to equal that earlier success?
On some levels. Every record is different. Early on, we felt a little bit of that pressure to come up with the goods and maintain our success. Part of that meant staying on the radio. We would always make the album we wanted to make, but if there wasn't a hit there, at the end of the day, we would have to keep working until we came up with that song that our management and our record company felt would keep us going. So there was a little bit of that in almost every case. So the pressure usually wouldn't come until the end.
Our last record, California 37, had us more concerned with staying relevant and staying on the radio. "Drive By" was one of the first songs written for that album, so in that case, a little bit of the pressure was off because we had the song right away. Now we can kind of do what we want. That's kind of nice. This new album that we're working on now is very different. It seems deeper to me and a little more adult. There's not a lot of talk about radio. This is the first record in some time where we're just trying to make the best record we can, and we're not going to worry about what the fans or the radio stations might think.
Yet doesn't that come with a risk?
It definitely does, but I think we're in a place where we can afford the risk. It's not like we're taking this record off or thinking we're going to phone this one in. I'm actually more excited about this record than I've been in a long time because it has nothing to do with anything other than good music. There's no radio pressure. There's no record company pressure. It's pretty much like when this record is ready, when we feel that it's great and it's done, we'll put it out. It's a nice way to work.
There always appears to be this conflict with a lot of artists, a divide between the need to appeal to a large audience and the desire to really express a deeper musicality, if you will. It sounds like that's something that concerns you.
Yes. It's definitely a balance that we've been fortunate to maintain. But remember — the songs that the masses hear are the radio songs. Those aren't necessarily what the band's all about. If you were to buy the whole record, you'll hear that. Of course, we hope that there's a song or two that radio plays. Otherwise nobody's even going to know the record even exists. But we're just as concerned about making the record we want to make at this point.