Train // Play That Song Tour

Pat Monahan knows pop music remains a young person’s game. As the frontman of Train for 20 years-plus, he faces that reality with every new album as he lobbies pop radio to play his group’s latest single.


While he says a few core stations seem ready and willing to play Train, many more now question whether the group, despite huge hits like “Hey, Soul Sister,” “Drive By,” “Meet Virginia” and “Drops Of Jupiter” can deliver on pop radio. Monahan has heard the reasoning.


“We’ve been around too long. We’re old and we’re old school or they want to make room for the kids that are coming up,” he said in a recent phone interview. “So for them to play Train, for a pop station to play Train, we have to have real serious heat.”


Despite the challenges, Monahan isn’t giving up on the notion that Train can remain a relevant pop radio band for years to come.


“I don’t want to be a heritage band yet. I don’t want to make the Train record for the Train fans – not yet. I want to make a Train album for the world,” Monahan said in a recent phone interview.


Monahan, who with the recent departure of guitarist Jimmy Stafford is now the lone original member of Train, has so far been unable to notch another chart-topping hit since 2012’s “Drive By.” “Play That Song,” the lead single from the group’s current album, “A Girl, A Bottle, A Boat,” showed some signs of life, going top 10 on “Billboard” magazine’s Adult Contemporary and Adult Top 40 charts, but stalled out at 41 on the all-important all-genre Hot 100 singles chart.


Still, Monahan feels he’s only one single away from getting back into favor with pop radio – and “Play That Song” demonstrated that Train appealed to a young audience.


“I work for every bit of what we get (at radio),” Monahan said. “Like nothing is ever free with this band. Like we have to go through hell to get anybody to play any of the music that we have. Then when it becomes a hit, they’ll play three other songs from the album, because then it works. They’re in the business to sell advertising. They want to make sure their listeners are responsive to it, and they sometimes feel like Train will not appeal to young kids. However, for weeks (with “Play That Song”) we were the most requested song on Disney Radio, with 25,000 requests a week.”


It makes sense that Monahan keeps an eye on radio and pop music trends. (“I pay close attention to all of it and I try to be a fan of it,” Monahan said. “I want to learn from it and maybe even use some of what I’m hearing.”)


Hit singles have played a major role in building Train’s audience. The first big hit was “Meet Virginia,” from the band’s 1998 self-titled debut album. It put Train on the mainstream pop map, but it had many predicting the group would be a one-hit wonder. Instead, Train answered those doubters with another top 5 hit in “Drops of Jupiter,” the title song from the group’s 2001 sophomore album. Then the 2003 album “My Private Nation,” gave Train another multi-format hit single with “Calling All Angels.”


But as Train established itself as a hit-making act, tensions within the band had been growing. Before making the fourth album, “For Me, It’s You,” the group split with bassist Charlie Colin and guitarist Rob Hotchkiss, leaving Monahan, drummer Scott Underwood and Stafford as the core band members. “For Me, It’s You” failed to register at radio and Train then went on hiatus while Monahan made his 2007 solo album, “Last Of Seven.”


That project found Monahan collaborating for the first time with outside songwriters, and he continued to use that approach when Train reconvened to make the career-reviving 2009 album, “Save Me, San Francisco,” which featured the six-times platinum single, “Hey, Soul Sister” and two gold-certified singles, “If It’s Love” and “Marry Me.” The band then solidified those successes with the top 10 hit “Drive By” from the next album, 2012’s “California 37.”


But Train hit another bit of a bump in the road after that. Prior to the recording of the next album, “Bulletproof Picasso,” Underwood left the group. And although Monahan teamed up again with several of the same songwriting/producing collaborators from the previous two albums — including Butch Walker and Espen Lind and Amund Bjorklund (known as the writing team Espionage) – “Bulletproof Picasso” failed to extend the string of major hit singles.


Following that album, Monahan and Train took a couple of musical side trips, releasing the holiday album “Christmas in Tahoe” in 2015 and a remarkably faithful re-make of Led Zeppelin’s second album on the 2016 release, “Train Does Led Zeppelin II.”


In going into “A Girl, A Bottle, A Boat,” Monahan brought in several new songwriting/production collaborators, with William Wiik Larsen, Jake Sinclair and the team of Neff U and Priscilla Renea playing major roles. Staying current for radio was a consideration in this move, but Monahan wanted to change things up for another reason.


“I think it’s important to not overstay your welcome. And people get very comfortable, including me, and I don’t think that’s always good,” he said. “So on this album, I asked my manager, ‘Would you please put me in a room with people that I’ve never met.’ And I find that the younger the better because they haven’t been (tainted) by what I know. There’s already one of us in the room. We don’t need two. So getting around 30-year-olds and even younger than that, it was just the vibe was incredible.


“I’m not trying to be a kid,” Monahan explained. “I’m trying to be who I am, but work with people who can help me get the version of who I am so that it makes sense today.”


There is a distinctly youthful, upbeat and modern/synthetic feel to “A Girl, A Bottle, A Boat.” “Drink Up” has the kind of shout-along chorus and dancey vibe that’s common in today’s pop music. “Lottery” takes a similar approach, only with an island vibe. There’s also a celebratory vibe to the family-and-friends-themed “Lost and Found.” On “The News,” “What Good Is Saturday” and “Silver Dollar,” Sinclair brings his talents for incorporating into the songs the kind of offbeat, but highly hooky, instrumental nuggets that are popular these days into the production.


But for all that’s modern about “A Girl, A Bottle, A Boat,” there are also a couple of distinctly retro moments. The song “Valentine” has a 1950s-ish doo-wop influence. And more notably, on “Play That Song,” Monahan uses the melody from the 1938 Hoagy Carmichael standard “Heart and Soul” to anchor the poppy tune.


Train’s show this summer will play off of those retro elements with its visual production.


“It’s called the ‘Play That Song’ tour,” Monahan said. “Basically, it will be similar to like a jukebox kind of stage, and then we’ll play songs throughout the (Train) eras that represent kind of our music, but mostly the new music from this album because I feel like this album is in a lot of ways a throwback as far as what we tried to do…So we want to capitalize on the fact that we did that.”


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