Back on track: Train back on the hit express after slight detour

2012-09-20T00:02:00Z 2012-09-20T06:48:57Z Back on track: Train back on the hit express after slight detourAlan Sculley - Special to the Daily Herald Daily Herald
September 20, 2012 12:02 am  • 

For Train, making its new CD, "California 37," could have turned into an experience similar to a scene from the movie "Groundhog Day."

The band was coming off of a huge hit single in "Hey, Soul Sister" from the 2009 CD, "Save Me, San Francisco." For Train -- appearing in concert tonight at the Gallivan Center in Salt Lake City -- it could have easily been déjà vu all over again. Twice before in its career, Train had scored a blockbuster hit -- first with "Meet Virginia" and then with "Drops of Jupiter."

The aftermath of those previous smashes created issues for Train -- namely how to come up with another hit that would rival what those songs had done.

The first challenge was how to follow up "Meet Virginia," a song from the band's 1998 self-titled debut album, and become more than a one-hit wonder.

"After your first hit, yeah, your sophomore record, that's usually when a band disappears," Train drummer Scott Underwood acknowledged in a recent phone interview. "That's the challenge, to stay relevant. And then we luckily had 'Drops of Jupiter.' "

That was fine and good, but "Drops of Jupiter" also created another round of the kind of pressure the band felt in trying to come up with another "Meet Virginia."

And this time, in Underwood's view, the band did not react the right way to the success of "Drops of Jupiter," which was the title song of Train's second album, released in 2001.

"It was such a big song around the world that we were told by everybody in the music business it's going to eclipse the rest of our career," Underwood said of "Drops of Jupiter." "We'll never have that again. And we were convinced of it. They really convinced us. So what we started working on was trying to write a bigger hit than 'Drops of Jupiter.' And all of our focus and energy went into that. And that's the wrong path to go down.

"We were a band trying to write a big hit song to beat 'Drops of Jupiter' instead of being a band who was just working on writing really great material and putting together a really cohesive collection of 11 songs onto a record," he said. "And so our focus and direction kind of got on the wrong path at that point, and we made [the next two albums] 'My Private Nation' and then 'For Me, It's You.' And then the band started breaking up, and we hired two members. We made all these changes. By the end of 'For Me, It's You,' we were just at the dead end of a bad path."

That's when Train went on hiatus and took time to get some perspective on the band's career and what its next step should be.

By that time, as Underwood mentioned, Train was going through significant changes. Guitarist Rob Hotchkiss and bassist Charlie Colin split from the band before the making of "For Me, It's You," and keyboardist Brandon Bush and bassist Johnny Colt had come on board for that album.

During the break from Train, singer Pat Monahan made a 2007 solo CD, "Last of Seven." Before starting work on "Save Me, San Francisco," the group parted ways with Bush and Colt and slimmed down to its three remaining original members -- Monahan, Underwood and guitarist Jimmy Stafford.

The band also hired new management and decided, after doing its previous three albums with producer Brendan O'Brien, to hire Martin Terefe (known for his work with Jason Mraz and KT Tunstall) to produce "Save Me, San Francisco."

Another big change involved Monahan stepping outside of Train to collaborate with a variety of songwriters, including Kevin Griffin (of Better Than Ezra), the team of Sam Hollander and Dave Katz (known as S.A.M. & Sluggo), Gregg Wattenberg and Ryan Tedder. Monahan had first written with outside tunesmiths on his solo album, and felt it resulted, not only in better songs, but had helped him sharpen his own songwriting skills.

Perhaps the biggest change, though, was in the mindset Monahan, Underwood and Stafford took into "Save Me, San Francisco."

"We had a new attitude. And what we decided to do was take the band back and to kind of refocus our energy into making a great record," Underwood said. "And 'Hey, Soul Sister' being such a big hit was not our intention. That song almost didn't make the record. We weren't focused on 'What's the hit, what's the hit?' The business guys can focus on that. We focus on let's make a great record and enjoy doing this."

"So this record, this is almost like a sophomore record again because we're following up such a big hit with 'Hey, Soul Sister' and such a big record," he said of "California 37." "But we're taking what we've learned in the past and applying it to this record. So when we went in to make this record, we were like. 'Let's still stay focused on making the best record we can make.' "

The music on "California 37," which was produced by Butch Walker, reflects that outlook. It is arguably the most musically diverse album from Train yet. And while there are songs that seem suited for pop radio ("Drive By" and "You Can Finally Meet My Mom" fit the mold of other Train hits), it doesn't seem like a commercially calculated effort. Songs like the almost solo acoustic "Feels Good at First," the rocking "We Were Made For This," "50 Ways to Die" (which builds mariachi horns into what is otherwise a bright rocking pop tune), and the title track (which has a bit of hip-hop mixed into its pop sound) -- give the CD considerable range.

"We've been calling this a very eclectic record for us," Underwood said. "I credit our management in a big way for that because they're really involved in it. We have new management, too, since the last record. And they're called Crush Management. And they really changed our lives and saved our career. We give them 90 percent of the credit. They're just really brilliant guys. They're like family to us.

"With this new record, we were submitting songs to them, and they just have [an outside perspective], they're outside the forest and they can just see in and say, 'Here's what you should put on the record and here's why,' " Underwood said. "And their idea was to make an eclectic record."

Train's success with "Save Me, San Francisco" has allowed the band to step up its live show with a new stage and other visual touches.

"It's just tons of lights and images and it's just gigantic," Underwood said. "We're so excited about it."

The growing number of hit songs, though, has made putting together a setlist a challenge, Underwood said.

"We have six records now and that's a lot of material to put into one show," he said. " We have some old fans who have been with us since the beginning who want to hear a lot of the old stuff. But we have a lot of new fans who really, their first Train song was 'Hey, Soul Sister.' It's a younger audience, so they want to hear all of the new stuff. So what we have to do is cram in a bunch of old stuff among the new stuff. And we've worked really hard on that."

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