Interview: Train, kings of the comeback

Back on top with their latest album, the veteran rockers play Preakness Saturday

  • Train performs Saturday at the Preakness Infield Fest.
Train performs Saturday at the Preakness Infield Fest. (Handout photo, Baltimore…)
May 18, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

Train, the band responsible for "Drops of Jupiter" and "Meet Virginia," knows its audience.

"For the most part, I'd be accurate in saying soccer moms were big Train fans," says lead singer Pat Monahan.

Those songs, popular through the late '90s and early 2000s, made them an unavoidable presence on adult contemporary radio. But with their fifth album, "Save Me San Francisco," they've broadened their fan base to include the soccer moms' daughters too. First single "Hey, Soul Sister" has been certified platinum five times, and scored a Grammy just this year, beating younger acts like Paramore and Maroon 5.

That wide audience made the band, now in its 16th year, a natural fit, maybe the most natural, for the new Preakness Infield, where organizers have tried for the past couple of years to create a carefully balanced atmosphere in place of the debauchery of the BYOB years: fun, but not too rowdy; drunken, but not too plastered.

"You want to play in front of a crowd that's warm but not over the edge," Monahan said of his ideal audience. "You know when you're drinking, depending on your level of alcohol, on your third or fourth beer, you're like, 'I'm feeling better than ever,' then by your eighth or ninth, you're like [drunken gibberish]. We want to catch them at the halfway mark."

The band performs at Pimlico Race Track on Saturday after Maryland's Hotspur and before Bruno Mars. Puddle of Mudd, Phil Vassar, and Mr. Greengenes will also play on a second stage at the tracks.

The show comes after a big comeback year for Train.

After forming in 1994 in San Francisco, the band — which now consists of Monahan, drummer Scott Underwood and guitarist Jimmy Stafford — had a couple of hits like "Meet Virginia" and "Drops of Jupiter" that, while not critically acclaimed, endeared them to the soccer mom set, and presumably made them tons of money.

In 2006, following the commercial disappointment of the album "For Me, It's You," they took a three-year hiatus.

"We needed to clean the slate and change," Monahan said. "We needed a break first so we could have a moment to breathe, some time to appreciate each other once again."

In that time, Monahan released his own solo album, which also flopped. When they returned to writing new material in 2009, Monahan said, they had a new outlook.

"Being in the music business and surviving this long is a feat in itself. When we started writing it we thought, 'We've made enough records trying to be on the radio and failing,' " he said. "'Why don't we make a record where we can enjoy the process and touring?'"

With few expectations, Monahan said, they spent six weeks recording what would become "Save Me," half of it in London and the rest in San Francisco.

Monahan didn't realize they had another hit on their hands until they kicked off a string of promotional shows in Chicago, where they hadn't played in years. Monahan was surprised at the turnout; at the time, "Hey, Soul Sister" had just started to get radio play.

"There were 5,000 teenage girls there. I thought, 'We must be opening for Hanson,' " he said. "It's been like that all over the world."

The highlight of their year was another Grammy Award, for best pop performance by a duo or group.

"Going to the Grammys was another amazing part of our adventure," Monahan said. "We really didn't count on winning. We counted on 'Glee' winning."

The album's success has given them a platform to tour widely, and in July, they'll kick off a co-headlining tour with Maroon 5. After that's over in October, they plan on going back to the studio to record new material. Nine songs are already written, and nine more should be ready by the fall. Monahan expects a new album to be released in early 2012.

He insists the live show is where fans will see them at their best. At the infield, they'll perform with two other musicians and do a set-list consisting of new and old material, lots from "Save Me San Francisco," as well as some covers.

But his show will be more in keeping with the feel infield organizers love: cordial, comfortable, easy to listen to.

"We're a good family band, but in a way that's not boring," he said. "I always like to turn it into more of a party, invite people on stage, give people a chance to sing and dance."

If you go

Train performs at 1:10 p.m. at the Infield at Pimlico Race Course, 5201 Park Heights Ave.. Bruno Mars and Hotspur will also perform. Tickets are $40. Call 410-547-7328 or go to

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