Less Is More: After More Than a Decade, Train Still Makes It Happen

The band Train has been around the block, and then some. Back in the mid-1990s concertgoers may have known them as the guys who opened for the Dave Matthews Band, Collective Soul, Blues Traveler and Counting Crows.

But now in 2006, shortly after the release of its fourth album, "For Me, It's You," Train is the headliner.

What began in 1994 as two guys -- founders Pat Monahan and Rob Hotchkiss -- jamming with guitars in barely-there San Francisco coffeehouses, has evolved over the last decade into a chart-topping powerhouse with a diverse fan base. Case in point, its Yahoo fan club is led by members between the ages of 18 and 50.

And its new product is better than ever, more heartfelt, Monahan says. Much of the change is due to the rocky times he's faced over last few years. Between 2002 and 2005, Monahan divorced his wife, learned that a dear friend had committed suicide, and parted ways with two of Train's band members, Charlie Colin and Hotchkiss, the band's other founder.

"Just the change of relationships in my life played a big role in writing the music," Monahan says. "I guess everyone's on a different trip for different reasons, and we're all supposed to learn different things by it, and instead of being disappointed be inspired. That's what I'm going for."

Album sales indicate that fans believe Monahan's new music is worth following. "For Me, It's You" rose to the top 10 on the charts shortly after its January release.

The album includes two new band members, bassist Johnny Colt, previously with the Black Crowes, and keyboardist Brandon Bush, who used to tour with John Mayer and Shawn Mullins. Jimmy Stafford on guitar, Brandon Underwood on drums, and Monahan complete Train.

Monahan considers himself a lyricist first and foremost, while the other members compose most of the musical arrangements.

"All I can do is write music from my generation. I just write whatever is necessary to express myself, and I guess everyone seems to like it, from grandmothers to their grandchildren to my own children," Monahan says.

On The Road

Touring and endless "gigging" are part of what define the character of Train, Monahan says.

"Performing live is going to be a large part of this band's legacy, because so few bands from the time we started are still around," Monahan says. "When you look at bands like Aerosmith, there's a great deal of music in their repertoire, and a great deal of respect. I think we will be in that category."

The group hit the road after releasing its self-titled first album in 1998. Now, eight years later, Monahan is touring until October.

"I've been on the road forever," Monahan jokes. "Please help me!"

In addition to touring and performing, Monahan is the father of an 8-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son, who stay with his girlfriend while he travels.

"It was difficult those first few years, especially since in the beginning I had a son and was working every day painting houses, leaving every night to build a career in music playing small gigs," he says.

But though his music career keeps him moving, music also helps him connect to the family he loves and misses, he says.

The song "Skyscraper" on the newest album, he wrote specifically for his kids. And "Always Remember" is a tribute to the friend who took his own life last year.

"I really loved the relationship that he had with my kids, and I wish that could continue," Monahan says, also crediting this friend with introducing him to his current girlfriend.

While the sacrifices have been well worth it, the living hasn't always been easy, Monahan says.

"My kids and girlfriend are frustrated, but at the same time they appreciate what I do, I hope," he says. "And if my children are watching me live out a dream, maybe that will inspire them to do the same."

Those Funky Lyrics

People recognize Train more for its music than its image. Those whimsical, sometimes abstract lyrics are what lots of fans say get to them about Train.

"Drops of Jupiter," Train's 2001 hit, which spent 53 weeks on Billboard's Hot 100 Singles chart and won a Grammy for best rock song, contains the lyrics "Can you imagine no love, pride, deep-fried-chicken? Your best friend always sticking up for you even when I know you're wrong."

Though it might seem that many of his songs focus on one object of Monahan's affection, that is far from the truth. The "you" in each song changes constantly, Monahan says.

For instance, the 1998 hit "Meet Virginia" isn't supposed to allude to one woman who "only drinks coffee at midnight" and "wears high heels when she exercises," as the lyrics initially suggest. Virginia is really a fusion of some of the beautiful and interesting women Monahan says he has met.

"We were playing softball with the guys from Counting Crows," Monahan says. "And a guy from the band had a girlfriend who decided to play in the outfield in heels, and ended up just kicking ass. So when I was writing 'Meet Virginia' I thought of her and how oddly great she was."

And "Drops of Jupiter," which sounds like a ballad for a love interest, is really based on Monahan's mother, who died shortly before the album was recorded in 2001.

"I just find women to be more patient and more beautiful and more perfect then they give themselves credit for," Monahan says.

The Impact of Fame

Train's progression to stardom has been slower and more unconventional than for many musicians who find themselves on top of the charts.

"Although if I get pulled over for a speeding ticket, I might get lucky because the officer will know my music," he jokes.

But perhaps that lack of immediacy and paparazzi pressure are what has allowed Train members to master their craft, unthreatened by time.

"You can't convince people of your potential and have it mean anything. It took years of songwriting and performing to prove ours, as lots of great music artists stand to show the same," Monahan says. "But the wonderful people of San Francisco responded to us years ago, and now our job is to keep people interested in our music, seeing it as something they can grow old to."