Two thousand years ago, Jupiter was king of the gods — and twenty years ago, few radio anthems seemed as divinely inspired as Train‘s “Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me),” which was released on March 27, 2001.
Loss is a frequent muse for artists, but when singer-songwriter Pat Monahan went to bed one night and woke up just minutes later with a vivid lyric inspired by the recent death of his mother from cancer, he achieved something rare: A song about loss that soars instead of mourns, leaving the listener with a life-affirming sense of joy and serenity. Grounding the song’s celestial side are the oft-quoted lines from the bridge about “deep-fried chicken” and “the best soy latte you ever had,” detailed lyrics that lend a sense of everyday levity to the spiritually uplifting anthem.
“I was feeling like a kid that lost his mom. Even though I was thirty years old, it felt like I was five,” Monahan tells Billboard about penning the lead single to the group’s second album, Drops of Jupiter. “The song felt like she was writing it — because she was telling me, ‘This is what happens after life. You can do anything you want, swim through the planets…’ and she came back with drops of Jupiter in her hair. It was a way of easing my mind that it wasn’t a bad thing.”
Train had already gone top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2000 with “Meet Virginia” from their self-titled 1998 debut, but “Jupiter” catapulted the San Francisco rock band into the stratosphere. With a masterful string arrangement from Paul Buckmaster and enthusiastic support from Columbia Records president Don Ienner, “Drops of Jupiter” hit the Billboard Hot 100 in March 2001 and rose to a No. 5 peak on June 23, 2001; it earned Train a Grammy for best rock song and Buckmaster a win for best arrangement, instrumental and vocals in 2002.
On the 20th anniversary of the album’s release (which is being commemorated by a bronze edition vinyl and 20th anniversary edition album at DSPs with six bonus tracks), Billboard spoke with Train frontman Pat Monahan for a candid deep dive on the oneiric origins of “Drops of Jupiter,” a shelved music video for the song and the surprising pushback he faced from people who thought the rock staple’s lyrics weren’t “masculine enough.”
Let me start with what I think of as the beginning. I’ve seen interviews where you say the line “now that she’s back in the atmosphere” came to you in a dream, inspired by the loss of your mother to cancer.
Yep, that would be right. It was a longer process than that just because during our first tour with “Meet Virginia,” my mom got sick. She didn’t live long after I was told she was diagnosed with cancer. I was off the road when she finally passed away, it was close to Thanksgiving, and it was terrible, obviously, for all the reasons that it would be. Then we started to record a record soon after that for the Drops of Jupiter album, and “Drops of Jupiter” was not on it.
We had finished the album and, basically, we waited months because the record company didn’t think we had the first single. As we waited, we were writing songs, and the songs were not thought of as special. The pressure was pretty high. At the time, Don Ienner was the boss over at Columbia Records, and we had a rule in the band where we didn’t write outside the band. So Donnie called a meeting where I was supposed to go to New York so he could basically tell me it was time to start writing with some professional songwriters. Couple days before that meeting, I fell asleep and dreamt the entire song — and recorded it the next day, just a little demo of it.
I flew to New York to have that meeting [with that song] in my pocket. I said, “I don’t expect that you’re gonna like this song, but this is what I dreamt.” And he was like, “Ooh! Dream songs, man, that’s where it’s at.” So I played it for him, and by the time it hit “plain old Jane,” he just yelled, “Woo! Song of the year!” He went from “we don’t have a first single” to “this is a career song.”
He said, “We need to get Paul Buckmaster to do the string arrangement” — because Almost Famous was a very popular movie at the time, and it was bringing all these old feelings back about these great string arrangements from Elton [John] and all that. So we hired Paul Buckmaster. And because Brendan O’Brien, the producer of the album, was at the time a native Georgian, he was friends or at least acquaintances with [pianist] Chuck Leavell, also a native Georgian. He came and played and gave the song all that bounce that you hear. He’s a very percussive piano player who did a tremendous job.
I want to back up a bit – when you said you fell asleep and woke up, what are we talking about, a daytime nap? What was the setting?
I was in Erie, Pennsylvania, where I’m from. I had moved my family back there because my relationship with my wife at the time was terrible and we needed to figure out if it was a location thing — and it was not — but we were there, and I fell asleep at night, and woke up maybe ten minutes later and it was all there. I went downstairs and wrote it all out.
I wanted to ask about a few specific lyrics. For starters, why Jupiter? Could it have been Neptune, Saturn?
I don’t know. I don’t have the answer to that.
The soy latte lyric is such a specific detail. Was that inspired by a particular memory?
There were a couple of things. At the time I didn’t even drink coffee, but everybody else in the band did, and they would get soy lattes. It just sounded like a cool drink that I never had. And then I was asked to not put that in there because it was not, I don’t know, it didn’t sound masculine enough or something. And I was like, “I don’t understand that.” I was asked to not put fried chicken in there, and I was asked to change the title, because I only say “drops of Jupiter” once in the whole song.
Is that why “tell me” is in parenthesis on the original release, as “Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me)”?
That’s exactly right. That was Donnie’s idea just because he’s like, “Look, when people go in the record stores, they say, ‘What’s that song, “tell me” something?’ We need to have some type of recognition.” The song was never called “Tell Me” to me. It was called “Drops of Jupiter” and no one ever calls it “Tell Me.” But I understood his thinking. And honestly, whatever he thought was gonna make it work, I supported, because we needed him to be supportive of it.
What was the objection to mentioning fried chicken?
I don’t know. Look, Freddie Mercury used it way before I did [in Queen’s “One Vision“]. I just think people wanted it to be less, I don’t know how to put it…. [The lyrics] seemed quirky, and they thought that could take away from what could be a classic song.
To me, it’s those quirky details that make it land.
That’s what I thought at the time, too. So when I was singing it and people were asking me to change lyrics, I said, “Well, why don’t you tell me what lyric to sing and I’ll try it.” And they were like, “Well, that’s kind of your job.” “Well, then, I’m gonna sing what I wrote. When you guys come up with something better, I’ll sing that.” And no one ever did.
What about the line “best friend sticking up for you / even when I know you’re wrong”? Was that a specific reference to something?
I think that’s the nature of human beings, that’s the kind of best friend you want to have. At the time I had a really good best friend, and that’s probably the way we felt about each other all through our childhood.
So Don Ienner was a fan of the song right away. What was the band’s initial reaction?
I think they were relieved the song that we needed was written. But if they were being honest, they didn’t want those lyrics in there either. There’s a great deal of self-preservation that happens when there is a chance of success. People want to protect what’s theirs. It was a time when we shared publishing no matter who wrote things because I felt like it was a way to keep the band intact. In hindsight, it was basically what drove us apart, instead of bringing us together. [Train went on hiatus in 2006, returned with 2009’s Save Me, San Francisco and has been through a few lineup changes since then, with Monahan serving as the band’s constant.]
How did the actual recording of “Drops of Jupiter” feel?
It was f–king awesome. It was so awesome. We finally could breathe, because we were given the go-ahead on a song, so it was just a matter of “just don’t wreck it.” That’s a pretty fun feeling. The real work in all of music is the song. If you have the song, the recording of it, to me, is definitely the easy part.
So you didn’t do a ton of takes on it.
I feel like I probably sang it eight times. If you didn’t have it by then, it’s like, “Uhh… maybe we need a different singer.”
Do you have any particular memories of working with Brendan O’Brien on the album?
My initial experience with Brendan was so absolutely positive. I really looked at him as a mentor at the time. He was such a talented musician. He was playing a lot of the guitars and piano parts, but Chuck Leavell, that was a great call of Brendan’s. He was like “Look, I can play piano, but we need a really great piano player.” He was a big part of all of that.
So the song comes out. It hits the Hot 100 in March 2001 and by June it’s No. 5 on the Hot 100. Were you watching its rise, hearing it blow up on radio?
The first time I heard it was also in Erie, Pennsylvania. I heard it on a college radio station. This was at like 10 o’clock at night, I think I went to the gym or something and came home and was like, “Wow, they’re finally playing this song.” It felt like the song was on the radio for 15 minutes because of how long it was compared to everything else. At the time I thought, “There’s no way people are going to like this song, it’s just too long.” So it was surprising.
We were traveling so much, really working hard to promote it, we were in Europe. At the time, Jon Landau was our manager, and he was able to secure a spot on the Grammys for us to perform. Those were the things that were really cool at the time more than the chart stuff — but of course when we got back home and learned how well it was doing, it was pretty exciting.
That must have been additionally meaningful to break through with such a personal song.
I never really thought of it until a couple weeks ago. It could have been a fluke song that was the biggest, most meaningful song in my career. I hadn’t thought of how grateful I am that it was this. It means a lot to me and I’ll always be happy and proud and grateful to sing it to people and have them sing it back to me.
At any point, did you get tired of singing it?
I’ve never been tired of it. When I was a kid and going to concerts and singing songs to the music I was listening to, I mean, I felt like I was in the band. So to feel like I created that for other people was like, “Man, how can you get tired of that?”
But I toured with a bunch of bands that didn’t even perform their hits, because their fans thought that pop radio was bulls–t and they wanted them to only play the B-sides, because that was cooler. I don’t think that exists anymore, that whole pretentious thing. Or maybe it does. It never made sense to me. You’re waiting for someone to play their most popular songs and then they don’t come. It seems like a big “f–k you” to the most precious people in their lives.
And then you won the Grammy for best rock song in 2002. How did that feel? Were you surprised?
I think by the time we got that one I was pretty bummed out. We were up for record of the year and song of the year, and those had all passed us. U2 or Alicia Keys had won them, so I think by the time we got rock song I was a bit disappointed. But now, looking back, it was just as incredible to go up there as a bunch of idiot guys that started a band in San Francisco, to go up there and thank the Grammys for recognizing the thing that we created. I wasn’t as grateful in the moment, but I was soon after.
You mentioned difficulties in your marriage to your first wife around then. When the song blew up, was it otherwise a good time in your life?
No. I was writing songs that were like, “I need help.” I was losing my biggest fan and supporter in my mother. My wife Amber is that [now] and I really needed her, but this is years before I met her [the two married in 2007]. It was hard. And the band: It was five guys in the band, buses, everybody thought they were special. It’s like a moving basketball team where everybody thinks they’re Michael Jordan. It was imploding.
So the music videos — there’s the one most of us have seen, where the band is on a big carpet and the audience gradually comes in to Union Station in Los Angeles. Before that was a different version that you didn’t end up using. Were you involved in the decisions around the videos?
That’s so crazy. We threw two videos away on that. [The first video] didn’t make any sense. When Don Ienner saw the video he was like, “What does this even mean?” So we threw that away, that was like a quarter of a million dollars. And later on, 9/11 happened while we were recording the video for “Something More,” and that video concept was me climbing up a high rise building to get to the girl of my dreams. That one was thrown away. It was a strange time. It cost a lot of money to make those.
You have to have a lot of confidence, and that was what Donnie Ienner had: He had confidence he was making good decisions for us — and he was right, and I’ll always be grateful for that. We were all, “Maybe we can edit this to make it look better?” He was like, “Don’t waste the time, just flip it right now. This is too important. We gotta get it right.” He was making the decisions for us. Of all the people we’ve talked about, he’s the only one I still stay in close contact with. Not the band, not Brendan… well, actually Nick DiDia, the engineer on the record, he’s still a good friend and I love him so much. He’s such a talented guy, so funny and such a good golfer, so we have great times. But yeah, it’s funny how 20 years changes everything.
Does it feel like it’s been 20 years?
No. My body feels like it’s been 20 years, but my brain not so much. That’s what they say about age: One day you look at the mirror and go, “What the hell happened?” My brain is like, “Wait, you look like that?!”
“Drops of Jupiter” feels so different than the rest of the album, from songs like the roots rock of “She’s on Fire” or the bluesy “Mississippi.” Did it feel radically different to you at the time?
It felt like the beginning of a new thing instead of the end of one. In retrospect if that had been the first song that had been written and then we could build an album around it, that would have been phenomenal. That could have been a very successful outing. But it’s still cool.
And I wanted to ask about your wine named after it…
We have the Save Me, San Francisco wine company, and on April 1 we come out with a reserve cab, our first higher price point wine, and my winemaker made 220 cases and they’ll probably be gone in the first couple days of going online. It’s spectacular. We started making wine because we’re a San Francisco band and wanted to share the taste of the Bay Area with people while also contributing to Family House, which is our charity. It houses very sick kids and their families at times they need help at UCSF Hospital. Some of these kids are really, really sick. It’s pretty harsh.
That’s very full circle. You wrote the song about your mom who fought cancer, and now proceeds from the wine named after it are going to kids fighting cancer. That’s wonderful. I also wanted to ask — do you own the masters to “Drops of Jupiter” and the rest of the album?
I think that in two years I will own them. I might be wrong but it’s close. I think Bob Dylan just sold all of his songs, didn’t he? What did he get, $120 million?
Dylan sold everything, yes. Neil Young sold half of his publishing rights.
I’ll tell you what, Joe. If you give me a 120 million bucks, you can own “Drops of Jupiter” right now.
If I can make a slightly smaller down payment, I’m in.
A “here’s sixty bucks” kind of thing?
I can swing a cool hundred. Okay, last question. The song is an all-time classic. It’s been performed on American Idol, it’s in Rock Band, Taylor Swift performed it on her Speak Now Tour. When those things crop up, do you pay attention?
When Taylor was out there doing “Hey Soul Sister” and “Drops of Jupiter” I thought that was super cute, and Taylor and I wrote a song together years ago. We don’t keep in touch, but I think that’s nice that she did that and admired what we did. That’s cool.
If you’re in the car now and “Drops of Jupiter” comes on, what are you most likely to do?
I turn it up. Just because, if I’m being completely honest, someone told me that there’s a monitoring system that if you turn a song off or up, a system keeps track of that. So I have my own purpose. [Laughs.]