In 2009, the members of Train thought the band might have run out of road. Its third album, “For Me, It’s You,” released by Columbia in 2006, had failed to live up to expectations. Its breakout, multiplatinum debut, “Drops of Jupiter,” was eight years in the rearview, and the success of the San Francisco act’s 2003 follow-up, “My Private Nation,” was quickly fading from sight. Despite sneaking into the top 10 of the Billboard 200 in its first week (at No. 10), “For Me, It’s You” didn’t deliver a Hot 100 hit –– a huge blow for a band with a track record for smash singles and the hardware to show for it.
In the wake of the stalled release, singer Pat Monahan says the band was left wondering if its next album would be its last. But rather than junking the whole operation, Train decided to strip down, reboot and give the group one last go. Step one: a corporate-like housecleaning that included massive layoffs, “business-wise and onstage,” as Monahan puts it, leaving just the original trio — Monahan, guitarist Jimmy Stafford and drummer Scott Underwood onboard.
As it turned out, the move worked. Armed with some demos that would later become the band’s 2009 comeback album, “Save Me San Francisco” –– which yielded the hit single “Hey, Soul Sister,” the second-best-selling digital song of 2010 (4.3 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan) – – the band rebuilt its crew. The most important new hire: Train brought Crush Management onboard, a company that was having success with acts like Gym Class Heroes and Cobra Starship. Monahan credits Crush –– and specifically band manager Jonathan Daniel –– with reviving Train’s fan base.
“What are the chances that Train, the band that disappeared for however long from people’s lives, could come back and have a song that outsells everything else in 2010?” Monahan asks while sitting in his hotel room in New York, where the band is prepping for its appearance on “Late Show With David Letterman.” “Who would have ever made that gamble? Anybody? No.”
But Daniel and Crush not only made the gamble, they won the hand. “Save Me San Francisco peaked” at No. 17 on the Billboard 200; has sold 954,000 copies, according to SoundScan; and spawned three top 40 singles and four adult top 40/triple A hits — including “Hey, Soul Sister,” a five-times-platinum track that won the 2010 Grammy Award for best pop performance by a duo or group with vocals and peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The success of the album sent Train on the road right up until the end of 2011 –32 months total, counting a three-month tour preceding the album’s release. Finally, the group headed into the studio to record its sixth album, “California 37.”
“My dad always said, ‘If you have something important you want done, give it to the busiest person,'” Monahan says. “And it makes sense, because if you’re busy and you’re in the heat of the moment that you’re meant to be in, then just keep throwing things into the whirlwind and they’ll get resolved. A lot of times when you have downtime, you tend to overthink things. Like, ‘Let’s listen to the radio, what do we want to do?’ Instead of, ‘We are part of the radio, let’s just do what we do.’ That’s a way better way to go about it.”
Almost all of “California 37,” due April 17 on Columbia, was penned while Train trekked around the world in support of “Save Me San Francisco.” On days off, Monahan would fly to New York to work on new music, often collaborating with Norwegian songwriting/production duo Espionage — Espen Lind and Amund Bjørklund — who had helped write “Hey, Soul Sister.” After touring wrapped in Asia last November, Train’s members spent a few days at home for Thanksgiving, then flew to Los Angeles to record with producer Butch Walker at his Venice, Calif., studio. And though one would expect plenty of pressure to follow up the popularity of the previous album, Monahan says there wasn’t any sense of anxiety.
“In the past we’ve lied and said, ‘No, it wasn’t much pressure,'” he says. “Or at least we tried to make light of the pressure. And in hindsight, maybe we were telling the truth. But when you look back at it, there was a lot of pressure — mostly our own pressure. What I realized was, we longed for success so badly because we didn’t enjoy the process. When you don’t enjoy the process of something, the only reward is success – – monetary or radio or fame or whatever. So when we were working on this record there was really no pressure, because we’re loving our time together.”
The band’s business team, Daniel says, was likewise unconcerned about Train’s ability to deliver another batch of potential singles. “Writing a hit song is one thing, but writing a song that’s a hit for years, like ‘Drops of Jupiter’ or ‘Soul Sister,’ is really rare,” Daniel says. “And doing it multiple times is really, really rare.” So both the label and management are focused on using the momentum from Save Me San Francisco to propel the new album forward.
The quick release of the album was intentional. “We wanted to turn it around relatively quickly, without compromising the music,” Daniel says, “to capitalize on the success of the last album.” The label promoted the album’s first single, “Drive By,” to radio in mid-January. That single, which was followed by a music video on Feb. 15, has already gone gold, according to the RIAA – – weeks before “California 37’s” release.
Propelled by buoyant acoustic riffs and a hook-laden melody that combines Monahan’s sing-talk vocal croon with soaring choruses, “Drive By” is of a pop-rock style similar to “Hey, Soul Sister.” For radio programmers, the number was an immediate yes.
“I began playing Train in the very beginning, starting with ‘Meet Virginia,’ and everything since then was a no-brainer for the format,” says Charese Fruge, PD for CBS Radio stations KEGY San Diego and Las Vegas’ KMXB and KXTE. “Drive By” had “an instant hook. Train is core for the audience, so it rose to power [rotation] quickly on KMXB and it’s still there. The songs are melodic, sexy, sarcastic and incorporate pop culture, which makes it so relatable to the fans. Not to mention they nail everything live.”
Columbia had spent five months promoting “Hey, Soul Sister” before it took off, aided in part by a placement on “CSI: New York,” Daniel recalls. But this time out, coming off an album that’s approaching platinum and that spawned four airplay hits, convincing fans and radio programmers to reboard the Train is a lot easier. “People remember they like Train now,” Daniel says. “Sometimes when a band has been around for a long time, you’ve got to remind them.”
Since “CSI: New York” was instrumental in the popularity of “Hey, Soul Sister,” the label and band are even more prepared to use TV to promote the new album — and they’re doing it earlier this time, and with more tracks.
Columbia Records Creative Agency senior director Brian Nolan fostered a partnership between Train and ESPN, which is using album cut “This’ll Be My Year” during its “MLB Opening Night” spots. The band will also spend a week as the house band on “The Rachael Ray Show,” performing two tracks per day for five days, and the group recently appeared on the CW’s “90210,” where it performed “Drive By” and “Hey, Soul Sister.”
In addition, Train will launch a third line of wine under its wine label, which consists of a petite sirah called Drops of Jupiter and chardonnay Calling All Angels. The new line, a cabernet named California 37, will debut around the same time as the album. Later, when Train heads out on its U.S. summer tour in July, fans will be able to taste the band’s upcoming partnership with Bay Area chocolatier Ghirardelli, which will involve three types of branded Train chocolate.
“There was a day, when we started making records, when partnering with a brand other than yourself was taboo,” Monahan says. “It turned you from cool to fool really quick. [But now] if you can attach it to something that’s decent, it’s an amazing opportunity.”
But mainly, if you’re only just now getting “Hey, Soul Sister” unstuck from your head, 2012 will only bring more Train singles to take its place. More than one, if the band has its way.
“If we were going to be able to do five or six singles from an album,” Monahan says, “this is the one.”