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They Did It the Old-Fashioned Way: There was no overnight express to fame for Train, which toured relentlessly to earn a share of celebrity.

Train Keep a Rolling

Can rock stars have a Puritan work ethic? Train, of 'Meet Virginia' fame, toils hard for the money

By Gina Arnold

THE WORDS "rock star" used to conjure up a vision of a life of ease and glamour. Indeed, the popular image of such a person was the closest thing to the life of a Caesar the 20th century managed to provide. Hey, even if naked women weren't fanning him with palm fronds, then at least he wasn't working a 9-to-5 gig in construction or data-entry.

These days, however, it is to be hoped that all putative rock stars-in-waiting know the reality of the job description. Success requires just as much in the way of hard work and long hours as becoming a doctor or lawyer, and no band exemplifies this better than Train, the semilocal outfit responsible for the hit single "Meet Virginia."

Train's daily life is one long homage to the Puritan work ethic. Right now, for instance, Train is on the first leg of what may end up being a two-year tour to promote its second LP, Drops of Jupiter. Train is also doing interviews, flying from coast to coast to appear on TV, furiously writing songs for its next record and booking studio time to record a live version of the Led Zeppelin song "Ramble On" (which Train played on the radio in New York last week).

In short, far from basking in the glory of fame, the band eats, sleeps and dreams the business of music, a strategy that has resulted in some hard-won success. Train's first, self-titled album sold more than a million copies in the course of the last four years. Its second, Drops of Jupiter, debuted two weeks ago at No. 6 on the Billboard charts, which is pretty remarkable for a band that had almost no name recognition whatsoever.

There are hundreds of bands in the world with a much higher profile that have sold many fewer records. Thus, when speaking with Train, one's first question is inevitably, How'd you get so far?

ACCORDING to guitarist Jimmy Stafford, speaking by phone from the set of The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn in L.A., the answer is simple. The band members worked their butts off.

"For us," Stafford says, "it's been such a long road to success. The record was out for years before 'Meet Virginia' was a hit; we'd been around the country three times by then. It's been a long, slow gradual thing, which we hope translates into us lasting a long time."

Train's sound, like that of the Counting Crows, judiciously melds classic-rock influences, from the countryish stylings and multi-instrumental folksiness of the Grateful Dead to a distinct penchant for Led Zeppelin, with a little bit of Dylan thrown in for good measure.

The band doesn't sport a very recognizable physical presence--no heartthrobs here--but has made up for that with a video starring Rebecca Gayheart that was played on VH1.

Like many old-style young bands, Train does evince a touch of the jam-band and considers itself more of a live act, like Phish or the Grateful Dead.

"But we want to be recording artists, too, like U2, Springsteen or R.E.M.," Stafford adds. Those are big goals for us to reach for, but we hope we'll be around long enough to make them a reality."

The band considers that it got where it is the old-fashioned way, by touring its way to the top of the charts, but certainly the success of "Meet Virginia," which was a Top 10 video on VH1, hasn't hurt. The song, Stafford says, has almost been an albatross around the band's collective neck.

"That's why the [instant] success of Drops has been so great--it's a really nice validation for us. We're finally becoming Train and not just the 'Meet Virginia' band."

In fact, Drops of Jupiter was recorded over a year ago, in the midst of one of Train's many, many tours.

"We jam a lot at sound check, and then we record it all," he explains. "Then Pat [singer Pat Monahan] is given the responsibility of sitting down with all the tapes--about 200 or so sound checks--and listening to them and narrowing them down to 20 things we can use. Then we write and finish them up in preproduction."

Monahan also writes the lyrics. "He dreamt the lyrics to Drops of Jupiter," comments Stafford. "He woke me up in the morning with the melody and the lyrics, and we put together a piano-demo version of it. It was really easy. 'Meet Virginia' was the same; it just slid right out. We didn't really even think much of it at the time."

Another example of Train's career-mindedness could be its association with San Francisco. It is usually called a "San Francisco" band, but the title is a little bit spurious. The band members are in fact from all over the country--Stafford, for instance, hails from suburban Chicago--and none of them currently resides there. They all met in L.A., where three of them were in a band called the Apostles. When the Apostles disbanded, they decided to regroup as Train and relocate to somewhere "not as much under the microscope as Los Angeles."

They chose San Francisco, Stafford says, "because we wanted to be somewhere beautiful and enjoyable. We initially thought of Austin or San Francisco, and we ended up choosing San Francisco because we're friends with the Counting Crows, and they were here, and they advised us to come here to develop ourselves naturally, in coffeehouses with no press or media keeping an eye on us."

Train took the advice. They played, Stafford recalls, places like the Blue Lamp and the Blue Front Cafe, the Mad Dog in the Fog on Haight Street, the Paragon, the Paradise Lounge--"Any place where they had an open-mic night, we played, and people would come to see us. We never called people up and said, 'Come see us'; our following just developed naturally."

TRAIN ONLY PLAYED around San Francisco for a year or so before coming to the attention of Aware Records. After recording Train, the band went on the road, pretty much indefinitely.

Now no one lives in the Bay Area, except bassist Rob Hotchkiss, who has a place in Sonoma. Stafford lives in Las Vegas, Monahan lives in Erie, Penn., guitarist Charlie Colin lives in L.A. and drummer Scott Underwood, says Stafford, "is basically homeless."

But where they live, says Stafford, is irrelevant, since they're kept so busy touring. "And when we do get a break, it's not like we want to see each other," he admits. "There's no, 'Come over for dinner tonight'--it's more like, 'Don't call me! Beat it!"

That may sound harsh, but Stafford figures it's the natural result of years living in each others' pockets. "We've gotten used to it," he says, "but the first couple of years were tough, living together in a van in close quarters, driving to show after show that only had 50 people at them.

"Early on," he adds, "you're still learning how to live with a group of guys and are kind of awestruck by all the new cities ... and of course you have to try to be a quote-unquote rock star, so you do all those things pretending you're a rock star, like partying after the gig.

"Now that we are rock stars, we don't have to do that stuff. And we don't argue anymore either. ... We're more like a well-oiled machine. Now, it's a lot more comfortable. We're out of the Motel 6 thing, which is fortunate.

"But the best thing is just knowing that people will be at our shows. Before, there was always that fear--'What if they don't like us?' Now, they're there because they want to see us. We don't have to go out and convince them. We all want to be in that room together, and that's what makes it great."

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From the May 3-9, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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