Train singer Pat Monahan on keeping the hits a comin’
Special to Lake Tahoe Action
If you go
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 21
Where: Harveys Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena
Tickets: $49.50 and up
Train singer Pat Monahan is proud of the group’s latest album, “Bulletproof Picasso,” but he realizes as the group begins its first full U.S. tour in support of the album this summer, it probably won’t be the kind of hit the band had with its two previous albums, “California 37” and “Save Me, San Francisco.”
The latest album hasn’t had the hit singles (“Drive By” from “California 37” and “Hey, Soul Sister” from “Save Me, San Francisco”) that helped take the previous albums to million-plus sales. Of “Bulletproof Picasso’s” three singles, only “Angel In Blue Jeans” went top 15 on any chart, stalling out at number 79 on the all-important, all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart. For Monahan, he suspects that it’s three strikes and out for the latest album.
“On this record, it was very difficult to pick a single. In fact, I don’t think we picked the right singles,” Monahan acknowledged. “Now there are three singles out, and none of them became ‘Soul Sister.’ So I don’t think that we don’t have a record with other hit songs on it. I just don’t think we’ll have an opportunity to go after them now because the record is a year old (actually nine months) and that’s the way that part of the business works.”
That said, Train is taking one more stab at giving “Bulletproof Picasso” renewed momentum. The band released a video for the song “Give It All” on YouTube’s “Soul Pancake” channel in May in hopes of generating a viral buzz that could lead to wider exposure – maybe even radio play – for the song. But Monahan knows it’s a long shot.
“I don’t know what will come of it,” he said. “I’m banking on nothing, but at least people will be able to see this beautiful, incredible video.”
Of course, plenty of good albums have come and gone without hit singles. And picking the right singles is anything but an exact science. Monahan pointed to “Hey, Soul Sister” as a song that didn’t fit top 40 radio trends.
“‘Soul Sister’ was not obvious. It was shocking that it did well,” Monahan said. “We were like ‘Wait a minute, if you listen to pop radio right now, and then you add a song (like “Hey, Soul Sister”) with ukulele on it, we were in a lot of trouble. But then it became what it became.”
What it became, of course, was a song that made Train one of rock’s most popular acts. In fact, the band’s ability to headline the largest outdoor amphitheaters this summer can be credited, at least in part, to the carry-over popularity of that song and the “Save Me, San Francisco” album, as well as 2012’s “California 37,” which had a major hit song in “Drive By.”
But as “Bulletproof Picasso” is showing, there is a drawback to having blockbuster singles – the challenge of trying to write another equally successful song.
Twice before “Hey, Soul Sister” Train had faced this daunting scenario.
The first big hit was “Meet Virginia,” from the band’s 1998 self-titled debut album. It put Train on the mainstream pop map but had many predicting the group would be a one-hit wonder.
But then “Drops Of Jupiter” became such a big worldwide hit that, as Train guitarist Scott Underwood noted in a 2012 interview with this writer, the group was “told by everybody in the music business it’s going to eclipse the rest of our career.”
Train indeed struggled to deliver that type of hit again, as two albums, “My Private Nation” and then “For Me, It’s You,” came and went without the singles that could return Train to the top of the singles charts.
But then “Save Me, San Francisco” and “Hey, Soul Sister” worked their magic and put Train back in the spotlight in a big way.
At least with “Bulletproof Picasso,” Monahan can look back on the album with pride. He feels it’s his best work as a songwriter and his growth, particularly as a lyric and melody writer, will lead to even better songs when it’s time to make the next Train album.
He hasn’t always felt that strongly about Train’s albums. He points to “For Me, It’s You,” an album where some songs had to be written or finished in the studio, as a disappointing effort.
“That’s why we don’t play many songs (in concert) from that record,” Monahan said. “We feel like it’s still unfinished.”
With “Bulletproof Picasso,” Monahan was under a time crunch again. Where the songs on “Save Me, San Francisco” were written over a three-year period, he had just nine months to write the latest album.
As he had done on “Save Me, San Francisco” and “California 37,” Monahan teamed with a variety of outside tunesmiths, including Butch Walker (who also produced most of “Bulletproof Picasso”), Espen Lind and Amund Bjorklund (known as the writing team Espionage) and country writers Matraca Berg and Tom Douglas. It was still a difficult, intensive and ultimately rewarding process.
“It was brutal because I would write verses that were great, but the choruses weren’t great,” Monahan said. “So I’d have to rewrite the chorus because, when I write songs, I write these words and I write these melodies and other people, they help me with the music aspect of it…So trying to write these songs and then revise them and then re-revise and revise again, that is not what I’m good at. So it was a big growth record for me.” Monahan has good reason to be proud of the musically diverse and enjoyable “Bulletproof Picasso.”
The song “Cadillac, Cadillac” blends a reggae-tinged hip-hop beat with Train’s familiar breezy pop. There’s a bit of a spaghetti western accent to the pop-rock sound of “Angel In Blue Jeans.” “The Bridge” has a driving Motown/soul sound. “Give It All” has a bit of a majestic U2/Coldplay touch, as Monahan applies a rarely used falsetto to the chorus. And on “Son Of A Prison Guard” and “Don’t Grow Up So Fast” Train shows its softer side with a pair of fine heartfelt ballads.
Train will give material from “Bulletproof Picasso” a good airing on its summer tour, while mixing up its set list from night to night. In addition to original Train members Monahan and Stafford, the touring lineup will include keyboardist Jerry Becker, bassist Hector Maldonado (they both became touring members in 2009) drummer Drew Shoals (who replaced original drummer Scott Underwood before the recording of “Bulletproof Picasso”) and singers Nikita Houston and Sakai.
“We’re going to play probably seven songs from the new record every night,” Monahan said. “But I want to mix it up and give Train fans a chance to weigh in. I know that we start this tour in California, and we’ll be in California for several days in a row and there will be maybe, not thousands of fans that will come to each show or several shows, but there will be hundreds of them that will. I want to give them a chance to hear songs in San Francisco that they can’t hear in L.A. and in Sacramento…and give people a chance to communicate with us on Twitter either prior to the show or during the show.”
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