Brooke Clark

Train’s Journey From Pennsylvania and the Bay to Beyond

On the heels of NYC hosting Definitely Not A Tour tomorrow night comes our new interview with Train, which is ‘definitely not a cover story.’

Any fan of popular music during the past quarter century will likely recognize many hits by the San Francisco rock band Train: “Meet Virginia,” “Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me),” “Calling All Angels,” and “Hey, Soul Sister,” among many others. As the band gears up for an extensive tour (stopping at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City on May 2), frontman Pat Monahan tells The Aquarian that they’ll play these familiar songs – and a few surprises – at these shows.

“They can expect to hear their favorite Train songs,” Monahan promises fans, “and we always try to change some of the setlist so that it’s fresh to us and everybody who has already seen us. We’ll have maybe new cover songs, and songs from past records that we don’t play all the time. I think it’s a good time for the whole family.”

It’s a particularly significant year to see Train because this is the 25th anniversary of their self-titled debut album, though Monahan admits, “I don’t think about those things maybe as often as I should.” But it was an auspicious start: their very first single, “Meet Virginia,” became a massive hit in multiple countries, including climbing as high as No. 2 on the U.S. charts.

Since then, they’ve become one of the top rock acts in the world, with 10 million album sales, 14 charting singles, and the top downloaded single of 2010 with “Hey, Soul Sister”. They also recently surpassed one billion streams on Spotify, joining the coveted Billions Club.

Monahan, the sole constant member of Train, has a theory about why his music has resonated so strongly with listeners: “I think I found a home for certain people that like what I do, and they stay with me because they think I’m loyal to them and they’re loyal to me. I don’t think I’m ever pretentious. I’m originally from Erie, Pennsylvania, so I don’t really know how to be something that I’m not, I guess.”

He also credits his formative years for shaping his memorable songwriting style. “My father was a huge fan of a songwriter named Johnny Mercer, [who] wrote lyrics and melody different than anyone else in that era. I think I just was listening more than I thought I was when I was a kid, so he has become probably my favorite lyric writer. Instead of saying, ‘the Northern Lights,’ he would say, ‘the aurora borealis’ – that’s more poetic and beautiful. So I try to do that more often,” he shares.

It was when he was in the eighth grade that a pivotal moment revealed his special gift for music. “I was in a carpool on my way home from basketball practice with a bunch of boys, and there was a Michael Jackson song on [the radio]. Everybody started to sing it, including myself – and then everybody stopped and looked at me like, ‘What is coming out of that guy?’”

Monahan, who hadn’t ever sung for anyone before, was immediately struck by the way this earned him respect. “That was a really cool moment for me,” he says. “It was the first time my peers recognized something in me that was above average.”

He was 16 years old when he started writing his own songs. “I remember the first lyric I ever wrote was a song called ‘Full House Hand,’ and it was about being in love and comparing it to a poker game. It was pretty bad!” Monahan notes with a laugh.

He went to college, but quit after only a month because he realized that it just wasn’t the right place for him. Instead, he decided to pursue a full-time music career, which eventually necessitated a move away from his rural PA hometown. 

“I remember the moment that I decided to leave,” he shares. “I was in a cover band in Erie, and Cher’s band was playing the [local] arena. After Cher’s concert, her band came to where I was playing and her guitar player, David Shelley, came up to me and gave me his phone number. He said, ‘I live in L.A., and you have what it takes.’ He thought I was a really good singer and had stage presence and the thing that it would take to get people to come in and listen. It really was the inspiration that made me think, ‘If somebody like that thinks I can do it, then why can’t I?’” 

He moved to California with only $400 in his pocket. He confides in us that “it was very scary.” Although he adds that he never thought about quitting and returning to Pennsylvania. “When you don’t really have a lot of options, I think that’s when it can become something. I didn’t have a backup plan, so this was my only chance.”

He ended up in San Francisco where he formed Train in the mid-1990s. That city had previously served as a launch pad for another massively successful rock band, Journey, and when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017, Monahan was the one chosen to give the introductory speech at the ceremony.

“There’s a lot of comparisons between Train and Journey,” he tells us. “We are a Bay Area band and so are they. I think for many years they were selling a lot of tickets, but critics were not fans… but you don’t really need critics to be fans; you just need fans.”

In fact, Monahan says, ignoring the naysayers is a crucial skill for any aspiring musician to cultivate. “Find out what you are, and then do that. You can always continue to be you and try to find success – but if you’re successful trying to do something that isn’t really who you are, then you may have to end up keeping up that front for the rest of your career. That can be difficult.”

He has followed his own advice with Train, which has obviously been a winning strategy. “We just worked really hard to get people to like us. We try to stay true to who we are, hope people find something in it, and just keep doing that.”