Right out of the gate, it was songs that made Train roar. The band’s eponymous debut album, from 1998, featured “Meet Virginia,” a rootsy, well-constructed piece of pop-rock found a solid place on the airwaves. Three years later, Train topped that effort, as “Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me),” from the album “Drops of Jupiter,” became a monster hit, winning the Grammy for best rock song and earning additional nominations for song of the year and record of the year. The song also showed a band coming into its own as maker of the form known as the hit single. “Drops of Jupiter” featured catchy lyrics, dynamic build-ups and drops, string arrangements, an impassioned vocal by singer Pat Monahan, and even a “na-na-na-na” sing-along chorus. Train solidified its reputation as a hit machine with “Calling All Angels,” the opening track from the 2003 album “My Private Nation,” which was nominated for a pair of Grammys. Some years later, it became the unofficial anthem for the Los Angeles Angels baseball team, played at all home games through the 2010 season.
And it was a song that saved Train. The band crashed hard in the mid-’00s. Amid personal problems, creative differences and membership changes, Train released “For Me, It’s You” in 2006. It was the first album in the band’s career to fail commercially, and the band took a break that ended up lasting three years. But when they came back, in 2009, they were welcomed warmly on the strength of a 31/2-minute piece of pop, “Hey, Soul Sister,” from the 2009 album “Save Me, San Francisco.”
“We didn’t know if anybody was going to care, if any of our fans were going to be around for us,” Jimmy Stafford, the guitarist who became a ukulele player for the sake of recording “Hey, Soul Sister,” said from San Francisco. “But the bottom line is music. Radio had always been real kind to us, and the song we gave them was a pretty undeniable song, and it became a hit. That was a pretty nice welcome back to the music business.”
“Hey, Soul Sister” didn’t bring only the old Train fans around. Stafford says the band has seen a whole new crowd get on board. And the second round of success transformed the entire attitude among the group, which still features the original trio of Monahan, Stafford and drummer Scott Underwood. “Save Me, San Francisco” yielded several more hits, including the title track, which alluded to the band’s original hometown, and “If It’s Love.” That momentum carried through to the album “California 37,” from 2012, and the top 10 hit “Drive By.”
When Train makes its Jazz Aspen Snowmass debut today, on a bill with the headliner, country star Keith Urban, and the country-pop band Little Big Town, it arrives as a certifiable hitmaker, sure to draw a crowd of people, mostly young, swooning when they hear the opening licks to “Hey, Soul Sister” and “Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me)” and shouting out the lyrics.
“I think people can tell when the energy’s weird and you’re not having a good time. And they can tell when you’re excited,” Stafford said. “A lot of our comeback had to do with our attitude. We were much happier.”
That glowing vibe might have had something to do with the song Train chose to contribute to “The Music Is You,” a John Denver tribute album released earlier this year. The album has Train doing a gentle version of “Sunshine on My Shoulders” built on acoustic guitar.
Train began chugging in Los Angeles in the mid-’90s, as the Apostles, featuring the Illinois-bred Stafford, crossed tracks with the Pennsylvania-born singer Monahan. When the Apostles broke up, one of the members moved north to reconnect with Monahan in San Francisco; they were eventually joined by Stafford.
In the early years, the band’s sound was closer to roots rock.
“The first album had hints of country, blues, regular rock,” Stafford, who now lives in Nashville, noted. “But some evolution happens naturally, like anything in life.”
Stafford said some of the changes in the band’s sound had to do with new members coming in. Even if the core of the band has remained the same, the new musicians left their impact. “Like a basketball team — you change the members, and it changes the whole team.”
Perhaps an even bigger influence was Monahan’s decision to write songs with people from outside the band. Where the entire “Drops of Jupiter” album was credited to Train, “Hey, Soul Sister” and “Drive By” were both written by Monahan with the Norwegian writing team of Espen Lind and Amund Bjorklund.
“The chemistry has changed,” Stafford said. “The writers have changed, who’s contributing songs. Pat’s gone outside the band to bring in co-writers, and that’s for the better. Some of the songs that come in with outside writers, we contribute our parts, tear the song apart and put it together our own way.”
Stafford said that, even as Train has become known for pop singles, there is room for all different approaches. Some songs are still made up by a group of guys sitting around a recording studio.
“We don’t try to write a certain type of song. We don’t say, ‘Oooh, that’s not a Train song,’” he said. “If it sounds good, we’ll play it.”
Over nearly two decades, Stafford has developed a skill that can be most valuable in the recording industry — the ability to sense a hit.
“Personally, I’ve had a pretty good ear for that,” said Stafford, who turned to guitar rock — especially his early heroes Led Zeppelin and AC/DC — after realizing he was too small for football. “Pat — I don’t think he knows. He gets deep into the song and tends to fall in love with all his songs. And every once in a while there’s an ugly kid in there. And sometimes he’ll bring in a song that he’s not excited about, like ‘Save Me, San Francisco.’ I said, ‘That sounds like a radio song.’ And he said, ‘Really?’”
Stafford said fans can count on most of the familiar tunes showing up in Train’s set today. When you’re a band that has made its reputation on hit songs, you have to play those songs.
“I’m sure there are some of our hard-core fans who go to multiple shows, follow us around and don’t want to hear ‘Drops of Jupiter’ and ‘Virginia’ again,” he said. “But our audience range is growing so big, and a lot of them weren’t there last summer. They’re seeing us for the first time. So we can’t really not play ‘Hey, Soul Sister.’ That’s what they’re there to hear. We play most of the hits. There are some pseudo-hits we don’t play.”