Train’s Pat Monahan: Sailing the Seas of Yacht Rock on ‘AM Gold,’ Wine, Baseball and “Hey, Soul Sister” (The Interview)


George A. PaulCategories:Featured ArticlesFeatures

Rock Cellar Magazine

Train first came to prominence with the double-platinum single “Meet Virginia,” off its 1998 self-titled debut album. Since then, the affable pop/rock band led by singer/songwriter Pat Monahan has landed nearly two dozen hits at Adult Rock radio, including such staples as “Drops of Jupiter,” “Calling All Angels,” “Hey, Soul Sister,” “If It’s Love,” “Drive By,” “50 Ways to Say Goodbye,” “Bruises,” “Angel in Blue Jeans” and more. 

Rock Cellar caught up with Monahan from his home in Issaquah, Wash., on the eve of the release of Train’s 11th studio album AM Gold, a terrific collection of tunes ranging from summery pop (“Amber Light”) and acoustic-based folk (“It’s Everything”) to blue-eyed soul (“Easy on the Eyes”), a festive Latin-tinged jam (“Cleopatra”) and the danceable title track. The record will be released on May 20.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Rock Cellar: When I first heard AM Gold, I was immediately struck by how diverse the songs were. As you were making it, did you have an “anything goes” mindset?

Pat Monahan: When we were writing the record, because of how eclectic it was, my manager came up with the name AM Gold. He felt like it was like an old-school AM Gold compilation of a bunch of different varieties of music. Seemed like an appropriate name. 

Rock Cellar: I was only vaguely familiar with those pop music compilations. While growing up, I had some K-Tel compilations on vinyl. Remember those?

Pat Monahan: Yes. The same thing, really. 

Rock Cellar: The new album was the first time you’d written a complete album with Train keyboardist Jerry Becker and drummer Matt Musty. How did that work out? What did they bring to the process?

Pat Monahan: You know, it was really excellent because I don’t think like other people when they write songs. To me, it either is or it isn’t. They’re much more mathematical and put way more thought into it, like the key of the song and the tempo and the past and what’s worked for me as a vocalist. They really just created these perfect environments to write melodies and lyrics in. It was just a great experience. Plus, they’re really good friends, so it was that much easier.

Click here to pre-order AM Gold on CD from our Rock Cellar Store

Rock Cellar: This album is the third Train record with producer Butch Walker, who has an amazing track record. What is the key to your ongoing musical partnership?

Pat Monahan: He brought nothing to the table. I’m kidding! He’s an extraordinarily talented, wonderful guy. Butch maybe wouldn’t be the right guy for a certain kind of pop album, but he was the perfect guy for this [one]. Not just because he is a close friend and a great musician, but because we’re a similar age. He understands the same era and what I was trying to get done. I think he did a beautiful job recording it.

Then Rob Mathes, who is an incredible string and horn writer, did a beautiful job to finish everything up for us.

Rock Cellar: Was the recording done in-person at a studio, or did you have to do it remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Pat Monahan: The writing we did remotely. We recorded all of the basic tracking together live. I was there with Rob and Butch when we did all the strings and horns.

Rock Cellar: How about with Jewel and Sofia Reyes, your female guest vocalists on the album? Were you able to record together with them in the studio?

Pat Monahan: No, they did that on their own and then sent the tracks in so we could use what worked well. It was the first time that I’ve ever had Jewel on a record, even though I’ve known her for a long time. We just shot a music video for “Cleopatra” last week, so it was the first time I got to meet Sofia. She is really cool, super talented, lovely, and she just made the whole thing a lot of fun. 

Rock Cellar: Speaking of female singers, the “AM Gold” remix by Swedish DJ Tobtok featuring Mel C of the Spice Girls slows down the tempo, but it’s still very rhythmic. How did that come about?

Pat Monahan: A guy (with my management) is a huge Spice Girls fan. He said, ‘If I can get Sporty Spice on this, would you be excited about it?’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? That would be amazing!’ He put a call in, she sang on it and did a really great job. I could go on with all the “tell me what you want” jokes, but it was really cool to have her on there.

Rock Cellar: On the past few Train albums, you’ve used samples or interpolations here and there, and the new album has a couple as well. During “Turn the Radio Up,” the song with Jewel and a ripping guitar solo, you sample an old Irma Thomas tune, correct?

Pat Monahan: Yes. That came from a young kid that put a track together and then we finished the song. 

Rock Cellar: During “Cleopatra,” there’s a quick drum bit reminiscent of Phil Collins’ classic work on “In the Air Tonight.” What am I hearing there?

Pat Monahan: It was a version of it that wouldn’t get us in trouble and wouldn’t be too expensive. It’s the idea of it instead of the actual beat. 

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Rock Cellar: One of the standouts on the new album is the ballad “Fake Flowers.” The lyric “the only thing real about you is your lies” isn’t exactly the happiest sentiment.

Pat Monahan: I was asked if I would be interested in getting involved and writing the music for a musical called Begin Again. It was a movie [from 2013 starring Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, James Corden and Adam Levine]. I think the music in the movie was the weakest part of the movie. I said, “What I’d rather do is write a song and see if you like the idea. If you do, then maybe I’m your guy. But you should probably have about four [people] out there doing something like this so you can see who’s the right person.”

I wrote “Fake Flowers” and they loved it, but it didn’t work for the musical … I really had wanted it to sound like Oasis. Because to me, it’s a very Oasis kind of idea. But Butch said it should sound like the rest of the album, not like Oasis: ‘If we do that, it’s not going to sound right.’

It’s a real-life story for me. All these songs are real life stories for me. 

Rock Cellar: There’s a really gorgeous string arrangement on that song.

Pat Monahan: Yeah, Rob really killed it on that.

Rock Cellar: At the beginning of “Ain’t No Easy Way,” you sing, “Up in the Northwest/The girls always say/If he’s the one/Don’t let him get away.” Was that a reference to you living in Washington state? 

Pat Monahan: Yeah, of course and the fact that, coming from San Francisco, I don’t always know that I belong here, but I’m making it work. I know my family belongs here. My wife is from here. Sometimes you never know where you belong, you know? 

Train (Photo: Brooke Clark)

Train (Photo: Brooke Clark)

Rock Cellar: The first lines to the song “AM Gold” find you singing: “If he don’t love you no more/She don’t love you no more/They don’t love you/Then you love yourself and turn around.” Were the song lyrics meant to be a nod toward self-acceptance and inclusiveness?

Pat Monahan: Yeah, I think every generation struggles with self-love. I know that I do. Young people are on more anti-depressants than ever. I think sometimes we want the wrong people to love us. I have a neighbor who has a son that used to be their daughter. For a while, he wanted to be referred to as they/them, instead of he or she. I felt like that should be included in the song too. So, I included “they don’t love you.” It was the right thing to do. 

Rock Cellar: For those of us who still care about album running orders on LPs and CDs: “It’s Everything” caps AM Gold off on a simple, acoustic melancholy note. That reminded me of Save Me, San Francisco, which you concluded with what became the popular wedding ballad “Marry Me.” Was that intentional? 

Pat Monahan: It was. But I’m not very good at that, so I left that to everybody else. My manager started the process and Jerry finished it because there were certain keys that made sense together. He flipped a couple things and made it the way it is now. 

Rock Cellar: You really put Train’s female backing singers to good use on the soulful “Bettin’ on Me.” 

Pat Monahan: The background vocals on that song really mean a lot. I was golfing with a friend of mine, Sid Rice, a Super Bowl champion who played for the Seattle Seahawks for years. We were playing a game called Wolf. The first person to hit is the wolf. Then he gets to choose one other person to be on his team based on the first shot being good or not. He didn’t choose anybody. 

I said, “Sid, you’re going to be the lone wolf.” He said, “I’m bettin’ on me.” I took that and gave him some writing credit. That song really does sum up my life [because] no one’s really thinking, “Hey, I wonder what Train’s doing right now? I wonder what kind of record they’re going to make?” If I don’t bet on me, then nobody will.

Rock Cellar: When the “AM Gold” single and your summer tour with Jewel and Blues Traveler were first announced a few months ago, actor/comedian Ken Jeong appeared in some brief video segments from a ship wearing a captain’s hat, talking about Train and yacht rock. What do you think of the music aesthetic and the fact that some of your new songs tend to lean into that sound? 

Pat Monahan: I think yacht rock is probably one of my favorite types of music. Even though I listen to a lot of hip-hop. I just did a listening party at a casino … like John Lennon said a long time ago: “I write songs for my generation.”

This listening party wasn’t filled with 25-year-olds, but it was filled with people that are gonna love this record. Because if we still mean something to you, you want an album, you don’t want just the single.

This is definitely my favorite Train record. I probably say that about every record that’s new, but I can listen to it and just be really happy with everything, song after song, which is not normal for me. 

Rock Cellar: Is Ken Jeong a longtime Train supporter? 

Pat Monahan: Ken has been a really great friend for years. There’s a few people you meet in your life that have really big brains and even bigger hearts. He’s one of those guys. I feel like he has a similar feeling about me and Jerry and the guys. We’ve been close for a long time. We honestly would do whatever it took for one another. It’s a great friendship. 

I have that [same] friendship with a few comedians like George Lopez. We [will do another] cruise [The 7th Sail Across the Sun, in February 2023, from Miami to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic], and comedian Nick Swardson is on the cruise. We do a lot of stuff together. I find that comedians have had their egos in check for a long time, because to be a comedian you have to put that stuff to the side. I always have felt I have that in common with comedians more than musicians. 

Rock Cellar: Would you ever agree to appear on The Masked Singer like Jewel did?

Pat Monahan: No, but I wouldn’t mind sitting next to Ken if I was on The Masked Singer. My managers won’t let me get into a bunny outfit. She looked cute doing it and it worked out great for her, but for somebody like me, it’s not as cute. 

Rock Cellar: We talked about yacht rock and one band that falls under than umbrella, especially for their 1970s work, is Daryl Hall and John Oates. Being a Pennsylvania native, what was the experience like to tour with them a few years ago and then guest on their first all-new song in years, “Philly Forget Me Not?”

Pat Monahan: When I did Live from Daryl’s House, Daryl and I got on really well. John and I have had sushi together in Aspen. John lived in Colorado when I first met him. He’s in Nashville now. Going out on tour and spending 3 ½ months with them was a lot of fun. I got to sing onstage with them. We had a great tour.

Rock Cellar: In 2016, you released the tribute album Train Does Led Zeppelin II, which I thought was excellent. Weren’t you in a Led Zeppelin cover band back in Pennsylvania before Train formed in California?

Pat Monahan: Yeah, I was in a band that did covers. We had to do three sets a night. The first one was whatever the current songs were at the time because the bar wasn’t full. The second one was classic rock. Then the bar would start to fill up. By midnight, the bar was jammed because they knew we were going to do an hour’s worth of Zeppelin. It’s everybody’s favorite band who started when I started and learned to play an instrument. Everybody in that band was so special at what they did. 

I wanted people to hear how talented Train is musically [now] and I think Led Zeppelin II was the way to do that. When my managers heard (our tribute), they said, ‘This is too good to give to people. Let’s see if we can sell some of these and we’ll give all the proceeds to Family House in San Francisco.” That sounded like a great plan.

Rock Cellar: Did you ever receive any feedback on the tribute album from Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, or John Paul Jones?

Pat Monahan: We weren’t able to put it out unless we got their blessing. They have a board, and the board gets together and says ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to everything that comes through the door. I’m sure that Led Zeppelin gets quite a few requests every day. The [board responded], ‘Yeah man, that sounds great. Do it.’ It would’ve been a bad idea to put it out and have Robert or John Paul Jones say, ‘This is garbage.’ 

Rock Cellar: You mentioned that proceeds from that album go to the Family House charity, which is also the beneficiary of your Save Me, San Francisco wine sales. How involved are you in creating each new varietal? 

Pat Monahan: I am involved. James Foster, my winemaker, will put several blends together and send me samples. I will taste them with my wife and sometimes with neighbors and family. Usually, we all love the same ones. Sometimes there’s a difference of opinion, but it’s about as much as I can get involved because James knows what he’s doing. It would be like James trying to write songs with me. It would be better if I sent him a few songs and then he chose the ones that he likes. It’s kind of like that.

Photo: Brooke Clarke)

Photo: Brooke Clarke)

Rock Cellar: Have you raised a lot of money for the charity since starting the wine company?

Pat Monahan: Yeah, we’ve sold, I think, 12 million or so bottles of wine. We’ve helped Family House go from 24 rooms and two houses in San Francisco to a building that’s 80 rooms. It’s full every day. They’re doing an amazing job. I think we’ve played a pretty big role in that. 

Rock Cellar: What was the experience like working with George Lopez on last year’s Christmas in Tahoe film for the Hallmark Channel?

Pat Monahan: I called George when we were shooting that movie and said, “Hey, how would you feel about flying all the way to Whistler (Canada) and not making any money to make a movie with me?” He said, “I’ve been waiting for this call my whole career.” He came and did that happily.

Now I think we might end up in September, the two of us, shooting another Hallmark movie. They’re working on it right now. They turn things around very quickly. Once a script is done, we check it out, we make our changes and then we get to work. They shoot these movies in a couple of weeks. 

Rock Cellar: Whose idea was it to loosely base the film on Train’s 2015 holiday album of the same name?

Pat Monahan: A guy that used to work with [my management] started [a film division]. One of the first things they did was go to Hallmark and said, “Train has a Christmas album. Let’s make this into a movie,” and they loved the idea.

Rock Cellar: I’m a fan of the Anaheim Angels baseball team, which has been using your song “Calling All Angels” as part of its pregame montage for a long time. What did you think when you heard that was going to be happen? 

Pat Monahan: I loved it. I would still love it if they weren’t kicking the [Seattle] Mariners’ butts so bad. I’m a [San Francisco] Giants fan. I’m always going to be a Giants fan, but I would like to see the Mariners win just for my family’s sake. They started out so great this year, and it seems like a trend [where] they’ll lose like 11 games in a row. 

Rock Cellar: Switching gears, back in 2009, when “Hey, Soul Sister” became this juggernaut that was constantly on the radio and reached No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100, what was that period like for you? How did you feel when the song amassed a billion streams on Spotify and was certified Diamond for more than 10 million sales?

Pat Monahan: It’s pretty weird. I don’t really spend much time on the past and glory, but what “Hey, Soul Sister” did was basically saved my career. This goes back to [the sentiment behind] “Bettin’ on Me.” In 2009, it had been eight years since “Drops of Jupiter” and that was so big that no matter what I did, after that it was just gonna be brutally difficult. Even though “Calling All Angels” also did well, the following album tanked. No one ever heard anything from it. I had to really figure out what I was doing. 

I was managed by the wrong team. I was heading in a worse direction than ever. I made a solo record that was not successful. That was because I was trying to make a Train record without the people in Train. We also had the wrong people in the band. 

When I wrote “Soul Sister,” the key part of all that was that I was lucky enough to be able to team up with Crush Management. Those guys heard “Soul Sister” in a different way than I did. We fired the producer, got rid of our lawyer, I switched managers, got rid of band mates and had a fresh slate. It cost me a lot of money but in the end, it was Crush’s great leadership, and they were able to save my career.

Now it was a whole new ballgame, because that song was such a global success for Train. Since then, the success of “Drive By” made me feel even better than “Soul Sister” because it did better in Europe than “Soul Sister” did. I felt like, “OK, this isn’t a fluke.” 

That’s what I’d like to think about this new album. I’m always thinking about what’s happening now instead of a billion streams, which is a great accomplishment. I’m really not good at taking a bow. I would love for this album to remind people that it ain’t over yet. We’ll see.

Rock Cellar: Nowadays, is the recording process easier because the current Train lineup is so versatile?

Pat Monahan: Yeah. When Train started, we weren’t high school buddies. We were all just interested in being successful musicians. And being able to quit our day jobs. But the friendships and the love that we had weren’t deep and long-lasting. They were more of a business arrangement. 

What’s happened since then is now I’m onstage with my favorite people in the world. It makes a big difference. Plus, they’re so talented that there’s never an apology, there’s never clams where people [mess up] … it’s such a good arrangement and I love these guys. They come through for me and I come through for them.

We’re like a family, and it’s the first time Train has ever been a family. 

Rock Cellar: The summer tour with Train, Jewel and Blues Traveler is an impressive package. I heard you’re going to try and have some collaborations happen between the musicians.

Pat Monahan: Yeah, I’ve known John [Popper] and Jewel for some time now. We don’t have to get through the first couple of weeks to feel each other out. We know that we’re friends from the past. The camaraderie is there before we even show up, which is really great.

We’ll join each other onstage because if [for example], Paul McCartney and Peter Frampton were doing a tour together, if you didn’t see them onstage together, you’d be like “this is a fraud.” That’s the way I’ve always felt.

If I’m the leader, the headlining act, it’s my job to bring people together. Just like all the tours I was on that people had the chance to bring us together and either did or didn’t, I learned a lot.

We’re all in this together, and life is fleeting. Someday all we’ll have is the memory of this tour, so let’s make it a great memory. 

Save Me San Francisco Wine Co Presents: Train – AM Gold Tour:

*Jewel (direct support across all dates), Blues Traveler (all dates except Red Rocks)

Wed, Jun 08 Mansfield, MA Xfinity Center*
Fri, Jun 10 Wantagh, NY Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater*
Sat, Jun 11 Saratoga Springs, NY Saratoga Performing Arts Center*
Sun, Jun 12 Holmdel, NJ P.N.C. Bank Arts Center*
Tue, Jun 14 Camden, NJ Waterfront Music Pavilion*
Wed, Jun 15 Bristow, VA Jiffy Lube Live*
Fri, Jun 17 Burgettstown, PA The Pavilion at Star Lake^
Sat, Jun 18 Cuyahoga Falls, OH Blossom Music Center^
Sun, Jun 19 Cincinnati, OH Riverbend Music Center^
Tue, Jun 21 Nashville, TN Venue TBC^
Fri, Jun 24 West Palm Beach, FL iTHINK Financial Amphitheatre^
Sat, Jun 25 Tampa, FL MIDFLORIDA Credit Union Amphitheatre^
Sun, Jun 26 Jacksonville, FL Daily’s Place^
Tue, Jun 28 Atlanta, GA Cellairis Amphitheatre at Lakewood^
Thu, Jun 30 Charlotte, NC PNC Music Pavilion^
Fri, Jul 1 Raleigh, NC Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek^
Sat, Jul 2 Virginia Beach, VA Veterans United Home Loans Amphitheater^
Thu, Jul 07 Gilford, NH Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion^
Fri, Jul 08 Bethel, NY Bethel Woods Center for the Arts^
Sat, Jul 09 Darien Center, NY Darien Lake Amphitheater^
Sun, Jul 10 Toronto, ON Budweiser Stage^
Tue, Jul 12 Clarkston, MI Pine Knob Music Theatre*
Wed, Jul 13 Noblesville, IN Ruoff Music Center*
Fri, Jul 15 Tinley Park, IL Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre Chicago*
Sat, Jul 16 St. Louis, MO Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre St. Louis*
Sun, Jul 17 Rogers, AR Walmart Amp*
Tue, Jul 19 Austin, TX Germania Insurance Amphitheater*
Wed, Jul 20 Dallas, TX Dos Equis Pavilion*
Thu, Jul 21 The Woodlands, TX Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion presented by Huntsman*
Sat, Jul 23 Albuquerque, NM Isleta Amphitheater*
Sun, Jul 24 Phoenix, AZ Ak-Chin Pavilion*
Tue, Jul 26 San Diego, CA North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre*
Fri, Jul 29 Irvine, CA FivePoint Amphitheater*
Sat, Jul 30 Concord, CA Concord Pavilion*
Sun, Jul 31 Mountain View, CA Shoreline Amphitheatre*
Tue, Aug 02 Seattle, WA Climate Pledge Arena*
Wed, Aug 03 Bend, OR Hayden Homes Amphitheater*
Sat, Aug 06 Morrison, CO Red Rocks Amphitheatre*
*Thunderstorm Artis
^Will Anderson

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