Train takes ‘Play That Song’ tour to Cincinnati

photo: Train frontman Pat Monahan strives for the band to keep producing radio hits

By Alan Sculley

Pat Monahan knows pop music remains a young person’s game. As the frontman of Train for 20 years-plus, he faces that reality with every new album as he lobbies pop radio to play his group’s latest single.

While he says a few core stations seem ready and willing to play Train, many more now question whether the group—despite huge hits like “Hey, Soul Sister,” “Drive By,” “Meet Virginia,” and “Drops of Jupiter”—can deliver on pop radio. Monahan has heard the reasoning.

“We’ve been around too long. We’re old and we’re old school or they want to make room for the kids that are coming up,” he says. “So for them to play Train, for a pop station to play Train, we have to have real serious heat.”

Despite the challenges, Monahan isn’t giving up on the notion that Train can remain a relevant pop radio band for years to come.

“I don’t want to be a heritage band yet. I don’t want to make the Train record for the Train fans—not yet,” he says. “I want to make a Train album for the world.”

Monahan’s first attempt to regain traction at radio was “Play That Song,” the lead single from the group’s current album, A Girl, a Bottle, a Boat. The song showed some signs of life, going top 10 on Billboard magazine’s Adult Contemporary and Adult Top 40 charts, but stalled out at 41 on the all-important all-genre Hot 100 singles chart.

Still, Monahan feels he’s only one single away from getting back into favor with pop radio—and “Play That Song” demonstrated that Train still appeals to a young audience.

“I work for every bit of what we get [at radio],” Monahan says. “When it [one song] becomes a hit, they’ll play three other songs from the album, because then it works. They’re in the business to sell advertising. They want to make sure their listeners are responsive to it, and they sometimes feel like Train will not appeal to young kids. However, for weeks [with “Play That Song”]we were the most requested song on Disney Radio, with 25,000 requests a week.”

It makes sense that Monahan keeps an eye on radio and pop music trends.  Hit singles like 1998’s “Meet Virginia,” 2001’s “Drops of Jupiter,” 2003’s “Calling All Angels,” 2009’s “Hey, Soul Sister,” and 2012’s “Drive By” have kept Train in the pop music forefront and helped fill large concert venues.

In going into A Girl, a Bottle, a Boat, Monahan brought in several new songwriting/production collaborators, with William Wiik Larsen, Jake Sinclair, and the team of Neff-U and Priscilla Renea supplanting Monahan’s go-to songwriting/production collaborators from the previous pair of albums, Butch Walker and Espen Lind and Amund Bjorklund (known as the writing team Espionage). Staying current for radio was a consideration in this move, but Monahan wanted to change things up for another reason.

“I think it’s important to not overstay your welcome. And people get very comfortable, including me, and I don’t think that’s always good,” he says. “So on this album, I asked my manager, ‘Would you please put me in a room with people that I’ve never met?’ And I find that the younger the better because they haven’t been [tainted] by what I know. There’s already one of us in the room. We don’t need two. So getting around 30-year-olds and even younger than that … the vibe was incredible.”

“I’m not trying to be a kid,” Monahan explains. “I’m trying to be who I am, but work with people who can help me get the version of who I am so that it makes sense today.”

And there is a distinctly youthful, upbeat, and modern/synthetic feel to A Girl, a Bottle, a Boat. “Drink Up” has the kind of shout-along chorus and dancey vibe that’s common in today’s pop music. “Lottery” takes a similar approach, only with an island vibe. On “The News,” “What Good Is Saturday,” and “Silver Dollar” Sinclair brings his talents for incorporating into the songs the kind of offbeat, but highly hooky, instrumental nuggets that are popular these days into the production.

But for all that’s modern about A Girl, a Bottle, a Boat, there are also a couple of distinctly retro moments. The song “Valentine” has a 1950s-ish doo-wop influence. And more notably, on “Play That Song,” Monahan uses the melody from the 1938 Hoagy Carmichael standard “Heart and Soul” to anchor the poppy tune.

Train’s show this summer will play off of those retro elements with its visual production.

“It’s called the ‘Play That Song’ tour,” Monahan says. “Basically, it will be similar to like a jukebox kind of stage, and then we’ll play songs throughout the [Train] eras that represent kind of our music, but mostly the new music from this album because I feel like this album is in a lot of ways a throwback as far as what we tried to do…So we want to capitalize on the fact that we did that.”

Train plays Tuesday, June 27 at Riverbend Music Center, 6295 Kellogg Ave. in Cincinnati. Show starts at 7 p.m. O.A.R. and Natasha Bedingfield are also on the bill. Tickets start at $15. For more information, please call 513.232.5882 or visit SaveMeSanFrancisco.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at AlanSculley@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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