Meet Train

An Interview with Guitarist Rob Hotchkiss

First Appeared in The Music Box, June 1999, Volume 6, #6

Written by John Metzger


Train is a band that's poised for success, and when they make it, I can assure you it's going to be big — not that they haven't already done well. Over the course of last year, the band saw sales of their debut album increase more than 300% over its first week on the market. The group reached #11 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart and #3 on Billboard's Heritage Rock chart with their hit single Free, and just a few weeks ago their new single Meet Virginia began to hit the airwaves.

Train officially formed in 1994, though the musicians, like many bands, had known each other and performed together much earlier. Jimmy Stafford, Rob Hotchkiss, and Charlie Colin had been performing in Los Angeles in a band called The Apostles when Hotchkiss met Pat Monahan. Said Hotchkiss, "Pat and I met each other in Los Angeles, though we were in different bands. When The Apostles split up, we decided to move to San Francisco and start a new project."

Monahan and Hotchkiss spent time as an acoustic duo performing in the various cafés and coffeehouses around their new home. Their real goal though was to form a full band, and it was only a matter of time before they called in Stafford and Colin. It was Colin who brought drummer Scott Underwood to the band, and Train was born.

Over the next two years, the group refined their sound through countless performances throughout San Francisco, and in July 1996, the band began to work on their first album. The group, along with close friend Curtis Mathewson, assembled in a recording studio Mathewson had built above his mother's garage on Southern California's Harbor Island. The budget was tight, and the band worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week through July and August, paying close attention to detail as they captured the music for their album.

In September, the group traveled back to San Francisco, where additional recording was done, including a full day session with Counting Crows' keyboardist Charlie Gillingham. In addition, Train also hired Counting Crows' guitarist David Bryson to mix the album.

"Dave and I were roommates at Berkeley and had worked together for years," said Hotchkiss. "Dave is a very talented producer and had a producer's career in the bag [before meeting Counting Crows' singer Adam Duritz]."

Hotchkiss continued, "We were actually performing at the Fillmore with the Counting Crows one night, and Dave went up to Jimmy and asked if we had found a mixer for our album. When Jimmy told him we hadn't, Dave said, ‘I think you're looking at him.' He volunteered to do it, and we're really lucky that he did."

The album was independently released in December 1996 and re-released nationally through Columbia/Aware Records in February 1998. Train's self-titled debut is packed with infectious melodies and gripping, yet radio-friendly, roots rock anthems. In fact, Train has done the seemingly impossible — balanced commercial viability with artistic integrity. Each song is immediately comfortable and familiar, yet there seems to be more to discover on each additional listening.

Since the album's release, the band has been touring relentlessly, and last year, they criss-crossed the country countless times in order to perform more than 200 concerts. It's was a grueling schedule, and it is one that the band will no doubt keep for the forseeable future. Fortunately, the band truly loves to perform and meet their fans. Said Hotchkiss, "[Performing] live is a very important part of what we do. Every night is fresh. You're playing in front of a different crowd, it's a different night, and it's a different scenario. For us, we don't have to try to keep it fresh, it really just kind of stays fresh."

All of Train's hard work has functioned to build their fan base and begin to achieve success. For example, from November to April, the band moved from performing at Chicago's Martyr's to the city's Metro, a venue that is nearly three times the size and holds more than 1,100 people. It's a hard boundary for young bands to break, yet the place was nearly filled to capacity.

Amazingly, the band has been modest and somewhat hesitant to call this success. They have a down-to-earth spirit and even took time to meet with fans in the front hallway after their show at Metro — something many bands fail to do once they move to this level. Train seems to have as much respect for their fans as their fans do for them. Said Hotchkiss, "The success that you call it has come really gradually. We feel like we've just been out there kind of in the trenches, working really hard and building up our fan base almost person by person. So for us, if it is success, we don't really see it. Maybe we're the only ones who don't, because we're still traveling in this van trying to win more fans."

The band has recently begun to film their first video, which will feature the new single Meet Virginia. Explained Hotchkiss, "We have a script or at least a treatment that we really like. Loosely it's going to be kind of a diner thing with a waitress who will play the role of Virginia. I think we'll be playing music in a back room or something like that. Other than that it's pretty vague at this point. We've never done it before so we'll have to see how it goes."

Even as momentum is building behind their debut, Train has already begun writing songs for their next album. In fact, more than 40 songs have already been written.

"It's kind of bittersweet," said Hotchkiss. "We keep working this album for all the right reasons but we're dying to get in to make another one. The earliest time frame would be the Christmas holidays, [but] it could be longer than that. Ironically for us, this record is, in anybody else's eyes, just starting to take off. If it is, we'll go out and work it for as long as we have to. We know we're touring at least through the Summer and probably through the Fall as well."

"Songwriting has evolved, [and] it's getting more and more to the point where everyone is going to have an even share with it," continued Hotchkiss. "It started off [as] me and Pat, [but now] Jimmy, Scott and Charlie are more involved. Music always comes first in this band, and more and more it's us playing together and coming up with it spontaneously. Pat does all the lyrics, [so] we'll come up with a piece of music, and he'll take it home and finish it off."

"One thing I've come across in being in this band is that no one has been able to really pigeon hole us, which I'm really pretty proud of," Hotchkiss added. "You hear all these influences and it really reflects the fact that right now, sitting in this van, everyone's got their headphones on and they're listening to completely different music. I imagine there would be more diversity [on the next album]."

In these days of mass-produced, generic rock and roll and out-of-touch, ego-ridden bands, it's refreshing to see a group as talented and fan-friendly as Train. They truly know the importance of building a relationship with their fans, as well as the necessity of strong songwriting. In addition, their live performances more than live up to the expectations developed by their studio output. It's rare to find even one of these traits in a group, and it's genuinely remarkable to find them all in the same place. Train is a group with great expectations that are destined to come true.

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Copyright © 1999 The Music Box