By Cory Sklar
By Alee Karim
By Christina Li
By Dave Pehling
By Ian S. Port
By SF Weekly
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
Petaluma. Jan. 30. 5 p.m.
"Don't touch that!"
The five members of Train freeze. They look around the stage to see who's drawn the wrath of God, tonight personified by Mystic Theater audio engineer Gregory Rehberg. Drummer Scott Underwood is the sinner, with both hands on the ancient, half-drawn gold curtain that inconveniently bisects the Mystic stage near where he needs to set up his kit. He looks sheepishly toward the sound booth at the opposite end of the theater, where the formidable Rehberg stands.
"I was just ..."
"Do not pull on that curtain! It will fall apart."
The rest of the band goes back to setting up. Scott lets go of the curtain. "Uh, OK," he says. "I was just ..." He breaks into a Jerry Lewis routine. He touches the curtain, lets it go, touches it again. "I just thought ... I mean ... I was ...." Everyone smiles appreciatively, including Rehberg. "Save it, Scott," he says.
Train is home. After a four-month tour of the East Coast, the band has only tonight's gig at the beautifully restored Mystic between it and four precious days off. Then the group hits the road again for another stretch that will take it down the coast and across the Southwest to New Orleans, before kicking off yet another tour opening for Better Than Ezra.
Four years of hard work is starting to pay off: The 500-seat Mystic sold out in advance, and another 150 tickets are quickly made available for walk-ups; the guest list is bursting with old friends and band loyalists. "We used to play at the little sports bar across the street to, like, our friends," recalls guitarist Rob Hotchkiss. "We'd look over here and say, 'Someday, someday.' Now we've sold it out."
The band's success stems directly from "Meet Virginia," a witty, upbeat song that was one of 1998's most requested records on Alice (97.3 FM). Another song, "Free," has caught on at other rock stations after being featured on Party of Five. Train's eponymous album has been well-received: Last year it was nominated for a Bammie award in the Americana/Roots category and to date has sold more than 60,000 copies.
Not too shabby for a DIY record made on $22,500 borrowed from the band members' parents. It's enough to make Train's label, Columbia Records, take notice: After signing the band last year, Columbia is now allowing Train to hire its own sound man for the first time. And the group's just been added to a prestigious showcase at the Gavin Seminar in New Orleans.
But the band members are tired. Bone tired. It shows in the way they avoid unnecessary conversation, the robotic way they lug their gear from their van to the Mystic stage. Every attempt to defuse tension or sidestep trouble is worth acknowledg-ing, even secondhand Jerry Lewis.
The band is also caught in the middle of major changes in the music industry. Corporatization has reached a new zenith with the creation of the Universal Music Group, a monolith born of Seagram Co. Ltd.'s $10 billion purchase of PolyGram Entertainment in December. UMG is now the world's largest record company, with approximately 25 percent of the domestic market. Overnight, prestigious labels such as Geffen, A&M, Island, and Mercury vanished or were "consolidated" beyond recognition.
What that means for a band like Train is hard work, and lots of it. It means 12-hour days, cheap hotels, and bad food. It means driving your own van to gigs, setting up and breaking down your own equipment, selling your own T-shirts, and nyucking it up on wacky morning shows in places like Chico on three hours of sleep. It means shaking every hand, signing every autograph, and flattering every radio geek in every little town you pass through.
It means demonstrating -- in every way -- that you are a low-cost, low-risk investment for your label.
"I think this band is going to be well-known as a prototype for the type of band that is going to make it," says lead singer Pat Monahan. "We have done everything ourselves. We don't spend a dime unless it evolves in a natural way. Our label appreciates that we're not out here wasting their money."
Train formed in 1994, when Hotchkiss and Monahan began playing acoustic sets together in Bay Area coffee shops. Jimmy Stafford, who had played with Hotchkiss in L.A., soon joined. Finally, the rhythm section of Scott Underwood and Charlie Colin came from Colorado. All are accomplished musicians; their music is guitar-driven, soulful, and nuanced, frequently incorporating trumpet, harmonica, and mandolin into melodic, introspective songs.
But except for the shared experience of being on the verge of Making It, they seem to have little in common. Their tastes in music are so different that they watch movies while on the road instead of listening to CDs or radio. Pat and Rob are married and have young children, while Scott doesn't know where he'll be sleeping after tonight's show, thanks to a widening rift with his live-in girlfriend.
The toll all this is taking becomes apparent during sound check, when a yelling match breaks out between Pat and Rob onstage and quickly escalates to pushing and shoving. Pat invites Rob to step outside into the alley, but cooler heads intervene before Rob can take him up on the offer.