Train Takes a Step Up

BAM Magazine recently caught up with Train co-founder/lead guitarist Jimmy Stafford to discuss the band’s latest release, Bulletproof Picasso, a chart-topping, critically acclaimed album that shows the veteran rockers maturing. This interview was conducted prior to Train’s performances on Sept. 21 and 22 at the newly renovated Masonic Auditorium.

The San Francisco band broke onto the scene in 1998 with their self-titled album, featuring the Top 20 hit, “Meet Virginia.” Train followed up in 2001 with “Drops of Jupiter,” earning themselves a Grammy for the title track and charting for over a year and half. They continued with a string of successes, with songs “Calling All Angels,” “Hey, Soul Sister,” “Drive By,” and most recently, “Angel in Blue Jeans” from their current release.

BAM: Congratulations on your latest release, Bulletproof Picasso.

Jimmy Stafford: Thank you.

BAM: Can you tell us a little bit about this album? How does it differ from others in songwriting?

Stafford: Pat’s been writing with some different outside writers for the past three albums. Some of the writers were the same, and some were different writers that he tried. Butch Walker produced the record again. He did the last record as well, so it wasn’t really written differently. I know [Pat] really struggled with the writing on this…it took him a long time. He really wanted to take a mature step up with his writing. He didn’t want to write more pop radio-type lyrics. He wanted to get a little deeper, a little more serious. So he did a lot of rewriting, with help from our management. And a lot of songs were written that didn’t make the record. But at the end of the day, I think Pat really did his best work. I think the melodies are really strong on this record, and I think it’s his best lyrical record. You know, it’s funny. Pat’s always been known to slip in some quirky lyrics here and there.

“Really? Are you gonna say that?”
– Jimmy Stafford

Ever since “Meet Virginia.” It’s kind of been his thing. And every record, when we go into [the studio], it’s like I expect to hear them. And sometimes, they make me cringe a little bit. But they do well. Like in “Drops of Jupiter,” with the soy latte and the Tae Bo and the fried chicken, it was like, “Really? Are you gonna say that?” [laughs] But then the song was a big hit. So it’s like, “OK man, I guess you know what you’re doing.” But on this record, there wasn’t much of that…at all. Really, there were no lyrics that I heard that I was like, “Man, gotta change that!” [laughs]  I think it’s his best work.

BAM: “Angel in Blue Jeans” is just an amazing song. Did that set the tone for Bulletproof Picasso?

Stafford: That was the first song written for the album. Yeah, I guess it kind of did. It has like a Western vibe to it, and there’s a little bit of that running through the album on a couple other songs, like “Drinking Tonight.” But like all Train records, we’re kind of all over the place. We don’t try to write a record in any one style. We just write a bunch of songs, and the good ones make the record. And hopefully, they all kind of fit together somehow. I think there are a few different threads through this record, but “Angel in Blue Jeans” definitely did set the tone from the beginning. It was like: “This is our standard, this is a good song, let’s write some better ones.”

BAM: When you guys write and record songs, do the lyrics come first and then you put the music to it? Or vice versa?

Stafford: It’s kind of vice versa. In most cases, the music is there, and then Pat comes up with melodies and lyrics afterward. Sometimes [Pat will] have a melody first, but he’s really quick with that stuff. If he hears a piece of music that’s been written, it’s like a painting where it dictates the type of lyric that he’s going to write. The music to “Angel in Blue Jeans” certainly wasn’t going to be about fast cars, you know what I mean? It kind of dictates what he writes about–the musical tone, and whether it’s minor or major keys. On the other hand, when “50 Ways to Say Good-Bye” got written on the last album, it was just a much lighter musical song. It wasn’t going to be a song about somebody dying or something…actually, it was. [laughs]

train-bulletproof-wide

BAM: Since we are Bay Area Music, what were some of your influences from the Bay Area? Who were some of the musicians who came out of the local scene?

Stafford: Oh man, when we moved to the Bay Area in ’94, we were really good friends with the Counting Crows guys. We still are. I just went and saw them in Nashville a couple weeks ago, and they sounded better than ever. Pat and I were both really big Counting Crows fans in the early days, and we actually shared a rehearsal studio with them in Oakland. So they were a big Bay Area influence. Me, personally? Journey was my band when I was in high school. Since then, I’ve been a huge Journey fan. And now I live in Nashville, and Jonathan Cain from Journey also lives in Nashville, and we’ve become friends. The Grateful Dead, of course. Sammy Hagar, we’ve become friends with him. Pat’s done some stuff with Sammy, and there are just so many great Bay Area bands. We run into Carlos Santana on occasion, he’s obviously one of the greats.

BAM: Nashville has really taken off.

Stafford: Yeah, and it’s not just country anymore. There’s a lot of rock bands and rock players living there now. You know, it’s a nice place to live.

BAM: I think Darius Rucker was one of the first to head out there, wasn’t he?

Stafford: I’m not sure if he lives there now or not, but yeah, he’s done real well making the transition into the country world.

BAM: What type of venues do you like to play?

Stafford: You know, I’m really looking forward to this coming week because [the Masonic is] the perfect size. Not too big, not too small. The small venues are really fun because we don’t do it a whole lot these days, and that’s how we started. It’s fun to just be up close and personal with our fans. The festivals are fun, too. We just played a Festival in London, it’s like 20,000 people or something. But theaters and arenas are probably my favorite. I love playing arenas, love playing theaters like the Masonic. That’s going to be really cool to play there.

BAM: How’s touring life for you? Do you enjoy it, or does it become tiresome?

Stafford: It’s tiresome right now. We’ve had a crazy couple of weeks, promoting the record all over the world. We go to Australia in a week or so. It’s a lot of traveling, and a lot of being away from our families. But it’s rewarding, too. We’re really excited about the new record, and playing these new songs is really fun for us. I think our fans are really going to enjoy the new music, so it’s all worth it. We’re just happy to still be around after 20 years of being a band, and that anybody cares to still hear our music and come out and see us play. It’s an honor, so we’ll do it as long as there’s a demand, as long as there’s people there to listen.

BAM: I was talking with fellow guitarist Frank Hannon, of TESLA, about keeping creativity after so many years and so many great albums. On their last album, they actually had to get away from family and go back East and record,  just because there are so many distractions at home. How do you guys maintain that creativity and keep coming up with such great music every time?

Stafford: Well, it’s not easy, especially the older we get. We’ve been doing it a long time, and we’ve accomplished a lot. [But] we have families, and it gets tougher to be away from them. The bottom line is: we love our job, it’s a pretty awesome job, and what else are we gonna do? We’re musicians and our families are very understanding, and we still have the desire to create, to do better work than we’ve done. With every record, we just work on it until we feel like it’s better, and an improvement on ourselves and on our music. And if it’s not, we keep working until it is. Maybe someday we’ll get to a point where we just hit a wall, and we can’t create better work than we’ve done in the past. That’s when we’ll either hang it up, or just go out and play the hits. But it’s really the desire to keep improving. We love our job, and our whole thing from the beginning has been let’s make a record good enough to where we get to make another one. And we just keep doing that, we just keep trying to do good enough work to where we can keep our jobs.

BAM: That’s what keeps bringing the fans back. It’s the bands that want to create new music, even though some of the fans may just be there to hear the hits.

Stafford: It keeps it fresh for us, and for the fans.

BAM: Right! Exactly, that’s what Frank was saying, as well.

Stafford: And it’s not easy to do. It’s really hard to do that, but I think we pulled it off one more time.

BAM: U2 just pretty much “gave away” their latest album. Where do you see the 12-track album going? Is that something that’s kind of fading away?

Stafford: You know, it seems to be. People download songs more than albums now, and albums keep getting cheaper and cheaper as a result. You can pretty much pick up a full album on iTunes for $8 or $10. But we’re old school, we grew up listening to vinyl. We love albums that you put on and you listen to the whole thing, front to finish. That’s what we’ve always tried to achieve, and that’s what we still try to achieve. We might be one of the few album-oriented bands that are left. But that’s where we come from.  We just don’t believe in putting a couple of hits out there, and then fill the rest of the record up with a bunch of bullshit. You know, our fans aren’t going to buy that. They’ll buy the two hits. And we’d rather take people on a journey and have a complete work. I don’t know if that’s going to stand the test of time with music, or if people are just going start releasing songs here and there. It’s definitely changing.

BAM: A lot of the younger people I talk to are kind of rebelling. They want to have something in their hands.

Stafford: Yeah, vinyl has had kind of a resurgence lately. Which I think is very cool. Even downloading the book doesn’t work for me.

BAM: No, it’s not the same. It doesn’t compare to holding an LP, and reading all the liner notes, and pictures.

Stafford: I agree, and that’s why we’re still making records. But there’s not many of us left…so we’ll see how it goes in the future. We’re releasing vinyl, though, of this record.

BAM: Can you tell us a bit about your wine?

Stafford: We have Bay Area wine as well, the Save Me San Francisco Wine Company. It goes to a Bay Area charity called Family House, and it’s doing really well. We just released our sixth varietal. We’ve sold millions of bottles of wines so far, and we’re helping out this Bay Area charity, and it’s a really good product. So tell everybody to grab one of our bottles of wine and help out a charity! Sit down and have a drink while you’re listening to the new record.

BAM: What a great cause! Thank you again for your time.

Stafford: My pleasure, thank you.

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