Jimmy Stafford is an original member and guitarist of the American pop-rock band Train. Along with Train, he toured the world, recorded eight albums, and opened his own wine company with Train lyrics on the bottles. The band has won 3 Grammy’s for the hits, “Hey Soul Sister” and “Drops of Jupiter,” while capturing a grand total of 8 Grammy nominations from 2002-2011. In 2016, Stafford decided to part ways with Train and has been writing and recording his own music ever since. The following interview chronicles his journey with Train and why it ended, new details about his album “No Man’s Land,” and honest + inspiring commentary from one of the industry’s most talented musicians.
To start, how did your music career begin? Who has influenced it?
As a kid, I grew up in a small town in Illinois. My parents had an awesome vinyl record collection and I just always listened to their records. They had great stuff—everything from Elvis and Buddy Holly to all the Motown stuff, even some country and Ray Charles. I became an Elvis fan-I used to watch the Elvis movies as a kid growing up. I was like, “Man. I wanna be like that guy. He always gets the girls.”
As I got a little bit older and started buying my own records, I started stretching more into rock and theatrical stuff, actually. Early Elton John, Kiss, Queen, and Alice Cooper. As you grow up, your taste changes through the years. Later, I got into ACDC, and all the new wave stuff of the 80s like the Cure and the Smiths. My tastes are all over the map. Just being a music fan as a kid, I started getting interested in playing music at around age 8. I played drums and switched to guitar when I was 12 because I wanted to be up front, not stuck behind a drum set.
I started my own band when I was in high school. We played our first gig after a high school football game when I was an incoming freshmen. The gig was good, and we became an instant working band. By the time I was a junior, I was playing three shows a week anywhere within a 68 mile radius of my small town, including high school dances and bars. As soon as I graduated high school, I moved to Los Angeles to try to make it big. That’s where my professional career really began. I met the guys who would eventually become Train with me. In the mid 90s, we left Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco together as a band.
What was your most memorable experience with Train?
Well, I was with the band for 22 years. There’s so many memories– even from the early days of travelling in a van and not having a crew and just lugging our own gear. I mean, looking back on it, it was a lot of fun and just us growing up and becoming a band. I mean, we’ve also gotten to travel the world numerous times. We met President Obama twice, and went to the White House to play for him and his family. Most of all, standing on these stages in places like the Hollywood Bowl and football stadiums we’ve played and looking out and just seeing all the people. Those are the best memories, playing music in front of sold out crowds. That’s what you dream of: to get there, to walk out on the stage, to have everybody be there to see you, and just be singing your songs. There’s really nothing better than that.
In terms of song experiences, two come to mind. “Drops of Jupiter” has really had an impact worldwide. Everybody knows that song. Anywhere you go, they might not know the name of it, but they know how it goes. I think it’s really impacted people in a positive way. It’s changed my life. That was the 2nd most played song on the radio from the decade of 2000 to 2010 in the entire world. Really, when people think of Train, I think that’s what they think of. There’s even a country song out by Sam Hunt, with a chorus that says, “The sky is dropping Jupiter around us like some old Train.” People think of old Train and “Drops of Jupiter” in that period fondly.
The next song would be “Hey Soul Sister,” which brought Train back from the dead. It had a huge impact all around the world again. You could just go “Hey, hey!” and people will respond to that and know it with just one word. It was crazy. Ukulele sales went up 1,000% after that song was released! I think it changed things in music at the time. You started hearing things reminiscent of that song in TV commercials and in other people’s songs. I think a lot of people were trying to write a song like that one. I wish I’d written it!
What inspired you to leave Train and record an independent album?
Leaving had kind of been coming for years. You know, Train has gone through some transformations. The original five guys only lasted for a couple albums and then one left. After the next album, another one got let go because of substance abuse issues. Then we were down to three originals. We made a few more albums together, but it wasn’t going as well as the first time around. Pat Monahan, our lead singer, wanted to take a break and try doing his own thing. We took a few years off while Pat recorded a solo album. Not thankfully for him, but thankfully for Train it didn’t do so well! After a few years of touring his solo album he called Scott and I to ask if we we’d be interested in getting the band back together. Scott and I were like hell yes! Pat is no dummy. I think he realized at the time that our individual names didn’t mean as much as the name “Train” did. I think he was probably a little humbled by his solo experience and was ready to do whatever it took to get back on top with the band. He started writing with other songwriters that weren’t the band members. Our sound became different, and some of the older Train fans didn’t like it. However, we gained a whole bunch of new fans from “Hey Soul Sister” and sold 15 million copies of that song alone. We had a whole new audience, even with losing some of our early fans.
Our crowds and venues and salaries and success were much bigger after “Hey Soul Sister.” I think once you get a taste of something like that, you want that again and again. Pat didn’t want to go back to being the band we once were. He wanted to go forward with this new way that was proving to be successful. So we did. We made the following couple of records after that and had some major hits: “Drive By,” “Marry Me,” and “50 Ways to Say Goodbye.” It was working—but, it wasn’t the same band it used to be. And then, Scott departed the band. So, it was really down to two original members, Pat and I.
I was always the one who was more concerned with the band’s legacy and how the fans thought of the band. Pat wanted all of that and more, which meant he strived to write hit songs. He continued to write with outside writers and I didn’t always love everything that was being written and recorded or how we went about recording it. I would just come into the studio and replay guitar parts that had been written already. The creativity disappeared and that meant a lot to me. You know, it was just going through the motions and making money and playing big shows, and it eventually, it began to feel like a job instead of my passion.
Pat also wanted do do some things I didn’t agree with, like a Christmas album and a Led Zeppelin cover album. I just didn’t think that’s what the band was about. I didn’t understand it. I felt like we were starting to go in different directions. I also felt like we were over-saturating the market, and that we could afford to take some time off and not tour as heavily as we had been. I started to feel like maybe it was time for me to step aside so Pat could continue to do what he wanted without me fighting him every step of the way. I wanted to spend more time with my family and be creative again, writing music that meant something to me.
Tell us about your new album, “No Man’s Land.”
I didn’t realize that I had pent-up creativity for new music until after I left Train. At first, I just wanted a break from touring for five years nonstop. I had three kids at home to take care of, and didn’t know if I would ever be inspired to write music again. A year after vacations and family time, I started getting restless. I found some old demo-recordings of songs I had written with no vocals or lyrics on it for Train. When I discovered those old songs, I was inspired to finish them and write the words and melodies. This stuff was just too good to not be finished. I worked on them for a while, and began to write more songs to accompany them. It snowballed, and I decided to record an album.
You can hear my early and diverse music influences on this album. You can hear the Beatles and the Cure and some country influence. It’s just all a part of me. We’re all sponges, and we take in things: we hear them, see them, and use them. If you’re a creative person like me, those influences come out in your music. This album is 100% authentic and me. My goal isn’t to sell a million records. I don’t care if I sell any records at all. My goal is to have these songs out in the universe. That’s all.
If a thousand people hear it, great. Ten thousand, even better. The more people that you can make happy and influenced by your art, that’s what makes you feel good. My goal isn’t to make money. I have enough after being with Train for 22 years. This is really about doing what I love to do, which is writing and recording music. Now that I’ve done that, I don’t want to be the only one to own or ever hear it. I’m putting it out there for everybody to hear, and that will feel like a period on this group of songs I’ve written. Then, I can move on and write some more, and do it again.
Do you believe one can succeed in the music industry and still maintain authenticity?
I think initially when you succeed as a band or an artist, it’s because of who you are and what you’re doing, which the record company and fans like. Of course, there have been manufactured bands like Nsync and Backstreet boys, who have been put together by a record company with songs manufactured to be hits. That’s different then your Coldplay or Macklemore. They’re artists doing their art, and a record company buys in, the radio begins to play the songs, and success comes. It’s what happens after that original album success because success changes people. There’s no way you can sell millions of records to millions of people around the world and not be effected by it. It’s really hard to stay grounded and true to your art because all of a sudden, other things come into play, like money. Times also change, and so does the music. It’s like, Oh crap, what I was doing then isn’t hip now. I’ve gotta stay hip. It’s really difficult for bands to stay authentic after having their first successful and honest album. Some bands do it–Coldplay is a good example.
What is your advice to those wishing to succeed in any creative industry, such as music?
There’s no secret to success. It’s not like a big secret that I know and you don’t. It’s all about passion combined with talent and little bit of luck. It’s a tricky business and very few succeed. I always just tell people, no matter what you’re doing, if you love it and you enjoy it and you’re passionate about it and that’s what you want to do with your life, then go for it. You might have to have another job to pay the bills, but even then, make it a job that you can tolerate. If your art happens to break through, and that becomes your income, then that is a bonus. Life is too short to be miserable. Don’t put yourself into a miserable situation, don’t settle for a crappy job or career. Do things that you love to do and then hopefully one of them will provide a happy life for you.