Drinks with Rock Stars: Train’s Rob Hotchkiss

Reflecting on the road less taken and what lies ahead

Train’s Rob Hotchkiss performing at Doc’s Lab, San Francisco

It’s been 15 years since Grammy winning, multiplatinum artist Rob Hotchkiss saw his music career soar into the stratosphere with the overnight success of his band, Train. He would go on to write dozens of chart-topping hits including Drops of Jupiter and Calling All Angels, but by the third album, burnout would set in. The band had succumbed to drugs, divisive politics, and crushing ego battles. For sake of his health and happiness, Rob made the difficult decision to walk away from it all, the fame, the money, the power.

Taking refuge on the remote island of Vashon in Washington’s Puget Sound, he laid low for half a decade letting his mind wander the in-between spaces where creativity flourishes. Like Paul McCartney who ran away to the Hebrides to raise his family when the Beatles broke up, and Steve Jobs who ran away to India when he was fired from Apple, Rob knew he would find his way by taking much needed downtime.

He returned to the Bay Area a little over a year ago and reunited with Train bandmate Charlie Colin to work on their new band, Painbirds. He’s also launched his solo career with the critically acclaimed album, Midnight Ghost.

I had a chance to catch up with Rob at his recent performance at Doc’s Lab in San Francisco. Drinks included a Star Fresh champagne cocktail featuring an infusion of cognac and lemon. It was delicious!

Me with Train’s Rob Hotchkiss doing Drinks with Rock Stars

Your music is very Beatlesy. Earthy melodic folk ballads with strands of Harry Chapin, Jim Croce, Harry Nilsson and Cat Stevens. Who were your earliest influences and how would you describe your sound?

Definitely Beatles. They were the band that made me want to do this for a living. Zeppelin was an early influence. And early Bowie. Later, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. The Rolling Stones. Aerosmith. Guitar-wise, I’d have to include Jimi Hendrix. And sure, Cat Stevens, James Taylor. Also Creedence.

How do you listen to music… iTunes, Spotify, Sirius? Who is on your playlist right now?

These days I go to iTunes for music. It’s been a while since a new artist floored me. Elliott Smith is just about as good as they come. As is Gillian Welch.

When you met Pat Monahan in 1993 and formed Train, you were already in your 30s, struggling artists trying to make it in the San Francisco indie music scene. You had trouble getting signed and wound up self-funding your first album, similar to Radiohead. How did you stay positive and not get discouraged? What kept both of you hustling to land your label and what magic came together that resulted in your first album going platinum?

I remember, after finishing that first Train album, which we made at a friend’s house, asking our manager what the chances were of the album going gold. He said it would take a miracle. So I guess a miracle occurred. The magic would be the musical chemistry. Five guys, as dysfunctional as we may have been, just making great music together. And there was a TON of hard work mixed in.

Why did we keep at it, rather than become discouraged? Honestly, in my case, it had much to do with the fact that I couldn’t think of anything else I’d be happier doing!

Decades later, how are things different in the music business? What advice would you give young artists trying to make it big today?

I’d tell anyone wanting to make a living at music, do it for the love. If you’re doing it for any other reason, there’re plenty of easier ways to make a living. And not only are you going to to have to be as or more talented than the rest of ’em, but you’re also going to have to work harder. And smarter!

How did life change after Train took off? What was the coolest thing about becoming a rock star? Were you suddenly hanging out with your favorite celebrities? Getting into insider events and clubs you didn’t even know existed? Meeting people you never thought you’d meet?

I was never into the insider event thing. In fact, I remember after we won the Grammy, being at the JLo party, and getting the limousine to pick me up as soon as possible to get back to the hotel to just chill…but it was cool getting to meet people like Aerosmith, and even sports celebs like Tiger Woods and Magic Johnson.

What was the craziest thing a fan ever did while you were with Train?

I guess I could say I signed plenty of breasts! :-}

You were with Train for three of their biggest albums and wrote most of their hits. What went through your head once you knew you were done, that you were unhappy and just couldn’t do it anymore. It takes great courage to walk away from the security of success. What guided your decision and how did you know that you were going to be ok?

I was lucky that my years with Train were during a time when people were still buying music. So although I left a good amount of money on the table, I was pretty sure I could choose not to work if that’s what I wanted. And honestly, you nailed it when you said “I just couldn’t do it anymore!” It became a visceral thing at the end. I just couldn’t bring myself to get on an airplane to go finish music that I didn’t feel good about.

Post-Train, you spent half a decade on the serene island of Vashon. A population of 10,000 spread out over 37 square miles, completely isolated with no bridges to the mainland. How was life different there? Was there a music scene? What did you do with the ten years you were on the island?

I spent my time learning Schubert on my Steinway, overlooking the harbor.

What’s next? What projects are you working on? Are you collaborating with anyone? You’ve hooked up with former band members, is it ok to ask if you and are Pat Monahan are still friends? Are you heading back to the studio? What are your upcoming gigs?

I came back to California to finish a record with Painbirds. With that accomplished, I’ve moved on to playing shows as a solo artist. I’m guessing I’ll start recording in earnest some time in the Fall. The next couple of months will mostly bring a smattering of private acoustic shows. I’m very much looking forward to a full-band show July 22nd at the Lafayette Town Hall Theater, where joining me on stage will be Los Angeles’s Ainjel Emme (on bass), and Ken Stavropoulos (toured with Starship) on drums. Anyone who’s enjoyed the acoustic thing should come see how it feels when it rocks!

We’ll also be doing an acoustic show July 9th on Vashon Island (near Seattle), at the newly-completed Center For The Arts. That’ll be a kind of home-coming for me, as I haven’t been back since I left to make the Painbirds EP over a year ago. I miss that place!

As you mentioned, Charlie and I collaborated in Painbirds. Scott even joined us for a spell. Pat and I were never enemies, and we’ve stayed in touch. Jimmy and I have always been friends.

Welcome home Rob Hotchkiss!

Welcoming committee — me with friends Caroline, Jonathan & Lana :D

Periscope livestream of Train’s Rob Hotchkiss concert

Martine Paris is a tech, games and lifestyle reporter who has written for AOL Music, Huffington Post, Pocket Gamer & Slide to Play and has produced and spoken on numerous NPR broadcasts for the Commonwealth Club. Follow her @contentnow on Twitter and Periscope.