When his band opened for Matchbox Twenty during a recent arena tour, Pat Monahan saw people mouth the lyrics and nod along to the melodies.
"When you hear 'Drops of Jupiter,' you go 'I know that song.' Then you say Train performs it. And people say 'Hmm, Train?"' says lead singer Monahan. "We're working on fixing that."
Next Wednesday, Train pulls into the Grammys with an eye-opening five nominations, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year. The band also is to perform, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, at the televised Grammy ceremony.
"That's the real prize," says Monahan, 32. "We feel like we've been recognized for something incredible."
Train's sophomore album, Drops of Jupiter, has sold 3 million copies, eclipsing their 1999 Columbia debut, Train. The second album's sales were powered by radio play and nonstop touring, including opening for the Dave Matthews Band, Barenaked Ladies, Blues Traveler and Counting Crows.
"As much as we've been together for seven years, we're just getting started at being in the limelight," Monahan says.
Drummer Scott Underwood says the band's low profile has helped it hone its act. "We've done a lot of legwork to get to this point."
The band members began chugging toward rock success in 1993 when Monahan left his hometown of Erie, Pa., for Los Angeles at the urging of Cher's then-guitarist David Shelley, who heard him playing rock covers at a nightclub.
In Los Angeles, Monahan met former Apostles guitarist Rob Hotchkiss. The two moved their act to San Francisco in 1995, where they teamed up with Underwood, bassist Charlie Colin and guitarist Jimmy Stafford to form Train.
They chose the name after reading that the British band Echo & the Bunnymen had said there was nothing romantic about the United States; Hotchkiss thought there was nothing more romantic about the United States than the train.
The group's soft-rock sound got seasoned at nightclubs before catching the attention of a Columbia representative, who heard them on a promotional compilation CD — the same type of promotion that helped launch Matchbox Twenty and Better Than Ezra.
At first, Columbia passed on the band. But Train moved forward, pulling together $25,000 to record a demo. A high-placed supporter at Columbia resubmitted their music under a pseudonym, Project X.
"First impressions mean a lot and I needed to circumvent the first impression," said Tim Devine, Columbia's senior vice president of A&R.
"They weren't necessarily glitzy or glammy. In fact, they were the antithesis of some of the more chauvinistic, outrageous hard-rock acts coming down the pike at the time."
This time, the label went for it. Train's first single, "Meet Virginia," became a radio staple.
Although critics dismissed them as a one-hit wonder, Train roared back two years later with the string-drenched "Drops of Jupiter" — a role-reversal ode about a woman returning to a relationship after sowing her oats.
The song went to No. 1 on the charts and was featured on the K-Pax movie soundtrack. Train also recently recorded "Fallout," a seven-minute song to be featured on the soundtrack of the upcoming movie We Were Soldiers.
Today, the band is careful about rock 'n' roll expectations.
"We try to keep a healthy perspective about it," says Underwood. So healthy, he says, that he was asleep during the early-morning Grammy nominations last month.
"My hair stylist called to confirm an appointment and then said congratulations on the nominations. I said, 'What are you talking about?"' Underwood says.
Monahan says the band is honored by the nomination but is focused on the long term.
"We want to look back at 20 years of a career. We want to have a catalog," he says. "We want to make a difference ... (like) Elton John, Led Zeppelin and all of the bands that made a difference in our lives."