The music of the rockabilly band This Train came about at an interesting time for me personally as well as for the Christian music industry (CCM) in general.
Personally, This Train's music was thrust upon me during a particularly Rich Mullins and neo-folk obsessed stage of my life at the 1997 Cornerstone Music Festival. I was at the Compassion Gallery Stage to see Caedmon's Call, when this crazy goofy looking band opened up for them. It was just 3 beefy guys banging the snot out of their instruments looking like a bunch of greasers from George Lucas' American Graffiti. And the music? Well, it sounded like country or blue-grass...but a LOT...faster. There was something even a bit punk about it. And I had never even seen an upright bass before—at least not one played that way. I had no idea what I was listening to, but I liked it. I was in great need of musical diversity and This Train was about to broaden my horizons.
Caedmon's Call was a bit of a disappointment that night (only Derek Webb and a percussionist were able to make it to the concert), but crazily enough Rich Mullins showed up to sing on one of CC's and This Train's songs. I had basically come to Cornerstone that year solely for all the Rich Mullins stuff going on (other than a normal concert he was debuting his St. Francis musical Canticle of the Plains later that week) and was floored when he atomized out onto the stage and then I kinda-sorta got to meet him later behind the merch table (I think I got to shake his hand and have an awkward 7 second "conversation"). But man, I have to say, even though my head was swirling from meeting my childhood (and now adult) hero, I also couldn't stop thinking about this new band. I walked around that night trying to keep their music in my head so as not to forget it (for some reason I didn't buy any of their albums). Most of my teenage friends were getting into harder music at that time, but I had found something different. I had discovered rockabilly.
And this is what makes This Train such a strange little story, for when was the last time you heard of a "Christian" rockabilly band?
The late 1990's, you see, was a great time for niche sounds within the CCM industry, with a whole slew of small independent records label or large record label subsidiaries cropping up all over. Before the industry imploded a few years later, a band with an all but unmarketable sound (to the CCM crowd at least) could get a record deal, because why not? Back then it seemed like the goal of all these indie labels was to have a large and varied lineup of bands and artists (I'm thinking about Tooth N' Nail, 5 Minute Walk, Frontline, Floodgate, and Organic Records, where This Train resided), because making a record was relatively cheap and money was still coming in from record sales.
But then something else happened in the 90's: the Swing craze and Brian Setzer's (who first rose to fame in the rockabilly band The Stray Cats) mainstream breakthrough with 1998's The Dirty Boogie. While you don't really hear this influence on This Train's '98 album Mimes of the Old West, swing features prominently on a couple of songs from 1999's The Emperor's New Band. While the genre suits the band well, I can imagine the heads of their record label strongly encouraging them to write a few swing numbers for the new album (ya know, for the kids!). I guess it didn't work though, as The Emperor's New Band became This Train's last album.
Here's an example of one of their swing songs, "She's a Rocket" from the Emperor's album (I'm not allowed to embed the video for some reason).
The fact that This Train never made more music really is just too bad. Because, even while I could never go so far as to say This Train made one of the greatest "Christian" albums of the 90's—it was never epic enough, ambitious enough, or whatever, to be put in that echelon—I can honestly say they were one of my very favorite bands at the time and their music is one of the few I still go back to when you will rarely find me listening to a DC Talk album nowadays. That is to say, I don't listen to Jesus Freak anymore, but I listen to the last two This Train albums at least once a year (there first album You're Soaking In It is a rare listen)
Essentially, This Train made fun tongue-in-cheek music in a mashup of country, rock, blue-grass, punk, and surfer rock styles. It was bliss.
Their lyrics went back and forth from outright silly ("Mimes of the Old West", "Monster Truck", "We're Going Nowhere (Fast)"), to scathingly satirical and prophetic ("The Emperor's New Band", "I Don't Wanna Know"), to spiritually bittersweet ("A Million Years" [co-written with Mullins], "The Way it Sounds"). They also gave us some kickin' instrumentals ("Hangar 84" and "Seafoam Green") and cover songs that rivaled the originals (Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light", Rich Mullins' "Screendoor", and Louvin Brothers' "Atomic Power").
This variety reveals one of things I like about them most as a band: they were Christians who felt no pressure to force spiritual themes into their songs and who weren't afraid to be absurd and make fun of themselves. They mixed it all in there as a natural outflow of who they were and managed to craft a group of songs that could be serious and ridiculous and spiritual all at the same time with no contradictions.
In many ways, from their choice of musical genre to the themes of their lyrics I see them as a brave band in the cookie-cutter world of CCM (granted they pretty much flew under the radar during their brief career). But they managed to form a cohesive sound, like all great artists, bringing all their influences together to transcend the older genres. They paid homage to the greats of the past but also created something new and fresh. In re-listening to their albums it really is amazing to hear how diverse their sound is from song to song and yet how they managed to always sound like themselves.
Here is how I would describe their sound, according to what each member of the band brings: First you've got Mark Robertson's goofy but sincere vocals, accompanied by his aggressive but clever bass work. Then you've got Jordan Richter's sophisticated razor blade guitar work, a guy who can play everything from classic swing/rockabilly/surf rock to dirty and dissonant solos, all with impeccably tasteful tone). Finally, there's Cobra Joe's thwacking drums, forever played with a smile on his face. During concerts I was always amazed at how thin his snare drum was, the delicate yet fierce way he would strike his kit, and then the huge sound he was able to get out of it. I also shouldn't fail to mention what vocalist Beki Hemingway contributed to their early work.
A couple of stray points and then we'll get to some more music:
Other than what I've already stated, here are two things I really liked about a This Train record:
1. The unique way they did their "hidden tracks". Basically it was just a bunch of 5 second tracks tacked on to the end of the album before they got to the hidden track. I'm sure it was done elsewhere but to my knowledge it was a unique move.
2. I always loved Mark Robertson's brief commentaries to each song. He always gave great little insights.
For these reasons you should consider buying a physical CD of theirs. They're cheap on Amazon.
Now, here are some song examples, with a little commentary:
"Hanger 84" from Mimes—a surf rock instrumental. Let me ask you this: don't you think this song deserves to be heard by as wide a group of people as possible? Isn't it a bit of a classic and don't you wish Quentin Tarantino would put it on the soundtrack to his next film? How could anyone not think this is pure fun?
"A Million Years" from Mimes—a spiritually bittersweet tune, featuring and co-written by Rich Mullins.
"I Wanna Be Your Man" from Emperor's—to me this is their best example of the rockabilly sound. It's just a tight, explosive, fun (and cleverly spiritual) song. It's because of songs like this that I wish they had made more records.
"Jazz from Emperor's"—a humorous rant. I am still mesmerized by this short little song. Nothing quite like it exists on a "Christian" record. Enjoy.
"Monstertruck 2000" from Emperor's—a song of pure goofiness. This is probably my favorite This Train song, against my better judgment. It's just hilarious to me.
"Technology" from Emperor's—a (somewhat) pop-country-rock song. To me this is a great little satirical piece that could have been a hit on country radio if only the world were listening.
"Atomic Power" from Mimes—a superb cover of a classic song.
"I Don't Wanna Know" from Mimes—one of their scathingly prophetic songs. Get ready to feel convicted
To me, these two This Train albums are classics, their sound completely holding up still today. And looking back I'm saddened by what could have become of them, a band that deserved universal recognition even if within a niche genre. From Robertson's stellar tongue-in-cheek songwriting (most of the time I think he's funnier than Steve Taylor), to Jordan Richter's virtuosic guitar playing, to Cobra Joe's bangin' energetic drums, to the timeless sound they managed to capture. But they came about at the wrong time, I guess, in a "Christian" industry where they were too silly, too ironic, too niche in sound, and not good looking enough (sorry guys).** That is, they weren't marketable, even though in today's free-for-all of a music industry niche artists who maintain a fan-base can thrive.
Bassist, lead vocalist, and songwriter Mark Robertson has stayed the most visibly busy in the past decade and a half, playing in the Ragamuffins (who continued on after Rich Mullins died), The Legendary Shack Shakers (who are currently on tour), many other Nashville based acts, and even trying to make his own bass player documentary. Guitarist Jordan Richter has been producing and recording bands in NYC and I have no idea what Cobra Joe's been up to. But is it too much to hope the guys can get back together and bang out some more tunes...?
I never actually managed to turn a single person on to This Train. No not one. But are there any fans still out there? Is there a way we can convince them to do a Kickstarter and can we fans support it and get it funded so we can get some more tunes?!
"How long will it take...and when we get there, will we even know it?"
*band founder/songwriter/vocalist/bassist has also classified This Train's music as "Cow-punk" according to this interview. I suppose This Train could also fall into the "alt-country" time zone, whatever you take that to mean.
**Let me be clear on this: Some of the best bands in the world don't exactly contain the best looking people and they became world famous (like ELO and even Freddie Mercury. Hey, even The Beatles were pretty goofy looking). The problem is, the CCM world really needed its artists to fit a certain mold and This Train were nowhere close to that.
Related This Train Articles (not from PostConsumer Reports:
Amazon Listings of This Train's The Emperor's New Band and for Mimes of the Old West
This Train's Facebook Page
A (relatively) recent interview with Mark Robertson about his career as a bass player
A Feauture: This Train—bound for nowhere (fast)
Other Related Articles:
Celebrating 20 Years of Rich Mullins' A Liturgy A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band
Fernando Ortega Interview and Concert Review
Record Review: Peter Furler Band's Sun and Shield
Why I Cringe Everytime Someone Says "I Hate Christian Music"