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Blues travelin' with John Popper

Goldmine sits down with Blues Traveler frontman John Popper for an exclusive interview.
 Blues Traveler (L-R): Brendan Hill, Tad Kinchla, John Popper, Ben Wilson and Chan Kinchla. Photo by Michael Weintrob/Courtesy of PR.

Blues Traveler (L-R): Brendan Hill, Tad Kinchla, John Popper, Ben Wilson and Chan Kinchla. Photo by Michael Weintrob/Courtesy of PR.

By Ray Chelstowski

The band Blues Traveler and their frontman John Popper have been modern day rock “Zeligs,” present at some of music’s most important moments. In many cases they have sat at the creative center of these events,shaping the ever-evolving sound of rock and blues while helping little known bands earn their moment in the sun. As founding members of the H.O.R.D.E Festival, they have been long dedicated to showcasing the ”horizons of rock” that they see “developing everywhere.”

An act who have honed their skills on the road and who have continued to make touring and live performances the A-frame of their colorful legend, Blues Traveler are in many ways a musician’s kind of band. They have always favored musicality, talent, creativity and nuance over flash and fame. And their body of work has brought a flavor to jam that has cast the genre a wide fan net. The band also seem to have a terrific amount of fun pursuing their craft and that joy is evident in each note they play.

This October, Blues Traveler release their 13th album, Hurry Up & Hang Around. Cut in Nashville, the album finds the band in top form as they weave through rock-soaked romps that leverage the trademark harmonica in ways that broaden their sound.

However, this added sophistication never overshadows the Blues Traveler’s down and dirty blues-based roots. Goldmine spoke to John Popper about the making of this new record, what bands and marriages have in common and what he thinks about the controversy surrounding the television sitcom Roseanne, a program that Blues Traveler share a unique history.

GOLDMINE: What made you decide to go to Nashville to put this record together?

JOHN POPPER: Well, it was really a series of circumstances. We’d made a bunch of records in Austin and we quickly learned what the advantage was of going to a music town to work on something creative. There’s a lot of influence and it encourages you to keep your approach live and accessible. And the songwriting... just being around people all trying to make it really affects how you respond in your own work. So when we were considering places to go that was definitely on our minds and Nashville is certainly one of those places. It’s always been a great music town but it thrives in all genres, not just country music. I’d always had a concern about Nashville when I was younger. As a session player going to work there they have the factory approach and as a harmonica player you get worried that you are going to get stereotyped.

GM: Matt Rollins produced. He is more known for his work with country acts like Lyle Lovett. What made him the right guy for this project?

JP: The thing that I’m very aware of with Matt Rollings is his work with Willie Nelson. That has some of the cleanest sounding, most beautiful wood quality gorgeousness to its sound. What he was great at was being very concise in directing us to be ourselves and in adding a lot of harmonic depth to our sound. It’s a real art form to be able to put that many layers on without over-effect. The pieces just kind of came in place and we came back in May and recorded the entire thing in one month. I had just come from the Colonel Bruce (Hampton) concert where he passed away on stage. It was very tragic and surreal. We then went in and recorded the album. Then at the end of the month Gregg Allman died. So there was a lot of emotional fuel in the process.

GM: Over the years you have made people take a different look at the harmonica, consider it differently. Here you seem to pull it back a bit and weave it more organically into the music. Was that a conscious decision?

JP: Matt was really astute in that area. He knew we had already done that extended harmonica solo on an album. So how do you do something that has been featured like that before when you have to feature it again? It was a matter of skill on his part because I have to have solos but they shouldn’t dominate the song. So it’s a real subtle balance that he strikes because we saved time and focused on the songs and didn’t deprive anyone of anything. That’s a really hard balance to strike.

GM: Then again, on “Prayer Upon The Wind,” you show how explosive the instrument can be.

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JP: Yeah, I feel that I get to do everything that I wanted to do with (the harmonica) and be economical at the same time. You have to pick your moments where you grip it and rip. And those moments are there. That’s where you really see the skill of a producer – you feel like you’ve gotten what you need from the solo but the song keeps moving. Matt did that so well, in part I think because he’s also a player, goes out and jams.

GM: The record seems like a full-out Blues Traveler record, except for the track “She Becomes My Way.” There is a much gentler, softer BT on display. How did this song come about and end up on the record?

JP: We were actually thinking of it as a single initially. But it was a little too ballady for that. It comes down to the fact that I had not written my wife a song yet and she wanted one. (laughs) I was thinking about that and I came up with that hook when we were in Nashville. I was thinking about the phrasing more than anything else and the words just kind of fell into place. On that one I was trying to do my Jackson Browne impression. What I love about doing impressions of people when I’m singing is that it doesn’t sound like them. It really just becomes some aspect that I borrow. So if you’re lucky you get to be a bad impressionist. People say, “It doesn’t sound like them, it sounds like you.” But in my head that’s what I’m trying to do.

GM: You guys have had the same lineup now for over 20 years. How has that helped evolve your music?

JP: It becomes almost imperceptible because we have been playing together since we were little children. We have a way of communicating that we don’t even notice. A lot of bands grow up together and build their own sound. Where we have been lucky is that the average lifespan of a band is like six years. To go five times that long requires a necessity in our ability to speak together because it’s like a family, it becomes your way of life. That gets into your sound because you’re living it. All of us being able to focus on our instruments and trust each other and go at it as a family gives you one less thing to worry about.

I have been playing with other people as well and I want to continue doing that. I have a couple of ideas that I want to go out and try. I always want to use Blues Traveler as a base of operations, to go out and try something and come back. And that’s the benefit of a family. You have a place to leave and come back to. Hopefully I get to some weird “new” that way. I think that the key to music is like being a shark. You have to keep moving, keep growing. Unlike marriage, playing with other bands is for fooling around and having orgies. The more you cheat, the healthier your relationship.

GM: The album Four gave you your biggest hit in “Run-Around.” Was that a conscious decision to chase down a hit or was it just the right song at the right time?

JP:It was a much slower song and if you remember that movie That Thing You Do, it was a lot like that. It started out as a slower song that had me feeling a little more sorry for myself. It was a sadder kind of ballad. But we got in the studio and (Steve) Thompson and (Michael) Barbiero instantly got us to use an up-tempo drum beat and suddenly it was like that moment in That Thing You Do. You could tell suddenly “ Wow, this is a real single!” Because up until then we had never had a “real” single. We felt almost like we had discovered how to play pop music. The first time we really knew that we had something was after they had been working it in Atlanta and we had come to open for Hootie & The Blowfish for one of these radio shows. We were doing our set and people were liking it. Then we do “Run-Around” and suddenly it’s like a Beatles concert with 12-year-old girls screaming. We’d never encountered that before, and it began a period where our audiences were divided into two groups. There were hippies and there were 12-year-old girls. The hippies would have fun all night except for six minutes when we did “Run-Around,” and the 12-year-olds would stand around bored all night until we played it.

GM: You recorded the theme song for the final season of Roseanne. Given your history with the show any thoughts on that programs legacy and where we are as a nation?

JP: Getting to do that was one of my favorite things. It think it’s just an absolute shame that (Roseanne) did that. There is no excusing it. She basically destroyed what she built. I have so much heartfelt support for that show, including the new season, and if they ever need us to be a part of it I’d be proud and happy to.