If the members of Blues Traveler are anything, they're survivors.
In the early '90s, vocalist-harpist John Popper had a near fatal motorcycle accident that left him walking with a cane for years. The band came back in 1994 with its most critically and commercially successful album, Four, which spawned the hits "The Hook" and "Run-around," still the longest-charting single in the history of the Billboard charts.
In the wake of the HORDE Tour, an annual pilgrimage that Blues Traveler co-founded and helped put the now massive jam band scene on the musical map, the band solidified itself as one of the country's best live draws, which it remains but without original bassist Bobby Sheehan. The beloved groovester died of a drug overdose in New Orleans in 1999. Right around the same time, a rotund Popper had to have bypass surgery.
After slimming down by more than 100 pounds, the soulful singer, intelligent songwriter, groundbreaking harmonic player and his bandmates/Princeton High School chums, guitarist Chan Kinchla and drummer Brendan Hill, carried on with The Bridge. The title referred to a new, yet familiar bassist, baby bro Tad Kinchla, and keyboardist Ben Wilson, whose blended rhythms re-energized Traveler. Featuring one of their best-ever songs, "Pretty Angry," a tribute to their fallen bandmate, The Bridge was the last studio effort for the conglomerate that had once been the nurturing A&M Records, which signed the band in 1989. After jumping to Interscope after one of those (oxy)moronic music business mergers, the band was dropped last year.
But the improvisational roots rockers seemed to simply have used up a couple more of their nine lives by crafting one of their most intelligent, fun, dynamic and funky albums, Truth Be Told, for the artist-friendly, BMG-distributed independent label, Sanctuary Records. A tray of 12 tasty nuggets, including the sardonic but poppy single, "Let Her & Let Go" (most added to AAA the week of its release), the funkadelic reggae of "Thinnest Air," Bobby McFerrin-like vocally percussive "Stumble & Fall," the oddly harmonic "This Ache," and the vocabulary-building "Mount Normal," Truth Be Told won’t catapult Blues Traveler back into the limelight of Four. To do so, nowadays would force them to compromise rather than refine their art, which they've done with a cascade of intelligent lyrics, funky rhythms and energetic but tasteful playing.
These qualities have enabled Traveler to sustain a core fan base willing to travel with them from show to show. For the first time in a while, the New Jersey-raised band played its home state on Aug. 2 with a concert on the outdoor stage of The Stone Pony in Asbury Park. A booking at least three years in the making, Traveler was as happy to play in Jersey as the Pony was to have them. My chat with Chan Kinchla revealed other truths, which you can find more about at www.BluesTraveler.com.
If Blues Traveler is anything, they’re survivors. John’s motorcycle accident and bypass surgery, Bobby’s death, A&M folding. Yet, here you are with your best-written, most energetic and cohesive album since Four. How are you feeling about that?
CK- I feel really good. We love playing together. We weren't going to give that up. We haven't even considered that. The most important thing though is to balance out the music, the work, with health issues. That's something we've worked really hard at. We take time for ourselves.
In a band, it's really easy to get so near-sighted with music that you forget a lot of other things that you need to create longevity. You need to look at the bigger picture. The last couple of years since Bob's death, we've really worked hard on that. It rewards you with a lot of energy and focus.
The band obviously has gelled since Bridge. How have Tad and Ben’s roles changed?.
CK- With the last record, they had just joined the band six months before. They found their places in the band with Bob not being in there. The remaining original band members were finding their places as well. We toured for two years together and the music grew onstage, which is the only place to come to terms with who goes where and how it all fits together. From the beginning, we were not interested in Tad and Ben filling a preconceived role. We wanted them to bring new identities to the band, to liven things up for us. We changed the playing field, which inspired all the original members.
When it came to this record, they came up with songs. They felt very confident in their place in the band, and we just got to relax a little and let them go. The record was a blast to make. It was something that fell down easily and quickly.
Is Sanctuary considered an indie or a major label subsidiary of BMG?
CK- BMG is just the distribution. It's an independent. To us, it's very much the perfect bridge between the two. It's more like a record label used to be 20 years ago. The big three labels, that's not the environment for a band like us, where we're happy selling short of Four's crazy success. We're happy if we sell 500,000 or a million copies. We're ecstatic, as would most bands who play our kind of music. At a major, that's a flop. They all want multi-platinum. You make a lot of sacrifices artistically to fit in that mold. Sanctuary is more like A&M when we started with them. The only focus is on the music. They don't have someone owning them over in France interested in selling widgets and oil. Without that pressure, we're happy with the relationship.
We made the record on our own dime. They didn't even hear it. While we were negotiating with the record company, they said wait to do it. We went ahead and did it behind their back. When it came down to final negotiations, we said we had it finished, which was fun. It wasn't like they needed to hear it done, but they were happy to get it. It would have sucked if they told us to redo it.
It's much more of a partnership, a 50/50 share in costs and profits. We hire them for their expertise in marketing, distribution and working radio. That's something bands shouldn't be that good at. We listen to them, but it's much more of a dialogue.
What are your thoughts relative to a single and video? Do you have those in the works?
CK- Well, with the last two records, A&M and Interscope both spent twice as much as the record cost to make on videos that weren't even played. If a single heats up the charts, there'll be a reason to make a video. We have a lot of concert video for Let Her & Let Go,' which is the first single. It was the No. 1 most added at AAA radio. Wherever that goes is great. It's part of the bigger picture, but radio is not the be all and end all.
One thing I’ve appreciated throughout your career and this continues on Truth Be Told on a song like Mount Normal,’ is the language, the vocabulary is often on a higher level.
CK- Making music for a broad mainstream audience is the only purpose for some acts. We make music for a different reason. We want to share our music with as many people as possible. But now the 14-year-old radio listeners don't have the bigger picture. It's fun to play to them, but that scene is so scattered. As much as we loved commercial success it was a fun ride you have to get the respect for being a real living, breathing band. I can't say which is better. It's just an interesting dichotomy.
I didn’t think this was possible, but it seems to me that John’s voice has gotten even better. The arrangements on Truth Be Told allow him to showcase his vocals even more than usual.
CK- John was very relaxed on this record. A lot of the credit for arranging goes to our producer, Don Gehman and for getting John in a good place. He did all the John Cougar Mellencamp records, a couple of Tracy Chapman records, R.E.M. and he goes all the way back to Barbra Streisand.
I really didn’t hear harp until the fourth track, which certainly showcases everyone else’s playing.
CK- Don didn't want to put anything on there that wasn't needed. Everything had to have a purpose. We approached every song that way. It's just where the songs fell.
If you read the lyrics to some of the songs, they’re downers, yet musically they’re upbeat. Can you talk about taking a sad or angry sentiment and make it bright musically?
CK- I think most of the great things in life are kind of bittersweet. There are different levels of emotion. Blessed Pain' has a dark edge, but that's what's fun about relationships. The trauma and the drama is what keep it so interesting. Good stuff should have a lot of levels to it.
One of the things I enjoy with this record is lots of nooks and crannies you can get into to try to interpret it. But we're in a good place so that comes through musically. The nice thing about albums or even a good book is that it reaches some deeper truth and understanding other than the surface. They incorporate the whole picture.
The vocal percussion on Stumble & Fall’ and the unusual harmony on This Ache,’ are those all Popper’s vocals?
CK- That's all John. Live, we do some other stuff. It was just a case of letting him go. John has a wealth of sounds he can make. We let him go to town, and he came out of left field. That's all John having a ball.
You played the Stone Pony’s outdoor stage. How did you feel about returning home to Jersey to perform?
CK- For us, it's like coming home. We're all from New Jersey and a majority of our families still live in Princeton. A majority of the people we started working with are from Princeton, Long Beach Island, New York, Long Island. They all come to the shows, so it's kind of a reunion.
It's also the place where I grew up. I'll always remember summers at the Jersey Shore. It's being back there. It's always pretty comfortable, and we usually play pretty well.
Blues Traveler helped put the jamband’ scene on the musical map with the HORDE Tour. It since has gotten rather cliquey in a way that sometimes seems to exclude your band. How do you feel about that?
CK- We were part of a community of bands, basically Phish, Widespread Panic, Aquarium Rescue Unit, Big Head Todd and Dave Matthews Band. We would do this East Coast run and play out in Colorado, and we got to know each other and become friends. Everyone was coming up at the same time. The legacy we left is all kinds of music are welcome.' It's a diverse scene. It's not about the type of music you play but the openness to improvisation and changing. It's a great thing today that the music is still alive.
When it comes down to calling it a jamband scene and that anyone is more or less a member … once you start talking about members, I don't have any use for that anyway. But every band has their own crowd. It's up to each band to create their own thing, their own identity. I just worry about our band and our fans. If anyone wants to put us in a scene, that's fine, but we don't worry about that.
Bob Makin first interviewed Blues Traveler’s John Popper for East Coast Rocker in the basement of Mondo Perso in December of 1989. He is now an entertainment editor based in New Jersey and a music writer for JamBands.com, Gannett New Jersey, The Aquarian Weekly, Downbeat, Backstreets and Details. He also is co-founder of Jersey Jams Fund (www.JerseyJamsFund.org), a United Way music education program for New Jersey children. Artists can send him information to [email protected]