The phone rings exactly at three o’clock. On the other end of the line is energetic, talkative and informative Blues Traveler guitarist Chan Kinchla calling from his Los Angeles home who greets me with “Blues Traveler is anything, if not punctual…at the least the guitar player.”
Kinchla’s ready to discuss the band’s 15th full-length album, Traveler’s Soul, where the members shape 12 R&B/soul covers within its musical approach that’s resulted in three gold-selling records, one platinum LP, and the 6x-platinum Four. The veteran jamband keeps the arrangements on the new release tight as it navigates through classic material by The Impressions, Al Green, TLC, Dr. John, Deee-Lite, Allen Toussaint, King Floyd, The Meters and more. Adding to BT’s interpretations are numerous collaborators including the vocals of Valerie June on “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” Pat Monahan of Train on “Waterfalls” and Ryan Shaw on “When A Man Loves A Woman” while up-and-coming hip-hop artist Daisha McBride offers an homage to TLC’s Lisa Left Eye’s iconic rap.
This album represents a sequel of sorts to 2021’s Traveler’s Blues, an album of blues covers that was nominated for a Grammy. The attitude may not have been “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” but it’s worked out that way. Once again, Kinchla, John Popper (vocals, harmonica), Tad Kinchla (bass), Ben Wilson (keyboards), and Brendan Hill (drums) worked with producer Matt Rollings at Sienna Recording Studios in Nashville for the creation of “Traverler’s Soul.”
So, will there be a third installment of covers? Maybe. Maybe not. For now, the group is busy touring behind the release after a successful summer of dates with Big Head Todd & the Monsters and the possibility of more shows together next year that will hit the Midwest and East coast.
As Kinchla put it, “It went so good, we should probably keep doing it.” Sounds like a motto the band follows.
JPG: Let’s talk about Traveler’s Soul, and how good it is.
CK: Thanks John. I’m quite pleased with it. It’s so neat to dive into these classic songs where the arrangements are so excellent. Back then, they would turn out so many songs that the craft of songwriting was so spot on and simple but with a lot of nuance and cool elements.
In doing them, it is a master class of songwriting. We learned so much doing these records, like the blues one (Traveler’s Blues) which we did before. It’s just a joy, and to have such a great team involved — the band, the producer and the songs. We really enjoyed it.
JPG: You mentioned the arrangements. Just before you called, I made a note that the arrangements are quite efficient. There’s soloing here and there but not a lot of extended soloing.
CK: That’s the way they did it back then and we wanted to capture it. The whole of the parts were all pretty damn cool. The Meters stuff and the New Orleans stuff had a little more room for that. That’s where we stretched out a little bit, but especially the more Motown R&B stuff, it’s just cool little figures and musical interplay is what really makes those songs work. The arrangements, they’re such an important part. We wanted to honor that when we were doing it.
JPG: How difficult is it to cover a song, to make it your own but also being respectful to the original?
CK: For us our saving grace is we can’t sound like anyone else, no matter what. We were never a cover band when we started out. We always did originals. Every time we tried to do a cover, it came off sounding like us.
So, we’ve always had that built-in blessing and curse. [Laughs.] In the end it’s a blessing to sound original. So, pretty much anything was gonna sound like Blues Traveler. John’s got such a distinctive voice, and with the harmonica, it really obviously, it’s very signature.
So, we don’t worry too much that it’s gonna sound like us. We want the interplay of the musicians playing together. It was very important that we got all the basic tracks as a live take, and we didn’t layer, get the drums first and then put on the other instruments. It’s all us.
It’s something you more feel than hear. There’s the interplay between the musicians. Our own inimitable style and the fact that we played all these tracks live and recorded them live, at least the foundation of them, the Blues Traveler part, because the guests are on later, obviously, that’s how we kept our element to it.
After that, these songs were just fantastic hits in the past. We didn’t want to fuck with the arrangements much, maybe do an interesting intro here and there, maybe mess with the bridge a little bit, but otherwise, we tried to keep the arrangements pretty close. Tried to simplify it, too. We were playing a lot of less-is-more, which is not our general nature. Like most jambands, more-is-more.
JPG: You mentioned recording the foundation of the song live because Traveler’s Soul does have that sound and feel of that.
CK: Picking the songs started months ahead of this, where we had massive lists where everyone’s dumping all their favorite soul songs onto this list, and then slowly but surely, we find ones that all of us like. Then, in the end Matt Rollings, our producer, who we worked with on a few other records, got it down to a good, workable list of songs we were all pretty excited about.
We’d come in each day and start with a song and get the arrangement down. We did a little homework before, but by the afternoon we’ll run it two, three, four times, and usually that’s the take. And it’s just so fun to start from nothing and then, for me, listening to them, you can hear the discoveries still in the take, a little bit like, “We got it. We finally got the pocket. We finally know the tempo. We got the groove. We’re listening to each other.” That moment of discovery is something ineffable, but it’s nice to have recorded and have it in the mix.
I also got to use the word ‘ineffable’ in an interview. [Laughs.]
JPG: Oh, I caught it. [Laughs.] Also, ‘inimitable’ earlier.
CK: I’m just working it. It’s the coffee.
JPG: The 12 tracks here, which ones did you chose and push to have on the album?
CK: At a certain point they all become like our own choices. The Meters one, “Just Kissed My Baby,” that was Brendan Hill. I’ll be honest, it’s my favorite one because we actually got the pocket on a Meters tune. It’s got such a great groove.
I really like what happened with “Groove Is in the Heart” and “Waterfalls” because those are R&B songs, but you wouldn’t really think so. I love how we reinterpreted those. Those are actually John Popper ones. Apparently, I didn’t have any ideas that made it to the record. [Laughs.] I have to look. You give away ownership at a certain point and it’s a good group consensus thing. This happens to us all the time. We forget whose idea things were.
JPG: With Traveler’s Soul, when we’re talking about making the song your own yet being respectful in the arrangements, it’s really interesting that the opening track, “Fool For You” sounds so much like a classic Blues Traveler number that if someone didn’t know that it was an Impressions cover they’d think it was one of yours.
CK: What’s interesting about that song is the original is in a really weird time signature and they’re kind of deconstructing the classic R&B arrangement model a little bit. When you take it apart, it’s a really weird R&B song which almost makes it more of a contemporary Blues Traveler jamband-y kind of fare. We just thought, “This is like a classic R&B song. We all love it. It’s got a great chorus.” But when we deconstructed it, we’re like, “This thing is fucking weird. It’s like 15/8 and then it changes back to 4/4.” Curtis Mayfield, the guitar player, is such a fucking badass.
JPG: The other thing about it is that you could have got away with just the five of you doing the whole album, but you brought in a bunch of guests. Was it always an idea of adding some spices, if you will, to the mix?
CK: That first the record we did like this, we did the blues record (Traveler’s Blues), which we did over the pandemic. We’d always wanted to do a blues record because the name of the band is Blues Traveler, but we don’t really play the blues. That was one of our first loves. So, it was always an idea.
The pandemic happened and, basically, conspired us to give us some time and needing something to do. That blues record, we had a bunch of guests that fell into our laps. With the blues record there’s a lot more soloing involved because…blues. So, we would have guest soloists and we would have a lot of different people on it. That went so well, and it was Grammy-nominated and we had great feedback from it.
We kept the same template. For us it’s so fun to have all these other guests on it that we just went with it.
JPG: Besides classic soul numbers there are some surprises on the new album such as a cover of “Groove Is in the Heart” by Deee-Lite.
CK: Here’s the funny thing. When Blues Traveler started in the Lower East Side of New York in ‘87, ‘88 ‘89, they were also playing all around in a similar way, they were just a little more dance.
That was back in the Club Kids era, the Limelight…We played the Limelight, there were all these clubs, and we occasionally would play them. We were more like Lower East Side dives, but we played fucking everywhere. We didn’t care.
We’d see them walking around the street. They’re kind of from our era in New York City where we came out of. So, we always had an affinity towards them and that song because that’s our era. [Laughs.]
JPG: Were you friendly or was it a matter that you never interacted because you were in totally different scenes?
CK: We were in the same places, but we never got to know each other.