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Road Warriors
by Abigail Demers
Penthouse, National
Dec 1st, 1997

They're famous for nonstop touring and jamming, but what Blues Traveler really wants is to get naked for you. Fourteen years ago, the members of Blues Traveler met in high school in Princeton, New Jersey, and began their perpetual road trip to the smoke and sweat of America's music scene. United by a common goal - "to get the hell out of school" - the nomadic jam band began by playing duch down-and-dirty New York clubs as Wetlands and Nightingale's, quickly becoming a local favorite. Eventually, they hit the road in a van, logging hundreds of thousands of miles with a simple approach to publicity: Let the music do the talking.

Blues Traveler's no-nonsense play-till-you-drop philosophy attracted legendary rock promoter Bill Graham to sign on as their manager in the late eighties. Graham's influence helped them nail a record deal with A&M in 1989. By 1992 Blues Traveler had created their own traveling jamboree - the H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) Festival - an annual summertime circus of like-minded artists hell-bent on playing live and playing long. (Indeed, not even the 1992 motorcycle accident that had leader John Popper wheelchairbound for months could keep the band from its scheduled tour dates.) Although Blues Traveler took a break as H.O.R.D.E.'s headlining band last summer, with Neil Young taking top billing, the sixth annual festival maintained its status as one of the hot summer tours.

The group's commitment to live performance and the loyalty of its audience have provoked comparisons with the mother of all live bands, the Grateful Dead, and with the death of Jerry Garcia, many wonder if Blues Traveler shows will become a new home for wandering Deadheads. This year's release of their sixth album, Straight On Till Morning, has brought the multi-platinum band to yet another peak - several weeks of Top 40 ranking. Even though their accommodations on the road have improved dramatically since the days of living out of a van, the band's top priority remains the same: to send fans home reeling from an amazing live show.

For all their success, they remain regular guys. This was immediately apparent when I gave them each a copy of the latest Penthouse. It took a while to pry the magazines our of their hands and get them to answer some questions, but once they calmed down, John Popper (vocals, harmonica), 30, Chandler Kinchla (lead guitar), 28, and Bob Sheehan (bass), 29, shared some personal details about their past, present, and future. (At the time drummer Brendan Hill, 27, was on his honeymoon.)

For fun, let's warm up with some questions from the questionnaire we give our Penthouse Pets. First question: What other names, including nicknames, have you ever been known by?
Chandler: My mom used to call me Mr. Sunshine when I was a little boy.
John: Before I was potty trained they used to call me Baggy Pants.
Chan: You shit yourself, John?
John: Oh yeah. Big brown baggy. I didn't lay eggs like you, Chan. And my dad called me Big Johnny Jibbotee the Crunch.
Chan: Bob used to be Twinkle Toes.
Bob: And Brooklyn Bob.

Have you ever posed for nude or semi-nude photographs?
Bob: Sure, in Cozumel a couple of weeks ago.
John: I couldn't join them. I was having my schlong bronzed.
Bob: He needed the money.

What are your astrological signs?
John: Aries.
Chan: Gemini.
Bob: Gemini.
John: Brendan is an Aries too. So we're very symmetrical.

Are you married?
Chan: Married.
John: Single.
Bob: Single.
John: And Brendan, our drummer, is married. Again, we're a very symmetrical band. We like balance in all things. Of course, if Bob gets married, then I'd have to get married.
Bob: Actually, we like to think that we all four are married in a very twisted, strange way.
John: Being in a band is very much like being in a good marriage. It's not 50-50. It's 90-10 one day, 10-90 another day.

Why would you like to be a model in Penthouse?
Chan: I would like to be a model in Penthouse because I'd just get a thrill thinking of all those men enjoying themselves looking at me.
John: I guess it's time for Chan's coming-out announcement.

What do you do in your spare time?
Chan: Work on my house, endlessly.
Bob: Read Penthouse.
John: I've got a house too, and I know what Chan's talking about. My shower's now leaking into the dining room again.

Don't you collect guns and other weapons, John?
John: Weapons, historical and new. I think there's a really great aesthetic to weapons. A weapon is designed to be its most efficient, so the design aspect of them is what really attracts me. I have a 500-year-old samurai sword that's a sharp metal mixed with a strong metal, folded 200 times so that it has the best attributes of both. The sword's blade is designed so that the best place to cut is also the strongest point on the sword. That didn't just happen overnight, that was an evolution, but weapons always evolve to their most efficient form.

For example?
If you look at a Revolutionary War pistol, there are elements of the wood that look like a violin. It's very beautiful, but every aspect of it also has a purpose. The reason it's curved that way is so that the recoil goes into your palm, the strongest part of your hand. Modern weapons are an extension of that. They're more efficient, the improvements always have an efficiency to them. And it's fun to shoot stuff.

Okay, back to the questionnaire. What's your favorite erotic fantasy?
John: Several women at once. Bondage, periodically. For several days. Sometimes I'm the prisoner, sometimes they're the prisoners. By the end of it each one of them gives birth to several of my kids.
Chan: Is this on an island?
John: No, it's a commune.
Chan: Where you're a god and they worship you?
John: No, not so much worship, but they're going to use me to the fullest. I'm more like a resource.
Bob: John's fantasy is to be a resource.
Chan: Other than the John-being-in-it part, I'd take John's fantasy. Any fantasy that involves multiple women and some form of bondage.

Are we talking lesbians?
John: They [the women in the fantasy] could enjoy lesbians. I'd be like, fine. No other man's hairy ass is all.
Bob: They'd appreciate the female body.
Chan: Which I can fully understand because I think I'm a lesbian trapped inside a man's body.

What's the most exciting setting you've ever made love in?
John: The floor of Nightingale's bathroom [in New York]. The Spin Doctors were playing, and they called me up on stage right as it was happening. [Lead singer Chris Barron] announced, "We're not going to play another note until John gets out here." and they got everybody to chant my name. I had to hurry out on stage and everyone went, "Whoo!" because they could tell what was going on.
Bob: The Winter Garden Theater in New York, during a performance of Cats.
John: What about that gymnasium with the crowd filing out? That's what made you my hero, Bob.

What happened?
Chan: We had just finished playing in a college gymnasium, and all of a sudden the lights for the whole place come on, and there's Bob, sitting in the middle of the gym, getting a blowjob. He didn't flinch.
John: He's like, "Hey, how ya doin'," and saluting people as they're walking out. I couldn't keep it up while people were walking out. I'd get really embarassed.

What are your biggest turn-offs and turn-ons?
Chan: Old shriveled-up men. Also tight hair pulled back, like when businesswomen pull their hair really tight back and wear little suits and stuff.
John: You leave my mom out of this.
Chan: [to Bob] You had a girlfriend like that, and it turned you off too.
John: [to Bob] She puller her hair back and that bothered you?
Bob: No. It bothered Chan.
John: I'm turned off by women who sit at my feet constantly. It drives me nuts.
Chan: Funny, that's actually a turn-on for me.
John: Hygienically clean, that's always good. That's a turn-on.
Chan: Hairy legs is another real turn-off.
John: Ultimately, the psychosis that the modern dating society promotes is a turn-off.

What do you mean by that?
John: It used to be that a girl was somehow looked down upon if she put out on the first date. Now it seems that they put out on the first date and then work you back into a relationship...and there is a psychosis there. You know, "He won't respect me unless I have sex with him - once." That's bizarre. Sex should be something to enjoy, not like some sort of bargaining chip.
Chan: It does change the relationship, though.
John: It's like they're trying to change the relationship, and then start from square one again.
Chan: I've found that with any real relationship, it's always better to wait.
Bob: Yeah, 40 to 45 minutes.

If you could be anyone else in the world or in history, who would you be?
Chan: Who's that good-looking girl from Breakfast at Tiffany's? Audrey Hepburn.
John: You want to be a woman?
Chan: I'm a lesbian trapped inside a man's body.
John: Attila the Hun has always impressed me. I like that guy. He could ride a horse and shoot a bow and arrow. There's a guy who could always get a table at a restaurant.
Chan: Didn't he die of a bloody nose?
John: Yup. I'd just keep a lot of tissues around. I wouldn't make that mistake.
Bob: I'd be either Doc Holliday, or Clark of Lewis and Clark.
John: You wouldn't want to be Clark. What did he wipe his ass with?

Enough pet questions. Let's talk about your act. Blues Traveler has built its audience by touring, so you've been all over. What's your favorite venue?
John: Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver.
Bob: Indoors, it's Madison Square Garden in New York City. Outdoors, it's Red Rocks, or the Greek Theatre in San Francisco. The Greek's a 3,000-seat theater, which is a good amount of people. It sounds really good, and the people who run it are really cool. Red Rocks is the same way, just three or four times the size and beautiful surroundings.

What's your least favorite venue?
John: Any gymnasium.

How have you managed to stay together all these years?
Chan: I thiink it's 'cause we all went to high school together, and we all have a friendship that goes beyond being in the band. The secret of success is that every time you go out, challenge yourself, and the secret of longevity is to make sure you're always improving on some level. If you're stagnant, it gets really hard to keep everyone together.
Bob: What we found from meeting professional musicians over the past five years or so is that our situation is pretty neat. It doesn't really happen a lot, and it gets harder and harder. You know, the older you get, the more responsibilities you have, the more money you need. You can't just throw caution to the wind and eat rice and beans for three years.
John: Also, where we live now is cooler than where we stay when we're on the road, so that's a big thing.

Is there anything about the band's success that you're sick of at this point?
John: That's an easy one. When you hear "Run-Around" the first time it's a great song. When you hear it the sixth time you're like, okay. You hear it around the tenth time and you're like, "You know, I'm glad this band's doing well." You hear it about the 43rd time you're like, "Okay," then you change the station. And then you hear it the six-millionth time and you start to get angry. I share that frustration with our audience. I'm glad that we're doing well, but when you hear one song over and over it gets beat to death.

Isn't that one of the side effects of becoming popular?
John: I don't know how to solve that one, because I want us to get played, I want new audiences. I want everybody in the world to hear us. And that's how you do it. And the money is good too, don't get me wrong. I think the thing to do to combat that is to keep writing more songs, and eventually it'll get there. When we play "Run-Around" in concert, you can tell the new fans from the old fans because with the old fans you'll hear a moan go over the audience.

What's your favorite thing about all this success?
John: Reaching new audiences. Getting to express yourself on a larger and larger scale. That includes the freedom to make the next album the way you want to, people trusting you with musical ideas, becoming more of an authority on your music in a real way.

Let's talk about your appearance in Kingpin. At the end of the movie you're all wearing Amish costumes. What possessed you to do such a thing?
John/Chan/Bob: Oh!
John: It was an opportunity to see Bob look like a giant elf.
Bob: A chance to see John look like a big Hasidic man.
John: I was Doc from the Seven Dwarfs. They gave me the big Doc beard.
Chan: The best part about that is that no one saw that movie. Now, a year later, it's the No. 1 video in the country.
Bob: My parking garage people noticed me: "I saw you in Kingpin!"
John: I hated it when it first came out. I was like, "What the hell did we do? My God!" And now I see it, and I'm like, "Yeah, not bad. It's a unique movie."

Are you happy with Straight On Till Morning?
John: I think it reflects growth, and I think it's an honest growth. You're not thinking of these things too consciously at the time, but when you look back on them it's good to see we had it in us. There was a concern on my part that we didn't have the songs, but when we worked them out they were all really good. And we rose to the occasion, and we worked harder than we've worked before, and it shows.
Bob: The whole album is sort of a calmer thing.
John: It's a wiser album. I got to write string parts.
Bob: And we want to let people know, since you probably can't understand the lyrics on the album, just read them on the liner notes.
Chan: I think we did most of the songs in three or four takes, so that the basic takes each have a personality.

Where did you record the album?
Bob: Bearsville Studio in Woodstock, New York.
John: In the middle of February, in the mountains, under a glacier! We were under a friggin' glacier! It was so cold there I couldn't leave the building. My apartment was attached to the studio. I didn't leave the building in two weeks.
Bob: John often showed up in a robe.
John: I was like their unemployed uncle in the back room. You start just not caring about your appearance at all.

Did you do anything different on this effort than on previous albums?
John: We spent two months in Seattle prior to Woodstock writing the songs, and another two weeks of pre-production. We worked hard on the writing session, and that's really what pulled it out.
Chan: Yeah, instead of hoping the songs would come as you're touring.
John: On most of out other albums we pulled most of the songs out of our asses.
Chan: And it's a lot of fun living in Seattle and working every day in the studio just writing songs. It's a really fun, creative way to spend time, and it's something we hadn't been doing enough of previously. I think we found each other.

One of the songs on the album is called "Felicia." Who is she?
John: She was the bass player in our band, before Bob showed up. I've known her for years. She's one of my best friends.
Chan: In high school, Brendan, John, and myself were all very into going on with the band and moving to New York. Felicia realized that perhaps she didn't quite have the same dedication to it as we did. Bobby Sheehan was definitely in the wings at that point, really wanting to be in the band, but we were really loyal to Felicia 'cause she's a good friend of ours and a good player. Still, she was wise enough to know it was time for her to step aside, which she did voluntarily.
John: She had other interests.
Chan: Now she's sorry!
John: Remember, Chan said that.

Another song is titled "Psycho Joe." Who's that?
John: Psycho Joe is a fictional character. It's just sort of my indictment of the tabloid media. It's a kind of heady subject matter. It's about our fascination with wackos, and how we like to decide that this person's a wacko and that person isn't. Obviously if a guy kills his daughter with a chain that he bought her, as the lyric goes, that's definitely a severe wacko. But I think deep down there's a little bit of a homicidal maniac inside all of us.

How did John's motorcycle accident in '92 affect the band?
Chan: That year was definitely an interesting epoch in the Blues Traveler history.
John: For me it was "The Big Bounce."
Chan: Poor motherfuckers cruising around the country in a van and a wheelchair...
John: And a mattress, yeah. They threw a mattress in a van and threw me on that.
Chan: He'd come in to do the gig, and then they'd wheel him away, and then we'd be like, "Bye, John."

I saw you play with the Dave Matthews Band at Roseland in New York, John, when you were still in the chair. The crowd went nuts when they wheeled you out. Did that happen every time?
John: Did I stand up? That was the big act, you know. My left leg was perfectly fine, so the first time I stood up...
Chan: The crowd love it the first hundred times he did it.
John: It was like a faith-healer kind of thing...Yes!

How do you decide on videos for your songs?
Chan: It's a funny thing. When you're writing a song, the last thing that's on your mind is "How's this gonna look on video?" You just never think about it. But I'm sure there are bands that think "video" when they think "song."
John: Some people have a talent for that. I don't think we do, but we're gonna learn how to look as cool as we can. Last time we figured out a great system called, "Don't be in the video." You just show up, say "how ya doin'," and leave. In and out.
Chan: Then you go down the street to the bar, and they call you later and say it's done. It's great.
John: But we've been hearing that people want us in these videos more, so we're going to have to cross that bridge.

How big are you in Europe?
Chan: Thank God for exchange programs. You'll be in this little club in, say, Germany, and there's four exchange students who are used to seeing us at Red Rocks, so they get all keyed up. Then there will be like ten Germans who are wondering who the hell we are while these four kids up in the front are screaming their faces off.
John: I remember when we sold out the Palladium in London. There's like 800 people, and we're like, "We've done it, it's great!" And then we talk to the people, and they're all American. And we're like, "Oh well."
Chan: But we have a good time over there. It's a nice change of pace. It's always interesting.
John: [A&M Europe] saw what happened with four over in the states, and they're really excited to get going on Straight On Till Morning. I think they got a little glimpse of what we could do. There's also some interest in touring Japan, maybe in 1998.

You created the HORDE Festival, but this year you didn't headline. Why is that?
John: I think we need to develop more, so we decided to give HORDE a break this year, and we're very happy that Neil Young wanted to do it.

How has the death of Jerry Garcia affected the band?
John: Bob's really the one who really turned me on to the Grateful Dead, and I've always sort of felt like the friend of a Deadhead, rather than a Deadhead. First time I ever enjoyed a Dead show is when I ditched my friends, 'cause they're always going, "Isn't that great? Don't you love this? Why aren't you dancing?" So I snuck away and just sat where I didn't know anybody and really watched the band, and that's when I started to really enjoy them. There's music to make, so I'm just gonna keep going and keep trying to play it. When someone you care about dies, you just have to celebrate their life, really. You could find somebody to miss in your life and so could I, and I don't think that's what life's for.

What do you think about the comparisons of Blues Traveler with the Grateful Dead?
John: I think the comparison with the Grateful Dead is weird, but I attribute it to a state of mind and Western thinking: "I can't like you unless I can compare you to something." When they're reading about a band the people go, "Well, what's it sound like?" And the best way to describe it is with something they've heard already, so they can go, "Okay, I see," and feel better about it and can file it away. What we're trying to do is play pelvic music - which is music you can dance to. A lot of people say, "I can't dance to that hippie crap." Well, I don't feel like I'm a hippie, and it doesn't feel like crap.