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Let the show begin!
by Jim Hunter Miller
Roadtrips, National
Jun 30th, 1998

Calling from Hollywood's Warner Bros. Studios, John Popper is taking advantage of a little down time in between takes for a bit part in the upcoming film Frost, due to hit theaters at the year's end.

But before millions see Popper's rough, rugged and paradoxically cherubic face on the silver screen for the fourth time in four years, Hollywood's most recently adopted star has some serious work to get done. And much more fun to be had as well.

Seven years after helping get the H.O.R.D.E. off the ground and with more than 11 years experience as the harmonica-slinging frontman for Blues Traveler - his Princeton high school garage band that "never had a reason to break up" - Popper admits he's as stunned about all the good fortune as anyone else. But his recipe for success is no secret.

"You just keep plugging away," Popper says in that exuberant tone. "You hope the opportunities come, and then, when they do, you find that you've worked hard enough that you're ready for it, even though you're not aware you're ready for it."

From speaking about playing gigs to playing pirate, Popper had much to say about the thrill of fear, the preciousness of the surprising moment and the importance of not knowing how to get around D.C. Here's what went down...

What's next for you, John, now that you're in the movies? Don't tell us that you'll be directing.
Popper: Ah, nah, nah, nah. I love a good bit part. It's fun, there's no pressure to really act, and you get to hang around and watch them make a movie... but I'm really looking forward to H.O.R.D.E. this summer.

Tell us about it. You said two years ago that you felt H.O.R.D.E. was really growing and becoming more and more diverse with every year.
Oh, yeah, it's still growing. We come into contact with more and more bands as we go so it's inevitable that it has to grow.

Is it kind of like a traveling circus?
Popper: Well, sure. I mean I liken it to a nomadic state of being: Your house is out on the road. You live as if you're in a circus. You're rolling around, going to the next town. I actually feel more like a pirate.

A pirate, huh. Why's that?
Popper: 'Cause I get to wear a cool sword and everything [laughs]. But you know you get onto your little ships - y'know, your tour bus seems more like a ship - and you sail into the next town and plunder. Then move onto the next town.

John, if you were a pirate, what do you think your name would be?
Popper: Oh, boy. [In pondering tone] If I was a pirate, I think I would be... "Popper of the High Seas"... or, I don't know, maybe "No Beard."

But maybe "Big Chops." You still got the chops, right?
Yeah, Big Chops, call me.

This is the seventh year of the H.O.R.D.E. Is there any special significance in this being number seven?
Well, it's one more than six. When you're running a festival tour, you're just looking at it in terms of surviving. So the more you do, the happier you are about it.

And with Lollapalooza now defunct, the H.O.R.D.E.'s got to be the longest running rock tour of its kind.
We actually started a year later than Lolla, so we're tied. Next year we will be the longest-running.

Do you find it surprising that there are so many similar concert tours going on now?
Well, I think it's actually good business. It gives smaller bands the opportunity to play to a larger audience. It's kind of like the tryouts for bands that want to tour on their own. A great example is Dave Matthews, who used to tour on H.O.R.D.E. all the time. Now, he's got enough of a thing goin' that he can sell a giant stadium out, and to me that's a success story for H.O.R.D.E. That's what I'd like to see H.O.R.D.E. do. I'd like to see H.O.R.D.E. provide opportunities to bands.

In a way, there has to be a great number of bands out there that owe so much to H.O.R.D.E.
You know what's cool is that I can remember when there weren't enough bands to really make it work and we had to really look. Now there's tons of bands that can work on it. I see our connection to AWARE Records that way. I think what AWARE Records is doing for recording bands is what H.O.R.D.E. is doing for touring them. If you can get something going and be successful at something that's providing opportunities, it gives you a moral impetus to keep going. It's really something special; I know it is for me... It's like every year you sort of bear a child: It's a big pain in the ass, but in the end you're really proud of it.

Of everything connected with the H.O.R.D.E., what are you most proud of?
The bands we like are good live bands so it's really great to have them mixing with each other and jamming. That's really what it's all about for me. Making a crowd happy... I love going to a local restaurant after the show and they're out of food because of the crowds from the show. I love injecting the local economy with a real boost.

When you look back on everything, is there any moment that sticks out in your mind as just being fantastic?
Tons of them. When the lightning struck and shorted out the power during the Big Head Todd set in, ah, I think it was Kansas City. As soon as the power went on, he started exactly from the same note. That was really cool to see. I went to sit in with Lenny Kravitz [in 1996]. It was the last day of the tour, which is a day I try to sit in with every band. So it's like a real marathon: It's eight hours. Anyway, Lenny Kravitz did his song "Rosemary," and I really didn't think we would gel. And it was so natural. It was like the harmonica was just meant for that song and it was a really cool thing. Those little surprises - where you're not really sure how it's going to go down - those kinds of surprises are exciting, and they happen in front of a full house of people.

I've read that you kind of like being put on the spot, that even from your earliest moments of show business, being put on the spot is the source of your most pure energy, is that true?
Popper: Sure. I mean I get my rocks off. I'm kind of addicted to the fear before you go on stage. I love doing that. You go out and you just have to go for it. That stuff's cool... There's this great expectation that happens before you start to play. You could totally screw it up!

You mentioned AWARE. I saw you sit in at the last AWARE show in D.C. with the Pat McGee band.
Popper: Yeah, I was looking for directions. I was in town because my cousins were having an Easter reunion. I was staying at the Watergate Hotel, and I didn't know where it was, so I drove by the Bayou [nightclub]. I figured somebody there would be able to help me out. It was Pat McGee who walks up and says, "Look, I'll tell you directions to the hotel, but you gotta come here and play tomorrow." So, a deal's a deal: I showed up the next night, and it was a ball!

Yeah, and the crowd was so responsive -
Popper: Well, I think Pat's got great songs, y'know. It's real passionate. So, I could really get my energy in with them.

It sounded like you guys had rehearsed, but obviously not.
Popper: Oh, no. No, we were just going for it! They're all really good musicians, so it was easy to follow what they were doing. But what's cool is that they kind of run their band the way we ran our band. They're all in hock up to their eyeballs, just doing what they can because thy love and care about it. They're discovering how to run a business as they go, and that's exactly how we did it. That's how any live band does it. There's no one way to do it, so you just kind of make it up as you go. And it makes you care about it in a way that I don't think anyone else can. And I certainly felt that with the Pat McGee Band. We actually put them on a H.O.R.D.E. date because of that... [And it all came about] because I was looking for directions to my hotel.