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Popper's Inferno
After a season in hell, a changed John Popper faces a brave new day with Zygote
by Richard Skanse
Rolling Stone Online, National
Sep 7th, 1999

When John Popper confesses that the "Miserable Bastard" he sings about on the opening track of his new solo album, Zygote, is himself, you believe him. The song itself sprang from a failed relationship, but Popper's life over the past year has brought one trial after another. First there was the near-heart attack that landed him in the hospital days before his band Blues Traveler was set to play their annual Fourth of July engagement at Denver's Red Rocks. Doctors made it clear to him that his heart surgery saved his life, but in the aftermath he's had to radically rethink his diet and lifestyle, and he's none too happy about it. "Things annoy me that have always annoyed me, but being an addict you used to have this thing that made you not care, and I don't have that thing anymore," he grumbled. "So, now everything generally pisses me off." Things would only got worse: Nine days after this interview, Blues Traveler bassist Bobby Sheehan passed away in his sleep. "The best friend I've had in the world has just died, and I don't want to talk about it," an inconsolable Popper declared in a statement afterwards.

But however weary he may be, life trundles forward. After canceling his first two solo dates, Popper kicked off a tour this week which will carry him down the road through the end of October, when Blues Traveler will reconvene to face their future. As Popper sings on Zygote's striking ballad, "Once You Wake Up," "You can backtrack all you want, you can mourn for what's gone / but you're awake either way, better deal with your day."

What sparked the desire to make a solo album?

I have always meant to do this. You see, up until last year I really haven't thought much about where my life was. But our guitar player Chan [Kinchla] was having a baby and our drummer Brendan [Hill] was going to have a baby also, and there's something about watching your friends grow up that kind of sets you to thinking about where your life is. So, I started to have this sort of grand epiphany about doing things I want. I sat the guys down and told them that it just seemed like what we needed was time to do something else. I wanted to try a very non-Traveler rhythm section, I wanted to try drum loops. I wanted to try more ballady songs, because I am a really schmaltzy songwriter, and play lead guitars. For the last song, "Fledgling," we were going to get Brian May to come in and play but he couldn't make it so what you have there is me doing my best Brian May impression.

You also pull back a lot from your signature harmonica playing this album.

Well, I said the very next album I do, and I mean this for the Blues Traveler album too, I'm going to approach it with no harp. But I took it with a grain of salt, and this I really got to credit Bob Sheehan with because I was being very militant, but he said, "Now don't do that to spite yourself." And I knew that if I looked at each song without the gratuitous harp solo, then it would start to be appropriate when I would use it. And it wound up being on exactly half the music. And that's about right. Maybe it's just getting older, but I want to use the harp, not have the harp using me.

Are there other clues on this album about the direction Blues Traveler might be going in?

Well, we were talking about how every band we love and emulate went through a period when they ceased being kids and became grown-ups. I remember watching the Neville Brothers when we were first opening for them, and one of them was playing a cowbell, but he played it with such authority. That just comes with age, you can't learn how to have that authority, you just gotta eventually trust yourself with that. I think that's what we're doing. We're talking about getting a keyboard player and we are going to look at drum loops. My solo album is kind of a safe way to try it out.

Any nervousness as far as taking this solo thing on the road?

Well, that's the problem with being in one of the better bands out there: people expect a good live show. But, you know what, I'm ready. I'm recovered from that angioplasty. You heard about that?

Of course. How are you feeling?

A lot better. I'm working out every day. There's nothing like a good near-death experience to give you that right motivation.

Were you truly that close?

Yes, absolutely. It took me a couple of weeks to even admit it. I had these pains in my chest for the whole year before, but I could always focus out of it. But I was in Hawaii making out in this hot tub with my girlfriend, and I get these pains and I can't continue. It was the first time that I couldn't push them away. So, the next day I called a doctor in L.A., and I assumed that he would tell me what another doctor told me that it's the diabetes and you've just gotta watch your sugar and you'll be OK. But he goes, "Oh no, you've got to get into bed right now. You're about a day away from dying." And I'm actually thinking, "God, I want another cigarette before I go through this," and sure enough I was ninety-five percent blocked in my main artery. And I was going up to this serious heat wave in Colorado to the high altitudes to sing my ass off for four hours. And I probably would have died. But I did have that last cigarette in the parking lot before I went in.

Did you have trouble quitting smoking?

Oh, that's easy once they stick that steel wire into your groin and through your chest into your artery. It's weird, once they inflate that balloon your heart gets all warm and you feel warm from the crack of your ass to the top of your hair. And they keep you awake so in case your heart collapses you can let them know. So, you've got that to look forward to for the entire hour and a half that they are in there. And at that moment, the idea of smoking seemed so silly to me.

Food is another matter, though. You know, food is a drug, but people don't see it that way. It's a drug you can't ever kick, ever, and your grandparents and your parents taught you how to eat the bad stuff. So all of your associations with security and safety and fun, like Christmas, hurt you. And so when you go running to the comfort of your mom's favorite stuffing recipe, you're lighting the stem up and smoking crack.

So how has your life changed?

Well, right now things just suck. They tell me that I'll live to love exercising and the sprouts that they put on sandwiches in California and New York. Lettuce and celery and watercress - it's all going to magically start tasting good. I don't believe it will. I've got two options: I could do nothing and die or I could have it suck. So, I'm just basically going on the fact that I have no other choice. What's cool is that I didn't actually have a heart attack. So I didn't kill off a part of my heart. I haven't done that yet, so I can still get it all back. Which would make me a stone-cold genius if I could pull that off - 'He carted himself right to the edge of death and came back.' That's the way to do it. But all I know now is that I don't want to die.