[H O M E]
[Side Projects]
[Tour Dates]

John Popper and Blues Traveler
Til Death Do Us Part...?
by Diane Gershuny
Gig Magazine, National
Dec 31st, 1999

Blues Traveler may be the quintessential Gig band. Years of methodical touring have earned them an ever-growing national following, a loyal relationship with a major label (A&M), and financial success and stability that has little or nothing too with airplay - which, except for the 1994 hit "Run-Around" (from four), they've rarely experienced.

The quartet - lead singer/lyricist/harmonica player John Popper, drummer Brendan Hill, guitarist Chan Kinchla and bassist Bobby Sheehan - met in high school and came together as a band in '88. They captivated audiences with their extended-jam style, in the vein of bands like the Grateful Dead. They founded one of the first artist-run festivals, H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere), and hosted it from 1992 to '98.

Last year, Popper embarked on a solo career and recorded an album, Zygote (A&M), while the band took a break. With Zygote, Popper had a clean slate on which to create - an opportunity to explore other genres of songwriting, outside the Blues Traveler style. Pulling together another set of high school friends (bassist Dave Ares, keyboardist Rob Clores and guitarist Crugie Riccio) helped vary the sound, as did the addition of Dave Matthews Band drummer Carter Beauford. The result? Swampier, more laid-back music with a rootsy feel, peppered with lots of ballads.

In August, with the death of bassist Bobby Sheehan, the Traveler's fate seemed to be sealed. Or was it? We spoke to Popper nearly a week after Sheehan's death, about going it alone, longevity, and keeping a band together - especially in the wake of personal tragedy.

Going It Alone
Were you concerned that your solo project would sever the band ties permanently?

I had consciously planned to do the solo record as a side thing and return to Blues Traveler. Blues Traveler is like a democracy - we argue, we debate, there are rules that we adhere to. So this is my chance for complete totalitarianism. It's all my project, and I get the good and the bad things with that. The bad is, I alone create the momentum, and that sucked. I never realized how much I needed my partners, and that was good in that it made me appreciate them. I saw what was cool about being alone and what sucked, and there was a healthy amount of both.

With Blues Traveler, I lucked out and partnered up with three other guys who were brilliant businessmen, who were capable of great love and compassion, and had a lot of talent. I mean, it's rare to find these people, let alone in high school, and be able to grow and reach adulthood with them. And be a family.

The guys are excited about the new record and I gave them a huge bit of thanks on the record because they let me take the time off. Now with Bob's death, it throws a whole new wrinkle into the equation. I'm still dealing with the irony of Bob's death, and then suddenly I'm out on a solo tour, y'know?

What is the future of the band at this point?
I think we're going to find that out now. Before Bob died - we were actually going to meet before to discuss what our future is. But I think we all want to continue. There's no shrine anyone wants built to Bob. Y'know, when Lynyrd Skynyrd puts the hat on the microphone and they play an instrumental "Free Bird" - we don't want to become that. Blues Traveler is always looking to reinvent itself, and this will be a huge reinvention. I think what has to happen with any longevity is, you have to ask yourself: Is it better to continue? And the answer has to be "yes" every time. It's a very natural question. The reason that we had lasted this long is that, since we were kids, it's the only life we've known. It's supported us very well, it's rewarded us emotionally and financially, and it was always the right idea. So now if it's still the right idea, we will keep going.

Keeping a Band Together
What has been the secret to the band's longevity?

If there's any advice as to longevity I would give, it is, it's not the prize. Longevity of you as a person is the prize, but longevity of a band or a festival tour is not the objective. You want a good life. You want a quality of life where you get to express yourself properly, where you get to fulfill things. And if it happens a long time, then that's great. As it is right now, there's nothing in my life better than Blues Traveler. There's nothing - pretty much, maybe a couple of things as important, but nothing more important than Blues Traveler. I think in time maybe I'll change my mind. As long as I'm not worrying about it, it probably wil last. If I start obsessing about, "Oh, we've gotta keep it going!" that's the wrong reason to be doing anything.

I felt like touring with Blues Traveler was killing me. It was my fault as much as anyone's. I wanted to be the guy who took care of everything. I was doing all of the business, more than the other guys were. I was the one exerting a great deal of influence, and I liked the control; I liked being the guy wth my fingers in everything. The other guys were happy to have somebody do what they considered the shit work. It wasn't shit work to me. But I would start to resent them and then blame it on someone else. So I knew that here was a chance to do something for me, to take a year and do something of mine.

Write of Passage
How much creative license do you have with the new material? Obviously, you want to express yourself but you don't want to lose the fans.

That is a debate that's always on your mind. How much expression do you want to do on the spot, and how much do you want to give them what they want? The answer is, it's like a flirtation: you keep their interest and get to throw in the stuff you are about and the stuff they care about - it's a marriage of the two.

But there are times with new material that no one's heard yet, you've gotta stand there, and plant your feet, and do it. At our gig in Syracuse, the place was full - about 1,500, we sold it out - and I'd say we lost about half of 'em through the course of the show because we were playing completely new stuff. And we'd throw "Run-Around" at 'em - we do a version of it just in case they start throwing rocks and garbage at us. That's kinda the purpose of this tour; I'm gonna have to stand there and play this new stuff. In my mind I'm thinking, "Y'know, Bob Dylan went electric, everybody booed him." Nobody was booing, but they were yelling for Blues Traveler covers, and you could feel the energy of the crowd being like "Oh well, we'll just listen." And I think when the album comes out they'll sing along more, but we're gonna have to introduce 'em to it. I think that it's important for musicians to try things that they're not expected to do or are not used to.

Rolling Stone said it's a "singer-songwriter album from a neo-boogie point of view." I like the fact that they had to use so many genres. Damn the categories! I wanted to hang out on the Lilith tour because it's a kind of music they called singer-songwriter - I used to call it coffeehouse - and I love that stuff. And I want to learn how to do it better. But because of genitalia I'm not allowed to be on [that] tour. It's unfortunate.

Was the material that made it onto the record newly written, or rejected Blues Traveler stuff?
Rejected by the band is a good way to put it. The rejections weren't personal attacks on the quality of the song. There's a song on the new record that Blues Traveler learned and we liked, but it wasn't a song we thought of when we needed to go nail the crowd, so it became a song we didn't do. To me, that's the best rejection; that's practicality. Efficiency. If the song doesn't work with the band, it's nobody's fault, but I certainly will save it 'cause I think it's a good song - but not a Blues Traveler song. Blues Traveler has a very epic sound. We can play big things, or elaborate, complicated things. What we have trouble with is ballads, soft things. Conceptual pieces, maybe, where there's just me singing with a guitar - that's hard for us to do.

How much of that do you think has to do with expectation?
I wanted to get away from Blues Traveler and I wanted to try the other end of the spectrum. And the result is, I think my new band, especially when we get strong playing live, will be able to knock out a ballad like nobody. And there's nothing wrong with a ballad - being from Blues Traveler, the word "ballad" is a dirty word. I still feel a little ashamed for coming out of the closet as a balladeer. I don't want to be, but I am. I'm both, is what I am. I'm Batman and Bruce Wayne!

Blues Traveler rose through the ranks by playing live, a lot, certainly not from radio airplay - which you never got from "Run-Around".
Don't get me wrong. I'd love to get some radio. I'm prepared to suck the pole of anybody who needs it. We will whore ourselves shamelessly. We will bend over and grab our ankles with pride. With pride of quality and purpose in our product!

The Festival Gossip According to John

You mentioned Lilith, and you invested several years in running H.O.R.D.E. What are your thoughts on festivals?

I think the festival tour has gone the way of the dodo. Hopefully we'll get rid of all that nonsense. There's this weird factionalism that goes on. I'm waiting for the All-Filipino tour, y'know? If you must make it all women, you're gonna get good women and bad women. Our criteria with the H.O.R.D.E. tour was all live music - good bands that played well live.

Then, there's the fact that people saw the tour last year and they know what it's about so they start getting bored. So they stop selling like they used to. But the key and main reason that festival tours are guaranteed to go the way of the dodo is radio. The KFOG Wacky Weekends-type festival. They buy the best bands with the thing that all bands need, which is air time. No amount of money I could give would be worth more than air time. But young bands especially need to establish something on radio. I think it's a good thing. I think that radio is supposed to do that.

H.O.R.D.E. initially was a way for Blues Traveler to play outside in the summer. That was our objective and we pulled it off the first year. The second year we did it again; the third year we actually made, like, $8,000. The fourth year we started making real money, and then it became this source of income, and I see where you wanna keep it going again. But, y'know what? It's something you should never think has to go on forever. As soon as it doesn't make sense, it should be abandoned. What happened along the way was a lot of people got to interact with each other, some great music was made, a great vibe, and we all had a ball. That was completely accidental, and the best thing about it. I take no responsibility for it, and so I don't feel that stopping doing it ruins that - that great vibe will happen somewhere else. The attempt to control something like that is folly, and I think Woodstock's a great example. The whole mistake of Woodstock was calling it "Woodstock." It was a spontaneous event that happened 30 years ago; it was not meant to be a recurring thing where you market "peace and love" for three days. What that's saying is lawlessness for three days. Y'know, it really infuriates me, the promoters charging six bucks for water.

Popper Tackle
For his guitar rig, John uses a Hamer Dualtone - Hamer designed it with both an acoustic and an electric pickup. It's got a toggle switch so he can play acoustic and then flip the switch and play leads.
He also uses a Rocktron Harmonizer, an Alesis Quadraverb, and a Soldano head. That's the guitar rig.

His harp rig is quite the setup. He had an accident a few years ago and we did a tour when he was in a wheelchair, so I had to figure out how to get all those [foot]switches for his rig. I ended up attaching them all to a SM58. I was sitting in the hotel room, duct-taping crap to this microphone trying to make it work. We had this company build a molded metal one and he didn't like it. So he uses this old beat-up, duct-taped mic. I've got a panel on the back of his effects rack that splits all the inputs for his microphone, but for a while, I used to stand on the side of the stage and have an ulcer hoping it all would work! So it's a little more reliable than it used to be.

I send the SM58 into a Behringer Dual preamp which I split and goes to an amplifier - like a regular guitar setup - a Mesa Boogie Tri-Rectifyer that goes into four 4x12's. One of the switches on the mic changes the channels in the head - there's a clean channel, a dirty channel... He's got a split from the preamp that goes to his effects rack that we send to the monitor console and it comes back into his monitors, which are controlled thru a MIDI controller. There's also a slave out of the head that goes to a Mini Goth Leslie cabinet that I run offstage. And he's got a volume pot which sends to the Leslie, is miked and returns to the monitor so he can control how much Leslie there is. I have another switch on the mic which is the speed switch for the Leslie, too!

As far as harmonicas, John uses Hohner Special 20 Blues Harps - it's the only harp he feels comfortable with.

Other miscellaneous stuff: D'Addario strings, Monster Cable, and a Modulus graphite guitar and Taylor acoustic guitar 12-string that he uses on a few tunes.

-Bob Mahoney, FOH engineer and backline tech