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Blues Traveler, led by front man John Popper is a band that has seen the top of the moutain, the bottom of the valley and its share of college gyms and frat houses in between. Formed in 1988 out of New York, the group finally got its break after recording and selling demo tapes at clubs, house parties and anyplace else they could land a gig, until they eventually caught the ear of legendary promotor/manager Bill Graham.
Through his influence they found themselves on bills with the Allman Brothers Band and Carlos Santana, along with a record contract from A&M records. Three albums in three years starting in 1990, coupled with non-stop touring, slowly but surely established a loyal fan base and mainstream credibility.
But it wasn't until their fourth effort, the aptly titled four in 1994 that the four high school friends from New Jersey of Popper, bassist Bobby Sheehan, guitarist Chan Kinchla and drummer Brendan Hill truly went into orbit. Four million records later, and a Grammy-winning hit single in "Run-around," Blues Traveler had finally reached the summit of rock stardom.
Everything that goes up, must come down though and after the double live album Live From the Fall followed in the summer of 1996 and the successful studio follow-up to four, 1997's Straight On Till Morning, Blues Traveler found hard times. In 1999 founding member Sheehan passed away and Popper - who'd been facing chest pains for months - was forced to undergo an angioplasty. He also had a gastric bypass in 2000.
Despite the hangover, the band did not waver and filled the spot of Sheehan with Kinchla's younger brother Tad, as well as adding keyboardist Ben Wilson in 2000. Their most recent live album What You and I Have Been Through is a tribute to the band's resolve, a title that has its meaning in the hardships the band has faced in the wake of success - proof that Blues Traveler is still traveling on.
I bugged Blues Traveler's manager Gina for an interview for two weeks, and finally this past Wednesday, in the middle of my afternoon I got a call from keyboardist Ben Wilson. He was extremely polite, and asked if I was ready to do the interview on the spot, being that he was a little busy. I am sure that talking on the phone with a college newspaper editor in Iowa wasn't too high on his list of things to do for the day, but he took the time to wait while I fumbled for my notes and then answered every last one of my questions. Here is that conversation.
With the live album, What You and I Have Been Through, what is the significance of the title? It seems to have a number of meanings behind it. Is it tied to the struggles that the band has gone through with the death of Bobby [Sheehan], or John's health problems? Or is it in reaction to the events of September 11?
Wilson: Actually, either way, with both of those things. We were on tour, that whole fall tour was going on before and then after September 11. So, after September 11 we started doing "The Star-Spangled Banner". [pausing] Yeah, so there is definitely some of that tied into it. But I think in a larger way it was more about what the band has been through, what John has been through, with losing Bobby, the bass player, and getting a couple of new members, and getting a record out, and then having troubles with the record label. It's just all of the trials and tribulations that Blues Traveler has been through. We took songs from pretty early on, and we took a lot of stuff from the newest record too. Part of that was because they had already released a live album, Live from the Fall, which is the double album, with all kinds of songs on it, so it was a little tougher for us to choose. We wanted to try to represent some stuff from way back as well as what is going on with the new band.
You have the distinction of being the one member of the band that didn't go to East Princeton High School in Jersey. Is that correct?
Wilson: [laughing] That's right.
You were born in Chicago; you're not even an East Coast guy!
Wilson: I'm not an East Coast guy. I'm a Midwesterner through and through. Born in Chicago, pretty much raised in Michigan.
So how does that work? Do you know all of the inside jokes or stories?
Wilson: Oh no, no, no. I'm definitely learning stuff. I've been with the band for a little under three years now, and you know, we'll go out and there are still all kinds of stories that I'm getting from them about all the stuff that they used to do, and growing up, and meeting their families, and all that stuff. You know in some ways it's tough to kinda get to know guys, but in another way it's really good because I think for them, it's nice to get have an outside perspective on stuff.
Also, I read that you answered an ad in a keyboard magazine for the job.
Now be honest with me with this one, were you a huge Blues Traveler fan before you got the gig?
Wilson: No, I was not a huge Blues Traveler fan. I'll tell ya, I respected them greatly. I remember getting word of their first record, then I lost a little interest in their second one, and then I heard some stuff from their third one, which I thought was cool. And of course when four blew up, I always loved "Hook", I wasn't as big a fan of "Run-around," but then after that I pretty much lost touch. But you know it's hard not to respect John as a player and as a singer, and just any band in my book that can have the perseverance to stick around long enough to make stuff like that happen for themselves. A lot of it is just getting down in the trenches and slugging away, and these guys are willing to do that.
You just finished up four days in New York. You guys were back home, playing in front of your home fans.
Wilson: It was awesome.
Is it hard, after doing something like that, to go play, say, Minnesota or Iowa?
Wilson: It was definitely exciting. We did four in a row. Everybody was pumped. The big thing with that is that we did four nights in a row and we didn't repeat a song, over all four nights, which is pretty cool, you know, with two sets a night, and we play pretty long as it is, so we were pretty pumped about that. But no, not necessarily, a show's a show. We're up there playing; we're having fun. Certainly, there are going to be some shows that are a little dearer to your heart. But you know, you're not in this to only play in New York City, or only play in Michigan where I'm from. I get just as pumped up; I mean I can get pumped up in the oddest of places. You never know when that one show is just going to blow up and people are pumped that you're there. Really, it's just about using the using the crowd and what kind of energy you re getting back, whether you're in New York, or New Orleans, or you know, Decorah.
You guys are playing a bunch of different venues on this tour, anywhere from college gyms to clubs. Do you like that variety?
Wilson: I think we like the variety. Sometimes college gyms are a little rough, because the sound can be kinda rough in there if they're not really set up real well for live music. Personally, I love playing smaller clubs and theaters. There's just an intimacy there that feels good, I always like the sound a lot at those shows, everything's kind of enclosed. But you know over the summer it was great playing at huge festivals too, you know, it's just a different kind of energy, a different kind of vibe. Playing in smaller clubs, like we've been doing this tour, just reminds me of the stuff I was playing in all along, before I got into Blues Traveler.
It seems like that time and time again the rock and roll lifestyle yields to the tragedies and pitfalls that make a "Behind the Music" episode. It's almost like a format for bands to go through.
Wilson: I know. It's a classic story.
Why is that? Why is it that bands that have huge successes, like Blues Traveler had with four tend to spiral downward and then come back?
Wilson: Well, you know, I think basically, well in this instance, the guys were nineteen years old. Bill Graham, the famous promoter, his son catches wind of Blues Traveler, hooks them up with Bill Graham and then at nineteen years old they're opening up for Santana in San Francisco. And their partying, you know, they're nineteen-year-old kids having fun, doing what, you know, pretty much take a college kid and stick them in a band, and all they have to do is show up and play at night. And the rest, you know, there are all these girls around, there's alcohol around, it's going to take a pretty special someone to at least not go off the deep end for a little while. And then when you get to your mid-twenties, and all of a sudden you're a millionaire, and all you've done is play rock music, and travel around, and party, you know, I think that's what happens. It can be very difficult to police yourself, and it takes a certain level of maturity that doesn't always come with some kids who are nineteen, twenty, twenty-one years old when they all of a sudden start getting kind of famous. A lot of people do get caught up in it, and certainly some people don't. I don't really know other than that; it's just a big party. Everyone wants to party around you to, it's like "ooh, lets go see the band, lets party, lets hang out." That's pretty hard to walk away from. It's pretty seductive.
What has the keyboard added as far as the old catalogue of songs, plus the new songs you guys have done since you joined the group? What element has that added to the overall sound?
Wilson: Well, I think in a large part it has filled it out, smoothed it out a little bit. The old songs anyway, with the recorded versions they digitally added keyboard, so the songs were big and full. But sometimes live, I felt like, it was a three piece and then just a harp player. And even though John was awesome, sometimes there was a roughness to it that some people might like better, or some people might not like better. I think that one of the things I bring is kind of smoothing it out. I think on some songs with the piano, you can pretty things up a little more. And with the newer stuff, just adding another piece in there, to play parts and come up with melody lines and chord changes. That's kind of how I see things helping. They certainly didn't need any help in the electrifying solo department with John and Chan so that wasn't something that I was necessarily trying to bring to the table.
Were you one of those kids growing up taking piano lessons that liked playing the piano?
Wilson: I hated playing piano. I liked piano lessons for about six months, and then I started hating it. I think my mom made me take lessons like third or fourth grade, and so I quit, but then I kinda kept going back in there and banging away. Eventually I just started getting good. Once I started getting into bands, then I loved it. That's the greatest. Then it was a whole different ball game.
When are guys planning on going back into the studio?
Wilson: January. We're finishing this tour up in early December, taking about a month off, then we'll go back. We'll be out in California writing some songs, and then hopefully getting into the studio. We're hoping, hoping, hoping to have something out by June.
Whoa, that's early. Last question, what's your favorite thing to do on the road?
Wilson: Last tour over the summer, we had the X-Box out, so we are all becoming masters at the X-Box. But man, I just try to stay healthy because with the changes and weird hours, being here then there, driving on the bus, and getting up an on and on and on. I just try to stay healthy. I'm not a big party guy, but New York can change things like that [laughing]. But you know, just get as much sleep as I can, just so I'm ready to have a great time at night at the shows is really what I'm about. I think that's pretty much what everybody else feels too.