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transcribed by Jason Millner
Q101 Interview, Chicago, IL
Aug 31st, 1997

A fun Blues Traveler fact: Blues Traveler frontman John Popper likes to write songs when he's on the toilet.

No, er...kidding.

Well, whatever works - and in Blues Traveler's case, it's resulted in a lot of good, er, stuff.

The quartet - singer-harp player Popper, guitarist Chan Kinchla, bassist Bob Sheehan and drummer Brendan Hill - has, during the past seven years, steadily built a following for its elastic, psychedelicized blues-rock and for its heavily improvised live performances. It also earned a hip cache by founding and, until this year, participating in the vaunted H.O.R.D.E. tour each summer. The pay dirt came in late 1995, when the single "Run-Around," began a run of 49 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, the longest consecutive-week run ever by a single, and peaked at No. 8. The song won Blues Traveler a Grammy in 1996, while its parent album, "four," sold more than six million copies worldwide. After a long-awaited live album, 1996's Live From the Fall, Blues Traveler is back with four's follow-up, Straight on Till Morning, an album that finds the group carefully pursuing artistic growth without sacrificing its signature sound - and, subsequently, alienating the 5.5 million or so fellow travelers who hopped aboard for four. The knife-wielding, pistol-packin', harmonica-blowing Popper chatted at length about striking that balance, not playing the H.O.R.D.E. this year and the art of writing songs from a squat.

Was it odd to not be as much of a part of the H.O.R.D.E. tour this year?

Popper: The thing is, I did all the H.O.R.D.E.-type planning. So the planning stayed the same; it's just the playing. We really felt that the band needed to...we'd been playing for five years on the H.O.R.D.E., doing our hour and a half set. And last year we got to headline, and we could've made ourselves headliner earlier, but we had to earn it. Last year we finally felt we earned it, and we had a good tour last year, and where do you go from there? What we'd like to do is go to our three-hour show. In order to do that we have to work on it. So we decided to give (the H.O.R.D.E.) a break this year.

You went to Europe right after the new album was released. Is that a different market for Blues Traveler?

Oh, yeah. I think we've sold 14,000 records there total. It's unconquered ground in our minds. We've done O.K. in Canada, but I think giving Canada a more thorough run would be a good idea, too. It's hard because there's so much money to be made in the States in terms of touring. But we do want Europeans to get our music, and the only way to do it is to go out and play it for them.

The new album is named after the phrase from "Peter Pan," right?

You can take it several ways; I think any good title should be taken several ways. There's the obvious one, where you don't wanna grow up and you're constantly in pursuit of Neverland. Straight On Till Morning also implies that we've been up all night playing and you're gonna go straight on `til morning. It's also a credo you can have in terms of where you're going - you can continue straight on `til morning. However you want to take it, help yourself.

Did you have particular goals for this album?

Yes. I think that, if a band can - and I think we're a good enough band to do it - what you want to do is take your audience on a growth from album to album. I was even a little concerned that we didn't have enough material for a good album. We not only surpassed that expectation, but I think that this is easily the best album we've ever done. It should be, because it's our most recent. I think the growth has happened. I think it's a deeper album.

Define that growth and depth, then.

My favorite song on this, and I think the best song I've ever written, is "Yours." If you just check out the lyrics and the way they tell the story..the chord progression is a real strong one and very catchy and good as well. And then there's string arrangement, which I got to write. So for me, I think "Yours" is a kind of high water mark, and one I baby sat throughout the album. That was one that kept me up at night trying to figure out how to deliver that song.

So how did it come about?

I saw Immortal Beloved, the Beethoven story with Gary Oldman. I came home determined to write something passionate. And so that's what I did. It's about a young lady I know; I don't think I want to give her name. She's also the inspiration of the first song, too, ("Carolina Blues") which will tell you how things change....

Was it a charge to put strings on one of your songs?

Oh, yes. It was Trey Anastasio from Phish who convinced me that having the ideas is the hard part; getting someone to write them down, you can do that. The melody is definitely a Bach rip-off, a very prominent figure that classical guys use all the time. The harmonica solo that you hear on the album is the way I played it live; when you hear it alone you think "What the hell is he doing?" It's been very frustrating to get the harmonica solo the way you want it. I'm hearing strings in my head, but the crowd isn't hearing them, so it makes it sound kind of weak there. Getting to do (strings) on record makes it sound really strong. That's what I've wanted to do with it for a long time.

Blues Traveler often woodsheds its songs and plays them live over a period of years. How long have some of the songs on Straight on Till Morning been around?

I'd say the oldest one is a tie between "Most Precarious" and "Battle of Someone." Actually, for "Precarious" the words were written in 1986, so I guess that's far and away the oldest one. The form it became was around 1992, '93; it used to be a different tempo and a different arrangement. "Battle of Someone," the way it is now is the way it was originally. That was written in 1991. Those are the oldest ones, and "Felicia" was the newest one.

Is it a frustrating process getting the songs into the shape that you feel is right for the final, recorded version?

It's hands and feet frustrating. Something very good that happened this time, an incidental goal, is that I always complain to the guys when we're writing that I have this backlog of songs I've been dying to get to, and I'm happy to say that my reserve stores are about empty. What happens is you write a song and you don't get to it, but you continue writing new songs. There's this pocket of lost songs. I hate that. I hate wasting them.

"Battle of Someone" is an intriguing song. What's it about?

It's a battle of someone's soul, a battle between all that you can feel and all that you can't feel. The first verse is about the person...that doesn't feel things; you hate all you see but it makes you too tired. The second verse is about everything, all that life brings you, all the feelings you can have, all the love you can have, all the rage you can feel, all the laughter...The third verse, that's the compromise - I'm only someone, I am just a person, I don't love everyone, but I can love some people. So it's kind of about people compromising between all the connections that life offers you, and the lack of them. I don't really believe in a good or evil. I don't hold one as better or worse.

A lot of these songs are pondering rather than narratives.

I love to ponder. Actually, where I write a lot of songs is when I'm on the can, especially if you have a leaky faucet that's just dripping. That drip becomes a rhythm, and I start writing a song to it without even thinking.

Do you take a notebook in there with you?

I've tried that. The problem is writing with a notebook on your knee is just an unnatural feeling. So what I have to do is sing it over and over again, and when I get out of the can I just run for a notebook.

After the commercial success you had with Four, was there pressure to repeat it with this album?

I think it's inevitable to feel some kind of pressure. But the real pressure was to ignore the pressure. Trying not to feel the pressure creates pressure. I think the important thing is to just have a clear focus of what your goals are. Our goal was to grow as a band and write songs. I think when we saw what worked and what didn't work on Four... a lot of the songs make more sense now in the eyes of someone who thinks in terms of radio. But we were really concerned with just keeping our statement honest and growing in terms of our strengths.

In other words, treading the line between doing something different and staying true to the sound you've established.

See, that's exactly the thing. If you do that well and you can establish a sound and you can grow, then the definition of your sound can grow. A great example of a band that did this so well was the Beatles; they had a great sound and they evolved, so the definition of their sound came to include more things. But it was still them. The Beach Boys are a great example of that, too. These are bands that we admire for having long histories, and I think that's what we really desire. I think it's all we can do. That's the kind of band we are. I think we're capable of that.

So what are you working on now?

We had this one song which was a 22-minute suite that we wrote, and we're taking it on the road and everybody loves it. It's called "Traveler's Suite." We were going to put it on this album, but we realized we had enough material to save it. I'm already writing a lot of songs, spending a lot of time on the can, as it were. It's gonna be a concept record...a story, I think. It's called The Sun and the Storm, and I don't really want to go too into it. I've got to keep something secret.

The characters in your songs are usually very well drawn. Are you a visual songwriter?

I think they tend to be me. I think I'm very aware of myself. I try to write what I know, so it usually has the word "I" in it. People have told me to knock that off at times. A good example is "Canadian Rose;" that's the first song I've ever written consciously as complete fiction. I've drawn on some experiences I've had that involved a carving in a table and the way Burlington is like in the fall, and occasional romances - a long time ago I met a girl from Vancouver - but the story itself is created. I wrote it on an airplane headed back from the World Series. What scares me is it worked very well.

That scares you?

I've learned I can lie very well. I'm hoping that doesn't become a habit. Hopefully I'll be responsible about it and won't start writing schlock because I can. but I don't see that song as schlock, actually. It does draw on experiences I've had, but I think I'm one of those people that can convince himself of anything.

When you're arranging the songs, do you deploy your harmonica as a storytelling aide, something that enhances the lyrics as well as the music?

The way I look at it, I'm more of a technician as far as the harp goes. I'm just trying to put it on anything it'll fit on because I really love the instrument. There are some songs where a harmonica just won't work - and I hate those songs. I fight them tooth and nail. But there are times when it just isn't appropriate, and it's nice to be able to play the guitar a little bit. But I'm not that great a guitar player.

You're a regular gun-slinger on the harp.

Oh, yes; harp players love to act like duelists. There's always a harmonica contest or competition somewhere. People like to take each other on, and it's all about speed. I remember walking into bars in New York and I knew that I could kick everybody's ass on the harp, and I'd be very quiet and bide my time and be a nice little boy. Then I'd get onstage at the open mike nights and destroy everyone, then fold up my little harmonicas and walk out innocently. And I loved that.

And I remember there was a harp player, Bill Dicey I think his name was. This is a guy in high school; he saw me playing, and he was trying to maintain some sort of wiser superiority. And he was a very mediocre harp player, I thought. He kept telling me "Well, you're O.K., but you don't have any tone. I remember seeing him in a bar - this was after I had a reputation in New York - and I was going to go blow him off the stage. But then I saw he was rockin' the place and people were having fun. And he saw me and he was worried, 'cause he knew that sooner or later he'd have to let me up and play. And I looked around and everyone was enjoying themselves, and if I came up and destroyed him, after I left everyone would have been brought down a little bit. It became clear these duels are kinda silly. So I left.

Is there a sense of competition within the band, though?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I think we all push each other as far as we can. I think Chan is a very distinct and weird-sounding guitar player, and it's because he's had to deal with a harmonica in his band. He keeps getting better, and that makes me have to get better. And bob really pushes us by snapping the rhythm back and forth, and that makes Brendan have to somehow keep up with Bob's elastic bass-playing. And it forces Bob to really identify the beat. It makes us really tighter. I think just everyone has improved.

What do you make of the Spin Doctors being dropped by Epic? Was their experience instructive to Blues Traveler?

Very. They were the first ones in our little scene to sort of explode, and we were all taking notes, making reaffirmations that we have our faith in the right things. I believe we're very much a family organization; that's what saves you. At least I hope so. And not to take stuff as seriously as we used to. When I was in my early twenties, it was very important that we succeed. I just turned 30, and my emphasis seems to be more on the quality of my life. I never gave that much thought; now I am.

What did you do on your 30th birthday?

I watched TV. I basically sat on my ass. I had my mid-life crisis in the last two weeks; I try to get through those things as quickly as possible. Now I'm worried about 40.

Where do you think Blues Traveler fits in the rock pantheon at this point?

I have no idea. I kinda like it that way. I like being capable of anything. I think what we're gonna do is we're gonna find out. we're gonna go forth and see what we can do. I don't think we're entitled to anything. I don't think we deserve, just by virtue of decree, any position or post.

People say "Who is the next Dead?" I want to be the first Blues Traveler. That's really what I'm after. I want to play to as many people for as long a time and for the most money I can and still have it be mine.