At 28, Chandler Kinchla still spends a lot of time with his high school
buddies - and, man, do they keep him busy. It was during his junior year
that Chan first hooked up with harmonica player and vocalist John Popper,
drummer Brendan Hill and bassist Bobby Sheehan, the quartet that would
become Blues Traveler. Since '90 the New Jersey natives have recorded six
albums and averaged over 250 live dates a year, Kinchla handling
everything from heavy riffs to subtle comping to soaring cosmic-blues
Nurtured by the jazz program at New York's New School for Social Research
and tested on the Big Apple club scene, Blues Traveler emerged at the
forefront of renewed interest in earthy Birkenstock rock and live
improvisation. Like contemporaries Widespread Panic, Phish, the Spin
Doctors and Aquarium Rescue Unit, BT brought their message directly to the
people, building up a grass roots following through intense touring. These
days you don't have to be a H.O.R.D.E. tour regular - the band has
headlined the annual summer rock festival for three years running - to
know about Blues Traveler. BT has sold over six million copies of 1994's
four (A&M), which scored two Top 10 singles, "Run-Around"
and "Hook." Their latest A&M release, Straight On Till
Morning, features a Kinchla riff that's taking radio by storm on the
single "Carolina Blues."
Chan's pre-BT guitar experience was limited. "I was in a punk band,
but eventually I got bored with the limited vocabulary," he recalls.
"Then I saw Alvin Lee perform "I'm Going Home" in the
Woodstock movie, and for the first time I saw an agressive approach to
guitar playing done with a much broader vocabulary. I blew off punk and
got heavily into jazz and improvisation."
After graduation the band relocated to New York City and began playing
clubs while exploring the New School jazz program. "We were getting
this really good cerebral philosophy of music plus free rehearsal space,
and at night we were playing bars and learning from the great New York jam
scene," Chan says. "There's nothing more fun than being 18 years
old, rocking all over New York, meeting girls and getting free beers!"
Eventually the band expanded their touring base to the entire East Coast;
a record deal with A&M followed soon after.
Having developed Blues Traveler as a live band, has it been a
challenge for you to translate what you do in the studio?
Chan: What drew us into being in a band was
the fun and excitement of playing together live. For years that was the
way we spread the word about ourselves and how we made a living. As we've
progressed we've learned to appreciate that working in the studio is a
very different, though equally rewarding, way of expressing ourselves.
We've learned to approach making music in the studio from a different
frame of mind - it's music created over time by layering and texturing,
music to be played over little speakers in someone's car, as background
music at a party or over the radio while someone's at work. That's very
different from making music that people are going to hear live; that's an
event, and there's an actual physical presence. There are ways to draw
people in and keep them attuned with a studio record, and those are
different from the things that you accomplish live.
What's it like being the only chordal
Chan: It's a pain in the ass! I never have anything to
solo over. I've got to solo over rhythm completely, which is fine - but
all the time? In some ways it's great because I do love to play
rhythm, and I feel I'm actually much more talented at rhythm than lead. My
right wrist is probably the most naturally talented aspect of my
technique. And with John's harp playing being in such a high register, I
provide the glue between him and the rest of the band. Being the only
chordal instrument has very much shaped my style of playing. I've never
really learned to play over chord progressions very well. Instead, I'm
much stronger rhythmically, and even my solos have a rhythmic quality.
I've been working on a more melodic style, though, and John's getting
better at playing some semblance of chords.
How do you compensate for that and keep the sound thick when
Chan: Partially it's tone. I come in really
big on a solo, then quiet down if I need to. Once those big chords I'm
playing drop out and it goes to a lead, I've got to be careful that the
energy doesn't drop out. So it's very important to make a big entrance;
from there I can wind everyone down to another dynamic level. The whole
band is conscious of this as well; we all try to keep the energy focused.
Another thing I do is play off the rhythm a great deal, rather than play
those big melodic lines. That's where I can tap into the rest of the band
while I'm playing leads. Melodic lines on their own can sound a little
cheesy unless there's a chord progression they're interacting with. This
is not a natural talent for me but something I'm working on. In five years
I'll probably be a hell of a lot better at it.
Are you better at it than you were five years ago?
Chan: Definitely. I sucked five years ago. I suck a
little less now.
In what areas do you think you've improved?
Chan: The thing I'm most pleased with is my vocabulary,
both in scale types and being able to play rhythmically and melodically. I
have a much broader range of chord voicings that I play all over the
guitar, and I have much more control over them. This is especially helpful
with improvisation - it allows me to open up and move in different
directions when I'm going with that flow. I've also become a lot more
melodic, and I know how to follow a melody. And my bends are more accurate
now. I used to just bend notes and figure that was good enough. Then I
realized that it's nice to bend to an actual note in the scale!
Do you use certain types of chord voicings to stay out of the
Chan: Sometimes, but mostly I use different chord voicings to
make it more interesting. Say you're playing a I-IV-V progression, using
straight barre chords. For improvising you might start with the pentatonic
scale of the chord and play mostly in that area. But if you can use
different voicings to move the register down three or four frets and still
play the same chords, you can get a whole different flavor, a whole
different meaning. It boosts your creativity and helps you go to different
Do you ever use any of the chord-voicing method
Chan: I have, but it's a huge leap from practicing chords
out of a book to having the balls to actually try them onstage. Some of
that stuff I'll memorize but never quite learn how to fit into our songs.
Whereas I'll just learn a general rule about other voicings, flow right
into them onstage and learn right there how to move them all around the
What do you need to know to back up a harp player?
Chan: Harmonica is in such a high register that it's very
easy to get in the way. To let it truly speak, you want to play in a lower
register. The harmonica is also very rhythmic; one great thing you can do
is play against it in a very percussive way. The two sounds blend great
and really chug a song along.
Something to watch out for is the difference in phrasing between a guitar
- since it's a fingers-on-strings instrument - and harmonica, since it's a
reed instrument. Because the phrasing patterns are so different it can be
very difficult to play melody lines together or hit the same kinds of
riffs when soloing together. Sometimes we'll be stuck in a position where
they just don't blend.
What have you learned about following a melody?
Chan: I was always guilty of playing visually - where you see
your fingers do patterns and you like the way those patterns sound, so you
develop an arsenal of licks. Your solos tend to run from one cool lick or
comfortable pattern to the next, rather than following something you hear
in your head. In order to play good melodies, you have to forget those
patterns and forget what you like to do on the guitar, and instead use
your ear to move your fingers.
How much has jazz influenced the band?
Chan: The New School was a very strong influence. I learned about
the basics of jazz theory, then began incorporating that with what I knew
about blues and rock and roll. Bringing that melodic quality into a blues
setting really takes it to a different dimension. The blues is a nice
attitude and it's very rhythmic, but it's not as melodious as jazz. So
it's nice to be able to add some of the qualities and syncopations of
How did blues influence you in the band's early
Chan: We were doing our best at playing the blues. In the
beginning we stuck to more traditional forms: 12-bar using I-IV-V a lot,
as well as some more classic rock and roll progressions. I don't think we
ever kidded ourselves that we could actually play the blues. For godsakes,
we're middle-class white kids from the suburbs, not black guys from
Mississippi in the 1940s! We're coming from a completely different
environment. But I think what attracted us to the blues was the raw,
emotional intent of the music. That's what we've wanted to keep in our
music as we evolved.