Same Harmonica, Different Harmonizers
EXTENDED FULL INTERVIEW
When most people hear the band name Blues Traveler, they think of world-class musicianship, happiness and harmonica. The five-piece blues-rock band originating from Princeton, New Jersey released their 12th studio album entitled “Blown Up The Moon,” a collaborative record bringing together musicians from the past and present with glorious harmonies, signature harmonica interludes and the inviting vocals of lead singer John Popper. With names like Jewel, The Plain White T’s, Hanson and Thompson Square, Blues Traveler took a huge risk playing with different textures and musical styles, while achieving new sounds. This new record came about while brainstorming the band’s 20th commemoration of the multi-platinum “Four,” which music lovers will recall is the big 90s album that included hits “Run-Around,” “Stand” and “Hook.” The new record is a special departure because it features some acts who were popular at the time of Blues Traveler’s career height but also includes some younger acts who were inspired by one of America’s great bands. Blues Traveler frontman and New York resident John Popper took some time with NYC Monthly while on tour to talk about his band’s decades-long run, recording at Dave Grohl’s studio and he shared some of his favorite things about New York…
NYC Monthly: The music on this new record sounds like a party, but it also sounds like signature Blues Traveler. The vocals are solid, the harmonica is there. “Blow Up The Moon” is your first collaborative album, with a really eclectic mix of guests with a variety of styles too, pop, country, reggae, hip-hop. How did this come about? Who had the lightbulb moment here?
John Popper: As far as performing with bands, it’s definitely a huge departure for us. I see it kind of as a progression. After we did “North Hollywood Shootout” in 2008, that was the beginning of an attempt to change the styles of our writing, the band pretty much did everything in-house. They pretty much did riffs and I came up with some words. You don’t want to feel bored when you’re writing, so I was trying to find a way to do something differently, and we’ve never really even collaborated, even writing with other artists. I did a solo record with The Duskray Troubadors and I took that notion back to the band. I knew that they were such great players that they would jump aboard. On the next album, “Suzie Cracks The Whip,” we found professional writers that we’ve never worked with before. It was really an eye-opener for everybody, but we had no way to go about it. It has a lot to do with our management and Lani Sarem about how to put this album together to find artists that were also young but experienced. We had little mini experiences where the band comes in and you get the hell outta there, Nashville, LA, New York, New Orleans. You just go where they are. It was kind of like game hunting, you have to go find the exotic snow leopard. There’s a special migration of egrets, let’s go to the North Pole! Each situation was different. With the Dirty Heads, Rome really knew what he was doing. Once you start to run with it the songs go in directions you could never imagine. I felt like I was the therapist at a certain point, like what should we write today?
NYCM: It sounds a bit like you were on a similar journey to Foo Fighters’ “Sonic Highways,” would you agree?
JP: I found it really curious that that documentary came out, it was kismet, as that was happening I was watching that a lot on HBO, Sonic Highways. Every music town he was talking about I knew all those scenes. He pretty much covered everything. I lived in Seattle and I don’t know that scene that well, but they covered Chicago and Austin really well. We recorded in Dave Grohl’s studio where he has a painting in a Hugh Hefner robe – we did two or three songs there.
NYCM: You have such an eclectic group of artists featured on this new record. How did pairings come about with Thompson Square, Plain White T’s, Dirty Heads and Rome Ramirez, Hanson, Jewel, etc.?
JP: The good thing about being a band as old as us, you know who you are, you just be yourself and your sound just permeates anyway. For us the fun part was getting in with a band we’ve never worked with. A few we had never heard of. I think we had like 50 bands and then it was about scheduling. I was always psyched to do a song with Jewel. Plain White T’s, I really admired the way they played and the way Tom writes a song. I was psyched about Thompson Square as well. I was correct in that I was going to be surprised in a good way. I think it’s pretty much just looking at the songs, it’s fun to play with people and stuff, but to play to the band’s strengths that you’re working with. I think we had a primal rule that you just don’t interfere with what they’re trying to say. The dissemination process is a tricky one. It was really becoming an album. I was afraid it would be all over the place, I agree with you, we were the constant. I think it is going to open up a whole new thing for us. It’s a fun thing to do. There’s a Red Rocks show we do every July 4 and we had a bunch of the bands sit in with us [Sublime’s Rome Ramirez, Hanson, NSYNC’s JC Chasez and Denver hometown duo 3OH!3 all made guest appearances].
NYCM: You play Irving Plaza on September 9. Are New York audiences different than others around the country?
JP: For us New York is home, I grew up in either Connecticut or New Jersey. I went to The New School for social research and that’s where I learned jazz with the best jazz musicians in the world. Oscar Peterson, Sir Roland Hanna. But because I was a harmonica major, they didn’t tell you what to do. It was a very free experience. In that time, my bandmates came to New York and we moved from Princeton to Brooklyn – not the Brooklyn you have these days with these kids. It was an adventure and it was a really amazing time to be in New York ’cause the cabaret law closed, but you were allowed to play in a four-piece band anywhere. We were learning jazz and blues and my bandmates would come in and get a free education and skip school as much as we could to play in bars and to make people dance. It was really about the best experience a musician could have, so New York really feels like home. It’s still moving. Once you make it in New York, you have to get out of the way because there’s more hungry people coming. It’s really like the world city. I had my New York and I always will. And you always know where to get that good shish kabob on 14th Street.
NYCM: What has it been like living in New York City and do you have any favorite spots for a hang over beers or for live music?
JP: Dorrian’s is a big hangout for me. Our longtime [former] tour manager Gina is actually at Summer Stage at Central Park. It just became a bar of choice to go hang out. For me it’s all the bars I used to hang out at are all gone. You have your romance with it and then there’s the next one, there’s never a place that’s there forever. Nightingale’s sort of became this Russian mob place and now has weird lavender stuff on walls and neon. Now it’s called Durden, when I was there it was this cockroach-infested dirty little dive bar. I really love Brooklyn Bowl, that’s kind of a no-brainer.
NYCM: Not many bands make it to 25 years or can even speak about longevity anymore. After 25+ years of recording and performing as Blue Traveler, what legacy do you hope to leave?
JP: It’s kind of surreal. I don’t think I have a grasp of what a band’s longevity is. It’s hard to know – to go 25 years, we just didn’t know any other way to be. Even when Bobby died [founding bass player], we were trying to play, we were holding auditions within a month cause we just needed to keep going. It was almost unhealthy but we had to keep going. You could use the shark analogy where we just have to keep swimming until we die. But it’s our living, there’s pressure but there’s also an addiction. It’s a lucky and a rare thing but that’s really the only way we’ve ever lived. Sometimes we are really there to appreciate it. That would figure. Sometimes you’re paying attention and sometimes you’re not and I hope it keeps going. I want to go do solo projects and I hope the guys do as well. I always see Blues Traveler being something we come back to do all the time. Our garage – people kept paying us so we had no reason to stop. I feel like we’ve gotten away with something. Generally it’s positive.
Emerging San Francisco-based punk-pop outfit Matt Jaffe & The Distractions will offer tour support for Blues Traveler at 23 dates around the U.S. including this show.
(Photo Credit: Jason Joseph)