Blues Traveler - Straight On Till Morning

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Blues Traveler
Straight On Till Morning
By Toni A. Brown

Blues Traveler was one of the first bands to step into the mainstream from the emerging musical genre known as improvisational rock. The group met David Graham early in its career, and with the assistance of David's father, Bill Graham, Blues Traveler signed to A&M Records before most of the other "jam bands" found their niche.

Blues Traveler, featuring John Popper (vocals and harmonica), Chan Kinchla (guitar), Bobby Sheehan (bass) and Brendan Hill (drums), has released several albums and made movie and television soundtracks as well as appearances. The band's first single, "But Anyway," is a catchy tune that earned early media accolades.

While a number of Blues Traveler's songs have already received frequent radio airplay, its latest album will undoubtedly bring the band to higher terrain. Straight On Till Morning shows an obvious maturity, but as the title implies, Blues Traveler's intention is not to grow old. The release exudes playable melodies and memorable hooks.

In a recent interview, John Popper discussed the new album as well as the band's history and future intentions.

The name of your new album is Straight On Till Morning. I guess that has a Peter Pan connotation.

Popper: I saw this special about cowboys on TV and I was watching the segment about Buffalo Bill Cody, and it occurred to me that they were like the bands of the 1800s. They had their own sort of press corps. They would develop self-imposed legends, and I thought that was kind of cool. It's a rock 'n' rolly kind of a legend that promotes the ideal of what we're supposed to do. That made me think about touring and Straight On Till Morning seems to say a whole lot of different things. I'm a sucker for Peter Pan references.

Guess you'll never grow up?

Popper: Determined. I'm searching Neverland, too.

The new material on the album seems to be your strongest to date.

Popper: I think this is the best we've ever done, and I think it's very healthy to feel that way about your most current album. It means you still like what you're doing. And I really do see it as a growth. Four had good things, but it seemed to be a little light in terms of tone. We really worked to make each song its own on this new one.

The opening song, "Carolina Blues," has a very raucous, hard edge.

Popper: That's gonna be the first single, too. I'm really glad that A&M agreed with us about "Carolina" being the first single 'cause, till now, we've always had what we call the "B.T. Light" stuff on the radio. We're catchy little songsters, but that's not all we do. I think "Carolina" is a better representation of the kind of music we play.

It wasn't typical of the rest of the album. You weave back and forth between ballads and straight-out rock...

Popper: For me, the one that I baby-sat, really cared about, lost sleep over, was "Yours," 'cause I got to write string parts. It was actually Trey Anastasio who convinced me [to write the arrangement]. One time we were together when I was working on Travelers & Thieves. I was lamenting, "Oh, I gotta find a string arranger. How am I gonna explain what I want to do?" Trey said, "Having the idea is the hard part. Getting someone to write it down is easy." So that's exactly what I did. For a moment, "Yours" was my absolute masterpiece. I'm already hearing things wrong with it.

That's because you're the artist.

Popper: Yeah, you can't help it. But for a fleeting moment, I really felt like it was perfect.

"Felicia" is about a friend of mine who will be very embarrassed that there's a song with her name out there. This song still holds my interest. The jammiest song on Four was "Look Around," where I had a solo. It was more like I was trying to say, "Hey, look at this harp solo." We hadn't made it yet, and I felt my job was to show my chops. On this one, I felt my primary job was to go in different directions on each song. I really tried to focus on the harp in a more melodic way. That was really on my mind when we went into this record.

"Canadian Rose" is the next song, and that one was very eagerly awaited by A&M Canada.

"She called me an ugly American/I called her my Canadian flower." You make some beautiful lyrical references. "She tasted like cinnamon." It touches on the senses.

Popper: I have a confession-a scoop for you. That song was the first I've ever written that actually isn't about anyone. It's a few experiences, but it's a fictional story. And the band was like, "Who do you know in Canada?" Maybe my love of Burlington, Vermont was the primary driver of the song. It was fall and we were up playing in Woodstock (New York), and it reminded me a lot of Burlington and so I thought, "Well, maybe I can come up with some story here." I've been on the road for ten years. I haven't had time to go futzing around in Canada. (Laughter) It was interesting that it came off so well. "Price To Pay" off Four was not about anyone, but this was one where I consciously set out to do that.

["Canadian Rose"] is an example of a song I wasn't sure was gonna make it. Mike Thompson and Steve Townsend, our producers, really cultivated it. Same thing with "Felicia." "Felicia," was a song that we kept playing, and we were like, "What the hell is this thing gonna become?"

It's very romantic.

Popper: Yeah. I like the lyric, but that groove was really hard to sell for us. Blues Traveler's not known as a salsa band. (Laughter) We really gotta give Mike and Steve a lot of credit for this because they know how to get it on a record, and that's something that we're learning how to do. This album also has the debut of a song written entirely by Chan Kinchla, "Last Night I Dreamed."

"Justify The Thrill" is a very dark and moody piece. The "Twinkle, twinkle little star" hook is great.

Popper: It's nice to get some of that angst in there. In order to make the big bucks, you gotta have angst. (Laughter) We're too grounded. We need more team traumas in our lives.

That song has references to fairy tale rhymes. I am notorious for ripping those off. I think that's a device I use where if you use a reference that people are familiar with in their subconscious, they sort of get the point before you make it and then you can turn the point a little bit, and they get a little surprise. That's an old trick that I use, and I love it. Some day I'm gonna do all nursery rhyme parodies, and I'm gonna get sued by the Grimms' estate.

That makes people go back and listen again for what they may have missed in the lyrics.

Popper: Well, it's a hard-and-fast rule I have stuck by that all lyrics will be printed on every album because nobody can understand what the hell I'm saying sometimes.

Do you generally write the material?

Popper: I generally write the lyrics. The music can come from any of us. Brendan…he has to consciously work a little harder to write music because being a drummer, he doesn't really get an opportunity to play on a guitar and just come up with a melody and say, "Hey, let's try this." Brendan has to sit down at a piano and really work it out. Everybody kind of wrote some of the music. We have a B-side, which Bob wrote completely, which is pretty cool. It's a very eccentric song, "Diner," and that one didn't make the album, but we're gonna figure out a way to get that out. Brendan wrote a whole other tune, "Didn't Mean To Wake Up." That one was a tough call 'cause we just had so many songs for the record, we didn't know which to bag. It was a very close process of elimination. ["Didn't Mean To Wake Up" has been released as the B-Side to "Carolina Blues" on the Blues Traveler Fan Club Sampler. -ed.]

Did you have a lot of material that you held back from the album?

Popper: I wrote this 22-minute suite called "Traveler's Suite," which we started playing on the road, and we were all convinced it was gonna be on the record. But we found we had enough songs to save that, and Mike and I came up with a really cool idea for a concept record, which I'm gonna start working on. I don't want to give that away yet.

Needless to say, I'm writing a whole lot of songs-once I had the concept, suddenly songs were coming out of my elbows.

Have you performed much of the material that's on the album out on the road?

Popper: We've tried to, I'd say, 40 per cent of it. We've done "Carolina," "Canadian Rose," we've done "Yours," but never with a string section.

Do you intend to take a string section with you on the road?

Popper: No, but there's actually talk of a keyboard/percussion player. What we need is time to rehearse with him, so it'll probably be next year. We're thinking about trying that. Chan had the best reason to do it-we haven't done it before. A challenge is a good thing. We've pretty much accepted any musical challenges coming at us. [On August 11, Blues Traveler was joined by a 48-piece orchestra for a one-time appearance at New Jersey's Garden State Art Center.-ed.]

You're doing a summer tour as Blues Traveler and not going out this year on the H.O.R.D.E. Festival.

Popper: We're doing two H.O.R.D.E. dates, I think. We started really missing the opportunity to play for three hours, develop a two-set show. We've done H.O.R.D.E. for five years, and it's really cool. Neil Young is doing it.

H.O.R.D.E. was your concept, if I'm not mistaken?

Popper: Originally, it was an attempt to get all of our bands to be sort of a communal thing, but we're talking about five bands that were all just at the beginning of their careers heading in a lot of different directions. We wound up being the ones who made the calls 'cause I think, at that point, we had traveled the farthest, and so were more familiar in more territories. So I wound up being on the phone a lot. And after all that work for the first year, we just didn't want to stop it. Actually, it seemed to be something that sold, so we kept doing it 'cause it was a lot of fun. It still is. You're exposed to these constant great musicians of every description. That's gonna be the hardest thing this summer because I think we're gonna miss that.

Your repertoire, which now includes a new album's worth of material, is so extensive that doing a one-hour set could stifle you creatively.

Popper: I think Phish were the first ones to go, "We can't do the tour next year because we are really dying to do our own tour." And I look at how they've done it, and I really admire them. I'm not sure what direction we're gonna go in with this, but I really admire their independence. And there's a time when you have to try it.

How did you like working at Madison Square Garden last New Year's Eve?

Popper: That was a dream come true. And for it to wind up on our decade anniversary was really cool.

Ten years…you guys have a lot to celebrate, and with this new album...

Popper: And we got two weddings, too. Chan got married in May, and Brendan had a traditional wedding in June.

You guys got together in school in Princeton, New Jersey...

Popper: Yeah, high school. Brendan and I had been in the school band and the year I was gonna graduate, I stayed back, so I graduated in '86. We were actually auditioning another guitarist, and Chan was just there and the band broke up and he said, "Oh, I could do that." We started listening and he sounded like a really out of control Jimmy Page, and it was a very scary element, at least for me 'cause he didn't know how to tune his guitar, but he just played with this fire and he wouldn't stop playing. When we'd go out for a cigarette break, he'd still be playing. The trick is keeping him in tune. (Laughter) And then, Bob came on the next year. What Bob brought to the band was really the key. There were a lot of bands that had the elements that Brendan, Chan and I had, but when Bob started, it's really hard to explain, he would connect jams in a way that really appealed to audiences. He had the sense of the song being a composition in a way that I didn't understand. We were all learning from each other at that point, and it was the first time the band consisted of four people who were really willing to put their lives into it.

Are you still learning from each other?

Popper: Oh, yeah.

Probably the most important thing in a band is that good chemistry exist.

Popper: And that goes for the band being a business, too. When we're making decisions, I just know from experience that I'm going to have a hot reaction, but Bob's gonna have a very impulsive reaction. And then I'll have an out-of-left-field kind of impulsive reaction, and Chan calms it down and sort of tempers our reaction. And Brendan has a very conservative attitude. So there's a consistency there. There's four different consistencies of "Let's do this right now!" and "Let's think about it" and every combination in between. I really rely on those guys. My dad told me, and I really think this is true, marriage is not 50-50. It's 90-10 one way, one day, and then 90-10 the other way. You just learn who's about to let go of the wheel, and you learn when you're supposed to grab the wheel. It's really been satisfying.

You guys paid your dues playing the club circuit in the beginning.

Popper: I don't know if we really paid our dues or anything. I think we were really lucky. Parental roles all around really helped. Dave Graham (Bill Graham's son) obviously had a role, but we had our parents. We came from wealthy Princeton suburbs, and all of our parents had the rule, "If you go to college, we'll pay for it." We went to college in Maine and spent all of our time in clubs trying to figure out how to play. So we didn't have to get a day job, and I think that allowed us to focus 100 per cent on music. As soon as we could pay our rent, we quit school.

The New School [in New York] was a great music school, too. They allowed us to go and rehearse on their amps for free, and we were also exposed to some of the best musicians around New York City. It was a really great time, and this is also the same ilk the Spin Doctors came out of. Just great jamming, rock 'n' roll. And it was a little new in '87, '88.

I remember calling my parents and saying, "I can pay my rent now, so I'm quitting school." They freaked out a little bit. Actually, my mom said, "All right. Let me call the school and try to get you back in. Just don't do anything." And she called me back and said, "Look. If you need any money, let us know. Good luck." They must've calmed down between phone calls. I think that really allowed us to focus fully on it.

I'm thinking of Joan Osborne, who had to work on her career and support herself, and I remember she had a day job. She had to work her butt off, and she was tired a lot. And keeping the band together when you didn't know 'em in high school, is even harder. There are some dues that we didn't have to pay.

Dave Graham saw us playing at Barnard, and he was just graduating at that time and was looking to get into the business. We just lucked into that. When we got the opportunities, we really tried our best to work at them. I look at friends of mine who are still trying to make it, and I feel really lucky.

But you have something to offer. It's not like the band isn't good, and there's another band that's better. Fortunately, in our "genre" of music, there's respect among musicians. There's not a lot of resentment.

Popper: I think every band has something different to offer. I was thinking about our little scene. Pick any of the bands we worked with. They don't sound anything like us. Our scene is not united by similarities. It's united by diversity, and I think that's the best scene there is because that eliminates the mentality of competition. You want your friends to do, not quite as well as you, (laughter) but at the same time, when I hear a band who I respect, I never say, "Damn. I wish that was us" because it couldn't be us-its song is its own.

You have a very unique and distinctive style. You've been popping up in a variety of places. You reworked the Roseanne theme song...

Popper: That was really cool. We put words to the theme song. She wanted me to just write something. We met John Goodman at a House of Blues thing we did in early '95, and we thought it was Goodman who called us, but it was also Roseanne who's a big fan. She knew more words to our songs than I do. We always loved that show.

Kingpin is a really funny movie, and you guys are all over it...

Popper: Kingpin has gotten funnier the more I've seen it. I actually was a little worried about it when it first came out. I was like, "Oh, my God! What is this?"

It's a little corny.

Popper: Yeah, exactly. Now I'm really happy that we were in it. And that was my first speaking role, too, as the maitre d'. I looked exactly like my dad. It was very scary. (Laughter) They, presumably, had a bunch of bands they wanted, and we were on the list. We were the only ones willing to stand there in Pennsylvania in the freezing cold.

What music are you listening to these days?

Popper: I just sat in with a great band, To The Moon Alice. They're a great songwriting band, but they're also a jamming band, and I just love when that happens.

I've got lots of Phish in my car. I tried driving around with a whole collection, and once I actually pulled it off. Sooner or later, something comes in and out and eventually you move on, but there was a time when I had the entire collection in the car, and I had a really long drive and I actually listened to their entire anthology. Now, that's a Phish fan.

I like Big Head Todd's new album. Every now and then, there's some really weird song that gets me. A couple of years ago it was Radiohead and that song "Creep," which was just exactly the kind of song I wished I'd written. "Beethoven's Ninth" was the one disc Phish wasn't able to chase out of my car 'cause I just love that song. I want to be able to get the same expressiveness that classical music has. The way it retards, that's the one aspect of rock 'n' roll because you have a steady drum beat, it's very hard to get that. That's one reason that I'm such a fan of Phish actually, is the way they change their rhythms. And they plan it very elaborately. That means they can write it that way, and I just love that. I think I have a more romantic view of classical music than they do. Trey is really into fugues, and I'm more into Beethoven and Wagner. Mozart was pretty big for me. Bach is a genius. Gotta give him his due. Bach pretty much created western music.

Relix has been working on a series of Road Tales-things that happen to musicians on the road. Are there any anecdotes that you'd like to share?

Popper: There's so many…I'm trying to think of one in particular. The routine…I've been all over the country, and I've seen very little of it. You play and get on the bus and ride around all night, and I can't sleep on the bus 'cause I'm wired from the show and it's the only time to actually interact with people. You get to the hotel around 6:00 or 7:00 a.m. if you've planned it well, you sleep until 3:00 or 4:00, then it's time to get up and start getting ready for the show. That's the only time you can watch any network television, you know, try and stay current, and then you go and play the show. So, for me, I almost look at it like military camp. I think where we're going, what we're going to do and the other stuff becomes incidental 'cause I never get to see it anyway. I can't really say that it's bad. I kinda love it.

I don't want to say this is a drawback, but I think the debilitating thing about the road is the fact that it keeps you from growing up. While we're on the road, everyone we know is putting roots down and developing a life and facing things that everyone else gets to face. It's a drudgery in the mind of most people, but I admire my friends for their ability to accept the responsibilities that I would cringe at.

When you have time off, there are John Popper sightings. You're always running off to play music.

Popper: Yeah, you don't know what else to do with yourself, and I think that's something that we're learning. I think Chan and Brendan getting married is their expression of really desiring that life. They want to put roots down. I think we all kind of do. So you go from a nomadic to a semi-pastoral society. But I can't see them not wanting to go on the road. It's like that lure. Even if I wasn't in a band and I saw other bands going on the road, I mean, you just feel this call. Someone who's ridden the back of the wind. When you're on the road a real long time, you can't wait to go home. And when you're home for a long time, you can't wait to go on the road.

Do you enjoy working in the studio?

Popper: I used to say I hate making records and I still do hate the actual work while I'm doing it, but I'm starting to get the hang of it. I'm starting to see why it's good to make them. Expression is starting to become more in my control.

Do you think you'd like to produce other bands?

Popper: Sure. I'm not sure if I'm capable, but I'd love to try. There's a whole lot of the production that I don't know about, like how any of the boards work. In fact, I don't know how my gear works. I believe in getting an expert in a given area, specialization.

I rely on Greg Hurst, our monitor engineer, and Chris Hinson, who's a guitar tech/harp tech. They tweak my amp. Whenever I touch my amp, it sounds awful. So I work real closely with them. I try not to touch my knobs. They give me one or two knobs I can play with during a show and I'm very grateful 'cause if I had to learn that stuff, I couldn't think about playing. I'd be thinking, "Okay, execute this on that." I just like being able to not think what I'm playing.

Are you still throwing your harps out into the audience?

Popper: Yeah. (Laughter) It was a nice idea once. Now, it's costing us thousands.

When did you start playing harp?

Popper: I got my first one in the eighth grade, so I guess I was 14. I really started playing it more when I was 16.

Did you want to play something else?

Popper: I wanted to be a comedian. I saw Saturday Night Live, and I was really hooked on that. That's how I came across the Blues Brothers. I heard that music, and I really loved the way the harmonica sounded, kind of like a human voice. Blues Brothers led me to Elmore James and Paul Butterfield before that. I played his live album every day. But eventually, all roads led to Hendrix. From Hendrix, I got into jazz. Hendrix is one of those doorways to anywhere. That was what I needed. When I heard "Voodoo Child," I knew music was what I wanted to do. And I have always been singing. My parents remember when I was three, I was harmonizing in church. I couldn't tell the difference between singing the melody and harmonizing, and it seemed to impress everybody. But singing is something I thought everybody could do, and I really didn't put much stock in it.

Were your parents musical?

Popper: The general theory is that my dad is tone deaf so he's, therefore, not musical. But if you tell him what a note is, he can count the intervals, so he can sort of make himself sing in tune. I think my dad's musicality is in his love of sounds. Every morning, he'd be scatting gibberish at the top of his lungs. He has a thick Hungarian accent. Being from another country, when you hear another language, you develop this fascination for the timbre and the rhythm of each accent. He's fluent in six languages, so he'll just sort of make up accents and make up mock languages and just jabber them at the top of his lungs. It was very annoying when he'd drive me to school. But I find myself, not scatting the same gibberish, but other gibberish. (Laughter) On my dad's side of the family, we're related to a cellist who was famous in like 1910. But my mom's side of the family is very musical. Her father was able to pick up an instrument and play a tune on it. My mom could sing. All my sisters could sing. It just seemed like something you could do. None of my brothers could sing. That's weird. I'd always go up to my sister Marjorie's room and play her Beatles' records and just sing along.

Have the Beatles influenced you?

Popper: I'd have to say that. We had what we called the "La La" song. All my sisters were learning violin with some Suzuki method where if you could sing it, you could play it. It was Bach's Minuet in D, and I learned that when I was really young. My sister's really the only outlet in terms of listening to music that I had. I'd go up to her room, and we'd listen to all the Beatles' stuff. Even John Denver, Godspell, she even played me Bee Gees, and I didn't like them, even then. My older brother, Tom, he was the rebel. The black sheep of the family. He played Lynyrd Skynyrd, and his room smelled a little funny. (Laughter) And I'd hear [Pink Floyd's] The Wall and Led Zeppelin, and I remember that being the scary music. It was dangerous, and there was something cool about it.

Did you ever listen to the Grateful Dead?

Popper: I found, I think it was actually Skeletons From The Closet, in my brother's closet. I listened to it, and I thought, "Oh, what a watered-down, kind of folky thing. I didn't get it 'cause I was going more in a Stevie Ray Vaughan direction at the time. It was Bob, I think, who turned me on to the Dead. I never saw myself as a Deadhead. I saw myself as a friend of a Deadhead. And he got me to my first show, I think it was JFK '86.

So you did, actually, get into the Grateful Dead at some point.

Popper: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I was sort of suspicious and resistant 'cause Bob was a total Deadhead, and he was always trying to turn me on to it. I think it was just his fervor that made me suspicious 'cause I felt like the Emperor's New Clothes. The way I look at a band is I'm always trying to figure out how they do stuff. The first time I really enjoyed myself was when I ditched all my friends and just went and sat there. When you go with your friends they're like, "Why aren't you dancing? Isn't this great? Why aren't you dancing?" And so I'm like, "'Cause I don't want to." And I just watched. And I watched as closely as I could and that was when I really started getting into what they were doing and the interplay. It's really the mentality that I thought, at the time, was exclusive to be-bop and cool jazz and stuff in terms of the improvisation. But it was freer in a way, and it was rock 'n' roll, which was the really important thing. The vocabulary of jazz isn't really something that I speak as my own language. I've learned it, but it doesn't seem current to me now. I think the world moves to different languages and being able to do that in rock 'n' roll, I think it was the Dead that showed us how to do that. As far as the comparison of us and the Dead, I never quite understood that because again, that diversity thing.

When a band is compared to the Grateful Dead what that really means, in true speak, is that a Deadhead will like that band. It doesn't necessarily mean there's any similarity at all.

Popper: I think the fear I have is that in Western society, when it comes to cultural aspects, I can't like you unless I can compare you to something. I need to know what you're like before I can accept you. There's that need. People are not, generally, creative enough to like something on their own. It's what Bill Graham called "pelvic music." I think the Dead even sensed that. They don't want to be a genre. They're one band interpreting pelvic music.

People want to read a review and be fed a comparison because it helps them to relate to something already tangible.

Popper: And then they're reading it, and they're not hearing it so they can't make up their own minds. So they have this [need for assurance], "Well, what does it sound like?" And someone goes, "Well, it sounds like this." And then you can draw on that experience, and you feel better. It's putting the reader at ease, I guess.

How would you classify your music?

Popper: I have a great word. It's ours. I hear people telling us about the uniqueness of our sound, and I know exactly what that is. It's us screwing it up. (Laughter) I remember it from the basement, how we didn't know how to do that thing. And that's become a style. (Laughter)

That's one reason I'm always playing with other people, because I'm trying to get outside info to bring back to the band, and I think that's what everybody does.

Listening to the individual musicianship on the new album, there's this intense meshing that happens. It's a layering of sound.

Popper: I think when we're rehearsing, I tend to be in charge. In the band, we all sort of take a lead at some point. Somebody has to be a director. I think when we're writing songs, usually that's me, and when we're playing them on stage, it's generally Bob 'cause the bass has so much control over what a band does. He has to acknowledge Brendan, because Brendan is keeping the time, but he can also throw a wrench in there that makes us go in a different direction. Every two members of the band connect in some way. Bob and I are kind of the directors in that way. Bob and Chan are the untrained, string guys. Bob and Brendan are the rhythm section. Chan and I are the soloists. There's a symmetrical connection between any two members of the band on that level. Brendan and I are the Aries; Bob and Chan are Geminis.

What are the plans for the future of Blues Traveler? I know you have a concept album…

Popper: Yeah, that's gonna happen. We've been working so hard on a career for the last ten years. There were the weddings, and we're all buying houses now. We're trying to explore the idea of roots and look into our lives a little more.

We're gonna do Red Rocks, and then we're gonna go to Europe. Europe, to us, is the one we haven't conquered yet. We've sold over seven million records in the States alone. About nine million total records. We've sold 14,000 records in Europe.

Every time we've gone there, they just didn't know who the hell we were. We never played in Italy, but I looked in an Italian paper and they said the main feature of the band is the lead singer looks like John Belushi. When we've played [Europe], the reaction has been uniform. They get really shocked, and then they start to come around. But this is several years ago, so I think they're starting to come around to our way of thinking.

I rely heavily on the gimmickry of the harmonica, and I do play in a weird way and that cuts through a lot of the red tape 'cause they're like "Wow. That's something I've never seen before." A great example is when we were in Switzerland. There was a random festival that no one knew about. A little local deal. The whole town in the Alps, right on the border of Italy and France, nobody knew who we were, nobody cared. (Laughter) We were like, "What are we doing here?" Dave Graham got us booked into this, and it was fun. We ate bratwurst and stuff like that. But we were pretty tired.

While we were eating lunch, we looked out the window and there was a Bagpipe Fife and Drum Corps from Brittany, which was this especially Gaelic part of northern France, and they were in the Brittany Navy. They had little sailor hats and stuff. [I went over to one of them but] I didn't speak Brittany and he didn't speak English, so I sort of gestured and showed him a harmonica like, "We're playing tonight. You think maybe you could come and play bagpipes with us?" I thought that would be cool. And Bob and Chan were like, "What are you doing?" "It's okay, they can only play in one key. I just checked. It's B Flat. We'll drum in B Flat, and it'll be fine. It's in four, we'll figure something out." I knew that it would work. Well, we were really tired and jet lagged, and we woke up around midnight. That's when we were going to go on. I guess we were the last band for the evening. The band before us was doing classic rock in French. The crowd loved it. They spoke French! They got it. We were gonna die.

So we went up there, and there was a huge rainstorm. Everybody went in off the street. The rain eventually let up, we were there, but there's not one bagpiper-he misunderstood me and thought the entire Bagpipe Fife and Drum Corps was going to sit in with us. They'd never been on stage, and they were nervous. (Laughter) So I thought, "We'll deal with that headache later. Let's go and play." We tried playing a song, and the six people that were there were looking at us-and we're trying all of our cool stuff, and it's just not working. Well, we thought, "We've got nothing to lose. Let's bring the fifers and drummers up." There was 11 of them, and luckily the sound man knew how to mic field drums and bagpipes and the fifes. So we're all kind of looking at each other on stage and going, "Well?" and I go, "Go!" and they go, "Dadadadittle." Then Bob starts going "Ba boom," Brendan starts going "Pa pa pa" and Chan starts going "Gongkaka" and I start going "Dodododo," and it was the biggest, coolest sound I've ever been a party to. Suddenly, people are coming out of their houses, and the whole place just fills up. The town is dancing around, and we're using their soccer chant. They're going, "Heyheyheyheyhey." So we started weaving that into the song, and we needed words so I started going, "Swing low, sweet chariot." Then we ran out of those words so I just started going, "Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale/A tale…" and you could spot the Americans 'cause they were all on the ground laughing at that point. And it turned into a conga line that we led around the whole square of the town. It was utter victory from the jaws of defeat, and the lesson we learned is employ the locals because then they understand the reference. After that song, all of our stuff worked. We went through all of our shtick, and they bought every bit of it. They just needed to know the reference. They needed to compare us to something. So if we're ever in Japan, I'm planning on Kyoto drummers.

Phish seems to be doing well on its frequent European tours. That should pave the way for people to be more open to you.

Popper: That is the consistency of our scene. See, even though it's diversity, one band does well, the other bands have better chances. I think the Spin Doctors helped us with that way back when. Something Trey said to me when we made our first record, "Yeah, we heard you got signed, and now it's gonna be very interesting to see what happens." And I think that's true. We're gonna see what goes on, and I think Widespread Panic…what they're doing with their record is going to really help. And Big Head Todd, of course. It's such a foregone conclusion with that guy. He's a great musician, great songwriter, sexy as hell, soft spoken. Big Head Todd is going to be huger than all of us.

My favorite of the whole scene is Medeski Martin and Wood. The best rhythm section in the world. That's how I refer to them.

Is there anything you'd like to share in closing?

Popper: Until you figure out how to pay your bills, [a day job's] gonna be your obsession. Before Four, we were half a mil in debt because we'd been going out and getting the biggest sound systems we could. And well, we'd figure out how to pay for it. Once you get to do that, the advantage is you then get to focus on how you want to grow. You asked about the goals of Blues Traveler. I can't see if this is us or not, but something our producer Mike said was, "There are several kinds of bands that take the audience on a journey with them through their records." The Beatles did it. The Beach Boys did it. The Stones did it, and it would be really cool to be that kind of a band. It depends on the material we write. I'm happy to say this record reflects a growth.

Artie Lawrence, the founder of the New School jazz program and a brilliant sax player, really taught Eric Schenkman (Spin Doctors) and myself about playing, and he sort of affected the scene. He's the closest thing to a teacher I've had in terms of playing an instrument. There's something he said, "Before I play, I hope you'll like it. After I play, I hope you'll like it. While I play, I can't care." And while you're playing, you have to just go for it.

This article originally appeared as a cover story in Relix Magazine, Volume 24 #5 (October, 1997).

Copyright © 1999-2004 - Toni Brown

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