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Published: 1999/09/15
by Bob Makin

John Popper: Keep on Keepin’ On

Lately, John Popper’s life has been as up and down as one of his dynamic harmonica runs.

While his band, Blues Traveler, took a year off, the Princeton native recorded a solo album of well-crafted songs boasting his fine but rarely heard guitar playing.

But two months before the album’s Sept. 7th release and the John Popper Band’s live debut, the 400-pound, 32-year-old rocker underwent an angioplasty, having suffered from chest pains for nearly a year.

The operation, which cleared a blocked artery, has to be followed by a strict diet and a cessation from smoking, two tough nuts to crack in the midst of a fast-paced tour of smoky nightclubs.

Popper also has to deal with the loss of his longtime friend and Blues Traveler bassist, Bobby Sheehan, who died on Aug. 20 in his New Orleans home of causes that still were unknown at press time.

But Popper says the show will go on.

I spoke with him about Sheehan’s death, Blues Traveler’s future, his commitment to good health, his funky, poppy and delightfully weird solo album, “Zygote,” the tour in support of it and his impact on the jam scene as the frontman of Blues Traveler and co-founder of the now defunct HORDE Tour.

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BM: Given what looks like a promising solo career for you, will Blues Traveler continue without Bobby?

JP: The three of us have talked about it, and we would like to try. What we have to do now is see what our options are. The band will never be the same band. It’ll be something different, but that still could have validity.

Bob really drove us. He was the conductor of Blues Traveler. To stop completely is contrary to what Bob would have had us do. We want to continue to play. We’re just going to have to try bass players on and see if there’s something there. See if we can’t continue.

BM: You say he was the conductor. What did he bring to the band?

JP: There’s the musician, then there’s personally. We’ve been such a family, it’s hard to separate the two. He was always challenging me to be better than I could be. It’s so easy for me to play the harmonica so well. I can play the harmonica like nobody can. It’s very easy to sit back on that. He was always pushing me to top myself. He had that effect on people. He really made you be your best.

I’d push him back. We kept challenging each other to keep topping each other. That didn’t drift into his music, but what was great about his music was his ability to use the bass as a segueing tool. I never heard anyone do it the way he did it.

BM: He was so fluid.

JP: Yeah. Out of all of us, he was the most underestimated. A lot of people didn’t appreciate how much work he was doing.

BM: When you listen to the live album and the tapes, you can hear it more than on the studio recordings.

JP: Sadly he didn’t take as much of a role in the studio albums. There was a lot for me to do and there was a lot for (Blues Traveler guitarist) Chan Kinchla to do, making a guitar army. And (drummer) Brendan (Hill) just loved the studio. Bob seemed kind of left out. But before his passing, he was working on his own home studio. He was starting to really get into it. The next Blues Traveler record I was really looking forward to, because Bob had found a way to put some input.

BM: Has his death taken some of the wind out of the sails of your solo record and tour?

JP: Well, it’s not fun to talk about. I’m hurting right now, but I’m going to keep going, because I care about this record. I worked hard on it. People worked hard on it. My friend Crugie (Riccio), who played guitar on this album, has been waiting a long time.

BM: Like the guys in Blues Traveler, he’s a longtime friend from Princeton?

JP: Yeah, he’s somebody I’ve always wanted to work with.

BM: He was in Cycomotogoat?

Yeah. He’s the guy who formed Cycomotogoat. He went to New York two years after we did and put a band together.

BM: So that’s another guy from Princeton.

JP: Oh yeah. There’s something about Princeton. It’s pretty much if you’re not from New Jersey, I can’t play with you.

But the thing is, you know, we’re all destroyed about Bob. Everybody loved Bob. But if I stop, all I’m doing is allowing a senseless death to spread. I just refuse to stop what I have to do.

It’s weird, this whole summer has been very death-oriented. I almost had a heart attack. The last time I saw Bob alive he was chiding me for that. It just makes me want to dig in harder.

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