Blues Traveler: Tales of Gain, Loss and Narnia
Like the young folks in C.S. Lewis' "Tales of Narnia," Blues Traveler has
gone through a door into a whole new world.
The death of original bassist and childhood friend Bobby Sheehan has been
horrific to vocalist-harpist John Popper, guitarist Chan Kinchla
and drummer Brendan Hill, but like the brothers and sisters
who went through the wardrobe, they've remained a tight family with the
addition of Chan's groovin' little brother, Tad, on bass. Along with new keyboardist Ben
Wilson, the band is musically tighter and more dynamic than ever as
heard on "Bridge," Blues Traveler's best fifth and best studio album to date.
By concentrating more on song construction with the help of producer Matt
Wallace, the Princeton-raised jam outfit has topped my previous favorite
tune, "The Hook" with "Pretty Anger," which is dedicated to Johnny Sheehan,
Bobby's brother. There's also "Rage" and "Decision of the Skies," which can
be taken out in concert, and "Back in the Day," "Girl Inside My Head" and
"Just for Me," which winningly were reigned in for radio.
I spoke with the Kinchlas about Blues Traveler's passage into musical
Narnia in the wake of dealing with their gains and losses.
With all the fall out with U Music, how do you feel to still be on
*Chan: We'd been with A&M — pretty much the same staff — for 10 years
since 1989. To be honest, we kind of felt like we were taken for granted over
there. We weren't being pushed by them to do anything different. They just
had a set way that they did things. So when they got bought out and
Interscope took over, as scary as it was, it also was kind of fun for us to
get a whole bunch of new people to work with. I think it helped us approach
things in a different way, which helped us creatively. So in the end,
we were kind of into it.*
*The people at Interscope have been cool so far. They've given us
all the room we've needed to do the work we've wanted. They've been
productively interactive with us in making a good record and coming up with
good ideas for producers. So far, the process has been pretty good.*
_Tad: The Interscope switch was really hard on me (laughs) because I was
so used to our independent deal with Dowdy Smack. Two knucklehead investors to a
How's Dowdy Smack doing?
Tad: It’s on hold right now. The drummer’s in medical school.
I must now ask the inevitable Bobby Sheehan questions. Comment on Pretty
Angry' which is a reaction to Bobby's death.
Chan: That song came about immediately following his death. A lot of the
original lines came right when John was down in New Orleans helping the
Sheehan family clean up the house. He was hanging out with Johnny, (Bobby's)
brother. So it came right after Bobby's death, which tooks us months and
months to put in place on a personal level. We were all at a different place
with our feelings with that — me, Brendan and John — although Tad was close
with Bob. So that song is kind of hard for us to play because it brings us
back to that really hard time. At the same time, I think there's something
really beautiful about it, in that it relates to a lot of things. When we were
making that song, we didn't want it to be a self-serving catharsis just for
ourselves but something that other people could relate to for losses that
they had themselves. I think on the record, it accomplished that. It's a
bitch for us to play live. It's tough to put that in a set. The crowd knows
full well what it's about. If you've got a rockin' show, it's tough to get
in and out of that emotional area. So it's tricky, but I love the way it came
out on the record.
Doing the album, it was the most difficult song for us to get done right.
We wanted it to mean so many things. We really wanted it to be a nice
remembrance. There was just a lot going on during that song, during the
record. It was tortuous, but we finally got it out. It took till the very end
of the studio process before all the parts we were working on finally fit
together. It came out really beautifully. I'm glad you like it.
_Tad: One of John's gifts is his ability to write what he feels. Most
people would be a little insecure to write a song that is such an earnest reaction to what he
felt. I think he really captured a feeling whether anyone could relate how
we're going through it or they could relate to that idea of being really
confused. Anger was something that he was feeling about a friend passing. But
he wrote a song that is really expansive. Other people can relate to it. It
was amazing to see someone accurately put into words a feeling like that.
It's also just a really pretty tune. I like playing the song because without
trying, the swells and stuff occur. It's cool to have five people playing a
song and without discussing anything, swells are just sort of naturally
happening because it's just an emotional tune and we just react to it._
Of course, Bobby's mom has a pivotal role in the history of the band because she
took you all in when you were in New York.
*Chan: Yeah, Liz let us crash at her house and steal her car and her food.
She was there for the early days helping us get it off the ground. She's
doing all right. I just had her over for a barbecue for Father's Day. She's
still part of our circle, which is great.*
What kept you guys from breaking up after Bobby died at the same time John
had to deal with some serious health issues?
Chan: Brendan, John and I got together to go over a bunch of things a
month or so after Bob died. All three of us had gone back and forth, you
know, 'What should we do?' I think when you lose somebody that you're so
close with, that we were all such dear friends with, it makes you appreciate
the friends that remain. We realized we still really care about each other
and love playing together, the three of us. Giving up Blues Traveler, giving
up playing together would almost compound the tragedy of losing Bob. And it
goes beyond the three of us. There's a whole family of people involved, this
great group of people that we have all around the band. To destroy that
seemed to make things even worse though it would have been an easy reaction.
Creating that family in this band had been something Bob had put his life's
effort into. We didn't want to just throw that away.
That being said, we were also very clear that we did not just want to go
on and recreate what we were before. That's first of all, impossible, and
secondly, it wasn't creatively very interesting to us. So we decided to try
and change things up a bit and make it a little different. That involved
getting a keyboard player, which has changed a few things for us. As well as
telling both Tad and Ben when they came aboard that we didn't want them to
play like Bob used to play or how they thought Blues Traveler might want them
to play but to play how they wanted, add their voice to the band. It's kind
of made for a rebirth for us creatively.
*Those are the reasons we decided to go forward. We felt there was still
some stuff to work there.*
Has playing with your brother made the loss of Bobby easier?
*Chan: I don't know if it would have worked with somebody else because Tad
and Bob were friends. Tad has been around from the very beginning. He was
very sensitive to the whole situation. It was very easy to look at him over
there and feel like he understood and was sensitive to what was going on. It
made that transition easier because we were all such good friends and I was
so excited to be playing with him. There was something fun to look forward
to, which helped that transition. I don't know if it would have worked
Tad, how did it feel at first filling Bobby's shoes and how does it compare to how it feels
Tad: There was definitely a transition because these guys have played
together forever. Again, I was witness to the whole birth and creation when
the band started. I know the roots, the stories and what they went through.
The trials of the road. That's a key element in trying to understand a band.
There's a lot of history that's talked about because you spend every day
together. You're traveling every day on planes and buses so a lot of
discussion is about past stuff. Personally, the transition is harder for Ben,
not knowing anything, because I come in with a history with these guys and
know a lot of the history, the characters and the places. So it was OK, I'm
going to be working with these guys now so I went from the relationship I had
and built that.
Playing-wise, I'm coming from playing with a bunch of bands but one
focused band. I'd done some studio stuff, jammed around. Then I come into a
band where they've only written with each other since they started. So it
took a while to figure out what their expectations were and what I should be
doing because I don't think they formulated their idea on what I should be
doing with the basslines either. The most important thing was the album.
The writing process was probably the most integral in developing where
we were going to go. We didn't really have an in-depth discussion. It was
just, 'We have some ideas and you react to that.' Those guys said, 'You play
the way you play. That's what we want you to do.' I wasn't trying to recreate
Bobby's part by any means. Some of the songs that were played a lot had that
original sound, but some of the songs that weren't played that much we're
revisiting now and I'm tweaking things to more my style. We're creating more
of a different feel.
_But the hardest thing was learning how to approach the old songs and the
new songs. Now the new songs have a real comfortable feel because I was a
part of the writing. Right now, the playing's great. Every time we go on
tour, I feel more comfortable because I'm starting to feel where I fit in
more and more. Having started with the album was great because now we're
playing songs that we wrote together, live. You can definitely feel that
onstage. I know that fans are saying, 'Those songs are really tight.'_
Tad's playing seems a bit flashier than Bobby's, whose role was always fairly
understated. Or is it just that the songs are constructed in a way that
forces him to play in that manner?
_Tad: We are different players. I was playing in a three-piece … playing
more rhythm-based, quicker tunes, a lot of funk stuff. I'd build melody lines
in the bass parts. So I bring a lot of that in my playing. I'm always trying
to get a melody line out. I actually think Bobby's bass playing was busier
than mine as far as the style. What Bobby had to do — which I get a little
more freedom from because of Ben — was to create the chord underneath when
Chan and John were soloing. He almost played the role of an organ player and
would always have that bottom chord structure. So he was playing on the
bottom and wasn't able to play up top. Whereas Ben came in the same time as
me. I like playing grooves more, get some space and when I want to, go up top
and have Ben cover it. You don't miss the sound as much. It created a cool
scenario with Ben and me coming in at the same time because we could keep
that element of a rolling bottom, but I could bring some high notes and use
some slapping things. Bobby, I felt, was always a very busy bass player. When
I first came in, I was like, 'Man, this is going to be tough to carry that
much weight on the bottom.' It lent itself to me to have Ben come in at the
same time. Ben and I come from a similar style of playing, blues and funky
stuff. We have some of the same beat feels in our heads. Everyone has their
own internal rhythms. I think Ben and I share some of them, which is good for
us. That's why Ben and I have become good friends because we went through the
same things together._
*Chan: For John, Brendan and I, it's been creatively a blessing to have
some new players to play with. Not in any way taking away from what we were
before and how much fun that was. That's a whole different issue. But to play
with new guys who are both such great players is kind of pushing the three us
in different directions that we probably wouldn't have gone. It's a
challenge but a nice position to be in. That's the most fun right now and
it's just started to happened at the end of this last tour. We've really only
played 50 or 60 shows together with this new unit. We're just starting to
find our identity and our stride as this new group. That only comes about
from playing live shows and getting to know each other on that subconscious
level. We're starting to find out who we are. It's kind of like opening a
door and seeing this whole new world that you can walk into. For all of us,
that's made things a lot of fun right now.*
Let's talk about the new album. Often when bands add new personnel, the results
have to grow on people. With 'Bridge' You seem to have done a fine job of redefining your
sound yet remaining true to what your fans enjoy.
*Chan: For me a lot that came from the new producer, Matt Wallace. He was
really good at making us really work at the songwriting and the arrangements
beyond where we'd ever really taken them before, and really flesh out what
our ideas were. He was like, 'What are we trying to do here? How can we make
this grow? These parts are great, but they're just going back and forth, back
and forth. The song's really not going anywhere. How would you guys do that?'
He came up with little specific ideas himself but was constantly pushing us
to come up with cool ways to make the songs grow and reach out and grab
people, really express themselves to the fullest. To me, it's some of the
best material we've done as far as the craft of writing songs as a whole.
That's a new thing for us. In the past, we relied more on intensity and
attack to achieve those ends. We still have that, but we're also using some
arrangement ideas. Honestly, Tad and Ben were both fairly well-versed and
have a lot of great ideas in that direction and helped us achieve that …
with a lot of fresh ideas that I think helped the songs grow. It was just a
lot work that we put into that.*
Given the size and strength of your live audience, do you have to worry about
Chan: Yeah, of course. Hit singles I don't know. You want songs that are
played on the radio. I'd say that can't be your only concern. If it happens,
great. If not, there's so much other great things you can do with a band that
are more fulfilling for longevity sake that sometimes not having hit singles
is better for you. If you get them, it's kind of an easy route to opening the
door, but with anything easy, it has it's price. That could go either way. A
lot of fans that listen to the radio are not live music fans so they come to
the show and are not necessarily there for all the different music. Sometimes
it's nicer to have just smaller crowds of real music fans.
We're always trying — and we always will try — to get that hit on the
radio, but it can't be your only concern. That being said, I think there's a
lot of songs that could do really well on the radio. So we'll keep putting
them out and see if one catches. And if not, we're really proud of the record
and the way we're playing live. That's our primary focus. But there've been
three that have been floating around: 'Back in the Day,' 'Just for Me' and
'Girl.' We'll get them out there and see if one of them sticks. You never
You guys — or maybe it's just Popper — have really been into a nautical
thing between the last record, 'Straight on Till Morning,' and even more so
on this one with 'All Hands' and 'Decision of the Skies' and even the title
'Bridge' could be construed that way although I'm sure that's more about a
bridge of time. But did Popper trade in his guns for a boat?
Chan: The ship is just a great symbol for the journey we all go through.
When everything was all fucked up in 1999 and 2000 when Bob died and John was
unhealthy and we didn't know if the band was going forward, this ship in a
storm at sea just kind of pops up. You can't help it.
Playing live always has been Blues Traveler's forte, but when you played the
Supper Club, the new songs were presented rather straightforwardly. The
percussive 'All Hands' sounds like it could be taken out live, same with the
Pink Floyd-meets-P-Funk pop of 'Decisions of the Skies.' Are you improvising
more on the new tunes now?
Chan: For sure. The songs you write for a record, you start them out live
pretty true to the record. As you play them and start to flesh them and feel
the sections that are opening up, the songs naturally open up. It's nice not
to write the jam sections in. The jam sections kind of organically evolve.
Certain songs just lend themselves to just opening, but we enjoy playing some
songs really tight in their original format. Some songs really lend
themselves to that. It's nice to go back and forth.
Tad: The new stuff is a little tighter. The songs were created with more
consideration where all the parts fit. The newer songs tend to have
themselves laid out almost a little smoother. We deal with less improvisation
because it's the first tour running through them. We have to get familiar
with them. Second, the older songs lend themselves to improvisation because
these guys have played them so many times. It's a little more open-ended
where they can go. But I think that's all familiarity.
Chan: That's very true. When I know a song, especially the older
material, I know the way it goes so well that every time we play it, I want
to fuck it up in some cool way because it's boring otherwise. We're still
enchanted with arrangements we have. They're still cool and new. We like the
effect the arrangements are having. But once you know them well enough that
the arrangements become kind of rote, then you start fucking them up, and
that's where the jams kind of take off.
Tad: I think everyone still likes the songs as they are, but it'll start
pulling together. There's certain songs written in a way where there's more
consideration to what we can do with it live. That's good. Most bands don't
write songs for any consideration toward how they're going to be live. It's
cool to have the freedom to be with such cool musicians that think, well, we
can take it this way live.
Chan: The nice thing about this new record is that all the songs on it
we've been playing live on tour. In the past, we've written records, half of
the songs make it into our live repertoire, whereas all the new stuff seems
to be fitting well in our live show. How long that will last I don't know,
but right now, they all fit. We can play the whole album throughout the show
and it fits in with what we're doing.
What are your tour plans? You just seem to be playing Red Rocks on the Fourth
and occasional festivals.
Chan: There's a lot of stuff going on. We're out from Red Rocks pretty
much doing festivals till the end of July. Then Aug. 10 through October we're
doing our own show with a bunch of different bands. Some shows with
Spearhead, some with G. Love, all over the country in amphitheaters and arenas.
Do you think the HORDE ever will be resurrected?
Chan: It doesn't look like it. HORDE
was such a great thing, but toward
the end, it started taking up so much of our time in booking it and getting
the bands on it. When you're putting something like that together, your
relationship with other bands gets weird because you have to play politics.
It started to distract from just being in Blues Traveler. With Bob passing
away and John's health being what it was, I think something that's very
important to us now is that we have a more balanced approach to what we do
instead of just trying to do everything and forsake our personal health and
well being. Doing something like HORDE
takes so much time, I just don't think
it's healthy for the band or personally for us to be taking on all that.
There might be Phish phans and Panic fans but there wouldn't be a jam scene
without Blues Traveler because the HORDE really helped to solidify and
centralize the scene. What do you think of the exploding jam scene and at
this point, is Blues Traveler still a jam band?
Chan: Depends on what you call a jam band. We still jam. I think Blues
Traveler is just Blues Traveler. I think all this love for live and
improvisational music is a wonderful. We didn't so much create it as we were
a part of that same tradition back 10, 12 years ago and helped carry it on. I
think it's a sensibility that's been going on for a long time. We're just
carrying that torch along with everybody else. We're just going to be Blues
Traveler and people can put us in whatever category they want to.
How much weight did Popper lose?
Did he have his stomach stapled?
Chan: Yeah, he had a gastric bypass operation.
Is he still losing weight?
Chan: He’s pretty much evened out.
But he's still smoking?
Chan: Yeah, well, I guess he’s got to keep some vice.
How has the weight loss made his playing and singing better?
Chan: Well, mainly he's just got a lot more energy. Carrying around that
much weight was really physically very draining on him. Touring was really
rough on him as was most of life. It's just great to see him unchained. After
shows, he's still up and got plenty of energy as opposed to just collapsing.
It's just a great environment to be in. We're all really healthy and having
fun. It's just a much lighter atmosphere touring and being around the band
than it was in the recent past.
Bob Makin has been writing about Blues Traveler and the jam band scene since
1988. Jam bands can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.