The Bridge From HORDE to the White House: A Collective Conversation with Blues Traveler
When most music fans hear the name Blues Traveler, the odds are their immediate thoughts turn to their catchy singles “Runaround” and “Hook.” What many people seem to forget is that the band has been making groundbreaking music together since the late 1980’s. Another fact many people probably might not know is that the band was managed in their early days by the legendary Bill Graham, whose philosophy continues to influence the band to this day. Blues Traveler is also responsible for being one of the first bands to bring jam oriented music to the masses, and giving the style credence with in popular culture. Probably their greatest contribution to the jam-band scene was the HORDE tour, which was the first festival to package jam oriented bands from around the country together, and thus helping create the tremendous popularity the scene now enjoys. Evidence of this fact is that almost every current popular jam-band is a veteran of the HORDE tour. The HORDE tour now serves as a model for the many jam-oriented festivals that are springing up all over the country. After a hiatus following the death of original bass player Bobby Sheehan, Blues Traveler is back with a new album last year’s Bridge. The band has spent the last two years on the road, with the type of relentless touring that made them icons on the jam-band scene.
I caught up with the band, (singer/guitarist/and harmonica magician John Popper, guitarist Chan Kinchla, drummer Brandan Hill, bassist Tad Kinchla, and keyboardist Ben Wilson), after their show at Northern Lights, in Clifton Park, N.Y. We discussed the bands sound both past and future. We also discussed the formation of the HORDE festival, the their views of both the jam-band scene, and life in the music business. And finally why the best place to catch a hot jam just might be the White House.
Matthew Shapiro: I would like to start by talking about the title of your latest album Bridge. One could easily view the title as meaning a bridge to the future, since this was your first album featuring a new lineup. But in listening to the album the case can be made that in many ways it is a bridge to the past and your so-called jam-band roots. As the album does not sound as poppy as your last two albums, and contains several long jams. Was this a conscious effort to bring back more of the elements of your first three albums that established you as second wave jam-band pioneers?
John Popper: No, there was of course the relation to Bobby. The original title for the album was to be Bridge Out of Brooklyn, as we used to call Bobby, “Brooklyn Bob”. So in that way yes, it was a bridge to our past. But as far as musically, no there was no formula or conscious effort. What you hear on the album is the band becoming what it would be. We had no idea what was going to happen on the album. It was really all about what could be, and not what once was.
Chan Kinchla: You know it is tough enough just playing; you can’t try to force anything, especially with two new guys in the band. We had to see how Tad and Ben were going to fit in, and what we were going to create together. In many ways we were lucky because these guys jumped right in and wanted to perform right away. Especially Ben, the guy always wants to solo.
JP: The guy can’t solo enough, I’m telling you look at him he’s crazy. Make sure you note that I say this sarcastically though.
MS: Ben is this true?
Ben Wilson: Well yeah, I mean that’s what we’re here for right? That’s what we do.
CK: You see that’s important though. We needed to show that we are a full working unit. The band couldn’t work if we tried to put Ben and Chad to the side, or make them second-class members. These are great musicians, so it is important for us to show that.
MS: A very strong argument can be made that you guys are primarily responsible for ushering in this second wave of jam-bands that are now enjoying tremendous popularity. Especially with the creation of the HORDE tour, which serves as the model for the many jam-oriented festivals, which are all the rage right now. A good example is the Bonaroo festival taking place this weekend, which has nine HORDE alums on the bill. Looking back at that now what were you trying to accomplish then and how do feel the current jam-band scene reflects on that?
JP: We were just trying to pay the bills at the time. What we basically did was just rip off the whole Lollapalooza idea, and they were just stealing the same idea of the mega-festival that has been very popular in Europe for a long time now. You know it just seemed right.
CK: With HORDE it was a real natural combo of bands. Everything made sense for everyone involved. The great thing about HORDE was the interaction between all the bands. That just came naturally, we always had great bands who thought alike. That brought us all together, and made it what it was. I think that’s what the fans really appreciated. They liked seeing talented musicians doing shit together. When you went to HORDE you never knew what you would see, who would be playing with who, or what would happen. That’s why HORDE was really special. If there is to be any legacy, what it would be is bands pulling together and interacting.
JP: You know the radio sponsored festivals tried to run with that idea and ended up totally ruining it. Where HORDE was a natural combo of bands, these radio shows had no idea of cohesion in terms of what bands to put on a bill together. It was not about the music, it was done for totally different reasons. It killed it. People then tried to do the same thing with HORDE, and then it became just one giant headache. That’s why we had to end it. Unfortunately in many ways HORDE became a means to an end.
MS: So in order for a festival to work there would need to be both cohesion and interaction?
CK: Definitely. You know you give us credit for ushering in a whole scene. I don’t think we can take credit for that. Rock n Roll is always going to be organic. There is always going to be people trying to make a living doing it. It only makes sense for them to come together in that way. You call it the Jam-band scene. I think it’s hard to call it a scene at all. I don’t think anyone working in a band would want to be labeled as in a certain scene. That uniformity is unfair to everyone involved. Bands are too different. I mean let’s take a look at some of the bands we have played with. You have bands like Lake Trout or Spearhead who have both opened for us this year. They’re radically different from each other and from us. Then compare them to two other bands we’ve played with like G. Love and the Smashing Pumpkins. There is no uniformity there at all. There is hardly a common thread between all of us except that we all love playing live music. That’s what its all about right there. That love for just playing.
MS: Since you started touring again, two years ago I have noticed that your sets have contained a lot of songs off your third album Save His Soul, which like Bridge was released following a period of great adversity to the band. Although the albums have quite a different sound from each other, do you feel there is a thematic link between the two, and is that why so many Save His Soul songs have been in such heavy rotation?
JP: Well yes, there is definitely a strong thematic link there, but I think that link runs through all our albums. There’s always going to be adversity, especially when you’re in a band. I mean it’s not always going to be the type of life and death adversity that came before those two albums, but the adversity is always going to be there. This is a dirty business we’re in. I can tell you stories about stuff that has happened in just the last three years that would be enough to make us want to just break up the band and say that’s it. But you can’t do that. With great adversity comes great revelations, and that’s the thing that has made us not only stronger individuals, but it has made us a much better band.
MS: Along those lines in looking at some of your more recent set lists I’ve noticed new songs popping up with titles that sound pretty dark such as, “Stumble and Fall,” “Sweet and Broken,” and “This Ache.” Do you feel these are darker songs? If so, why?
JP: Oh yeah, you heard those songs tonight, they may not sound dark, but they definitely have dark undertones to them. That’s natural though, old age makes you darker, that’s a fact. As you go through life you just experience more, and some of that’s going to be bad. The bad stuff adds up though, especially as you start losing more friends, and lose some of the things that you once had. Going through life you’re going to have to stave off a great deal of fear. Songwriting is my vehicle for doing that though, and that’s why some of the stuff sounds darker. Again dealing with this business, its going to make you jaded to some extent. It’s so easy to lose your innocence.
CK: You can however hold on to some part of that innocence. You have to remember why you started doing this in the first place.
JP: Yes definitely The need to play, that keeps you innocent. At least to some extent.
MS: I want to ask you a little about Tad and Ben, the newest members in the band. What dynamics have they brought to the table?
CK: These guys bring a lot to the band. They have let us evolve into something else. Again when we decided to keep going after Booby died, we knew we couldn’t try to recapture or try to do the same thing. It would be a joke. We needed to take the next step. It’s a progression to try new things and evolve.
MS: You guys were extremely tight as a quartet, how difficult was it adding new pieces to what was a well defined puzzle?
CK: Of course that was hard, but again these guys made it easier. They showed less fear then we did in some ways. In some ways it was probably harder for Tad. He also had a very close relationship with Bobby. We had to make it known that we weren’t just trying to replace Bobby. That would be impossible, nobody could replace Bobby. It obviously helped that Tad, has been watching us play since the beginning, he knows the band as well as anyone. Also Tad’s style of playing is totally different than Bobby’s style. Right there that opened up new doors for us to explore. Ben’s added layer just pushed us farther along that new path. He came in and went right to work.
BW: It was somewhat difficult when I first joined. You feel the need to prove yourself right of the bat. But these guys are such open musicians, I guess that’s from having so many different people sit in them in the past. They find ways to open things up and make it work. Once I realized that, I got comfortable and just started doing my thing.
JP: And now we can’t stop him. The other thing that Ben has brought to the table is good sense. I don’t need my mom around if Ben’s here. He’s become our tour angel.
MS: We’ve touched on your interactions with other musicians both on and off stage. Ideally if you could play with anyone at this point who would it be?
JP: Prince. Ideally I’d love to play with Zappa, and of course Led Zeppelin.
MS: Who was the biggest thrill to play with?
JP: Oh definitely Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton, at the White House.
MS: The White House?
JP: Listen you have no idea what goes on in the White HouseTo think that just might be the best place to see a good jam.