Viva Los Bastardos: Chan Kinchla and BT 2.0
Blues Traveler’s latest release, Bastardos!, may be just what you’ve been looking for from the band. It definitely fits the bill for guitarist Chan Kinchla who sees the album as the coalescing of the band’s attention to songcraft and desire to take brief explorations into different sonic territories while BT 2.0 finally unites on a creative level.
It took a few years of touring and four releases – two studio, two live – for this to happen. Of course, through it all the Blues Traveler dramatic roller coaster persevered through the passing of bassist Bobby Sheehan and the addition of two members, including Kinchla’s brother Tad on bass.
With the new album and current tour, it feels like a fresh start of sorts for the guitarist who views the band’s commitment to trying out new things and willingness to prove it each night onstage as a means to connecting with those who have stuck around while re-establishing itself among jamband fans who may have taken the group and its position in the community for granted.
JPG: As I was listening to Bastardos! I looked at the album’s press release, and it’s first word really struck me. “Selfishness.” Usually you don’t hear that description in regards to a band. Tell me about the idea behind this album being about doing it for yourselves.
CK: Musically, especially with the new guys, it takes a while for bands, especially for improvisational bands…Our philosophy has always been a band should be a very equal combination of the different personalities in the band and that’s what we always loved to do with Bob [Sheehan] and what we intend upon doing with the new guys. But that doesn’t come overnight. We were really wrestling and just discovering how we all fit in together, kind of like trying to put a puzzle together…or maybe more like doing a Rubik’s Cube.
We were down in Austin finishing up Bastardos!, doing some more songwriting where we really felt like we had come together as a band and we really wanted to go in and do a project that was all about this group, that was all about what we wanted to put in it, make an album completely with warts and all, as eccentric and eclectic and weird as we are and just make our own statement and worry about pleasing ourselves first and foremost and not trying to please anyone else from managers to producers to fans to whomever. That was a driving mentality. It feeds into the Austin independence streak there that we love so much.
JPG: Having your brother along during this process, does it make it more enjoyable or does it make it harder and more complicated at some point because the band’s trying to re-establish its creative identity?
CK: Well it’s always good for the band to have a little tension. If it’s all way too happy, I don’t know… My brother and I get along great. We’re also very different. But we’ve also been kind of pinching ourselves this whole time, just with the opportunity to spend so much time together. We don’t really talk about it. We laugh about it. We say we’ll have something to talk about when we’re 70 years old sitting on the porch. So, that’s been really cool.
He’s his own person. The friction between him and I is kind of a good thing. It drives the band a little bit. At the same time, it’s just a joy to be able to play with your brother. We grew up playing music together. We learned totally separately. We had our own paths to learn our instruments. But for whatever reason, when we listen to each other playing, I guess it’s just a combination of the same influences and everything, we can really lock in. Very much in a way that Bobby and I could. Came up from the same school of influences. So, it’s a built-in communication that’s there and that’s nice. Next best thing to being Bobby.
JPG: Makes it easier.
CK: Yeah, I think it helps things come together. It’s only been a cool thing. I mean short of having Oteil [Burbridge]. Actually, we played with Oteil early on when we were looking for a bassplayer.
JPG: Well, that worked out for everybody, for Tad with BT and Oteil with The Allman Brothers Band…
CK: At the time he’d just committed to play with the Allman Brothers.
JPG: Did you tell Tad he was second choice?
CK: Tad said, If you fuckers pick anyone else other than me I’ll be furious unless it’s Oteil. Then, you made a good choice.’ Cause Oteil’s one of his idols.
JPG: Looking back at the last two studio albums, how would you asses them? To what extent were the band members still getting comfortable?
CK: We learned something with both of them. The first one we were too scattered. I actually like it for that. It is very much a bridge from the older thing we did to where we’ve evolved to now. So, I like it for that. The last one, we were really focused on the craft of songwriting and arrangements. We were leaning very hard on our producer, Don Gehman, that’s really his forte, to guide us. We had that in mind when we were making it and were parsing a lot of our weirdness out of it. We learned a lot in that process and I enjoyed it, but it was definitely something else.
With this record having [producer Jay Bennett] is a perfect foil because he’s very much a contemporary of ours, someone we’ve known from H.O.R.D.E. days off and on, who we’ve really respected musically. He became more of a sixth member and it gave us the opportunity to concentrate on being as weird as we wanted to be.
JPG: I hope you’re not offended, but all the talk of “weird,” I listened to the new album and it didn’t sound that out there. Maybe it is to you because there are musical directions that are different.
CK: Yeah. It’s what we wanted it to be. To me it sounds weird. I don’t know why. (Slight laugh) There are all kinds of weird noises and sonic things that we did. For me, it feels weird.
JPG: I’ll admit that it probably took at least two listens. The first time, I wouldn’t say I was disappointed, but it didn’t grab me. Then, the second time…
CK: Cool! That’s good to hear. We really wanted to make it an album where it’s not easy to get all the ideas right off the bat. Most of our favorite albums are ones that take awhile to digest and that’s the kind of record we were making. It very much suits Jay Bennett style as well, a lot of weird little surprises and quirks in it that you don’t notice right off the bat.
JPG: Now was that an objective you had before you even hooked up with Jay or after you got together and threw ideas around?
CK: He was good at. That’s his style. We’re very much about letting all the chips fall where they landed with the songwriting, using a lot of the ideas from before. That was always our idea to just make something that works as a whole record, not worry about who it’s for, singles… There’s always going to be singles that come up. Jay has that same mentality, so he had a lot of cool ideas to bring to that same concept.
JPG: Did the folks at Vanguard Records (BT’s new label) hear the album and support this idea or did they sign you before you recorded it and when you handed it in…?
CK: It’s kind of strange cause we started doing some songwriting up in Seattle last Fall. Then, in February we were down in Austin doing more songwriting. There was talk about doing it with Vanguard, but we had a couple different record companies we were talking to.
We realized when we were down there in Austin that we had a really good pace going and we decided we wanted to record it now. So we went ahead, Ben [Wilson] had been emailing back and forth with Jay. So we just flew Jay down on our own, found a studio down there on our own, this funky hidden place up in the hills called The Tree Fort. This guy Jack Rock made all his money in the tech world and bought this big mansion up in the hills and spent just about all his money making the most dope studio up there. Did some creative financing and made the whole record just the five of us, which was a lot of fun. A lot more brain work than we’re used to doing. Brought it to Vanguard and they were stoked. So we went forward with them.
JPG: That brings up this. Vanguard’s it’s your fifth label. To some degree, Interscope Records doesn’t really count because that was when A&M acts went there due to company changes.
CK: You can’t count Artist Direct [Records]. That was kind of a half-hearted relationship. They were trying something and we released a live record just for fun with them, with the idea that we might be doing something else in the future. They kind of imploded as the live record was coming out. The live record was fun to do, but I won’t count them. So, let’s just say three.
JPG: Okay, well since you mentioned that live album (_What You and I Have Been Through_) and then there’s Live on the Rocks, were those releases just something to get out, to give you and fans a sense of progress? Because earlier, you mentioned about the process of everyone making there way to being equal in the band.
CK: The first one we had done a live album with the new band, Tad [Kinchla] and Ben in it. We were touring and we were getting ready to make a studio album, but we hadn’t written songs. So, it was a nice opportunity. We were like, “Let’s just put out a live record just to do it.” And that was very much to have something out live with the two new guys. The Red Rocks one, we played there so long, we had these great recordings and full surround sound of our show at Red Rocks, we just thought it would be cool to put it out with the DVD.
JPG: I want to get back to when you were talking about songwriting, how that was the focus on Truth Be Told and this one you already had the songwriting down so you could bring in the ideas and weirdness. That brings up something I hear many times with jambands, the struggle to put a studio record together. It seems as if Blues Traveler had a grasp of that early on.
CK: I know this true to be true for all of us and especially to be true for John, lyrics and melody and a nice song that commits some kind of feeling has always been really important. I think if you listen to our very first album. Back then we were considered way jamband, though they didn’t have that term yet. We were considered like new Grateful Dead, Neo-Dead I think is the term thrown around back then. But if you listen to that album, it’s very straight songs all the way through. We have our solos and all that. That’s always been really important to us.
I look at bands like the Allman Brothers or Led Zeppelin, those bands are way jam the fuck out, especially live. But, their albums are much tighter and there’s great, great songs. That’s the kind of bands I’ve always loved.
JPG: Speaking of Zeppelin, on “You Can’t Stop Thinking About Me” it reminded me of the Beatles psychedelia meeting Blues Traveler and then running into Led Zeppelin.
CK: It does have a little “Kashmir” in it. It’s probably my fault. I’m the full Zeppelin head in the band from way back. It’s how it comes together.
JPG: Because of being into them and others is that why you think that it wasn’t as hard for you to be comfortable recording in the studio as it seems to be for a number of other jambands. I mean, you look at Phish and it seemed to be a struggle to satisfy themselves in the studio.
CK: I know they were. I know from the very beginning. They definitely were always very much trying to make cool albums. We always enjoyed it. To me the songwriting and making of an album is a completely different form than the live form. You’re using some of the same skills, but making a documentary vs. making a movie. So, we always approach making an album as a wholly different thing than doing a live show, and I don’t know why. I really have no idea why some, I’ve heard a lot of jambands and it seems tough for them to get the song ideas across. The playing’s great and all kinds of cool sonic textures but songs don’t cohere. My only thought is maybe they’re still trying to look at it from a live perspective. I don’t think you can do that. Listening to an album is a completely different experience. It’s very much more a quiet contemplative completely aural thing as opposed to a live thing, which has so many other sights, sounds and smells…
JPG: Even physical, if you will.
CK: Completely. There’s a lot great ones as well. I think the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd made great jam albums.
JPG: Talking about jambands and songwriting, at one point Blues Traveler had H.O.R.D.E. going, a top album. You won a Grammy. Everything’s going your way. Was it a real good time or was it complicated time because it seemed that you weren’t happy putting together H.O.R.D.E. year after year and having to be responsible?
CK: When we got huge commercial success, we were surprised, as I’m sure most people were. We had always put singles out. Kind of in the back of our heads, That’d be great if one of these broke.’ Getting all that, that whole ride with the single out was a ball; just for experience sake doing the Academy Awards and doing MTV Movie awards and all that silly ass stuff. It’s nothing I really aspire to. It doesn’t soul satisfy me in any way, but it was fun. Making a shitload of money for a brief while was fun too.
At the same time, it becomes a bigger deal. It was a lot easier looking back cause the years previous we’d had the whole John wheelchair tour after “Save His Soul” where John broke his leg. We had to tour with him in a wheelchair. Those times fuckin’ sucked, too. Seems like we’re star crossed. It’s up and it’s down. I think almost any rock and roll band would feel that with all the travel. But, it was a complicated time and I think H.O.R.D.E. got to be way bigger than we wanted it to be. We were just knuckleheads trying to deal with our songwriting and the success we’d gone through, which is something that you definitely have to digest. And trying to put together H.O.R.D.E., the whole thing, a lot of things needed to go right in order for us to do a good job. So, we definitely collapsed under all that pressure, which I think was almost inevitable.
JPG: You mentioned how you feel Bastardos! is a good representation of the band being united creatively. So, it took a few years to get it together and become Blues Traveler Mach Two.
CK: We always call it BT 2.0. After all, we’re in the computer age.
JPG: I look at H.O.R.D.E. and there’s not a lot mentioned as far as your trailblazing. It seems more like you have to re-establish yourselves. I mean, I saw John join moe. at the 2003 Bonnaroo Music Festival, but I don’t know if you guys just don’t care to do that or haven’t been invited to it other festivals or…
CK: No, we enjoy them thoroughly. For whatever reason, Bonnaroo has not been receptive. I think at some point we’ll inevitably do it. We do just about everything. It goes from our songwriting all the way. It’s sort of our blessing and curse. We straddle all the sides of music as far as our interests and things we’ll get into from doing Red Rocks and Wolf Trap to doing county fairs. We’re asked to do absolutely everything. I think sometimes we get so many scattershot offers, we confuse our fans and lose our focus. We’re always trying to watch that. I think that’s part of the reason we went south with our old manager. We love to do festivals. We were just down at Austin City Limits Festival, which is awesome. We did the ACL show too.
JPG: Because of your success, did it create a backlash?
CK: Oh, I’m sure. I don’t hold that against anyone at all. I’d feel exactly the same way if my favorite…At the time, us, Phish and Widespread were all doing exactly the same kind of thing, building up our fanbase. It was all word of mouth and papers and sending out our mailer. That’s very much a trust between the band and the audience, which is great. I’m a huge music fan and I had my favorite bands. When the Police went really mainstream, it bummed me out totally. So I don’t blame anyone for that. Once it’s everybody’s, it’s not as special. There is some kind of penance to be paid. Nothing’s for free.
JPG: Do you feel that you’ve paid your penance and are coming up in the world again?
CK: I feel like we’ve honestly proven to anyone who wasn’t sure if we were committed to playing music that we are. To me, it’s not proving something to somebody. It’s all of us, the joy of my life. I’m going to be doing it regardless of the environment around me and the band very much feels that way too. Could have been a lot easier to give up if that wasn’t the case. We love playing together, so in a strange way, Bobby passing away, which inspired John to get healthy and then this new band, I’ve been more at peace and enjoying music more the last three or four years than I ever really had the ability to appreciate and enjoy it when we were just tearing it up and driving. Other than it’s always fun your first couple years when you’re just learning, I’ve been really from my soul just having a really nice time with the band. And that’s the most important thing. I think it comes through. I look forward to playing every night.