John Popper: Visions of a Traveler
I think that’s the band’s duty: to be growing. That’s the real purpose of being in a band. – John Popper
Blues Traveler delivers their first studio album of original material since 2005’s Bastardos! with the emotionally mature, sophisticated sounds of a band perfectly willing to embrace change after two decades of varying degrees of success, transition, and tragedy. North Hollywood Shootout is a sometimes solemn affair, but it is also a work that is clearly centered upon the tastes of frontman and harmonica player, John Popper. Indeed, this is the first Traveler album where the band allowed Popper to give free rein to his muse, and he succeeded, although he wasn’t always sure how that position would shape the songs. Luckily for him and the band, the songs carry that classic Traveler motif of melodic and robust craftsmanship with an improvisatory spirit.
Jambands.com sat down with Popper during a break from a world tour supporting the new album and covered his songwriting process, the maturity of the band, the new directions forged when one is handed the leadership position, and the weight of his travels, including his USO trips to the Middle East in support of the Armed Forces. Popper is a detailed conversationalist, passionate in his beliefs, and a warm-hearted man who knows that he is both talented and fortunate in his chosen field. He can play a mean harp, but that may just be the drop in the well on the surface of the water
PART I Us and Them
Never raise your cane higher than your head – Renoir, My Father, Jean Renoir
RR: I’m enjoying the new album, North Hollywood Shootout. The songs often appear more organized and mature than past efforts.
JP: Well, thanks. The band gave me the chance to be a little more of an autocrat. I think the last record we did, Bastardos! we were still finding ourselves. Pretty much every record, you’re never done so there’s always more to work on. _Bastardos!_because of the new personnel were getting more confidentit started to get to be more of a process of Congress to write a song. There’s always sort of a very equal deliberation. It really started bothering me. The point I wanted to make was that you need to have an ego behind art. I wasn’t a producer, but they gave me director status. What I found out was that it’s a lot harder to do it that way because now, it’s really on you.
What I tried to doI had a real preconceived notion of what I wanted to do in my head, and it wound up sounding very little like that. You’ve got to find what your guys are getting, what they’re responding to, and let them come up with stuff you haven’t come up with, because they’re all great players, and they all have brains in their heads. They have sensibilities so I was just trying to follow those and take more of a directorial attitude.
RR: I could look at your career spanning over 20 years, and make my own judgment call, but where do you think you got that recent surge of confidence where you were able to say, “You knowI think I want to take charge here.”
JP: I think it really is just being able to understand that. You can be frustrated because things aren’t sounding the way you want them to sound, but what are you going to do about it? What is the specific solution to that? And I’m not sure that I found it. I’m not sure that I ever will completely find it. Something Jerry Garcia always said, “If I’m ever satisfied, I’d quit.” There is something to that. The whole reason is to keep trying to reach something that you never quite reach.
I think that it was a point that I was pretty upset and the guys put it to me: “Well, what would you like to do?” I had never really asked myself that question. Soit was a beginning of me sort of thinking, “Well, what actually would I like to do?” That gives you confidence when you actually start having a wish list, or dreaming about what you’d like to do. It’s very vague. You don’t want to nail it down because absolutism will get you far enough to take the leap, but you have to also let it go because it is going to become what it is, especially when you have someone like North Hollywood Shootout producer] Dave Bianco, who we’ve never worked with, and he’s a very talented man. He’s got his own input. Now you’re working with guys you’ve worked with for 21 years, you’re also working with guys you’ve worked with for about a decade, and you’re also working with a guy you’ve never worked with before in your life.
That time, and the pressure of deadlines on us, in that time of our liveseveryone’s going through their own stuffit’s never going to be that exact same record, again. You sort of say, “Here we are to represent what we want to achieve, and all of the attempts that come with that at this time, in 2008.” You let that happen because every album is always a time in your life. If we did Travelers and Thieves, again, it wouldn’t sound that way at all. Once you made the album, it takes on its own life, and it starts to mean to people what it means to them. They’ll make their associations.
RR: You mentioned that you had an image of what North Hollywood Shootout was to become before you began recording, and by the end, it had evolved into something quite different. How did that initial imagery change?
JP: One thing that I had come fresh off of was the Popper Project featuring DJ Logic, and that is where I discovered drum loops. I really love working with them; they’re great jam tools. Brendan [Hill, BT drums and percussion] is very opposed to those. This was the farthest reach he’d come in that. He’s a rock drummer, and rock drummers are veryyou know, like, Marcus Bleeker’s a jazz drummer, and they don’t really care about keeping time. It works very well with them because they’re busy doing fills. Brendan has his own beat, and he’s keeping his own time, and it’s a human’ time, so it’s moving him, and that was a real adjustment for him. We didn’t get nearly as far as I wanted, but what happened
instead was [Brendan] having to speak to that. “This is how I think it should go,” and he had to answer. I would put a challenge out there like loops and then we wouldn’t have to beat it, and, more often than not, we did because this band is really used to not using drum loops. We still had to incorporate them, and incorporate the mentality of them.
Another thing that I really wanted a lot of was, you know, I’ve always been sort of a shmaltzier guy than the other guys. I like writing the sad songs. “She Isn’t Mine,” is really just another version of “Alone”the chords are almost identical. It’s that same sort
of sad, wistful song, and I like writing those. The first song, “Forever Owed,” on the new album is a great example of all these things moving in ways that aren’t normally Blues Traveler because we start with a drum loop, a drum loop that the drummer made. It’s Brendan’s drum loop, and we approached it in a very different structure than we normally dothe way things enter, and the way that we have an underlying bottom.
Track 4, “Borrowed Time,” is another example of something very un-us because it’s really sparse rhythmically. “How You Remember It” is a song that Chan [Kinchla] wrote, and that’s something that the band has. I was thinking of that, toothat sort of Zeppelin quality that the band has in spadesand we didn’t do too much of that. It’s because I think we were trying to do something different, we sort of got carried away in that, but I also was being the autocrat, and that’s what really interested me. So Track 4, “Borrowed Time,” was a song that I wrote last year. It was sad and something I wanted. I’m a big Tom Waits fan, and I’ll never be able to do a song like Tom Waits, but I’d want that stark no-way-to-_not_-face-it kind of sad song. I’m getting closer to that. Really the way that the guys identified with the song, too, was different for all of us from what we normally do.
I think that’s the band’s duty: to be growing. That’s the real purpose of being in a band. I’m happy that we’ve been doing this for 21 years, but I don’t want to be in a band where we have to continually and forever only play things that people expect of us. The older you get, the harder that gets because the more expectations you heap, if you’re lucky. That’s the thing about “Run-Around” and “Hook.” I love those songs because they paid for my house, but I don’t want to just play those. That being said, I’ll always play them because it’s 6 minutes out of my life. People really want to hear them, and I like making people happy, but I think that I would be remiss in my obligation as a performer if I didn’t try to see what’s beyond that. We certainly have 12 years after those songs came out, and there’s a whole new lineup of guys.
I love “Reach Me” off of Bridge. There are a lot of songs I’ve loved since Bobby died that are very different than what the expectations are. [Author’s Note: original BT bass guitarist, Bobby Sheehan died at home on August 20, 1999 in New Orleans, Louisiana.] What happens, at least in my experience, is that the more we get out and play, people like our band now, and they tend to incorporate the old memory with the newer memory. The idea is that that’s us doing our job. Our definition of Blues Traveler will always change year to year, as we get older. It’s always going to mean something different.
I don’t tell people what songs are about because they assign a meaning to the songs. “Dude, I listened to “Run-Around” when I was in high school,” so it means high school things to them, and that song will always remind them of a time when it pertained in a way that they chose. I think that the perception of the band is the same way.
PART II Wearing the Inside Out
puzzles blocks wirespieces that finally fitinto some order – “one for old snaggle-tooth” from Run with the Hunted, Charles Bukowski
RR: You mentioned a critical aspect about the importance of the listener. What I’ve always liked about Blues Traveler is the same thing I like about some of the great classic rock bands from the 1970s. Each album has a different color, texture, and formeach with their own personality, including North Hollywood Shootout.
JP: You used the key word: “personality.” Each record has its own personality, its own identity. It was Mike Barbiero who told me that: “Really great bands take their audiences on a journey.” You look at the Beach Boys, or the Beatleseach album wasyou never knew what they were going to do next. I think being a lead harp player, you are expecting that. We sort of approach the songs with as little as that as possible, and it starts to crawl back in. Yeah, I want to use the harmonica in different ways, but I think the most important thing of any record is the songwritingthe melody, and the songs. You can hear us stretch out on a song like “Amber Awaits” off Bastardos! It’s a pretty straightforward song on the album, but when we play it live, I can play a nice harp solo and do a counter-rhythm to what Chan’s doing, and I can have fun with that all day. Without the actual melodic structure, and without the actual personality of the song to start with, we’re playing off of nothing. Each song has to have its own character, and albums get character that way.
RR: That’s a great example because I saw Blues Traveler back in April at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the band played a segued-sequence of “Amber Awaits>Love & Greed>The Mountains Win Again” that was pretty powerful because the songs had that melodic and fluid structure.
JP: Well, thanks. Off of Save His Soul, we did “Go Outside and Drive,” and that song is probably 3 minutes, but we haven’t played it live in a while because it’s about 25 minutes! (laughter) And then, all of these parts get written inwe start going into “Blister in the Sun,” do a little “Low Rider,” and the song becomes its own tradition.
God, I think about the traditions we’ve left behind. We used to have the Wobbling Surfer dance that we do on the song “So It Goes.” The tradition was that the crew would come out, and dance this stupid dance in their underwear. We had to stop doing it because we can’t guarantee that the crew wears underwear. (laughter) We don’t play the song. Instead of just bagging that tradition, we just bagged the song.
RR: How has the scene that you helped create changed over the last 15 years or so?
JP: It’s really hard to see that scene when you’re in it. I didn’t see the scene that we created back then, either.
RR: Like back in the days of the H.O.R.D.E. festival, or your time at Wetlands?
JP: Yeah, I was just downstairs waiting for a fax, and I was looking at all of these old H.O.R.D.E. posters, and trying to figure out the order of things. When did the Black Crowes tour with us? When did Dave Matthews tour with us? It was out of order of when I remembered, and I was trying to remember those days, and it was just this huge clusterfuck of stuff.
You were endlessly busy, and you were always trying to make what was right in front of you good. You didn’t knowyou kind of, in a way, got used to it being every year. It’s like a civil service job, or something. “Well, it’s that time of year.” What’s weird is that each one of those years was a huge event that a lot of people don’t get even once, and I was counting on it like it was regular, and that’s a really weird way to look at that.
I look at the scene now, and yeah21 years we’ve been playingand I don’t quite know how we did it year after year. I still don’t. That’s the thingI look at this album, and I’m thinking: “O.K.this album will allow us to tour because we’ll have an excuse to tour. We’ll go to Australia, maybe.” The album gets good in a specific way, and somebody likes it, and we start capitalizing on that, and the opportunities present themselves. So I think I’ve been looking at like, if you use chess terms, I was using tactics rather than strategy. Our overall strategy is to survive on our tactics. I think that’s the way you live your life. You see what comes. We’ve been really lucky that this career has had a personality of its owncertainly a life of its own.
RR: Many young musicians are only interested in having fun while making music, and you mentioned making what was presented right in front of you in that moment something good to be remembered. Is the reason why you have this long career, and the ability to establish different personalities that need to feed the ego so you are at your absolute best at any particular moment?
JP: Yeah, absolutelyas best as we can be. The thing is you can’t affect what’s coming; you can’t affect what’s happened; you can only affect what’s happening now. And so, that is where the rubber meets the roadin the present. You can have all the dreams that you want, but when they actually come to fruition, they’re different. They’ve changed by other people’s dreams helping your dreams working in tandem. Those dreams are usually bigger than the ones you’d have by yourself. Usually, they accomplish more, and mean more, and so, you don’t know how your mind will be changed by the people you work with, or the things that influence you until you get there. There is, I guess, sort of implied
faith that we’re going to be moved at the moment, that it will be good when we get there.
I guessin answer to something you were asking me earlierwhere do I get the confidence now? I think us getting older has something to do with it because I use the analogy all the time about walk down and fuck em all. You knowthe calf and the bull [“An old bull and a young bull are on a hill overlooking a field of cows. The young bull says, Let’s run down and fuck one of those cows,’ to which the older bull replies, No, let's walk down there and fuck them all.’”]. When you get older, there’s a confidence about taking your time, being deliberate, and just having that faith that when you get there, and you do it, it’ll be good. I think that we’ve relied on that more than most people. At least that’s the thing I’m proud of us about, and we’ve been able to do. I think that faith is really the keythe belief that you’re doing something worthwhile, that you’re working with people that you believe in, and the songs. You can have an idea, but no single idea is more important than the fact that you believe in your ideas. That makes them all valuable.
I used to never get any sleep because I’d be drifting off, and I’d hear this great song idea in my head, and just like in all the stories, you have to get out of bed and write it down. I learned that if I go to sleep, the next day I’ll write something similar. It might not be exactly the same, but it’ll be about as good. Instead of hitting that one home run that goes forever, you oughta hit consistent triples, or home runs, which are small ones. You don’t need to have that one perfect song because it never comes perfect. It’s always adjusted; it’s always reacted to by other people, and that’s a good thing. You want that interaction with other people. When I first wrote “Run-Around,” it was a really slow ballad. That’s me loving that ballad thing, loving the schmaltzy stuff, but also being smart enough to have friends, or people I’m working with to say, “That’s not quite right.” I always feel like I have part of the answer, and it’s when it is reacted to, and bounced off of people, that’s when it really starts to come to the full answer I was looking for.
PART III Coming Back to Life
You knew he was right because of the way he said it and because he said it. – Shane, Jack Shaefer
RR: Last year, Blues Traveler covered “Rag Mama Rag” on the tribute album Endless Highway: The Music of The Band.
JP: Yeah! I heard that in a diner in Amarillo, Texas at 3 in the morning. I was eating, and: “Hey, waitthat’s us!”
RR: That must be a great feeling. I noticed some of that Band vibe on the track “What Remains” on North Hollywood Shootout.
JP: Thank you.
RR: On a different level, it appeared to have that “road-feel” I alluded to earlier, which extends to the whole album as a “road record,” in an experiential way.
JP: It’s the sparseness of it. I think we were a little afraid like “do we have enough of an album here?” And the artist inside of me said, “Yes, we do.” I believed that we had enough, and eventually, everybody else did. We had two more songs on there that just seemed to belabor the point a little bit. To our astonishment, when we removed those songs, and there was even less on the album, it seemed to stand out more. One song, “The
Landing,” has a calm response to it, and I think they’re servicing it on iTunes, and there’s another one “Alleviate,” which is kind of a Western song, and I might do that on a solo album down the road. We’re releasing the album in Japan, and they want thatsome special little hidden track. The thing is both those songs are good. I, especially, like the little Cowboy song because I’m going to do that some day, but there was something about too much of the same notes hit already, or it just didn’t fit right.
It was so hard to explain, but it was amazing how we were looking at this record, scratching our heads, and we removed some songs, and suddenly it was “yeah, this makes sense.” For the first time, I could listen all the way through to the end of the album, and not get bored once. I actually can’t remember any Blues Traveler albums where I can really say that. There’s always a point in some album where I’m thinking “O.K.this is a song for people who don’t agree with me about songs. This one isn’t really my cup of tea.” This album, again, I got to be the autocrat. I guess I’d be the most likely to feel this way, but I get that feeling from the guys, too.
RR: Blues Traveler went into the studio without a lot of material, and yet there’s a loose, relaxed classic rock album feel to North Hollywood Shootout. I’m wondering how you were able to craft those songs without a great deal of pre-production.
JP: Some of that is a process we’ve been working on. I got to really cultivate this with DJ Logic, but it was the album we did with Don Gehman, Truth Be Told. He taught us this process of going into the studio, and writing as you’re there. It’s expensive. You need to have tapes ready and rolling. You do it on Pro Tools now, so it’s a little cheaper. The thing is you don’t want to sit there and wack off in the studio. You bring some basic ideas, but you really solve the problems there. You kind of get itI want to say60% there, but it might not even need to be half done. It’s just a song idea that you go in, and you solve. I really have to give a lot of credit to Bianco because he was really good at that. I think what I wanted was the band to do that a little more than we did. Bianco was such an asset that we had to use him, but I still think that we reflected ourselves really well, and it’s a process that I want to do again.
I think we only had two months. If we had three months, I think we could have had more, but again, that was the time we had. That deadline sort ofyou feel that in the record, you’re forced to be what you are, and be real naked that way because you don’t have a lot of time. I think something we can do, and we did that with Bastardos! a little bit, is overproduce. I’d love to say that I know how to just pare down, and do it, but I think that necessity plays a role in that. One thing I can do is be honest when I’m playing. But when to stop adding things on? I can be honest, and keep adding honest things until I really like it. Did you ever see that movie The Dewey Cox Story?
RR: Yeah. (laughs) I know what you mean.
JP: He’s got the didgeridoos, and stuff like that? I could totally be that guy.
RR: Let’s talk a little more about how your recording methods with DJ Logic were used on the latest Blues Traveler album.
JP: I took the Don Gehman method. With DJ Logic, we only had maybe a month, and there was no pressure on that album. It was a side project. It was really something we did for beer money, and Relix said, “Hey, make a record.” They gave us some money, and we went in and did it. We had Craig Street, one of the best producers I’ve ever worked with, and he came in, and luckily he had the chops because we just threw a bunch of stuff at him and said, “Make sense out of it.” We just knew that whatever we’d do had a pocket, it would be good, and the songs had enough of a melody that we could make songs out of them. I wanted to take that kind of a really unprepared approach [on North Hollywood Shootout because there was something really honest and pure about the way the songs wound up because they had to be. I think some of that crept in there.
I was determined to not harbor any expectations that were unmovable. I think I was trying to emulate Phil Jackson. He lets his players be them. I think that’s the best way to coach, especially when you have a lineup that we have, Tad is a monster on the bass. He’s got a lot of his own ideas, and Ben [Wilson, keyboards] is no slouch at all. I think the hardest thing for me with Brendan and Chan is that we’ve been working together so long that you kind of expect stuff from each otherthere’s an anticipation that you always try to shake off because I know Chan’s sensibilities, I know Brendan’s sensibilities, and they know mine, and we’re always trying to keep that moving. I think that’s the biggest challenge for us.
RR: You mention Phil Jackson, the coach who has led the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, and it’s almost like you’ve found the Zen in the nature of the songs.
JP: You have to. I think the way that we work, you have to because it’ll run you over if you resist it. Imagine if Phil Jackson had tried to fix Dennis Rodman. (laughter) He wouldn’t have been nearly as effective on the boards.
RR: I always thought that Phil Jackson was the only coach that could have dealt with Rodman at that time in the mid-90s, and made sure he was productive.
JP: That’s true. I think the advantage that Phil doesn’t have that I have is that I’ve grown up with these guys, so I have more insight into the way that they’re thinking than most people do. They also have the same insight into me. Rodman had to revere Jackson as a
coach. The guys can never do that to me. They’ve seen me on acid at a keg party.
PART IV A Great Day for Freedom
And when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season! – Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Stanislaw Lem
RR: “Love Does” serves as a fine example of leaving the song alone, and letting the story unfoldgreat hook, chorus, and a cool, modern R&B sound. I think it fulfills what you were talking about in terms of bringing your years as a band into focus.
JP: Well, that one was about this girl. I broke up with somebody, and this was a friend of hers out in L.A., and we sort of dated, but it wasn’t anything serious. It was really about that moment where you’re waiting for a kiss at the end of the night. And the rest of that, I just wanted to describe the surroundings. I figured I made one point in the bridge, and the rest of it was sort of trying to add some sensory perception to the feelings I was having. As far as the melody goes, that again was the band messing around with a groove, and making it make sense to them. That would represent really great fodder for me to come up with a great melody out of, and then once the melody’s there: “Alright, what’s it about?” I guess it’s our Jack Johnson impression. In that vibe, it made me feel like how I imagine, I guess, how Jack Johnson feels. It just sort of took care of itself that way.
RR: I also heard Dave Matthews, and Peter Gabriel if he wanted to have fun again, and get away from the serious business of his daily existence.
JP: (laughs) Peter Gabriel, definitely. All the people you mentioned influenced me, but definitely Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” I’ve always wanted to write that song, and I keep trying to write that song.
RR: “Orange in the Sun” is definitely something Peter Gabriel couldn’t have written that you wrote, but it’s another excellent track.
JP: “Orange in the Sun” was written a long time ago, two years ago, when I got a strum stickyou know, those little three-stringed things. You tune it like a banjo, and I found this one little [sings] _glingidy-gling-da-gling-gling-da nuh-glingidy-nuh nuh nah_and “Waitisn’t that a Kenny Rogers song?” _nuh-nuh-nah-nah_it is, it’s somewhere in there, and then I came up with [sings] dee-duh-duh-duh-dah-dah-dah-dah-duh-duh. It was all my knowledge of banjo tuning on three strings. I brought it to the rehearsal, and the guys said, “What are you doing with this strum stick?” I played it, and that’s the thingI was able to hear the band filling that out. What they heard was this strum stick. But as they started to play it, they started to hear what I was hearing.
It was just a very light song. Chan was talking about trying to write a song for his kids, and that was kind of where the lyrical content came from. It kind of reminds me a little of my Golden Retriever. She’d get scared when there were thunderstorms. It was kind of
like what I’d say to her if she were my kid. This was years ago. My Golden Retriever has, God, she’s been dead for fifteen years, and it was about holding her until the morning, and it’ll be all right, and I just leapt into that imagery of the orange and the sun. That’s the thing. You get [sings] la-de-duh-duh-dah-la-duh-duh-dah, and you’re trying to figure out what phrase isn’t going to interfere with that melody. As you do that, you start finding things that pertain. In my book, most of the time, I think the words come last, and the melodic phrases come first, so I’m trying to figure out what the song’s about all the way through it.
Occasionally, you will come up with some really great words that just cut glass, and those words tend to fill melodies really easily, or they sort of dictate their own melodies. Language has a music to it, so if you have the right three words, they’ll tell you how the melody is going to go. I guess the way we write melodies, there is a rhythmic phrasing first because harmonically you can kind of take anything anywhere you want.
Iambic pentameterdepending on the wordswill really tell you how the song is going to go. “The Yellow Rose of Texas” [Popper sings the melody of the song twice in two different melodic structures]a lot of that is dependant on your narrative of what you’re saying. [Popper sings half of the full melody of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”]means that you’re not done; it means that you’ve said half of the phrase. [Popper sings the first half of the melody] and it needs that [sings the second half].
This is kind of old Songwriting 101, but you know that when you wind up on a 5, you’re going to do it again, repeat a phrase like that, and wind up back on a 1, and then you can take a 12-bar blues, which is generally three statements. I had this great music teacher who broke it down like thistake any situation“Honey, I’m gonna take the trash out; I’ll be right back.” And she goes, “What?” And you have to repeat yourself: “Honey, I’m taking the trash out; I’ll be right back.” There’s a little more frustration in having to repeat yourself. She says, “I didn’t hear you.” And you go, “_Look_I’m taking the trash outside; I don’t like it, but I’ve gotta take it out.” So, there’s a third phrase that’s different than the other two. That’s basically how a 12-bar blues is: “I woke up this morning, and I was feeling no pain_I said_, I woke up this morning, and I was feeling no pain_I woke up_ this morning, and I don’t ever want to go back to sleep, again.” The frustration of having to say it again builds to a conclusion, and that’s basically how a lot of 12-bar blues narratives work.
These things are always open to having these rules broken. That’s the great thing about my job. It’s not surgery where if you want to do something different, somebody dies. “Today, I think I’ll just start right in on the brain with no anesthesia.” (laughter) “I want to be edgy today.” You can’t be an edgy surgeon.
PART V The Great Gig in the Sky *Epiphanies*the sudden disclosureof the inner meaning of a scenesometimes lyrical – Selected Letters of James Joyce, edited by Richard Ellman
RR: You’re one of the foremost harmonica players in the world…
JP: That’s weird, huh?
RR: But you are. How do you remain passionate about that instrument, and where is its place in your music today? Does it depend on the circumstance?
JP: It’s almost a subconscious thing with me, now. Really when I’m home, I very rarely grab the harp, and just play. I need something to react to. It’s like being really thirsty, and drinking some really cold water. When I play, it’s like a really good kiss. I sort of shut off and respond. I’ve already played every note to impress me; I’m duly impressed with myself. In order for me to play something with some passion, or some truth to it, I have to be out in the world, and talking to the world with it. I leapt into the ability of being really, really expressive with something, and so that’s always going to be addicting and fun and satisfying, but what I guess I get into more is “what is it that I’m saying?” So I need to go out and hear a kickin’ band, and then play with them.
And, you know, it’s fun to have some chops that people don’t know how I dolike I have a little niche. I think it’s one of those things where the more you think about, the more you’ll fuck it up. When I’m on stage playing, it’s like you go to sleep, but you’re not asleep. As soon as you say, “Here I go, I’m playing a note,” that’s when you’re going to fuck that note up. The best way to send it off is to relinquish control of it. You have to believe it exists on its own, and let it come out of you.
I always feel like I’m channeling something that isn’t me, through me. The notes were there before I got there; I’m the one who heard it. I don’t know. (laughs) I guess the best answer I have for you is that I’m not really sure.
RR: That’s perfect because that also leads into my thoughts about Blues Traveler. At this point, is the band itself following the same collective approach?
JP: Oh, I think so. I think there are subliminal pockets and relations, and part of it is just us knowing each other really well, and playing every day. The other part is that we’re all pretty creative musicians. And, yeah, I think sometimes we’ll ruin something by talking about it. I guess there’s an instinct you get when you’re playing in a band about improvisation, and a sense of song structure that leaks into your improvising, and your non-improvising, and your writing.
RR: And interaction with your audiences, as well. You’ve been playing songs from the new album at gigs throughout the summer. What has been the response?
JP: Oh, yeah. They’ve been liking them.
RR: Does that allow even more freedom for the band?
JP: Yeah. It makes us terrified to try new things. (laughter) You get a sense of a show of what works, where the songs need to go, and all that.
RR: Which segues will work?
JP: Right. That’s one thing I’m really determined about, and the guys count on me for thatwe’re going to do something different. We’ve got to keep doing new songs. That being said, I’ve got to do “Orange in the Sun,” and there’s so many freakin’ lyrics on that thing. I don’t know how I’m going to remember them all, but a deal’s a deal. I want to do “What Remains,” and they’re terrified of that because it’s such a ballad. My attitude to that is that we can be good ballad players. I don’t want to fear any kind of music. I want to do as rockin’ a song as I can, I want to do as soft a song as I can, and everything in between. We will do “Orange in the Sun,” and every single one we can make work live. I don’t know about “The Queen of Sarajevo,” but, eventually, we’ll get around to it.
RR: You mentioned Tom Waits earlier in our conversation. The final track on North Hollywood Shootout, “Free Willis (Ruminations from Behind Uncle Bob’s Machine Shop),” is sort of a Tom Waits riff from a completely different angle, and features Bruce Willis on vocals and harmonica.
JP: Oh, yeah! The idea I had was more of a beatnik thing, a jazz thing, but that’s not the pocket the band wanted to do. I think that was our best interaction with drum loops, too. We just gave the tape to Bruce, and he came in, and he talked about some things, and I said one thing we can all bond on as well as being from New Jersey was that Jersey vibetell some legends. We just started talking about stuff, and he kind of became that character, and just riffed. Dave Bianco patched it all together, and it was just so fun.
RR: Yeahgreat groove, too. I imagined Tom Waits sitting in with Blues Traveler.
JP: (laughs) Cool. You know what? You just said something we should doget Tom Waits to play with Blues Traveler. That was the most direct-to-the-DJ Logic-experience that I had where you just sort of let things fly from the pocket. When you’re listening, you’re thinking, “Is that Bruce Willis?” because he has a very famous voice, and what’s he doing there? It’s just kind of surreal, and I love that.
RR: Is the plan to tour for a while, and get Blues Traveler to the next level?
JP: Well, we’re going to be at whatever level we’re going to be at, the maximum level of where we are. We’re in a realm where not many bands have done what we’ve done, and so we’re not too hung up on what we should be doing. We like having houses and money and a living (laughs), so basically, yeah, that’s one reason to tour. I think at this point in our lives, a record is an excuse to tour, a flag to tour under, but the fact that this album is being received well, the dreams are always there. If we could have this thing succeed on
radio, but also, just to have it be used well. I would love it if a song was used in a movie really well. Do I want people to be singing it every day in their heads in their showers? Have little teenaged-girls throwing their shirts at us? Of course, as many as you got.
That’s the thing you can never count on, so, yeah, I guess the short answer to your question is “Yes, I want us to be at the highest level we can be, or the next level that we can be. We’re going to tour this until everyone is good and sick of us.”
POSTSCRIPT Sisyphus (or, Bring the Boys Back Home)
Sisyphus must continuously strive to push an enormous boulder up and over the top… – The Odyssey, Homer
RR: I would like to speak to you about your USO trips to the Middle East where you played music for the Armed Forces.
JP: That first song on the album, “Forever Owed,” is about my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was really about this dedication that people that are half my age have. I thought I was idealistic. I thought I had lofty dreams and things like that. These guys live their ideals on their sleeves with their lives. The men and women that I visited that were wounded were angry because their friends were up there, and that’s really what they were thinking about. I can talk about that kind of idealism, but I don’t think I’ve ever feltit was absolute awe. I wanted to write some song about them. Again, the melody took over; we had written the melody first, and I wanted it to be about something important, and it just started coming out of me. It’s like being not trained to be an astronaut, but getting to go to the moon. I had some boots on the ground (laughs) in places that I had no right to have my boots on the ground.
We were in a couple of mortar attacks, but I mean I was the safest guy there. If you ever going to go into a combat theatre, I really recommend bringing six cheerleaders with you. Bombs were going off, and chicks were dressed like Wonder Woman everywhereit was like a Danielle Steel novel.
RR: Yeah, right. I think they’d rather have John Popper up there playing, than Randy Ray reading passages from a novel.
JP: If there’s girl cheerleaders, they don’t care who they bring. (laughter) “Yeah! Hey, there’s a woman on stage!”
RR: Seriously, I was moved by your lyric in “Forever Owed”: till I can bring you home, I will never really be free
JP: When we’re playing it, we always make a point of dedicating it to the Armed Forces. I always say that this is for people who have served, or are serving now. Sometimes, you’ll get claps right there because it’s like: “Alright, let’s thank the troops,” but there’s
always this kind of “Uh oh, what are they going to say about the war?” And, what’s weird is whatever side you’re on, when we get to the line “till I can bring you home,” they all suddenly accept the song. They’re like: “Ohhhhh, O.K.” And it’s true. Until you can bring them home, you never are free. I hate to quote Team America: World Police, but they do this sort of Country parody: “Freedom Isn’t Free.” The truth is that you aren’t free because you owe this debt to people, and it’s a real debt, and it’s really true, and you wouldn’t be free without them, and so, because they’re not home yet, you can never really say you are. I find that, in a weird way, comforting because it means I’m part of a family. I’m part of the American family. That’s us, and it’s very moving.
I saw some stuff over thereI had gone for three years, and I was visiting this one guy who was missing his arms and legs talking about his friend didn’t make it, and I just started bawling like a baby. It’s reallyit’s overpowering. The fact that they’re 19 and 20 justahhhgets me every time.
RR: Does it come back full circle to what you said about doing your best in that moment that is right in front of you?
JP: In that moment you are deciding what you care about, what you believe in, and you’re acting accordingly. It’s a powerful thing. That’s the thingI write songs. They were so moved that I was there for two weeks to thank them. I get guys who tell me, “Thanks for coming” and I say, “Thank you for coming.” They’re there for six months to a year with people shootin’ at them. I get to shake a bunch of hands.
That’s something else I noticed about everyone over there. If you aren’t directly in the front lines, there would be somebody in supplies in Turkey saying, “I’m not really up in the front lines,” and I would say, “No, you’re making sure he’s got what he needs.” That’s what it isto give that type of service, you’re never feeling that you’re doing enough. You feel like a drop in a large well, and it takes all the drops.
I’m going to try and see if they can use that song [“Forever Owed”] for something. I’d love it. Yeah, it means a lot to me.
RR: Going back to your allusion about hitting a home run, I think you certainly connected with North Hollywood Shootout.
JP: Thanks! I was swinging hard. A friend of mine told me to just enjoy the swing. When you’re up at batwhatever happensjust be up at bat, and that’s really what I was trying to do the whole time. I was really trying to enjoy the at bat, connect with the ball, and get that cracking sound I want.
RR: It’s considered the hardest thing in sportsconnecting with a pitch at the plate.
JP: Got that right. One time I did “Star-Spangled Banner” at a minor league game for the
Trenton Thunder. Jim Rice was there [MVP outfielder with the Boston Red Sox during the 1970s and 80s], and he tried throwing me a little lob, and I said, “Come ongive me the real stuff,” so he threw me The Heat, and oh my God, before you even think about swinging, it’s by you. It’s just an amazing thing to hit a baseball.
RR: Absolutely, and he was just an outfielder.
JP: Yeah, I know. He didn’t even give me the real Heat. That occurred to me. He said, “O.K.,” and he gave me his impression of The Heat. You’re right. A real pitcher, like a Nomo slider or somethingwhat must that look like? You’ve got to think about swinging probably
RR: when you get out of bed with those guys.
JP: Yeah, probably right when he’s in his wide-up, you have to start to swing. Crazy.
_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com