John Popper: A Traveler and a Troubadour
The Blues Traveler frontman/vocalist/harmonica player’s career took a fascinating path back to his origins upon the release of the debut album by John Popper and the Duskray Troubadours on 429 Records earlier this month. The self-titled album is a mixture of soul, sharp pop, updated blues motifs, acoustic bliss, and an uncanny desire to embrace the melodic touchstones of a song. The quintet also features a partnership with Jono Manson, a member of the Worms whom, along with Popper, was a seminal figure of the burgeoning New York club scene in the 1980s. The Duskray Troubadours focus Popper’s songcraft while giving him a co-songwriting avenue outside of his comfort zone.
Jambands.com caught up with Popper in Austin at the recent SXSW festival where he was a performer, guest musician, and public speaker. Popper is an energetic and exploratory conversationalist, while also maintaining an air of dignified wisdom and humility that comes from years of “sitting on my ass on a tour bus” traversing the land in a career which certainly appears to have as much legs as it ever did in 2011. Indeed, the Blues Traveler, solo artist, and, now, Duskray Troubadour touches upon the debut album, plans for the upcoming 25th anniversary of his main band, and the possibility of a 20th anniversary H.O.R.D.E. festival perhaps destined to occur in the summer of 2012.
RR: What struck me immediately about the self-titled debut album is that it sounded like the band had been playing together for many years.
JP: I think part of that is because we’ve known each other for a long time. We trust each other really well that has led to a familiarity. All of these musicians are really strong and we can trust each other really easily.
RR: One relationship goes back a pretty long time—songwriter/guitarist/producer Jono Manson, who you’ve known for about 30 years, right?
JP: Pretty much—25, 26 years, yeah. He has always been a friend over the years, but we met when I first came to New York and Blues Traveler was still in high school. I was just going to The New School for Social Research for my college, and I was coming back to New Jersey on the weekends to keep the band going. They would come to the city whenever they could get away. One of the things to do in the city was that I would go to jam sessions at Abilene’s Blues Bar. They had an open mike night on Tuesdays; that was on 21st and 2nd Ave. I met Joan Osborne there, and she was putting a band together, and the bass player in her band was Jerry Dugger and he was in a band with Jono Manson. They were playing down at Nightingale’s bar, and Joan said, “You have to go see Jono Manson,” and she talked me into going down and seeing him.
[Jono] was playing in this band called The Worms and he was the king of the scene. But, because of the cabaret law, they couldn’t use their horn section, so the consolidated trio version of that was called the Mighty Sweetones. That was when I saw Jono do his thing. He was like an older brother, and took us under his wing. He’s been a mentor ever since. He’s great at teaching people about music, a great communicator about music.
RR: Have you discussed doing a project together over the years with Jono?
JP: Yeah. We’ve always been looking for a time to do something together. It’s funny that it took this long to get that done.
RR: The work does feel effortless, the songs are well-written, and the band is tight. How did you finally manage to gather all of these elements, sit down, and amass the players and material for the album?
JP: Steve Lindsay [bassist] and Mark Clark [drummer] have been playing with Jono forever. That was a no-brainer when gathering players. Kevin Trainer [guitar] lives in Denver now, so he was near by, but he’s been playing in the Surreal McCoys, a band that was so hysterically funny and talented back in the old days. We’d go and see them at the Rodeo Bar [27th and 3rd Ave in New York City], and he’s just one of my favorite guitar players of all time. He’s got such personality in his playing. From the album, he’s such a great soloist, and I’m a great soloist, so it was fun to be the violinist to Kevin’s viola part under me. It really gives me a great support that way, so I was really excited that he was available. He’s actually got a real job, so he can’t go on the road with us, except for when we play in Denver. I’ve heard he’s going to play some dates with us on the East Coast, and wherever he can.
Aaron Beavers [guitarist]—that is where I felt pretty good about myself; getting his sound with Jono’s sound because they both have a rootsy sound, but one is more a Texas sound [Beavers] and one is more a New York sound, but now Santa Fe sound [Manson]. Aaron has been playing in this band Sherman, who have been opening for Blues Traveler on the road. He’s got this great enthusiasm and he writes songs in a way that I really knew would add a great energy to this. The combination really made it powerful.
RR: How important was it that you recorded the album in New Mexico, and how did that particular vibe add to the overall atmosphere on the tracks?
JP: Well, first of all, the price was right for this place. I think it gave us the opportunity to really hunker down and make it sort of “camping out” almost because we were isolated from everybody. It’s such a beautiful atmosphere and we could work on it day and night. It’s just us up there, and it made it a pure experience. It is a beautiful part of the country, and it lent itself to the music we were doing. Santa Fe is a really artistic place. You can really focus on what it is you’re trying to do, and not worry about distractions.
RR: How much material was brought to those month-long sessions?
JP: We would have sketches of material, but we all knew we were going to have to figure it out in the studio, so we weren’t really trying to nail anything down. That being said, there were some songs that were around for a while. For me, it was about collaborating
writing-wise. There were some songs like “A Lot Like You” that had been written by George Breakfast, another friend of ours from the old days and a really great songwriter. I was excited just to be the vocalist on that. There are other songs that I had nothing to do with the writing of, and it was just fun to just sing those, too. But a lot of songs were collaborative right up until we laid them down. Over the years, you develop a faith that when you are laying it down, that’s when you’re really going to finish the writing.