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Published: 2011/03/24
by Randy Ray

John Popper: A Traveler and a Troubadour

RR: Well, there you go. Let’s cherry pick a few songs. Right off the bat, I was blown away by the Beatles-like quality of the opening track, “Love Has Made It So.”

JP: That was a song where I had a melody that was in my head for a long time. It sort of regenerates in the middle of its cycle, so it was a very annoying thing to write lyrics to; I gave that to Jono as a challenge (laughter) to write lyrics to it, and he actually worked on it with his girlfriend, Caline Welles, and I was really surprised on how well they did on that. It blew me away. He’s just crazy enough to do it. Yeah, I really love the Beatles aspect of it. The surprising thing to me is how different all the other songs are from that particular song. [“Love Has Made It So”] is a bright and optimistic song, and the other ones are kind of mellower. I think everybody in the band has a Beatles reverence, and it was very accurately reflected in that. I was very proud of that song; my contribution to that was the melody. Jono wrote the bridge. Jono’s great at throwing the bridge in. Sometimes, people hire him just for his bridges. It was a really fun thing to do, and the harmonies fall in place there. The harp solo—I knew I wanted to do a Mersey kind of thing, and it fell into place when he got those words in. Aaron tied in the end; I couldn’t figure out how to end the melody, so Aaron figured out how to put the cap on each verse. (laughs)

RR: You touched upon it, but the piece is a great doorway to what comes next on the record in terms of feel.

JP: I wanted to open the record with “What Can I Do For You” because that’s my favorite song. It’s a Jono song. I just love it. To me, that song was what I came to New Mexico to do. That was the thing that I feel Blues Traveler was missing—that sort of subtlety. But it was Stu Fine, off of the record label [429], who really thought of opening with “Love Has Made It So.” Once he did that, I think it really opened the record in a great way, and we all just immediately got it. I think it is a great way to open the record.

RR: “What Can I Do For You” has my favorite vocal on the whole record.

JP: Oh, thank you. Thank you.

RR: Let’s talk about harp solos. My favorite one is on “Bereft.”

JP: Yeah, I think “Bereft” is my favorite harp solo that I’ve done on just about anything. I think part of it is that Kevin is doing a real subtle thing with the guitar. He’s being very slow because I’m filling a lot of space there. There’s a conversation going on. I’m just pouring it all out, but it is still in context of a phrase that Kevin is having with me, and that is really hard to do and it’s a happy accident. I think “Bereft” is one of those blues songs that I never really get to do—a traditional blues song. And that blues song is not quite traditional because we were in Italy, and I was mourning this relationship with a girl I’d broken up with, and we were in the hotel where Percy Shelley died, so there is a creepy ghostly vibe to the place. I was also listening to some Nick Cave at the time. The turnaround struck me more of an Italian blues song. There’s a lot of Italy in that, that sort of European detachment from a real blues song, a real blues progression, which also gave me that extra drama I wanted in the writing of that song. The performance of it—having Kevin there, allowed me to get even more furious because he was so subdued, and there was a contrast that I could work with; it enabled me just the right amount of delay and just the right mood that I feel like I really hit one out of the park and we caught it on tape.

RR: Contrast—great word. There are two songs in a row where it appeared like everyone was playing as one—“All the Way Down” and “Make It Better.” Both had strong pop overtones, but there is also some soul, some folk, and other sonic terrain.

JP: Yeah, you know, I’ve had people say they didn’t know what genre to put the album in. To me, that means I’ve stumbled on my own genre. (laughter) When you don’t know where you belong that means you belong right where you’re supposed to be, and that means you made your own way. I’ve gone through that with Blues Traveler. They didn’t know quite where to put us. Because we had “Blues” in the name Blues Traveler and I was a harmonica player, they would err in that direction. Truthfully, we were our own subcategory. That is what you want to be. It helps when you can be…I think you’re being your most honest when people don’t know where to put you because everyone is an individual. Truthfully, everyone should be their own category in music, but because human nature is what it is, they want to put you next to somebody: “Oh, you’re like this guy.” That’s just how that is. It’s not even a marketing thing; it’s just a human nature thing. They can’t really like you unless they can say “Oh, you’re like this guy.”

Patsy Cline is exactly Patsy Cline, but someone had to say she’s like this singer or that singer, even though she broke her mold. I don’t know if there’s anyone like her, before or since, but “she’s a typical female Country singer.” Is that really true?

RR: That’s interesting because “Something Sweet” had me thinking of an R&B song, but done the “Popper Way,” which turns what you just said on its head—meaning that you could take a genre, and run off on your own path within it. I caught your band performing that recently on Lopez Tonight, and you just nailed it.

JP: That’s just a classic Jono song. What I love about that is that it’s a cup of coffee; it’s really hard to screw it up. It was so relaxing while singing it. It’s got everything you need in it, and by doing it, I got to do my Al Green impression. It’s a soul song, it’s an R&B song, and I feel grateful that people can say it’s a John Popper version of that. I guess
that’s the advantage of being around this long—people identify you with your own sound, and that is something that I feel honored by.

RR: “Champipple” bumps up the mood fairly quickly after that.

JP: Yeah, that was Chris [Barron] from the Spin Doctors, me and Jono in a round table writing session. We met Chris in New York, and on the way to the hotel, Jono and I were talking about this Sanford and Son episode where I think it’s Ripple and Ginger Ale, and that’s the family celebratory drink. They call it Champipple. It must actually taste pretty ghastly. They don’t make Ripple anymore, so we won’t know what it actually tastes like, but it was just too fun to say “Champipple,” so we had to make a song about it.

RR: Was Fred drinking it by himself, or was his son, Lamont drinking it, too?

JP: I remember the episode. They were skipping out on some wedding ceremony, and I think Lamont was pining for the champagne they were missing, and Fred said, “Oh, that’s nothing. We drink Ripple and Ginger Ale. We call it Champipple.”

What’s fun are the harmonies. Jono’s singing, “Power to the ‘pipple” and “ShamWow to the ‘pipple, now,” so, we could get sued in a myriad of ways—by the champagne people, by the ShamWow people, by the “Power to the ‘pipple’”…I guess Yoko Ono owns that. She’d love to sue us. All kinds of people could sue us on that one. But, don’t worry; it’ll have to sell a lot for anyone to want to sue us.

RR: Let’s hope that’s a problem.

JP: Yeah, it’s a good problem to have.

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