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Published: 2011/03/24
by Randy Ray

John Popper: A Traveler and a Troubadour

RR: I got carried away with my notes about your solo on “Hurt So Much”—‘shattered-glass harmonica solo with the pieces floating away, one by one, each series of notes unique and different as they float on by…’

JP: That was a tough one. The melody for that was really from a time with this girl I fell in love with. We finally sealed the deal, as it were, and I had to get up and catch a plane and she was asleep. It was at a Hilton hotel, and they had one of those automated Muzak soundtracks, which was playing a melody, but it was some sort of electronic song, and it was that melody that I kept singing along to it as I was getting dressed. I was determined and really wanted to make the song to that. It was a much faster beat, a techno thing. The chords are that, but a much slower thing, and it became more of a soul thing. To this day, I have it recorded in my iPhone because it was so maddening and so repetitive that when you fall asleep to a movie or something, it plays it, so I have six hours of this electronic thing in my head. I was determined to write music to that, and get my revenge (laughs), you know, for having it programmed in my head. We slowed it down so the band could play it, and we went through variations of speed. I tried playing it to the same tempo to
the Hilton thing, and it didn’t work; it sounded a little inhumane. We slowed it down, and we eventually settled on that speed. It really is a quirky song. It was hard to find its place, and that was through a lot of experimenting. That was when I was trying to do my Al Green impression, but it’s a strange chord progression. We had to move some of the chords around to make it interesting and to make it fit. I say that one was a bunch of work to try to get that to sound right.

And, then, at the end, I wound up hitting this really high note, and yeah…I got Jono and he wrote a nice little bridge there at the end. I’m really glad that song is on there, but I always put that in our live shows as the one that I am reluctant to sing because it’s about heartbreak. I mean they’re all sort of about heartbreak, but that one is like the really naked…you want a memory because it’s so sweet, but you know that it’s going to hurt every time because you love it so much. In my mind, it was the most vivid snapshot of a moment that was so delicious that I don’t want to remember it, but I have to remember it because it’s so delicious. To me, it was more about the lyrical content. And, yeah…I think that that one I was almost bordering on a Hawaiian lounge singer. That was a tough battle. To this day, I’m not sure I completely nailed it. I feel like I’m nailing it a little better live. There’s something haunting that I really responded to; I love what it’s saying.

RR: And right after that, you wander into a juke joint with “Don’t Tread On Me.”

JP: That was Kevin Trainer’s contribution. We added a few things to it, but that was when we all felt that Kevin was hitting right on the times. Everybody felt that way. It was right around the financial collapse, and everybody was wondering what the hell’s going on. He made references to ever since Big John left town…the king is dumpster diving looking for his crown, and one of the other lines is me, I’m out on Main Street, and he said, watching it all go down… but he thought I said, watching the dog go down, so we decided to keep that in (laughs) because watching the dog go down is like watching it all go down, but with a little more harshness. That’s a crowd pleaser. Everyone seems to really respond to that because there’s something “I really don’t care what people think” about that song. I think everyone responds to that attitude. It’s a really fun one.

RR: What does it share, if anything at all, with the next tune, “End of the Line?”

JP: “End of the Line” is a song Jono wrote with Terry Diers. “End of the Line” is a song that I wished I wrote. Talk about heartbreak—there’s something in that bridge ‘til I find someone who loves me half as much as you say you don’t love me is something that I felt many times and it expresses it so well that I can really nail that line, especially when it’s harmonized with Jono. There’s a certain emphasis when you sing it. It is just one of the prettier songs that I’ve gotten the chance to sing. I think that one gets everybody gulping. That is a great contrast to “Don’t Tread On Me.” “Don’t Tread On Me”—everybody’s having a lot of fun. We actually do them in reverse. We do “End of the Line” into “Don’t Tread On Me” because you don’t want to leave the crowd gulping. On a record, you don’t mind doing that, but certainly (laughs), you don’t want to do that at a live show.

I think that everybody loves that song. I think this album is definitely going to get me laid a lot more. I think a girl will respond to the message of the song. I think this is one of the things that I love working with Jono—he and I have this reverence for the Beatles and the lyrical content. The Beatles sing about love. And that’s really what I like to sing about. That’s the thing that I’m always hung up on, and I think Jono, too. For all of my nonsense that I talk about—I’ll be vulgar—but at the end of the day, that’s really what we sing about, and that’s what the Beatles sing about. They always have that mythology that you’re either an Elvis person or a Beatles person. Elvis will sing about his hair, or car, or blue suede shoes; the Beatles will sing about your heart. I think that’s the difference. I think that’s why the Beatles conquered songwriting, and Elvis needed a songwriter.

RR: Let’s talk about the iTunes bonus track, “Hurdy Gurdy Fandango.”

JP: That’s an old song, which I always whip out for people. I think we tried that for Blues Traveler. I wrote that in ’91 or ’92, and I did do that with Frogwings in ’99. It was one that Jono really liked, but I didn’t really see it connecting with the other stuff because, again, it was from another time, and without even mentioning it to Stu Fine from 429 Records, he heard that. He said, “The other stuff seems more coherent and now, ” and that one felt long in the middle in the other material. As a bonus track, it doesn’t bother me as much and other people seem to like it. To me, it reminds me of 1991 as opposed to 2011. There’s a twenty-year difference. (laughs)

RR: Ah…speaking of two decades and more, at the recent SXSW festival, you were on a panel called “Interview with John Popper—25 Years of Blues Traveler.” How do you quantify 25 years of that particular band in any period of time?

JP: The first thing you do is you realize it won’t cover it. (laughter) It’s…it’s strange. I have friends who are younger than my band.

RR: Scary.

JP: Yeah. It is. The older you get, the more that kind of stuff you get. I’ve got people who are way younger than the band: “I remember being in the crib and hearing your music.” That’s a strange feeling. It is a surreal thing to be like an institution. A quarter of a century feels weird, but I mean, all these milestones that you hit as you get older are always strange. I think that’s what hitting milestones is all about. But I do feel lucky. I’m glad that I’ve partnered up with some really tried-and-true people that are good businessmen, too, to the extent that they are. They are certainly my equals. I think it’s been a really fun thing, and it’s given me the opportunity to do stuff like this.

It’s also interesting how this co-writing experience sort of rippled into Blues Traveler. We always kept all the writing in house all these years. It’s been a luxury we’ve denied ourselves. After this experience, I went to Blues Traveler and told them about this. I
started co-writing in this environment with people that I trusted really well, and it enabled us to go and work with people that we never met before. In January, we started work on our 25th Anniversary album that we are going to be doing in 2012. We worked with Alejandro Escovedo, Carrie Rodriguez, and Ron Sexsmith, and we worked on a bunch of stuff that will be coming out on this album, and Blues Traveler responded very differently than I did, and it was very positive, but with a Blues Traveler kind of thing. It’s going to be a really great experience, and I just love how that ripple effect keeps going. You’ll see that, and it’s going to make this next album different. That was what I was trying to get away from—the assembly line approach of Blues Traveler. We were starting to write the same songs over and over again because we were developing into this sort of assembly line approach. The Duskray Troubadours experience helped to break that and keep things vibrant, which was really what I was after. 429 Records, who released the Duskray Troubadours album, signed the next Blues Traveler album, so it’s all going to be organic in leading to that, and I’m very happy about that. We’ll see what the next 25 years brings, but man, my ass is killing me from sitting on a tour bus.

The thing is there are a lot of bands who are older than us. It’s not even a record we’re breaking. I just helped celebrate the Allman Brothers’ 40th Anniversary two years ago. It never stops; you can go as long as you want. I look at B.B. King as one of my heroes. He can play until he’s 90, and that’s the good news. The bad news is that he’ll be 90 and on a tour bus somewhere. (laughs) Think how his ass will feel.

RR: Where is your tour bus going this year and with whom?

JP: Blues Traveler is doing a couple of gigs, but mostly, it’ll be Troubadour touring. Right around December, Blues Traveler goes into the studio. There’s also talk of a tribute album to Blues Traveler, and some sort of B-sides/Greatest Hits thing. That all comes out in the spring [2012]. Our new album will come out in the fall of 2012, and [Blues Traveler] will be touring that whole time.

RR: What about the possibility of a return for the H.O.R.D.E. festival?

JP: Yeah, we’re talking about it. That would be H.O.R.D.E.’s 20th Anniversary, summer of 2012, so that would be very apropos. We’re looking at it. Everybody’s talking about Colorado, and that stuff is in the works. We’ll see if we can get everybody on board. There are a lot of entities you’ve got to juggle for that, but I think, so far, the reaction of everybody seems to be positive, so we’ll see what we can get going.

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