Blues Traveler: Digging in and ‘Hanging Around’
Blues Traveler mark their 30th anniversary with a new album of original material and a relentless road regimen.
It’s an hour before soundcheck and John Popper is relaxing backstage. In actuality, recuperating is probably a better assessment of the Blues Traveler frontman’s current condition. A few weeks earlier, following a July 20 concert in Kansas City’s Power and Light district, Popper took an accidental tumble, fracturing a shoulder, breaking a finger, and bruising his elbows, knees and ribs.
Incredibly, the band didn’t cancel any performances, but Popper is still worried that the injuries could affect his singing and harmonica playing. He’s offered a preemptive apology at the start of each subsequent show. Tonight, in Utica, N.Y., he’s still very sore, but he’s decided not to extend such a disclaimer because “the band has been playing so damn well.”
The group has eight concerts, during a nine-day span left on their 27-date summer tour, culminating with a festival set at LOCKN’. “I feel like a prize fighter,” Popper says. “Battling through the late rounds.”
The members of Blues Traveler aren’t strangers to the notion of battling through adversity. When the band sat on the precipice of their 30th anniversary—without a record label, and their relationship with then-management decaying—they closed ranks, decamped to Nashville and went to work. Nearly two years, and two managers later, Blues Traveler has returned with Hurry Up & Hang Around, an album that rolls out a panoramic picture of their three decades together. Popper firmly believes it ranks among their best offerings to date.
Ever since Popper, bassist Bobby Sheehan, guitarist Chan Kinchla and drummer Brendan Hill started Blues Traveler as Princeton, N.J. high school students in the mid-1980s, they’ve fought with an underlying sense of survival.
They took on New York City, playing all-nighters in seminal clubs like Nightingale’s and Wetlands Preserve, a blossoming environmentally and socially conscious hangout in Tribeca. They became insatiable road warriors, promoted by the monolithic Bill Graham Presents, playing anywhere, and everywhere, as a badge of honor. They treated a gig in North Dakota with just as much reverence as one in California or New York, if not more so.
Popper held a childhood fascination with the Penguin Atlases. His Hungarian roots led him to tales of the 5th-century plundering of Attila the Hun. In the band’s early years, touring by van, he possessed what he calls “delusions of empire,” imagining the America stretching out before them as land fit to be conquered.
He kept a map of the U.S., coloring-in with pencil places they’d played and using a pen when they played to a crowd of over 1,000. Eight years into their mission, the 50 states were solid black. (Alaska and Hawaii fell late in 1995.) “I still have the map,” Popper says. “It’s in my safe.”
Despite being charter members of the ‘90s jamband movement, they also conquered the pop landscape, raking in gold records and building up to the mainstream tsunami of 1994’s four, which sold over six-million copies and spawned the forever-catchy Hot 100 hits “Run-Around” and “Hook.”
But, triumphs turned into tragedies in 1999, with Popper requiring angioplasty due to severe artery blockage and Sheehan dead of an accidental drug overdose. Blues Traveler soldiered on, welcoming Ben Wilson on keyboards and Kinchla’s younger brother, Tad, on bass. They continued to tour and record, churning out a new album nearly ever other year. Yet, they struggled to find a new home, distributing each release on a different indie label.
In early 2017, Blues Traveler were in tumult. Frustrated by stalled plans to record a new album commemorating their impending milestone birthday, a growing rift with management turned irreparable. “It’s a very scary thing, especially when you are a 30-year-old band,” says Popper. “It was an entire mid-life crisis, sort of, unfolding.”
Blues Traveler hired a new manager who lasted only a few months, yet made a vital contribution during his interim stay. He suggested the group rent a house, either in Las Vegas or Nashville, to work on new material. The band elected Music City over Sin City, occupying a spacious, tech-equipped, three-level rental on Circle Hill Road. “It was like The Real World,” says Popper. “You get this cool house to stay in while you fall apart.”
The musicians hadn’t written an album of new material by themselves since 2008’s North Hollywood Shootout. During that decade span while searching for some fresh creative inspiration, the group recorded two collaborative LPs: Suzie Cracks the Whip in 2012 and Blow Up the Moon in 2015. The former paired the band with outside songwriters; for the latter, the quintet worked with such diverse artists as Jewel, Bowling for Soup and Thomson Square. (In 2007, they also celebrated their 20th anniversary with Cover Yourself, a collection of revamped acoustic renditions of their own classics.)
“You meet someone you’ve never met before, and you sit down, like their therapist, and you try and respond to them. Eventually, you come up with a song,” says Popper, of collaborating outside the group. “It was a nice project. It was fun for us to do. But, it wasn’t really a Blues Traveler album. This one was a chance to celebrate what we’ve learned from the last two.”
They accumulated a backlog in the interim, with each of the band members bringing their best ideas to the table. Working through the stack spurred the five to cling to each other. “It really galvanized us,” Popper says. “When you’re feeling that assault on the outside, there is something very purifying on the inside. You see what’s important. You can tell who your family is.”
As a group, they mostly avoided the Nashville scene. “We stayed in the dome,” Wilson says. “It was very insular.” Living together erased any delineations between work and leisure. Ongoing conversations around the house went deeper, permeating the writing. They set up their gear to rehearse the new repertoire, rediscovering the joys of jamming in the garage.
“You never want to finish a song on your own when you’re writing with Blues Traveler because you want it to go through that process, so it remains true,” says Popper. “You want authenticity.”
The quintet made demos of their garage work, mostly to document and capture any new ideas. As the sessions progressed, prospective managers dropped by Circle Hill. That visitor list included Jeff Castelaz, who became insistent after being nearly brought to tears while listening to Popper’s “She Becomes My Way.” In Castelaz, Blues Traveler saw a genuine passion, and signed with his Cast Management.
Castelaz brought more than an emotional investment to the deal. There were early notions of making the anniversary set a blues record, and reenlisting Sam Hollander, who helmed Suzie Cracks the Whip, to produce but, at Castelaz’s suggestion, they opted for Matt Rollings.
Rollings had a leg-long list of credentials as a musician, arranger and producer. For Popper, one notch in particular—sitting behind the board for Willie Nelson’s Grammy-winning Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin—was more than enough. “That’s all I needed to hear because I’m a very big Willie fan.”
They gave Rollings tapes of their garage jams, and he quickly familiarized himself with the entirety of the Blues Traveler catalog. “They’re still a badass band,” says Rollings. “My goal was to try and get back to the feeling of the first record, the feeling of a band: No outside players, all songs they had written, a singularity of purpose.”
While Rollings studied, Traveler hit the road for some early spring dates for the 30th-anniversary shows. By May, they were back in Nashville for recording sessions, making the short commute from Circle Hill to Sound Emporium Studios, host to acclaimed projects from Alabama Shakes, Lake Street Dive and Sturgill Simpson. Rollings had pored over the garage demos, compiling thoughts and suggestions for every part of each song.
The group arrived early each morning and attacked the process, working at a song-a-day pace and leaving only when the track was complete, like gamblers in Vegas without concern for time. Popper notes that Rollings was incredibly animated in the studio, demonstrating different ideas at the piano, conducting and, at times, even dancing around. His advice was flexibly firm—respectful but direct—and he was especially conscious not to impose on Wilson, with whom he shared an instrument. The five responded willingly to his experiments.
“They came into this so ready to make a record and to get back to being a band. They worked tirelessly,” Rollings says.
“I remember having that feeling of, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we could do that.’ It’s like you’re a thoroughbred race horse and you get a jockey who knows you can run a little faster than you thought,” says Popper. “All of life is the search for a comfortable chair, but if you want to sound good, you’ve got to take up a saddle.”
Rollings loved Popper’s signature high-register harmonica runs, but he had an alternative proposition. “I wanted to hear what it sounded like when he got down in the dirt of it,” he says. “Music, for me, lives in the body. It has to move me. It’s a neck-down affair.”
The input tightened the arrangements, with Rollings encouraging an economy of notes without sacrificing the band’s improvisational trademarks. “Rollings was such a genius at exploiting our musicianship, but not making us do a bunch of long solos,” Popper says. “When you add and subtract properly, you wind up multiplying.”
An overachieving sense of sadness also colored their creative process. Popper was among the musicians onstage at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta for Col. Bruce Hampton’s 70th birthday concert when Hampton collapsed during the encore, dying at an area hospital shortly after. Within the next few weeks, Gregg Allman, a friend, influence, and guest on Traveler’s second album, and Chris Cornell, a ‘90s contemporary with Soundgarden, also passed away.
“That added something to how seriously we were taking this album—these were people we knew [passing away],” says Popper.
By the end of May 2017, Blues Traveler had completed the recording sessions for their 13th studio album and, soon after, went back on the road for a lengthy 30th-anniversary tour. The band signed with BMG and, in the summer of 2018, announced the release date of Hurry Up & Hang Around. Popper admits they chose that curious title because it “took us this long to get it friggin’ out.”
The band suggested “She Becomes My Way”—Popper’s tribute to his then-wife, who he divorced earlier this year, and the song that choked up Castelaz—as the first single, but the label persuaded them to go with the album’s opening number “Accelerated Nation,” which is saturated in that classic Blues Traveler sound.
That’s the thing about surviving, let alone conquering, for three decades: the clarity it provides about what’s worth fighting for. To Popper, every song on the album is rooted in truth and love. Every song has that classic Blues Traveler sound. “When you think of us, you think of a party where beer is served. It’s loud and raucous,” says Popper. “We are trying to take advantage of the fact that we are a known quantity, and where our unknown is.”
In a way, the fundamental strength of the album is its solidarity; an ironic result of ceding much of the control to Rollings and to the lessons of the previous two albums’ collaborations. Even with individual contributions coming from Popper, Wilson and the Kinchla brothers, the final dozen songs beautifully blur the band’s original intentions and serve as a true, collective group thought. Funked-up rockers such as “The Wolf is Bumpin’,” already implanted as a show opener on the summer sets, nestle next to the reggae-flecked bounce of “When You Fall Down” and the acoustic country-shuffle of “Daddy Went a Giggin.” “Some of that is the writing.
Some of that is achieved as it tightens up,” Popper explains. “But, with most of it, I’d give that kind of credit to Matt. He was so great at bending the branch, never breaking it.”
Wilson, who says Rollings is “like a sixth member of the band,” is equally pleased with the result. “If you are going to go to the trouble of having a producer, you have to have some humility,” he says.
The 12 cuts still feature plenty of Popper, of course. The harmonica remains virtuosic, and his voice is as impactful as ever on “Ode from the Aspect,” a love letter written in the afterglow
of a “magic” plant Popper experienced on Jam Cruise in 2013. As a testament to Blues Traveler’s fertile recent writing sessions, they only included one cover, “Phone Call From Leavenworth,” a song written by their old friend Chris Whitley, who passed away in 2005.
“It’s obvious that John is the dominant force,” says Wilson. “But this record is a testament to how we’ve become a solid force as a band over these last 18 years.”
There will always be the droves of fans and critics that associate the band with their mid-‘90s rocket ride. For Blues Traveler, having another ubiquitous hit like “Run-Around” or “Hook” isn’t a concern. The industry infrastructure that enabled the group’s superstardom doesn’t even really exist anymore. And fame?
“I never felt Britney Spears-famous. Nobody ever gave a damn about my virginity,” says Popper. “So, how famous was I?”
Popper played some September solo dates before Hurry Up & Hang Around’s release, before Blues Traveler’s Accelerated Nation tour across the U.S. revved up, replacing the 30th-anniversary theme. They hope interest in the album will take the band back to Europe and offer Popper a few more opportunities to bust out his pens and pencils and shade some more of his map. But before their quest resumes, there’s a little time to reflect on this unique moment.
“Thirty years isn’t something you get all the time,” says Popper. “The whole purpose of the album was to celebrate our 30th anniversary. This is a combination of all these songs we had saved—of family, of needing each other—and the seriousness of that. It could be the best work with this lineup that we’ve ever done.”
This article originally appears in the October/November 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.