The Core: John Popper

Mike Greenhaus on April 1, 2011

HED: John Popper on his new band with Jono Manson, The Duskray Troubadours

Positively 2nd Avenue

When Blues Traveler first came to New York City, there was a scene on 2nd Avenue at clubs like Nightingales. It was a hole in the wall but really good bands played there. You could get blow inside by the pool table or you could get weed outside on the corner. [When Blues Traveler] got there, the cabaret laws were in effect [and] no more than three musicians [could be] on the stage. It wasn’t really a hippie scene; it was the bridge and tunnel crowd. In my mind, it all centered [on] The Worms – this band run by Jono Manson. We felt like the young guys and we would bring the little hippie kids from our schools. Blues Traveler was opening for these guys and then, gradually, we became successful and we moved on to Wetlands – and eventually these guys started opening for us.

Serendipitous Side Projects

Jono and I always talked about writing an album together. But the idea really started to gain some steam for me about three years ago when I was running out of new ideas for Blues Traveler. Blues Traveler is going to take some time off [in 2011] and then come back with a new album in 2012 because it’ll be our 25th anniversary. We’ll do Red Rocks and a few other shows but, largely, I’ve got a big chunk of time this year to work with Jono. Everything fell into place. I’m a big fan of serendipity.

Italian Renaissance

Jono has been living in Italy on and off [for] the last 10 years and he’s gotten a small but determined following there. I did a tour with him over there in 2009. We drove up and down the north coast of Italy and started working on songs. I showed him what I had, he showed me what he had – he’s a great song finisher. What started to happen was a real and meaningful collaboration in songwriting, and that’s a very new thing for me. In Blues Traveler, it is very in-house as far as all the writing goes. Working with Jono reminded me of a quality of work that I really missed.

Duskray Troubadours

Jono moved to Santa Fe, N.M. and I think the band’s name came from there. There’s a lot of Americana in that part of the country and, in a weird way, Santa Fe is like Nightingales in terms of its eclecticism. There’s a whole lot of really cool, weird folk and rock music from all over the place getting mixed around and you can hear that [on Duskray Troubadours’ self-titled debut].

Sort of Solo Debut

In a sense, this is my first serious solo project. The first solo album [1999’s Zygote ] was just an opportunity to do anything other than Blues Traveler. I wanted as little bass as possible because [Blues Traveler] was very bass-driven with a big bottom, sonically. It featured friends of mine that had never done anything on that scale before. So there was something fun about nobody knowing what they were doing. With the John Popper Project featuring DJ Logic, we had a little time to kill and Relix Records threw a bunch of money at us. The goal with the John Popper Project was to be as drunk and stoned as possible, like, “Let’s put no thought into this whatsoever and see how far we can go doing that.” We wanted to completely vibe it out. This is the first time that I took seasoned musicians and had a goal [several] years in advance. And it wasn’t a reaction to anything. I think I had to have those other experiences to realize what it was I wanted out of a solo project. But it’s really, in my mind, the first time I’ve taken a determined swing. It was also the first time I had to go out and find a record deal. That was exciting, scary and thrilling.

25 Years of Traveler

Blues Traveler has gotten into trouble trying to write all our songs in-house because we’re the same people, so you start running out of ideas with the same lineup. We’ve been denying ourselves for years by not collaborating on songwriting because it’s a sounding board that helps you write better – so we are already talking to different songwriters for our next album. If you are as truthful as you can be, your music will always be up to date, or it’s at least going to be relevant. What I don’t ever want to do is be nostalgic.