John Popper of Blues Traveler: "I'm not sure what it was, but the air was thin with ganja."
John Popper seems stunned by the fact that Blues Traveler boasts a longer lifespan than a legal drinker. Popper, who helped launched the band as a quartet in a New Jersey garage in the mid '80s, has seen the outfit go through fundamental changes. The commercial success of the album Four in 1994, the death of original bassist Bobby Sheen in 1999, the band's departure from the A&M label in 2002 - all of these milestones have had an impact of the band's sound and musical approach.
With the upcoming release of the compilation 25, a two-disc release that combines greatest hits with unreleased tracks and B-sides, Popper and the rest of the band (now a quintet) has had a chance to reflect on their quarter century in music. In advance of the band's eTown appearance at the Boulder Theater this Sunday, February 26, we caught up with the Blues Traveler frontman for a chat about putting together the compilation, finding an early fanbase in Colorado and keeping up the yearly tradition of playing Red Rocks on the Fourth of July.
Westword: Was it difficult narrowing down material from 25 years to fit onto two discs?
John Popper: It makes me grateful that I'm in a band with partners, because you get to sort of find if something appeals to you as far as an aspect or a department. You get to sort of run with it. When we started talking of rarities and B-sides, that's where I got excited. This is what I wanted to really focus on, because the greatest hits present themselves. They want to hear "Runaround," they want to hear "Hook." You think, well what else do people like? There's "But Anyway." Then there's the idea of doing that cool Sublime cover. These things sort of work out. You can work out what people want to hear, but when you're talking rarities, it's "What do you want to hear?"
On that note, what did you want to hear? What were your top picks for the second disc?
Well, I look at it like a parent looks at their children. Your songs are your children. Which ones didn't get their day in court? Which ones didn't get a good job? Which ones never got to really connect with the audience? You get to shove them out there again.
A great example is "Random Amounts," for me. I'd forgotten that song. It was like my little mini-attempt at a novel, or a short story. I asked, "What if everything is a completely random event?" I think the story was I had this guy and he goes back in time.
He figures he's got all of this information, but the problem with going back in time, everything that he learned was different: Adolf Hitler never became the leader of Germany - he became a house painter and blew his brains out. Einstein never got the credit for the theory of relativity - it was some other guy. On and on it goes. He never would meet the love of his life, Katia.
The next verse, this girl is crazy and she keeps dreaming about this other reality where she wasn't crazy and her name was Katia. She met the love of her life, who was Vince. It was this wonderful, philosophical story. I tried to create fifty million words, like the last verse of "Hook" for the whole song. It's not just tedious, it's downright interesting.
The fact is when you get a song like that it's really entertaining. It doesn't have the pressure of having to be a hit or a single. You can show people, 'Look, this is an interesting one we did.' I had forgotten all about it. I really loved that song, and being able to breathe life into it again gives me a real swell of satisfaction as a songwriter.
"Traveler's Suite" seems like a fairly involved piece as well.
It's a twenty-minute song, and it has some really great musicianship. Again, I use the word 'tedious,' but it doesn't fit into the criteria of what a song that gets to be on an album is. Usually a song is supposed to be between three and four minutes; twenty minutes is a little bit long. It was our take on a rock opera.
There's a lot of musicianship in there and a lot of stuff that our fans would like. It's also a song that was worked on by not just Bob Sheehan, but also Tad [Kinchla] and Ben [Wilson]. It was really kind of the only song that all of the band members have worked on. That's seven of us. All band members that have ever been in Blues Traveler and been involved. There's something spiritually cool about that.
Another one is "The Poignant and Epic Saga of Featherhead and Lucky Lack." It's one that our audience really liked, but it never really made it onto an album. You get that gauge and that take of what people like. There's this wonderful aspect of you getting to decide what song to include. You can pick songs that really never got their day in court.
"The Demon" is another great one. Or "Blue Hour." There are so many songs that we worked on. You work up so many that some get left by the wayside. It's like saving your children. It's like, "Oh my god, we forgot you were buried in some snow. Here's the world again." I feel like a proud mother.
I want to go back to what you said about "Traveler's Suite," the fact that it's the only tune that includes input from Bobby Sheehan, who died in 1999, as well as Tad Kinchla and Ben Wilson, who joined subsequently. In your liner notes, you write, "There are no new members of the band." What did you mean by that?
The new members of the band - Tad and Ben - have always been referred to as 'the new guys.' They've been in the band as long as Bobby was in the band. That's the weird thing about the fact that we're 25 years old. Bobby was in the band for twelve years. They've been in for twelve-plus now.
This is, I think, a great milestone because I think, in their mind, they looked at the contributions the original four band members made as if it were some sort of unreachable thing. And I think that now they feel like it belongs to them a little bit more. You'd have to ask them, but they sweated with us, and toured with us and they've gone through plenty of hard times with us after Bobby passed.
I think it was important to them, at least in my mind, that one of us band members who've been here the whole 25 years made that point. The moniker of them being new members is going to fall away. When you reach a 25-year mark, Blues Traveler and Blues Traveler 2.0 is a great summation of us.
The band has made a tradition of playing at Red Rocks every Fourth of July since 1994. What's made that tradition so durable?
Colorado and the Rockies was the first place where we got tons of people coming to see us. I guess it was the ski communities, or a lot of hippies up there. I'm not sure what it was, but the air was thin with ganja. You know what I'm talking about. It was our first real transplanted home. I'm not sure why that is. Maybe it is as simple as a lot of people who like to ski like our music, or were into jam bands. Something like that.
We've had many traditions over the years. We'd do New Year's. We'd do Halloween. We would have some ceremony constantly, and they all died away, except for Fourth of July at Red Rocks. That's the exception. My stent was put in in '99, and a month later, Bobby died. That was the one year we didn't play it. Other than that, we've done it every year. It's our 22 year coming up - we've done it for the entire life of a legal drinker.
It's strange. You don't really remember how long that feels, it's a surreal thing to go 25 years, a quarter century. It's a fascinating feeling. You start to feel very old and wise or old and foolish, actually. "God, I spent the past quarter century doing the same thing over and over again." But obviously, it's the little differences.
I love the traditions and I wish we had more that lasted, but what I love about the ones that do last is that they matter. Every year we go out to Red Rocks, and every year, there's a full house of people screaming at us. I can't tell you how much that means to us. It's a beautiful thing, and I'm not sure how we became a staple in Colorado, but I'm honored to be one.
It seems like the band has made an effort to experiment in new directions since the departure from the A&M label in the early 2000s. Has working on the Sanctuary and Vanguard labels given you more freedom?
If you're going to be creative, you ultimately have to be in different ways because if you're going to be in the same ways, you're not being creative anymore. You're constantly trying to fight off the boredom of repetition, which is a danger to any improvising musician. I think that you have to keep looking within yourself. The one rule is it has to be true; you have to mean it. It has to be from your honest experience, or some honest question that you're asking.
The sincerity is what people respond to, and you're looking for a connection with your audience. If the audience can connect with you, then you've done something that lasts. I think that's what any good art is. If you can play something sincerely, then everyone puts themselves in that experience and says, "I know what they mean," even if they don't know what you're singing about. That the rule. I wasn't setting out to do that. It's just how it works.
I have to mention that one of my most distinct memories from ninth grade algebra is listening to Travelers and Thieves while taking a test.
[Laughs] You passed? Somehow I'd like the course credit. Maybe I can get a doctorate out of that.
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