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|Someone was picking the opening bars to "Dueling Banjos" when John Popper
picked up the phone. "So, ask me what kind of music Blues Traveler makes," he
said. Before the question could be posed, he launched into an explanation, and
it was only fitting that the banjo music continued in the background. "It's
what came out of the suburbs. We went to high school in Princeton, New Jersey.
What you hear from us is our version of folk music." Folk music, jazz, blues,
acid rock, and strange rhythmic trips. That's Blues Traveler, alright. Lead
vocalist, guitarist and harmonica god Popper, guitarist and jam master Chan
Kinchla, Deadhead bassist Bobby Sheehan, and iconoclast drummer Brendan
Hill cite influences like Hendrix, Clapton, Bowie, the Grateful Dead,
indigenous American music, and everything they've ever heard. Nothing unusual
at all about that, except the guys in the band are barely in their twenties.
They started playing together while Sheehan, Kinchia and Hill were still in
high school, and they've been together now for a whopping three years.
Their first real gig as a foursome was playing Princeton High's Spring Fling dance. "I listen to tapes of it and it was kind of horrifying. We were really bad, but we thought we were so good. I was singing like that lounge singer Bill Murray does," said Popper. Now Blues Traveler really is good. The band mates may be the only people who'll ever admit to learning stuff from their high school band teacher. Their grasp of music theory was strengthened through jazz courses at the New School for Social Research in New York. "At the New School, we got more into the theology of music than the theory of music. Blues is the sound a baby makes when it cries for the first time - I always say that - because after that, he knows he'll get picked up. After all, it's all show business." For such a young band, Blues Traveler has proved it can work the showmanship end of the deal. When the guys relocated to NYC, there was no scene for what they were doing, so they started one. "It has something to do with being on stage and not being completely sure about what you're supposed to be doing," said Popper. "It makes you charming. Our big hangup is originality. We really like being original because you can't screw it up. It's easier for us to get diverse rhythms going than to do that with harmony because a lot of our songs are pretty simple as far as chords go, but when it comes to the rhythm of it, that's where we get really weird. There's not much of a message, we're just trying to function."
The band used to play open mic night every Tuesday at a small blues club. Everyone else played solo, but they'd go up as a band and then get thrown out because they were under age. "The first time we got hired, the people at the bar didn't know that. All our underage college friends showed up and the bar didn't make any money because they brought their own beer." They tried playing a real blues bar but got thrown out because they weren't a real blues band. They eventually wound up at the Wetlands Preserve where Blues Traveler started cultivating a following with a devotion some say has reached Deadhead proportions. "It's a really intense group that goes to our shows. I can't really describe the way I feel about the crowd because it's weird; it's personal," said Popper, almost at a loss for words for once. It wouldn't be surprising to see Blues Traveler wind up on the road as much as the Dead. Even before their self-titled A&M Records debut came out, the band was touring the underground club and college circuit across the country. They met their manager, David Graham, (son of that other Graham) in 1989 at the huge Housing Now! homeless benefit in Washington D.C.
"David was a student at Columbia and knew he wanted to manage a band. He took a tape of our stuff out to his dad in San Francisco, and dad listened to it in the car and dug it," said Popper. Young Graham also books Blues Traveler under his own company name, Music Unlimited. "We'd been involved with other booking agents but we didn't generate enough money to be a big priority, so we'd wind up playing lounges and Howard Johnsons." That's not a problem now. The band will be touring the States through mid-April and there are some colleges and theatres mixed in with the clubs on the itinerary. Then it's back into the studio and then off to Europe for a month. When they return, they'd like to open on a major tour. Actually, they'd like to play live anywhere for anyone as long as they don't have to play in a musical. "You know what I can't stand? Musicals. Musicals are not real music. It didn't come from somewhere. The polka came from somewhere; people in some place made it up to entertain themselves. They made music for its own sake and they had a ball with it. Social music; that's what we want to make. Music that changes and grows. That stuff is real." As is Blues Traveler's philosophy of playing what they want, how they want. Popper said it's a good thing the people have taken a shine to that approach because they'd like to keep doing this for a living. Anything to keep from growing up.
"We went to a high school to go over some details for this thing we're doing and the kids were looking at me like I was a grown-up. It was frightening. I mean, I still don't match my socks. In fact, I refuse to match my socks. I'll have to start using Oil of Olay soon. My sister said to me, 'When I was your age, I never worked that hard.' How did this happen? I got into music as a dodge." Even though he sounds like Peter Pan, Popper likes it when the band's music is termed "sophisticated" and "expertly executed." Sometimes the music is kind of sophisticated and sometimes it's immature and silly but that's cool because it's us. The thing that's cool is we've all got ideas. The thing that sucks is that we've got so many ideas."