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Frequent Flyer
Chan Kinchla Upgrades Blues Traveler to First Class
by Bill Leigh
Guitar Player, National
Oct 1st, 1997

At 28, Chandler Kinchla still spends a lot of time with his high school buddies - and, man, do they keep him busy. It was during his junior year that Chan first hooked up with harmonica player and vocalist John Popper, drummer Brendan Hill and bassist Bobby Sheehan, the quartet that would become Blues Traveler. Since '90 the New Jersey natives have recorded six albums and averaged over 250 live dates a year, Kinchla handling everything from heavy riffs to subtle comping to soaring cosmic-blues leads.

Nurtured by the jazz program at New York's New School for Social Research and tested on the Big Apple club scene, Blues Traveler emerged at the forefront of renewed interest in earthy Birkenstock rock and live improvisation. Like contemporaries Widespread Panic, Phish, the Spin Doctors and Aquarium Rescue Unit, BT brought their message directly to the people, building up a grass roots following through intense touring. These days you don't have to be a H.O.R.D.E. tour regular - the band has headlined the annual summer rock festival for three years running - to know about Blues Traveler. BT has sold over six million copies of 1994's four (A&M), which scored two Top 10 singles, "Run-Around" and "Hook." Their latest A&M release, Straight On Till Morning, features a Kinchla riff that's taking radio by storm on the single "Carolina Blues."

Chan's pre-BT guitar experience was limited. "I was in a punk band, but eventually I got bored with the limited vocabulary," he recalls. "Then I saw Alvin Lee perform "I'm Going Home" in the Woodstock movie, and for the first time I saw an agressive approach to guitar playing done with a much broader vocabulary. I blew off punk and got heavily into jazz and improvisation."

After graduation the band relocated to New York City and began playing clubs while exploring the New School jazz program. "We were getting this really good cerebral philosophy of music plus free rehearsal space, and at night we were playing bars and learning from the great New York jam scene," Chan says. "There's nothing more fun than being 18 years old, rocking all over New York, meeting girls and getting free beers!" Eventually the band expanded their touring base to the entire East Coast; a record deal with A&M followed soon after.

Having developed Blues Traveler as a live band, has it been a challenge for you to translate what you do in the studio?
Chan: What drew us into being in a band was the fun and excitement of playing together live. For years that was the way we spread the word about ourselves and how we made a living. As we've progressed we've learned to appreciate that working in the studio is a very different, though equally rewarding, way of expressing ourselves. We've learned to approach making music in the studio from a different frame of mind - it's music created over time by layering and texturing, music to be played over little speakers in someone's car, as background music at a party or over the radio while someone's at work. That's very different from making music that people are going to hear live; that's an event, and there's an actual physical presence. There are ways to draw people in and keep them attuned with a studio record, and those are different from the things that you accomplish live.

What's it like being the only chordal instrument?
Chan: It's a pain in the ass! I never have anything to solo over. I've got to solo over rhythm completely, which is fine - but all the time? In some ways it's great because I do love to play rhythm, and I feel I'm actually much more talented at rhythm than lead. My right wrist is probably the most naturally talented aspect of my technique. And with John's harp playing being in such a high register, I provide the glue between him and the rest of the band. Being the only chordal instrument has very much shaped my style of playing. I've never really learned to play over chord progressions very well. Instead, I'm much stronger rhythmically, and even my solos have a rhythmic quality. I've been working on a more melodic style, though, and John's getting better at playing some semblance of chords.

How do you compensate for that and keep the sound thick when you solo?
Chan: Partially it's tone. I come in really big on a solo, then quiet down if I need to. Once those big chords I'm playing drop out and it goes to a lead, I've got to be careful that the energy doesn't drop out. So it's very important to make a big entrance; from there I can wind everyone down to another dynamic level. The whole band is conscious of this as well; we all try to keep the energy focused. Another thing I do is play off the rhythm a great deal, rather than play those big melodic lines. That's where I can tap into the rest of the band while I'm playing leads. Melodic lines on their own can sound a little cheesy unless there's a chord progression they're interacting with. This is not a natural talent for me but something I'm working on. In five years I'll probably be a hell of a lot better at it.

Are you better at it than you were five years ago?
Chan: Definitely. I sucked five years ago. I suck a little less now.

In what areas do you think you've improved?
Chan: The thing I'm most pleased with is my vocabulary, both in scale types and being able to play rhythmically and melodically. I have a much broader range of chord voicings that I play all over the guitar, and I have much more control over them. This is especially helpful with improvisation - it allows me to open up and move in different directions when I'm going with that flow. I've also become a lot more melodic, and I know how to follow a melody. And my bends are more accurate now. I used to just bend notes and figure that was good enough. Then I realized that it's nice to bend to an actual note in the scale!

Do you use certain types of chord voicings to stay out of the harmonica range?
Sometimes, but mostly I use different chord voicings to make it more interesting. Say you're playing a I-IV-V progression, using straight barre chords. For improvising you might start with the pentatonic scale of the chord and play mostly in that area. But if you can use different voicings to move the register down three or four frets and still play the same chords, you can get a whole different flavor, a whole different meaning. It boosts your creativity and helps you go to different places.

Do you ever use any of the chord-voicing method books?
Chan: I have, but it's a huge leap from practicing chords out of a book to having the balls to actually try them onstage. Some of that stuff I'll memorize but never quite learn how to fit into our songs. Whereas I'll just learn a general rule about other voicings, flow right into them onstage and learn right there how to move them all around the guitar.

What do you need to know to back up a harp player?
Chan: Harmonica is in such a high register that it's very easy to get in the way. To let it truly speak, you want to play in a lower register. The harmonica is also very rhythmic; one great thing you can do is play against it in a very percussive way. The two sounds blend great and really chug a song along.

Something to watch out for is the difference in phrasing between a guitar - since it's a fingers-on-strings instrument - and harmonica, since it's a reed instrument. Because the phrasing patterns are so different it can be very difficult to play melody lines together or hit the same kinds of riffs when soloing together. Sometimes we'll be stuck in a position where they just don't blend.

What have you learned about following a melody?
I was always guilty of playing visually - where you see your fingers do patterns and you like the way those patterns sound, so you develop an arsenal of licks. Your solos tend to run from one cool lick or comfortable pattern to the next, rather than following something you hear in your head. In order to play good melodies, you have to forget those patterns and forget what you like to do on the guitar, and instead use your ear to move your fingers.

How much has jazz influenced the band?
The New School was a very strong influence. I learned about the basics of jazz theory, then began incorporating that with what I knew about blues and rock and roll. Bringing that melodic quality into a blues setting really takes it to a different dimension. The blues is a nice attitude and it's very rhythmic, but it's not as melodious as jazz. So it's nice to be able to add some of the qualities and syncopations of jazz.

How did blues influence you in the band's early years?
We were doing our best at playing the blues. In the beginning we stuck to more traditional forms: 12-bar using I-IV-V a lot, as well as some more classic rock and roll progressions. I don't think we ever kidded ourselves that we could actually play the blues. For godsakes, we're middle-class white kids from the suburbs, not black guys from Mississippi in the 1940s! We're coming from a completely different environment. But I think what attracted us to the blues was the raw, emotional intent of the music. That's what we've wanted to keep in our music as we evolved.