Blues Traveler just keeps on rockin'
By Naughty Mickie
Photos by Dave Schwartz

In August 2008, Blues Traveler released "North Hollywood Shootout" (Verve Forecast). They have been recording and touring - and gaining fans - for more than 20 years. The band has sold 10 million records, garnered six gold and platinum albums and performed more than 2,000 shows. Out of eight studio and four live albums, "Run-Around" was their standout tune, as it is the longest charting radio single in Billboard history and won Blues Traveler a Grammy. The group encourages fans to record and trade live performances and has given permission for fan recordings to be hosted on the Live Music Archive. On tour, they sell recordings of the night's performance, which fans can pick up on their way out of the show. Their current lineup is vocalist and harmonica player John Popper, guitarist Chandler Kinchla, keyboardist Ben Wilson, bassist Tad Kinchla and drummer and percussionist Brendan Hill.

Blues Traveler originally was formed in 1987 by high school friends Popper, Chan, Hill and bassist/keyboardist Bobby Sheehan. Sheehan died in 1999 of an accidental drug overdose.

"The original four guys, we all went to Princeton High School in New Jersey," Hill recounts. "John was one year ahead of us and John and I met when I was a freshman and he was a junior actually. We were in the school jazz band and I was drums and he was brought in as a soloist on harmonica. He came in one day when we were playing a song, our band teacher brought him in, and he played this great solo over one of our big band jazz standards. I had this little basement band with my older brother and a couple of other friends, so after the band practice was over I asked him to come to our next band rehearsal in my basement.

That's how it started.

"We formed a band called Blues Band and we did a lot of covers like 'Bad to the Bone' and those kind of songs that were popular back then. Then my brother graduated from high school so we brought in another bass player and then we brought in Chan and we replaced our other bass player with Bob, who was our original bass player." Hill goes on, "I graduated high school in '87, John graduated in '86 and moved up to New York and we followed him up there. John and I went to the music school in New York called the New School and we just started getting little gigs.

"What's good about having a harmonica player in the band was that he could sit in on any kind of open mic night jam session around the city because he wasn't a saxophone or a guitar, there wasn't that many harmonica players around. He could just sit in and he would blow people away and he'd say, 'By the way, I've got a band and they're right here.' We'd be sitting in the back. So we'd get these opportunities, these doors opened up because he was so versatile and could play with anybody.

"We tried our hand in New York and started getting a bunch of gigs. We had an agreement with our parents when we started that we could give music a chance for a couple of years and if it didn't work out, we would try something else, have a backup plan. But luckily we got signed when I was 19, right before the cutoff date from my parents," Hill laughs. "I think we would have done it anyway, but it was lucky that we got signed by A&M Records and the manager, Bill Graham, from out in California, and he started bringing us in front of bands like the Allman Brothers, Santana, we opened up for Jerry Garcia at Madison Square Garden. There were a lot of very lucky events early in our career that led to our finding our sound. We were all still very young when we put out that first record- 19 and 20."

Hill takes me back to the beginning.

"I really started on the violin when I was three or four in England," says Hill. "We moved over to America and I gave up the violin. I moved when I was eight, '78, I'm a disco kid, I was born in 1970. I think I was walking down the hall in elementary school around the age of 10 or so and I heard somebody practicing snare drum rudiments and stuff in the hallway. I went up to the band teacher and I was like, 'I'd like to do that,' and shed signed me up, gave me a snare drum and I took it home and that's how I started."

Hill attended the New School, which was attached to Parsons, a liberal arts college specializing in photography and fashion. He majored in music.

"What was cool about their program is as teachers they hired local professional musicians in the jazz scene. It was very jazzed based." Hill explains, "They had people that were working, excellent musicians that would be playing at Village Vanguard or the Blue Note at night and then they'd come in the next day and teach in the mornings. You've got this rare glimpse into not just people who taught music, but actual players who had real world real life experiences. It was great to be able to see them, we were all given the ability to see them at night and then come in the next day and be like, 'What you played on that song was just amazing, can you show us how you did that?' We had this incredible chance to interact with real time musicians. I learned more in that period than I did in high school."

When Blues Traveler first started, Hill had to work to make ends meet, "I was getting a little stipend from my parents, I think it was about 250 bucks, and the rest I had to make up on my own. We used to pool all of the band money, all the gig money, together and I had two or three little jobs, a mover and I worked at a video store, but pretty much from early on, '88, about a year from moving to New York, we were able to be self-sufficient. I think that's something that has rung true for us throughout our whole career-- we never asked for any kind of tour support from the record labels and, of course, we needed the advance to make the records because that was a big outlay. For the most part, we've been self-sufficient and I think that's gotten us through a lot of both hard times and also kept our heads on right when we go through the good times."

I ask Hill about Blues Traveler's staying power, as a band and in the music scene.

"We started out as four friends in high who just enjoyed creating music together and we learned how to play together by going through the bar scene and the theater scene and the college scene and the amphitheaters and that stuff, so we have a similar shared experience," replies Hill. "We're like family, we're brothers. I think when we lost our original bass player in '99, it was like losing a family member. That was obviously the most difficult period in our band's history.

"We all draw upon all the experiences we've had. We went to Europe for the first time all together as a band and we won a Grammy together, we sold out Madison Square Garden together. It's those things you draw from and I couldn't think of anybody else I'd rather play with because this is home, it's family.

"Every show we write a different set list," continues Hill. "We go round-robin of who writes the set list for the night and I think that keeps it fresh and interesting instead of playing the same show every night. A lot of bands change their set list every night and I think that's an important key to keeping things fresh and interesting. We have a lot of musicians that come and sit in with us. I think when somebody comes to our show, they know they're going to see something unique. Maybe we'll play some songs from our fourth album, which is the album that had the most hits on it, we'll play those most every night, like 'Run-Around' and 'Hook' and a couple of other ones like 'But Anyway' from our first album, but aside from that we've got 140 songs and we like to play them all."

What's the deal with encouraging the fans to record their shows?

"That's one of the ways we started out by making every show a unique thing and we allowed taping when we started out, so these bootlegs from early shows up and even up to now, we sell the show," explains Hill. "Right after we're done there's a little CD or MP3 you can buy and take that home. For us it's getting the music out there and CD sales aren't what they used to be for anyone unless you've got huge corporate conglomerates behind you. We depend on our playing live as our main source of income and to be able to do that we need to have people come out and be excited. If you let people tape and it's a good show, they'll pass it on to their friends and that will create a little underground movement. It's worked in the past for us and I think it continues to."

Blues Traveler writes as a group.

"Another example of the democratic way we run our organization, everyone has the exact same weight, so when we do these writing sessions we have four or five weeks when we again go round-robin and work on people's ideas until they are fully realized and then we move on to the next person's idea," Hill says. "Usually by the end of a session, we've got about 25 songs. Some of them are good and some are not so good, but everyone gets the opportunity and we work one or two days on each song developing it before we move on. The songs that stick and we remember, those are the ones that usually make it on to the album.

"This last record we actually did arrange a session where we came up with 20 songs, but then John had an idea going into this record with less of a preconceived notion of what we were going to do. We found a producer, David Bianco, who has a long list of great accolades, he has a studio in North Hollywood, thus the name, 'North Hollywood Shootout.' We went in there not having a plan, but we knew his abilities so we set up and spent a couple of days just getting all the sound up, then for the next few weeks we worked on groove ideas.

"We used a drum machine to set up quirky little beats to work on." Hill goes on, "We came up with 75 percent of the album just from creating in the studio. John would take the half-finished song and would write words to it and then we would adapt to the words. I think for the first time we have an album that is fresh off of the creative process being recorded. I like it. It's not as deep as some of our other records where you can tell we've really thought about the production and the arrangements. On our last record, 'Bastardos!,' we had a lot of ideas that were, I think maybe too many ideas thrown in together. So you have a lot of sound effects, a bunch of different guitar parts and keyboard parts and vocal harmonies. This album, I think, was really a reaction to that where it's much more clean, it's the five of us playing, a couple of dubs hear and there, but for the most part it's just what we did at the moment."

I wonder how much of the material has that jam feel according to Hill.

"A couple songs do," responds Hill. "'Forever Ode' is one song that John wrote for the people that served overseas in our military. It's not a total military song, but a tribute to them and at the end there's a little jam out, where we're just improvising a little bit. And then there's a song called 'Free Willis, ' which was an idea that John had for having Bruce Willis do a spoken word thing over a blues groove. I think that turned out pretty cool, it's definitely out there, it's pretty surreal, but we wanted to have Bruce be part of the album and I think he did a really cool job."

Hill has a family and likes sailing (he has a sailboat in Seattle).

"I have a passion for cars, unfortunately not the energy-efficient cars," laughs Hill. "Anything to do with a motor I love tinkering around with. Last year we started playing golf on our days off, that's been a fun hobby. I'm not very good, but it's fun hitting a small white ball with a crooked stick and try to make it into a hole. It's expensive too, but we try to find municipal courses and try to not look too foolish."

Hill also plays with Stolen Ogre in Seattle when he's not on the road with Blues Traveler. They have a surrogate drummer for when he's not available and have released a couple of CDs.

"I love working with bands that we meet on the road or that are local in Seattle that need just a little advice and help. I love to push them in a direction or help them out in finding their sound," adds Hill. "That's another great attribute of having a lot of time when you're home, you can dedicate some time to up-and-coming bands, which is great because there are a lot of great musicians out there who need just a little push and need to be heard."

But for now, Hill has been seeing some road time with Blues Traveler.

"The way the band's touring now is pretty lean as far as the crew and the way we do things. We can play any size venue," Hill says.

They are planning to tour in Australia in the spring, as well as perform at Lollapalooza and theAustin City Limits Musical Fest.

"We look at it as this is our job and as long as we're having fun, as long as there are people out in the audience having fun that it's what we're meant to do," Hill concludes.

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