John Popper Interview: Blues Traveler Frontman Talks New Album, "Hurry Up & Hang Around"
Image attributed to John Popper
John Popper is a founding member of Blues Traveler, serving as the band’s frontman with lead vocals and harmonica. They are known for such hits as “Run Around,” “Hook,” “But Anyway” and “The Mountains Win Again.” Other current band members are Chan Kinchla, Tad Kinchla, Ben Wilson and Brendan Hill. Bobby Sheehan, a co-founder of Blues Traveler, passed away in 1999.
In 1999, Popper released a solo album titled Zygote, and he has performed with Dolly Parton, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Paul Shaffer, Metallica, Cee-Lo Green and the Dave Matthews Band, just to name a few, on vocals and harmonica. Blues Traveler’s latest album, Hurry Up & Hang Around, is slated for release October 12, 2018. Popper is on solo acoustic tour in September, and Blues Traveler will be touring in October and November of this year.
"Throughout this entire process, we had nobody to hang onto but ourselves, but we pulled together. Dang if we didn’t write a really good album."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): John, how’s the tour going?
John Popper: It’s going pretty good. I fell down some stairs a few weeks ago and broke my shoulder, so that’s kind of annoying. A broken shoulder’s never fun, but apparently, I can work. I can sing and play. As long as I don’t do any of my world famous choreography, I ought to be fine. Yep. No cartwheels. None of my backflips. The bus ride is the worst. You bounce all over the place.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was going on at the time you decided to write new music?
John Popper: It was our 30thyear as a band, so we knew we wanted to make a record for that. I’m always fond of saying it’s in the “being-in-a-band” handbook. You know, it’s in the union bylaws. So we wanted to make an album, but we were so late because we were dealing with a previous manager, and it rolled around. It was 2017, and here we are as a band. We’re 30 years old, and we had no logistical setup or plan to make this record.
So we got another manager in a hurry, and he lasted about three months before he couldn’t take it anymore. He was our manager long enough to get us set up in a house where we writing what became this album. We were also auditioning new management, and that’s where we met Jeff Castelaz and his people. Throughout this entire process, we had nobody to hang onto but ourselves, but we pulled together. Dang if we didn’t write a really good album.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes. It’s some really great music.
John Popper: Oh, thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Some of the songs were previously written before you worked on this album?
John Popper: Well, yeah, there’s a couple. I think we were saving some of our good stuff because the album before was a collaboration album with various artists, so we couldn’t just bust out our own songs. We had to write songs fresh with somebody. We did stuff with Jewel, Bowling for Soup and Plain White T’s, just a bunch of different bands. You wanted to go into each song fresh and write a song with that person. We couldn’t use songs that we’d been writing and had on us, so the best ones of those wound up getting saved for this album.
For me, it was one song in particular, which was “Ode From the Aspect,” that I wrote in 2013. That’s a song with just me and a keyboard, and I sort of felt like I owed the crowd that song. Some of them were bits and pieces of lyrics or song parts we were saving, then we’d get together and fuse them together with the other song parts that the other guys had.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did “Accelerated Nation” come about?
John Popper: That is an example of a song by Chan Kinchla. He had a great guitar riff, and he sewed it together. He got with the guys, and we whipped that into a song. I had a few lyrics that led me to finish the lyrics that fit to that. That’s how that song came to be.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): One of my favorites is “She Becomes My Way.
John Popper: Oh, yeah. That one was my wife straight up asking me, “How come you haven’t written a song for me yet?” (laughs) So that puts the pressure on when somebody’s demanding a song. But luckily, I had the idea, so it just came like that. That was me trying to do my best Jackson Browne.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You answered her “demand” quite well (laughs). I heard a tinge of gospel in the song. In fact, the entire album is a mixture of sounds from rock to soul and blues.
John Popper: Well, thank you. I think a lot of it had to do with us going with Rollings. Matt Rollings is such a great producer, and he has that gospel aspect in him and knows how to bring that out of us, what gospel we have and what blues we have. He made us reach out rom beyond what we’re used to out of our comfort zones. But there’s such great harmony to him. He really made us come up with stuff that had stability to it but was also really new for us. We got really lucky that we got a hold of him.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): “Daddy Went a Giggin” sounds like a takeoff on “Frog Went A- Courting,” the old folk song.
John Popper: Yes. It was intentional. I think I even said, “Sword and pistol by his side,” at one point. There was a point to that. I was trying to do that. Yeah. I was trying to make it sort of like a lullaby for my daughter.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is she three now?
John Popper: Two and a half.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does she listen to daddy’s music?
John Popper: Oh, yeah. She likes it. I’m not her favorite though. I think her favorite is “Got My Mind Set on You,” by George Harrison. It seems to be her favorite these days.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): She has good taste.
John Popper: Oh, yeah. And Steve-O. She loves Steve-O, too.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You had an early interest in becoming a comedian?
John Popper: Yeah. I always wanted to be a comedian, but I’m not quite funny enough. I’m just funny enough to know I’m not funny.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why did you pick the harmonica?
John Popper: It sort of picked me. It was the Blues Brothers on Saturday Night Live, so I got fascinated by that instrument. I had played a bunch of instruments before and had to sit there and practice. Whereas, the harmonica came really easy for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So it just came natural, and you never needed to practice?
John Popper: Both. The first day, I could play songs on it. I played almost immediately. I would sit in my basement with the TV at half volume and just play until I got tired, watched TV and played some more. I must’ve spent years doing that. So it was both.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I play the piano, so how long would it take for you to teach me the harmonica?
John Popper: It would be pretty quick. Exhale, you get a C major chord. You inhale and get a G dominant chord. Right there, you’re already kind of laying out what sound you have to work with. Inhaling and exhaling, you can get scales out of that. It’s a cross between a piano and an auto harp.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): At what point, did you feel that Blues Traveler had “made it” in the music business?
John Popper: (laughs) I’m still not entirely certain we have.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Okay. Very funny. I believe that you have made it (laughs).
John Popper: I’ll take your word for it (laughs). There are two times I can remember specifically. When we were doing the H.O.R.D.E. tour, and after the gig was over, we went to a local Burger King and they were out of food. That meant we’d brought enough people in to the town to come see the show that we wore out the local fast food joint. That’s definitely a sign that we were doing something right. The other time is when you get a gold record or something you can show your parents. You can say, “Look. I have a job.” They can’t argue with you because it’s official.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were your parents supportive of your music career?
John Popper: Oh, very. All of our parents were supportive of all of us in the band. They wanted us to go to school, so they basically said, “If you go to school, we’ll support you. If you want to do this band, you have to get a job.” So we all just pretended to go to school, then skipped school, and that’s how we supported ourselves in the early days. As soon as we were paying our rent, we all quit school. The idea was to try and avoid actual work as much as possible.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you still feel that rush of excitement performing live as you did 30 years ago?
John Popper: Yeah. You get addicted to the terror of it. I always have this fantasy that I’m gonna walk out there and just urinate, forget how to speak English, fall on the floor and go fetal. But it never happens. But that’s what gets me out there, like you want something disastrous to happen.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Really?
John Popper: Well, in a way. It’s like you’re daring it to happen. But it never really does. I’ve had nights where it has gone horribly wrong, but it’s never as bad as you think. But in your mind, it’s the worst thing that could possibly happen at the time. You’re like, “Oh, my God, what could happen now? I could forget all the words.” I’ve had nights where I’ve forgotten all the words.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was Gregg Allman a great influence on you?
John Popper: On all of us. He taught us a lot. He was a sweetheart if you caught him at the right time of day. I think overall he was a sweetheart. But, yeah, Gregg was complicated.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who do you listen to?
John Popper: I like Tom Waits. I like Jimi Hendrix. It’s hard to stray from the Beatles. They’re kind of perfection. Lucinda Williams. There you go. I like Brandi Carlile. I like singer-songwriter stuff. Growing up, I was all about the instruments, John Coltrane and Hendrix. That was all about the discipline of that. But it all stemmed from the Blues Brothers. That led me to Paul Butterfield. Somebody said Dan Aykroyd sounded like Paul Butterfield. Butterfield led me to Elmore James, and then I found Jimi Hendrix. From that point, everything was open. All possibilities were available.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): About your political views, I’ve read that you call yourself a libertarian.
John Popper: Well, yeah. Ron Paul was running for president a couple of years back, and I went to that. But it’s still just a mob of people who are angry at everybody else (laughs). So I tend to shy away from politics a bit now. I think I’m real suspicious of any group that says, “We know what we’re doing.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’ve had some rather colorful experiences on Twitter.
John Popper: (laughs) Yeah.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you like social media?
John Popper: I think Facebook’s where I actually get to be me, and Twitter’s where you go to fight somebody. Twitter’s like a weird schoolyard where you’ve got to throw your belt at somebody. And I don’t know why that is. But if you say anything or take any position of any kind, somebody will be very angry at you.
I think the sport for people on Twitter is to be angry at people they know. They want to build you up. They want to tear you down. That’s what they always say show business is, but it happens over and over again on Twitter so fast that you just kind of hold still and it’ll be back around (laughs). You’ll be popular and hated in another five minutes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you see in the future for Blues Traveler?
John Popper: Well, being Blues Traveler, we’re kind of who we are. So in a sense, we just celebrate that and grow as a band and as a family and keep finding new ways to express that. But I’m also going to go do solo stuff and see what I can do there. Basically, Blues Traveler is a base of operations. And from there, you go out and find new stuff, and you bring it back to the band.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In addition to the Blues Traveler shows, you are also touring solo?
John Popper: Yeah. That’s me with the piano kind of singing songs torch style. It’s some new stuff and some old stuff. It’s actually a pretty fun show because I get to talk more to the audience. I get to be a little funnier. I’m not quite a comedian, but it’s a fun show.
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