Water To A Thirsty Man: John Popper On Blues Traveler At 30, New Album, Col. Bruce & More
Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Marcus King, Chris Wood, Andy Falco, Bruce Hornsby, Nels Cline, Eric Krasno, Todd Nance and many more. (A full archive of more than 50 The Art Of The Sit-In features is here.)
Sooner or later, any chronicler of the jam scene circles back to John Popper, one of our unquestioned pillars and a reliably sharp personality.
After taking time off the road in 2016 to address injuries, Popper’s come back in a big way in 2017, not only with a set of tours underscoring Blues Traveler’s 30th anniversary, but also with a series of more intimate solo and duo shows that frame Popper in a different setting than many fans are used to.
Popper — who turned 50 this year — has seen plenty in his decades with the scene. Here he is on Blues Traveler’s longevity and its forthcoming album, growing as an artist, jamming with Dead & Company (and countless others), and the loss of old friends like the late Col. Bruce Hampton.
JAMBASE: Thirty years of Blues Traveler. Is that something you actively think about?
JOHN POPPER: Sometimes it’s something we actively try not to think about! It’s pretty amazing, to put in 30 years with something like this. And I know where the 30 years went, I wasn’t that wasted. [laughs] It’s just mind boggling. It goes by faster than you think. But we’ve had a lot of fun doing something that is original and creating a syllabus of work that we drawn from every day. Somewhere along the line it became in stone, concrete, a concrete reality.
I don’t know, I’m really impressed with us, but maybe I’m less impressed with concrete than I might have been. Concrete lives and breathes, too. Institutions that have survived this long aren’t as granite as I thought they were. They’re human made — that’s a neat perspective, and you learn as you get older the fragility of things.
JAMBASE: What’s kept you guys going you think? You seem to still like each other.
JP: You mention longevity like we were planning for it, or it was some system we came up with. We’re a family, I guess that would be it. We could never quite conceive of stopping entirely. I’d like to go do other things, and maybe now after 30 years I can really start pursuing some of them, but we’ve always had some reason to stick together. We just keep going. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen, but Blues Traveler is what we wind up doing because there’s a reason to keep doing it, just like a family would. That’s the way we look at it.
JAMBASE: Has the band changed much, fundamentally?
JP: People keep showing up and keep throwing money at us. As long as I’m interested, I’m here. And I’m interested. We were going to cap off 30 years with the album, and then, wouldn’t you know it, we wrote a really great album. I was really ready for it not to be that great. I was also waiting for the time when a band writes like how it used to write. And I think it’s because we were talking to Sam Hollander, our old producer, and because the last album we did, Blow Up the Moon, was such a concept album. So much work went into collaborating with different people that we didn’t get to write the way we normally do.
To use a toilet term, we were bound up. Writing this one, it was like we took a 70-pound shit. [laughs] In a good way, a really good one! We got a lot of the stuff we were holding onto out there. A lot of the stuff we did kind of off-the-cuff, too. “She Becomes My Way” is a song that came to me. My wife was like, “When are you going to write me a song? I don’t want to listen to other women’s songs that you’ve immortalized.” That’s what makes it hard. In the midst of it, I did write her a song and it’s a really good song. The other stuff we wrote shows what’s fun about us. We wrote it in kind of a hurry, but it was very natural.
We also went through shifting management this past year. One guy came in and was out in like a month, he just couldn’t take it. So in that process of finding managers, we still had to get to a place that made sense to us, and come together and write songs, and get a place to record the songs, and find a really good producer and lay them down. It took March, May and a little of June so get it done. So that, and the turmoil of management, and then hey it’s our 30th year and we need to get a tour together, we hung on to each other.
There was a time when we weren’t sure what we were going to do, and if there would be anything unique about the 30th year, and through that, we hung on to each other. That’s what this album is going to show. We lucked into a great manager — Jeff Castelaz — and when we showed these songs to Sam, whom we were originally going to have produce, he said, “Wow, these are like real songs, you need to find someone who does something more along these lines.”
So that’s how we got to Matt Rawlings, who’s done Willie Nelson stuff and all that, and a lot of it came together in Nashville, and we went to the Sound Emporium. Matt Rawlings was a stone-cold genius, and knew how to apply what he was great at like it was water to a thirsty man. It’s one of the more miraculous albums I’ve ever been a part of. We got a focused album out of a lot of chaos. It was the thing that we paddled toward, and we’re grateful to have the album.
JAMBASE: Do you enjoy recording?
JP: Generally, no. But this time more so than usual. The problem for me is that I think in a live setting. When you’re improvising live, and you miss something, it just goes by. You can fuck it up all you want. As long as you didn’t destroy the vibe, you can get away with murder up there. But on a record, you want a note to go exactly the way it sounds to you in your head. Maybe you’ll nail it once or twice. If you can get some of those moments in a recording, you really get something. Matt was very patient and came up with stuff I wouldn’t have thought of. Usually that’s trouble for me, but he didn’t try to dumb me down, either. He listened to my ideas and he had other ideas that were brilliant.
There’s a lot of pressure to an album — the recordings live forever. Matt knows a lot about harmonies, and man, I thought I was pretty good as a harmony guy, but he’s just, wow. There’s a lot to backing vocals, for example, that you don’t even notice in a well-produced record that make all the difference in the world. I really can’t wait to hear the final album and have people hear it.
JAMBASE: You’re talking quite a bit about the way people hear things. I’m thinking of these Blues Traveler songs like “Run Around,” “Hook” or “But Anyway” that everybody knows and has heard a million times, and that you’ve played a million times. Do you still go searching for new things in these songs? Do they have anything else to reveal to you?
JP: What they can still reveal is why we keep doing them. They have to. That in-and-of-itself is something new as you get older, because you can’t believe you’ve been playing these songs for that many years and they’ve taken on meaning for people. When you first write the songs you don’t think they’re any different from any others, but then “Run Around” and “Hook” now are like these excaliburs you draw in a set when you really need to tell everyone, OK, here’s a big thing for you.
It’s funny. We had these shows for a while, back in the day, where like an army of 12-year-olds would show up and be bored through our two-hour show except for those two songs. And then during those two songs it was like a fucking Beatles concert. And then you had the rest of the crowd who were there forever and were like old hippies, who loved the rest of the show and then didn’t like it when we played those songs.
JAMBASE: They were there for the 15-minute “Mountain Cry.”
JP: Yes, exactly! So you always had a faction of bored people, and for this one hot moment in time, we couldn’t escape it. I remember we’d call it radio-free Blues Traveler and radio-friendly Blues Traveler. That’s part of why we lasted so long: we managed to annoy people just to the point where it was a lasting thing but not something they couldn’t deal with. Ricky Martin had that song “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” which he beat to the ground, as he should have. We came right up, this close to annoying you like that, but didn’t quite. We were the ones you rooted for, maybe.
JAMBASE: How are you different as a songwriter now? I remember in one of our last interviews you described “Hook” as “the widowmaker” — just really hard on your vocals and playing for obvious reasons. But when you were younger you wrote like that.
JP: Oh, I would love to go back in time and beat the shit out of myself, and say, “Do you know you’re going to be singing this for 30 years?” Once I do “Hook” each night, my voice is different after that. It’s such a beating. It’s the highest note I can sing, subdivided as many times as I can sing it, with a super busy harp solo right in the middle. There’s not even time for a gulp in there, let alone a drink of water. You get a frog in your throat, even a little one, it’ll fuck the whole song because you never get a chance to swallow.
But what I still like about my songwriting is that I get to an honest place, and I can get to a flow where I can say things very well. I found out when I was younger that I had great dexterity with my tongue and vocals, so I’d write like I was in a laboratory — look what I can do to impress people! That’s what a younger guy does. You’re at a physical peak. I’ve sung as loud as I can sing, and no matter where I go, I’m still me. That’s a revelation from an older songwriter. So what you arrive at is a more honest version of the younger songwriter. You decide, when you’re older, how you feel about things. The revelations of a younger person are, wow, I just noticed this, and then you start to form your view of things. When you’re older, you can decide what has value and what does not. I’ve noticed, to my great surprise, that people value my opinion, and that I enjoy other people’s insights. I hope I’m not just being an asshole. You’re interviewing me and I’ve agreed to talk to you, so we’re both deciding based on those choices that someone wants to read what I have to say.
JAMBASE: True enough. What of your other projects would you like to return to? Duskray Troubadours? John Popper Project?
JP: I would love another whack at Duskray Troubadours. I’ve actually done three separate projects, including that, the Project band with DJ Logic, and then there was my Zygote album [from 1999]. I’d love to somehow mix all three of those, but the players are scattered to the winds, and doing other things. There may never be those moments again — not just the people but the time and place you’re in to do these things. There is something else I’m starting to work on that I hope I can get going. It’s only the beginning.
JAMBASE: You’re going to tease me like that?
JP: Ha. I’m going to see what Taj Mahal is doing. I’ve always wanted to make a record with Taj. It’s very, very early.
JAMBASE: How is your health these days, if you don’t mind my asking? You had some trouble last year.
JP: My spine collapsed on my neck. I thought it was just my bad posture but it was more, and I feel it as I keep rehabbing it. I could probably stand to replace my knees, too. There’s something wonderful about turning 50, it’s like, I made it to 50, now I can be old. It’s kind of a wonderful feeling. My knees are like, “Fuck you, you’re 50, who do you think you’re kidding?” But my wife is 28, and she doesn’t like that part at all. She’s like, “We’re going to Disney World, and you’re going to walk.” Well, OK, but I want one of those little Rascals — the scooters. Get me a god damn Rascal. That’s a weekend!
JAMBASE: I also wanted to ask about your upcoming John Popper shows, where it’s just you and Ben [Wilson on keys].
JP: Yes, that’s right. If I can get the thing going with Taj, it’ll probably transition into that. But those shows. My voice is an older man’s voice now. To get to sing to just a keyboard it’s amazing. There’s a song called “Cara Let the Moon” off [2012’s] Suzie Cracks The Whip that got me falling in love with not having to sing to a drumbeat. It’s because I’ve sung to a drumbeat for so long, but I’ve taken other songs, put them without drums and just sung them acoustically. There’s real power in that — it’s amazing the places I can take a song. And Ben is so good at following me. He has to sort of read my mind on where I’m going to pause things, and the result is a pretty fun show. We were excited that City Winery wanted to do these with us. We’ll keep doing it. It’s a lot easier on my voice. I’ve had to come up with ways to sing easier after my neck was collapsing.
JAMBASE: I have to ask you for a sit-in story — you with someone else, someone with Blues Traveler. What comes to mind?
JP: Well, the one thing was the Colonel [Bruce Hampton]. I’ve never had someone just pass away on stage, that was a new one for me. That was really the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen. I’ve talked a lot about that one.
I’m trying to remember some of the ones we had out with us. Vernon Reid we had recently. That’s like falling off a log, when you get someone like Vernon to jam with you it’s just kind of simple. You let him go, and you let him know when you want to pull him back in. The song you’ve established, and you’re going to take it for a walk, and you’re communicating with your eyes on when it’s time to come back.
I’m trying to think of what else. I went to this Dylan jam in Nashville that was cool. I was hanging out with Mickey Raphael and he just let me go up there and play some [with Texas singer Paul Cauthen].
I’ll tell you one thing. When I see Dead & Company, I never bringing my harmonicas because it’s rude to assume anything. And then, whenever I don’t bring them is when they ask me. [Wife] Jordan knows all of them. We go to see them and sometimes I’ll throw some harps in my pockets just in case. One time was “Casey Jones,” and just before we left I was in my hotel room thinking, “Do I need to bring that extra harmonica that’s in that key?” which of course is the key “Casey Jones” will happen to be in, and it’s not like I can tell them to switch keys, right?
That was fun, I ended up playing cross-harp on a pretty straight version of that. The next time we saw them after that was in Colorado. Oteil [Burbridge] came to sit-in with us at Red Rocks. I brought this big coat with me with all these smuggler’s pockets, and I had like 12 harmonicas clanking around as I walked — I was Johnny Rattlepockets. And then of course they didn’t have me up, they weren’t having anybody up. And then we’re at Sundance, and [Bob] [Weir] asked me to come play with him there, and I had to go find a harmonica. Every time I’m expecting to sit-in, they don’t ask. Every time I’m not ready, they want me up. You want to sit-in with Dead & Company? Don’t prepare anything, but prepare.
JAMBASE: You mentioned Col. Bruce, and after his passing, you shared a number of unfiltered thoughts on the heaviness of that night. Have your feelings on what happened changed at all since?
JP: I think it’s the most brilliant way to leave this world, if you’re a musician. Throw your own 70th birthday party and stay there forever, in a way. I mean, who hosts his own wake? He also prophesied he would, and that’s kind of amazing, but that’s also in keeping with the Colonel.
The one thing Oteil said to me at the time was, I just don’t understand why I wasn’t there. But being there was the hardest part, when he went. I’ve always had this fantasy — and every player does — what if I die on stage? You see The Rose where Bette Midler gives the final performance, and with her last breath sings the last line of the last lyric. But what really happens is the paramedics yank you off the side of the stage and go to work on you. It was heart rending. Maybe the toughest part is you’ve got to be outside with people and try to explain what’s going on.
I still don’t quite know what to say. And as his friend, I’m selfish, I want people here. That’s the thing. My view of death, having lost people, is, fuck you death. I know you’re a natural part of life, but fuck you, anyway. My motto is to go kicking and screaming. No one said you had to be a grown-up about death. So I greedily ride and hold onto and horde my friends as long as I can, and make no apologies. All of my friends and loved ones — it might be fair in the grander scheme, but that’s not the game I’m playing today, so fuck that. If there’s ever a question as to whether I’ve died or not, start reviving me. Maybe I’m still there. I’m of that school. I like the unlikeliness of things. That death is more than likely for all of us makes me resent it.