The hook brings you back.
Over the past 30 years that Blues Traveler has been making music, the band has stayed remarkably consistent. Led by vocalist and harmonica player John Popper, and joined by Chan Kinchla (guitar) and Brendan Hill (drums), the only restructuring the band has undergone was around 2000, after the death of Bobby Sheehan, the original bass player. At that point, Tad Kinchla (bass) and Ben Wilson (keyboard) joined the band.
We spoke on the phone with Wilson to find out about their live shows, their songwriting process and how they’ve stayed together so long:
360: Fans may be most familiar with your songs from the mid-90s, but Blues Traveler has been putting out consistent albums since then. What can audiences expect at your show?
Wilson: You’ll hear some of the same material because we like to draw on our whole career. But it’s a different band now than it was — Tad, our bass player, is not Bobby, the original guy. We try to make a separation between the four-piece band that was, and the new five-piece.
360: You guys have been known as a jam band with a great live show. Tell us about that.
Wilson: Before “Run Around” and “Hook,” the reason they grew such a following was because of their live show. John is an amazing performer, and the band, especially early on, just brought just a ton of energy.
360: Did that change after your hits became so popular?
Wilson: That brought on a whole different crowd. They wanted to hear the hits, they didn’t want to hear the fifth song on the second album that was a fan favorite from before the band had hits. So over the years we have tried to blend those two worlds, the world of single-y, pop, melodic songwriting and then the more instrumental jamming stuff. We try to hit all our strengths.
360: That you’ve stayed together and productive for all this time is impressive — you don’t see that often.
Wilson: Yeah. We’re proud. There’s been a lot of turmoil and trauma like any group will go through, but everybody’s always had a sense of ownership in the band — musically and otherwise — and it keeps everybody engaged.
360: You just finished recording another album, to be released in January. Tell us more about that album.
Wilson: There’s a couple of songs that John wrote in particular that have that plastic, single quality but we really just wanted to focus on it being a real, organic rock record, going back to the old days. Tad and I were just in New York City; we got dropped off in the middle of a run and did some singing overdubs on seven or eight of the tracks, and man, I was psyched to hear them. They sounded really good. So hopefully other people will agree.
360: You guys live in different cities all over the country and are often working together recording or touring about half of the year. You’re still not tired of each other?
Wilson: We love to play together and we love to be together — that’s one of the things that’s kept us so real. We’re not pretending to enjoy each other, we’re not pretending to have fun. We really dig it, that part makes it easy.
360: With 30 years to go from, how do you decide the show’s set?
Wilson: It’s great to be able to have all these songs to draw from. Every night we switch up who writes the set. We end up doing some similar songs, but often in a different order and different ways to jam from “song A” into “song B.”
360: Tell us more about that sense of ownership you each have in the band.
Wilson: Every time you come out of a recording session, everyone individually and as a group has to assess what they’re bringing to the table in terms of how they’re fitting into the overall sound. There’s two things as a musician for me — there’s trying to be the best keyboard player I can be, but there’s also trying to be the best keyboard player I can be for this band. I think everybody has that mindset in the band, which is why we’ve been able to stay together so long and why we’ve been able to stay successful.
360: It sounds like you have a pretty collaborative songwriting process.
Wilson: Absolutely. Depending on the song, maybe John will have a melody written so he knows exactly how he wants the chords to go and then once you have an idea for how the drums are, the rest of the band can fly into place. A lot of the songs are like that; once the groove is set, you kind of know what you’re going to play. Some of the other songs, it’s more loosey-goosey. It’s very collaborative.
360: What roles do each of you play in terms of that process?
Wilson: Our roles are more just associated with the instruments that we play. Like for piano, it’s really quick for me to be able to play through a song and change chords so people can hear what it sounds like. So that’s typically my role. I can suggest maybe we play this groove like this, but that’s going to be more of a Brenden or a Tad thing. Or someone might say it’s too wimpy, it needs more rock, then that’s something Chan is going to do.
360: Are you on a mainstream label or an independent one?
Wilson: Right now we’re on no label. There are advantages to ownership, but there are disadvantages to distribution. The record business and the music business in general right now is going through some serious “creative disruptions” and we’ll see where things end up. It’s a tougher world out there, I feel, than when I was younger. But it’s also a good world — with the advent of all this digital music, more and more people can get involved.
360: What are the challenges you face doing the same thing for so long?
Wilson: It’s like anything, when you stop growing you start going the other way. When you’re doing it this long with the same band you have to battle against complacency and going through the motions. That’s not an issue for us on stage, but personally and in your own playing. It’s like anything as you get older.
360: What are some of the sources of your musical inspiration?
Wilson: Seeing another musician, hearing some new sounds, new music from some of your favorite bands, Donald Trump getting elected president and me wanting to write songs about it, racism in America, stuff like that. It energizes me in different ways musically, whether it makes me want to write songs or it makes me want to sit down and practice more, it makes me want to learn something different. You just gotta be open. You gotta stay open to the world, or you’re gonna get old and die.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Rockin’ on the River featuring Blues Traveler, opening bands Royal Bliss and 7 Devils
WHEN: 3 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Gateway Golf Center, 725 Port Way, Clarkston
COST: $32/person in advance, $40/person at the gate, free/5 years and younger, accompanied by an adult; purchase advance tickets at TicketsWest.com or local outlets listed at www.rockinontheriver.org
OF NOTE: Gates open at 2:30 p.m. Bring a lawn chair or blanket. Food and beverage vendors are on site; no outside food or beverages is allowed inside gates.