Q&A: John Popper of Blues Traveler
The members of Blues Traveler have stuck to their collective guns over the band's 25-year history, following whatever musical path appeals to them at the moment.
The Grammy Award-winning, platinum-selling rock band continues that mission with its 11th album, "Suzie Cracks the Whip," which is due in stores June 26 on 429 Records. This time, the band decided to open things up by co-writing with artists such as Ron Sexsmith, Carrie Rodriguez, Crystal Bowersox, Aaron Beavers from Shurman, and the Spin Doctors' Chris Barron.
"It really opened our heads up," frontman John Popper told SoundSpike. "I think we've always wanted to try to do everything in house. But I had this solo experience [1999's 'Zygote'] with friends of mine. I got to be just the singer. I got to write with them on some of the other songs. On other songs, it was like me writing throughout the whole song. Other songs, I'd write a part of the song, part of the music.
"Getting to mix that up brings in all this new cool stuff about you that you didn't even know you had, and I brought that back to the band for this album. The way they took to that was amazing. The experience I had was like friends of mine coming to write with me. Musicians I'd known. We went with songwriters I'd never worked with before. That made it even better. We had no basis to judge their work other than the quality of it and what it brought out of us. That was a really cool process."
Blues Traveler -- which also includes Chan Kinchla, Tad Kinchla, Ben Wilson and Brendan Hill -- will spend its 25th year on a major U.S. tour dubbed "Last Summer on Earth Tour" with Barenaked Ladies, Cracker and Big Head Todd and the Monsters. The jaunt kicks off July 6 in Toledo, OH.
Using his wise analogies, Popper spoke to SoundSpike about "Suzie Cracks the Whip," the summer tour and the possibility of bringing back the H.O.R.D.E. Festival.
Are you looking forward to your big tour this summer?
John Popper: Oh yes, I am. Definitely. It's gonna be kind of a blast from the past. Actually, doing it I'll have to bunker down and work like I haven't in the past couple years. I'm psyched for that. I'm going to see how much I can sing. We're gonna do like four in a row and six in a row. It's kind of fun. It's been awhile since we've been on one of those kinds of tours.
Now, here's a blast from the past: I last saw you on the H.O.R.D.E. Festival in Clarkston, MI, with the Barenaked Ladies and The Black Crowes.
Oh cool. That was the last one we did in '98, I want to say. We're talking about bring that H.O.R.D.E. tour back. We want to find one location, like they did with Lollapalooza where you don't have to move around so much. That's really what kills the tours is trying to get all of that stuff onto trucks. Next year will be the 15th anniversary of the last year we did it. This year is the 20th anniversary of the first year we did it.
That seems like the perfect timing.
Hell yeah. I'm excited.
How is the setlist going to look for this summer's tour?
We've only got an hour, so people always want to hear "Run-Around" and "Hook," but we gotta put the new stuff in. The real question is will we have time for deep cuts? I think we always want to. We still alternate our sets so it'll be up to each band member. Hopefully, over that cross view of five different people writing the set each night, it will represent everything everybody wants. You gotta play new stuff and you gotta play the stuff everybody knows. We've got, like, 300 to 400 songs.
Onto "Suzie Cracks the Whip": You co-wrote with several musicians/songwriters. You mentioned that your bandmates were rather agreeable to that.
Well, I think once they saw how it worked, I think it nourished them. It was like a thirsty man in a desert getting some water.
That's a good analogy.
Each year you get some cool lessons. Something you get to learn that you didn't know last year. That's what I'm really grateful for.
The album was produced by S*A*M* and Sluggo, who worked with Katy Perry. Tell me about that experience.
They're awesome. They really have a great sense of the important aspects of what people enjoy about a record. I always liken the whole team to a Quentin Tarantino movie: It didn't matter about the details. It mattered more about the general emphasis of what you're saying. If a song's a little rough here or rough there, that wasn't the important thing. It was the vibe and what you're saying; if you could get to the meat of that, they had an incredible sense of getting that out of us. It made for a more exciting record. I think the rawer aspects of it made it a funner record. I don't think we have a simple fade. We made the songs like we were going to fade to it. If you hear the songs, they're just too much fun. They kind of just had to go 'til they ended. That was very much S*A*M* and Sluggo's style. They would have faded if they through it was appropriate.
That must have felt like a rebirth.
Definitely. It felt action packed to me. It made me excited to get up and see what we were going to do. When you're you, you don't know what's cool about you. What you need is somebody who can appreciate what you've done. "You know the cool thing is about you? That you guys always forget about?" That's really what we needed. They knew how to get stuff out of us that we really didn't know we had.
How was it to work with Crystal Bowersox?
She's a friend of mine. I met her through Steve Lemme of Broken Lizard, you know, the "Super Troopers" guy. He called me and said she was working down at South by Southwest and wanted me to come sit in with her. We hit it off right away. The way she sings, she turns bright red and gives it everything she has. That really reminds me of me. She also has the most fecal humor of any other singer, besides me. My mom calls it "German humor." When the two of us start going tandem, it's amazing. On stage, we'll be talking about bathroom humor until somebody has to stop us. The amazing thing is she sings so well. We were trying to look for everybody on the official channels. Just because I knew her, I knew she'd get it to me fast. It turns out she was going to the studio I did the solo record at to make her record. She was on her way to the studio and could do it for us in 20 hours, and there it was.
That was fast.
She gave us a real bargain, too. We were running out of money for this thing. It was really cool. She made me sound better. The way she sang, she had my voice down and then also put some stuff on it to make me sound really cool. I think it's my favorite duet I've ever done with anybody.
That says a lot.
How do you feel that "Suzie Cracks the Whip" fits in with your catalog.
I think it's a great capper. If this was the last album we ever did, I'd be very proud of that. You can never tell because we're still going. After 25 years, I think that is a great banner to stick in the ground and say, "This is where we're at." I'm very proud of this album. I think it's the finest work we've done since "Four." I think it's easily the best thing we've done in a decade. I would say, also, the last song on it, "Cara Let the Moon," is my favorite song I've written in a really long time, also.
What appeals to you about that song?
I'm just telling a true story. It's about this girl. When I was doing this solo band, we were playing at the Brooklyn Bowl. I thought she was cute. She was a real fan, but it became really clear, more than being into me, she was into the life and she wanted to swap our stories. That was cool, too. It really kind of moved me how much she reminded me of me when I was 20 years younger. It was sort of a homage to the life. I remember being in Brooklyn when I was a kid trying to get something going. These were the exact same feelings. It sort of evoked that. It was kind of cool. On the surface, it's about a guy who's kind of being rejected. But it's more about kind of a restoration of your childhood myths.
How many songs did you write for the album?
I was involved in the writing, in some way or another, for all but one. But ones I actually wrote completely, maybe three or four. Some I wrote some music. Some I wrote some words. Some I wrote all the words. Some I wrote part of the music. There's a contribution where you're finishing up the song. But I think I brought three or four songs in their entirety. We got great songwriters like Ron Sexsmith and Carrie Rodriguez then the old standbys like Aaron Beavers from Shurman and Chris Barron from the Spin Doctors. I think the cool effect is that, because you're seeing so many different styles of songwriting, it doesn't get redundant.
But the album sounds cohesive.
That is a great example of S*A*M* and Sluggo right there, is to find a thread that ties them all together, or some aspect. I agree with you. It sounds like we got together one time and we had one singular idea. But the songs to me, the biggest problem trying to do it all by ourselves is we would start writing the same song over and over again. This way the stuff that I did contribute all by myself has a nice contrast. If we didn't go and get other writers, it would all sound like those songs and then you get real tired of it. You need contrast in order to make something yummy. It's like the almonds really bring out the peppers.
You have some great analogies.
I think I'm just hungry, too.
18, 19 - Nashville, TN - Tin Roof
2 - Aspen, CO - Belly Up Aspen
4 - Morrison, CO - Red Rocks Amphitheatre
6 - Toledo, OH - Toledo Zoo Amphitheatre (Last Summer on Earth)
7 - Canandaigua, NY - Constellation Brands - Marvin Sands PAC (Last Summer on Earth)
8 - Kettering, OH - Fraze Pavilion for the Performing Arts (Last Summer on Earth)
9 - Chicago, IL - Charter One Pavilion at Northerly Island (Last Summer on Earth)
11 - Vienna, VA - Filene Center at Wolf Trap (Last Summer on Earth)
12 - Raleigh, NC - Raleigh Amphitheater (Last Summer on Earth)
13 - Charlotte, NC - Time Warner Cable Uptown Amphitheatre (Last Summer on Earth)
14 - Charleston, SC - Family Circle Stadium (Last Summer on Earth)
16 - Alpharetta, GA - Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park (Last Summer on Earth)
17 - Tampa, FL - 1-800 ASK-GARY Amphitheatre (Last Summer on Earth)
18 - West Palm Beach, FL - Cruzan Amphitheatre (Last Summer on Earth)
20 - The Woodlands, TX - The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion (Last Summer on Earth)
21 - Austin, TX - Austin City Limits Live at The Moody Theater (Last Summer on Earth)
22 - Dallas, TX - Gexa Energy Pavilion (Last Summer on Earth)
24 - Albuquerque, NM - Sandia Casino Amphitheater (Last Summer on Earth)
25 - Phoenix, AZ - Comerica Theatre (Last Summer on Earth)
27 - Universal City, CA - Gibson Amphitheater at Universal CityWalk (Last Summer on Earth)
28 - Las Vegas, NV - The Joint at Hard Rock Hotel/Casino (Last Summer on Earth)
29 - Valley Center, CA - Harrah's Rincon Casino and Resort (Last Summer on Earth)
31 - Saratoga, CA - The Mountain Winery (Last Summer on Earth)
2 - Boise, ID - Idaho Botanical Garden (Last Summer on Earth)
3 - Redmond, WA - Marymoor Amphitheatre (Last Summer on Earth)
7 - Apple Valley, MN - Minnesota Zoo Amphitheatre (Last Summer on Earth)
9 - Council Bluffs, IA - Harrah's Casino - Stir Concert Cove (Last Summer on Earth)
10 - West Allis, WI - Wisconsin State Fair Park (Wisconsin State Fair)
11 - Clarkston, MI - DTE Energy Music Theatre (Last Summer on Earth)
12 - Indianapolis, IN - Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn at White River State Park (Last Summer on Earth)
14 - Wantagh, NY - Nikon at Jones Beach Theater (Last Summer on Earth)
15 - Philadelphia, PA - Penn's Landing (Last Summer on Earth)
17 - Bethlehem, PA - Sands Bethlehem Event Center (Last Summer on Earth)
18 - Boston, MA - Bank of America Pavilion (Last Summer on Earth)
19 - Bangor, ME - Downtown Bangor/Bangor Waterfront (Last Summer on Earth)