All Hail Blues Traveler – 35 Years And Going Strong

Since their formation 35 years ago(!) Blues Traveler have been the epitome of road warriors touring relentlessly with the exception of when the world shut down thanks to the pandemic. During their formative years they played on average 250 shows a year. They, along with Widespread Panic and Phish defined what has been called the jam band, whose live songs were known to be epic that featured a lot of improvisation and songs that were anything like the traditional three-minute radio song along with drawing a large, loyal following. Led by erstwhile lead singer John Popper, along with Chan Kinchla on guitar, Brendan Hill on drums, Tad Kinchla on bass and Ben Wilson on keyboards the band found commercial success in the early mid ‘90s with songs like “But Anyway” and “Run Around” that made their way to commercial radio as well as placement in movies, television and commercials. Now celebrating 35 years together the band still keeps a rigorous tour schedule. Now on tour again, Chan Kinchla took a break to talk about all things Blues Traveler as they are about to kick off their 35th anniversary tour.

First off, congratulations of 35 years of Blues Traveler. That’s a rather big accomplishment.

Yeah, it’s kind of crazy. It kind of snuck up on us. I guess with the boring apocalypse we went through time just kind of got weird for a second – not that times didn’t always, but, but I mean 35 years sure seems like a long time. We sure had fun getting here.

I bet. Artists and musicians especially can be a volatile group. Not many bands last five or ten years, let alone 35 years. When you guys were first getting going did you ever think you still be doing this as a collective group after all this time?

What we always love; we always loved playing together. We started in high school in Princeton, New Jersey in ’86. In ’87 is when the band really kind of formed. We loved playing together and improvise and play shows in front of cool crowds. That was always kind of the foundation to what we loved to do. And all the rest, making records and songwriting and all the rest of that was obviously part of it. We just wanted to be a cool band that could tour and play and improvise and grow that way. That being the foundation helped us weather whatever drama, setback, successes and come back and do the live show. We’ve been very lucky to be able to keep that going and I think that’s kind of the root that keeps us fresh. The shows are different all the time. It’s a living, breathing experiment going forward.

How much goes into putting the song list for the live show?

We rotate through the different band members every show. That helps because every member has a different flair or favorite, so that helps keep them a little diverse. We’re limited to… John’s got to sing them for the most part, so we can’t so some serious belchers back to back to back. It would blow out his voice. That’s the only limitation. We keep it fun. We have to keep some hits in there. We don’t want the band that comes in and doesn’t play their hits when they come to see us play. We have plenty of room to dig around and we do a lot of improvising between songs – we call them in-tunes where we jab going from one song into the next song. We always make sure we have plenty of parts in the set we can stretch out and experiment and create in the moment. And that helps keep the shows lively for us.

When you guys first got started you came in at an interesting time. When you started in ’87 that was when hair metal was going strong, then power pop came back into vogue in the late ‘80s and very early ‘90s and then you go hit all of a sudden by the grunge movement just as you guys started to break. That must have been a lot to take in at the time.

Yeah, for sure. We weren’t hair metal. In New York City is where we started out, luckily the lower east side at the time had kind of little dive bars – in Greenwich Village too, so we could play five nights a week. There were tons of kids – crazy, lower east side denizen would come out. So we kind of worked our chops out there. But to get signed we weren’t metal. We didn’t fit into that category. We obviously weren’t pop. But we didn’t want to be that. We wanted – at the time they didn’t call them jam bands. We started playing on all these college campuses. We kind of fit into that college rock category. That was our home for awhile while college music was changing. We went from not fitting into any of the categories to eventually we fit all the categories. So in the mid-‘90s when we got all that pop success it was kind of reverse. We fit into almost any category. Like I said, we just concentrated on what we did – our own funky little blend. The whole college world was very into that. The jam band scene was coming around at that point.

You guys were very fortunate at the time you came around. College radio quickly picked up on you guys. The around the early and mid ‘90s commercial radio picked u p on that format creating a modern/alternative rock format that you guys fit perfectly. That’s when everything took off for you guys. Do you remember what you guys were doing the first time you heard one of your songs being played on the commercial radio?

(laughs) It was actually something pretty funny. Being on radio was a big deal. The song off our first record, “But Anyway” – our first album came out in ‘89/’90 – somewhere in there. We were big on the east coast and the college scene. We were big in Colorado. We were big in other places, but Colorado always embraced us. It was the first stop off the east coast where we had a scene. And the first time I heard “But Anyway” on the radio was for a Coors Light commercial. Coors Light stole it. We had gotten kind of popular and they stole it. The first time we heard it was in the van. We thought they were playing “But Anyway”, but it was a Coors Light commercial. The first time we heard ourselves on radio was a Coors Light commercial.

What did you think about that? Back when we were kids you would hear of musical artists refusing to allow their music to be used in commercials even threatening legal action. Today bands actually look forward to having their music placed in shows and commercials. With a lot of bands I hear now I think of the commercial or show I heard it.

They say now with bands coming out they’re trying to get good placement, be it either in a movie or a commercial, or a video game. That’s a completely different world. Yeah, we were kind of pissed. We were kids. The best part is our first big payday was the settlement we reached in court. (both laugh) So the first time we hear ourselves and get our big paycheck was from a Coors Light commercial. That was our “welcome to the big time, kid”.

At what point did you guys think that “I’m going to be able to do this as my day job” instead of having to work one?

We were pedal to the metal from the get-go, and luckily in New York back then – the lower east side and Brooklyn where we lived was not expensive. We just piled into tiny, crappy little apartments and played five, six times a week all around New York City. So we quit our jobs pretty early. Then the colleges started to pay a little bit, but our touring has always been our bread and butter really early on. Back then we were playing 250 shows a year and we still made a mess of our finances. (laughs) Then we got signed, but the first three records didn’t sell much, but A&M stuck with us. Through all of that; touring, playing live it really was our foundation. It enabled us to do a lot more.

You guys are referred to as a southern jam band by many music critics. How did a bunch of Jersey boys become southern jam guys?

I don’t know. I think maybe it’s the harmonica? The Allman Brothers were definitely a band we aspired to be. Actually Bill Graham was our manager and he got us opening in our formative years – ‘90/’91 for the Allman Brothers. That was our advance doctorate in rock and roll – between improvisation and jamming. Maybe there’s some attachment to that. Southern rock has got that whole improvisational kind of jam element before that was the thing. Definitely some of that rubbed off us. I’m not sure. I have heard that before. Hey, we’ll take it. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve heard that before and it’s a compliment to me.

It’s like I’ve read about Kevn Kinney of Drivin’ N Cryin’ being considered a southern rocker and he’s from Illinois.

Yeah, I think it’s like I said – that jammy, roots rock vibe, which we all came up on in the ‘80s – Widespread [Panic]. That’s the funny thing back then. Down in Atlanta Widespread Panic was doing something similar to us and in the Burlington area Phish was doing something similar. When we were touring we would bump into each other. “You’re doing the same fucking thing! Wow!” It was like a thing. The college circuit kind of helped grow that whole thing. It was a pretty interesting time. We were all doing it on the live side of things.

Chan Kinchla performing on the “Last Summer On Earth Tour” in 2012. Photo ©Dave Weinthal

College radio probably helped you guys out because they weren’t tied to the three minute and out pop song.

And also the college kids would always travel around and exchange tapes. They would make tape cassettes and tape trading was the thing inspired by the Grateful Dead. Back then we were called Neo-Hippies – pre-jam band.

You guys had a new album that came out last year, Traveler’s’ Blues. How did you guys come up with the songs you put on the album?

For years we’ve been talking about doing a blues record. The band in high school used to be called Blues Band. We all really started coming from the blues – more of a blues foundation before we rocketed off into space. (laughs) When the pandemic hit a few variables came together and the whole thing fell together. We partnered up with Round Hill Records that has a huge blues catalog and got us down to a manageable list of songs to kind of weed through. And then it was just an epic email game of whittling down. In the end, our producer Matt Rollings has to get the credit for focusing it down to curating it down to a final list that had a full spectrum of music.

Would you say this is king of like your road trip tape?

Oh for sure. We were so happy to be playing after – 2020 was probably the first year we didn’t tour in 35 years. We were just so happy to be playing. The whole thing was really exuberant. We were just so happy to be doing something. It was really easy to get back to kind of our roots. It was kind of the blues record we wanted to make when we were 17 but couldn’t.

Known for being a live band did you ever find the studio restricting?

No. We always loved the studio, but it’s a totally different animal. We always approached the studio as a totally different way of putting music together. It like putting a puzzle together; getting really specific with ideas. Live, it’s all about capturing the environment and tapping into that greater consciousness or something – whatever it is. It part of where the “traveler” in Blues Traveler came from. In the studio you really need to be conscious of the parts you put together when working on something over time. It’s a different approach to make music. You tackle them separately. Jamming in the studio; it doesn’t come across listening to it through a little speaker of the car, they’re not in the environment. It’s just a different way of approaching it. There’s nothing like being in the studio for a couple of months creating something out of nothing.

There’s a lot of improvisation that goes into your music. How do you know where to end the song?

In the studio it’s very much where you’re jamming around with a song and try a bunch of different ideas and then listening back we’re like that’s the idea I should focus on that and make that a part. The improvisation can find some cool ideas, but then you have to weed them down to the good part of it. Really where the feel comes from in the studio is you’ll do seven o eight run-throughs of a song once you get the form down. Some just feel good. Some you’re in the right part of the pocket; the dynamics are right; the intensity’s right and that’s an elusive thing and that’s where the live – you can get into the recording. Now people make things over on Pro Tools on a grid and they put moving parts around and not even performances. There’s something cool about that, but you lose a lot of the emotion and feel of tracks as well.

How do you guys see yourselves now, now that you are veterans. What advice would you offer new bands?

New bands, they’re playing their own instruments doing rock and roll you got to get out and place live as much as possible. Keep your friends, barbecue, pray for five people on a Monday night at a local bar. Playing out in front of people, really focusing on the band. I know bands talk about, “Oh, I got this gig in two months. The only way to get ready for gigs is to play more gigs. (laughs) Get out and play live. That’s the only way to get it together. That would be my advice.

Being a guitarist do you have a favorite guitar or one that you play on specific songs?

There’s a lot of soloing and improvising going on. If I switch guitars, scales are a little different every time. If I’m going to switch guitars my fingers have to get used to it. For about the last ten years I’ve been playing a standard Les Paul that’s just kick ass. Back here is Los Angeles I play a Gibson SG that’s next to me right now.

Do you use the same guitar you use in the studio that you do live?

In the studio I’ll try a bunch of different things. The first option is usually what I’m comfortable live, but we always have a bunch of guitars in the studio to get different flavors and different sounds because you’re playing parts you’re not used to, so you have to get used to the instrument. There’s definitely a lot more variety in the studio. And it’s kind of fun to let that be a left up to fate kind of thing in my opinion. You can’t really plan that stuff too much in the studio., but definitely use what will give us a cool sound.

Blues Traveler’s John Popper performing at the “Last Summer On Earth” tour in 2012. Photo ©Dave Weinthal

I understand you were a promising athlete growing up, but were sidelined from that due to injuries.

I’m not sure about that, but very enthusiastic. I played a lot of sports. I loved anything I can do that’s one thing – guitar, practicing, running, practicing skills – whatever it is. I enjoyed that.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but what I read is you suffered an injury that made you give up on the sport. Was that a God send, that helped you choose your path?

I have to be honest. Years ago – 25 years ago we were dumb and assholes we made up a bio full of just bullshit and that was in there. It’s remarkable years how years later thing is still around. There was no injury. I decided rock and roll was the direction I wanted to head. College sports really didn’t work with that idea.

Your brother is in the band with you. What’s it like having your little brother in the band with you? Is there a sibling rivalry? I realize you guys aren’t kids any longer.

It’s awesome. I mean, my brother and I have always gotten along well. Of course we’re brothers and nobody pisses you off like your brother. Little stuff can just bug you. Honestly, we get a long really well. It’s really amazing. We spend so much time together that where some families go off and take trips together; when we have free time we certainly don’t want to hang out. (laughs) In some ways it keeps the family from doing stuff together, but me and him get to see plenty of each other. Really, it’s a wonderful thing.

You guys are finally out touring again all the pandemic. What have you missed most about not being on the road?

We actually toured all last summer – for two months last summer. We snuck it in there when Covid died down a little bit. That was amazing, but it’s nice to get back to a normal schedule where we’re touring on a regular basis. If anything, that year off made me realize how lucky we are to do what we do for a living and the gratitude we have playing music for a bunch of people on a regular basis. It’s what we always wanted to do and I think appreciate it. I appreciate it more as we go on. I always tell people the more I do it the more I like it.

– Dave Weinthal

Blues Traveler kick off their 35h anniversary tour on Friday, March 18th at The Signal in Chattanooga, TN