Interview By: Victor Alfieri
When most people think of the band Blues Traveler, the songs “Run-Around” & “Hook” are probably what come to mind. The band, John Popper (vocals, harmonica), Chan Kinchla (guitar), Tad Kinchla (bass), Ben Wilson (keyboard) & Brendan Hill (drums, percussion), has been making music for 20 years, and the album Four was their biggest commercial accomplishment.
For many, that is where the story ends. One album later, the band had to deal with the tragic death of their close friend and band mate, Bobby Sheehan. For the remaining members of the band (Popper, Chan Kinchla & Hill), this was more than just losing a bass player. These four grew up together, went to school together and started what would become Blues Traveler in high school long before any of us had a clue of what they would become. They didn’t just lose a friend, they all lost a brother.
This past August marked the 10-year anniversary of Sheehan’s passing. You will see in the interview that follows, this isn’t a story of one band, but two: the band that Bobby Sheehan helped create, and the band that was created after he passed away.
VA: This band has been around for a long time, but it went through some pretty tough times. This past August marked the 10-year anniversary of Bobby’s death. Was there a point back then where you weren’t sure that Blues Traveler would continue?
Hill: I’m sure when it first happened, we all felt that way to some degree. Bobby died on August 20, 1999, and it took us all some time. We all had to see if it was possible to keep this thing going. We all had to do some soul-searching. It would have been OK for us to stop then, because I think we accomplished everything we needed to accomplish. But we still loved playing music together and we still had this bond, so we thought about it and decided to hold some auditions. Then when Tad joined the band, it was kind of like having a similar feel to a high school friend because he was Chan’s brother.
We decided to add Ben as a keyboard player because we didn’t want to re-create what the old Blues Traveler was. We wanted to start off with a new element. I think it really gave us a lift because it made us different enough so that we could write new music and it gave us a kind of second awakening.
VA: Did the fact that you all knew Tad make his joining the band easier or were there any problems with the transition?
Hill: It took a while for us to gel. Tad’s a different style bass player than Bob was. It took a while for me as a drummer. The bass and drums have to lock together. It took a little while for us to learn each other’s styles. I think I adapted more to his style and I think it made some of the songs change for the better. We had been playing “But Anyway” for 10 years and for us now to have this funkier kind of syncopated bass going on below it, it brought a new take to all of the old “standards.”
There were some growing pains. We had to re-learn a bunch of songs and we made a coupe of arrangement changes. Having the keyboards come in was actually freeing to Chan & John because they are now able to play rhythms and cords behind. Usually, back in the day, when John was soloing, Chan would have to pull it down and vice versa. So when Ben came into the group, it gave them both some freedom to develop a different path. I think it was liberating. It gave us a different approach to writing music because we now had the keyboards to create melodies. I think as a band, we grew a lot in those first four months when we first came together in 2000. Our writing approach was similar to the old Blues Traveler, but it foreshadowed things to come.
VA: When you did bring in Ben and were re-working the old songs, did you have any “ah ha” moments where you said, “We should have had this the whole time?”
Hill: Yeah, we always talked about adding a keyboard player, especially with a lot of songs on the albums where we brought in Chuck Leavell, and all kinds of great keyboard players to guest on records. Now we have a keyboard player in the band so he can re-create all of those moments. It was great. We were like, “We should have done this 10 years ago.” But I think making the band sound different from the original band also gave us an opportunity to start up fresh and made touring and everything new and exciting.
The new guys had a lot of energy and brought a new dynamic. We had to go back and learn a lot of songs over again, and after 10-15 years of doing the same thing, you get a little jaded. Having this kind of re-birth mid-career was exciting for us.
VA: Absolutely, you guys truly sound like two different bands. If you pulled out Travelers & Thieves and compared it to the more recent stuff, it is so different.
Hill: Yeah, I know. Even between our first record and our fourth record as a group, you can see the evolution of the group. I think we just kept pushing ourselves to get better and keep growing. We want to take on any challenge that people give us. On compilation records we’ve worked on, we were always, “Give us the hardest song you’ve got and let us try and work it.” That’s our motto, let’s work on stuff and just go through the paces.
VA: There was a lot of talk with the most recent album, North Hollywood Shootout, about how you wanted to “catch lightning in a bottle” with the writing process and put it all together in the studio instead of coming in with some pre-conceived ideas. How do you feel about that now and do you think you will use this style again in the future?
Hill: I think as a band, going into the studio is a real thrill for us. It’s where you get to really work on your playing and you bring in a producer as another member of the band to bounce ideas off of. We’ve done a lot of studio albums where you do a month of writing and then two weeks of pre-production, and when you get to the studio, you pretty much know exactly what you’re going to do.
We had done that over the last eight or nine records. I think the objective of this record was to see if we can go in there with a fresh approach and utilize the producer as we go. As far as whether it was the best process ever, I think it’s hard to say. Sometimes you come up with a song idea and you really want to bring it to the band.
VA: You guys have been road warriors for close to 20 years now. You must do 100 shows a year. What are the plans now? Are you going to take a break? Any plans to go into the studio?
Hill: We started this tour in May and will go through November 20th. Between that and a few dates in Australia earlier this year, it will be right around 100. We’ll take the holidays off and probably get back together in late February or March and see what we come up with. Whenever we are apart for more than a couple of months, everybody comes back with a bunch of ideas. That’s another exciting part of this. When you tour for six months and then take a break, it’s like having separate lives. So when you can bring a couple ideas after a break, those are usually the strong ones, the most developed ones.
We haven’t talked about recording, but we’ll probably get together in March and talk about writing and then get into the studio. We’ve had the new album out for a year, and it’s fun to play new songs. I think we all love that feeling of having new material and being able to try it out in front of crowds.
Blues Traveler is currently touring with dates going through November. For more information, go to www.bluestraveler.com. This band has always put on an amazing live show with great energy. They have made a specific point to keep ticket prices low. If you have a chance, definitely go out and see them.
Interview With Brendan Hill – Blues Traveler
blues traveler|chicks with guns|reality check|