John Popper feels a bit rusty. He hasn’t interviewed in a while and admits that he’s spent most of 2020 in his pajamas watching TV. Deep in the woods of rural Washington State, where the wi-fi is spotty, the Blues Traveler frontman is slowly finding a connection to Netflix and knows it’s Saturday when Saturday Night Live comes on. “I really am the guy who can just sit there and watch television—that’s really all I need,” Popper tells American Songwriter, reflecting on the past year of life during the pandemic. “This was the longest space of time off we’ve had apart in 35 years. The last time we took a break this long was 1986. I just graduated high school, so the break before that was childhood.”
Despite a year of forced respite, Popper’s days were far less idle than he professed during those pandemic-induced boob tube binges, and he spent most of his time recording a new solo album and the Blues Traveler’s 14th release Traveler’s Blues.
On Traveler’s Blues, nothing new was written. Instead, Blues Traveler reimagined their favorite blues standards and a few contemporary tracks, a “controlled experiment” that proved to be one of the biggest challenges for the band, even after more than 30 years together, says Popper.
There’s no overproducing blues. It’s meant to remain raw, improvised, and unexpected and guided by those 12 bars. “That entire genre has been a wellspring for us over and over again,” says Popper. “People use these songs, and come back and play them, and they have an eternity about them. For us, it was a great exercise in what everyone has been telling us literally our entire career, which is play less. Less is more when you’re playing a blues song, but the thing that we were always railing against as a band is what the tradition of blues was supposed to be.”
Regrouping in Nashville in 2020 with Willie Nelson producer Matt Rollings, the band—Popper, along with guitarist Chan Kinchla, bassist Tad Kinchla, keyboardist Ben Wilson and drummer Brendan Hill—jumped into nearly a dozen songs, many of which intimidated and inspired them.
A follow up to their 2018 release Hurry Up or Hang Around, Traveler’s Blues moves through varying ages of blues, from Son Seals’ 1978 song “Funky Bitch” and Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball & Chain,” featuring Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, and into Jimmy Reed’s flickering “You Got Me Runnin” (featuring Crystal Bowersox on piano and harmonica), with Popper and Warren Haynes dueling out vocals on Mississippi Sheiks’ 1930 classic “Sittin’ On Top of the World.”
A pretty faithful rendition of “Crazy,” finds Popper effortlessly keeping pace with help from Rita Wilson and John Scofield on guitar. “I thought it was an odd choice to put in, but it works,” says Popper of the Gnarls Barkley hit. “‘Crazy’ was the hardest for me to get phrasing wise. I could not for the life of me get that little configuration of rhythmic phrasing. It took me forever, but thank God Rita came in and saved my butt.”
Traveler’s Blues is a blues, rock, and soul trifecta ignited by its faithful followers, through a gut-busting rendition of Little Willie John’s 1956 single “Need Your Love So Bad” and the crunch of The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues,” Blues Traveler go as far back as they can, even into the 1920s vaudeville blues on a stirring “Trouble in Mind,” featuring Keb’ Mo, a song covered by Nina Simone and Johnny Cash before the Blues Traveler’s captured it.
Staying mostly faithful to songs while reviving others is the finer line on Traveler’s Blues. “We were going for a multiple sort of frenzies and notes, and that’s what we’re used to, but what we had to learn to do was get our rocks off in the most sincere way, using a more traditional approach, and that was a real challenge,” says Popper, “but there’s something really pure about taking the approach that everyone has been championing entire career. This was a controlled experiment.”
Throughout the band’s career, they’ve always tried to break down the barriers of what blues was, and instead of slowing things down, Blues Traveler sped things up. On occasion, even old-school harmonica players have told Popper that he plays too many notes.
“Our identity is Blues Traveler, and we want it to be the idea of blues in the sense that it’s true and honest playing of improvised music the way blues is, but we wanted to take it out of the traditional genre,” he says. “That was what led to being a psychedelic jam band because it was taking an improvised blues setting and taking it to the extreme.”
Now, more than 30 years since their self-titled debut, Popper is proud of the band’s fortuitous legacy and new rhythm.
“It used to be a mad cat adventure where you didn’t quite understand the place you were going to, and you weren’t quite sure about it,” he says. “Now, you remember, the truck stops, like ‘oh, this is that truck stop where they’ve got really good pants or good coffee. We were real road dogs, doing 300 days a year for a long time, but don’t think we can do that anymore. I think we’re gonna have to recognize that we’re getting old. Inevitably, that becomes the thing you can’t escape.”
Popper adds, “We haven’t had to compromise too much and we’ve gotten to pretty much do what we want. We made a pretty nice living, and we’re still making that living—it’s been good to us.”