Blues Traveler have gradually received the music industry runaround ever since the top 10 success of Four 20 years ago. Since then, they’ve released albums every few years on a variety of labels with diminishing returns. That’s why they decided to take a thinking out-of-the-box approach to their 12th studio album, Blow Up the Moon, which comes out April 7. Ahead of its official release date, you can listen to an exclusive premiere of it right here:
Rather than hole up in a studio for several months and record new songs, the quintet led by original members singer/harmonica specialist John Popper, guitarist Chan Kinchla and drummer Brendan Hill reached out to a number of alt-rock band for collaborative assistance. Blow Up the Moon includes tracks co-written and performed by Hanson, Jewel, Rome Ramirez (from Sublime with Rome), Dirty Heads, Plain White T’s, Bowling for Soup, 30H!3, Secondhand Serenade, Thompson Square and New Hollow.
“We were desperate to find some kind of way to change out functionality,” says Popper. “My mentor Jono Manson suggested we do collaborations. We worked with professional songwriters — Ron Sexsmith, Carrie Rodriguez — on the last album [2012’s Suzie Cracks the Whip]. This album became an extension of that process of working with people we never worked with before. They appreciate you in ways you can’t appreciate yourself. The band took to it like ducks in water.”
Traveler’s manager, Lani Sarem at UD Factory based in Las Vegas, urged the band to be open to not just work with songwriters, but perform with them on the album as well. Plain White T’s, who pitch in “Nikkia’s Prom,” are now part of Sarem’s UD Factory stable.
“Lani had a wish list of people,” Popper explains. “We physically went to where they worked – we did a lot in Nashville and recorded in Dave Grohl’s studio in LA. The sounds were different. The album came out like Santana’s Supernatural.”
It’s an apt comparison, though Supernatural featured A-list stars like Rob Thomas and Wyclef Jean and went on to sweep the Grammys in 2000. But this could be Blues Traveler’s biggest success since Four, which produced two top 40 hits — “Runaround” (No. 9) and “Hook” (No. 23). Already, a couple of songs — the lead track “Hurricane” with 3OH!3 and *NSYNC’s JC Chasez, and the reggae-flavored “Vagabond Blues with Ramirez and Dirty Heads — are receiving airplay on SiriusXM’s Jam On channel.
Born and raised in Princeton, N.J., Popper, Kinchla, Hill and their deceased original bassist Bobby Sheehan attended Princeton High in the mid-’80s. They actually played in the PHS Studio Band that’s the focus of the Oscar-nominated film, Whiplash. Anthony Biancosino, known to students as “Dr. B,” was the instructor at the time. In the movie, he’s played by J.K. Simmons, whose portrayal as a no-nonsense screamer earned Oscar, Golden Globe and Spirit awards as Best Supporting Actor. But Popper doesn’t recall Dr. B berating his students like he does in the movie, especially Miles Teller who plays the drummer in the band.
“Well, he was little rough on Brendan,” he says about Hill. “He did yell at him. But not quite like in the movie.”
Biancosino died in 2003, the same year Traveler’s Truth Be Told album was released. The band now consists of the Core Three, plus Kinchla’s brother Tad on bass and Ben Wilson on keyboards.
During the band’s heyday, Popper conceived the HORDE Tour, which began in 1991 and crisscrossed the country for seven summers. The first year featured a who’s who of original jam bands — Traveler, Spin Doctors, Widespread Panic and headliner Phish — and succeeding tours included everyone from the Black Crowes to Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. Constantly asked if there are any plans to revive the HORDE Tour, the band has always left the door open. In fact, this summer Traveler will join up with 311 for a one-off HORDE show on July 9 at the Pine Knob ski area near Clarkston, Mich.
“We’re adding new acts to the bill every day and it’s going to be great,” Popper confides with a dose of his old swagger. “I’m bringing my sword!”