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Blues Traveler: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Written by Terry Roland for The San Diego Troubadour
"Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us."
-from Sirach, one of the Apocrypha of the Old Testament
There is a lineage, a succession of real music, handed down from generation to generation. This is known among those who have witnessed the timeless relevance of the culture and authentic art of music. But, it rarely happens in the mainstream pop scene of overnight success. It's a world that will just as easily consign the same artists to overnight failure. It's not easy staying relevant in the music business. It's even harder to be acknowledged for not only surviving but also thriving in the art of the musical passion once pursued in early youth. Like their own forefathers in classic blues-based rock music, Blues Traveler have pursued the raw passion of the music they were raised on throughout their 20 year career.
The Princeton, New Jersey-based band found fame during the turbulent years of the '90s and then side stepped the commercial trappings to rebuild, re-invent, and return back to the raw energy of their early days. This is not new. Artists like Bob Dylan, who still carries the archaic '60s Prophet label, has consistently grown artistically over the last 50 years. Remember when the Beatles stripped away the production heavy music of their late-'60s psychedelia period for the Get Back sessions? We can hardly breathe without mentioning Johnny Cash and his final decade, returning to his own blues-laced acoustic country music with the help of Rick Rubin. Over the last five years Blues Traveler have taken the same path, beginning with their stunning album, Cover Yourself, with acoustic reinventions of their own legacy of songs. Last year's follow-up, North Hollywood Shootout, extends this natural growth with a combination of electric and acoustic production, still stripped down the basics, giving the band the same spontaneity that drove them into the national limelight in the '90s along with their peers, the Spin Doctors and Wilco. In 1994 they broke into the pop charts with the Grammy-winning "Run-Around," also charting with the infectious song "Hook."
In 1999, with their days of phenomenal pop success behind them, they continued to "do what they do," as drummer Brendan Hill succinctly stated. The tragic loss of bass player Bobby Sheehan to an accidental drug overdose caused them to re-evaluate, soul search, and re-emerge with keyboardist Ben Wilson and bass player Chan Kinchla, the brother of lead guitarist Tad Kinchla. With this new line up they have continued over the last decade to forge new musical territory, deepening their legacy and keeping their live shows exciting with passionate performances.
I recently spoke with drummer Brendan Hill, covering the band's history and their current direction. Brendan showed how this band has stayed vital through their personal unity, positivity, and respect for the musical torch they have been handed by the other "famous men" of their musical ancestry.
San Diego Troubadour: With 20 years under your belt as a band, a huge body of recorded work and legendary tours, what direction do you see the band taking today?
Brendan Hill: The new album is a reaction to a direction we started with our last album, Cover Yourself. We recorded it in Austin and every thing was stripped down to hear acoustic sounds. We keep things as simple as possible now, not too many overdubs. There's a natural flow to the music. With North Hollywood Shootout we had the opportunity to work with David Bianco. He had a long list of great artists he had produced and worked with in the past, including Fleetwood Mac, U2, and the Stones. We really wanted to work with him. We had a meeting and agreed to go for spontaneity. So John only brought in three or four completed songs. The rest were written during the sessions. We'd start with a drum groove, jam, and let things be the way they wanted to be. You know, there'd be a spark of an idea we'd go with. In some of the studio records the spontaneity of the live shows was missing.
So like other live bands, say, the Grateful Dead or the Allmans, there's a struggle to create what happens in live shows in the studio?
Yes. That's right.
Is North Hollywood Shootout a return to the feel of your early studio work?
Yes. On our first record from 1990, we went into the studio from playing live songs at a local bar in New York City. There was this enthusiasm, energy, and a raw sound we liked. We'd go in and play. We had to come to terms with the studio and live performance being different animals. A lot of our peers in music were really into jamming and experimenting. In New York City our friends were bands like the Spin Doctors. We liked to jam, but we'd often get complaints that the songs on the albums were too short. But, we'd record the songs and then flesh them out during the live performances. The songs would change, then, with extended jams as we played them live.
Tell me how you began.
We first met in a high school jazz band. We were 14. We got together and became a basement band. John took over as singer. Eventually, Bob was playing bass. When we were seniors John moved to New York City and blazed a trail for us. He graduated from high school before the rest of us. In 1987, after we graduated, we moved to New York City. At first we were playing small clubs for rent and food. Any money we made above that went back into the music. We'd buy better instruments and equipment. It was all pretty equitable. We built a following in New York.
How did you break out nationally?
David Graham, Bill Graham's son, heard a live tape of us. He sent us a letter. A guy from A&M records came to see us live. We were signed in 1989. Bill Graham had us opening for the Allman Brothers. Later we'd open for Santana and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Then Bill died in the helicopter crash. It was tragic. We learned so much from him. We learned how to make each show something special. Like the Dead, you know, rotating songs in the sets for repeating audiences.
It seems your music is rooted in R&B, soul, and the hard rock of the late '60s, something an old guy like me can really appreciate. How have you used these influences as a band?
We all bring different influences mostly from the bands of the '60s and '70s who were still recording and touring during the '80s. I was into Led Zeppelin and the Who. John loved Jimi Hendrix. He wanted to do with the harmonica what Hendrix did with the guitar. He wanted to bring something new that didn't sound like a harmonica. Bobby loved the Grateful Dead. So, we had this stew of influences. Riff rock, some really fast shuffles, music that couldn't fit into a single genre.
Tell me about your involvement in the Band tribute?
We're huge Band-influenced fans. We're asked to do a lot of tributes. We totally wanted to do this one. We did "Rag Mama Rag." It was an honor. We also did "Imagine" for a Lennon tribute and "Freebird" for Lynard Skynyrd. I don't know why these songs hadn't been taken by someone else. It was crazy.
How have personnel changes affected your music?
We still consider Ben Wilson (keyboards) an original member. And there's also Tad Kinchla on bass, Chan's brother. We call them both the new guys, but they've been with us for ten years now. We call them both the new guys, but they've been with us for ten years now. Before Bobby passed, we had huge success. The '90s had passed and we lost some steam. Bobby's death was just tragic. When the news guys came on in 2000, we had to re-create ourselves. The music industry had changed. There were the big conglomerates out there, so we decided to start as though we were a new band. We did it the way we did when we first began. We jammed for a while to get the feel. We expanded the sound. Our new bassist, Tad Kinchla, was different than Bob. He had this rolling, flowing feel. Tad has a more syncopated jump feel to the way he plays. As a drummer, I've had to change my playing quite a bit.
Have you encountered any personnel or professional problems that have affected the band?
Well, the death of one of our members was hard. It was so cliché to pass away because of drugs. But we've stuck together. We're the same people, we have the same stories, and we've stayed friends.
We're survivors. No matter what happens, we still find it fun. We feel like we're still 17. On tour, we travel on the tour bus and we golf together. We all have families who we miss. After months on the road, we may not see much of each other, you know, seeing the same old faces can get kind of old. But, when we come back together we fall right back into it.
Has going against the grain of mainstream music cost you anything in terms of commercial success?
Going in, we became immediate radio darlings. But, after that, you find that people turn on you pretty quick. Being on the "out" thing makes you new in some ways. We just go out and do what we do. We never went through the trends to stay current. We've never dressed up in spandex to play. We've been labeled a '90s band. We've also been called "hippie hard-core." We've been called a jam band, but we also like to rock out. We're not traditional in that way, you know; we don't take acid and then experiment with a song that's meant to be a pop song. We come closest now to the "hippie hard-core" label.
What in Blues Traveler's future?
We're breaking up [laughs]. Not really. We'll keep releasing new albums about every 18 months. John's doing some solo work. He's going to record a country record. We're all trying to spread our wings. If you look at John's discography, its pretty diverse. He's played with everyone from Dolly Parton to death metal bands. We just played Australia. We were at the Byron's Bay Blues and Roots Festival. We'd like to do more international touring. We'd like to play in Africa. It's good because we make new fans. Its nice to have a new fan base.
Well, Brendan, it's been a pleasure talking with you. I look forward to seeing you in San Diego.
Thanks. See you there!