This interview originally appeared in Popmatters.
Over the last 20 years Blues Traveler has gone from underground jam-band stalwarts to mainstream multi-platinum success including a Grammy for 1994’s single “Run Around”. In that two decade span, they’ve also founded a festival (H.O.A.R.D.), weathered the death of a band mate and battled other personal issues while still continuing to release music and tour.
And in 2008 the New Jersey quintet is on a new label (Verve Forecast) and has recorded their latest album in a different way than previous albums. This time the plan on their ninth studio album North Hollywood Shootout released August 26th was to capture what rose the band up from the East Coast underground jam-band scene back when guitarist Chan Kinchla and John Topper (vocals/harmonica) founded the group in 1991. As the title suggests, the effort to harness Blues Traveler’s live ferocious mixing of improvosational blues, rock and singer-songwriter swagger was a new kind of challenge that forced the band to adapt a songwriting style they hadn’t explored before.
An hour before their Lollapalooza set on August 3rd, I had a brief chat with Chan Kinchla who took me on a tour through the new album, as he explained the difficulties of working with the new recording and touring approach, what it was like having Bruce Willis contribute and how it feels to play Lollapalooza 2008 as one of the few jammier bands on the bill.
We sat down at a table in the artist lounge backstage with the Chicago skyline as our backdrop as Chan took a swig from his drink, told me that he was excited, smiled a big hearty grin and unexpectedly offered up the interview’s first question jokingly asking who had been my most annoying interview so far over the festival weekend.
I dodged the question for obvious reasons. Kinchla smiled again and confidently assured me that I “hadn’t seen nothing yet.”
Luckily, he didn’t keep up his promise. And our chat was far from annoying.
How does North Hollywood Shootout capture the live show more than previous albums?
Well, with North Hollywood Shootout we wanted to try something different since last couple of records we kind of got in this singer songwriter mentality where we really worked on arrangements, trying to get the songs in a very tight form and then go in the studio and record them like that.
Then we realized that when we play live there’s so many things we sort of stumble on that we weren’t really getting on to our albums. So we decided to switch it up and try to do a lot more jamming which we did in the beginning of the record. Just playing, having some drinks and getting these cool little grooves going. Basically, we kept the parts that we liked, and sometimes we would take that part and make it the foundation for the a song or stretch it out and groove longer on it.
It took a lot of listening back for a long time and [producer] Dave Bianco (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Ozzy Osbourne, Mick Jagger and Teenage Fanclub) helped us find what was really good. We ended up having a lot more grooving on an album that we’ve ever had before and the recording process was really different for us, too.
How hard was it trying to capture that live element?
In the past we had really tried to separate playing live from recording in the studio. When you’re playing live you’re improvising, there’s people there in front of you and so much is going on onstage and in the crowd and new things happen every night. When you recording in the studio you’re going for a more precise goal, trying to get things exactly the way you want them. I think we were really trying to wed those two ideas together and I think we did a really good job and I’m looking forward to doing the same thing on the next record. We had a lot of fun recording like this album because songs would come out of thin air and we could play in a stream of conscience. The technology we have today also allows us to record like this. You couldn’t really do this in the past.
What’s most exciting for you guys about the new album and playing live this summer?
Since we’ve recorded it with a live focus all the songs are really playing great live and the crowds are loving them. People are getting up and cheering for new songs they’ve never even heard before. That’s really exciting because sometimes when you make a record, release it and then six months down the road there’s only like one or two songs that make it into the live set rotation. With this album we already have six or seven. I can’t wait until people have the album and they actually recognize them.
What are some of your favorites so far?
I’ve really been enjoying “How I Remember It”, and the first single “You, Me and Everything” and (pauses) “Beacons”. Sorry about that, I’m having a hard time remember the names of the songs because we always call them something stupid in the studio when we’re recoding them.
You have Bruce Willis on the album doing a spoken word blues rant on the last track “Free Willis”. How’d that come together?
Bruce has been a friend of ours for a long time and he sat in with us. John Topper and [Bruce] are good friends. They’re were hanging out and joking around and came up with this idea. That song is a live blues jam. We just played for 20 minutes and then Dave took all the best pieces and college them all together. Then Bruce came down, smoked a lot of pot, and then free-formed over the our jams. It was a fun experiment to try something a little different.
Is Bruce going to be a part of the live show?
Hey, if Bruce ever shows up, you bet your ass we’ll do it!
You guys have had some lineup changes over the years. How has it been working with those changes?
Well, since Bobby died we’ve had Tad in the band, my brother for eight years and the first five years of that was really learning how to build the band back up again and how to stay out of the way. We really feel we’re hitting our stride with this lineup. We’re able to relax and just play. It’s a lot of fun.
This is your second time playing Lollapalooza since you played in 2006.
Festivals are just a total crap shoot. You don’t have any sound check. You don’t know how you line up is going to play with the crowd, so you have to just throw your hands up and see what happens. It’s kind of nerve racking because you don’t have control over your own show. The most important thing is just to go up there and have fun, because the reality is that something will go wrong. You have to just roll with the punches.
We love playing in Chicago because we have a lot of fans here and I’m really looking forward to playing. Lolla has an alternative slant and the line-up especially. We’re one of the only jammier bands, which might actually work for us because it’ll be something different for the fans. There are probably a lot of alterny kids out there who have never heard us so it should be fun. We’ll be sure to bring the rock for them.
Now that was a promise that Kinchla and Blues Traveler kept as they fired rapid fire shots from Shootout while slipping in a few crowd favorites and multiplatinum hits.