Blues Traveler’s Brendan Hill: 'Our fans are the best people in the world'
Blues Traveler's Brendan Hill says that one thing that has kept the band excited about new music and touring over the last 30-plus years is its loyal and eclectic fan base.
Blues Traveler performs Tuesday, April 25, at Hutchison’s historic Fox Theatre.
The stop is part of a current run of dates as the quintet — vocalist/harmonica player John Popper, bassist Tad Kinchla, guitarist Chan Kinchla, keyboardist Ben Wilson and drummer Brendan Hill — prepares a new album and for another season of summer touring, including an annual stop at Red Rocks in Colorado.
Formed in 1987 in Princeton, New Jersey, the group gained immediate recognition with its 1990 self-titled debut and, by 1994, had become a household name via the album “four” and the hit single “Run-Around.” The album sold more than six million copies and, thanks to “Run-Around” and “Hook,” remained a staple of radio as well in 1996.
Subsequent records included 1997’s “Straight On Till Morning” and 2001’s “Bridge,” the first full-length to feature Tad Kinchla on bass. (He joined the band not long after the 1999 death of original bassist Bobby Sheehan.)
Though the group has yet to reclaim its past commercial fortunes, it remains a staple of both classic rock radio and an eclectic blend of music lovers, ranging from those who have embraced the outfit’s more commercial side as well as its jam band inclinations. Blues Traveler may be the only band to have shared bills with singer-songwriter Jewel and progressive rock originators King Crimson.
In 2021, the band issued the beautifully executed “Traveler’s Blues,” which featured guest appearances from longtime friend Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule), Rita Wilson and longtime Willie Nelson collaborator Mickey Raphael, among others.
Brendan Hill recently spoke with KMUW about Blues Traveler’s current tour, its history and future.
What goes into preparing Blues Traveler for the road?
We have a management team that helps with the logistics, the buses and lighting and all that. So, it’s really just up to us to figure out if we’re going to bring back some old songs, if we’re going to learn some new covers, and, if we have a new group going on tour with us, it’s fun to think about collaborations and what kind of things we can jam on [with them] during the set that will be fun for the audience. Last year we went on tour with Train and Jewel. That was just a really fun summer because we did a lot of sit-ins. It was a huge production. This tour will be a little lower-key but we’ll have a lot of fun with the opening groups.
We like to do a completely different setlist [for] every show or make it as different as possible. We have this order of who writes the setlist: It goes me, Chan, Tad, Ben, then John. Every night you get kind of a different flavor of who’s choosing the songs for the night. It allows you to be creative once every five days. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] You put out a great record in 2021, “Traveler’s Blues.” Does that figure heavily in the current show?
We really enjoyed making that record. It was our little project during COVID. We went down to Nashville and Matt Rawlings [Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson] was our producer. We had some great sit-ins [and were able to record] some of our favorite songs which inspired us early on. We were able to re-create them and add a little Blues Traveler touch to them. We’ve been playing at least three or four of those songs live, at least we did last year. We’ll be bringing some of them back because they are fun to play even if some of them are a little more mellow, not as rockin’ as we normally do; it is kind of a nice reprieve, in the middle of the show, to do some of those older blues classics. We’re going to be working on a new record [this spring] in Nashville. So, we might be breaking out some of those songs. too, which will be a lot of fun.
Listening back to all these records over the last week or so I’m struck by one thing about you’re drumming: You’re one of the most patient drummers I’ve ever heard.
You’re right in the pocket.
Thank you. That’s a nice compliment. I appreciate it. We learned to play together from an early age. I met John when I was 13, and he was 15 or 16. I think there’s that intuition about what the other person’s going to do and about where the solo’s going to go. Chan joined the band a year after we got started, so I’ve known him and John for so long. When we write songs or play live or we go in the studio, it’s always about each of us doing our thing. Together it creates that sound that’s Blues Traveler.
When Tad joined the band, after Bobby’s passing, he’s got a different style of bass playing. A little more slap, a little more funk. A little more on top of the beat. It was a little bit of an adjustment in Blues Traveler 2.0 to keep the feel of the older Blues Traveler with the way that Bobby used to play, which was very fluid, more [like Grateful Dead bassist] Phil Lesh. But Tad and I work great together and we really trust each other. It’s been 22 years that [he and Ben] have been in the band. We still call them the new guys, but they’ve been with us so long that this is the sound now.
Some of my early influences were jazz drummers like Art Blakey, Max Roach, but I really loved John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, and Nick Mason from Pink Floyd. His fills [were something] that I would air drum to when I was listening to Pink Floyd records. I just love his playing, and he’s all about putting the perfect fill in there and then backing the band through whatever jam cycle they go through.
In Blues Traveler, there’s a lot of excitement and speeding up that the band wants to do when they get excited about a solo. [As the drummer] you have to rein it back, but I really do love playing [like that] and have done so since the beginning.
Do you think that one of the reasons for the band’s longevity is the respect that you have for the band as an ensemble? There are solos, but it seems to me that the music, the song, always comes first.
That's a good question. From the beginning, we've known that John is like the secret sauce. Whenever we’d go into a town for the first time, especially before we had records or anything to promote, we’d go to these blues jams and John would sign up to sit in with the house band. He’d get up there, nobody knew who he was, just this guy with a lunchbox of harmonicas or a bandolier, and he’d get up there and the whole room would be floored. That was his ability, to sync in with any group that was going on and play along with them. When it was his turn, he would just explode and blow peoples’ minds. That’s been our secret sauce for the whole time, but I think the band’s synergy of the four — and then five — members was [about] creating a sound that was unique and when you get that sound that comes from everybody putting in together, there is nothing like it. Blues Traveler can be instantly recognizable not only for the harp but also for Chan’s guitar playing, Tad’s bass playing, Ben’s keyboards, my drumming.
We’ve taken time off, especially during COVID. That was, for me, important. We’ve been playing live consistently year after year after year … on the road for months and months every year. When COVID hit we were able to take that break. Even though it was kind of stressful because there was no income, we were really able to miss playing live. You’ll see a lot of artists out there who [will say], “When we got back to playing live [I realized], ‘This is what I do, this is what I love and I’m so glad to be doing this! Thank you God for letting me be able to do this!” I think for us, it’s no different. When we started touring again last year for real it was, “I can’t believe we get to do this and make people happy and make people dance.”
Big shout out to the fans that came out last summer and this year coming up. We’re really looking forward to playing again.
Blues Traveler has never really stopped making records. There are bands with considerable histories who seem to say, “We’re not going to record any more new music.” Why has it been important for you to continue making albums?
Besides getting everything out of your head, little things you’ve been humming, it’s a way for us to keep things sharp and have new material for the road. We’ve got 160 songs behind us. It’s fun to record, and it’s fun to get out there and make new music. There’s always the chance that it will be something that people really connect with. We realize that the “Run-Arounds” and the “Hooks” and “The Mountains Win Again” that we’ve had in the past [doesn’t really fit with the music on the radio today] that goes Top 40, isn’t necessarily of that genre. But it’s still really fun to say, “John, that’s a great lyric, great melody. Let’s get it out there to people.” Hopefully, our fans and people who hear songs that get on the radio will say, "Let's go out and see them live." So it’s promotional but it’s also giving us a chance to express ourselves and to go in a new direction perhaps or try a different sound out.
It seems to me that Blues Traveler is a band that inspires loyalty in its fans. What is that like to see some of the same faces year after year, knowing that they're in it for the long haul?
Every Fourth of July we play at Red Rocks and this year is, I think, our 32nd consecutive year. That’s like the Blues Traveler Mecca. That’s where all the fans kind of converge because they know that we do it every year. That is a special event for us because we do see so many familiar faces. We really do perform to people we know are just really true-blue Blues Traveler fans.
Then you start playing shows, especially on the Train and Jewel tour, [where] there are maybe people who hadn’t seen us live or hadn’t seen us in 15, 20 years, something like that. That was really an opportunity to connect back with them. We have such a broad range of venues that we play. We play everything from small, 500-seat clubs to stadiums sometimes. We love all kinds of sized venues. When you're playing in that hot, sweaty club the people are right there and jumping around. You can play something and instantly they’ll respond. Or, if you’re playing a big basketball stadium or something, it’s very echoey. You have to play to the back row and make sure that everyone’s involved.
As far as our fans go, they’re the best people in the world because they’re like us. They love all kinds of music. They love eclectic sounds. They really respond to things like when we do songs that are a little bit out of the ordinary or [when we] pay tribute to one of our heroes or something like that with a cover. We're just really looking forward to getting back out there [and] reconnecting with all those people who just jumped on the bus this last year or who have been along for the whole ride.