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Selfishness. It can be either a friend or foe in the songwriting process and the bigger musical world. For Blues Traveler, selfishness has been a long time coming. It's what drives the band's eighth studio album, ¡Bastardos!: a need for the band members to make themselves—and only themselves—happy while making music.
But ¡Bastardos! isn't merely about a bunch of selfish, um, er, bastards making themselves happy or being overly indulgent. Musically, it's about a band growing into itself not for the first, but the second time—remarkably—while simultaneously making sure to have fun and push the envelope creatively.
Ask the band members themselves, and they'll tell you: After scaling the peaks of both the jam-rock mountain and the pop charts fairly early into their career, they faced a bit of an identity crisis: Were they a balls-to-the-wall/let's-rock-till-dawn blues-rock band or a singles band? The Jay Bennett-produced ¡Bastardos! reaffirms that Blues Traveler is and has always been the former, the same band that built a devoted following from coast-to-coast for its epic sets, and for transforming the jam scene in the early '90s via its beloved H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) festivals. Today, they play to sold-out crowds at such massive outdoor venues as Red Rocks in Colorado, Wolf Trap in Virginia, and Pine Knob in Michigan.
"This is just us being completely ourselves, and not thinking about what we should be doing," says guitarist Chan Kinchla, noting that on previous albums the band spent maybe a little too much energy trying to appease everybody—from labels to producers to all of their fans. "Before we made this record, we decided, 'Let's just make records that we love and regardless of how they do commercially, at least we love'em and they're all ours'"
But make no mistake, while ¡Bastardos! may not have been written and recorded with the radio in mind, that endless hooky side of Blues Traveler—be it in Kinchla's riffing or frontman John Popper's harmonica blasts—is still very much intact. They remain one of the few kingpins of the jam scene who can actually back up their grooves with carefully crafted songs and stories that are both witty and catchy.
And most of the stories running through¡Bastardos!, the band's debut for Vanguard Records, focus on falling in and out of love, and what can happen before and after a heartbreak: "During the process of making this record I ended my engagement, fell in love and caroused a lot," says Popper, the band's lyricist. "John's been mixing it up romantically a lot more recently," says Kinchla. "It's almost like he's singing about stuff that someone in their early 20s would be going through, because in the past he's always been so insulated and kind of a loner. It's been fun to watch him explore that side of life."
As Popper exorcised his loneliness in such songs as "She and I" and "She Isn't Mine," he, Kinchla, Wilson, drummer Brendan Hill and bassist Tad Kinchla (Chan's brother) turned demos and arrangements inside out or upside down and experimented with horns and syncopation and time signatures. Says keyboardist Ben Wilson, "We didn't want to feel like we were making the same record we already made. We didn't want to feel like we were chasing our tail. We were like, 'In the climate of what's going on right now, let's just get out and rock out and play some songs that we like and maybe some of that attitude will shine through on the record.' And I think it does."
Essential to the band's approach was producer, solo artist and ex-Wilco multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, who quickly assumed a sixth member role, shining a light on the best of the band's ideas and cherrypicking the unpolished gems in the ¡Bastardos! demos and turning them into jewels, while also shining a light on each of the band members' individual strengths. "He was the voice of authority, but he was very much an equal," says Wilson. "Instead of it being like a 'producer on high' sort of thing, ya know: 'No, we're not doing that, no we're not doing that, no we're not doing that.' It was more like him sitting there listening to us come up with ideas, and going, 'Oh, I like that. I like that. I like that.'"
As a result, the current version of Blues Traveler found itself truly congealing for the first time in the studio. Following the death of founding bassist Bobby Sheehan in 1999, Blues Traveler—which until that point had always been a quartet—added Wilson on keys and Tad Kinchla on bass, recording Bridge (2001) and Truth Be Told (2003) as a quintet. While every great band owes its good fortune to good chemistry, it more often than not takes years to develop that chemistry, and thanks to the rightly selfish approach they used on ¡Bastardos!, founders Popper, Chan Kinchla and Brendan Hill found themselves finally hitting their stride with Blues Traveler 2.0.
"When Tad and Ben joined the band, there was already a certain dynamic in place between John, Brendan and I, and they were respectful of that," says Chan. "They didn't feel comfortable asserting themselves. But now we've all found our places in the sonic mix, and emotionally. It's us as a band for the first time since Bobby's death."
Formed in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1983, the band grew a passionate regional following for its sweaty, titanic live shows which often found Popper, Chan, Hill and Sheehan jamming endlessly into the night. At the center of it was the ever quirky Popper. With harmonicas strapped to his chest, he was part lion at his most roaring, and part Campbell kid at his sweetest. At his right was Kinchla, the Energizer bunny of guitar players, whose rhythmic, bright but gritty style proved a perfect compliment to Popper's voice, phrasing and harp squonks. Anchoring it all down was the ace rhythm section of Hill and Sheehan.
High school friends, the band moved to New York City early on, where it became a mainstay on the club and bar circuit, helping ignite a new generation of jam music fans at such beloved venues as the missed The Wetlands in lower Manhattan. It wasn't long before the road became their new home, and jams became their calling card. Balancing renowned musicianship with accessible songcraft that blended pop hooks with blues- and rock-influenced grooves, the band's rep grew for its explosive live performances. In 1990, Blues Traveler bowed on A&M Records with a self-titled release, which spawned the minor hit and fan fave "But Anyway." The band quickly returned with Travelers & Thieves a year later, and released its third album, Save His Soul, in 1992.
In 1994, the band released Four, an album that would change its members' lives, after hitting big with the singles "Run-Around" and "Hook." Winning a Grammy for the former, the disc went multi-platinum. Suddenly, Blues Traveler's pseudo-hippie H.O.R.D.E tour was ballooning. Running for the better part of a decade, over the years the Blues Traveler-created festival featured such rock heavyweights as The Allman Brothers Band and Neil Young to such future stars as Phish, Dave Matthews and Sheryl Crow, not to mention a countless list of some of the hippest acts in recent memory, from Ben Harper and Robert Bradley to King Crimson and Morphine.
On the heels of Four, the band gave its new mainstream audience a taste of its onstage power via 1996's double live album, Live From the Fall. A year later, the gloriously hooky Straight On Till Morning followed, and the band hit the road again. After more than 15 years together, the album-tour-album-tour-do-another-tour cycle was wearing the band down. "We were frazzled," says Chan. "So we took a year off because we were just burnt out." Sheehan's passing came during that break.
When the band regrouped for 2001's Bridge, it obviously had a lot of musical and emotional work to do, but the expansion of the lineup helped matters immediately. "The new guys brought so much life into the band," says Chan. "It gave us a chance to reinvent ourselves." In 2003, the band returned with Truth Be Told, as well as a DVD and live album documenting its celebrated shows at the scenic Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver.
After eight albums, six gold or platinum plaques and sales of over 10 million discs, things seem to be finally coming together for Blues Traveler—again. "I would say it's this five piece's Save His Soul," Wilson says of ¡Bastardos! "I think this is us. It's no more new guys: this is Blues Traveler. That's the serious side, and on the fun side, it's like, 'Well, godammit, we go out, we rock out every night, so let's have an album that rocks out. Here it is. I hope you like it. Let's have some fun. Let's not be so serious. Let's make some records. Let's have a good time; it's music for godsakes.'"
After beginning rehearsals in Austin, Texas in March to finish writing the record, the band decided to record there. "As the rehearsals began, we realized that we were shooting for a fall release, so we put the pedal to the metal and all the recording just fell into place," says Wilson. "The cool thing about that is that the new lineup pretty much formed in Austin five years ago. They had auditions for keys and I was flown there to try out and got the gig. Tad had joined a few months earlier, so it was our first go with the new lineup. We immediately started writing songs for Bridge. After the writing session, we went to a local studio to record good demos and worked with the engineer there, Jim Vollentine. Ironically, we discovered that same guy now works at Texas Treefort, where ¡Bastardos! was recorded. Things kinda came full circle."
The album's Spanish-flavored title "can be taken from a few different perspectives," says Chan. It can be seen as sort of an homage to the bastard blend of musical influences running through the disc, or it can be taken just as literally as the translation implies: the bastards. "It's an album where we're not worrying about what everybody else is thinking about us, where we're just trying to be true to ourselves. But it would be kind of fun to be seen as those bastards that just did what they wanted."
Blues Traveler Song List
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