Ten Questions for John Popper
- Rob Cullivan
- Portland Tribune - Features
On Feb. 24, John Popper, the lightnin' fast harmonica-player and singer of Blues Traveler will bring his new side project, the Duskray Troubadours, to town.
The show will be at 8 p.m. at Peters Room at Roseland Theater, 8 N.W. Sixth Ave. Admission for the 21-and-older show is $20; for more info, go to roselandpdx.com.
The Troubadours' debut album, which guitarist/producer Jono Manson mostly co-wrote, echoes the sounds of Little Feat and John Hiatt. The Tribubne caught up with Popper, who lives in Snohomish, Wash.:
Portland Tribune: How did you hook up with Manson?
John Popper: Jono was one of the first people I met in New York City (back in the 1980s). He was a mentor when Blues Traveler was coming to New York.
Tribune: Besides your songs with the Troubadours, will you be doing any Traveler stuff?
Popper: We'll slip some Traveler stuff in there from time to time.
Tribune: How do you go about writing a song?
Popper: I think what I'm drawn to is a melody, a cadence. Sometimes you just have a melody you have in your head and you want to put words into it. Sometimes it's the melody that I'm singing into the answering machine. There is no one way.
Tribune: How is your harmonica playing different with the Troubadours from Traveler?
Popper: Blues Traveler vocally and harmonica wise involves a lot more acrobatics. The harp playing is a lot more subtle on (the Troubadours') album. I have melodies to cling to.
Tribune: Blues Traveler will turn 25 next year. What are your plans?
Popper: We just finished a writing session in January for the 25th anniversary. (Adding the band will release an album, as well as possibly a collection of B-sides.) We are really going to make the most of it. You don't turn 25 every day. We just plan to tour the ever-loving crap out of the country.
Tribune: You've noted that Dan Akroyd, aka Elwood Blues, inspired you to take up the harmonica, but also credit Jimi Hendrix for influencing you. How did you create your particular style of playing?
Popper: Elwood sounded like Paul Butterfield, so I went to … get his live album and I would listen to 'Driftin' and Driftin' ' every morning. (Popper says he then got into Muddy Waters, Elmore James, John Lee Hooker and the most innovative blues harmonica player of the 1950s, Little Walter. He credits Sugar Blue - best known for his harp solo on the Rolling Stones' 'Miss You' - for inspiring him to tackle the upper register of the harmonica.) If you just spend some time and exhale on the upper register, there's just patterns you find. There's little triplets you'll find as you start to move your lips on the harmonica. Scales become revealed to you that way. Eventually you just break up your phrases and move around the harmonica at will.
Tribune: Some fans of harmonica have knocked you for playing too fast. How do you respond?
Popper: I went to see (the movie) 'Amadeus' years ago, and they said that about Mozart, too, and I felt really cool.
Tribune: You've spoken before of your admiration for Howard Levy (former harmonica player for Bela Fleck). Any other harp players you admire on the scene right now?
Popper: Jason Ricci. (Adding Ricci is often compared to him. 'I have a feeling I annoy the man slightly,' he adds with a laugh. However, he says Ricci is a great player 'who uses amp technique in a very different direction than I do.')
Tribune: With the H.O.R.D.E. touring festivals in the 1990s, Blues Traveler revitalized the jam band scene. Any new jam bands or festivals you like?
Popper: There's actually talk about bringing H.O.R.D.E. back. We'll know more as the summer progresses. Bonnaroo (festival in Tennessee) is a great extension of that. (As for festival bands, Popper name-checks Galactic and Thievery Corporation, singling out the latter because 'they blew me the (expletive) away!')
Tribune: You've collaborated with DJ Logic and pursued other projects. What's the musical future for John Popper?
Popper: I would love to actually get a little deeper into hip hop and then have a country kind of thing. There are three types of musicians: the session player, who can play any style of music; the street player, who does one or two styles to the maximum very well; and the jazz master, who puts himself into any style of music. That's what I'm after.