Blues Traveler Joins the Under the Sun Tour
By Kyle Eustice
John Popper apparently had a bad month in March of this year. While seeing a Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas, the Blues Traveler vocalist grabbed a drink with a woman who allegedly put a roofie in his cocktail. He woke up with $2500 in cash missing from his wallet and an absent Rolex Presidential watch, valued at $19,500. It’s safe to say he had a bad night. That’s a far cry from how Popper’s life has been going as of late. His life has been looking a lot better over the past 15 years. In 1999, Popper was at the height of his career with Blues Traveler, although he had one serious problem. He weighed 400 lbs. One evening in June, he was sitting in a hot tub with his girlfriend and life seemed perfect, until he felt an excruciating pain in his chest.
“I’d felt these chest pains for a year, but I usually could concentrate my way out of them or sit a little differently, and I would be feeling better,” the now 47-year-old singer said.
But this time was different. The near fatal heart attack landed him in a Los Angeles hospital for a procedure to unblock one of the arteries to his heart, in which one of his arteries was 95% blocked. Since then, he’s had gastric bypass surgery and lost a significant amount of weight, which he’s managed to keep off.
“Even though my weight started getting up high again, it was to be expected,” Popper said. “They gave me a medication to help with the binge eating and I’m down to 283 but I’d like to be about 270. I got as low as 238 and my head looked inordinately large. As far as a physical human being goes, I could be thinner than that, but I didn’t feel right. I was dizzy all the time. What they say is you gain some of it back over the first three years and then you plateau, which has pretty much been the case.”
Popper was born in New Jersey and moved to Seattle around 2004. He originally wanted to be a stand-up comedian, something he felt he could hide behind.
“It was a classic fat-kid-in-school thing,” he said. “That was my music, right there. You know I recently went to a comedy club in NY and I was leaving and the comedian started to give me crap and I gave him a funny heckle and I kinda carried the room. That was my one moment and I thought, “I gotta get outta here now cuz I’ll never be this good again.” I’m not a consistently funny comedian. I have my moments. That’s what I love about playing music. You can be somber, as well. But as a comedian, you’re stuck in one gear. You have to be funny and that’s hard.”
He found solace in music, especially with the harmonica. He has gone on to be one of the best harmonica players in the world.
“When I was three my parents noticed that I was harmonizing in church when I was singing,” he explained. “I had a true pitch. Someone recommended giving me musical instruments right away. A distant relative of ours was this famous bohemian cellist, David Popper, so they gave me a cello. I wasn’t a great reader and I never practiced, so I gave that up. I went through a whole collection of instruments. Anytime there was a teacher involved, I never enjoyed it. The thing about the harmonica was you didn’t need a teacher. You know, if it sounds good, its right. I had guitar lessons and the teacher tried to teach me to read “Love Me Tender” and I just learned it by ear and had him fooled for weeks. One day I played the rhythm a little different ‘cuz I was feeling a bit saucy and he said, “Where are you reading that from?” He found out I was faking and he threw me out.”
It was in his beginning jazz class that his music teacher heard him playing harmonica and told the band teacher about his talent. The teacher wanted Popper to play trumpet so he gave it a try.
“So I’m playing “She Blinded Me With Science” but as always, I had a secret stash of harmonicas in my trumpet case,” he said. “Now we’re going around the room doing solos and I hold up the harmonica. Luckily, it was the right key and the teacher said, “Go for it.” The next day I’m in the first string band and the principal is checking me out and everybody knew my name. It was really weird. All of the sudden, I was like the quarterback on the football team.”
Fame came after eight long years of playing with Blues Traveler. Their fourth album, Four, was released in late 1994 and exploded, catapulting Blues Traveler to a whole new level of notoriety. The single “Run Around” not only won a Grammy, but also broke a record for most weeks on the chart.
“In a way we expected everything to go huge,” he said. “When we got our first record and they made a video off of it, they would show it at minor league hockey games. We thought it was the coolest thing ever, but it was just terrible, actually [laughs]. So at every little increment, you think you’ve made it. But when Four really took off that’s when we realized, ‘Wow this is what making it feels like.’ It had been a really long climb, but the record company told us they were gonna break Blues Traveler that year and suddenly we were playing for all these Z Rock radio stations. They would have you come in and play for their DJ’s because they knew after they put you in heavy rotation, they wouldn’t be able to even contact you anymore. It was like, ‘Tomorrow we’re gonna make you huge!’ and suddenly 12-year-olds wanted to buy our record.”
Blues Traveler had perhaps the weirdest fan base ever, and possibly still does. Popper will be the first to admit that.
“There were our normal fans who were a bunch of hippies and then 50 million 12- year-olds who hate every other song we play except “Hook” and “Runaround.” And when you play those two hits, it’s like a Beatles concert. Meanwhile, all our regular fans are ‘Dead’ dancing to all our other songs and then they have to stand there disgusted while we play those hits. It was very hard to keep the two factions from killing each other. I think someone at the record company put it best: ‘We managed to be on the top of the charts just long enough without pissing everybody off.’”
Currently on the Under the Sun Tour, Blues Traveler makes a stop in Omaha on June 27 with Sugar Ray, Uncle Kracker and Smash Mouth for the Bank of the West Celebrates America free concert at Memorial Park.