Drummer reflects on Blues Traveler's journey
Blues Traveler may have something special planned for their dates at Chinook Winds Casino Resort in Lincoln City on March 6 and 7 — the band usually does. The group that began as a high school "basement" band in 1987 in Princeton, New Jersey, is known for its improvisational live shows, with elements of blues, rock and soul.
The band's biggest hits include "Hook" and "But Anyway," and "Run-Around" won a Grammy Award in 1996. The song reached No. 8 on the U.S. charts and had the longest run in history (49 weeks) on the Billboard Hot 100.
The Portland Tribune visited with drummer Brendan Hill via phone from his home in Bainbridge Island, Washington, to discuss the band, which kick off a 14-date tour that ends in Annapolis, Maryland., in mid-May:
Tribune: How long have you lived on Bainbridge Island?
Hill: Since 2005. My wife and I moved to Eugene from New York City in 1993 and lived there about 18 months. Eugene was a little bit small compared to Manhattan, so we decided to move to a metropolis. Seattle was our choice. We had a couple of friends who lived up here. We decided it would be a cool place to live. I really love the Northwest. We're ensconced, having been here for almost 30 years. We have a sailboat — Puget Sound is right here — we love skiing and hiking, the beaches. ... We have everything.
Tribune: You were born in England. How old were you when you moved to New Jersey?
Hill: I moved with my parents from London to Pennsylvania in 1976 (at age six). My dad got a job as a film production teacher at Penn State. We then moved to Princeton in 1978. I got involved with the high school music program in high school, and that's where I met John Popper (the Blues Traveler singer/front man). I had a basement band at my parents' house. Throughout middle school, my older brother Sylvester and I played in this band. In high school, I met John, and he was such a big talent. I thought, "Man, I've got to have that guy in my band."
Tribune: You, John and Chan Kinchla were in Blues Band together, and when Bobby Sheehan joined on as bass player during your senior year in 1987, you became Blues Traveler in tribute to "Gozer the Traveler," the demon on "Ghostbusters."
Hill: Yeah, there were a few other "blues bands" around (laughs), so we took the "Traveler" name. Whenever we used to jam in our high school days, it felt like there was an entity or a fifth presence there with us. So it seemed appropriate.
Tribune: You, John and Chan are still together after all these years.
Hill: John and I started in 1983, Chan joined us in '85. We all moved up to New York after high school and decided we had a common goal. We had these big dreams. Madison Square Garden was one of them. We played it three or four times. That really was a dream come true.
Every band has success and luck in its story. We were playing a frat party at Columbia University in '88. One of the students there was David Graham, son of (rock promoter and one of the legends in music) Bill Graham. David took a tape of us home over the holiday break and said, "Dad, you have to listen to these guys." At the same time, we were being courted by A&M records. The next year, we got a letter from Bill Graham saying, "Do not sign with anybody. I'm on my way to New York. I'm going to catch one of your shows. Love the sound."
The next couple of years, we were managed by Bill and his son. We were granted this license to create and had a great contract with A&M. From then on, we've been able play our music and had a lot of successful moments that we're super lucky to be part of.
Tribune: Are your band members spread throughout the country?
Hill: John lives in Snohomish, so we're close. Chan lives in Studio City (California) and Ben Wilson (keyboards) is in Austin (Texas). We get together at different venues to practice when we make records and have writing sessions. We're very democratic. We all come in with different ideas and go around the room with song ideas and hash them out. John usually likes to write the lyrics.
Tribune: How cool was it to have David Letterman say you were his favorite band in the '90s?
Hill: As kids in the New Jersey area, we'd all stay up and watch Letterman every night. The bands he'd have on his show were were really cool, and of course there was (band leader) Paul Shaffer. Our first record came out in 1990. We were in Virginia somewhere when we got a call from management that there was a spot open on Letterman the next night. The catch: They only wanted John and Chan. Bob and I were, "What?" They flew up there and played along with Paul and the band. The next time, a year later, the full band got to go on. Dave loved the young energy and us jamming along with the band. He took a shine to us. We had a really good connection with them. We hold the honor of playing the Late Show more times than any other musical act. I think it was 15 or 16.
Tribune: What did it mean to win a Grammy for "Run-Around" in 1996?
Hill: Another pinnacle. That year, we were up against the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Dave Matthews and Hootie & the Blowfish. We were up against icons — our heroes. We were like, there's no way. We flew into L.A. the night before, and John and I were dressed and ready and got into the limo the next day. We sat there waiting for 20 minutes — no Bob, no Chan. Let's go. So we got to the venue and we sat through 45 minutes of other awards. Bob and Chan were still at the hotel, either getting up or still passed out.
When they called our name as a winner and started playing "Run-Around," we looked at each other and jumped up. John hurt his knee on the seat in front of him. We walked up on stage and had no speech prepared. We had no idea we were going to win. Right then, as we were being ushered back to our seats (after the presentation), Chan and Bob walked through the audience. It was classic.
Tribune: How does the band today compare to what you were during your peak years in the '90s?
Hill: We're all family guys now. We have houses and places to go back to. Back then, it was much more of, "Let's get on a parachute and get out there and see what happens." There are more logistics involved today, but as soon as the five of us get on stage, that all washes away. We close our eyes and go back in the day. When you have this kind of confidence and connection with the people we're playing with, you lose yourself and time is irrelevant. You feel as young as when you started. That feeling continues on through thick and thin. We're about taking chances on stage, being a band — we're all-in. That helps us with our longevity. We're not afraid to take chances. When we're on stage, we pick up our instruments, hit that first note, and all of us are taken back to the moment where we first fell in love with playing.
Tribune: You've cut 13 albums, the most recent "Hurry Up & Hang Around" in 2018, but live shows are your thing, right?
Hill: We still love making records. Recording and live shows are two different animals. We all like the kind of thrill you get when you're performing live, the euphoria. Improvisation is how we started. Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, even Black Sabbath had certain elements of doing things differently each night. We took the lesson Bill Graham gave to us early on. If you're going to invite 15,000 people in for a listen, you want each and every one of those people to walk away saying, "That was something so cool, I want to be there the next time, because it's going to be different." That stuck with us. We strive to do that. You'll have some songs that you play every night, but you try to change things up as much as possible and make it a unique experience for the fan each time. That's why we have lots of really great, loyal fans.
For ticket info, see www.chinookwindscasino.com.
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