BLUES TRAVELER GUITARIST CHAN KINCHLA TALKS MUSIC AND BARBECUE LEADING UP TO HIS BAND’S ANTICIPATED PERFORMANCE AT ROCK N’ RIBS.
Story by Leslie T. Snadowsky
Chan Kinchla has been playing guitar for Grammy Award-winning rock band Blues Traveler for 35 years. He and singer and harmonica player John Popper, drummer Brendan Hill and original bassist Bobby Sheehan started jamming together in garages and basements in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1987.
With bassist Tad Kinchla (his younger brother) and keyboardist Ben Wilson, who joined the band in 1999 after Sheehan’s passing, Blues Traveler boasts 14 studio albums, four of which have gone gold, three platinum, and one six-times platinum, selling more than 10 million combined units worldwide.
Top-40 singles “Hook” and “But Anyway” made them famous, and “Run-Around” held the title for longest-charting radio single in Billboard history. The mega hit also earned the band a Grammy Award for “Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.”
This fab five still sells out shows on multiple continents and storms the stages with infectious improvisational live performances. Today they’re playing tracks from their latest July 2021 release “Traveler’s Blues,” which earned a Grammy Award nomination for “Best Traditional Blues” album. Celebrating their roots and the blues, “Traveler’s Blues” showcases reimagined and recharged classics from the American blues songbook.
LOCAL Life caught up with Kinchla, leading up to the band’s Oct. 15 appearance at Rock N’ Ribs Music and BBQ Fest at Coligny Plaza. Rock N’ Ribs is the first event of its kind on Hilton Head Island marrying world-class music and barbecue to bring festival-goers a unique and exclusive experience. Purchase tickets at rocknribshhi.com.
See the show
Blues Traveler at Rock N’ Ribs
When: 1-4 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 15
Where: Coligny Plaza,
Hilton Head Details: The Grammy award-winning headliners take the stage following a performance from local band Cranford Hollow. One-day passes ($149 general admission, $249 VIP) and two-day passes ($349) can be purchased at rocknribshhi.com.
[LOCAL Life] Does Blues Traveler like barbecue, and if so, what are your favorite dishes?
[Chan Kinchla] Oh, hell yes. I mean, if we’re talking barbecue, one of the great benefits of traveling the country for the last 35 years is we get to sample all the local foods, and barbecue is certainly on the top of our list. I’m kind of a brisket guy. I love brisket. So if that’s available, that’s what I’ll get. I’m gonna hit that. And I kind of like the dry-rub style, so I’ll be looking for that. Any excuse to go to Hilton Head is great. I love those southern, southeast coast beaches. I used to go down to Oak Island in North Carolina back in the day. If we got a few weeks off, I’d just go down there, solo, with my gear in the back and just get a beach house and sit on the beach there for a couple of weeks and decompress and write songs. And so I have fond memories of that whole area. So anytime I get down there, I’m happy.
[LL] Blues Traveler is celebrating its 35th anniversary, and on July 30, 2021, the band released its 14th studio album, “Traveler’s Blues,” that features covers of classic blues songs and musicians including Warren Haynes, Keb’ Mo’, John Scofield and Rita Wilson. Why the blues, why cover songs and why now? And how about that Grammy nomination?
[CK] We did start out as a blues band in high school. We just loved the kind of improvisational, in-the-moment thing that blues could do. We called ourselves Blues Band, and we played a lot of 12-bar blues to the best of our ability, which, you know, when you’re 16-, 17-year-old kids in Princeton, New Jersey, wasn’t necessarily with that much ability. As we went on, we added all our influences and turned into whatever Blues Traveler is. But, back in its heart, we were a blues band. Thus, our name Blues Traveler. People always like to tell us, you’re not really a blues band. I’m like, I know, but we’ve been talking about it for years trying to do a blues record just to kind of shake the dust off that side of us. During the pandemic the opportunity presented itself. And so we just kind of tried to interpret a bunch of really classic old-school blues standards in our own way and then added a few new wrinkles to it. It was such a fun project. We got so many great guests. We had a great producer, Matt Rollings, and now that we’ve been nominated for a Grammy for our blues record, people can’t tell us we can’t play the blues. It’s the blues record we always wanted to make but couldn’t, until now.
[LL] The band also released “Traveler’s Blues” on vinyl. Do you support the comeback of that medium?
[CK] When you’re releasing records now, so much of it, everything’s digital, streaming, and subscription and all that. So for people that really want to own music, I think that it’s kind of the old-school way to do it. So I think it goes to show people really still want to have that kind of physical contact with the music. I’m all about streaming. I get exposed to so much cool music I probably wouldn’t find otherwise, but I think there’s a place for all of it.
[LL] Blues Traveler allows its fans to record its live music, trade recordings of its live music and in some cases even broadcast recordings of its live music. So after 35 years of being a band, can you reflect on that decision? Do you think allowing fans to record your live music all these years was a good thing, or looking back would you reconsider?
[CK] One hundred percent a good thing. I mean the live performances, they don’t really compete with albums. Albums are built over time in the studio. Everything’s very different, it’s a very different experience. The live thing just happens once, and it’s not recorded the same way and it’s got a very immediate kind of vibe. When we were starting out, all of our heroes like The Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin, those bootlegs of those bands were what we would kill for. The Dead allowed taping, and that’s what got their name around. So we were always very, very much about that. And to be honest, we got a huge following before we had any records out just from college kids, trading tapes of our live shows. That exposure and the trading, sharing the music only makes it a bigger circle. So it’s still something I think has been great for us. And I think the fans at the show are part of the show too. So they get to take what they want.
[LL] Blues Traveler has been described as blues rock, folk rock, alternative rock and Southern rock. And now you released a straight blues album. That’s a big spread. How would you describe your music now?
[CK] Yeah, we straddle a lot of different genres, and we’ve got pop hits as well. Here’s the easy answer. Our music is ours. We try not to have any rules about where we get influences from, and if something sounds good, feels good, we kind of just explore it. And over the years, I think that’s probably why we’ve lasted 35 years since we’ve been free to explore some different avenues, try some different things. And I think that’s kept us kind of creatively engaged with the whole grand experiment that is Blues Traveler.
[LL] Who is the band listening to now? Can you identify any contemporary musicians you think also have a chance of lasting 35 years like Blues Traveler? And are there any secrets you’d like to share about your longevity and success?
[CK] I’m a big fan of Death Cab For Cutie. And Billie Eilish. That girl rocks. I saw her perform at the Grammys. The concert they put on at the Grammys is just crazy. It’s just a huge production, and all the biggest singers in the world perform one after the other. It’s basically like the best ‘American Idol’ event you’ve ever seen because it’s all singers, individual singers for the most part. But as far as bands go, Death Cab For Cutie is freaking awesome. There are tons of great metal bands and there are a lot of great bands out there, but with popular music, I think people just like the personalities. It’s just the world we live in today as far as pop goes. I think today, maybe it’s easier for people to engage with just a singular artist. The industry is not super band-friendly right now. In the jam band world, there’s a lot of great musicianship, so I’m quite happy with that side of things. But, in pop music and popular music, there are not a lot of great players. It’s a lot of electronic, you know, soundscaping, which I think is super cool, but it’s not bands playing a ton of instruments. For advice, I’d say make sure you stay vibrant and that you have a vibrant live foundation. Because when shit gets weird or there are ups and downs during certain avenues of your career, if you can get out on tour, it keeps you happy, it keeps you viable, it keeps you alive. So keep your live thing going, and don’t be afraid to experiment. You must ‘be like water,’ to quote Bruce Lee.
[LL] One would think it would be tough building a rock-music empire around a harmonica player like your lead singer John Popper. Sure, you have your Bob Dylans, Billy Joels and Stevie Wonders, but harmonica is kind of a fringe instrument nowadays. Is there something you want to share about being a part of a band that may be considered unusual or untraditional?
[CK] Luckily for John, he’s an amazing harmonica player and an amazing singer. So that’s important. Being an amazing singer is always a good thing to be. But, I think we’re a traditional, straight-up rock band. We got together in high school, played in our drummer’s basement, moved to the Big City and we played with real amps. We just kind of grip it and rip it, let the environment and the music kind of take us and try to follow that as far as we can go. I think we’re a rock band in the most traditional sense, and there are probably plenty of them coming up, but they’ve got to get out there and play live. That’s pretty much the way to do it.
[LL] Here’s a spin on the dreaded ‘What’s next?’ question. As a young band, you opened for The Rolling Stones in 1997 when they were celebrating their 35th year together. Now they’re on their 60th-anniversary tour. Blues Traveler is now 35. What does Blues Traveler look like at 60? Do you think you’ll still be out there jamming and touring?
[CK] There’s no reason why we won’t. We’re getting along great, we’re playing great, and we’re doing lots of cool stuff. People seem to show up for concerts, thankfully. I can’t believe when we opened up for The Stones, it was their 35th anniversary year, and that seemed like forever! And that was 25 years ago. People ask me, ‘Ever going to get off the road?’ and I’m like, ‘Why? Don’t make me! That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.’ And then I also say, ‘You know, Paul McCartney certainly doesn’t need the money, but he’s always out touring,’ so, as long as we’re upright, walking and have the ability, I’m sure we’re going to continue to keep touring and keep trying different stuff. Next February we’re producing a soul, R&B version of our blues thing to kind of cap that off. We had so much fun on the blues album. And our soul album will be out next year. It’s kind of like Motown Traveler. You can call it Soul Traveler. We’re hoping to cover songs by Wilson Pickett, Stevie Wonder, that kind of vibe. Motown and Stax. We’re also thinking of a TLC song. We’re going to have fun with that. LL
DID YOU KNOW
• After graduating from Princeton High School, Blues Traveler band members moved to New York. Popper, Hill, and Sheehan enrolled in the music program at The New School, and Kinchla attended New York University.
• Blues Traveler band members John Popper and Brendan Hill founded another band called The Trucking Company. High school friend Chris Barron became the front man, and that band became alternative rock band The Spin Doctors.
• The latter part of the band’s name comes from the primary demon in the film “Ghostbusters,” Gozer the Traveler.