Songwriter Interviews

Chan Kinchla of Blues Traveler

by Dan MacIntosh

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By the time "Run-Around" reached its peak chart position of #8 on August 5, 1995, Blues Traveler's Four album had been out for about a year. As the name implies, it was their fourth album, and it was big - over six million sold and a record breaking 49 consecutive weeks on the chart. The band got there through constant touring, waiting out the Grunge era with a melodic blues sound they developed at their Princeton, New Jersey high school, where lead singer John Popper and guitarist Chan Kinchla started playing together in 1986.

Princeton is conveniently located about 50 miles from New York City, where they gigged while still in high school. After graduation, they moved to The City and got a record deal with A&M, releasing their first album in 1990. As they developed their sound and style, their following grew. When "Run-Around" hit, they had just the right combination of musical seasoning and youthful energy to sustain them through the promotional slog and festival appearances. "Hook" was the next single, a fun little diddy about the mechanics of writing a song, and that charted at #23. "But Anyway" made #36 in 1996, and that was their last visit to the Hot 100. Fans who rode out the mid-'90s wave of Blues Traveler ubiquity have been treated to intimate shows and an eclectic output that is now celebrated in a 25th anniversary Blues Traveler collection.

In our phone conversation, Chan Kinchla shared some stories from these last 25 years. We learned the identity of the girl who inspired their biggest hit, how the Letterman thing happened, and the real story behind the band name.
Chan Kinchla: Hello. How's it going? We have a chaperone! (referring to the publicist who patched the call)

Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Does that mean we have to be on our best behavior?

Chan: Yeah. No swearing, no profanity, and no touching.

Songfacts: Okay. I think I can hold to that. (laughs)

Chan: Nothing naughty.

Songfacts: I read on your Facebook page that you'll be at the NCAA Final Four Elite Pregame Hospitality Party, so I have to ask you, are you guys big hoops fans?

Chan: You know what, I am a fan of all sports, though I never went to college. I skipped school and just decided to move to New York and be in a rock band. But our keyboard player went to Michigan, so he's a huge hoops fan. Unfortunately, they got bounced. But, hey, we could have tickets to the game, like anytime. We've done Super Bowl parties, we've done some Final Four stuff, and we've even done NASCAR. So any time you get a hook to a cool event, you get all the VIP treatment and you get to see those cool games. The perks like that we love - we get such a kick out of that stuff. So it'll be fun, and we'll be cruising around in New Orleans.

Songfacts: You may need to take a chaperone there.

Chan: No chaperone. Noooo chaperone. (laughing) Unfortunately, New Orleans, that's where Bobby Sheehan, our original bass player, passed away years back. But I still love the city.

Songfacts: Let's talk about your relationship with David Letterman. He's called you his favorite band. Does he have any favorite songs of yours and which ones are they?

Chan: I'm not sure. The Dave thing was great. We were a high school band, we moved to New York City right out of high school, and just started playing little dive-y, shithole bars around New York, and when we first got signed and first put out a record, we were total nobodies. One of the bartenders at one of the clubs we played got a job with David Letterman, so he got us the introduction. Dave was great the whole show - they were nice enough to put us on before anyone had ever even heard of us. It was our first even close to national television event, and that was kind of ephemeral. From there, things started to happen.

At that point it was just me and John. So we always think of Dave fondly as the guy who gave us our first break, as far as some national television exposure. He just loves John, and John's kind of funny. They've had a few back-and-forths, and we've been on I think more than any other band in history. We played back at the old NBC studios. That was back when records would come out on vinyl.

Songfacts: I remember that. I'm old enough.

Chan: Our first record came out on vinyl. It was awesome.

John Popper has made about 20 appearances on Letterman, often with Blues Traveler but also sitting in with the CBS orchestra to lend some harmonica. David Letterman loves the band, as does his musical director Paul Shaffer, who played organ on their third album and keyboards on their fourth.
Songfacts: Cool deal. Let's talk about some specific songs that were on those vinyl albums. I want to find out if I have my information correct about the song "Run-Around," because I've heard that it's about relationships, but then I've also seen some things where it may be directed at Chris of the Spin Doctors.

Chan: Oh, no. It's nothing to do with Chris of the Spin Doctors. Actually, the song's an unrequited love song about John and our original bass player, Felicia, who he kind of had a crush on. See, back in high school, when I joined the band - I guess I joined in '86 when I was a junior in high school. They were in a band, I replaced the guitar player who was kind of a tool. And she was the bass player. She was actually classically trained as a violinist, and she was just playing bass for fun because she was friends with everyone.

Then my friend Bobby got involved. Felicia was always an incredible student - she's now a doctor. So she gracefully stepped aside for Bobby, who was ready to go for the long haul - it's a very amicable situation.

But John always had kind of a crush on her, but they were friends, as well. So that song's from that whole affair. They're still very close. It's just an unrequited love song.

Songfacts: One of your other big songs, "Hook," has sort of a Peter Pan reference, and then the "straight on till morning" is kind of related to Peter Pan, as well. Do you guys have like a Peter Pan obsession, or is that just coincidence?

Chan: Well, John is always peppering his lyrics with little allusions to famous tales. "Run-Around," for example, one of the lines is, "Once upon a midnight, Deary," which alludes to "once upon a midnight dreary." And I think all musicians in rock bands have kind of a Peter Pan complex. (laughs) We always loved that innocent wonder and that vibe. That's a theme to a bunch of different songs, not necessarily that were on this album, but a lot of songs. There's a really great song that John made up on his own - it's one of my favorite things he's done. It's called "The Poignant & Epic Saga Of Featherhead & Lucky Lack." You could make a whole movie or a cartoon series out of it; if you listen to the lyrics, it's basically a cool kid's short story. So those kind of literary allusions and stories and fables are always something John likes to reference. It's more in his writing style, but it suits our mentality. Because we are big kids.

Songfacts: Well, I got this new collection, which I guess is sort of an anniversary collection.

Chan: 25, yep.

Songfacts: One of the songs on it is "What I Got," which was a Sublime song.

Chan: Oh, yeah. Well - go ahead.

Songfacts: I'm just curious as to why you chose to record it and include it on the album.

Chan: For the last year we've been playing that live, just for something fun to do. We've always loved the song and we're always throwing in new covers. We change our sets every night, so throwing in fun covers and our interpretations of them is something we really enjoy doing. So it's fun to give the crowd something fun and different.

We've been playing for a year and we actually played a show with a band, Rebelution, who are managed by and related to some of the people that were in Sublime. They always loved the track, and that was kind of in the air, and they were like, "You should record that and release it." Because we did the best cover of it. Mainly because we didn't really try and copy their cover, we did our own version, which I think is why they liked it.

John's great at that kind of quick vocal scan anyway. And when you release a new record, you always want to put a few new things on it, and it just came together. It's a bonus track.

Songfacts: I read somewhere that you put out a live EP that was a tribute to Bill Graham. Did you work with him?

Chan: Well, yes, we did, indeed. Bill Graham was our first manager.

Songfacts: Everybody has a great Bill Graham story. I'm wondering if you have one.

Chan: Our terrific Bill Graham story. Well, we have several. But my fondest one is 1989, we were playing all over New York, and we ended up playing a frat up in Columbia. Bill Graham's son was going to Columbia, and he got into us - at the time we were kind of the big thing in New York. We weren't signed or anything at that point, so he got Bill involved, because it was someone to try and get us into the business. Bill loved us and helped get us signed. We were like the kings of New York at that time and we were playing all up and down the East Coast and we thought we were big shit. We played a sold out show in Portsmouth, and we thought we just killed it - we were just all full of ourselves. And we come backstage and Bill Graham just lights into us about all the shit we were doing wrong: I stage dove, he was mad at me for kicking, but it was like the thing to do. But I'm 6'5", and he was like, "You're kicking these poor little girls in the face!" and he was yelling at my manager for disrespecting his son. He just let us have it, and I don't think you've lived until you've had your ass torn by Bill Graham.

Songfacts: That's what I've heard.

Chan: At one point he dropped a bomb: "You with your epaulets of hate." Which is a really great visual. Those were the shoulder things for fancy military dress. So somehow in the middle of yelling at us he dropped that line. And it was just priceless.

Songfacts: Could you keep a straight face when he did that?

Chan: Well, it's funny because first we were a little scared, we were young and Bill Graham's yelling at us. But at the same time we were like, This is awesome. So we were kind of stoked. But he was terrific and taught us a lot of really great lessons when we were just getting started.

At the time when the record companies are coming around is a really tenuous time for a band. Do you get signed? Do you not get signed? Once you get signed, you come with damaged goods. So it's a tricky little road to walk. And once Bill Graham came on board, we were automatically put at a different level and taken more seriously. And he had us on this Homeless Now benefit, so we played a frat one night and the next day we played on the Washington Mall for 400,000 people, and he put us out with The Allman Brothers all summer long and then we opened up for Carlos Santana. So that was really cool for us, to play all summer with these great bands and see how they did it, and learn about the musicianship. He was pivotal in our formation.

Songfacts: Let's get this straight from the horse's mouth. I read that your name was inspired by a character in Ghostbusters, true or false?

Chan: True. We were in Princeton, we were just called Blues Band. Which, in little Princeton, New Jersey, is fine, there weren't many blues bands. Wasn't much competition. But by '86, even junior year, we started going up to New York to play, and in '87 while we were still seniors, we would go up and play these talent nights, open mic nights. We started playing up in New York fairly regularly, even back when we were in high school, and Blues Band doesn't really cut it in New York. So we knew we needed to do something with the name, and we loved this idea of a fifth entity that we created - back at that point, there were four of us. We felt like when the four of us were really grooving, a fifth entity entered the room. We thought of Gozer the Traveler from Ghostbusters. So we really liked that name Traveler. But not wanting to confuse the seven or eight fans we had in New York City at the time, we kept the Blues, which looking back we should have just gone with the Traveler or something like that.

But Blues Traveler has a quirky ring to it as well. I don't know why we kept it, but in the end the name is always what you make of it, right?

Songfacts: Do you have any particular favorite songs that you play in the band, and are there songs that you wish you could retire?

Chan: Well, of course the hits - we are obligated to play those every night. When people come to the show they're expecting to hear some of the hits, and we don't want to be the band that's too cool to play them. I really can't not like "Run-Around" or "Hook," because they helped pay for my house. The way we look at it with a song, if you're bored and played out in the song, it's really your own fault. Especially the way we play - you take in the environment and the feel and the vibe, and there are some things you can do to keep it fresh. So that's really up to you to keep yourself into it.

Of course, you get burned out. But asking what's the favorite song is kind of like asking which is your favorite child, which I think changes from time to time. But this set is the 25th anniversary package, which is just odd to know that you can put century after our name: we have a quarter century. It's cool and a little bit shocking at the same time. But of this set, the one that's a favorite of mine that we've done out, and is a band favorite, too, we've played an epic saga of "Feather Head and Lucky Lack," which is that cool kind of interesting kids' story, which I really like.

I also like the remixed "Run-Around" by this DJ duo called Gunslinger. I love all that electronic music, I think it's really awesome. They did a great job of remixing it, which is just something different and it came out really cool.

Songfacts: Well, this has just been a treat to talk to you, Chan. Congratulations on 25 years. And here's to another 25.

Chan: It's a good thing I started when I was 7 years old.

We spoke with Chan Kinchla on March 21, 2012. The Blues Traveler: 25 collection contains that "Run-Around" remix and 28 other tracks, including some rarities and B-sides.
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Comments: 1

  • BebaI have and always loved Fetherhead and lucky lack...I'm always yelling for that song. I'm ready for 25 more years.
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