When John Popper brings a harmonica to his lips, out comes a barrage of quick rifts, smooth melodies and soulful expression. The lead singer, songwriter and harmonica player of Blues Traveler since the jam band’s formation in 1987, Popper initially picked up the instrument as a way to avoid being bullied for his weight. As it turns out, his musical talent has resulted in a long-time, successful career of crafting some of the most distinctive popular harmonica melodies with songs like 1995’s “Run Around” and “Hook.”
The group will bring its mix of rock, folk and blues music to West Palm Beach on May 4 for SunFest. We caught up with Popper to discuss the band’s past and present.
You take a free-form approach to playing the harmonica, which feels very personal and expressive. Is it a release?
Very much. It is a release. When anyone improvises, they’re telling a story usually of how they’re feeling at that moment. The key adjective is “honest.” If you’re telling an honest story, it can be very off the cuff and, hence, improvised. The release of that honesty really is the reason why we do it.
As a jam band, how much does Blues Traveler improvise on stage?
At this point in our career, most of the songs are so well-known to us that a very solid foundation usually accompanies each song’s idea. However, there’s always room for improvisation for each band member at certain times in the show and we always try to observe that, as it seems to be the most exciting part to the audience as well as ourselves.
Of all the songs you’ve written, which one is the most personal or meaningful to you and why?
A very difficult question to answer, as that answer changes over time. Right now, I’d say “Cara Let The Moon” matters a lot to me, as it was a song about getting older and still being appreciated by someone much younger than me. But I also love, and will alway love, “Regarding Steven,” “Yours,” “Sweet Pain” and usually songs that have something to do with something tender
What’s next for Blues Traveler?
We have a lot of cool new music coming out. We were just in the studio with Gavin DeGraw. We’ll be touring this summer with Sugar Ray, Uncle Kracker and Smash Mouth for the Under The Sun Tour.
Before you were a musician, you wanted to be a comedian. What draws you to the spotlight and entertaining people?
Initially to avoid a beating, but I find that they also will pay me sometimes.
You’ve overcome some major physical obstacles, including a near-death motorcycle accident and gastric bypass surgery. What’s been your biggest wake-up call and why?
I’ve been in way more car accidents than that, in fact—and usually when I’m not driving. The biggest wake-up call is realizing that God is, in fact, trying to kill me.
What’s your life motto?