Blues Traveler Become Team Players – America’s rock innovators celebrate milestone on collaborative
Blow Up The Moon
After selling millions of records and logging thousands of miles on the road, GRAMMY award-winning band Blues Traveler continue to chart new musical directions evident on their upcoming record Blow Up The Moon. A clever collaboration between various artists, Blow Up The Moon sees Blues Traveler keep an open-minded perspective on making music and enlists an eclectic mix of songwriters influenced by the band’s remarkable 25+ year career.
Blow Up the Moon is the first collaborative album that Blues Traveler has ever made. Prior to these sessions, it was rare for the band to have someone else perform on their songs and even more rare to have anyone outside the band write with them. This process was a unique and successful experience for each of these artists who each found new depths and energy in their writing and performance. Blow Up The Moon is an exciting collaboration featuring a range of artists across the spectrum, representing country, pop, reggae and hip-hop
“We wanted to experiment with co-writing since we usually try to do everything in-house, in this misguided homage to The Beatles,” says singer John Popper. Blow Up The Moon allowed Blues Traveler to expand their musical palette while holding the foundation of their distinct and explosive brand of rock. “We found quality writers to see what they could bring to us as a band, and also people who could see our strengths, something that’s hard to see for yourself.”
Blow Up The Moon features collaborating artists Thompson Square, Plain White T’s, 3OH!3, Dirty Heads and Rome Ramirez (Sublime), Hanson, Jewel, Secondhand Serenade, JC Chasez (*NSYNC), Bowling for Soup, New Hollow and Thomas Ian Nicholas.
The concept for Blow Up The Moon came about when the band was commemorating the 20th anniversary of their six-times platinum, award-winning and breakthrough album Four. “Once the idea was put out there, the thing took on a life of its own,” says guitarist Chan Kinchla. “We had so much fun reinvigorating our songwriting. This was an organic process that worked.”
“Nikkia’s Prom,” which Blues Traveler collaborated on with the Chicago pop-punk band Plain White T’s, was brought about through a Twitter conversation. While the groups had not met before, Popper and Plain White T’s vocalist Tom Higgenson bonded over the film Kill Bill. “Nikkia’s Prom” imagines what would happen if the daughter of Uma Thurman’s badass assassin showed up at her future high school dance. As drummer Brendan Hill said, “Like with all the bands we worked with, we just hit it off with them very easily. John and Tom holed themselves in a room and the rest of us just worked on key changes and rhythms. We all had the same kind of humor.”
Sharing humor and an open-minded perspective on music made the collaboration between Blues Traveler and electronic duo Sean Foreman and Nathaniel Motte, better known as 3OH!3, work so well. 3OH!3 are represented with two cuts on the disc, “Hurricane” and the title track which also includes contributions from J.C. Chasez (*NSYNC). Keyboardist Ben Wilson says Foreman, “is one of those real grinders who pored over every word all day until he felt we had a real coherent tune. And Sean played an instrument called a guitalele, which looks like a ukulele, but has six strings. When you hear it in this context it has a twangy sound that’s just awesome.”
Blues Traveler also had a relaxed time working with the California ska-punk band Dirty Heads on “Castaway” and “Vagabond,” which singer Rome Ramirez (from Sublime) produced. “Both bands just kicked back, handed some chords down and everybody added lyrics,” said bassist Tad Kinchla. “We would just learn the chords while we were all in the room together and played it the way we felt. It’s the luck of getting along with people.”
While Keifer and Shawna Thompson from the popular country team Thompson Square are a very different group than 3OH!3 or Dirty Heads, they were equally excited to work with Blues Traveler on “I Can Still Feel You” and “Matador.” The latter piece was written with Merle Haggard in mind and how he deserved more respect within the music industry. It’s a theme both groups know all too well, especially as they dare to challenge any imposed limitations. “They want to push boundaries,” Popper said of Thomson Square. “Generally, they stick to love songs, but here they wrote a philosophical statement about how the industry will embrace you and then turn on you. With them, we enabled each other to broaden the idea of genre and help it lose its meaning. Music is never supposed to be monogamous.”
A few stars that ascended at the time of Four also make guest appearances on Blow Up The Moon. Jewel lends her voice to “Hearts Are Still Awake,” and Thomas Ian Nicholas (star of American Pie), worked with Blues Traveler on “All The Way.” Hanson, the brothers who gave the world “Mmmbop,” join in on “Top Of The World.” Wilson said, “Hanson were huge fans of us back in the day – they were little kids then and 14 years later, here they are, grown men and had the tune almost the way they thought it should go, and we played it down until we got it right. They’re great singers and cool songwriters.”
Other collaborators on Blow Up The Moon include Secondhand Serenade who perform on “Darkness,” and co-wrote “Hearts Are Still Awake.” “Jackie’s Baby,” a song of soaring hooks and the collaboration with New Hollow, is according to Popper a new slant on the imagery in The Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon.” Working with Bowling For Soup on “Waiting For You” and “I Know Right,” proves that Blues Traveler is in no danger of taking itself too seriously. That piece is a satirical look at online communication. “That title phrase just covers everything now,” Popper said. “It’s easy to talk to someone or beat up someone on Twitter, but try to come up with something new to say.”
Blues Traveler plan to spend all of 2015 on the road and are looking at more collaborative projects in the future since, as Wilson said, “There are a lot of different ways to write songs, and so many different ways to work with other people and arrive at the same place. It was reaffirming, but also instructive in teaching us how to say something simpler. When you listen to what came out of it, it’s something to be proud of.”
Loud & Proud Records will release Blow Up The Moon on both CD and vinyl in North America via RED Distribution (a division of Sony Music Entertainment) and in the rest of the world through earMUSIC. Loud & Proud see Blues Traveler as a relevant artist and the collaborations as exciting partnerships proving the band’s versatility.
From the days of playing greasy local juke joints to headlining major festivals, JJ Grey remains an unfettered, blissful performer, singing with a blue-collared spirit over the bone-deep grooves of his compositions. His presence before an audience is something startling and immediate, at times a funk rave-up, other times a sort of mass-absolution for the mortal weaknesses that make him and his audience human. When you see JJ Grey and his band Mofro live—and you truly, absolutely must—the man is fearless.
Onstage, Grey delivers his songs with compassion and a relentless honesty, but perhaps not until Ol’ Glory has a studio record captured the fierceness and intimacy that defines a Grey live performance. “I wanted that crucial lived-in feel,” Grey says of Ol’ Glory, and here he hits his mark. On the new album, Grey and his current Mofro lineup offer grace and groove in equal measure, with an easygoing quality to the production that makes those beautiful muscular drum-breaks sound as though the band has set up in your living room.
Despite a redoubtable stage presence, Grey does get performance anxiety—specifically, when he’s suspended 50 feet above the soil of his pecan grove, clearing moss from the upper trees.
“The tops of the trees are even worse,” he laughs, “say closer to 70, maybe even 80 feet. I’m not phobic about heights, but I don’t think anyone’s crazy about getting up in a bucket and swinging all around. I wanted to fertilize this year but didn’t get a chance. This February I will, about two tons—to feed the trees.”
When he isn’t touring, Grey exerts his prodigious energies on the family land, a former chicken-farm that was run by his maternal grandmother and grandfather. The farm boasts a recording studio, a warehouse that doubles as Grey’s gym, an open-air barn, and of course those 50-odd pecan trees that occasionally require Grey to go airborne with his sprayer.
For devoted listeners, there is something fitting, even affirmative in Grey’s commitment to the land of his north Florida home. The farms and eddying swamps of his youth are as much a part of Grey’s music as the Louisiana swamp-blues tradition, or the singer’s collection of old Stax records.
As a boy, Grey was drawn to country-rockers, including Jerry Reed, and to Otis Redding and the other luminaries of Memphis soul; Run-D.M.C., meanwhile, played on repeat in the parking lot of his high school (note the hip-hop inflections on “A Night to Remember”). Merging these traditions, and working with a blue-collar ethic that brooked no bullshit, Grey began touring as Mofro in the late ’90s, with backbeats that crossed Steve Cropper with
George Clinton and a lyrical directness that made his debut LP Blackwater (2001) a calling-card among roots-rock aficionados. Soon, he was expanding his tours beyond America and the U.K., playing ever-larger clubs and eventually massive festivals, as his fan base grew from a modest group of loyal initiates into something resembling a national coalition.
Grey takes no shortcuts on the homestead, and he certainly takes no shortcuts in his music. While he has metaphorically speaking “drawn blood” making all his albums, his latest effort, Ol’ Glory, found him spending more time than ever working over the new material. A hip-shooting, off-the-cuff performer (often his first vocal takes end up pleasing him best), Grey was able to stretch his legs a bit while constructing the lyrics and vocal lines to Ol’ Glory.
“I would visit it much more often in my mind, visit it more often on the guitar in my house,” Grey says. “I like an album to have a balance, like a novel or like a film. A triumph, a dark brooding moment, or a moment of peace—that’s the only thing I consistently try to achieve with a record.”
Grey has been living this balance throughout his career, and Ol’ Glory is a beautifully paced little film. On “The Island,” Grey sounds like Coleridge on a happy day: “All beneath the canopy / of ageless oaks whose secrets keep / Forever in her beauty / This island is my home.” “A Night to Remember” finds the singer in first-rate swagger: “I flipped up my collar ah man / I went ahead and put on my best James Dean / and you’d a thought I was Clark Gable squinting through that smoke.” And “Turn Loose” has Grey in fast-rhyme mode in keeping with the song’s title: “You work a stride / curbside thumbing a ride / on Lane Avenue / While your kids be on their knees / praying Jesus please.” From the profane to the sacred, the sly to the sublime, Grey feels out his range as a songwriter with ever-greater assurance.
The mood and drive of Ol’ Glory are testament to this achievement. The album ranks with Grey’s very best work; among other things, the secret spirituality of his music is perhaps more accessible here than ever before. On “Everything Is a Song,” he sings of “the joy with no opposite,” a sacred state that Grey describes to me:
“It can happen to anybody: you sit still and you feel things tingling around you, everything’s alive around you, and in that a smile comes on your face involuntarily, and in that I felt no opposite. It has no part of the play of good and bad or of comedy or tragedy. I know it’s just a play on words but it feels like more than just being happy because you got what you wanted — this is a joy. A joy that doesn’t get involved one way or the next; it just is.”
Grey’s most treasured albums include Otis Redding’s In Person at the Whisky a Go Go and Jerry Reed’s greatest hits, and the singer once told me that he grew up “wanting to be Jerry Reed but with less of a country, more of a soul thing.” With Ol’ Glory, Grey does his idols proud. It’s a country record where the stories are all part of one great mystery; it’s a blues record with one foot in the church; it’s a Memphis soul record that takes place in the country.
In short, Ol’ Glory is that most singular thing, a record by JJ Grey—the north Florida sage and soul-bent swamp rocker.