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Blues Traveler Still Living The Dream

Graham Fielder
Blues Traveler plays The Corn Crib in Normal this Saturday. Chicago Farmer and JJ Grey and MoFro open the show.

Blues Traveler guitarist Chan Kinchla says the New Jersey band's main goal at their founding was to tour forever, not the Top-40 success it achieved in the mid-1990s.

Kinchla spoke with WGLT's Jon Norton ahead of their show in Bloomington this weekend. He said building a devout following over three years constantly working for small money in small bars in New York City was already living the dream for the then teenagers.

NORTON: You guys worked your tails off early on. Playing small dives and bars in New York City, living almost hand to mouth for the first few years. What was the band’s original goals when you formed?

KINCHLA: When you're 18, you just don't need much. You know, we were just so gassed to find other musicians to play with that in the moment, the music was what we were all about and we were able to improvise and create new music while we were going. And that's why blues, I think, was one of our early inspirations because that's very improvisational. But we were kids. So of course, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead are kind of our inspiration, the Allman Brothers, so of course, when you're a kid, you're prone to flights of fancy. So, I think part of us always wanted to be like a cool touring rock band, play for awesome crowds and get to do this for the rest of our lives. I think that was always the dream. But what really kept us inspired to get it … is we love the music so much. I mean, that's why it was the dream. It wasn't lifestyle, that wasn’t the dream, it was just to be able to play music and do that, for the rest of our lives is what was in the back of our mind.

You wanted to be the Allman Brothers Band and want to be touring for the rest of your life. You're not thinking of big record deals, or that's just a tertiary to what that is?

KINCHLA: Oh, the record deals and all that I think was part of the picture, but it was touring live and playing live that was really the main inspiration and making cool albums, of course. But I think that was kind of secondary to … we want to tour and rock the people.

And then the record companies ended up finding you. You guys had some Top-40 success. Any idea what that felt like compared to what you thought it might feel like?

KINCHLA: Man … it was cool to get Top-40 success, to play "Saturday Night Live," to do all these shows … sell out Madison Square Garden, sell millions of records. That was kind of the gravy on top, because we already had kind of this great live thing going. And then that extra stuff came along. Those were secondary, once again, to the fact that we could tour and play for people. And I think that stuff always has a moment. As that kind of cooled down, we were quite happy to just continue touring and playing music and being Blues Traveler. So that was like a nice kind of meteor in our career. But the longevity and to be able to keep doing this was always the dream. And now that you say that … I'm still living the dream!

Can you give us a brief overview of what it was like in the middle 90s and music itself? It was changing. And it was exploding with all these different kinds of bands. Right?

KINCHLA: Well, it was an interesting time, because MTV and VH1, as far as popular music goes, was the thing. So, if you got in heavy rotation, all of a sudden you get a lot of notoriety, and the Top-40 radio really ruled the day back then as well. The thing is about MTV, it was a very eclectic mix … from Michael Jackson to Metallica. The summer when “Run-Around” and “Hook” hit, we did all these radio shows with Seal and TLC, which is just hilarious mix. We had our trailers next to TLC for the MTV Movie Awards or something. We also did a radio show with them. So, we were kind of buds with TLC.

No kidding. That is an interesting mix.

KINCHLA: Well, that's just kind of shows the era ...

And you can even go back probably another 20 years, 25 years when (music promoter) Bill Graham on the west coast was putting these cool shows together. When it was Charles Mingus, Muddy Waters, Jefferson Airplane, you know, all on the same bill.

KINCHLA: Well, Bill Graham is actually our manager for three or four years before he died, and he got us on tour opening up for the Allman Brothers and Carlos Santana, and it like … at 19 and 20 … it was kind of a rapid … all of a sudden, we're playing with our idols. But we did learn a ton. I mean, that's the kind of music we wanted to do. Bill Graham … I don't think gets enough credit for really diversifying what live music and rock and roll and quality music could be in this country and around the world. So, I think that's his legacy.

Chan, I don't want this to be totally all in the past here. This is the dream you always wanted when you were 17-18 years old - to be a touring band, maybe forever. And you're doing it. You guys didn't break up. You're still touring. You're still making new music. How do you view music today compared to when you were 17 and playing in those clubs in New York City?

KINCHLA: I honestly look at music the same way. And I feel as passionate about it as I as I always did. It's a little bit of the old magic. No one really knows why it feels so good or what's so special about it. You can't really put your finger on what's making it happen, but you sure know it when you feel it. And to be part of that … it's been something. I'm thankful for all the time. As I always say, the longer I do it, the more I like it.

Blues Traveler plays The Corn Crib in Normal this Saturday. Chicago Farmer and JJ Grey and MoFro open the show.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.
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