We are still riding the high of the AM Gold Tour in Nashville after an evening of Blues Traveler, Jewel and Train. All three acts were amazing in person, and we are requiring you to attend the show when it hits SoCal July 26th in San Diego or July 29th in Irvine.
Most of us know Blues Traveler from their major hits “Run-Around,” “But Anyway,” and “Hook” (a fave!). Since appearing on our radios in 1994, they have scored Grammys, become an iconic ‘90s band, and remained an incredible live band, often jamming and showcasing the musical skills of all band members. With front-man John Popper handling the singing and harmonica, Blues Traveler includes guitarist Chan Kinchla, bassist Tad Kinchla, keyboardist Ben Wilson, and drummer Brendan Hill.
Blues Traveler had a challenging 2021. With a bus crash that led to surgery for Popper, they were forced to cancel their 2021 fall tour. In 2022, the challenges continued when Popper caught COVID in May and could not perform. All healthy and ready to go, Popper was in fine form when we saw him.
OC Music News was able to speak with Ben Wilson about the tour and the future of the band. Wilson has been with the band since 2000, and in addition to being a fantastic keyboard player, he is also a talented songwriter and a hilarious guy to chat with.
Traci: The AM Gold Tour has just begun. How are things going so far?
Ben: Awesome. It’s cool to be a part of the circus; Train, Jewel circus and rocketing along the country. We are only a few weeks in, but we’ve settled into our routine and the bands have gotten to know each other and good vibes all around. The music is good. It’s a nice mix. We’ve got Train, which is pretty darn poppy. And then Jewel, which has some pop, but also has a little bit of that country kind of rootsy flare. And then Blues Traveler, which has had some pop success, but is known for more of the playing side. And not that all the bands aren’t really good players, but just kind of generalizations. Everybody fills the niche and it’s been great. We’re having a great time and look forward to the rest of the summer. What a great way to spend the summer!
Traci: I assume it’s awesome to be back on the road, too.
Ben: Oh, my God. We had a great summer tour last year and right at the end we got into a bus crash, and John hurt his knee real bad, so we had to cancel the fall tour. And then we had a few shows over the winter and we start back up in May. Everybody’s super excited and John gets COVID. Anybody else, if it was a modest case, could hide in a plastic bubble and just come out and play and then run back. But you can’t really sing with a chest full of congestion or feeling light headed. So it’s just great to be out working, traveling, doing what we do and yeah, it’s awesome.
Traci: I know there were challenges last year, but you released “Traveler’s Blues” and it was nominated for a Grammy.
Ben: Boo-yah to that! Yes. It was awesome. We didn’t win, but we like to think we came in second. (laughing)
Traci: You can always say “We are a Grammy-nominated band” anyway, plus you have won in the past.
Ben: We’ve got Grammy wins and Grammy nominations. It’s true. It never goes away. It was great making that record. It was a ton of fun and to have some modest recognition from your peers, it felt really nice. We didn’t expect to win. Of course we wanted to, but we didn’t expect it. It was just great to be a part of the whole thing.
Traci: What inspired the record?
Ben: It was our manager and the record label’s idea to do a blues record and we were like, “A blues record? Wow.” It’s not like we don’t have the genre in our name. We picked out a bunch of tunes and John’s a natural and it was a good challenge for us. We took a bunch of old songs and tried to go back as far as we could with the versions that we could find and then work them up Blues Traveler style and it was just great fun. And like I said, we got a little recognition, so it feels really nice.
Traci: When it comes to Blues Traveler songs, you are one of the songwriters, right?
Ben: I am. The cool thing about this band is a lot of different people do songwriting. John is the singer, so depending on the lyrics, he’ll want to change things up so that he feels good singing it. It’s more reflective of him. And he’s always obviously a great melody guy, so everything gets filtered through him, which tends to make songs a lot better. But yeah, I’ve written a bunch of songs, Chan’s written a bunch, Tad’s written some. Often the process is we bring in music and then John will craft stuff around it. But every once in a while someone will have a full song written and bring it in and it passes the Blues Traveler muster and makes it through.
Traci: What inspires your songwriting?
Ben: I would not classify myself as a particularly great songwriter. I’ve written some stuff that I’m proud of, but up against people who can, just like John, who could just kick these ideas out and really express himself. To me it’s got to be very specific, some personal thing that a phrase will come to me and then some music will come around it and it works together where I’m playing something on the piano or the guitar and I’ll get a phrase and just pursue that phrase and then put the music around it. Then typically I come back later and try to finish the words in a way that feels good. It gets what I’m trying to say with some emotional content, if possible, but so often it’s in the ear of the beholder, as they say. It’s how it strikes somebody and whether it moves them. My songs tend to be very much about something, but that doesn’t mean that when you hear it, it’s going to say that to you, or that it will even speak to you in any way that you want to listen to it again.
Traci: I am very news oriented, writing from details, not writing from nothing, so creating a whole song out of nowhere just amazes me.
Ben: I remember as a kid and for a long time, I used to get caught up on the process. “You have to write the melody first and you have to write the music first.” Now that I’ve been doing it for so long and coming across so many different people, everybody does it their own way. It doesn’t matter how you get there, it’s that you get there. But for a long time, I let that get in the way. So for any people that are looking to be writers of anything, really, the process is your process. If you can’t finish the process, then you need to readdress the process. But if you’re getting results and it feels good to you, then it doesn’t matter how you get there.
Traci: I would write a lot of songs about my dog, so I don’t know.
Ben: Then that’s what matters!
Traci: I also can’t comprehend how you make music with the unlimited resources technology offers now. How the heck do you even narrow that down?
Ben: With the pandemic, I got into home recording and messing around. I’d always done some of it, but trying to do it to a point where it could be more professional. You end up watching a lot of different videos, a lot of different YouTubes, and you just cannot believe what some of these people do with digital equipment and the plugins and the virtual instruments and all the things that the computer allows you to do. Going back to Radiohead’s “OK Computer,” people have been doing stuff way before that, but that just kind of opened the door and made it okay for everybody. And it’s just amazing. That whole world has a level of creativity in it, above and beyond. Just the songwriting, the basics of the melody, the lyrics, and the structure. It’s so cool to see people doing things that are just so far removed from the way I approach stuff. It’s so foreign to me, but it can be such an inspiration, too, just on small scale. Maybe I’ll add this little thing here and it’ll give the song a vibe, and the next thing you know, you’re writing for that particular effect or playing to that particular effect. It’s really fun.
Traci: My husband is a musician and wanted to ask you: “What on earth inspired you to run a digital piano through a voice box?”
Ben: That’s funny! Well, the thing about the digital piano, anything with the voice box can be it, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. So if you can get a really clear signal through the voice box, which additional signal is going to be clearer than just about anything else, then you have the best thing to work with, with your voice box. I don’t think it was The Gap Band, but it was somebody like that had a voice box that he’d ran from a synth and it helped me realize it doesn’t matter what the source is for the voice box. So that’s why I did it; another tool in the arsenal.
Traci: What is ahead for the band?
Ben: We are going to have a 35th anniversary tour in the fall; theaters and stuff. And we are in the works of doing kind of a follow up to the blues album. We want to do soul/R&B type thing with a similar format, older songs potentially and try to see if we can sound like Stax or Motown, or something like that. Obviously that would be a tall order, but just have that as a goal. So a lot to look forward to!
Many thanks to Ben Wilson for taking the time – on a show day – to talk with us! Don’t forget to catch Blues Traveler on Train’s AM Gold Tour along with Jewel. The tour will visit SoCal July 26th in San Diego at North Island Credit Union Amphitheatre, and July 29th in Irvine at FivePoint Amphitheater.