“Back then there was arena rock and a punk scene,” says drummer and founding member Brendan Hill, speaking from his home on Bainbridge Island near Seattle. “When it came to jamming there were older bands like the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead, but that was about it.”
It took a while for the young group (Hill, vocalist/harmonica player John Popper, guitarist Chan Kinchla, and bassist Bobby Sheehan) to find a following. “At first we just did amorphous jamming in front of 10 or 15 people—or maybe just the bartender,” recalls Hill. “But we would play every gig we possibly could.”
Those early shows helped Blues Traveler define its style. “Our sound was derived from the blues,” notes Hill, “but it was also about other influences—our influences. Chan was really into David Bowie and the Clash. John was more into Jimi Hendrix. Bobby loved the Grateful Dead, and I was into Zeppelin and Sabbath.”
“I LIKE MY DRUMS TO BE DEEP. I LOVE THAT DEEP SNARE THAT HITS YOU RIGHT IN THE GUT.”
The band acquired a van and started playing college dates, where they found eager audiences for its spontaneous sound. “The music on the radio was very polished, with a lot of drum machines,” says Hill. “But there was a hunger for jamming and rocking out. Playing something different every night was important to us. Improvisation was what we knew and liked.”
Fans responded in droves. Some came for the loose-limbed live shows, others for such catchy, Top 40 singles as “Hook” and the Grammy-winning “Run-Around.” There would be rough spots and tragedy, notably bassist Sheehan’s 1999 death. But with the help of a new bassist (Chan Kinchla’s younger brother, Tad) and keyboardist Ben Wilson, Blues Traveler has continued to carry the jam-band torch for 30 years.Hill was born in London to Irish parents who moved to Princeton when he was a child. He started playing drums at age 10.
“My dad was a big influence,” says Brendan. “He was a blues aficionado who listened to Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, and Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown. But he also had records by 10cc, Pink Floyd, and P-Funk. We might go from listening to Muddy Waters to a Yes song. It all meshed in my mind. I learned that music isn’t really about a style, but what it makes you feel.”
Hill is a longtime player of Yamaha drums. His current favorite kit is an Absolute Hybrid Maple set. “It’s sparkly, silver, and beautiful, and it tunes so easily,” he says. “I’ve got a 22" kick, and the toms are 13", 14", 16", and 18.”" Brendan’s favorite snares are a 14"x16" Anton Fig signature model and an Oak Custom, both with wooden hoops. “The wood hoops give the drums even more warmth and depth,” says Brendan. “I like my drums to be deep. I was a big fan of John Bonham, and I love that deep snare that hits you right in the gut.”
An ongoing passion for Hill and his bandmates is music education. “John, Chan, Bob, and I were lucky to go through a school system that was dedicated to the arts,” says Brendan. “We had a choir that performed internationally. We had a full orchestra and a wind ensemble. We also had an award-winning jazz program. The movie Whiplash was actually about my high school studio band!”
Nowadays fewer public school students have such opportunities, but Blues Traveler does what it can to help out. Hill gives workshops at the public school his kids attend, and the band routinely invites boys’ and girls’ clubs to Blues Traveler soundchecks. “A lot of those kids simply aren’t exposed to live music,” says Hill. “We have them come up onstage and sit in on our instruments. A lot of them are naturally talented, but there’s no real outlet for them at school. So any kind of help I can give to a young artist makes me feel good.”
Much has changed in the decades since those first humble club gigs, but Blues Traveler is still motivated by sheer love of playing. “We still have such a good time,” says Hill. “The key is playing for fun, not being afraid of making mistakes, and just being in that awesome moment when you try something new and it works. When you get that euphoric feeling, that’s what it’s all about.”
BRENDAN HILL - MAKING THE MUSIC THRIVE
For all the great music that came out of the 1980s, it wasn’t the most inspiring era for players whose passion was jamming and improvisation. When the young members of Blues Traveler first ventured from their Princeton, New Jersey hometown to play New York City clubs, their raw, blues-based performances were far from fashionable. But the band had the right idea at the right time.