Catching Up With…
Blues Traveler has helped define the jam-band aesthetic since well before the genre existed. The group’s latest foray, however, is down a road previously untraveled.
by Bob Birouard
Blues Traveler’s sound is so closely tied to John Popper’s harmonica playing that it’s easy to take drummer Brendan Hill for granted. But Hill provides the sturdy foundation under the harp virtuoso, and that balance has never been clearer than on the band’s latest effort, Blow Up the Moon. It’s a musical relationship that has existed since well before the New Jersey–bred blues-rock band’s breakout 1994 album, Four, and Grammy-winning single, “Run-Around,” fueled a decades-long career of regular recording and near-constant touring.
“Nowadays you have to play live to survive,” Hill says. “You need to entertain people and perfect your craft. We developed our sound on the New York City club scene, and we would gauge our songs by how our audiences reacted. We used that same premise while making our albums. Blow Up the Moon reflects the influence of some of the bands that came after us, and we found it cool just to talk to them and write together with them—sort of a reverse-influence kind of thing.”
The fourteen songs on Blow Up the Moon feature collaborations with acts as diverse as Thompson Square, Plain White T’s, 3OH!3, Hanson, and Jewel. “Our management put out feelers to different artists, and we got about thirty-five responses,” Hill says. “With us, the writing process had been a closed-ranks kind of thing, and entering this new zone was kind of scary. It was completely collaborative, plus we utilized studios from across the USA, from Los Angeles to Nashville to Oklahoma.”
Hill’s playing style is the perfect combination of schooled and street, and though many would be tempted to go lick for lick against a player like Popper, Brendan is supportive throughout. Still, with bebop and big band influences like Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Buddy Rich sitting alongside inspiration from rock gods like John Bonham, Ginger Baker, and Bill Ward, Hill isn’t shy to whip out the jazz chops when the spirit moves him. In fact, the controversial film Whiplash, he says, “was loosely based on my studio jazz band instructor, Anthony Biancosino, and my experiences with him at Princeton High School. Yes, the movie exaggerates, but I was that drummer, and Dr. Tony was a huge influence.”