Traveler’s new groove
June 28, 2005
When he was a fourth-grader, Tad Kinchla auditioned for a semi-professional men and boys church choir in his Princeton, N.J., hometown. It was news to his parents, who didn’t belong to a church and didn’t know of the audition.”I went and tried out and made it and came home and told my mother I was in a church choir,” said Kinchla, now 31. “And she said, ‘Uhhn, what church?’ My family had no religious affiliation.”It was an Episcopal church. And not only did he get paid for his time, Kinchla also received a formal education in classical music.Among the unusual experiences Kinchla has had in his musical career, traveling around New Jersey as a 10-year-old singing spiritual choral music ranks a distant second.Some 15 years later, Kinchla auditioned – this time by invitation – for the vacant bassist’s slot in Blues Traveler. The audition was not in a rehearsal studio, but onstage at New York’s Bar Bat, in front of an audience. Kinchla had not rehearsed with the band even once. On top of that, it was the band’s first gig after the August 1999 death of founding bassist Bobby Sheehan.Adding to the strangeness factor, Kinchla had been a part of the Blues Traveler coterie from the very beginning. He had watched from close range as his older brother, guitarist Chan, hooked up with three Princeton buddies to first break into the burgeoning club scene of New York in the mid-’80s, and then move up to amphitheaters.
Strange indeed.”One, to see them without Bobby, and two, to be the one playing – it was weird,” said Kinchla by phone, from his apartment in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. “And there was no rehearsal; they just gave me a list of songs to learn. I had never played with the band before.”I was psyched to get that gig done with. I’m just jamming along, trying to remember to play and not just listen to it. I guess it went well.”Well enough that Kinchla was offered the job over the five other bassists who were given similar one-gig tryouts. He didn’t hesitate to accept the gig; he had already made up his mind that if given the chance, he would take it. But the oddness was slow to fade.”For a year it was strange to hear the music,” said Kinchla. “I missed the essence of Bobby’s playing. It was strange that I was playing the bass parts. But after that, it became cool to be doing these new bass parts, these new grooves.” Blues Traveler was formed in 1983 by four friends from Princeton High School: drummer Brendan Hill, guitarist Chandler “Chan” Kinchla, bassist Bobby Sheehan and a character of a young man, John Popper, whose eccentricities ran from his bomber hat to his choice of instrument, the undersung harmonica. The band’s gigs, at local churches, bars and parties, got little recognition. What small crowds they attracted were mostly friends and family members.
“Oddly enough, they were the only people around,” said Tad Kinchla, of the early bond between himself and the band. “It was me, my parents, them, the Hills, at a little church across from the high school, or at this little bar in New Hope.”The younger Kinchla took to upright bass after his brother, older by four years, had settled on guitar. He switched to guitar when his partner in a middle school band couldn’t make the barre chords necessary for rock ‘n’ roll, and he shoved his friend to the bass chair. (Kinchla figures he did him a favor; the friend is now bassist for soul singer India.Arie.) Kinchla found himself attracted not only to the growing popularity of Blues Traveler, but the music as well.”There was a very open-ended style they had,” said Kinchla, who also listened to ska, reggae and English rock. “So everything was always different. That was a new thing going on with bands. That whole type of extemporaneous jamming was new. A lot of kids were going to Grateful Dead shows and they were the only band that had that open-ended feeling to it, and doing a different show each night.”Blues Traveler graduated directly from high school band to a part of the thriving downtown Manhattan music scene. Kinchla, though in his early teens, was one of the core group that watched the band at places like Dan Lynch’s, Nightingale’s and Wetland’s Preserve.”My parents would let me go in and see and show and take a train back,” said Kinchla, whose father retired two years ago from his position as a psychology professor at Princeton. “A couple of times I’d stay up all night and go right to school. I’d go with the band manager’s younger brother, a friend of mine. So it was sort of a family thing. And it was unusual, this high school band making it in New York.”By the time Tad graduated from Princeton High, Blues Traveler was about to outgrow that bar scene. They had signed with a major record label, A&M, and released a self-titled album in 1990, getting decent radio play for such aggressive, harmonica-driven rockers as “But Anyway.” In 1992, Popper conceived the H.O.R.D.E. festival, which would bring Blues Traveler and like-minded bands – Widespread Panic, Phish, and Traveler’s New York cousins, the Spin Doctors – to huge venues like the Jones Beach Amphitheater on Long Island.
In 1995 came a most unexpected occurrence: a massive hit single, an almost unheard of happening among the jam bands. “Runaround,” a simple four-chord tune from the album “Four,” was everywhere. Blues Traveler found itself not only on big stages, but also on radio and MTV. “There’s a lot of pressure to go to college, especially in Princeton,” noted Kinchla. “Blues Traveler was lucky. There are thousands of talented musicians who will never have a song on the radio, and not because they aren’t good enough, or don’t want it enough. It was cool to happen to them.”Figuring that Blues Traveler had used up the allotment of luck in the neighborhood, Kinchla took another path. At Brown University, he studied political science, played lacrosse and formed a three-piece band, Dowdy Smack, influenced by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. After college, the band moved from Rhode lsland to New York City, toured the East Coast and made a record. Settling in Brooklyn, Kinchla fixed up a space above the band’s music studio; he has been living in that upstairs apartment ever since.Apart from Dowdy Smack, Kinchla also did freelance graphic design work. When he got offers for full-time work, he was ready to ditch music. Then Bobby Sheehan died, of a drug overdose in New Orleans. Kinchla became the new Blues Traveler bassist.The rest of the band made it clear to Kinchla that he wasn’t meant to replicate Sheehan’s parts. In fact, Blues Traveler was looking for a change. Following the “Runaround” phenomenon, the band suffered serious burnout from the demands of pop stardom. “I saw they played too much, just over and over and over. And doing H.O.R.D.E. drained them as well,” said Kinchla, who had been a part of the H.O.R.D.E. festival one year – as nanny to his brother’s newborn child. Sheehan’s death brought a further emotional descent. “There was a dark period, a sadness, surrounding Bob’s passing. It was the grieving period.”
Blues Traveler confirmed its new direction by adding a keyboardist, Ben Wilson, at the same time Kinchla was hired. (The fresh start was echoed in Popper’s dramatic weight loss, from dangerous to merely chubby, attributable to stomach staple surgery.) Kinchla was fully welcomed when one of his songs, “Girl Inside My Head,” was chosen as the single from the first album with the new lineup, 2001’s “The Bridge.” Kinchla co-wrote several songs from 2003’s “Truth Be Told,” and will have three songs on “Bastardos!” the new album, produced by former Wilco member Jay Bennett, due for release in September.”That’s the vibe I got from day one, and that’s the vibe there is now,” he said. “I’m part of the band. They said, ‘We want to create a new band, with new members. We’re not trying to revisit what we had played. We want you to play your way.’ ”Still, playing his own way wasn’t easy. From the time he was a kid, Kinchla had been accustomed to hearing certain bass lines, Bobby Sheehan’s bass lines, at the bottom of Blues Traveler’s sound. Kinchla said it took awhile to get detached from the original versions of the songs.What hasn’t been too tough is dealing with the legacy of Blues Traveler. He witnessed the “Runaround”-era fame, and the ups and downs that came with it. And while the band wouldn’t mind another huge-selling album, they aren’t chasing after it either. Blues Traveler is happy with its place in the music world, and Tad Kinchla is content with his role in Blues Traveler.”It was hard for the band to understand why the hard-core fans are saying, ‘You’re not the same,'” he said of the “Runaround” days. “All the band did was make another album. It’s not like they decided to make a hit.”This band has a long shelf life. And we haven’t changed what we do. Live playing is still the fundamental thing of what we do. And the fans are still loyal. There’s a happiness, a contentment that the band has now. The band’s willing to accept this path for a long time.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org