It’s the darkest night ever, and it doesn’t take me long to discover that the drive to Jono Manson’s studio in Chupadero is no joke. I’m lost out past Tesuque, and a cop car is following me with its flashers on, which makes me freak out.
When I finally pull up, I follow the faint sound of music to the door, and enter to the sound of acoustic guitar and the sight of John Popper—front man of mid-’90s pop powerhouse Blues Traveler—cigarette in his mouth, overdubbing vocals in a small booth.
“Yo, Jono!” he yells. “The press dude is here.”
Manson ushers me into his control room as Popper attempts to hit the perfect notes on one of the tracks for his forthcoming album, John Popper and the Food & Drug Administration. Popper tries several takes, making sure to sing it a different way each time, until he is satisfied.
I only hear bits and pieces of “End of the Line,” but it sounds nothing like Blues Traveler. I decide this is a good thing.
Popper joins us in the room and hands me a harmonica. “What is this?” I ask.
“It’s a harmonica,” he replies.
I like this guy.
I tell him the song I just heard sounds like it’s a little bit country.
“You could see it that way,” he replies. “A lot of these songs can be construed as country, but there’s this wonderful word ‘Americana.’ I think everyone working on the album is a good enough musician to straddle the fence of country and Americana. And besides, there’s other stuff, too.”
We take a seat to discuss the album, and Manson takes his place at the computer. Popper and Manson discuss what tracks to play me. They’re looking for a rocking number. I’m informed that I can’t tape anything because the songs aren’t finished. My plan to leak the album and become a millionaire is squashed.
They decide on a song and it’s a little more aggressive than I would have expected. Drums reminiscent of British glam-rock band Sweet’s 1974 song “Ballroom Blitz” take my attention first. They are soon joined by a bass line that makes me think of outlaw cowboy songs.
Once Popper’s voice enters the mix, things become more intense. He’s going for it all—almost screaming, but just restrained enough.
“That, by far, is the most intense song we’ve done,” Popper says. “We actually cut that as a quieter Marty Robbins kind of thing first, but it didn’t work out.”
Manson gets excited. “We just decided to go balls to the wall on that one, and we’re bringing Sharon Gilchrist in to lay some mandolin on it next week,” he says. I like the sound of this. Gilchrist rules.
“Usually when you mention John,” Manson says, “people pin him as ‘that harmonica player,’ but his voice has really come to the front of the record.” The album, even in its early stages, is definitely showing a different side of Popper’s talent.
“I tried a lot of things,” Popper continues. “We’ve got some real soul numbers on the record…Sometimes I even feel like I’m channeling Al Green or something.”
True to their word, they play me a number called “Something Sweet,” a soulful song with backup singers and funky bass. We shuffle through a few more tunes that run the gamut, from soft and pretty to loud and rocking. Personal feelings on Blues Traveler aside, I admit to myself that Popper is a pretty awesome singer—and whether or not it’s my favorite instrument, he wails on the harmonica.
Manson’s production and songwriting on the record are excellent, and the addition of local and national studio musicians—including local Mark Clark, Aaron Beavers of Texas and Kevin Trainor of Colorado—bring the album even further. I can’t really argue with solid musicianship and, besides, I’ve heard John Popper’s a gun nut.
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