Blues Traveler Interview: Chan Kinchla

Chan Kinchla has been a member of the blues rock band “Blues Traveler” since its inception back in the mid 1980’s, 30 years ago. Kinchla, John Popper, Brenden Hill and Bobby Sheehan, formed the band as “Blues Traveler” in 1987, in Princeton, New Jersey. In 1994, Blues Traveler released its fourth album titled Four and it sold six million copies, produced hits, “Run-Around,” which won a Grammy and “Hook.” Chan’s brother Tad replaced Sheehan in 1999, after he died from an accidental drug overdose and Ben Wilson was added as a keyboard player. The band continued to perform and appear in major film productions and television shows. Today in 2017, after releasing 12 albums they are as popular as ever and sell out shows as they continue their 30th anniversary tour, which doesn’t end until Christmas. Blues Rock Review’s Bob Gersztyn caught up with Kinchla before a recent gig.

Let me ask you a few questions pertinent to the group. You formed in 1987 and you gigged around a lot. What was it like when you first started and were doing open mics in New York City. Were you scared?

All those 30 years ago, because this is our 30 year celebration tour. It was great, because we got together in ’87 in high school. In ’86 we actually got together, but Bobby the bass player didn’t join till ’87. John in ’87 had already gone to New York and was in the new school. He was cruising around at night and he played these open mic nights in various clubs, so when the whole band came in ’87, we just started showing up as a whole band for open mic (chuckles). Right at that time the scene on the lower East side was great because they had just lifted what was called the cabaret law, which up until that point needed a special license to have more than three musicians on stage. They repealed that, so every bar, no matter what size, just started having bands, even if they weren’t necessarily having business, started doing it. So all of a sudden there were all these little dive bars that were playing live music. So we just kind of immersed ourselves in that and eventually found a couple of the skankiest ones where we were going to throw these parties with dollar draft and free nitrous oxide. We’d just hand out thousands of flyers at NYU, Parsons and all the different schools in the Lower East Side and the Village. When we started doing that at those skanky little bars, that’s where our crowd really got started. At the time that there were these open mic nights, Joan Osborne was playing and the “Spin Doctors” got started in that same area. Chris Whitley was in that whole scene and there were a ton of other great bands in this whole Lower East Side learning scene that was a great learning crowd for us. We played every night so we learned more than we ever could in a studio.

So was it because of all that you finally connected with Bill Graham?

We had this great little scene on the Lower East Side and we would pack these 200 seat clubs and we thought that it was pretty hot. Eventually we got a gig up at Columbia, at a frat party up there. So it happened to be Bill Graham’s son David’s frat and him and his buddies saw us play and that’s how we met them and they really liked us, so he got his dad involved. So by getting the gig in the Lower East Side we got the gig up in Columbia. That’s when we met Deej, that’s David Graham and we ended up meeting Bill and he got involved, which was a huge asset for us, because he got us on shows with Santana, we traveled all over the country with Santana and the Allman Brothers and really saw how to do it on a bigger level eventually. That was still a couple of years after our humble Lower East Side beginnings, but that was how we got involved.

How did you originally get into music yourself, what age were you?

My parents always had a dope record collection. My dad always listened to jazz and they were kind of hippies, so there was always a lot of rock & roll, so I always loved music and then at around 10, my best friend, who I played with every day, across the street, got a guitar and I came over and he said, “look at this, I got a guitar.”  I said great, and I picked it up and started playing it and it was kind of like one of those things where I knew that I liked it. I used to just go over to his house every day just to play his guitar, instead of with him. Eventually after a couple of weeks he just gave me the guitar, so I have to give him credit for getting me started, which he always reminds me of. We’re still in touch.

Chan Kinchla

Did you just pick it up on your own or did you take lessons?

At first I just tried to do anything, but eventually I found a little music store across town that gave lessons, so I would just walk across town and get cool lessons from Steve Omdorf my first guitar teacher in the back of the little shop. So it’s just one of those things, that to get proficient on any instrument you really have to want to practice, and I wasn’t very naturally talented. My dad gave me lots of support, because it was one of the first things that I was self motivated to do. It was kind of like the first thing that was all mine, so my parents always thought that it was really cool, so they gave me a lot of backup on that, but I was the one, they didn’t have to tell me to practice. I liked sitting in my room running scales.

Who were some of your earliest guitar influences?

That was like generation X, the early ’80s, so I was into punk rock and new wave and all that stuff, which is pretty good for learning guitar, because a lot of that stuff is pretty simple. So I learned the “Clash” and the “Police” the “Specials,” the “Jam,” all those kind of cool punk and new wave bands. Then when I got a little better guitar, I started getting into David Bowie and then Led Zeppelin all through high school. That’s kind of where I began improvising a lot more and getting into a little more serious music, but it all started playing punk rock. So I really love all that kind of aggressive, simple energy. That’s where I come from that’s my generation.

When I googled your name to find more information it listed you as an actor as well as a musician. Is that because of your appearances in movies like Kingpin and Ghostbusters?

Exactly! We also did Blues Brothers and the band has appeared in several movies for various reasons. It’s always a great kick, we love that kind of stuff, so that must be it, because I’ve never said a line in any film production.

So you never got serious about trying to act?

No, but my ex-wife was an actress for some time, but otherwise no.

What current project is the band working on now? The last album you came out with was Blow Up The Moon in 2015?

As it turns out we just recorded a brand new one, cause we kinda did that collaboration project, Blow Up The Moon, which was a gas to do and helped give us a breath of fresh air in our songwriting and all that. We went back this Spring to Nashville and recorded a Blues Traveler old school rock album, so we’re feeling pretty gassed about that. So that’s coming out this January. So we’ll finish up our 30th anniversary year and then next year, boom, new album. Let’s have some fun!

Do you have a title for it yet?

No we don’t. We’re in the process. We’ve got about eight people involved and I think about 10 options apiece, so we’ve got 80, 80 titles right now. We’re working it out, but we recorded it in Nashville and it’s all written by Blues Traveler, performed by Blues Traveler and was a lot of fun to make. Even the album before that, Suzie Cracks The Whip, we worked with a lot of outside songwriters, just to try something different on some of it. So, I think that we were really kind of due to kind of just come back and do everything in house again. I think that we learned a lot working with all these other songwriters as well. So, it was a very fertile time. Everyone had a bunch of good ideas and it all came together very organically and it was a blast to make, so we’re pretty excited about it.

Are you currently married and do you have any kids?

I am not, but the other four guys are. I have two kids, a 19-year-old and a-13-year old, but I am really close to my ex, so we’re one big modern family. I live in Los Angeles.

Do your kids play any music?

My oldest son, Ayden, no he’s more of a nerd, he loves music, though. My younger son, Rowan, who is 13, is actually…he plays ukulele and sings, he’s also quite the Thespian and does a lot of plays, so he’s actually quite talented in the arts and acting, so there’s a little bit of it in there. He’s more talented than I ever was, that’s for sure.

I read that you like to read a lot. Who are some of your favorite authors and books?

Oh, gosh, so many. I was just up in the wilderness in a cabin with my two boys and we were all reading Stephen King books. Stephen King is great, but more on the literary side I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Naguib Mahfouz and all the classics. Hemingway is amazing, I love all that stuff, so it’s hard to say who is my favorite, because they’re all so different when you get to a certain level. If I had to guess maybe Gabriel Garcia Marquez, if I was forced to make a pick, I really like F. Scott Fitzgerald, too.

In a couple of the articles that I was reading it talked about smoking a lot of pot during practice.

I really don’t smoke much pot at all. We might have a couple of drinks around showtime. I know that John puffs a little more than the rest of us, but…when I was younger maybe, in my 20s I might have smoked a little more pot.

There were only two articles that I was reading that talked about it, like in a 4 hour jam session where you made a tape.

That was when I was in high school. That was long ago.

It’s legal now up and down the entire West Coast.

To be honest though, the medical thing has been around in L.A. for so long, everyone who wants a license has one and there are corner stores for medical marijuana all over, so it’s not very different now, but I’m sure there will be mom and pop stores opening up and it’ll probably be a little easier.

There are 63 stores here in Salem alone.

Well, it’s great. Marijuana is great, but I’ve got a feeling that in a year or two a lot of them will be closed and just the good ones will stay open. So back then when you smoked a little pot it was a grand experiment. I think that it helps you look at music a little different, but we’ve been playing now so long now that we’re already brain dead, so it works pretty well. We’re already there.

You don’t want to follow the Grateful Dead’s path.

It’s rough out here, I mean Bobby, our first bass player passed away. I’ve got tons of friends who passed away for various drug related situations, so it’s kind of a strange atmosphere. I always say that it’s funny, we show up for work and people give us a bottle of whiskey and a case of beer, so we’ve learned now and everyone is in a good place.

Interview by Bob Gersztyn

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