Q & A: Ben Wilson of Blues Traveler
When the four original members of Blues Traveler (John Popper, Bobby Sheehan, Chan Kinchla, and Brendan Hill) graduated from High School in New Jersey, they moved to Brooklyn, and hit the ground running. It was 1987, and the “jam band” scene, as we know it, did not exist yet. Widespread Panic was in the process of recording Space Wrangler, which would be released in 1988, and Phish’s first album, Junta, wasn't released until 1989.
Although the members of Blues Traveler were all students at either The New School or NYU, the real education was coming from playing, and the band was gigging almost nightly. They quickly landed a weekly spot at Wetlands, and got noticed by A&M records not long after. By 1990, the members of Blues Traveler had all left school, and had released their self-titled debut album.
In 1992, members of Blues traveler created the H.O.R.D.E Tour, and as a result, brought together bands that would start this second generation of Jambands: Phish, Blues Traveler, Widepread Panic, and Aquarium Rescue Unit.
When Blues Traveler released their album four. in 1994, the commercial success hit like a tidal wave. Instead of just being associated with Widespread Panic and Phish, they were now considered the peers of less niche acts like Barenaked Ladies and Sister Hazel. But no matter what bands were surrounding them, Blues Traveler was steaming, and they were blazing a trail for thousands of bands and hundreds of festivals. Without Blues Traveler, and the H.O.R.D.E Tour, the Jamband empire may have never existed. You can either bless, or curse, Blues Traveler for that.
Blues Traveler’s original bass player, Bobby Sheehan, passed away in 1999. The band was at a crossroads in many ways. They decided to forge ahead, and bring in two new members. That’s where keyboardist Ben Wilson comes in (and bass player Tad Kinchla). Wilson joined Blues traveler in January of 2000, and has recorded eight albums with the band. Their most recent being Hurry Up & Hang Around, released fall of 2018.
BT: When did you start playing music?
BW: My parents made me start taking piano lessons when I was in third grade. I took them for about a year, but once it started getting hard, I quit. A few years later, I started fooling around with it on my own. It took a while for me to figure it out. We used to have the piano out in a little atrium, so it was easy for our neighbor to hear me. I remember, I saw our next-door-neighbor in the street one day, and he told me he had heard me playing over the years. He told me it was god awful for the first couple of years, but that he was finally enjoying listening to me. This was late middle school/early high school. That's when I started playing in some bands. Once I started playing with other people, I began to excel. Being in the forefront and having blazing chops was never my thing. I just really enjoyed the act of collaboration.
BT: Playing in a band as a teenager is such a formative experience.
BW: It is. It gives you a sense of community. And it’s a lot of fun. But it also teaches you how to resolve conflict within a group. In that way, it’s similar to be involved in sports. You really need to figure out how you are going to interact, when you have to stand your ground, and when to compromise. It's an interesting learning experience.
BT: What keyboard players inspired you the most when you were learning? Or in general?
BW: Ray Manzarek from The Doors really inspired me. I shaped my love of music around the opening chords of “Riders on the Storm”. Steve Winwood's organ sound on Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” was a big one for me, too. It was less about the player, and more about the sound of the instrument. Organ really evoked feeling in me.
BT: And there is so much range, variation, and nuance within the organ. Different players can go in so many different directions.
BW: Absolutely. And different organs produce such different sounds. I have three organs myself, but they are each so unique. To narrow down your previous question, I think the organ player who has inspired me the most is Jimmy McGriff. As great as Jimmy Smith was, Jimmy McGriff is really my favorite. Just his tone and feeling.
BT: McGriff also had a deeper understanding of the instrument than Smith. And he was able to pull more out of the instrument. By being more active on the drawbars.
BW: Totally. For Jimmy Smith, he just played, not really utilizing all the different parts of the Hammond. But could he play. McGriff would really get into it and use the drawbars. Right now, John Medeski is really a master of using the drawbars to accentuate his solos. I have re-committed myself to getting my left-hand out of my lap and onto the drawbars to see if I can make some fun things happen.
BT: You came to Blues Traveler at a time when the band was going through a lot. Tell me a bit about when you joined the band.
BW: Right before I joined Blues Traveler, my band of six years, Big Dave & the Ultrasonics, was breaking up. We did our last show in late 1999. I, myself, was at a crossroads. I was deciding if I was gonna continue doing music full-time, or if I was just gonna do it on the side. Then a buddy told me Blues Traveler was looking for a keyboard player, so I sent my stuff over, and got an audition.
At that time, the members of Blues Traveler were going through some serious grief, and seriously trying to maintain the band at the same time. Blues Traveler had been their baby since they were teenagers, and they weren't sure how they were gonna keep going. Or in what direction. But they did know they couldn’t ever sound like they had, because Bobby was such an energy in the band, and his playing was so unique. So, when Tad and I joined the band, they wanted to make it feel like something new. There was a lot of excitement about the new chapter. But that was coupled with a terrible sense of loss.
BT: Was it a lot of pressure for you?
BW: Oddly, no. I was shitting my pants before the audition, but that quickly went away once I started playing. Once I joined the band, we jumped right into doing a writing session in Austin, for what would later become the album Bridge. I was down there for a month and really got to know everyone. And all the guys were super cool. I guess I felt a little insecure at first, wondering if I was playing the way they wanted me too. But they always told me, unless they said something, they like it. I'm the kind of person that sometimes wants more direction than that, but it worked.
BT: And it’s an extremely welcoming, and empowering, approach.
BW: It is. They could not have been cooler. The first few years I was in the band, I just focused on fitting into the sound. There were other players who tried out for the band that played circles around me. But they needed a meat-and-potatoes guy who was gonna fit in. They didn't need another John Popper in the band. I think that's one of the reasons they picked me.
BT: Your role has really evolved since then.
BW: It has. And, as it should. I write more songs now, and both Tad and I sing more back-up. As any band moves through records, and years, everything evolves. And the other guys in the band have always been extremely open to anything brought to the table, by anyone of us, almost all the time. We will try anything. It becomes very clear, very quickly, if it doesn't work. But we are always willing to explore.
BT: Do you think your dedicated fan base has given you the freedom that allowed you to explore? Or does everyone want to hear “Run Around”?
BW: I think they give us a certain amount of freedom, but they definitely like hearing songs from our older catalog. I understand that. But you gotta realize, some of these songs John wrote when he was 19 years old, and they have no reflection on how he feels now. John really gets behind his music, and his performance onstage, so if he isn’t feeling a song, it isn’t gonna have the energy he wants to tap into.
BT: What can we expect from this tour with moe. and G. Love?
BW: Oh, man. It’s been a lot of fun. G. Love gets out there and does his solo thing, and it’s really cool seeing him without a band. He really has been getting into some straight bluesy stuff. Since we are in a more jam-band environment with moe., we have been digging deeper into our repertoire, and stretch out a little more. Then we do a collaborative set with Moe., before they get up and do a set of their own.
Blues Traveler and moe. are stopping by the Red Hat Amphitheater in Raleigh, NC on Sunday, August 4 and the Greensboro Coliseum Complex on Tuesday, August 6. You can check out all the dates for their All Roads Runaround Tour here.