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The Patagonia Music Collective Launches -- Plus a Conversation With John Popper

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Today, the environmentally conscious clothing company Patagonia Inc. launches "The Patagonia Music Collective" by releasing two 11-track bundles that are part of an ongoing series intended to be a new model for green giving. So far, artists and bands such as Pearl Jam, Jack Johnson, Bonnie Raitt, Maroon 5, The Zac Brown Band, Moe, Phillip Glass, The Bad Plus, John Scofield, Umphrey's McGee, Ben Solee, Brett Dennen, Los Lobos, Ziggy Marley, Brandi Carlile, Jon Cleary, Big Head Todd & The Monsters, Taj Mahal, Switchfoot, Abigail Washburn, Toad The Wet Sprocket, String Cheese Incident, Mason Jennings, and many others have contributed unique recordings to the initiative that will continue rolling out 3-4 tracks every week. Although exclusive compilation albums will eventually be available at Patagonia stores around the world, tracks and bundles (as well as an iPhone app and a web widget player) will be available immediately at www.patagonia.com/music.

"Musicians have been interested in partnering with Patagonia on our environmental work for years, but we didn't have the right platform to work together effectively," notes Rob BonDurant, Patagonia's vice president of marketing, "The Music Collective provides us with a way to partner directly with enviro-minded artists and to engage their fans in environmental efforts. It's truly a new model for green giving."

Bonnie Raitt added, "Any endeavor that combines great music with fund raising for quality environmental organizations gets my attention. When Patagonia approached us to be involved, we were excited to team up. I've been a supporter of Earth Justice for almost a decade because, as their slogan states, 'The earth needs a good lawyer.'"

The Patagonia Music Collective adds to eco-aware programs such as "1% For The Planet," the coalition of over 1400 companies that donate that percentage of their annual sales to environmentally friendly programs. While The Patagonia Music Collective will not function as a typical record company or music entity, it will be a portal for artists to shepherd money to their favorite environmental organizations.

"I have been excited to work with Patagonia since I traveled down to Chile a couple years ago to work on music for the film 180° South," explains Mason Jennings. "Hanging out with Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia founder/owner) and other environmentalists and hearing how they think about life and the work that Patagonia is doing to give back to the environment was truly inspiring."

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A Conversation With John Popper

Mike Ragogna: What's up with "The Duskray Troubadours"?

John Popper: Well, it occurs to me that it's like another fancy name like "Blues Traveler." It's a color and a term for a wandering person. Duskray really describes a color I saw in New Mexico at dusk that is just gorgeous. I was thinking it would be a great crayon color. I'm not sure what rays of dusk are, but if it was a color, I'm sure it would be a burning orange.

MR: You have a splash of that color on your cover.

JP: Yes, I'm pretty sure that's close to "duskray" on the cover.

MR: Let's immediately get to one of John Popper & The Duskray Troubadour's standout tracks. What's the story behind the song "Bereft"?

JP: I wrote that in Italy, I was very heartbroken from this girl that dumped me the year before. I was really trying not to think of her. I was in the very hotel that I think the husband of Mary Shelley--we'll call him Frank Shelley--where he drowned. It's right off the coast of Italy. It struck me as sort of an Italian blues song. I also felt an influence from that movie The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, there is the theme that's recurring in this turn around reminds me of this hopeless feeling--I think that's Nick Cave that does that song. There was just a seething but hopeless kind of march to that, I thought it was a great blues progression. I worked it out and I thought the chord progression kind of reminded me of Italy a little bit, it was a European approach to a blues song. I think the pace I was making it in the song just felt like something in me had died and everything that was left was mourning that. I think it's my favorite song on the album.

MR: It's pretty terrific. But "Something Sweet" is the single, right?

JP: Yeah, that is a classic example of a Jono Manson song, he's my partner in The Duskray Troubadours. Back in our early days starting out as Blues Traveler, he was the guy that we would open for. He was kind of king of the scene at Second Avenue. He was a guy that I really learned from and was a mentor to me. So, learning to co-write with him was really a fun time.

MR: Can you go through what got you into the blues and specifically into harmonica playing?

JP: Well, it was The Blues Brothers, I wanted to be a comedian originally. I was watching SNL and saw The Blues Brothers and that really blew me away what Elwood was doing. Somebody mentioned he sounded like Paul Butterfield so that made me get a Paul Butterfield album. Paul Butterfield blew me away, he was doing a lot of Muddy Waters tunes which got me into a lot of his tunes. I followed the trail and it lead me to various blues people--Little Walter playing with Muddy, which lead to Elmore James, which lead to Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Then, it somehow lead to Hendrix and when it got to Hendrix, music really opened up for me. That's when I knew I wanted to do this for a living. The cool thing about Hendrix was that he didn't care what his guitar was supposed to sound like, he would make whatever sound he wanted on it. That's what I was trying to do with the harmonica.

MR: It seems like your new project is a little more Americana when in the past, you pushed the more blues-rock elements. Is that a fair assessment?

JP: I think so. Americana is a great catch-all term for songs that could be rock 'n' roll...could be country music, actually. It's that "you're not quite sure what it is" term. I think that's why they call it "Americana" because it's the melting pot. That's fine with me because, to me, it's hard to tell to which genre you belong. You sort of wait for other people to tell you that. What you've got to do is just mean it. People always ask me what kind of music we play, and I say it's ours. To me, it's mellower, but I will take Americana.

MR: I usually associate Americana with roots music.

JP: It always makes me think of New Mexico where I did it. Americana always reminds me of the Southwest.

MR: Can you go into recording your album in New Mexico? Did its vibe affect the sessions?

JP: I think it did. Jono has this studio in the mountains outside of Santa Fe. You can't argue with the price. He is starting this studio there and we loved it, it's really great. I think that added to the feeling that it was ours and it was homemade. It was a great vibe and added to our freedom. I think there is something very liberating about the Southwest--it's a very eclectic area musically. You go check out the radio stations and there is all kinds of folk music from the '40s. There is a lot of '40s music in Santa Fe, it's weird. There is a lot of really obscure jazz that you may not find anywhere else. The thing is they are all mushed together.

MR: Are there any other interesting pockets of America that are fascinating to you?

JP: A lot, I think, for Blues Traveler is about to go have a writing session in Austin. Austin, Texas is a really huge and unique music place. It's unlike anywhere else, it has its own breed of songwriting. It has great narratives. Of course, New Orleans is famous for that, almost to its detriment. You go there expecting it and it's hard to live up to that.

MR: It can become more of a tourist thing than a musical haven.

JP: All that means is that you can still find it, but you have to go a little more into the back neighborhoods to find. Chicago, to a lesser extent, is that way as well. You have The Kingston Mines in Chicago and a real tradition of the cunning sessions they would call it, where people would trade and duel musically. That wasn't in New York when I was there, but it's there alive and well in Chicago. But because so many tourists come to see it, it's almost staged so you have to go and find it, but it is there. I think that is the thing--wherever there are traditions, they exist today, but where they congeal is what you're trying to find. That's why, for instance, Austin is so special because Austin--maybe all of Texas--needs some place for all of this music in this huge region of the country to find somewhere to go.

MR: Are you playing SXSW this year?

JP: Yes, it's going to be fun.

MR: What is your feeling about the blues these days?

JP: Somebody told me something really smart, and a teacher said this a lot. The blues is the sound a baby makes when it cries for the very first time because after that, the baby knows it will be picked up and then it's show business. It's about getting that first cry. You don't quite know why you're crying, but you know that you mean it. That meaning is really what the blues is. It's not about a chord progression, it's a wail that everyone feels at some point or another.

MR: Beautiful. Okay, let's talk about your movie roles and cameos. You were the bowling MC in Kingpin, so what was it like working with that cast?

JP: It was great because Bill Murray was just so much fun. He had that bald wig and that piece of hair was floating in the breeze. Even when he was off camera he would keep that thing moving. He had worked so well at keeping that hair aloft, that when he would talk to you, he would just start making it move. And Woody Harrelson is a hell of a thumb wrestler, but I'm also a fairly undefeated thumb wrestler.

MR: Have many beaten you?

JP: Occasionally it happens but I beat Hulk Holgan and Goldberg in the same day. Goldberg just wrestled five guys though, and Hulk, I think, just gave it to me.

MR: Speaking of thumb wrestling, you were also in Howard Stern's Private Parts.

JP: Yeah, I played myself, looking disdainfully at Howard while he walked by with his butt out. It was great in that movie because Chris (Barron) and I from Spin Doctors went to high school together. So, we are like kids in a movie and enjoying ourselves in that way. What's funny is that I looked over and Howard was watching us enjoy ourselves and he was enjoying that like he was a kid. That was a really fun thing to have, the star of a movie being a kid like that.

MR: And then there's Blues Brothers 2000. I guess goes full circle then.

JP: That was the movie that inspired me, and now I'm in the movie. It was definitely surreal. I also got to play all of the harmonica parts for the kid. What was fun was that, metaphorically, I was the future sound.

MR: What advice do you have for kids now that the record companies are imploding?

JP: Deal crack. (laughs) I've just always wanted to say that. No, don't deal crack kids. If I really had some advice, it would be don't listen to people like me. Everybody gave me advice on how to make it when I was trying to make it. The main thing was that their advice was more apropos to their time when they were doing it. I could tell you some great advice on how to succeed in New York City in the late '80s early '90s. The problem is that it's not the late '80s early '90s anymore, it's a whole unique scene to you, so listen to you. You know better than anyone what you've got to do to make it. Some of the standard rules apply, like you need talent, there has to be a work ethic. But you will know what to do yourself better than those who came before you. You always have to mean it. If you don't mean it, it's not going to sound real. I think Charlie Parker said, "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." I think that is the same thing he is saying.

MR: John, how were you "discovered"?

JP: Well, it depends at which point. I was in my high school jazz band as the third trumpet player because I had been playing harmonica in the school parking lot. I was in the remedial class. They were going to put me in a school for stupid people or retarded people or something, but I could play this harmonica. The remedial lady, she went and talked to the high school band teacher. He said they didn't really have harmonicas in the high school band, here is a trumpet, get out of my office. So, I was in the beginner band and we're doing "She Blinded Me With Science," and they were going around the room for solos. I did a terrible third trumpet solo. I had the harmonica in my trumpet case, I had three. Luckily, I had one in the right key though. The band teacher said, "Try it." As soon as I was done with that solo, I was in the first string band. The principle was checking me out and people were gathering around to watch me play. The next day, everyone knew my name and it sort of started there.

When I got into the music school, I had such horrible grades. I'm talked to the dean and he was looking at my transcripts at The New School for Social Research--they just started this jazz program. He was sitting there shaking his head going, "I don't know John." I had a harmonica in my pocket and played for him, and he was like, "Oh, just go on in," and they put me in the school. So, there are little moments of being discovered that just continue. I guess when we got signed to our label was at the New Music Seminar in '89. They drove it into us that we had only 45 minutes to play our set, so we crafted a perfectly tailored set that showcased every feature of our band. Right before we started, somebody came in and said, "Buddy Miles is here and wants to sit in with you guys." He kicked the bass player off and did a bass solo, he kicked the guitar player off his guitar and did a guitar solo, and every solo is like four hours long; he does a nine hour drum solo. Our set was so blown that it was funny. The record label liked the way we handled it and signed us. You could say we got discovered when our video came out. It was our fourth record when we broke big time.

MR: But there's more to the story, another school story?

JP: Our parents told us, "If you stay in school, we will pay for it." So, after high school, we all claimed we were going to school in New York City. Then, we would all just skip class and figure out how to be a band. Like, we were being subsidized, we had a window there. We were at a music school that was really good and had good teachers there, but basically, we got free amps and all of the rehearsal time we wanted. Also, some nice stuff to learn, but the second we paid our rent, we quit school. In our mind, that's when we made it, we felt like we were a family--Blues Travelers is a family. We are all living in the same apartment and the second we could continue feed ourselves doing this, we could just weed the rest of the stuff out. That's the thing, what is "making it," what is success? It's really doing what you love, expressing yourself, and feeding yourself.

MR: This is terrific advice for new artists. By example, you show how important it is to keep goals in mind.

JP: Because you're going to have to live with it. Whatever you plan to do to make it, you better like it because they will want you to do it again and again.

MR: What is the difference between Blues Traveler and your other musical incarnations?

JP: I see a real evolution in that regard. I think the first solo album was just to do anything different because, at that point, I had done Blues Traveler for twelve years. That was with some old high school friends, and it was kind of cool because we didn't know what we were doing. It was just kind of fun, and there was really sporadic moments of brilliant musicianship there. Then, the next one was DJ Logic. That was just us having a little time to kill and it was just a thing we did for fun. Then, somebody threw money at us and said make a record--our motive was to not concentrate at all, to not rehearse, to be as loaded as we could when we played. Just to see as far we could take that, just for the fun of it. This was the first time I had really thought about it, and I got really seasoned musicians with an actual objective, and that was to expand and collaborate with songwriting. So, in a way, it was really the first solo project. I needed the other two to get to this place.

MR: You're very much in this album.

JP: It felt so freeing and great to do.

MR: What's in the future for John Popper?

JP: I would like to keep doing Blues Traveler, but about half the time is where I would like to get it to. That's a long way off. Blues Traveler still takes up most of our time. If I can figure out how to do solo things a little more efficiently, I think we could get there.

MR: Are you doing anything special for the 25th anniversary?

JP: Oh yeah. January, we are going to start writing an album. (note: this interview took place in December.) Also, we are going to do another tribute album. Hopefully, we are going to have two things, one at the beginning of the year and one at the end of the year, and we are going to tour the crap out of it. That's kind of why 2011 is a good year for my solo thing because Blues Traveler is going to kind of lay up for 2011. In 2012, you're going to get real sick of us.

Tracks:
1. Love Has Made It So
2. A Lot Like You
3. Bereft
4. What Can I Do For You
5. All The Way Down
6. Make It Better
7. Something Sweet
8. Champipple
9. Hurt So Much
10. Don't Tread On Me
11. End Of The Line
12. Leave It Up To Fate