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After 25 years, Blues Traveler gets by with a little help from its friends

WASHINGTON — You could almost hear Blues Traveler lead singer John Popper channeling Cher’s 1990s megahit “If I Could Turn Back Time” as he described getting ready for his band’s hectic summer tour schedule.

“The (hassle) about the Blues Traveler repertoire that everybody likes, like ‘Hook’ and ‘Run-Around,’ especially ‘Hook,’ is that I wrote it in the highest note I could sing to show off how high I could sing, not realizing I would be doing that for the next 25 years,” Popper said. “I would like to go back in time and beat the (expletive) out of myself.”

Blues Traveler, which cracked pop music’s Top 10 charts in the 1990s, celebrates its 25th anniversary this year with a barnstorm tour of state fairs, summer music festivals, amphitheatres and pavilions.

The five-member band from Princeton, N.J., is a quarter-century older but it is also light years wiser, Popper says, as evidenced by the release of its latest album, “Suzie Cracks the Whip.”

The curiously titled collection stays true to the Blues Traveler jam-rock sound, from Popper’s distinctive vocals — albeit in a more sustainable range — to his virtuoso harmonica solos. But the album represents a change for a band that was a fiercely self-contained unit that wrote, performed and produced its own songs.

For “Suzie,” Blues Traveler turned for the first time to a small crew of collaborators to assist with the songwriting and production duties. The cast of helping hands included Spin Doctors lead singer Chris Barron and Sam (S*A*M*) Hollander and Dave “Sluggo” Katz, who produced hits for Katy Perry.

“In the past, our concept (at least in our minds) had always been to be like some misguided homage to the Beatles and write and produce everything in-house, but as the band progressed it felt like we were drawing from the same well over and over,” Popper said. “And somehow, because we’ve always done things our way, we’ve gotten sort of oblivious to what the music scene does. It was a mistake on our part to think we have to do everything by ourselves.”

Writing songs, which fans often imagine as a romantic endeavor, took on the feel of 9-to-5 workaday drudgery for Popper, guitarist Chan Kinchla, bassist Tad Kinchla, keyboardist Ben Wilson and drummer Brendan Hill.

“Somebody in the band would bring some sort of musical idea, the band would go through this machinery where everyone would figure out their parts,” Popper recalled. “They would give it to me and I’d write words to it the next day. While I was writing words to that song, they were working on the next piece of music. Everyday I’d be in my car with a CD of what they did yesterday, writing up the songs. It becomes an assembly line and it was getting to the point that the band and me would barely see each other.”

Letting fresh eyes and ears in on the creative process and trying a different approach in making their music was like discovering a “new vein” in what was thought to be a tapped-out gold mine, Popper said

“S*A*M* and Sluggo helped remind us about what was cool about Blues Traveler in the first place,” Popper said. “It’s easy to forget what’s cool about yourself after so many years of being you.”

While the music-making process got stale for Blues Traveler prior to “Suzie,” performing live never did. The band lives for live shows and Popper prepared for this summer’s tour by putting his vices on the shelf to help preserve his throat for the punishment it will endure from singing and harmonica playing.

“It’s a beating, especially when you’re trying to sing a repertoire that you’re known for doing since you were 24,” said Popper, 45. “I can do it if I really hunker down and focus. That means not just giving up smoking cigarettes, but everything. I probably have to lay off the booze, too. Basically, the image I’m going for is Steve McQueen in the prison cell in ‘The Great Escape’ where he’s bouncing a ball. After every show, I’m going to go to the back lounge and bounce a ball and just keep focused. In September, I get to go crazy again.”

The band’s front man has been more health-conscious since having angioplasty in 1999 to clear an artery that was 95 percent blocked. He’s dropped from a high of 436 pounds to his current svelte form following gastric bypass surgery.

Excessive food, drink and drugs may be out as self-destructive hobbies for Popper but he still has one indulgence left: weaponry. He’s an avid gun collector who has a shooting range at his home and owns Civil War-era cannon.

He also owns a bullwhip, which is part of the origin of the album title “Suzie Cracks the Whip.” “Suzie” is Suzie Shinn, a hard-working, multi-tasking assistant engineer at the California studio where the album was recorded.

Popper brought his whip to a photo shoot and showed Shinn how to use it.

“So we got a great pic of her swinging and cracking it,” Brendan Hill said. “It was a fun moment that summed up our approach to the whole project: putting all our chips in, yet not taking things too seriously.”

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