Blues Traveler will mark their 25th anniversary as a band this year with a new album and tour. Their tenth LP, Suzie Cracks the Whip, is due June 26th on 429 Records, and the band will launch a co-headlining trek this summer alongside Barenaked Ladies, Cracker and Big Head Todd. Their first full-length since 2008's North Hollywood Shootout is unlike previous Blues Traveler albums, says frontman John Popper, in that it features quite a bit of input from outside songwriters.
"We've been kind of making the same album over and over again, in my mind," Popper tells Rolling Stone. "It was some misguided homage to the Beatles; we were always trying to write everything in-house. We felt it was something we had to do to prove ourselves. It's something that every band does when they start out. After 20 years of playing with the same guys pretty much, you start getting written out. One band member would bring a riff they were working on, I'd write words to it, and it got to be very assembly line. We tried doing something different with North Hollywood Shootout, but that didn't work."
In his search for new inspiration, Popper released a solo record last year with a cast of longtime musician friends dubbed the Duskray Troubadours. "Each of them were songwriters," says Popper. "It really gave me a chance to write with other songwriters. I took this experiment back to Blues Traveler, and Blues Traveler took it to the power of ten, because it's a tightknit musical machine. They're used to taking songs and putting them through this assembly line, but when you take another songwriter, they get all these new ideas."
Blues Traveler recruited Carrie Rodriguez, Ron Sexsmith and the Spin Doctors' Chris Barron, among others, for songwriting contributions. Rodriguez's tune, "Don't Wanna Go," features singer-songwriter (and American Idol season nine runner-up) Crystal Bowersox. "It was just such a duet-ready song," Popper notes. "She matched my voice really perfectly. It was a really great take, considering she had to do it in a day." In addition to the outside songwriters, Popper credits Sam Hollander, who co-produced the album along with Dave "Sluggo" Katz, for adding a special element to the sessions. "He really brought out what we contributed and kept the vibe," says Popper. "That's the other thing: when you're in a band this old, you start to forget what's cool about you. You need somebody who can go, 'Y'know what's cool about you guys…'"
Of the album's "Suzie," Popper says, "Suzie was one of the people working at the studio, and she wound up doing everything from getting our laundry done to cleaning up the place to jumping in a chair and tracking percussion and vocals. She was the go-to person on this. I had a bullwhip when we were doing a photo shoot – I've been a pretty good bullwhipper ever since Raiders of the Lost Ark came out – and I said, 'Hey Suzie, you hold the whip.' And then of course, I suggested, 'Hey, whip us!' That became this nifty little photo, and it seemed to be very metaphorical."
Popper is full of over-the-top boasts about the new LP. "This album will actually cure measles! This album will cure erectile dysfunction! This album is better than roofies!" he jokes. But the frontman is serious about the milestone that it represents for the band. "I don't think there's any song you get bored with, or a bunch of the same kind of tune. We're really pleased with how it turned out. After 25 years of being a band, this is a really great high watermark."