Blues Traveler's John Popper Alters Lifestyle After Death Scare

Overweight singer/harmonica virtuoso, ready for September solo tour, develops health plan since dodging heart attack.

Blues Traveler singer and harmonica virtuoso John Popper thought he was living the rock-star life.

Little did he know he was also killing himself.

It was a beautiful June evening, he was in a hot tub in Hawaii with his girlfriend, and things felt pretty good. His solo album was on its way. Blues Traveler was planning an Independence Day show.

Then came a familiar pain in his chest.

"I'd felt these chest pains for a year, but I usually could concentrate my way out of them or sit a little differently, and I would be feeling better," the 32-year-old singer said. But this time was different. The pains landed him in a Los Angeles hospital for a procedure to unblock one of the arteries to his heart.

Since the surgery, Popper said, he's altered his unhealthy lifestyle and feels good enough to hit the road with the John Popper Band in support of his first solo album, Zygote, due Sept. 7. The tour will begin Sept. 1 with a show at the Bottle & Cork in Dewey Beach, Del.

Speaking from his Pennsylvania home, Popper said he had initially dismissed his chest pains as symptoms of his already-diagnosed diabetes or circulatory problems. "This was the first time that I really felt pains that I couldn't focus out of, and I had to stop what I was doing," he recalled. "I had to stop. I'd never had to do that before" (RealAudio excerpt of interview).

The obese musician — who said he hadn't realized he'd gained 60 pounds during the spring, ballooning to 400 pounds — already planned to visit Los Angeles for business, so he made an appointment to see his doctor. The decision, Popper said, saved his life.

"I told him [my doctor] about the frequency I was having [the pains], and he said 'You've got to get into bed right now. You're about to have a heart attack,'" Popper said. "I was like, 'You're kidding,' and he was like, 'You know that pain that just gets more and more severe? Then at one point, you just die?'" (RealAudio excerpt of interview).

The singer said he had no idea how dire the situation was until after an angioplasty procedure unclogged an artery his doctor said was 95 percent blocked. "They said 'Your life is going to have to change," Popper said, comparing his life-long compulsion to eat with a junkie's heroin addiction.

"I always wished I was a heroin addict, because it's cooler," he joked.

According to Popper, he's already making changes in his daily life. He said he has hired a personal trainer and begun cutting out the fatty foods that he's craved since adolescence.

So far he's making the right moves for a case as severe as his, according to a manager of the cardiology department at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. "If you don't do what he says he is going to, the plaque in your heart will come back. It's not a permanent fix," said the manager, who requested anonymity.

Blues Traveler — whose hits include such harmonica-fueled songs as "Run Around" (RealAudio excerpt) — were forced to cancel their annual July 4 show at Colorado's Red Rocks Amphitheatre due to Popper's health problems. The launch of the singer's solo tour was also pushed back to allow him time to recuperate.

The dark, introspective lyrics on such Zygote songs as the R&B-flavored first single, "Miserable Bastard" (RealAudio excerpt), and the '50s-style rock ballad "Once You Wake Up" seem to deal with mortality.

Yet, Popper said, they are mostly about a failed relationship.

"I'd say the doom and gloom stuff was written around 1996 or 1997," Popper said. "I fell in love with somebody, and there was no way it would work. She didn't feel the same way, and it forced me to look at my life."

Zygote was recorded earlier this year in Hoboken, N.J., with the percussive help of Dave Matthews Band drummer Carter Beauford and Crugie Riccio — a high-school friend of Popper's who provides many of the off-kilter time signatures on songs including "Tip the Domino" and the brooding ballad "Lunatic."

The good news, Popper said, is that he didn't have a heart attack. But, he added ruefully, he can remember every single meal he ever ate.

"A song like 'Once You Wake Up,' is about that realization ... about finally wanting to live," Popper said of the ballad. "I was too fat to play Red Rocks, I was so huge that it endangered my heart to be up on stage. It's good that I'm getting healthy again. I will not be 400 pounds and not be able to do what I want."