September 11, 1995 12:00 PM

ALASKA’S 2 A.M. SUNSET IS STILL hours away, and empty beer bottles full of soggy cigarette butts are rolling across the floor of a van carrying members of Blues Traveler through the spectacular wilderness. The passing sights, including a glacial lake that shimmers green in the sunlight, inspire rhapsody in John Popper, the Travelers’ 350-pound harmonica virtuoso and class clown. “I want to shoot a road sign!” he bellows, unholstering a .44 Magnum, one of four enormous firearms strapped, bandolier-style, across his massive belly. “Can’t I open the window and fire one shot? Please!”

As out of place as they seem in the Alaskan wilds, where they bagged neither fish nor fowl but consumed enormous quantities of brewskis, smokes and junk food during a three-day band holiday last month, Popper, 28, and his fellow Travelers—bassist Bobby Sheehan, 27, drummer Brendan Hill, 25, and guitarist Chan Kinchla, 26—are even more unlikely pop heroes back in the contiguous 48. It is startling enough to hear the Travelers’ music, a laid-back brand of blues-based rock and roll more appropriate to the acid-washed ’60s than the grunged-out ’90s, blaring from radios and club speakers this summer. (Thanks to the group’s imaginatively titled fourth album, Four, which has sold 2 million copies, Blues Traveler has enjoyed a long, three-month stay near the top of Billboard’s album chart.) But even more surprising is the fact that the Travelers, a band that puts more beef onstage than a cattle auction—the 6’4″ Popper and the 6’5″ Kinchla together weigh close to 600 pounds—are MTV’s darlings. “Run-around,” Popper’s catchy put-down of a walkaway love, recently hit the Top 5 on the channel’s video countdown. Of course, the Travelers perform the song behind a curtain, while a group led by a buff dude lip-synchs for the cameras. “Some bands get noticed because they have a certain look,” says Hill. “We wanted to make a statement that the music matters.” Notes Popper: “George Michael’s perfectly rounded ass? We will never have one.”

Which matters little to a growing crowd of fans that includes Popper disciples Bruce Willis and Dan Aykroyd, both of whom have joined the Travelers for impromptu harmonica jams.

With fans often dervishing in the aisles, the band’s concerts feature long, free-form improvisational jams and frequently resemble the sort of mass tribal rites made famous by the Grateful Dead, a band to which the Travelers have often been compared. “The family vibe of the band rubs off on the audience,” says Spin Doctors leader Chris Barron, an old high school chum of the band members. “They’ve built this huge faithful following. It’s a very good-natured, musically knowledgeable crowd.”

Popper, for one, bristles at the “neohippie” label that some critics have attached to the group. “We don’t know what was going on in the ’60s,” he says. “We’re making music that people our age like. Do we seem like hippies? I’m packin’ heat, for cripes sake!”

Despite the sidearms—”I’m just a harmless eccentric who loves guns,” says Popper, who wears them legally in Alaska, thanks to the state’s liberal gun laws—he and his mates shouldn’t be mistaken for good ol’ boys. All four hail from comfortable, middle-class homes in Princeton, N.J. As a teen, Popper, whose father runs a computer consulting firm and whose mother is a lawyer, played cello, piano, tuba, trumpet and, of course, harmonica, and kept friends in stitches with his whacked-out sense of humor. On road trips with the Princeton High School pop band, Hill recalls, “he’d get on the bus intercom and do comedy skits and impressions of all the teachers. Everybody went wild.”

Hill, who was 6 when he emigrated with his parents from London, invited Popper to join his fledgling rock band in 1985. Kinchla signed on a year later, and Sheehan joined shortly before the group adopted the name Blues Traveler from a character in the film Ghostbusters. Soon after high school graduation, all four moved to New York City for short-lived college careers before becoming stars of the local music scene. “We kicked New York’s ass,” says Kinchla. “Some record company had to sign us, no matter how ugly we were.”

Embarking on a long series of concert tours after signing with A&M Records in 1989, the band almost ended its travels in 1992 when Popper was involved in a serious motorcycle accident in Louisiana, where the group was recording its third album, Save His Soul. A severely broken right leg left him confined to a wheelchair for 20 months, but he continued to perform, returning to the stage for a moving performance in San Francisco two months after the accident. Despite almost constant pain, Popper often climbed from his wheelchair to stand at his microphone. “The doctor said I shouldn’t do it,” he says. “But it was a mandate from the crowd. And for that brief moment, it didn’t hurt.”

Now healed and enjoying the success of Four, Popper will return home to Princeton—bachelors Sheehan and Kinchla live in Manhattan, while Hill lives with his girlfriend in Eugene, Ore.—when the group finishes touring in December. Then, after a short hiatus, they plan to get back to their fans. “We’re a glorified bar band,” says Popper. “We play music to scam the opposite sex with.” “Or the same sex,” adds Kinchla. “Whatever floats your boat.”

STEVE DOUGHERTY

MICHAEL SMALL in Anchorage

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