It’s funny how a single event or thing can affect a person. Take Joe Popp, for instance. A ride on his brother’s mini-bike and witnessing a righteous guitar performance at church at the age of 7 set in motion a series of events that would lead to where Joe’s at today — preparing for a four-month motorcycle trip around the United States with a ‘pop-up’ guitar performance in every state.
Think of an extended solo-acoustic tour without the van or bus and call it Popp Over America. Catchy.
“I came up with the idea after a pretty bad break up with my fiancé in 2012. I had a BMW K75C I rode across the country from New York and back to get through it. But I didn’t have my guitar with me, and that was like not having my arms. I came back thinking it would be cool to do this thing where I’d play in each state, interview different people, eat in different places and show the country in a way that maybe it hadn’t been before – music, food and motorcycles. Who wouldn’t love that!”
Joe’s enthusiasm for his project, his music and riding is infectious. We’re talking by phone, but I feel we’re sitting right across from each other. This is despite the fact that his path to his planned May launch date has been more than circuitous.
But let’s take a step back a bit to that mini-bike and guitar performance.
A few years after that first mini-bike ride, Joe and his brother John found a used Honda Trail 70 in the trash and decided to see if they could get it to run. Seems Joe’s dad, Jerry, was a pretty good mechanic and had taught his boys the same.
So Joe and John got that little Honda running, and Joe mostly made it his own. He rode it on local streets when he shouldn’t have because, well, you can’t go very fast in a backyard.
“I’d ride that bike out to the street, look both ways, then just take off as fast as I could get it to go. I thought I was a real racer back then.”
Once Joe turned 15, he bought a Honda CB400T and went even faster. A head-on collision with a car opened up a gash on his shin all the way to the bone and left him with a concussion. But that didn’t stop him from riding…or getting even faster bikes later.
“When I was married, my wife didn’t want me to have a motorcycle. She had a daughter and was afraid if something happened to me, she’d have to raise her by herself. After my divorce in 2009, I bought a used 1994 Ducati 900SS SP and replaced or refurbished almost every component on the bike.”
Sounds like a good way to deal with it.
Joe was on sabbatical from the City College of New York in 2009 when he owned the Ducati, but when his time off ended, he had to sell the bike to cover the down payment on a new apartment in NYC. After renting a few bikes from the now defunct Jupiter Motorcycles, Joe ended up buying the Beemer that he used for that previously mentioned cross-country ‘get over her’ ride.
The Beemer was sold in 2013, and Joe now owns a 2002 Honda VFR800 – a sport touring bike for those unfamiliar with this particular model. He said he’d prefer to be riding an American bike, like a Harley, Indian or Motus, on a decidedly American endeavor. But he couldn’t afford one and neither company was willing to pony up a bike for his Popp Over America tour.
“My biggest issue now is where to put everything on the bike that I need to take with me. That’s a couple of GoPros, a still camera, a gimbal, some wireless microphones, a couple of hard drives to store all of the footage, and my guitar. Somewhere I’ll have to find room for socks!”
It’s worth noting that Joe’s guitar isn’t just some six string unit you might pick up on Amazon. This is a Gibson SJ-200 – the same model played by one of Joe’s guitar heroes, Pete Townshend.
Known as the “king of the flat tops,” Gibson introduced the SJ-200 in 1938 and it’s remained relatively unchanged since. Besides Townshend, other notables who have played this Gibson include George Harrison, Greg Lake (Emerson, Lake and Palmer) and Jimmy Page. Joe’s in good company, but this is a $3800 guitar and getting it came at a price that went beyond a few Benjamin’s.
“I was a big skateboarder for a time and had quite a collection. I ended up selling all of my skateboard to buy that guitar. When I saw Pete Townshend play it, I knew I had to have it, no matter what!”
So with the Gibson accompanying Joe on his grand tour, he had to find a way to get it on the bike and keep it safe.
“I had the great fortune of being able to get James Hoffee to design a case for me. It’s all carbon fiber and painted white so it doesn’t absorb too much heat that could distort the wood. But it was up to me to figure out how to get it on the bike.”
Joe put his mechanical skills to work and created a special Givi latching system that lets him securely attach the guitar where his left side bag would go. It’s pretty streamlined and serves as the closest thing you can get to rolling billboard for Popp Over America.
Just to clear things up here, Joe isn’t just some wannabe musician with an expensive guitar. He’s the real deal. He’s been playing since he was 12. And he made it clear when asked that he doesn’t do covers. So every song he’s going to play during Popp Over America will be an original of his own.
To give you some insight into his music cred, while living in Tampa in the early 90s, his punk rock band, dogs on ice, opened for Green Day, and his eponymous band, Joe Popp, opened for Blink 182, Mike Watt, Cheap Trick, and Joan Jett.
Then came the 90s.
“The popularity of rave and electronic music in the late 90s killed a lot of the live music scene. Clubs we used to play that were part of the alternative music scene turned into nothing but raves. It pretty much put a stop to what I was trying to do with live music.”
But wait, there’s more.
Joe has also composed rock music for theatrical productions of Pericles, MacBeth and In the Bubble. He’s currently the Technical Director for the Sonic Arts Center at The City College of New York, and he teaches Rock Ensemble as an adjunct at the college.
Then there’s his three-year stint as a steel drum player at Busch Gardens in Florida in the early 90s.
“Funny story. One of the players got hurt and they needed a replacement. I was already working there at the time, so they asked me if I wanted the gig. I didn’t know anything about playing a steel drum. But they said, ‘it has five notes, you play the guitar, you can handle it.’ So for three years I made what I thought was pretty good money at the time doing eight 15-minute shows a day. Although, I must have played ‘Hot Hot’ 20,000 times!”
Which gets us back to the present and how Joe is able to take four months off to fulfill a dream that’s been several years in the making.
As it turns out, he gets a paid sabbatical every six years from his Technical Director job at City College and this is year number six. He’s been at the college for 14 years, so he’s taking this second sabbatical to do the Popp Over America tour.
Companies like Arai, Michelin and Corbin have provided gear. He has other sponsors lined up, and he started a GoFundMe campaign to help alleviate some of the cost of the trip.
But mostly he’s counting on the kindness of friends and strangers along the way to give him a place to stay and a meal in exchange for a private pop-up concert and an interview on his Popp Over America web series. Joe made it clear that he doesn’t do covers. So every song he’s going to play during Popp Over America will be an original of his own creation.
“I’m not married. I don’t have children. I’m in my early 50s, and I’ve seen too many people die or become too ill to do something they really wanted to do. I don’t want that to happen to me.”
We don’t think it will. Otherwise, that first mini-bike ride and church guitar performance would have been a complete waste. And that’s not how this or Joe works.
For more on Joe and a preview of what to expect from Popp Over America, check out his pilot episode.