“The Music tells me what to play” – a conversation with Bill Kreutzmann
By Doug Heselgrave
As much as I always enjoyed Grateful Dead concerts in their entirety, my favourite part of the show was always the Rhythm Devils or Drums and Space sequence that usually came part way through the second set. At that point, the Dead’s percussionists Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart had the chance to break out of the structures (such as they were) imposed by the band’s songs and go way out into unexplored territory. Over the years, Mickey Hart has written several books about percussion and gone to great lengths to explain his art and the percussive lineages that he was a part of. I’ve had the chance to interview Hart several times over the last two decades and always found him intensely articulate, engaging and funny. By contrast, Bill Kreutzmann always came off as the silent partner who chose to let his drums do the talking for him. So, when the chance came to talk to Bill about the new 7 Walkers album, I jumped at it. I reached him on the telephone before a gig in California and spent a delightful 45 minutes on the telephone talking about everything from scuba diving amongst the warm ocean currents off of Vancouver Island to the new lease on creativity that playing in the 7 Walkers has given him. The epitome of warmth and intuition, Bill sounded relaxed, happy and full of life as we spoke. Whatever sense of pain and loss he felt over the demise of the Grateful Dead fifteen years ago has long since disappeared, and at the age of 64 Bill Kreutzmann still speaks with the enthusiasm of a person who feels that his greatest work lies ahead rather than behind him.
DH: I’ve been listening to your new record 7 Walkers, and the energy is amazing. It sure sounds like you’re having a good time playing music these days.
BK: Oh, it’s the best. Right now, it’s the best it’s ever been.
DH: Well, that’s great to hear. I think 7 Walkers is the most interesting studio work you’ve been involved with for a very very long time.
BK: Ha, I love you man. I tell you, you’ll get no argument from me about that statement.
DH: Well, you know I try and play a record with no expectations, but there’s always this voice in the back of my head that tells me that you guys from the Dead are much better on stage than you are in the studio. But, this one is a real surprise. This record hit me right away.
BK: I love the record, and one of the reasons I feel this way is because of all the songs are quite different from one another. There’s a lot of variety and different emotions between the songs.
DH: The overriding thing about 7 Walkers is that it sounds like you’ve been playing together for a really long time. The songs have this organic and natural presence that usually takes a long time to develop. How did that evolve? Maybe I’m not hearing it right and there was a lot of aching and struggle behind the scenes to bring this one out to the light of day.
BK: No, there wasn’t. It wasn’t like that at all. First off, me and Papa Mali met at the Oregon Country Fair. Amy turned me onto Papa Mali’s music at home about a year ago. So, we were at the fair and he was headlining. I came up to the stage just to check it out and I couldn’t stop listening. I didn’t want to go anywhere once he started playing. So, after his set was over, we started talking and we played together that night and we closed the fair. We really did. It got to be four in the morning and all the workers were cleaning up all around us. Finally, someone came up to me and said ‘Bill, we’ve got to break it down and close.’ It was an amazing experience. From then on, we’ve been playing together. You know the 7 Walkers band has actually only been the 7 Walkers for a little over a year.
DH: So, does Papa Mali live in New Orleans? That’s a long way from Hawaii, so I’m guessing you don’t just get together and jam very much.
BK: Papa was actually born and raised in Shreveport, Louisiana, but he’s spent tons and tons of time in New Orleans. Every time he wanted to go buy a record, get clothes, buy a new guitar, he had to go to New Orleans. But, at the beginning we played in Denver and Yosemite, we played in different clubs around the country. It took a while for the 7 Walkers to take shape from those first experiments, but when we decided to make a record we went to Austin, Texas to record. Shit, I’m so bad with dates. It’s been a little over a year since then, but I forget. I’m one of those guys who should really keep a journal. I always say that, but I’m not very good with dates. Whenever it was, we went into the studio with one song of Robert Hunter’s called ‘7 Walkers’ and that became the band’s name.
DH: Is there a story behind the name and the song? It’s intriguing and suggests a kind of quest or journey.
BK: Well, I think they’re celestial beings if you will. I think they’re like high energy people, higher powers rather than specific people. They don’t refer to the band. Some people come to our gigs and expect to see seven musicians up on stage, but the 7 Walkers are something else entirely. They’re just like this energy, this positive energy that washes over us here on earth if we’re open to receiving it.
DH: Sounds like you and Papa have a lot of positive energy when you get together and play – whether it’s live or in the studio. You know, like a lot of people I’ve read about how some of the albums you recorded with the Grateful Dead were a struggle. Like I said, this one sounds really natural and free.
BK: It was a totally opposite experience. The Grateful Dead’s forte for my money was playing live. American Beauty and ‘Workingman’s Dead’ and maybe a couple of other ones were good. I can’t remember them all because I just loved to play live with the Dead. That was where we shone, so I forget most of what happened in the studio over the years. With 7 Walkers, we’re good with both. We’re comfortable in the studio and playing live. Papa is an excellent producer. He’s great to work for. I’ve got to tell you this – making the record was probably the most fun I have had ever making a record. Like you said, it was the best studio session I’ve had since – I can’t remember when. That’s because of Papa. We also worked with a fabulous engineer who worked on the last six or eight Willie Nelson records.
DH: Speaking of Willie – he sounds great on ‘King Cotton Blues.’ You gave him the perfect lines to sing – you know ‘hanging is too good for him, shotgun is too merciful…’
BK: Well, that’s a heavy song. Y’know, the blues doesn’t have to sound like the blues. That song is the blues without the cliches. Things can come from other genres – genre – I hate that word – and still be the blues.
DH: To my ears, it sounds like you’ve been playing that one for years. There are so many nuances and trippy little textures in it of the kind it took you ages to develop when you were with the Dead. I always thought the studio versions of Grateful Dead songs were like draft versions to be perfected on the road, but songs like ‘King Cotton Blues’ seem to have come to us fully formed.
BK: With a song like ‘King Cotton Blues’, I started by listening and trying to hear what the song had to say to me. I arrived at a kind of feeling from that I’ve previously gotten from Loser or other songs like that. It’s a dark hard luck story, so I went for the really blue feeling that’s inside of Hunter’s lyrics. And as far as getting it right in the studio, compared to everyone else I’ve worked with since who knows when, Papa is easy to understand. When he brings a song in, you can tell what to play right away. If you feel a little unsure, he suggests a few things in an open ended kind of way that is so helpful. No ego is involved. He is just an excellent producer, a great musician and I really love his vocals.
DH: Oh man. He’s got soul. I can’t help but hear a little Dr. John and of course there’s lots of style of his own that a person develops after being on the planet for a while. There’s a lot going on, but he’s understated at the same time.
BK: That’s a good way of putting it. Isn’t he a lot of fun?
DH: Yeah. For me, the most rewarding thing about the record is how the instrumentals morph the space between songs. Those little in between bits tell part of the overall story by giving moods and textures that kind of lead the listener into what’s going to happen next. One of my favourite things at Grateful Dead concerts was always the little musical conversations or segues that took place between songs. You’ve really captured the spirit of those conversations on the new album.
BK: Yeah, I love those little snippets, too. Some of them are real short – meaning they don’t go on and on like they do in a live show – though as I play more with 7 Walkers those conversations are getting extended on stage. But, as far as the album goes, those came about when we were getting off like crazy and we recorded for seven or eight hours. We just kept everything from that night.
DH: That makes sense to me now. All of those textures were done live in the studio.
BK; Yeah, they weren’t even meant to be songs. I’d just start with a rhythm and everybody’d just chime in with the rest of it and we’d keep going.
DH: Those dark, weird little bits are kind of like telegrams from some extraterrestrial carnival and they weave the whole album together. Without them, it would be a collection of songs, but the way they’re woven in lifts everything up to a whole other level. You must be thrilled with how it all turned out.
BK: I am. Weaving. That’s a good way of putting it. Those incidentals weave the whole thing together. There’s a nice balance. It’s not all songs, but the instrumentals aren’t too long as I said. They’re just right.
DH: They’re like suggestions. Sketches of a place we recognize, but can’t quite put our finger on.
BK: They are sketches. A sunset here, a sunrise there. They’re really cool. Like I said, they all came out of one session. Papa was in the studio one day listening over what we recorded that night and said ‘hey we’ve got some songs in here.’ So, he cut them up with no overdubs after listening to the whole night’s work in its entirety and found places to put them so it kind of tells a story.
DH: So, I know that you’re on tour now. How are the songs taking shape on stage?
BK: I’m in Hermosa Beach, California now and tonight I’ll be playing at a place called the Saint Rock. It’s going great man. The audience really likes us a lot which makes my heart as happy as can be. One thing is that the people know our music. We’re getting requests now for some of our quiet songs and they’re listening and not talking over us when we’re playing which shows me something is working. People are calling out for ‘Louisiana Rain’ and ‘Evangeline’ I don’t know how much they know our music because our record isn’t officially out yet, but you know how it is. Somehow, they’ve heard the songs. Speaking of ‘records’ – you know that’s what we called vinyl – well, we’re printing 1,000 copies of 7 Walkers on vinyl.
DH: I know everybody says it now, but I just love the sound of an lp record playing on a turntable. It’s like nothing else. It’s somehow magical and transporting.
BK: Me,too. That’s why we recorded in analogue. I’ve recorded in digital, but I like the way analogue sounds a lot better.
DH: It has that warm fuzzy edge to it. 7 Walkers sounds like an old school record and I’m sure it’ll sound killer on vinyl.
BK: Yeah, analogue records are brand new modern again. I love the warmth of how they sound, too. The subtleness of the warmth allows you to get close to it. This record isn’t wild and crazy guitar solos – don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for all types of music, but this is something different we’re working with here that the analogue style complements and extends.
DH: You play in a lot of different styles. When I listen to your drumming on 7 Walkers I hear a blend of rock solid power and then you go off in some pretty ‘trippy’ directions. How do you know what a song needs in terms of backbeat?
BK: Yeah, I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t think of drumming in terms of approach. I just let the music tell me what to play. I listen to a song and think ‘ok, this would probably work on this song and I just do it that way. I use different paint and different colours for different songs. Even on the record 7 Walkers some of the stuff feels like New Orleans, but I don’t really copy the New Orleans march beat. You sure get that feeling with what Papa’s saying and the grooves I’m playing. With ‘Evangeline’ I play lots of cymbals and that’s not New Orleans at all. So, what I’m getting at is I just try and let the music say ‘hey, this is what this needs?
DH: How do you get into that zone after playing for nearly fifty years? I mean, how do you keep your ears and your approach fresh, so that you’re not resorting to old habits and solutions to new situations?
BK: You practice at first getting out of yourself. You can’t have any ‘supposes’ or ‘have tos’ or ‘shoulds’ or ‘shouldn’ts’. You have to get out of all that judgement stuff. Let the music fill you and listen to the words. That’s what is so wonderful about Robert’s writing on this one. You really get the feeling for each song. It’s so beautifully conveyed. He wrote those incredible songs for sure, but I bet they wouldn’t have turned out that way if Papa hadn’t first written all that beautiful music to suggest how the songs should be.
BK: It was a collaboration in the truest sense. I think Papa has done a miracle. I’m already excited about doing the next record. I can’t wait.
DH: Are you tossing around ideas for new songs?
BK: We have about eight new songs already that we haven’t had time to work on much. But, we’ll get there real soon.
DH: How much are you willing to tour at this stage of your life? I remember that after Jerry died, you were the one who said you didn’t want to tour anymore?
BK: Well, yeah. I was kind of burnt right then. This is new and exciting. It’s like how I felt in the early days of the Dead playing now. Everybody’s excited and we’re playing great music.
DH: How did you feel about the Dead 09 tour? I saw the first show at Shoreline and you and Mickey were playing very well.
BK: Well, if you saw Shoreline you saw the fire dancers. That was my favourite part of the tour. The drumming was great on the 09 Dead tour, but to be honest with you without Jerry in the Dead, it’s not the Grateful Dead. All I want to say is that those were great bands – you know I enjoyed the Other Ones. I missed the first tour with them, but I did the second tour with Alphonso Johnson on bass and that was something different. Anyway, what I’m getting at here is that I think the 7 Walkers is the band I’ve been waiting for since the Grateful Dead stopped. It’s the band I’ve been searching for for fifteen years. It’s a big deal to me. It’s really wonderful to talk to you and hear in your voice that you really like the music. After so long, there’s still nothing I like more than for people to respond to my music. It really still does warm and touch my heart.
DH: Well, it’s warm music you’re playing. I can’t wait for you to make it up to the Northwest – Seattle or Vancouver.
BK: Well, I’d love to. It’s in my craw now, stuck in my craw. We’ve got a new agency and we’ll be up for sure. We want to play more and more because every show’s really been a great show. We just played at Magnolia Fest and that was amazing.
DH: Do you play a mixture of 7 Walkers songs and other songs from different points in your career?
BK: We play a mixture of 7 Walkers songs and Grateful Dead songs.
DH: How does the rest of the band interact with the Dead’s music?
BK: They love it. Papa has been a Deadhead for a long time. George Porter played with Mickey and they did a tour together some years ago.
DH: He’s an amazing bass player.
BK: Yeah, he just kills ‘Sugaree’ when he does it. It gives me chills and you can imagine how many times I’ve heard that song. He just belts it out and it’s so powerful. He’s a really sweet cat. The first time I got to play with him was in Chico this year. Our original player couldn’t make it because he had commitments with Tea Leaf Green and he didn’t have enough time to do everything. So, Papa called George and when we did the gig in Chico, I met him and thought ‘fuck man, this is you! You’re it’ He listened to the record and loved it. There’s a funny story here and that’s that the first band Papa heard live, George was the bass player. Isn’t it amazing how the shit comes around? It’s like a dream. Wow!
DH: You sound really healthy up and full of energy. It sounds like it’s all working for you.
BK: It is. When things are right, you don’t have to make things work. It’s all there. Good energy begets good energy. That’s what’s happening for us. So, cool enough. Right on. Thanks for calling man. Nice talking to you. I bet you’ll see me again before too long! Ha Ha.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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