By Chris M. Junior
IT’S EASY TO UNDERSTAND why drummer Bill Kreutzmann is excited about his band 7 Walkers. It gives Kreutzmann, best known for his work with the Grateful Dead, a chance to revisit his musical and personal New Orleans roots.
He’s not the only Louisiana-connected musician in 7 Walkers (which formed in 2008). Fronting the band is lead singer/guitarist Malcolm Welbourne, known professionally as Papa Mali. Kreutzmann says he and Mali hit it off right away when they met, and, as one might expect from a concert jam involving a member of the Dead, their initial performance together lasted for hours.
The Hawaii-based Kreutzmann recently checked in to talk about his New Orleans connection, recording the self-titled “7 Walkers” album (available now on Response Records), a possible reunion of Grateful Dead alums on the high seas in 2011 and much more.
Your mother was born in New Orleans, and you’ve been quoted as saying, “If Mom’s from New Orleans, so are you.” Was she the one who introduced you to New Orleans music?
Bill Kreutzmann: Yeah, I guess you could say that’s true.
Both of my parents loved black musicians. My dad loved black female singers, and my mom listened to everything — she turned me on to Fats Domino and other folks from New Orleans. I didn’t really know about pop music until I got to middle school.
New Orleans has produced it share of influential musicians —you mentioned Domino, and, of course, there’s Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint, who are also piano players. In terms of New Orleans drummers, who were some of your favorites, and did any have a direct influence on the way you play?
BK: Every one of them had an influence on the way I play. They’re all brilliant; I just love their style.
My friend Willie Green — who I’ve known for quite some time because his band, The Neville Brothers, opened for The Grateful Dead years ago in Oakland (Calif.) — is a great, great drummer. And then Raymond (Weber) from Dumpstaphunk — I got to meet him about a year ago at the Las Tortugas festival (in California). I got to sit in with Dumpstaphunk there, and that was a treat and a half.
I’m the luckiest drummer in the world right now. I get to play with George Porter Jr., an original Meters guy. When that first record came out, the original Meters record, I wore out 10 copies of that mother — this was before CDs.
Talk about when you first heard Papa Mali’s music, the first time you guys crossed paths personally and the birth of 7 Walkers.
BK: It happened at my home in Hawaii. My girlfriend, Amy, asked me one day, “Have you ever heard of Papa Mali?” I said, “No, who’s that?” She said, “He’s this New Orleans musician.”
Actually, he’s from Shreveport, but the style of music is New Orleans, for sure. So I listened to him, and I thought he was really good. The music connected with me right away: totally soulful, bluesy, swampish, all the really cool stuff that I like. It had jazz in it, too, even with a backbeat.
Maybe a month or two later, Amy and I went to the Oregon Country Fair. Papa was headlining on the main stage, and I got to hear him in a trio. I sat right next to the stage and listened to him real close. I went and introduced myself, and we talked for maybe a half hour or more before he realized who I was. I don’t need to tell anybody who I am; I know who I am (laughs). And then when he figured it out, he was almost embarrassed.
We were inseparable from then on. That very night, we went to my trailer at the fair, and we talked and talked — you couldn’t pull us apart.
The next night was the last night of the festival, and he and I played from midnight until four in the morning. We just couldn’t stop, until the people who were taking care of the fair said, ‘You guys have to stop. We have to pack out tomorrow morning, and nobody can go to sleep while you’re playing.’ It was just one of those natural things, and for me, when stuff works out naturally like that, it really means that’s the way it’s supposed to go. And this band has been like that.
The 7 Walkers album was recorded on analog tape in Austin, Texas. With Papa Mali now living in the Austin area, was it a given the band would record there?
BK: Papa [liked] this studio there, so we took advantage of that. It’s in this guy’s house, and it’s called the Nest.
I got there, and I brought my snare drum [thinking I would use it], but the drum kit [in the studio] sounded so good, I didn’t want to change anything. The engineer had it miked right, and it worked out: The sounds were all there, so all I had to do is play. The easier you can make it to come up with good music, the better the environment is.
This was one of my favorite sessions I’ve ever done because we didn’t labor over things. We didn’t do 15 or 20 takes of any given song and then, the next day, try and pick out the best take. The way we did it was we’d finish a take … and Papa would say, “How do you guys feel about that? Was it OK?” Maybe somebody hit a couple notes they didn’t like, and we’d decide we could do it better. So instead of keeping that take, we would record over it. Every one was a fresh take. You didn’t have this big guessing game afterward. It’s really nice to know you got it in the one take, and you’re not picking from a hundred takes.
And what were the challenges and benefits with regard to using tape instead of recording digitally?
BK: Analog, to me, has a much warmer, more inviting sound. Analog has this really open sound, where digital kind of sounds confined to me.
When you’re the only drummer in the band, like you are with 7 Walkers, how is your mindset and approach different from when you’re playing drums along with Mickey Hart, either in the Dead or the Rhythm Devils?
BK: I’m going to be honest with you, and I don’t want to hurt Mickey’s feelings, but I’m actually able to play freer. I can play more open or quiet right away; I can change the dynamics up really quick. I can turn corners really fast and mix different rhythms in right away.
[On the 7 Walkers album], all the music on it, nobody’s really stepping on one another. There’s space for each part of the music, and it still sounds really full for four pieces. And that’s because of the art of transparency, to listen through the music and have all these different things in their own place and space. And Papa’s a miracle worker like that. He’s a wonderful producer.
Speaking of the Rhythm Devils, they’re booked for Jam Cruise 9, which sets sail from Florida in early January. Bob Weir’s band Scaring the Children also is part of the confirmed lineup. That said, is it automatic that you, Mickey and Bob will play together at some point on the cruise, or will it depend on certain things falling into place?
BK: I’m totally open for that. If Bobby wants to sit in with the Rhythm Devils, it would be great by me. I’ll be honest: I knew he was playing [on the cruise], but I haven’t been thinking that way. But since you brought it up, that’s a really good idea.
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