Bands That Jam Interview: Bill Kreutzmann

Bill Kreutzmann is a legend. He redefined jamming as a member of the Grateful Dead.

Bill Kreutzmann’s latest project is 7 Walkers, a collaboration between himself, Matt Hubbard, Papa Mali, lyricist Robert Hunter, and several bassists (including Reed Mathis, George Porter Jr, and Kirk Joseph).

He recently called in to discuss the formation of 7 Walkers, how music inspires what he plays, and how he approaches jamming.

McClain: How did 7 Walkers first come together?
Bill Kreutzmann: My girlfriend turned me on to Papa Mali. I got to hear him play live and I really enjoyed his music. That was how it started for me, just hearing him play. He’s a really good musician.

McClain: Have you always been interested in the New Orleans sound?

Bill Kreutzmann: I have. It turns out, I learned this later in life, I have tons of relatives in the south. So, what I’m saying is, my DNA, I have much love for the south. As I grew up, both of my parents really loved listening to black musicians. So I got to listen, as a kid, to Ray Charles, you name it, all kinds of really hip musicians back then. I think that really helped me with my music. Having it in the blood is part of it too. If you can blame things on DNA.

McClain: You’re so skilled at playing so many different styles. Are you always trying to expand your stylistic palette?
Bill Kreutzmann: Yeah, I am. I always like to, mostly, I try to let the music expand my style. I try to let the music dictate kind of what I’m going to play. When I played this last record with Papa Mali, and Matt, and Reed, I didn’t go into the sessions thinking New Orleans. We just went in thinking cool music, and it came out that way. Papa and I play real good together. I may play a lot of different styles, but that’s only just because I love lots of different kinds of music. I don’t really study different styles. I’ve always thought that was kind of my weakest thing, honestly.
McClain: That you’re not looking into different stuff all the time?

Bill Kreutzmann: Well, I am. What I’m trying to say is the music drives the music. The music drives the creativity. It suggests what you get to play and what you don’t play, and what fits with the music. If different styles come out, well that’s really cool.

McClain: You’re just driven by wherever the music takes you, right?
Bill Kreutzmann: Yeah, that’s exactly what it is. It’s sort of like the music is the teacher The music is the professor and the ideas come from the music. This last record, all the different styles, those are just different songs. A lot of that is attributed to Hunter’s writing. He can write so clearly in so many different ways. He picked up on who Papa Mali was and he write those songs specifically to have a Louisiana feel to them, obviously. Hunter is totally responsible for having these songs sound different, if you want to get right to the nuts and bolts of it. Then, of course, Papa puts the music to the songs. Along with Papa’s music and the words, I have a pretty easy job really. I just sit there and play what I’m getting told to play by the music.

Photo by Lewis J. Tezak Jr.

McClain: Everything comes together really well on a song-by-song basis.
Bill Kreutzmann: I’m really glad you dig it like that. I like it like that too. It made the sessions go really fast. I think we did all the basic tracks, except one, in like six days. Maybe a week. I don’t really count the days. It just flies by. It actually turned out that we had more songs than we intended. The longest night we had in the studio, we recorded for seven hours.

McClain: How did Porter become involved with the project? He’s a beast. He is New Orleans through and through.
Bill Kreutzmann: Yeah, he’s the number one cat. I’ve been dying to play with a cat like that forever. The way he came about was, the bass player who was on the record, Reed Mathis, couldn’t make the dates because he was obligated to play with Tea Leaf Green. He went to play with those guys. Papa asked George Porter if he would play, and he said yes. That’s how that happened.

McClain: How do you feel that Porter pushes the sound in a different direction? Do you feel like he brings his own style to the sound?
Bill Kreutzmann: I don’t think he can help himself. Whenever he’s playing in a band, that band has a whole bunch of George Porter in it.

McClain: That’s true.
Bill Kreutzmann: There’s no way you can get around that, you don’t want to get around that. That’s your ace in the hole for sure. He pushes the band. He makes you pay attention for sure. You don’t have to ever take it for granted. He always has something up his sleeve, a cool thing to offer, which makes it really fun to play with somebody like that. He can play as funky and as simple or complicated and out there. He can go from one world to the other just in the blink of an eye. He’s really gifted like that.

McClain: How old were you when you first started playing?
Bill Kreutzmann: I took my first drum lesson when I was 13. I just never stopped. I’m still taking lessons today.

McClain: Who did you find yourself listening to a lot when you were first starting out?
Bill Kreutzmann: The first thing I learned to do, early on, is I would separate drummers from the music. I would separate the drum parts from the rest of the music. I started practicing that just as a listening technique. I would separate the drummers right away. I could just get them to be by themselves, even though the rest of the music was going on, which I found kind of fascinating. I’d play around with different instruments, but I could do it the best with the drums. I listened to everybody that was popular at the time. The great old guys. Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and Max Roach. The big band jazz drummers. Amazing chops forever and ever. Then I got into listening more. Instead of just listening to drummers, I got into to listening to the whole band. How the whole band moved. That became more important than listening to any particular instrument by itself. It was more important to listen to the ensemble sound then to just solo out one instrument. Even though that’s a good listening practice. It’s certainly really good for mixing. When you’re playing, I really like to play from an ensemble. I tried to use in-ear monitors and that never really worked for me. I always liked an onstage sound, so I’m getting the real sound of the instruments as the are, including my drum set. Not having to go through microphones, just hearing the stuff as it really is. I like that a lot.

McClain: That’s cool that you’re so focused on the complete picture.With the Dead, was that something you were focused on, everything fitting together?

Bill Kreutzmann: Especially the way everything fit together. I’d find myself playing, say the right hand being with Jerry, and the right foot with the bass. Each limb being with a different instrument. Maybe doing my own talking with the snare drum, but filling for the other instruments with those other limbs and breaking it up like that. It got so you could really hear the pieces, who is doing what. You would separate it that way. I guess that was like I was saying earlier, that kind of hearing.

McClain: You would try to tie everything together?
Bill Kreutzmann: Exactly. It’s like you’re cooking a whole bunch of noodles, and you know that somewhere in there you can untangle them. I don’t know where that came from.

McClain: What have been some of the hardest things you’ve had to overcome in your career?
Bill Kreutzmann: Probably the business of music. The stuff that isn’t really music, but somehow deals with music and makes it so people can go hear music. The business of music is the hardest thing to overcome. It is kind of hard being on the road. Playing the music is the only reason you would be on the road, because you have this incredible get-off that you get to do. The rest of it is kind of blah. Once you’ve seen every airport in the world.

McClain: Do you feel that the business side of things can take away from the creative spirit of the music?

Bill Kreutzmann: It’s not music. I try to be a purist in everything that is music is really music. The stuff that isn’t is really blatant to me. It uses musicians. I don’t really have any specific terror tales I want to tell by any means. The other part of the question is getting over myself. Getting Bill out of the way just to play the music. That’s the next hardest thing to do. When the music is the driving force, it makes it very clear. It makes the path really clear. I hope to God that I’ll be able to play music, that I’ll have this sense of doing the coolest thing in the world. Playing music is that cool. It is such a gift to be able to do it. Mostly, the gift is being able to give it back. That’s the true gift.

McClain: Through the music you’ve made, you’ve been able to connect and touch so many people throughout the years.
Bill Kreutzmann: Pure luck.

McClain: Really? You believe that it is luck?

Bill Kreutzmann: I think it’s a little of everything. I don’t ever believe it is any one thing. I always think it’s like a beautiful bouquet or a great recipe or a great jambalaya It has a lot of ingredients that make it what it is. It’s never just one thing. I honestly feel it’s a miracle that I got to do what I did with my life. I would have never guessed this early on that I would have as much joy playing music.

McClain: Are there any people you’d want to work with that you haven’t yet?
Bill Kreutzmann: I haven’t thought like that lately. I’m really happy with the people that I’m playing with right now. The first part of this tour is with George Porter, like we talked about. There’s another leg after that. I have a couple of weeks off and then I go back out again. The second leg is with a guy named Kirk Joseph.

McClain: Oh yeah, tuba player.
Bill Kreutzmann: I think they call it a sousaphone. I didn’t know what that was until I went down there (to New Orleans) this last year, and found out that a sousaphone is a small tuba. The tuba is too large to march with. I thought they were all tubas. How little I knew. He plays electrified sousaphone and he plays it through an amplifier. He plays basslines on it. He plays with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. He plays with a lot of people. He’s on a couple of Papa Mali tracks on “Thunder Chicken.”

McClain: Are you looking forward to playing off of that style?

Bill Kreutzmann: Yeah, I am. I can guarantee you the guy’s got a fat groove.

McClain: I think it’s awesome that you went down to NOLA and you’re so in to spreading the scene to new types of folks.
Bill Kreutzmann: I’m into celebrating Louisiana and what it all means down there. Not just Louisiana, but the whole south. I’m into celebrating lots of things. In the last part of my life, I’ve got to really pay more attention to where I came from and what it means. It’s very far out.