When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, fellow Grateful Dead survivors Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart and the late Vince Welnick quickly found new music projects. But drummer Bill Kreutzmann went in a different direction, moving from California to Hawaii and telling a writer that without Garcia, the band was “like The Beatles without John Lennon. There is no such thing.”
In 1998, Kreutzmann made a blues rock album with Backbone, and eventually he joined his old mates for a 2000 tour and album as the Other Ones; the same ensemble, renamed The Dead, hit the road mid-decade and in 2009. He also worked with Hart in the Rhythm Devils, a group that also included Phish bassist Mike Gordon. His BK3 trio, with Oteil Burbridge (Allman Brothers) and Scott Murawski (Max Creek), collaborated with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on several songs in 2008 but didn’t make any records.
But Kreutzmann’s interests seemed evenly split between surfing the waves and hitting the drums — until he met singer/guitarist Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne. The two became fast musical friends, and with legendary New Orleans bassist George Porter, Jr. (Funky Meters, The Wild Tchoupitoulas) and Austin multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard, last year formed 7 Walkers, which will play the Tupelo on Sunday, Dec. 12. The band is named after a song written for them by Hunter, who penned most of the songs on their eponymous first album.
Kreutzmann recently spoke with the Hippo from his home on the island of Kauai.
You’ve said 7 Walkers is the group you’ve been waiting for since Jerry died; what’s special about this band?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is Papa Mali. He is just a wealth of musical knowledge and depth when it comes to character and performing and being a great producer. He produced that whole record. ... You just go deeper and deeper with Papa Mali, and that’s what really attracts me. Reminds me of the same thing with Jerry — he would come into the studio with just an acoustic guitar and teach us the song. The whole thing would be there; the heart of the song would be there. Papa’s the same way, he’ll get the words from Hunter and music just flows out of him. He lets the words write the music, and he’s a translator.
I heard the first time you jammed together guys with brooms were pushing you off the stage at 3 a.m.?
More like 4 o’clock in the morning, and that’s true. We met that Saturday night and after he did a set, I went and introduced myself. He was on the main stage at the Oregon Country Fair. We met there and the next night and played until 4 a.m. And the broom thing, everybody stayed awake to pack out the show.
How did Robert Hunter get involved?
That’s a really good question. At one point I started asking Malcolm if he’d like to do some Hunter songs. This was before we came up with the name 7 Walkers. He said, “Are you kidding me? I’d love to.” Hunter started sending Malcolm and me some words and the first ones he sent was “Sue From Bogalusa” [and then] the title track, “7 Walkers.” We just went, yeah! And Papa totally related to the words and how they really connect with Louisiana and that was that, and then they just kept coming, Hunter just kept writing songs in that vein.
How did Hunter acquire such a sense of New Orleans?
You get the 60-million-dollar award for that question — ha! Papa and I talk about that, and we either think he spent a lot of time down there, or that he studies it like crazy. But usually if anybody knows an area that well, that intimately, it’s because he’s lived there. So that’s my bet. When I get to see him again, I’ll ask, or e-mail that question.
Did Papa Mali’s experience recording with Fog City, with its reputation for raw, honest sound, affect what you did in the studio?
I don’t know, I just know that Papa records wherever he knows the music will be conveyed the best and that’s the best I can tell you. He could tell you more about than I could. We did 7 Walkers in a studio called the Nest in Austin, Texas, and it’s just ’cause he knew the guy who owns it and he knew the equipment in there was all analog audio, every bit of it. That’s how he judges it, by what place will put the music over the best and what sound will be the best.
Going into the studio wasn’t always the greatest experience for you, but you’ve said that making this record was really a joy. How were you able to go into the studio and make some magic happen?
Well, the first thing I had to do was drop any of the previous records that I made with anybody, not just the Grateful Dead. Anything that happened in the past in the studio, I just let that go and made this a brand new experience. I was actually holding onto some negativity about recording in the studio just because I never worked with Papa before. Then I go into the studio with Papa and Matt and Reed on bass for most of the tracks. There’s no judgment, we’re just playing the songs. It turned out to be one of the most fun recording sessions because we didn’t sit there and have to go over the same tracks 15 or 20 times to try and figure out which one was the best. Unless you’re the kind of person who gets it right, right away, you get bored with the tracks. I know I do. We never did it that way, we didn’t keep tracks, it was all on tape and after we were done Papa would say, OK, how do you guys feel about it? If we said, “You know something, I dropped a couple of beats or did something funky,” we’d say, “Let’s go,” and we’d record over the track we just did — if the entire band felt good, we’d keep it. Later, when we’d listen back, it was the best track.
Willie Nelson sings on “King Cotton Blues,” which sounds like a lost track from Wake in the Flood, a requiem for the character in “Mississippi Half Step.”
When Hunter came with that song, were you thinking that it sounded like a throwback in a lot of ways?
I don’t know if songs sound like they’re directly connected to anything to me. I’m sure there are some feelings and grooves that people will find when listening to that song. But to me it’s just the down-est blues in the world. When you’ve got the King Cotton Blues, you don’t want anyone to know it — “the prostitutes spit upon my name.”
Back when you were playing Acid Tests did you ever think that one day the President would invite you to the White House?
Hell no. You never want to go to the White House really. I never did. But to be invited there, that’s pretty weird.
What do you think of the Grateful Dead’s legacy as a band that launched a thousand bands?
I think it’s great, man. The music is like this infinite body of soul in its own way, its own soulful testimony. It could never be done too much. A lot of people are attached to playing the music the way it was written and it’s cool. That means don’t copy the jams, just play your own stuff but make the song sound like it’s supposed to.
I suppose that’s why you show no signs of slowing down.
I keep looking at myself — hey, I’m 64! But I keep doing it.