The Bill Kreutzmann InterviewOf all the individuals who passed through the ranks of the Grateful Dead, drummer Bill Kreutzmann certainly stands out, but not in a flashy, promotional way. In the public eye, it may be that others in the Dead — certainly Jerry Garcia, along with Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Mickey Hart — have a higher profile. Yet, when it comes down to who was integral to the music, attitude and spirit of the Grateful Dead, Kreutzmann’s contributions are undeniable.
From the Acid Tests and Woodstock to "Touch Of Grey," Kreutzmann firmly held down the floor and provided the heartbeat. The spotlight on him and Hart (aka the Rhythm Devils) as the percussive undertow of the Grateful Dead became more intense with each passing year. But after Jerry Garcia’s passing in 1995, the drummer left the music scene to enjoy a Dead-free life in Hawaii.
Today, he still calls Hawaii home, but music has circled back around to his court. Only now Kreutzmann likes to mix it up with a variety of different musicians. During 2009, even as he joined Lesh, Weir and Hart for another Dead tour, he ventured out to play gigs with BK3, a power trio he formed with bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson and guitarist Scott Murawski. He's also collaborated with Chris Brown and Papa Mali. The Rhythm Devils, the name he and fellow Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart gave themselves in the 70s, is also an active group these days.
Kreutzmann gets into all of it — the music he's making now, milestones of the past, strange encounters with Mick Jagger and Neal Cassady, and other artistic, spiritual and philanthropic endeavors to occupy his time.
How are things in Hawaii today? You’re in Hawaii, right?
Yeah, I’m in Kauai, on the north shore. We’re having incredible weather, one of the best winters I can remember. There’s been hardly any wind, sunny days, a little overcast, but it’s been getting up to around 78, 80 degrees. And it gets freezing at nighttime – down to around 62. .
I was in Kauai in 1992 and I got stuck in Hurricane Iniki.
I was on the Big Island when that went by. Me and Garcia were diving. We had to get out of the water in those days because the surf was so big.
(Laughs) My one-week vacation turned into a two-week vacation.
Well, that could be worse.
It wasn’t so bad. It was a fun experience. It pretty much wiped out the island, but I’m sure it all came back.
Yeah, it came back. It actually benefited me greatly. I hate to say that, but I came here in 96 and the prices were at an all-time low. Deals were to be had everywhere.
Tell me about the Hawaii Blue Moon New Year’s Eve Tour (December 31st, 2009 – January 2, 2010) you have coming up.
Yeah, with Chris Berry (from Panjea).
What are you guys going to play?
We’re going to be doing a lot of his music, I hope. And maybe a few Dead tunes. I’m not really into playing a lot of Dead tunes with these new bands I’ve been playing with. It’s so much fun to play different music. I don’t know what Chris wants to do. We’re not going to rehearse until the 29th. I have a little studio here — literally a garage studio. Everyone who comes in there is in the best garage band ever (laughs). So we’re going to practice for a couple of days. He’s bringing over his bass player (Patrice Blanchard). He’s a French fellow.
You also have Michael Kang from String Cheese Incident joining you for these shows.
Yeah, he and Chris have done some gigs together. I think it’s going to be a really excellent band. I have a CD here and I’ve been listening and practicing along with it. The music is really up and I love that. It’s fun to play, Caribbean kind of music.
You also have your own band BK3 (with bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson and guitarist Scott Murawski). I know you guys played some gigs over the summer. Anything coming up?
We have one date in February that’s coming up. We have some more coming along. And we have some music we want to release. We want to get in the studio and do that.
I understand Robert Hunter wrote some of the lyrics for the new BK3 music.
He wrote all of it, except for one, which is really cool with a gospel feel to it. The rest are all Hunter songs and they’re all wildly different from each other, but really cool. We’re having fun putting music to them.
I read in an interview you did where you said playing with Scott Murawski is like playing with Jerry Garcia.
It is because he’s a total bright light. He’s totally fluent in his playing and he plays all different styles. He builds and builds and builds. He’s like a painter painting in oil. You gotta paint for what you’re gonna do later. You start with a color, which is opaque, and you put something on top of it that is opaque…and that’s how Scott plays guitar. He’ll play some lines and just keep building it. A lot of guitar players you think, “Ok, they’re done with their solo,” but he’s just getting going. I really enjoy that aspect. That’s how I related him to Jerry — they both have great imaginations and know how to stretch out, which I find to be the most interesting music. You don’t know where it’s gonna go, you just know it’s gonna go (laughs)..
When do you think we can expect a record?
I don’t know about the BK3 record, but I also have been doing another record. I’ve been playing with Papa Mali.
Yeah, I was going to ask you about that.
It’s completely different than BK3, but just amazing. It’s its own kind of music. Malcolm (Papa Mali) is a real New Orleans guy and he has that feeling. I also wrote a handful of songs for that particular thing.
I saw some video on your web site.
Those are some of the live shows. I’m about to change that and put up some BK3 real soon. I’ve been mixing a mix of shows, and I’m going to put it up for people to listen to.
Earlier this year (2009), of course, you joined Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Warren Haynes and Jeff Chimenti for the Dead tour. The tour grew out of gigs you played for President Obama.
I thought if we went to all the trouble to get together and go out for the president, then why don’t we just get together and do a tour. Everybody seemed to like that idea. And that’s what we did.
Did you get to meet President Obama?
Yeah, we met him the night of the inauguration. We played at Penn State first and earned a lot of money for his campaign. Pennsylvania always used to go Republican, I think. This time, they went Democratic and we think had a little bit to do with that — getting younger people out to vote. It does feel a little strange. For so many years, the Grateful Dead were apolitical and to back this fellow and then I hear him change his tune after he’s been in Washington for awhile. I can kind of feel him morphing toward old politics. I’m heard him say the words “nuclear power,” and I’m hearing him say the words — he’s said this and he’s always been mistaken — “clean-burning coal” and there is no such thing.
Yeah. I read his second book. His biggest concern was that he was going to be manipulated and succumb to this political juggernaut that lives in Washington and become like them. And I’m hearing a little of that and it’s sad. I get into why Garcia never wanted to back any politicians. He really knew inside that they all have to play this game.
Anyway, I did get to meet him. It was a lot of fun and I got to give him a big hug and Michelle a big hug. They’re both from Hawaii. He’s coming back over here for Christmas. Oahu is going to be insane with him over there. I’ll be glad to be on Kauai, not that island.
Are there any plans for more Dead shows in the foreseeable future?
I don’t really know about that one. That one is always the mystery question (laughs). I don’t know, it just depends on how those guys are feeling after their Furthur tour. If they want go back with us, that’d be great. If not, you know, I’m into doing a lot of new stuff.
I’ll be real honest with you. Toward the end of the Dead tour, I was getting kind of bored with the music because it was kind of formulized. That why I work with these other bands now. I can be totally free and I’m encouraged to be that way. The musicians like that.
Malcolm paid me the biggest compliment when we were listening back to the basic tracks. He said, “Guys are gonna think you’re from New Orleans.” Actually I am. My mother was born in New Orleans. And if Mom’s from New Orleans, so are you (laughs). I really get into that music when I hear it and I like to play it.
How would you describe it? Is it Cajun? Jazz?
Yeah, maybe between the Meters and the Neville Brothers. I did this little festival here awhile ago in Yosemite, what they called Las Tortugas. It was a small and really cool thing — about a thousand, maybe 1,200 people. They have all these cabins around and people put up tents, just before the weather gets cold in the Sierras.
Dumpstaphunk was playing Friday night. I got there Friday afternoon and they invited me to sit in for the last four songs. It really went well. I’d never played with those guys before. It was just like I had been there forever. They had a real cool drummer and we sat real close to each other. We sat so close I couldn’t use my left side cymbal, so I started using his (laughs). We had a wonderful time. It just took me back to playing New Orleans music. In a place I like to be.
I wanted to ask you about you and Mickey Hart and the Rhythm Devils. I recently received the Rhythm Devils' Concert Experience DVD you did with Mike Gordon and Steve Kimock a couple years ago.
That was a really nice project.
Anything over the horizon for more Rhythm Devils projects like this?
Mickey and I are probably going to get together and plan some Rhythm Devils for 2010. This is between you and me in a way because I haven’t talked to Mickey about it yet, but I’d like to use my trio as sort of the backbone. And I’d to love have Joan Osborne — this is my dream band — on vocals too.
I remember seeing her perform with you a few years ago.
I love Joan Osborne. I thought she did really well with the band. I’ve ran into her since and she’d love to play with my trio, so I think we should just combine them. We have a lot of material that we worked out from the first Rhythm Devils. Those songs are good; they just need to be redone.
I’ve always found it interesting with you and Mickey Hart where he provides the color and embellishments, and you more or less drive the train. How did that develop?
It’s just in our personalities. We each have completely different personalities. I think it developed that way. We just kept playing. That’s more the way I like to play and he plays the way he likes to play. We got away from doubling the drum set because we thought that was so redundant. Why have two drum sets? There’s potential for so many sounds. For this last Dead tour, we really got down on that.
We would go to rehearsal at ten in the morning and rehearse until at least twelve or one — just Mickey and I on Rhythm Devils stuff. The rest of the band would come in at around one or so and we’d go until about six. We spent a lot of days in there and that really helps. We define who’s going to play what part so that it’s complimentary instead painting so many colors until it turns black.
There were times when you were the only drummer in the Grateful Dead. Did you have to radically adjust your style?
I did. The first gig (without Mickey Hart) — and they released that show (editor’s note: the February 19, 1971 show at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY gig was released in 2007 as the double CD Three From The Vault ) — I was hearing another drummer who wasn’t there right then and I had to fill it out more. That’s when I played by myself in the early 70s and then the band took a complete break. Then Mickey and I got back together again.
That’s really when the concept of the Rhythm Devils took shape.
Yeah. We got tighter and we got better. We got away from just having two drummers playing the same thing. That never works. It doesn’t make it a better sound, to have two identical drummers playing. So we tried to be different and be complimentary.
During the early 70s, the Grateful Dead were extremely active in the recording studio. I could spend all day asking you about the sessions, but…
…I wouldn’t remember them all anyway (laughs).
One record that stands out has just you and Jerry Garcia, which was his first solo album (Garcia). Do you remember anything in particular about making that one?
I do. It was really fun and free. He would just have a few musical ideas — he would be on the piano and I was in an isolated drum booth. We talked back and forth. He’d start an idea and I would just come up with a rhythm for it. The whole time we’re doing this in the studio — we did this for a few days, coming up with original ideas of his and working them out — Hunter would be in the control room writing words and verses. We wrote some of the best Grateful Dead tunes during those sessions with just Jerry, me and Hunter. Garcia even played bass on it (laughs). I got a really great, big drum sound and it was fun.
I just listened to the remaster this morning and it’s a beautiful record.
Isn’t it fun? It’s amazing, it still sounds good to me too. That’s the thing about music — it can hold its gem-like quality if it’s good upfront.
I was watching the DVD that came with the recent reissue of the Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya’s Ya’s Out!, and at the very end, there’s a clip of you and Garcia chatting with Mick Jagger.
You’re kidding me...really?
It looks like you’re at a heliport of some kind, probably in San Francisco.
You know what that is, that’s Altamont.
Yeah, that’s what I thought. Just before the Stones flew to Altamont?
They were going to fly in before us, and then we were going to fly in.
Had you canceled at that point?
We hadn’t canceled anything yet. Jagger hadn’t gone to the show yet and we were just sitting there talking. Then he got on the helicopter with his guys and they went over there. We went afterward and saw all the horribleness going on. We said, “We can’t do this.” After the guy got killed, I was in such a bad place.
We were playing the Carousel Ballroom (aka Fillmore West) for three nights. We had just played one night before that — that (Altamont) was an afternoon thing. We were to come back for a show that night, Saturday night, and then Sunday night. I called (Bill) Graham and said, “I’m canceling.” And he said, “Oh you can’t do that to me” and gave us hell. He pry didn’t pay us for the three days; we pry had to argue about that a lot.
It was really an emotional event. When we were sitting there at the heliport after Mick left to do his thing with the Stones, the drummer Mike Shrieve (from Santana) got off the helicopter and he’s got blood from his nose. Different musicians were coming back and it had turned into a street fight, not a musical event.
Do you think if the Dead had played Altamont, things might have turned out differently?
I don’t think things would have turned out differently. I think we could have been involved in a worse event. What really goes down in life is this energy that exists in certain places. The way that gig started off was with the ex-road manager (Sam Cutler) from the Rolling Stones, to get them to play and all that stuff. It was never done with upfrontness. The vibe of that was really bad for some reason. All of the stuff leading up to it was like, “don’t do this gig,” you know? Male egos being what they are, you know, “keep going, keep going, keep going…damn, if it ain’t a miserable trip…” It was just a bad thing from the very beginning. And it culminated in that guy’s death.
Four months before Altamont, you played Woodstock. Portions of your performance have finally been released, but everything I’ve read and heard says it was a disastrous gig for the Dead.
We had a really hard time playing there. Our sound guy was just crazy. The wiring wasn’t right. We were getting shocks off the microphones. It was just really hard. We had a lot of things that were facing us. But it was just good to be there and relate to people, off-stage even. It didn’t matter how the gig went particularly. It was the togetherness of everybody being there.
In the Woodstock movie, you see Justin my son, who is now a filmmaker, being carried off by my wife at the time to the helicopter. He’s just this little bundle of joy in her arms. And it’s 1969.
During the course of your life, you’ve interacted with some pretty heavy literary and folk figures. I read that you once met Aldous Huxley when you were a kid.
I did. He came to my school. I went to prep school for one year in Arizona. It was called Orme.
Later on, of course, you got to know Ken Kesey, Allan Ginsberg, Neal Cassady.
I got to know Cassady really well. He befriended me, it was amazing. A lot of people were afraid of him, but something about the guy was like totally intriguing to me (laughs). He had so many facets and he could everything going. He defined the multi-tasker. He could do so many things — drive the bus, smoke a cigarette, talk to three different people and keep the conversation going.
I heard something about an Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test movie in development. I wonder who’s playing Cassady.
There’s one actor I always think about. He’s a good actor, but my mind is blank. Johnny Depp, I don’t think he looks the part, but if he read up on it, he’d pry give it a good shot. He plays characters really well.
Steve Parish is supposedly making a movie based on his book. Have you heard anything that?
(Laughs) No. I couldn’t think of a worse idea, but that’s OK. You read his book, Shawn…
I did. And I interviewed Steve a couple of years ago.
He’s a wonderful guy, but a lot of stuff in that book wasn’t true. The stuff about me wasn’t true (laughs). Rock Scully’s book has the same problem. There’s a lot of stories in there.
So much has been written about the Grateful Dead. I certainly don’t have to tell you about the band’s influence. You almost single-handedly launched what is now a thriving jam band scene.
I love that. That’s why I’m excited today to play with all these young musicians. Most of them are younger than me. Some are the same age. I’ve played with a couple of oldies but goodies like myself. The younger cats are just the most fun. They have all the energy. I love that.
You get to work out of Hawaii these days. I read that you and Garcia talked about moving there once the Dead packed it in.
That was our dream. But unfortunately I was the only one who got to keep the dream.
You said earlier you and him did some diving over there.
We both got certified in 1985 at a place called Jack’s Dive Locker. My girlfriend just went over there last month and I dove with her.
When you’re diving — and you obviously have this great love of the ocean — as a drummer do you find inspiration in the rhythm of the sea?
I find inspiration and rhythm in everything. Really I do. And I find inspiration in the really quiet moments. I have a place here, it’s five acres. In the morning, sometimes it’s so quiet, you can’t believe it. You just hear the yellow birds sing.
Is that when you work on your art? I saw some of it on your web site.
That’s digital art. I haven’t done that for awhile. I’m actually painting — I like painting. I’m painting with acrylics right now. I turn it up loud, go into my studio and just go for it.
I also understand you’re an avid gardener.
I am. I have a bunch fruit right now. I got grapefruits like crazy and avocados and coconuts. It was a really big mango season, which has been over for awhile. The winter time here is when the fruit comes out.
Before we go, could you tell me about some of the environmental causes and charities you’re involved with?
You hit it on the head when you said I’m a lover of the ocean. That’s putting it mildly. I work with a couple of groups in particularly. One’s called the Sea Shepherd group. Paul Watson is the captain and head of that group and they fight the Japanese whaling boats in the Antarctica. It’s real serious stuff. You can get hurt doing what they do. They have guys from all over the world who are real into it, they get physical and all that stuff. They can handle it on the high seas. And they stop the Japanese from killing whales down in the Antarctica.
It’s illegal to kill them anyways. There’s a whaling moratorium, but the Japanese don’t pay attention to it nor do the Norwegians. So Paul goes down there and chases these boats. They can’t pursue whales when they’re being chased by at high speed by these boats. Their boats go 50 miles an hour. They’re big factory ships and that’s really fast for a boat on the ocean, believe me. They can outrun Paul a little bit, but they can’t hunt when they’re doing it. So they save a bunch of whales each year.
This year, because of people like myself and other folks, they’ve gotten enough money that they’ve got another boat now. They couldn’t ever keep up with the amount of fishing boats that would go down and attack whales. Now they’re going to have a better chance with a second boat.
The other one is headed up by Ric O’Barry to save the Japanese dolphins (SaveJapanDolphins.org). I help those guys too and they had pretty good success this year. They had a wonderful movie called The Cove. It was at about 17 or 18 independent film festivals. One of them was the Sundance — it won Best Documentary there.
And I’m in some surfing groups too.
Are you a long boarder?
Yeah, I have a seven-footer I use. I don’t really like using really long boards because they don’t turn fast enough. I use a combination of a long board with three fins so I can stay in the wave real deep (laughs).