Interview | Reflecting With Papa Mali

Written By: Chad Berndtson

:: Reflecting With Papa Mali ::

A lot changed for Malcolm “Papa Mali” Welbourne in the last few years, and to talk with him now is to hear from someone who’s been through some very bright and very dark days – and emerged healthy and enlightened.

[Photo via Papa Mali Facebook]

Papa Mali developed a jam-scene audience in the 2000’s largely through Welbourne’s associations with Galactic and other southern U.S.-based musicians. But he’d already been active for decades in rock, blues and reggae bands, and the release of his 2000 album Thunder Chicken felt like a culmination of those influences, establishing the swamp-blues, funk and soul force both man and band became.

His heightened exposure in the 2000’s – including as a producer -- eventually led him to Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, with whom in 2009 he formed 7 Walkers, later adding Meters legend George Porter Jr. and multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard. Still one of the most original and interesting post-Grateful Dead bands, 7 Walkers toured hard behind reworked Dead tunes, New Orleans staples and original material – some of it written with Robert Hunter – and became a fixture at festivals and on the road before going on hiatus after 2012.

In a new interview, Welbourne opens up about fresh Papa Mali songs, the future of 7 Walkers and how a reunion at Jazz Fest almost came together, and the health issues that helped him find a new lease on life. And, oh yes, a little supergroup he’s now part of with Stanton Moore, Robert Mercurio and John Medeski called the M&Ms.

JAMBASE: Let’s start with the M&Ms. It takes a lot for guys like you and Stanton and Robert and Medeski to commit to something beyond a handful of superjam gigs, so this must be a special group.

MALCOLM WELBOURNE: Certainly I’m very honored to be part of it. I’ve known Stanton and Robert for a long time. Back as early as like 2005 I started sitting in with Galactic and then in 2007 I went out on tour with them for several months – I rode the bus with them and opened the shows and all that. We’ve done a lot together.

I had never played with John Medeski before, and needless to say, he’s a modern-day musical giant – he’s been around long enough and done enough now to have left his mark. Eric Kamen, the promoter of Equifunk, had conceived of the group and I think Robert recommended me because we needed an “M” and someone who could sing. But I don’t think any of us thought it would click the way it did. Sometimes these supergroup things work out and sometimes they don’t. All of us realized this has some potential to it, and it’s really nice.

JAMBASE: So there will be more M&Ms coming?

MW: We’ve already recorded several tracks and we’re working on more. While we were in the studio we recorded a lot of raw ideas, and Robert will take them back to the studio and play around with them a little bit, add a bridge or try some part of a chorus, and maybe I’ll come up with some lyrics. Then we’ll go back in and start working on ideas. We have about three or four rough ideas and three finished songs, and we’re going to try to have a record.

JAMBASE: Would you say it’s you and Robert mainly creating the new original material?

MW: We’re being credited as the co-producers but everyone has a big hand in it. Stanton has incredible rhythmic ideas, and it’s not like we would waste an opportunity to have Medeski’s musicality in it. Robert and I are the guys who just want to hang around the studio a little bit longer, maybe.

JAMBASE: Will there be more M&Ms shows this year beyond what’s been announced?

MW: We’re a little late to be booking festivals for this year but we have had a couple of offers for things in October and the fall. Everyone is real busy. As Stanton told you this is a very busy year for Galactic, and of course Medeski Martin & Wood is doing dates and John has a lot of stuff he’s doing on his own.

For me, it’s perfect because I love not being on the road as much as I used to. It’s great when I do go out because I’m going to a gig like that. But it’s good people are interested in what we’re doing, because we’re not overexposing ourselves. I think we will have some more dates, but we’re being very selective.

[Photo by Rob Chapman]

JAMBASE: You were regularly on the road for a long time, but it sounds like spending more time at home has been a happy move.

MW: I wanted to be home more, ever since I moved to New Orleans several years ago. I went through some serious health issues and fortunately came out much better for it. I needed the universe to just kick my ass real good, and for some sign to come to me that was just like, hey man, this is your last chance. It was a wake-up call for me, and life since then has been 100 times better.

The truth is, I am healthier, happier, stronger and more inspired to play music than I have been in years, and I am certainly in better shape physically, spiritually and mentally to travel and tour. I tend to put a higher premium on things that reflect quality-of-life, like time spent with family and friends. But, the bottom line is that I am a musician and playing great gigs and collaborating with great musicians is what I do.

JAMBASE: Not to get deeply personal, but how have you changed since your health issues?

MW: It’s changed me 100 percent. I was in 7 Walkers with Billy Kreutzmann and George Porter Jr., and in that band, they pushed me to be as great as I could be musically. I rose to that challenge, but now in retrospect, I wish I could have done that band with the mind and body I have now.

I was struggling with a lot of issues: weight, substance abuse, shit like that. Now, I’m an improved person and my performances are much stronger than they used to be. I’m more focused as a musician – I want to work harder at being a musician – and my voice has gotten better. I don’t smoke cigarettes anymore. I’ve never had a great voice but I’m in better shape to use what I have now.

I have no regrets about the years with 7 Walkers – writing songs with [Robert] Hunter, playing with those guys, was a great experience. For all practical purposes, officially we’re still together. But Bill is very happy living in Hawaii. We played together during Jazz Fest; he sat in for an entire set at one of my gigs. But I don’t think he’s in any big hurry to go back to it.

JAMBASE: That’s what I was going to ask you. 7 Walkers was well regarded, especially among post-Dead bands and for the original music you put together. It doesn’t sound like that interest has gone away.

MW: I don’t see any reason why there shouldn’t be more for 7 Walkers. The reason we stopped touring was because Bill really needed some time off. He spent most of his life on tour with the Dead, and he when he settled in Hawaii after Jerry died, I think he really kind of felt like anything else after that would be a footnote – and rightfully so!

I also think that when 7 Walkers took on a life of its own and there were new songs with Hunter, and George Porter joined the band, Bill felt like it was something worth pursuing. I mean, for me to get to play with Bill was like – is like – a supreme dream come true. He’s just one of the most amazing drummers and people. I love the guy and we became close friends.

I totally respect the reality of it: he has a beautiful home in Hawaii, he’s happily settled and they run a little organic farm. He has a really good life there, man, and I can’t imagine much would take him away from that, so to get him to come out for almost three years with us…I just feel like we were very lucky to get that time. If he ever feels like he wants to do it again, we’ll do it.

It was good to see him during Jazz Fest. He was down here about a week and we reconnected and he came out and played an entire set with me. Matt Hubbard was also there and we called George up last minute to see if he could make it down. He showed up with his bass right as we had finished packing up so it didn’t happen, but we still had a really cool time.

JAMBASE: And you’re in regular touch with George and Matt as well?

MW: Oh, of course, yeah. I’ve known both those guys for a long time. We’re all good friends and we do see each other.

JAMBASE: Do you play 7 Walkers songs in your Papa Mali gigs?

MW: Yeah, especially the ones I wrote with Hunter because those songs are something I’m very proud of and something that is still a big part of me. We do play; usually in gigs I play, if Matt is available, I’ll hire him to play with me and we usually do quite a few 7 Walkers songs and a few Dead songs. We enjoy playing that stuff. But the focus is on moving on. We’re not trying to recreate 7 Walkers. 7 Walkers doesn’t exist without Billy in it.

JAMBASE: What’s next for Papa Mali?

MW: I have a new album in the can, produced by John Chelew, who’s worked with Blind Boys of Alabama, John Hiatt and quite a few really great artists. It’s completed, we’re shopping it and there is interest though I can’t say which labels. I am hoping for a fall release. It’s called Music I Love, and we did include a title track song, “Music Is Love,” which is a David Crosby song.

The album has all New Orleans musicians on it, and this is the first record I’ve done with all New Orleans folks. Johnny Vidacovich plays on it, Cassandra Faulconer plays bass, Josh Paxton is on keyboards, Mike Dillon plays tabla and vibes and Dave Easley is on pedal steel. There’s also this trio of young gospel-style singers I found signing on a street corner one night – I got them to the studio and they add a lot, too. The vibe of the record is cool – it reminds me almost of a Ry Cooder record, if maybe Ry was a little bit more psychedelic, if that makes sense. It’s as if you took that gospel and slide guitar roots thing and had it very much more ‘70s West Coast.

JAMBASE: I take it Ry Cooder is an influence?

MW: He’s a huge influence of mine. But him, or Lowell George, or Duane Allman – you study people like that and you’re led to the people that they learned it all from. At some point I started thinking like a musicologist – you listen to people but you also go back and check out their influences and figure out where the sources were.

JAMBASE: Do you have influences that you think would surprise people to hear about?

MW: Yeah, I’m sure I do. I really like Glen Campbell. I love ‘60s pop music, and I think I surprise people sometimes being a walking encyclopedia of ‘60s pop. I listen to a lot of soundtrack music too like Ennio Morricone. I love Serge Gainsbourg. I love Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass. A lot of that doesn’t reflect in my music but it’s in my listening tastes.

There’s a song on the 7 Walkers album called “Someday You’ll See,” and there’s a vocal version and an instrumental version I like very much that’s kind of a tribute to Spaghetti Western music and also sounds like some of the early Neil Young stuff that Jack Nitzsche played on. The other one is old dub music. I love King Tubby and Lee Perry. I spent many years playing reggae and got to work with some of the greats, and that had a big influence, too.

JAMBASE: Given the time you spent with 7 Walkers and your health issues and everything that happened over the past few years, when did you start in on new Papa Mali material? When was the time right?

MW: John and I – he lives in New Orleans – we started hanging out together more than a year ago. We just hung out and listened to records and talked about records we liked and records he’d produced. At some point I think we had enough common ground that I asked him to produce mine, and he was ready to do it. That’s when it started, which would have been toward the end of last year.

JAMBASE: Has the way you’ve written songs and pulled new songs together changed much?

MW: Again, I work harder these days than I did for a long while. I’m glad I rose to the occasion to write with someone like Hunter and play with people like Billy and George but I also wish I had another chance because I’m so much more focused and productive now than I was then. I spend my days now doing things that are much more related to music. I’m writing material or working on parts, and I just have a better vision and a better outlook.

JAMBASE: Does it mean we’ll see Papa Mali out on the road again?

MW: Absolutely, but for the right opportunities. I have been playing out, I’ll be on the Harvest Music Festival and I’m doing a few select things, as long as the offer is right.

Here’s another thing that’s different now. For years, my wife couldn’t travel with me because our children were growing up and it just didn’t work. She’s able to travel with me now, and we like to travel together -- we love to go out. She spent so long staying at home and we were away from each other a lot. These days I take her with me.

JAMBASE: You’ve always got a few projects cooking. Is there anything else we should highlight?

MW: I’ve got a few things going on, but right now I’m concentrating mainly on playing dates with my band and doing this M&Ms thing. I want to be available for that whenever we have the opportunity to play. I’m still playing with friends in town and occasionally I’ll go down and do pickup gigs with people, but my focus is on the M&Ms and Papa Mali.

JAMBASE: Understood. That said, it sounds like you’ve had some other very interesting gigs lately.

MW: [I was recently at] Lake Ponchartrain at dawn, playing improvised music in a trio format on a small boat with two living music legends, Alfred “Uganda” Roberts and world renowned composer/musician David Amram, as the sun was rising for a group of new friends who were all close friends and associates of Hunter S. Thompson. The reason for this momentous occasion? One member of this Gonzo crew from Colorado -- Matthew Moseley, a Louisiana native -- was swimming across the 25 mile lake for the first time in history, and the others were filming it as part of a documentary to raise environmental awareness. We were there to provide a live soundtrack.

Music has led me to some interesting places and provided many colorful and often unbelievable memories. This one was one of the most amazing!

[Photo by Rob Chapman]

JAMBASE: I can imagine. And I think you posted that you played with Jabo Starks recently?

MW: The gig with Jabo was a definite highlight as well. A fundraiser for leukemia patients and research, it was a huge success on every level, financially and musically.

Besides me, the band consisted of Jabo and Terrence Higgins, playing together on two drum kits, Rob Mercurio, Chris Spies on keys, plus Chris' son, Christopher Spies Jr and Joe Cabral from the Iguanas on horns, with guests Johnny Sansone on harmonica and vocals, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, organizer Ben Jernigan on guitar and vocals and Margie Perez on vocals.

Anders Osborne closed the event with a solo acoustic set. Johnny Sansone and I joined him on a few songs, including the universal crowd-pleaser, “Sugaree.” But for me personally, the absolute best part of this remarkable day was Jabo, who still plays as funky, spirited and inventive as he did in his glory days. Every time I looked at him he would be fully engaged, smiling broadly, listening intently and contributing to the musical dialogue in profound and interesting ways, as only a master storyteller can.

[Published on: 7/2/14]

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