7 Walkers possesses a huge range of appeal. For sure, funk fans will pay attention because a member of The Meters is involved and Grateful Dead followers will tune in because of Bill, and while both those audiences will be served, to a degree, there’s something broader and more indefinable afoot in 7 Walkers. The culture of New Orleans and the Deep South in general permeates the proceedings; one can almost smell the swamp gas and greenery along the banks as critters and smiling wayfarers wink from beyond the tree line. Deep groove DJs have a potential new toolkit with this music, and there’s more than a little Americana appeal in the finely etched storytelling and folklore inside their verses. What’s admirable and attractive about 7 Walkers is how they cull elements from each member’s past but adamantly refuse to linger inside the familiar. 7 Walkers is new music with an old soul, and it burns and illuminates from within like good bourbon as it seeps into a person.
“I think one of the reasons my musical persona first appealed to Bill, and Hunter as well, is I’ve never been in a Grateful Dead cover band. I only saw a handful of shows while Jerry was alive. They were certainly on my radar in the 70s. I bought all their studio records but I never collected tapes or followed them around. I was too busy making music. And I think that’s proven a strong suit in becoming part of this project,” says Papa Mali. “Now, people are coming to see us and want to hear some Grateful Dead tunes, so I’m learning Grateful Dead material, but I’m still trying to do it in my own way. The Deadheads have been really, really positive and supportive. And they’re hipping me to a lot of cool stuff. Bill’s such a sweet guy that he’s never tried to push anything on me, but the Deadheads will come back after a show and give me a show from 1979 or something and tell me, ‘You’ve got to listen to this!’ Now, I’m getting my knowledge enriched.”
“It’s fun music. I don’t normally like talking about music but this band is in my heart,” says Kreutzmann. “Everything you do in this band can be heard and really counts. In the Grateful Dead – God bless ’em – a lot of my inside stuff would get covered up, but that’s what happens when you have that many players onstage. I love doing the Hunter/Jerry songs with this band, but one of my hard & fast rules is whatever musicians I’m playing with have to do the songs total justice. They can’t just copy a song. They need to capture the mood – what it intended originally – and inhabit it. I don’t really like trying to sound like somebody else. It’s a waste of your energy. Creativity wants you to get out there and discover something new.”
On the studio album Tea Leaf Green bassist Reed Mathis plays on all but one cut, but Mathis’ commitments to TLG and elsewhere made his full-time involvement an impossibility.
“I can’t say enough good things about Reed Mathis. He’s a great friend and a great, great musician, but unfortunately he was too busy to commit to anything but a side project,” explains Papa. “When it became apparent that George was not only available but enthusiastic about the project it became a band. We started performing like a band and taking things more seriously.”
“The record had already been recorded for the most part, but we wanted George to be represented on it somewhat. So, we went back into the studio while we were on tour in April to capture one more song [‘Chingo!’] that Robert Hunter has sent to me and I was working on. Now, we’re already moving forward on another batch of songs Hunter sent me, which we’ve been rehearsing along with the first album material,” continues Papa. “I know so many musicians, so when Bill first suggested doing this band I thought really hard about who would add the most. And I realized Matt [Hubbard] was the perfect fourth member for this band. Matt plays all the keyboards plus trombone, harmonica, sings background vocals and he engineered the entire record – a perfect foil for me since I produce our stuff.”
The swing in Kreutzmann’s style and the dance floor undertow inherent to Porter’s bass work dovetails beautifully in 7 Walkers. It’s as if the subterranean well that birthed crucial pieces like “Not Fade Away” and “Boogie Chillen'” springs anew when these two lock in together.
“Well, I always say I was born with a triplet in my heart,” says Kreutzmann. “My dad used to drive me to my earliest play dates and I can remember the night I learned how to play a shuffle. I was like, ‘Fuck me, that’s how it goes!’ No one had ever taught me and I just found myself doing it. No one else in the band noticed but it was my own headspace opening up.”
Continue reading for insights into Papa Mali’s writing collaboration with Robert Hunter…
“I can’t give Bill enough credit for making this happen with his wonderful, generous heart and his faith in me. He had enough faith in me to say, ‘Let’s be friends,’ and then after we’d been friends for awhile, ‘Hey, let’s form a band,’ and then, ‘Would you like to write some songs with Robert Hunter?’ Wow. Yes, bring it on!” enthuses Papa. “It became apparent to me early on in collaborating with Robert that he’d been listening to my stuff. After the first song he sent me, the next one had something to do with me and my growing up in Louisiana. I think he understands that it’s hard for a singer to sing a song unless he feels it somehow and believes it. From that point on, every song I got from Hunter had something to do with the South or Louisiana or the swamp. He knows all about Haitian voodoo, and not the scary Hollywood/Halloween version. He continues to surprise me and blow my mind. It’s obvious he’s writing from the heart and trying to incorporate my realm of experience in his lyrics. That means so much to me.”
“It truly is. Even though I did the majority of the music to accompany Hunter’s lyrics in terms of chord changes, melodies, things like that, I have to give respect where it’s due. Bill’s drumming is one of the most miraculous things I’ve ever experienced in my life. I felt that way when I was young listening to the Grateful Dead for the first time, but this is happening now and with me in the same band. Wow. So, I try to keep this unique, amazing person in mind with anything I write.”
“As far as changing lyrics, I tend not to do that. There was only one song that I really changed anything on [‘New Orleans Crawl’], and once I looked at them side-by-side, I realized his was better. Why would I want to change this gift? My only hope is he enjoys the music I’m putting to his stuff, and so far he has been extremely positive in his comments and compliments,” says Papa. “By the time we finally met face-to-face we’d already written five or six songs together. It was very emotional for me, and I think for him, too. There were a lot of people in the room backstage at the Great American Music Hall [in San Francisco], a lot of Bill’s friends and older Dead Family people. And everyone was kinda stunned by how it seemed like old friends being reunited when he and I met.”
Continue reading for Bill’s thoughts on new music and some tidbits about the future of 7 Walkers…
“Well, that’s happening on [our debut record]. That’s for sure,” offers Kreutzmann. “It was so natural, man. Sometimes when things are really working right you don’t have to try so hard. Sometimes when you try really, really hard, you might ask yourself, ‘Is this really fun? Am I trying too hard?’ But this record was really easy. We made it down in Austin, Texas about a year ago and the recording session was one of most fun I’ve ever had, right up there with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. And then Papa and Matt worked a whole month adding all the echoes and tweaks and effects. Papa’s imagination is boundless. I love that.”
“I like new songs. I remember when Garcia would come into the studio with a new song, he had this uncanny ability to bring in a song roughed out on acoustic guitar or maybe electric – it didn’t matter too much – and you could hear all the parts of the song. He didn’t have to tell you, ‘The drums should do this, and the bass should do this.’ You could hear everything he intended right there on the guitar. And Papa’s that way, too,” says Kreutzmann. “When we got to the sessions he had Hunter’s songs roughed out and we knocked it out in less than a week. The musicians I hang out with don’t discuss what music should be like. We play the way it should be like [laughs]. I’m not real good at talking. Mostly I just like to play music. That says it all for me.”
“When we do Grateful Dead songs, I usually do either a Pigpen or Jerry song. My take is as long as Bobby and Phil are out there doing their songs they’re the best ones to do that. And they sound fantastic! For whatever anyone might be thinking about 7 Walkers and Furthur, everybody should know that the love between Billy and his old bandmates is very strong. Billy just feels like he wants to explore some other path at this particular time.”
A Bonafide Classic
“I guess fundamentally it’s the blues but this swamp is an acronym for life. You gotta learn how to swim through it and not get your ass bit,” observes Kreutzmann. “My girlfriend coined this lovely term. She said, ‘You guys are swampadelic.’ I like that. For example, ‘Chingo!’ sounds very much like Dr. John’s old stuff to me. I like when there’s theater in music – audio theater. It’s very cinematic music. We should be doing the soundtrack for Treme or something.”
“If there’s any commonality to our songs it’s the general soulfulness,” says Kreutzmann. 7 Walkers represents a happy, welcome return to the spacious, genre skipping spirit of the late 60s/early 70s when rock represented an all-inclusive vessel to toss together elements of the blues, jazz, country and anything else with tasty potential. “I really like that this album is something different,” adds Kreutzmann. “It’s important to me to keep forging new ground.”
The future of 7 Walkers seems wide-open except to say that something crucial and valuable usually comes out of a crucible burning this hot.
“We all have a lot of optimism for the future of this band. This is a very young band. Our debut album is just coming out. We’ve done a few tours but they’ve mostly been things to keep us occupied and in the public eye. Now that our record is coming out, we’ll be touring on a much more serious level,” says Papa. “We’re really looking forward to getting this music out there. I can’t say enough good things about working with these guys. So often bands are formed because musical personalities attract one another. In this particular case, Billy and I became friends before we formed a band together. We met randomly and we really enjoy hanging out together. I think because I wasn’t a Deadhead fanatic, he felt comfortable with me. Nobody likes being put on a pedestal. If you don’t feel that way, there’s something wrong with you [laughs].”
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