Leaving the Grateful Dead behind in 1995 was as much a defining force in drummer Bill Kreutzmann's life as was forming the band with Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir and Ron "Pigpen" McKernan 30 years earlier. And, in some ways, he's still dealing with the fallout. As Kreutzmann discusses exclusively with Rolling Stone, when the group disbanded following Garcia's untimely death, he took off for Hawaii and disappeared for awhile. Part of the reason for Kreutzmann's reclusive period was to honor his word to his fallen bandmate and partly to get his health – and his head – back together. Surprisingly, he says that he believes the Grateful Dead were at the end of the line, even if Garcia had survived.
And while Kreutzmann toured off and on with Grateful Dead spinoff bands such as the Dead and the Other Ones throughout the following decade, it wasn't until much more recently that he finally found a musical project as satisfying as performing in the Grateful Dead proper. Last year, Kreutzmann formed 7 Walkers with bluesman Papa Mali, bassist George Porter Jr. (the Meters) and keyboardist Matt Hubbard (Willie Nelson). Joined by special guest Steve Kimock on guitar – and featuring ample cameos from Karl Denson and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, among others – the group set sail on the high seas with Jam Cruise last week, performing a pair of shows on a sold-out ship bound for Haiti, Jamaica and all points jammed between. Between his sets with 7 Walkers and late-night appearances in the never-ending Jam Room, Kreutzmann sat down with Rolling Stone in the ship's wine bar to take a look back at yet another long strange trip.
The Grateful Dead are often credited as the forefathers of the jam band scene upon which the vibe of Jam Cruise is based. Can you talk about being one of the elder statesmen on the ship?
First of all, I love doing Jam Cruise. This is the second one I've done. I like doing it so much. The audience, the people on board are just as cool as can be and they're all into jam music. And I get to meet all these musicians that I don't normally get to hang with. So I get to rub shoulders and hang out with these different people and we get to play, like tonight in the Jam Room – it's going to be insane. I heard it's been kinda quiet in there the last few nights, so I figured I better show up. George Porter Jr. is going to show up and then Papa Mali too, so we'll get it raging in there; we'll warm it up.
Jam Cruise is sort of because of the jam scene, and the Grateful Dead often get complimented for starting the jam band scene. And maybe that is true, but in my head jazz musicians jammed forever, way before rock musicians. We might be one of the first rock bands to really jam and that might be the truth and that's cool; when I see all these new musicians playing great music and jamming like crazy, I'm really honored. It's not that I'm honored personally, I'm honored to the music – the music is being honored by musicians keeping it alive. And that's what I really like.
You've already been in one of the world's most successful bands – for three decades. You don't need to do anything for a living anymore. You could retire and live happily ever after. So why still do it?
I just don't see myself as retiring. As long as I'm healthy and can play the drums, that's what I'm going to do because that's the most fun thing that I know how to do. And to make people happy from playing music is the best reward you can have in your life – instead of being an insurance salesman or whatever, whatever, you know. Playing music is just one of the best things. I can't retire.
When Jerry left us in '95, besides being totally hurt and forlorn, basically lonesome, I was lost in every direction. I didn't know what to do. I went to Kauai mostly to heal. Jerry and I had this gentlemen's agreement that if the Grateful Dead ever stopped, we were both going to move to Hawaii. Unfortunately he couldn't keep his part of the deal, but I moved there after the Grateful Dead ended in the Summer of '95 because I needed to heal. I had really been burning hard and doing the things that everybody knows that rockers do on the road and this gave me a chance to really catch my breath and heal again. And get healthy. I surf and I got in much better shape and took care of my life. That was very, very important.
But the thing that was missing was a band that could fill the level that I like to have with music that the Grateful Dead did. And I don't mean a copy band of any sort; the bands that I played in afterward, the Dead and the Other Ones and all that, up until 2009, they were okay bands – the musicians were always really great – but I always missed one guy. I couldn't help that in my heart. The Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia was like the Miles Davis Band without Miles Davis.
So, finally, 15 years after Jerry left, I got to meet Papa Mali. And that was like one of the most fortunate things to ever happen to me. My girlfriend Amy, who is now my wife, introduced me to Papa Mali. She played his music for me at home in Hawaii and I just went, "Oh man, that cat's for real!" And I've always loved New Orleans music. I always loved it when the Neville Brothers opened up for the Grateful Dead, and the Dirty Dozen and all that.
And finally I met a guy that I could totally believe in as a musician. As Jerry did, [Mali] has total knowledge of all kinds of music. He's got like 10,000 vinyl records, got them on every wall on his house, so knowledgeable and just a really wonderful person to play music with and he sings great and he's the one person I've heard sing Jerry songs that I really like his voice doing it. I mean, 7 Walkers doesn't have all the instrumentation that the Grateful Dead did, but I just like the way we approach it. What I'm getting at is that I've had to wait this long, 15 years, to really get back. And that's the reason I'm here on Jam Cruise; I'm back playing again with musicians I really believe in. And that's very important to me. These guys have got to be the guys or else I don't want to do it.
You say you can't retire from music. All of the other remaining members of the Grateful Dead seem to feel the same way. Do you think if Jerry Garcia was still around that the Grateful Dead would still be touring?
No, I don't think so. I think that Jerry had gotten kind of bored with the Grateful Dead, and it was sort of like a marriage that had maybe gone on too long. And other people in the band wanted to start to express themselves in their bands and so forth and so on, that I'm pretty sure Jerry would've stopped playing in the Grateful Dead. I think a lot of it, I hate to say, was really a financial obligation. He needed to earn the money for some things and that's too bad. But it's hard. He was a true artist and I can tell you he wasn't really happy playing in the Grateful Dead at the end. I hate to say that. I know the audience is going to hear me say that and go, "Oh, that's not true," but if people really think about some of the shows that were there in the last year and some of the troubles that poor Jerry had, they know that I'm not BS'ing.
I really like to go for the essence of things, the most beautiful parts of things, of human beings or of music. If there are things in there that are getting in the way and complicating it, it's just not good for me. It's hard for me, too. Once again, I said it earlier, but the reason I went to Hawaii was to heal those things.
In talking about the new Dave's Picks live release series, Grateful Dead archivist David Lemieux recently told Rolling Stone that he informs everyone in the band what the next live release will be. He sends them advance copies, but he's not sure any of the band members actually ever put them on. When a new live Grateful Dead release comes out, do you listen to it?
I do. And the one that comes to mind right away is the new Europe '72 [The Complete Recordings] release. I went back and listened and on a couple of the CDs in that set – there's one that has "The Other One" into some kind of jam back into "The Other One" – the music is just fantastic. It blows my mind to this moment. I like that music, the looser music like "Bird Song" or "The Other One," because they're really heavily jam-oriented. The Garcia songs are always my favorite, but the jam parts are really my favorite.
There's now even a Grateful Dead video game on the market. Do you pay attention to that stuff? I mean, the non-musical commercial releases, licensing and merchandising?
I don't always; some of it I do and some of it I don't. I trust David Lemieux a million percent and when he says something is worth going for, then I do it. And I don't have to listen to everything or get everything – my house would be awful full of stuff. Whatever it is: dog collars . . . there's a company now that makes Grateful Dead dog toys, and since I'm a dog lover and have dogs at home I said, "Yeah, go ahead."
While on Jam Cruise, do you go on shore and take advantage of the port stops?
I do. I got in the water today. We were in Haiti, and I got off at the port and went swimming at the designated beach, because the water is so warm; it's warmer than where I live in Hawaii right now . . . they had to drag me out of the water, just about.
Do you have a favorite Jam Cruise memory?
Yes, I do. It's from the last Jam Cruise I went on. It was after my last show with the Rhythm Devils – I played that cruise with the Rhythm Devils and Mickey Hart – and I went to the Jam Room after midnight and George [Porter Jr.] was holding court there, and I played with him for awhile. I got a little tired, and I stopped and then Johnny Vidacovich sat in, a fantastic drummer. And that guy, Johnny V., is the reason drumming is what it is in New Orleans today, a lot of it. A lot of really good studio stuff, too. George was holding court, playing in the Jam Room, and I couldn't leave. Me and Amy sat back there, we were beat, we actually sat back a bit off to the right side of the stage, behind it, and my jaw just dropped just listening to them play. So I remember that the most because that was just so much fun.