The Core: Bill Kreutzmann
credit: Michael Weintrob
The founding Grateful Dead drummer enters his next creative era with his current combo, Billy & The Kids.
That’s the Dream
I met the individuals [in Billy & The Kids] at different times. The bass player, Reed Mathis, and I did an album with Papa Mali as 7 Walkers [in 2010]. Papa Mali is a New Orleanstype of fella, and Reed came in and played bass so I thought, “He must be a blues bass player” because he stuck with that style during the sessions, and he impressed me. Then, when I got him away from that style of music and we started playing more outrageous stuff, I realized, “This guy can do anything.” It was the same thing with everybody else, too—I realized what amazing players everybody is.
Everyone in this band comes from a different background and that’s why it works so well. That’s one of the keys. James Casey is the newest guy in—he brought a sense of freedom to the music and he brought a quality of music. You know me, I like to jam, and he’s a studied jazz player—an incredible player. And when I heard that horn play, I said, “You got the job, you earned it.” He plays in Trey’s band too, but he really wants to play a lot of music, and when I see that in a player, then usually it’s good.
At the beginning, when he was playing, James thought that I should have an idea of what he should play, and I said, “Just play from your heart—play the song, play the changes, whatever the tempo has going on.” But, for the rest of it—the jam space between the vocals— play from yourself.” It’s a pretty open way of leading something, but it works. We like to go out there. That’s the dream.
James wasn’t into the Grateful Dead at all before we met. He studied at Berklee [College of Music]. But once he started hearing us play, he couldn’t stay away from us. He liked it so much. We’d play a Grateful Dead song and, by the time he got to the second verse, he had the whole song down. That’s what I love—he learned the first part of the song and made the rest how it should be. That’s wonderful for me—that’s what I want to encourage and where we are going now. I hope he’s doing well. [Casey is currently battling cancer and has been sitting out large portions of many of the recent shows he has played.]
Old Friends, New Ideas
I got the Kids back together [for my 75th birthday shows in Hawaii in May 2021], and we had Carlos Santana come by. Carlos moved to Hawaii, and we live a few miles from each other now. He brought over an amplifier and one of his guys to help, and we played. It’s almost like for old time’s sake. But we’re not a nostalgia act—I’ll underline that. I encourage new songs—we have a couple of new Hunter tunes that we’re gonna work on for the shows that are coming up, which is fun. I love working on new material because it hasn’t been written yet—the music hasn’t been written, the style hasn’t really been written. The words are there and you can take the feeling from the words and use that as a background for how you want to play the song. And that works. Hunter was really good at writing—that’s obvious. And he made the feeling of the songs clear—you can tell what he meant by what he was singing.
A few years ago, he gave me a number of songs and said, “These are yours. Work them out.” And very slowly, through the years, I’ve been working them out up here. It’s great; it’s really fun to do material like that. He puts a lot of words in there so it’s a bit Dylan-esque.
And all different kinds of music fit his lyrics—a bluegrass style can fit the songs and you can make the song any way you want. You can’t change the words, though. Hunter would spank you if you changed the words—not one word, not a T, nothing.
We already did a new one from Hunter, “Thunder” with Billy & The Kids. I also did that one with my group BK3 with Scott Murawski singing. But we did it completely different this time—Billy [Strings] came up with a different arrangement, keys and chords and all that stuff. It’s like you’re getting with a bunch of scientists—music scientists— who are going in there to have some exploratory get-offs. It’s wonderful to know that you’re gonna go play music and something’s going to get you off a few times during the night.
BK3 was a really incredible trip, too. We had a lot of fun with that. I don’t know if it’ll ever come back—those things just move on. The energy changes shape. It doesn’t go away; it just moves on. [The Grateful Dead] did some funny things with time at the Acid Tests—time warped and there would be no time. It was invisible. So we made up our own time.
Nashville and New Orleans
Jerry was a bluegrass nut before it became the rock business, and bluegrass players have to play with such intensity sometimes—they have to play so accurately that it’s a fantastic kind of music. You can’t just slur big chords—you really have to get down. They make each note perfect. And I like that tightness. But I wouldn’t say bluegrass connects me to Jerry—the only way it connects me to Jerry is that I’m never unconnected from him.
But I love these younger bluegrass players who have turned up on my radar. Molly Tuttle was fun to play with. She has a wonderful voice and an incredible right hand when she’s picking. Billy Strings has an incredible voice and some wonderful music. I’d say he has great chops, but in Nashville you can’t say chops. And we had fun with Daniel Donato in New Orleans, and he is going to do some more shows with us. He went out there on “Dark Star” when I sat in with his band.
I enjoyed playing with Papa Mali. [Though the musicians in New Orleans were doing something similar to the Dead], I felt that it was more like everybody’s playing the music they grew up with in New Orleans and we—the Grateful Dead, and me in particular—just go around and borrow some of this music because it’s so good. It’s important to know where your relatives are from and to play that music. And my mother is from New Orleans. And that kind of locks me in there. I went down there and hung out with all these New Orleans drummers upstairs at Tipitina’s—there was six or eight drummers all sitting by the table with drumsticks.
One thing about Billy & The Kids that I love so much is that we’re not doing tons of gigs. We’re not doing tours. So things can stay fresh. I believe in that—having time away and doing other projects. All the other guys are in different bands, too. And then we come together and do this band. That’s just a healthy way to stay vibrant and not go oldfashioned and copy the same stuff without learning any new songs. I’m insistent that we learn new songs every time we get together. That’s a goal.
[When I said in a video before my New Orleans show that musicians and music fans should take the Dead’s music and make it their own,] I meant that you still have to play to the value of the song, the way it was intended to be. And then you can put more on top of it if it really adds to it, and it isn’t just icing or fluff. Otherwise, play the song as accurately as possible except for the jams. You have your space to go get ‘em there. If you can think of another song that can work in there, start playing a couple chords of that and see if you can start getting people’s attention. It’s like that with this band [Billy & The Kids].
It’s interesting as can be, man—it grounds me. It really gets me, it fascinates me, it doesn’t get boring. Boring is a word that we ourselves might put in there, but it never gets like that. There’s always something happening with The Kids or somebody will stop in rehearsal and say, “Try this.”
I started the Billy the Drummer CBD line with the Kauai Hemp Company. I like pot a lot. [Laughs.] And this isn’t pot, of course—it’s hemp. But, my favorite thing that I did is I walked out in the middle of their field, and I was surrounded by all this green. It’s about time—now that hemp is legal, it’s a lot of fun. It’s a really good product. I went and visited where they manufacture it—where they grow it on the other side of the island. And I’m impressed—just the amount of equipment that’s needed to make it filtered to the highest quality possible and to make it medical grade is impressive. It takes a lot. So they showed me around the place and they got some amazing flavors. There’s no bad taste—no funny flavors put on it, just a good product and I use a couple drops before I go to bed at night, and snore ya later. People are drinking less and using pot and CBD more. And that’s why this is so good. It’s much better for their bodies, for their minds. Alcohol is strict poison.
Kauai is a great place to live. I have a farm here. We have mango trees growing and bunches of avocados. We’re not doing any line farming anymore or row cropping. We’re just doing those big trees, which is easier. We’ll have an occasional papaya tree around here somewhere. It’s just gorgeous for the eyes. I’m enjoying myself out here. I work out as much as I can and practice the drums. I have a drum set here, of course. And I put music on sometimes and play—I put on Billy & The Kids music and play along to that, which is fun.