Just a Guy Who Plays Drums: An Interview with Bill Kreutzmann
Anna Banana’s in Honolulu, Hawai’i is a classic hole-in-the-wall bar for bikers, hippies, students, Rastafarians, and wanderers. It’s a haven for misfit toys. The ceiling and walls are crammed with old local license plates, kitchy Hawaiian 50’s memorabilia, random signs and bumper stickers, and a wide variety of antique store rejects. It’s a check your attitude at the door, pull up a stool, and order a draft kind of place. It’s not surprising that Bill Kreutzmann, drummer and backbone of the Grateful Dead, now full-time resident of Hawaii, loves to play music there. The place suits him.
“I am just a guy who plays drums,” Kreutzmann said to me. His total lack of pretense is striking, both in his personality and in the way he approaches drumming. During his tenure with the Grateful Dead, Kreutzmann preferred to sit in the back and get down to business on the skins. His drumming was a force of a nature and he was content to let his drums do the talking. Kreutzmann also is the only remaining member of the Grateful Dead from whom we just don’t hear much anymore. He performed a few, small shows in Hawai’i and recorded one album with his first post-Dead band called “Backbone”, which seemed to be something to keep him busy during an otherwise quiet life of fishing and SCUBA diving on the island of Kaua’i. Shortly after the release of the album the group disbanded. Later that year he made one appearance at Shoreline Amphitheater with The Other Ones on last summer’s Furthur Festival tour, and he played with Merl Saunders on New Year’s Eve in San Francisco.
Since then Kreutzmann started up a new band called House of Spirits, featuring the mighty talent of local musician Steve Inglis on guitar, and Calvin Schaeffer (from Los Angeles) on bass. Later they added local musician Eric Peterson on keyboard. They’ve only played a handful of shows on Kaua’i and O’ahu, but it is clear that House of Spirits is a much stronger and more diverse band than Backbone was. It’s a band with potential, and Bill’s enthusiasm for his new project is obvious. Following House of Spirits’ Honolulu debut at Anna Banana’s, in the early hours of January 31, 1999, I had a few moments to ask Kreutzmann some questions. Besides asking him about his current project, we also talked a little bit about the Grateful Dead and what influenced his approach to drumming. My questions and comments are preceded by SB. Answers from Bill are preceded by BK, and answers by Steven Inglis are preceded by SI.
SB: So, how did you all meet and decide to form House of Spirits?
BK: Well, I was in a restaurant in Kilauea [on Kaua’i] and a friend of mine named Hank Curtis happened to be there. He introduced me to Calvin [bass player] and we started playing casually.
SB: Great. So, Steven, how did you hook up with these guys?
SI: My friend Mark Schill was doing some work with Grateful Greens [Kreutzmann’s organic farm]. He knew that Bill was looking for a guitarist to jam with, so Mark called me up, and I was like, yeah, ok, I’m game! So I flew over there and the three of us played one day and it took off from there.
SB: Bill, what was it about Steven that made want to play with him?
BK: He’s good. He’s got big ears.
SB: How did you guys come up with the name of the band?
BK: Well, it was one of those spontaneous moments. We were all in a very loose, you know… out-there state… How do I put it?
SB: You can say anything off the record.
BK: Aww, I don’t care. [Leaning into the microphone] We were higher than motherfuckers on mushrooms. And we had been playing at my house for about two hours early in the morning and we were jamming it was great and I said, “It’s like this house is full of spirits.”
SB: So far you’ve only played a few local shows. Have you thought about what you’re going to do next?
BK: Just tomorrow night.
SB: So you’re just taking it show by show, you guys don’t have any plans for the future?
BK: Yeah, show by show, and we got a couple gigs lined up on Kaua’i.
SB: Are you writing your own songs?
BK: Steven is.
SI: We’re working on some my original songs now, and that’s working out pretty good. But Calvin and I will work on more in the future. We’ve only played a few gigs and we’ve had about five or six practice sessions.
BK: Yeah, that’s the way to go. I mean, we just started, it’s a new thing. We’re doing this for fun and we’re going to see where it goes.
SB: You’re peeking your head out in other places too. Recently you played with Merl Saunders for New Year’s Eve. How was that?
BK: It was great, it was really fun. I actually heard from some deadheads that we had the night. They went over to the Kaiser and then they left and came to our gig. It was sweet. My ego liked that. And then I got to hear Toots and the Maytells and that was excellent. They are a great [reggae] band, you know, they played such a good show that night, they have a lot of influences like Otis Redding, with strong outward energy. We just hung out near the bar and danced. It was fun to just hang out like that. And the band gave me a T-shirt!
SB: So you enjoy being in small venues rather than –
BK: Oh yeah, it’s great see music and to play music in small places. And it’s really fun for me to play here because, you know, I played two feet from people all night. And after all those years, it’s great to be able to talk to folks.
SB: After Garcia died, you and the other members of the Grateful Dead decided not to keep going. What made you decide to come to this little speck of land out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?
BK: Oh, I made that decision back in 1985. I was out here getting certified [SCUBA] with Garcia in Kona and I thought to myself, this is a place to wake up in in the morning. The whole idea of vacationing to me isn’t that tiny little segment of time. Instead vacation should be your lifetime, I mean, if you’re doing it right, man. So back then I told myself when the end of the Grateful Dead comes I would go to Kaua’i. And I just made that promise and I kept it. So when Garcia died, and I decided not to play, I came out here.
SB: I know you’re doing other non-music related things out here. What’s up with Grateful Greens?
BK: Grateful Greens is a certified organic farm I have in Kilauea. We grow mostly lettuces and pineapple, flowers, and mate.
SB: What is mate?
BK: Mate is a South American coffee-like plant. I love the farm, I love growing stuff.