One of the truly pleasant surprises of 2010 has been the emergence of 7 Walkers, the eclectic quartet that features guitarist/singer/songwriter Papa Mali (a.k.a. Malcolm Welbourne), good ol’ Bill Kreutzmann on drums, Matt Hubbard on keys, harmonica and trombone, and N’awlins funk ’n’ rock legend George Porter Jr. on bass. The group has been getting people boppin’ and groovin’ at clubs and on the jam band festival circuit for much of the year, and now everyone can enjoy their fine, self-titled first album, which came out in early November on Response Records.
at the Great American Music Hall in SF.
Photo: Susan J. Weiand © 2010
It’s an album filled with beautifully arranged textural elements—Dobro slinkin’ over in the left channel; an old analog synth reinforcing a bass line for a few bars; organ rising briefly, then disappearing; vocals ghosted in the distance, calling out from some other world; syncopated horns sounding like either a funeral line or a party (is there a difference in New Orleans?); atmosphere thick as swamp night; a carnival calliope begging a late-night waltz; rain dancing rhythmically on magnolia leaves. Though not “jammy” in the traditional sense, it is surprisingly psychedelic—a great “headphone album.”
The album was produced by Papa Mali and engineered by Matt Hubbard, with the basic tracks for all but one song recorded at a studio called The Nest in Austin, Texas (where both Malcolm and Matt live), and the overdubs, editing and mixing done at Matt’s home studio. Matt’s previous credits include several albums with fellow Austin-ite Willie Nelson, and indeed it was Matt who got Willie to contribute some vocals to the dire shuffle, “King Cotton Blues.” The bulk of the album was actually recorded when Reed Mathis was still the group’s bassist; subsequently he returned to his main gig—with Tea Leaf Green—and was replaced by Porter, whom Malcolm knew from his years around the New Orleans music scene. Porter appears on one track—the voodoo-infused “Chingo!”—which was recorded at Catacombs Studio in San Francisco this past spring of 2010.
On a cell phone from the beach near his house outside the Kauai north shore town of Kilauea, Bill K. enthuses, “The vibe was excellent in the studio down there in Austin. It’s probably the most fun record I’ve made in years. We started with ‘Sue from Bogalusa’—we’d go in there and run through it a few times to get it down. It wasn’t one of those records where you go and do 20 or 30 takes and then try to figure out which one is best. After a while you don’t know what you’re hearing—you do something 20 times and you get bored with it; you use up all your imagination.
“But there were four of us and we could always decide, ‘Yeah, that was good!’ Then later we’d go in and listen, and by God, it was a good track! It was done by consensus in the moment as opposed to figuring out what the best parts of it were in post-production and then putting it together. Matt is an excellent engineer and Papa is a tremendous producer—he’s got a great ear and lots of ideas. In fact, in general, he’s just a super guy. He’s one of those people you never hear talk bad about anybody. He’s very positive.
“Anyway, after we’d done the basics, Matt and Papa worked a month solid of 12- and 13-hour days to get it all done. What was great is we all felt like we could really put our ideas across freely the whole time we were making this record. I didn’t feel egos in this band; I felt creative energy. And I still do. It’s working out really great having George with us, and our shows are getting better and better.”
Having spoken to Bill about the origins of the group for dead.net a few months ago, this time I thought it might be fun to talk to Malcolm/Papa Mali to get his perspective on the album and the band. I caught up with the friendly and articulate Mr. Welbourne at his Austin home in late October.
The production of this album—and also on your two Papa Mali albums (Thunder Chicken and Do Your Thing)—is very interesting and quite trippy in places, what with the different instrumental and vocal textures, and the sound effects and all. I even thought of Revolver in a couple of places, with the backwards guitars. Who are some of your influences on a production level?
Well, I think my production process has been very heavily influenced by a lot of the records I’ve listened to and enjoyed through the years, which covers a pretty broad range. I mean, I listened to stuff like [Italian film music composers] Ennio Morricone and Hugo Montenegro. Then there’s stuff like Crazy Horse, old scratchy blues records and early Jamaican dub; all sorts of things that come through here and there to varying degrees. And yeah, definitely The Beatles and John Lennon—especially his vocal effects, and the way his music sounds on a lot of the psychedelic Beatles stuff. As a producer, that always excited me. I’ve always listened to records and tried to figure out, “How’d they get that sound?” That informs a lot of what I do and my production values.
On the 7 Walkers record, how often did you have a vision of how it was going to end up sounding early on, versus finding direction through experimentation in the studio?
Some of it was experimentation. For the most part, the songs were already in place before we began rolling tape—we recorded to 2-inch analog tape using almost exclusively vintage microphones and vintage preamps. We did editing in Pro Tools [digital workstation] and in that process we tended to experiment with different things—reverbs and effects and all. But for the most part, when Bill and I and Matt and Reed went into the studio—almost a year ago—we blocked out about eight days and went in every morning at around 11 in the morning and usually stayed until two or three in the morning, and we would do different takes of songs with different feels.
As a producer, I try to create an atmosphere where people are going to feel free to experiment and also do their creative best. And another key is get band tracks that actually sound like people playing together. [Laughs]
The album opens with the sound of a simulated Louisiana radio station. Did you come up with that early on?
No, that came about while I was doing the final editing and post-production on “Sue from Bogalusa.” I felt like it needed to have some sort of personality; a little introduction. We all thought “Sue from Bogalusa” was a nice way to kick off the record because it’s uptempo and radio-friendly and all that sort of stuff. But it dawned on me that a lot of people probably have no idea what or where Bogalusa is, so I thought I’d give it a little context, so what we put on there is exactly the kind of thing you might hear driving along in south Louisiana late at night.
Tell me about the songwriting. Did these Hunter lyrics just arrive on your doorstep one day? What was the process like?
First thing I’ve gotta say is Billy really showed a lot of faith in me by making that introduction to Robert Hunter, you know? For me it was a huge honor. I’ve held him in the highest esteem as a songwriter since I first got turned on to the Dead back in the ’70s.
Had you played their music?
No, not really. I could say that I was a big fan in the sense that I bought all their studio albums, and I especially always liked the songwriting by Hunter and Garcia. In the early ’70s, and even into the late ’70s, they were always on my radar. I always knew what they were up to. Live Dead through Mars Hotel—I knew those records backwards and forwards by the time I was 16 or 17 years old. I saw my first Dead show in 1972 and though I only saw a handful of shows, I definitely liked them a lot.
That’s maybe one of the things that made me fit into this situation with 7 Walkers—because Bill was looking for something to do that wasn’t just about his past, but he didn’t want to ignore it, either, of course. And he likes New Orleans music. Then, when Hunter got into it, he sort of went in that direction, too—when I received the first couple of songs from him, the lyrics were about Louisiana and had this kind of Southern swamp thing. [Laughs] At that point, I suspected he might have checked out my music, and when I met him, he confirmed that yeah, he had gone online and listened to my stuff. It was such an honor to get to write with someone of that caliber, and a thrill to know he was into the idea of the collaboration; the artistic partnership. But it all started with Bill’s faith in me to trust me with that.
It’s amazing how rich and vivid Hunter’s imagery is on these songs, and the way he puts in all those geographical references. It feels like a slightly romanticized version of Louisiana, but it’s not corny in any way.
It’s remarkably accurate. I had to ask him soon after he first sent me lyrics: “Did you live in Louisiana?” Because his knowledge is greater than most people who live there, in terms of specific things and places and feelings! Like in “Evangeline,” where he talks about “the street signs posted in the trees”: nobody except people who live down there know that there are trees all along the sides of the highway and they put the street signs on the trees. I knew it because I grew up fishing on those roads. He said he did spend quite a bit of time there when he was younger.
“Chingo!” was another one that really threw me for a loop because who knew that Hunter was so knowledgeable about Haitian voodoo—and not the Hollywood sensationalist version of it, but the real thing? It’s a love story about a god and goddess; it’s incredible. That song just blew me away.
I was really hoping that whatever I brought to the table Hunter and Bill would like. They gave me so much confidence and so many compliments along the way, and it seemed to get better as it went along.
I like the opening of “Chingo!” with the percussion and… what’s the rest?—12 string, recorder, marimba?
It does sound like a 12-string, but it’s actually a Martin [6-string] double-tracked, one of them tuned down and the other capo’d up.
The effected vocals in places remind me of Gris-Gris era Dr. John…
George Porter Jr. and Matt Hubbard.
Photo: Susan J. Weiand © 2010
When did you move to Austin?
I’ve been here since 1987. I didn’t really intend to stay, but you get here and you put down roots and buy a house and boom, 20 years have gone by! I feel like I’m always looking at property in New Orleans. I feel like someday I’ll move back. I’ve got family, so many friends, and most of the musicians I work with are down there, so I’m down there all the time. Even some of the locals think I’m still local. [Laughs]
Did you ask Willie Nelson to be on “King Cotton Blues”?
Actually, Matt our keyboard player has been Willie’s engineer for years and he engineered this entire album. We even did the earliest demos out at Willie’s studio because Matt has a key to the place. So from the beginning we talked about asking Willie to guest on the record. Matt had originally suggested maybe Willie would be willing to play guitar on “Evangeline,” which I thought was a great idea. I was happy to get Willie any way we could![Laughs] But once “King Cotton Blues” started taking shape, I said, “I really think we should try to get Willie to sing on this song, because it’s one of those classic Hunter songs about an outlaw, and who represents outlaws better than Willie Nelson?”
Did you have any back and forth with Hunter about trimming or changing lines?
Absolutely, in fact he even made some really great suggestions musically, as well. He would never say “Change this” or “Change that,” but he would say things like, “You know, slide trombone might sound real good right where the chorus comes in on ‘King Cotton,’” and he was right! He’s really a cool, sweet guy and very supportive.
The instrumentals “Airline Highway” and “[For the Love of] Mr. Okra”—those were studio jams?
Yes. We probably could have released three more albums just of studio jams! There’s a lot of good stuff we didn’t have room for.
Bill’s playing in this band is so relaxed and fluid, but still precise. He sounds great on this album.
He does. Billy is by far the most unique drummer I’ve ever played with. It’s one thing for me to go into a studio and make a record that sounds like me, but I really wanted to make a record that sounded like him, too. He’s got perfect time and his ability to get “outside” is right up there with some of the greatest jazz drummers of all time, like Elvin Jones. His ideas and his free thinking are so different than most drummers—he invented his own style of drumming.
Had you ever gotten into deep space the way you do with this band occasionally?
With the gris-gris music that’s always been my M.O., but not to the degree that I can with Billy, because Billy’s playing tends to liberate all the musicians he works with. Either they’re so rigid in their way of thinking about music that it freaks them out, or it makes them get freer. [Laughs] That’s what happened to me when I started playing with him, and it’s been a beautiful thing. I feel like my style has gotten much looser in a good way.
“New Orleans Crawl” sounds like it’s in a club. Was that actually recorded live, and who is the horn section?
No, it’s not live; it was done in the studio. We did try to create a party environment a couple of nights we were in there by inviting friends over to hang out. Sometimes that helps and sometimes it’s distracting. [Laughs] The horn section was Matt on trombone, Steve Johnson sax, and we were supposed to have a trumpet player, but he couldn’t make it, but it turned out Steve Johnson also played trumpet, so he did that, too.
On that song it was all sort of… controlled chaos. [Laughs] It came off the way we wanted it to, which was the French Quarter at five in the morning…
How’d you know when a song was done? You could add things forever…
And also remove some of them! Sometimes you put a bunch of stuff on there and you listen to it for a while and you realize you’ve killed some of the vibe by putting too much on there.
It’s cool that you were able to get George Porter on one song.
Yeah, we had almost finished post-production of the record by the time that George became an official member, and we wanted to have him at least represented on the record. Reed did a great job, though. He’s a fantastic player, too.
Before George joined the band it was a really cool project; when George joined it became a band. It’s that simple. Nobody knew how good the chemistry between him and Billy would be. I suspected it would be good, which is why I asked George to come on board. Reed was, and is, very busy with Tea Leaf Green and Marco Benevento and some other projects. So, as much as we loved Reed and hated for him to not be in our live shows, it became apparent real quick he was already committed to something else and couldn’t re-schedule. We were honored that George then made us one of his priority bands.
Do you enjoy playing the Grateful Dead material?
Sure, they’re great songs. At the same time, we’re not trying to sound like the Grateful Dead, and I think over time we’ll probably wean ourselves away from it a little. But we will always represent some of it. And we’ll probably be adding a few Meters songs, too. When people come to hear Billy or George they want to hear that. But we’re hoping people will embrace the record and we’ll do more originals in our live act.
With your own band, Papa Mali, you had played the hippie circuit a bit, right?
Yes. We played High Sierra in 2003, then Bonarroo, after that I became a regular on the jam band festival circuit. That’s been great—the jam band crowds love everything from Del McCoury to The Roots, which is the same as me! Finally, an audience that didn’t rely on what Clear Channel wanted them to hear!
Who are some of your influences as a guitarist?
There are too many to name! I got turned on at a very early age to Lightnin’ Hopkins and Tampa Red, things that most kids my age weren’t listening to. Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton. I ran into this guitar player in Shreveport where I grew up named Johnny “Slim” Campbell. He went on to get signed by Elektra and record as John Campbell, and he was a huge influence on me, not only because he was following that same path of the gris-gris Dr. John-type stuff, but because he was a guitar player who knew about all these older players.
I remember being in my room as a teenager and trying to play like Duane Allman, and [Johnny said], “If you like Duane, you should listen to the cats he listened to.” I got curious: How do they do this? How do they do that? He sort of re-schooled me, showing me open tunings, all sorts of stuff.
Now that you’re actively playing some Grateful Dead music, has the way you look at Garcia as a guitarist changed at all?
Sure, but like I said, I always loved his guitar playing and thought he was brilliant. Since I’ve been in this band, a lot of Deadheads have been good about schooling me. [Laughs] They’ve been sending me shows—“Hey, check out this thing from 1969 or 1985.” To be honest, though, I’m trying to bring something different to the music. I never wanted to be a clone of anybody, but I’ll tell you what, I’ve grown to have an even deeper appreciation for all things Grateful Dead. But I don’t want it to rub off on me to the point where it sounds like imitating them.
Where do you see this going? Do 7 Walkers have another record in them? Would you like to write more with Hunter?
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To order 7 Walkers’ new album, click here.