Catching Up With…

Bill Kreutzmann

Fifty years after the birth of the Grateful Dead, the band’s founding drummer reflects on a long career. Then, after one last big fling with his old group, it’s back to business as usual: “playing a lot and loving it.”

When MD caught up with Bill Kreutzmann to discuss his 2015 book, Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs With the Grateful Dead, the drummer was in New Orleans to play a couple of gigs during JazzFest. But the jam-happy Kreutzmann couldn’t help adding stops to his itinerary. First he blew the minds of an unsuspecting young band that was playing the Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” in the empty backroom of a bar, by jumping in on the tune and only later revealing his identity. And then, the night before our interview, he played half an hour of double drums with Adam Deitch during a set by the Fantastic Four at the Blue Nile. Bill’s summation: “I’m just down here doing what I know how to do: play drums as much as possible.”

Deal, cowritten with Benjy Eisen, took the better part of three years to complete. “It was a great experience,” Kreutzmann says. “I used to sit around the campfire, so to speak, with friends; I’d get in a good mood and start telling these stories, just on down the line, and people would say, ‘Hey, you should write a book.’ And so I did. Basically Benjy took a timeline from ’65, which is the inception of the Grateful Dead, and went all the way up to now. The last three words are ‘To be continued.’” The book contains honest reflections on Kreutzmann’s bandmates, along with copious touring anecdotes, including an evocative recap of the Dead’s 1978 trip to perform near the Great Pyramids in Egypt—with Bill revealing that he played those shows with a broken left wrist.

Kreutzmann traces the evolution of the Dead’s psychedelic jamming style, inspired in part by John Coltrane’s jazz explorations. (“I remember when I listened to Elvin [Jones] for the first time,” he writes. “I thought, This is legal? You can do that?”) He also discusses teaming with Mickey Hart in one of rock’s most famous drumset duos. Kreutzmann, who preceded Hart in the Dead and was the sole drummer during Hart’s early-’70s hiatus, admits in the book that he wasn’t sure he wanted Mickey to return after his break (“I enjoyed being the only drummer and I didn’t want that to change”). Ultimately, though, Kreutzmann acknowledges all he’s learned from his mate over the years and shows a genuine appreciation for their partnership.

When we ask if Kreutzmann has any double-drumming tips, he says, “It’s kind of not worth having two drummers if you play the exact same part. If you mimic one another, which is hard to do, it’s hard to lock together. Mickey has an uncanny
way of locking up with me. You have to really listen to the other drummer and make it feel good. Ideally, if he’s playing a backbeat on the snare, try to play something that complements that, instead of having two snare drums that flam unintentionally. Flams on the 2 and 4 never sound that great anyway.”

At the time of our interview, Kreutzmann, who’s been active in several bands of late, including his new group Billy & the Kids, was looking forward to the Grateful Dead’s fiftieth-anniversary reunion shows, touted as the last hurrah for the surviving members. “It’s exciting to be able to play again with everybody,” he says. “I’m having a great time—my playing is really good right now, so it’ll be fun to go in and play.” Michael Parillo