Summer Solstice Celebration: Bill Kreutzmann + Chuck Leavell

This week on Sea Change Radio, we celebrate the summer solstice to revel in our planet and talk music as we dig into the archives to revisit our discussions with two legendary rock musicians who also care deeply about environmental causes. First, we listen to our 2011 conversation with Bill Kreutzmann, the drummer for the Grateful Dead, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and an organic farmer in Kauai who’s currently touring with Dead & Company. Then, our 2013 interview with sideman extraordinaire Chuck Leavell who, in addition to playing piano for the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers Band and Eric Clapton is quite passionate about preserving forests.

Narrator 00:01 This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Bill Kreutzmann 00:21 If I can help this beautiful world of ours, this blue green gem floating in space – flying in space, really – any way I can to help it be a better place, then that’s what I want to do.

Narrator 00:58 This week on Sea Change Radio, we celebrate the summer solstice to revel in our planet and talk music as we dig into the archives to revisit our discussions with two legendary rock musicians who also care deeply about environmental causes. First, we listen to our 2011 conversation with Bill Kreutzmann, the drummer for the Grateful Dead, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and an organic farmer in Kauai who’s currently touring with Dead & Company. Then, our 2013 interview with sideman extraordinaire Chuck Leavell who, in addition to playing piano for the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers Band and Eric Clapton is quite passionate about preserving forests.

Alex Wise (AW) 02:24 My guest today on Sea Change Radio is the former drummer of the Grateful Dead, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He lives in Kauai. Bill Kreutzmann. Bill, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Bill Kreutzmann (BK) 2:36 It’s nice to be on the show.

AW 02:38 Great to have you here. When we last spoke you mentioned that you had made a promise to your longtime musical collaborator and friend, Jerry Garcia, to move to Hawaii.  Tell us how you fell in love with the Hawaiian Islands together.

BK 2:50 Well, Jerry and I always had an interest in diving. And we started getting certified when we were making a record in Marin County. There was a dive shop across from where we were recording and we went over there and started taking lessons – pool lessons like the first part of your training. And then we knew people over here. And this is actually Jack’s Dive Locker. I’d like to give a plug. They’re great folks. On the Big Island in Kona and him and I would go there diving all the time and one day we were standing in the back of this dive boat and just made him talking. And we we shook hands and said, OK, when the Grateful Dead ends we’re both going to move over here, and that’s how that all started. It was just from a love of the ocean, it was the same reason I’m so into the ocean today is it started, then started from diving and seeing what it was like.

AW 3:43 Obviously a large part of the Hawaiian economy, all the islands is tourism and vacation homes, but that has an environmental impact as well, doesn’t it, Bill?

BK 3:52 It really does, and the first thing that comes to mind is that when people come over and they and they build a house, they buy a house. But it’s already built. They’re here for two weeks. So they don’t really plug in. To help the neighborhood, they don’t really plug in to what the island needs. They come here for their two weeks or whatever the length of time is, and they have a great time and I’m glad they get to do that, but it doesn’t really help the island, it financially it does, but it doesn’t help. The island at the root level at the most basic level, and that would be to really open up an agricultural base here which we don’t have yet. We have so much land that could be put back into agricultural use in the old days when the whole. Times were here. Some 2000 years ago or more even this whole place was just thriving agricultural land all the way up and down the coast here on Kauai, all around the island. It was just a giant garden and it was totally sustainable because it had to be. They didn’t import anything and they lived quite well and then the English came along. They saw how well the Hawaiians gardened. They took many plants back to England and things like that. But they also made other changes that, and this is what we’re holding onto today and it’s not, I have nothing against the tourism business in in itself, I just wish that the any monies that were gained from that would be put more into environmental practices, not just trying to enlarge the tourism business by putting in a super ferry. The Super ferry could carry, I think up to 200 cars and each time it would dock here. Was allowed to do it once or twice. I believe it downloaded hundreds of cars onto an island that’s already terribly burdened by traffic.

AW 5:41 We don’t think of Hawaii as having traffic, but it does.

BK 5:47 You live here and you’d never say that.

AW 5:47 Let’s dive into life on the road a little bit with the Grateful Dead. I was thinking of the wall of sound where you decided to create one of the largest PA systems the world has ever seen and that was chronicled pretty well in the Grateful Dead Movie, and I think 1974-75 or no, I think it came out later because it took so long to produce, but that obviously was something that wouldn’t be happening today, probably, when you consider sustainability and gas prices. But then I was thinking about it. That was right during the height of the gas crunch was what was were some of the finances that went into that calculus.

BK 6:15 Well, it was during the ‘73 gas crisis, for sure. But that didn’t pose a great problem for us. We didn’t drive all that much that The Wall of Sound was so tremendous it was unwieldy at best. We had a lot of rather angry crew guys having to set that thing up at each concert and it was a great acoustic experiment, but it didn’t resolve it, then it didn’t pay for itself in that way in the sound way, so we never overdid that, so we didn’t actually have to drive it that much.

AW 7:00 So there’s a scene which I just love in the Grateful Dead movie where you say a quote – “I call myself a four-sided schizophrenic because you have to have four separate ideas going and then a single thing here. It’s more than just patting your head and rubbing your stomach because you’re doing it with four things. When you get that down in music and drumming in particular, then you get so you can be dancing and that is really fine because you sit back. There and it feels just like you’re dancing. You’re playing and the groove is just right and the kicks aren’t made. The accents and the rolls they’re not made. They’re just into the flow, and that’s the kind of music I like. So hearing you talk about dancing and drumming like dancing. What’s in your life in Hawaii that most closely replicates that feeling?

BK 7:44 This may surprise you, but it’s gardening. I mean, I jam over here with wonderful musicians, but when I go out and I garden, I actually start moving around the garden like that. We have an organic garden here, of course, and it gives me such pleasure to be working in the air, with the earth and being able to do something right with the earth and be able to have the earth – it talks to me. And if you ask any gardener out there, they’ll say, yeah, the plants talk to you, you know, and it really does. And this is the thing it says. It says “thank you for doing the right thing with me instead of blowing the top off me for to get coal or destroying me by digging these thousand you know mild deep holes in the ocean and the ocean floor to get to oil.” Well, you’re planning something is giving back to me and then I can feed you. So that’s my new line to the foresight, schizophrenic that that line, by the way, was before I really understood what schizophrenia meant. But it just means that you do 4 separate things when you’re playing drums like I’d have, my right hand would be playing with the lead would be playing with Jerry. My foot would be playing with whatever Phil is playing. The backbeat would be me and then the other hand would be with Bobby, so I’d roll it around like that. That’s what I meant by that four-sided schizophrenic. I always kind of regretted saying that a little bit, even though it sounds good when you read it. I can just look at an odd somebody who can do four things.

AW 9:07 I have enough trouble just getting both my hands to move on piano or guitar and so many musicians really have grown up injecting themselves into the Grateful Dead music. I know when I was a teenager, I’d play along with Dead Tapes and I’d figure out a tune or try to fit my guitar sound into a jam and think, hey, you know I could be doing this and it definitely inspired generations of people to go out and play when you play along with recorded music I I assume you still do it to keep your chops up. What other bands could you see yourself playing in?

BK 9:38 Speaker 3 Yeah, the great the Grateful Dead was so all-consuming. You mean you’d never even consider taking six months away from it, but the other bands I wanted to play with, I did play with him, I just didn’t get to play with him physically I I did like you suggested. I would put on earphones. That’s actually how I do warm up today as I sit in my little studio here and one of my favorite bands right now to play to – let’s get it more current – is Dumpstah Funk, which is a New Orleans band. They play some real hard groove stuff, some deep groove stuff with really cool accents and syncopations. And I love following along making myself learn that stuff. You know, not that I’ll ever use it exactly like that. It’s just the idea of being able to play it. Then you have it within you and then you can modify it and you do you change, what you’re hearing into something that has the same feeling, but maybe it’s done differently. This last record I made with 7 Walkers. Papa Mali was listening back to the roughs of the song 7 Walkers and he said “Bill, they’re going to think you’re from New Orleans, but you play it differently, but it still sounds like you’re from New Orleans” – and that was my goal. My goal is that instead of copying an exact part, copy the way it flavors copy the way it feels, and do it that way instead of playing notes. Yeah, but I could imagine playing as a drummer the real thing you’re always listening to is the bass and evolving musically.

AW 10:58 With Phil Lesh as your bassist, comparing it to somebody like a bassist in Dumpstaphunk, I forget who it is, is it Tony Hall or one of the former Neville Brothers bassists?

BK 11:09 There’s two, there’s two. There’s Tony and I’m sorry I missed the other guy’s name.

AW 11:11 Yeah, but they’re both monsters, but they’re totally in the pocket kind of players. It must expand your musical horizons to be able to take a taste of this and the taste of that while your roots are a Phil Lesh.

BK 11:23 Well my first, musical roots are definitely like you’re saying, but we before the Grateful Dead started when I was in even junior high school, I was playing with guys that were 20 years old because I was too young to not go for it as a drummer, right? I didn’t know any better. My dad would drive me in the station. Taking me to gigs at the YMCA or I would play at a Stanford University fraternity, parties and stuff like that. I couldn’t work enough and so that as a kid, I was like that, but then, once the Grateful Dead started it you just, you couldn’t leave it, it was just all there. You know, I was always just a little frustrated and this is on me that I played only in the Grateful Dead during that time period. Those 30 years of Grateful Dead music. I had some other side bands, but not nothing like I’m doing now. See, I didn’t study in the formal sense. I didn’t go to college to study music. I studied by just like you suggested. I would listen to music and make my stuff sound like that and if it until it did sound like that and that’s part of patting your head and rubbing your stomach. That thing is that. I would come across something I really liked, a musical idea, whatever band it was, and I make myself learn that part. So it was so natural I didn’t have to think about it anymore. Or when I really when I finally got it so natural that I wasn’t having to put a mental process to it to make it work. It was just a feeling working. I would memorize that feeling. And that way I could learn to part the best instead of just having it superficially memorized. I would learn it down inside more.

AW And you juxtapose that with your musical brother Mickey Hart, who came from a more traditional marching band tradition, correct?

BK 12:55 Yeah, which I never understood. I used to always kid him about this and say come on play that bass drum a little more you know and he said well I’ve been marching for all these years and we only use our two hands.

(music break)

AW 13:54 This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. Now back to my discussion with Grateful Dead drummer, Bill Kreutzmann. Deadheads have a warm spot in their hearts for certain dates and places, and like if I go up to a deadhead and we, you know, I find out that he likes the Dead I can mention Barton Hall 5-8-77. I can say Fillmore East 4-28-71 or 2-13-70. These are like the famous shows and I assume that they all kind of meld together in your brain. You actually lived it. And played it, but do you ever catch yourself in your garden, sitting back and remembering a few of these dates and say, hey, I remember that 2-13-70 when that would have been 40 years ago since we played Alligator there or Dark Star?

BK 14:34 I don’t have that analytical type of memory and the way I really remember shows is I remember the feeling from them that they really felt good. Or, you know, a lot of cool people came and the band played great. And I just have that good feeling when I’m out in the garden. I’m not really thinking about music particularly. I’m just I don’t know, maybe I just walked naturally in rhythm. How do these memories get thrown back into your brain after living them so many years ago. They they’re not literal memories. They’re not like a reporter going to the gig and saying, OK, this happened, this happened and that happened, right? The memories for me do run together like you suggested and it’s more of a feeling that I get to say “God that decade was really cool, I feel good.” That’s what I remember. I don’t remember any specifics about Jill meeting Jeff or this person meeting that person, or somebody having a baby you don’t is this what you’re talking about? A little bit you get these little feelings that like replicate. What you felt at a in an era? It’s like if I think back this is a real. Straight hard example: I think back to the show at Altamont. We didn’t actually play, but we were standing on the stage when that horrible stuff happened. I get a like a bad taste, almost like ah, I don’t want to talk about that. I don’t want to tell you or anybody about the specifics of what I saw that day. I just put that in “oh, too bad that ever had to happen.” You know, the good shows are quite the opposite. You just have a good feeling in your heart and your gut, though, “that was really fun.” A lot of people had a great time and you felt really good doing it, and that’s how I remember shows. I mean, I remember Woodstock because we were getting a slightly electrocuted by the scaffolding. It wasn’t properly grounded. I remember Watkins Glen when we played to 600,000 people and flying in.

AW 16:25 But the soundcheck of Watkins Glen is what people remember from that show, right?

BK 16:28 Speaker 3 Yes, you’re right, the sound check me and Jerry both agreed that we played better at the soundcheck than we did the gig, you know? But when we flew in the day of the gig, every place. We looked was a person I’ve never seen anything like it.

AW 16:41 Can you differentiate your memories from when you were playing as a duo with Mickey on drums versus when you were back there solo or is that kind of all meshed together?

BK 16:49 No, actually I remember more about playing Mickey than I do when I was playing solo, to tell the truth. He was so influential to me. It was very important to me because he came in like you said earlier, with rudiments, drumming, rudiments and and he said this would be really cool you could play at jams if you learn this stuff. It’ll really add on you might. You could compare to going to Graduate School, and he taught me the rudiments, and we practice and all that and it and it became part of my personality and I started using this in my using these in my plane and it helped immensely and him and I have had some of the most amazing drum sessions and drums and space in the Grateful Dead than I can ever recall. They’re they’re so amazing that I think you’d have to be somebody like Einstein to remember him.

AW 17:38 Well, we have some of them in our hearts as deadheads. I think everyone has their own little favorites and having that archive and having all the tapes there, you really you were like the first open source business model in a lot of ways, which we’re seeing now playing itself out on the Internet. It allowed people to have their own experiences with it instead of it didn’t have to just be what you projected.

BK 18:04 That’s exactly right. That’s why we played music. That you could have many feelings or many opinions about. You know it wasn’t clear cut. All this is good or bad because it’s just for me and the rest of the guys in the Dead. A bouquet of flowers is more interesting than one flower.

AW 18:21 We had John Perry Barlow on the show last year and he was saying how one of the things that he and Hunter wanted to be quite sure about doing was, they didn’t want to be too concrete in the words intentionally, because they already there was already kind of this dogma about the deadheads that was bordering on a religion which they found to be a little troubling. So they wanted to keep it alluring enough, but not didactic, and not, I guess that goes hand in hand with Grateful Dead not making any pure political stands back in when the band was up and running.

BK 19:02 All we knew to back was freedom. We didn’t know any politicians in and if Garcia was still alive, I wish I wish he was, he would not have gone for us supporting any politician, even Obama. He would have fought hand and foot. Not even to do that – that’s all I can tell you.

AW 19:19 So he was the biggest naysayer in the ban from taking political stands.

BK 19:23 Yeah 100% he was. He was a teacher there.

AW 19:26 So it’s good to see that despite Jerry Garcia’s, his own internal struggle, that he had with wanting to use your music for greater issues, I’m glad to see that people like you and Bob and the rest of the band I know, and Phil whenever he plays, he always makes a little speech about organ donations. And I don’t think that would have happened in 1980, but I think it’s important to use your platform as effectively as you can, and you’re not preaching.

BK 19:56 If I can help this beautiful world of ours, this blue green gem floating in space, flying in space, really, any way I can to help it be a better place. Then that’s what I wanna do today.

AW 20:08 Bill Kreutzmann you’ve brought a lot of joy to a lot of people with your music through the years, and it’s been a delight having you on the show, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

BK 20:16 Thank you, Alex. It’s been a pleasure talking with you, my friend.

(Music break)

Alex Wise (AW) 21:19 I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Chuck Leavell. He’s a musician and author and environmentalist. Chuck, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Chuck Leavell (CL) 21:30 Thanks Alex, great to be with you my friend.

AW 21:35 Chuck, you speak about the heritage and stewardship of trees, and there’s really kind of, I think, of a legacy of great sidemen and so many of them have had tragically short endings like Nicky Hopkins, Billy Powell recently died, the pianist from Lynyrd Skynyrd, who has some pretty signature rock sounds. Jim Gordon, who plays that beautiful outro piece in Layla has been in prison for 24 years plus since I, I think he suffered from schizophrenia and killed his mother, if I’m not mistaken. You’ve been able to kind of wend your way through the craziness of the bigger rock bands like the Allman Brothers and Rolling Stones and have been able to keep that heritage alive of the great sidemen. Do you feel some kind of a bond with your brothers of the piano?

CL 22:27 Oh well, sure, I think. You know, I admired all of those players that you mentioned. One name that we didn’t get to that I think we ought to put out there is Billy Preston. All of those guys had a tremendous imprint on rock and roll music. I mean no doubt about it. And yes, I admire all of those guys. I’m very, very honored to be somewhat in that club, at least because I do get to work for a lot of different artists. And so I think of them quite often. I listened to the records that they made and that they were on quite often.

AW 23:03 Was your affinity for that natural piano sound, I’ve noticed just going through all of those all of the different permutations of of bands that you’ve played with one of the real signature threads is there’s not a lot of synthesizers and effects and things like that and the real natural sound kind of musicians. Musicians was your affinity for this natural piano sound? Maybe a preview of your work with trees in the environment Chuck?

CL 23:30 Something, shall we say organic about playing acoustic instruments, you know. And I’m not exclusively acoustic, but I guess you could use the word vintage. I sometimes use Wurlitzer electric piano. Or maybe even a Fender Rhodes or a Hammond B3, which is a famous organ. A lot of rock and roll guys use. There was a point in time when I actually studied up on synthesizers and I wanted to learn about it. I wanted to understand it. I began to play the instruments and use them occasionally and even to help others. Better understand them, but you know Alex, I just kept gravitating back to the acoustic piano. It’s what I love doing. I think it’s one of the most amazing pieces of work that mankind has ever come up with, and so I usually stay with the vintage instruments, and I think maybe there is a connection organically to nature and the outdoors, and to my interest in forests and forestry.

AW 24:30 I also think that your style kind of lends itself to forestry, ’cause planting trees is not a a quick turnover. This requires a lot of patience and foresight, and your musical style is not show-offy and it demonstrates a lot of patience and restraint. How do the two worlds converge for you? Do they do they inform each other?

CL 24:52 I was the youngest of three children and with my father out working and when I was say 5-6 years old, my older brother and sister in school. Oftentimes it was just my mother and I in the house. Mom was not a professional or teacher or anything, but she could play and she played for family enjoyment. And I would ask her to play me something and she would get me up on the stool and show me simple melodies and chords and things and sometimes leave me to my own devices. But she would say things to me and you have to appreciate you know she’s talking to a 6 year old here. “Well, Chuck, what would it sound like if you were mad at your best friend?” or “Chuck, what would it sound like if there was a huge storm outside?” or “Chuck, what would it sound like if you hit a home run?” And so very early on, my mother gave me the idea that music should be about – emotions, about colors about humor, human interaction and not just about notes or notes on a page or just notes on an instrument. It’s all about feeling and those emotions. So I I’ve tried all my life whether I’m playing, you know, a piece of rock and roll with The Rolling Stones, or if I’m playing something with John Mayer or playing something on my own, I try to interpret what that theme of the song might be for me. It’s all about the song. What is the song trying to say lyrically? If there’s something I can do musically to enhance or backup or accentuate what the lyrics are or if it’s a lyrical song, if it’s just an instrumental then you know what is the theme. For me it’s often about playing music from the heart, from emotions from feelings and you know from what the song is trying to do. If the song is called a long solo, fine, you know. Play one if the song is talking about sadness that will then try to reflect that if so, the approach is really to for me to do what the song is asking you to do.

AW 27:05 From reading your writing Chuck, it seems like you’re somebody who really is able to look at both sides of an issue. I imagine that serves you pretty well when you’re working with groups with strong personalities like The Rolling Stones.

CL 27:20 Well, you know, I tell people that if I can mediate between Mick and Keith I probably ought to run for President or something. But you know, yeah, I do feel like it. I think that’s one of the problems that we have with our country right now. Is that there is, uh, you know such a division. There’s such a standoff, and I do long for the days when you had, you know, Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, who were opposite sides of the fence, but they knew how to sit down and get something done. They knew how to compromise. They knew how to work for the greater good. Then just to work for their own part.

AW 27:58 Chuck Leavell, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

CL 28:02 Thank you, Alex.

Narrator 28:16 You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band. Check out our website at to stream or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others, and tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.