Interview with Bill Kreutzman—BK3 (Egyptian Windmill Operators)
I’ve been pretty lucky in my journalistic career to interview many of my heroes: Timothy Leary, Mickey Hart, Ken Kesey, Robert Anton Wilson, Bob Weir, Paul Kanter, Jorma and the list goes on. But it was a real joy to spend a while chatting with Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead. The focus was on his new band, BK3 (aka Egyptian Windmill Operators) but the ease of the conversation steered us off-course to tales of Hawaii, Obama, and Bette Midler. Like the coolest guy you would ever want to share a brew with, Bill filled the conversation with laughter, positivity and hopeful looks at the future. Eventually I will write a more complete introduction, but in the kindtime, enjoy this transcription of what was one of my favorite talks in a long time----ladies and gentlemen—drumroll please—Bill Kreutzmann!
DNA: Hi, This is DNA calling from Santa Cruz.
BK: DNA. How do you pronounce that?
DNA: You just did my friend. You also spelled it, so you’re ahead of the game.
BK: Right on. How is Santa Cruz treating you?
DNA: Great. I’m looking at the ocean right now, people are playing volleyball, the sea lions are out, the sun is breaking on through.
BK: Right on, right on. You’ve given me the warmest phone call yet. I did two interviews prior to yours and they’re both freezing out there in Boulder. I’m sitting here in 80 degrees Hawaii weather.
DNA: I lived in Maui for several months. What a magical experience.
BK: That’s why I’m here.
DNA: You got yourself an ocean view?
BK: I don’t have an ocean view, but I have a hidden garden which is wear I keep my beautiful flowering plants. That’s my hobby here--growing tropical flowers. Pikaki is used for leis and is the smelliest (that may not be the proper word) in Hawaii.
DNA: Do you still run your organic farm, Grateful Greens?
BK: No, I stopped that. It operated for a while, but then I had to move back to the mainland for several years to do Grateful Dead projects and the farm was loaned out to somebody. But I’m back! I couldn’t stay away. I couldn’t find the happiness in Marin that I find here in Hawaii.
DNA: Next time you have to move to the mainland, try Santa Cruz--it’s not too shabby.
BK: I agree with you. Right now my step-daughter is attending Cabrillo College and then will be transferring the University down there.
DNA: Cabrillo is a great college. There are excellent people that attend there. Ya know, all your archives are stored here in Santa Cruz, at UCSC.
BK: I knew that! I was instrumental in having that happen. UCSC offered us such a deal. They even offered us a room dedicated to the archives. Pretty cool.
DNA: Although I don’t have much knowledge about archival goings-on, I volunteered to help. On my resume I said that I could pick out Jerry Garcia’s underwear out of a pile of laundry. They didn’t respond.
BK: That was a good line though.
DNA: I do stand-up comedy. Sometimes it works--sometimes it fails miserably.
BK: Ah well, that’s life. The thing, DNA, that I really want to talk about is the trio that I have coming your way soon.
DNA: Really exciting man. I’ve seen Oteil Burbridge play with the Aquarium Rescue Unit and besides the Allman Brothers, he’s sat in with God Street Wine. I used to go see Scott Murawski play with Max Creek all the time.
BK: Put me in the mix and you know what the bands like. It’s the best band I’ve played in since the Grateful Dead days.
DNA: I listened to a couple of tracks on your Myspace page. It’s great. Do you see this trio staying together for a while beyond this tour?
BK: I would sure like that. I would like to just keep doing it. As a matter of fact, the three of us just talked yesterday—but we live so far apart. Oteil lives in Alabama and Scott lives up near Providence, Rhode Island and I live in Kauai. So we have a lot of conference calls—it’s the best way to do it. They are all into it--I can tell they are really excited. I think for Oteil, and I don’t think he will mind me saying this—he’s played with the Allman Brothers so much that he has it down in his back pocket—that its fun for him to be in a band where he can be totally open and free. I encourage that with my players. I don’t have rules. I believe in what John Coltrane once said, “Damn the rules.”
DNA: “Damn the rules. It’s the feeling that counts.”
BK: And that’s the same for my trio, or any band I play with. That’s where I coming from. I’m not sitting there thinking the music should do this or do that. I let the music talk to me, rather than imposing my own stuff.
DNA: What a difference to play small clubs where you can see the whole room, as opposed to Madison Square Garden.
BK: I like both you know? But the small club thing actually taught me to hear better. I learned to play softer. I have a jam garage here and it’s the hottest jam garage in the world. Not temperature-wise, it just sounds good. I provide a bass amp and a guitar amp and I have a Noble and Cooley drum set in the back. We’ll play for hours and sometimes the cops will come about 11:30. “That’s enough boys.” They know me by now. They don’t get too pissed off because the music is real good.
DNA: Are you still having trouble naming the band?
BK: It’s the BK3.
DNA: Oh! BK3!!
BK: I didn’t like the word trio, and I have no problem with jazz, but it reminded me of a jazz band. I’d rather be BK3--my initials and 3. That’s the official name. The other name we tried to use but my manager talked me out of it—The Egyptian Windmill Operaters. That’s our name—Egyptian Windmill Operators. It doesn’t have to make sense. Like Aquarium Rescue Unit. She said, “You oughta use your initials.” If you could call us BK3(Egyptian Windmill Operators), I would dig that. See, I’m a little comedian too.
DNA: I always thought you were the funniest guy in the band.
BK: I don’t know how to take that. ( silence followed by laughter)
DNA: You pulled out of being somewhat reclusive from the Dead scene to do this Obama gig. Was it Obama that pulled all of you together?
BK: Well yeah. It was really him. I missed the first show those guys did for him.
DNA: At the Warfield.
BK: Bob wanted me to make it. But I had just flown in from Costa Rico for hours, and the gig was the next day, and it was more than I could do. It went real well for them. Bobby said we could get something together at Penn State and he was like, “Let’s do it.”
I met with Bobby and said, “Well if we’re going to all this trouble to get together for Penn State, let’s get together and do a tour.” And everybody said yes to it. It was kinda my idea, I guess. If you’re going to all this trouble for one gig, why not tour?
DNA: So it’s a show-by-show thing, no future plans, take this tour and see what happens?
BK: Yup. We’re going to practice for 20 days before we hit the road. 20 rehearsal day. Some of those are set-up days. It’s going to different. We don’t want to structure it the way we used to—ya know, four or five years ago—we want to change it up and make it better. I want to talk about that, but I really want to talk about the trio. People who like the Dead will really like BK3.
DNA: You guys play a bunch of Dead tunes.
BK: Not a bunch. We do some really nice covers like “Rhymes” by Al Green, as well as, original songs by both Oteil and Scott. I totally encourage that. Everyone is doing tons of Dead stuff, and it’s a great book to play from, no doubt about it, so that’s being covered. In our band we will certainly do our fair share, but Hunter wrote us 12 original songs. And we’ve played 8 or 10 of them so far. They’re way cool songs.
DNA: How’s Hunter doing?
BK: His writing is incredible. I have a phone call when we are done one to Mickey, and one to Bob. I need to send him a DVD of BK3 from the Culture Room (Ft. Lauderdale, FL.). It will blow his mind. He should be quite happy. If I was him I would be quite happy.
DNA: I look forward to hearing those new tunes played out. Mike Gordon (bass player for Phish) helped curate this band?
BK: We call him the curator. We started over a year ago when Mike invited us down to do a benefit gig down in Costa Rico in a town called Jaco. It’s a surf town about halfway down the coast. The benefit was for the school system and we stayed at Mike’s dad’s house. To cut to the chase, Scott was the guitar player, and about two songs in I knew I had a player on my hands that could go anywhere--we played maybe 5 hours that night, we got really into it. People loved it and we got to give money to the school system, which was the most important thing. The next day I said, “Mike I had a really good time last night, let’s do this more.” He said, “Bill, I’ll do it whenever I can but I’ve got my own band.” I thought to myself what am I going to do, sit at home and audition bass players? I said, “Mike I want somebody who is the best at their instrument and who knows me.” And Mike said, “Lets call Oteil.” Oteil said OK and that’s why we call Mike the curator. We all are having the best time, I just love it!
DNA: Oteil is just a monster bass player, t takes it so many places.
BK: Well they got a drummer who likes to take it many places too. He’s having a lot of fun and Scotts the same way. Scott feels the same way as far as freedom and imagination, he doesn’t play the same thing twice in a row. He takes solos and you think he’s done and he’s only halfway through. He’s building and building and building and doing all these tonal changes and it’s really good music. They trade off all these licks and lines and sides of solos, which is really fun, or they’ll play in unison or harmony parts on the same line and I’m back there laughing. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I know the Deadheads in Santa Cruz, or anyone that loves good electric music will enjoy it. I don’t like to use the word jazz, I like to say free music. It’s not traditional music, if anything it’s close to fusion. Ya know DNA, I love your name, I heard this one track, and I said, “What band is that?” And my girlfriend Amy said, “You nut, that’s you!” She had put on some of the CDs I had lying around the house and I thought I was listening to some fusion band. I was like, “Fuck, that’s us?” That’s’ how happy I am with this band. Onstage they crowd around my bass drum and you have three guys laughing their brains out while their playing. It’s sort of Bluegrassish in this way. We play real close and play tight music.
DNA: You’re kicking off the tour in Santa Cruz, cannot wait! You said that you will rehearse with the Dead for 20 days, will you have anytime to practice with BK3?
BK: We won’t have time. Maybe we’ll get in there that afternoon and play a few songs, but that’s how it goes with the trio, we don’t really need to rehearse. I’m not reallt sure how that sounds to you. . .
DNA: You guys are all consummate professionals. . .
BK: We’ve all played for years. You’re the first interviewer whose known both Scott and Oteil, most people don’t know either, and if anyone gets known it’s Oteil and me. But I’m glad you know Scott, he’s an amazing guitar player. And their voices are great as well and they complement each other. Scott has kinda of a raspy voice and Oteil has kind of a pretty gospel voice, nice contrast of tones.
DNA: I grew up on the East Coast we would go see Max Creek, waiting for the Dead to return. It was cold and we had to stay warm.
BK: I don’t feel like I’m the leader of the band. I like for everyone to be the leader. It’s sorta Obamaish. He said, “I’m your leader, but you all got take a hand in this thing.” That’s how we do it. I don’t tell them what to do, I say, “Here are some ideas, what do you think?”
DNA: Do you have a set list before you start?
BK: We call up a few songs. We have a master list sitting out there and think which key might fit with the next song, tempo or feeling. We don’t have to have a set list at all. One night I got up there at Toads in Connecticut and played a 1/2 hour drum solo before those guys came out and joined me. I brought down a good hard beat and started jamming on the beat and made up another song and played it for an hour and a 1/2 and then started a song off the list. We went into Eyes of the World—it was the biggest meltdown! It’s great to see the audience having that much fun—very reminiscent. Now that Obama is president, I feel better.
DNA: The world is just as crazy, but it’s nice to have a guy at the helm that you don’t hate.
BK: I was in Washington for the inaugeration to play with the band. I was watching television in my hotel room—there was two million people a 1/2 a mile away, I decided, well, my hotel room is safe—so I was watching the swearing in on TV. There’s the old tradition of the president getting in the helicopter and flying away—and I heard a helicopter outside my window, I grabbed Amy and we went to the window and it was Bush flying away—so we gave him a big wave. Good riddance, man.
DNA: 8 years of lunacy.
BK: It felt much longer than 8 years.
DNA: Well there was his Dad as well. I just heard they’re talking about Jeb in 2012. It’s way to early to hear stuff like that. Too soon, too soon.
BK: How about Palin?
DNA: Drill Baby Drill.
BK: Let’s shoot wolves from helicopters.
DNA: She gave a lot of fodder to comedians.
BK: Didn’t do her any good. When McCain chose her I thought he did it because he didn’t really want to be president. I doubt that was his thought but it appeared that way.
DNA: He couldn’t have made a goofier choice.
BK: I know. Thank god.
DNA: Had a question about Hawaii. You guys passed the Lowest Law Enforcement Priority of Cannabis Ordinance, but your police chief recently said that, “anyone who is pro-marijuana is automatically pro-terrorist.”
BK: Blame it on being slow-minded and uninformed. Hawaii is very backward when it comes to things that are fun like marijuana and dancing. The caberet laws are in effect. There are no places on this island where you can go and dance. You can go out and sit-down, but you can’t dance. There has been a ton of corruption politically and it’s the good-old-boy syndrome—which is another word for gangster. The way I deal with it is by living my life in the best way, trying to be an example to other people. There was a guy here, Andrew Kluger, who built a dam that broke 2.5 years ago and killed several people. . .
. . .and the corruption goes all the way up to the Governor. They never inspected the dams, they knew one was leaking and it finally broke. It was 400 million gallons of water, it carved a miniature Grand Canyon—took out the property across from me, which is Better Midlers property. I got the least damage from it, but I lost all my Ag water, so I couldn’t water all my beautiful flowers, and they died. The city water has too much chlorine in it and it’s also very expensive. What I’m saying is that for such a beautiful place it’s amazingly backward.
DNA: To go indirectly back to the Dead for a second. I lived in Maui but realized that to fight the good fight and make a difference I needed to move back to Turtle Island. And I gotta say that it was through touring with you guys for 500 shows that I realized it was through being an activist and community action that you could really help those around you.
BK: You’ve got a good heart. I’ll tell ya, the cops here are just really mean, unduly mean. They take pride in being bullies.
DNA: Well play it safe with that garage of yours.
BK: I don’t do anything that they could get too down on me for. Last Friday night it was a lady cop that came to shut us down. She was very polite and she said, “Wow, that sounds really good, but it’s 11:30 and we’ve been getting complaints.”
DNA: Was it Bette Midler that called the cops?
BK: No..no..Just saying that Hawaii is Obama land, but their policies are not like Obama.
DNA: Corruption runs deep. Look at Blagojevich.
BK: I cannot believe that he is still in the news.
DNA: Hey you screw up at work really bad and it takes balls to keep showing up.
BK: Yup. After the inauguration we played that night. The next night, thanks to Mickey Hart, I got invited to a Power Party. Nancy Pelosi was there, Barbara Boxer was there, Harry Reid was there, Diane Feinstein was there—all the heavys. That asked us a lot of questions and I always promote Green. I pleaded to build solar panel factories, obvious stuff. Let’s take all those Mercedes store in Long Beach that cannot be sold and put electric motors in those son-of-bitches. I was running all this stuff down and the vibe was really optimistic. Those folks didn’t like working for Bush and there was joy I the air and that made me feel better about our country. I wasn’t too happy with Bush and I know you haven’t.
DNA: It’s hip to talk Green, but when is somebody going to thank the hippies for thinking of it all.
BK: we never get thanked, but as long as they take action that will be enough.
DNA: Thanks a lot for the talk Bill. If you ever need a stand-up comedian to open for you guys. . .
BK: You can call me every morning to make me laugh.
DNA: It’s on. Expect a call tomorrow at 6am.
BK: Come find me in Santa Cruz I have a story about John Belushi I want to tell you.
BK: How did you get the name DNA?
DNA: In 1990 I was backstage for a Showtime comedy contest. I was backstage, high on acid, freaking out that I didn’t have anything funny to say. And then I remembered that my initials were DNA—which is funny.
DNA: One last thing. The only interaction we ever had in the past. . .
BK: Uh oh.
DNA: In 1986 I was at a Bill Graham private party at the Fillmore. John Lee Hooker was there, Huey Lewis, The Charlatans were playing onstage, it was insane. Everyone knew each other, except for me. I was like an orphan at a family reunion.
DNA: I was standing next to the dance floor, where a bunch of high-class ladies were shaking it. And you pushed me into the dance floor and said, “Get in there and dance young man!”
BK: Great story, I’m not usually that pushy!
DNA: Alright, see you in Santa Cruz. Aloha.