Photo by Lori Sky Twohy
7 Walkers is in the process of taking over the world. The powerhouse band, composed of guitarist and singer Papa Mali, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, bassist George Porter Jr. and the versatile multi-instrumentalist Matt Hubbard, has been enjoying exponential growth in popularity as they tour their way around the country.
Working around the band’s sound check at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on August 3, Papa Mali found time to chat on the phone with Jam Bands Online’s Kara Wilbeck.
Jam Bands Online: I want to start by getting a little background on 7 Walkers. How did the band get started?
Papa Mali: Well, the band started when Bill [Kreutzmann] and I met. We met at the Oregon Country Fair about three and a half years ago. We became friends that weekend and started hanging out and talking about playing some music together. Our very first shows together were at the Oregon Country Fair the same weekend we met. The band’s been going really well for the past couple of years.
JBO: So, the Oregon Country Fair is a magical place for your band?
PM: The Oregon Country Fair is amazing. Love it. So cool. We’ve been back and played after that first year too.
JBO: After the initial meeting, how did the band evolve?
PM: When Bill and I met, it was very random and we became quick friends. Things evolved pretty quickly, and before you knew it, we had a band together. Bill introduced me to Robert Hunter, who wrote so many of the Grateful Dead’s classic songs. Soon after that I was able to get George Porter Jr. to join the band, and then completed the lineup. Reed Mathis was our original bassist. He was fantastic as well, but couldn’t commit to being in the band long-term. Getting a legend like George Porter Jr. was great, and suddenly our band had a story. With Robert Hunter and me writing songs, before long, we had a record out. Since then, the band’s been doing great. Tonight we’re playing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s part of the grand opening of a Grateful Dead exhibit that’s going on all year here. It’s a pretty big deal. I’m really excited that we’re a part of it.
JBO: Did the switch from Reed Mathis to George Porter Jr. create a difference in the band’s sound?
PM: They’re both excellent in their own way. They’re both amazing bass players. Me being from New Orleans, I’ve been hanging out with George for years. Reed has is own very innovative style. He recorded our first album with us, but left the band before we really started touring.
JBO: What was it like to work with Robert Hunter? How does the songwriting process work?
PM: He writes the words and then I write the music. I have no idea what it’s going to sound like until I see the words. I put the basic structures together for the music, but everybody contributes. Matt Hubbard is our secret weapon — he’s fantastic.
JBO: What’s the origin of the name 7 Walkers?
PM: It comes from the song called 7 Walkers, one of the first songs Robert Hunter sent us. After we recorded the song, we were listening to the playback and Bill said, “That should be the name of the band.” And we all agreed!
JBO: Is 7 Walkers planning to record any more albums?
JBO: Will you be collaborating with Robert Hunter again?
PM: Yes, I already am.
JBO: Do you find that there’s a certain stigma to being in an “all-star” band?
PM: I don’t think that stigma really affects us. First of all, I’m not really a star. [Author’s note: We feel differently!] It’s not like an all-star band. It’s more like the right group of musicians came together very organically. It’s very natural, and all of us agree that it feels like it was supposed to happen.
JBO: 7 Walkers is starting to be considered part of the Grateful Dead family. How do you feel about that?
PM: It’s great to be even a small tiny part of it. Bill of course is my dear friend and is one of the greatest drummers that ever lived. He’s a very humble guy, and just wants to keep playing music. It’s amazing to be part of that.
JBO: How has the rest of this tour been going for you?
PM: We get to meet lots of interesting people and see lots of interesting places!
JBO: What can we expect from your upcoming shows at Gnarnia and the NW String Summit?
PM: I think we’re all going to be looking forward to great performances. You never know for sure what’s going to be on the setlist until after the show. You can expect a mixture of originals, some Grateful Dead classic tunes, and New Orleans classics as well but a lot of 7 Walkers originals.
JBO: Will you be playing any of your new songs?
PM: We like to keep the new songs under wraps until the record comes out, but we’ll probably have a couple of surprises in there in other forms.
JBO: Can you tell me about your other band?
PM: Yes, I have my own band in New Orleans called Papa Mali’s Double Uptown Shotgun. It’s a little bit different because it’s more rooted in New Orleans. 7 Walkers has some New Orleans as well, but this band is more so. This band has some of my originals and some New Orleans classic tunes. It has a lot of funk and a New Orleans feel to it. Whenever [7 Walkers] takes some time off, that’s what I do, mostly just locally.
JBO: You had a health scare earlier this summer. Is everything alright now?
PM: I’m doing much better, thank you. I appreciate all the support from my fans. I’ve come a long way and I’m very grateful for that.
JBO: Is there anything you’d like to add before we wrap it up?
PM: 7 Walkers seems like we’re really kind of taking off. On the East Coast, our crowds have gotten really big. Last night the crowd was so much bigger than what any of us were expecting. Suddenly it seems like our crowds have tripled overnight — maybe it’s because we played at Gathering of the Vibes. I want to thank all our fans for coming out. Maybe the band’s just starting to hit its stride!