You can call him Papa Mali (a name bestowed upon him years ago by none other than Burning Spear) or you can call him Malcolm Welbourne (that’s what they wrote on his birth certificate in Vicksburg, MS 53 years ago). Either way, you’re talking about the same blonde-dreadlocked guitar-slinging hoodoo-voodoo master whose music manages to embrace sounds from all over the world, rolled in Louisiana swamp mud and braised in blues sauce.
Combine that chunk of the funky universe with the multi-instrumental talents of Austin’s own Matt Hubbard, the legendary groove of George Porter Jr., and the rhythm devil himself – Bill Kreutzmann … is your head spinning yet? This isn’t some fantasy dream band, boys and girls – this is the real thing: 7 Walkers have arrived.
Their self-titled debut effort hits the streets in early November – and if the aforementioned lineup wasn’t enough to numb you up solid, then consider the fact that Robert Hunter himself lent his lyrical talents to the album. (And there’s also a vocal contribution by Matt’s good friend Willie Nelson.) The vibe ranges from bayou gators in the rain to dancing ‘round the campfire in the deep jungle and back; this is a band that’s as equally at home with surf guitar as it is with talking drums.
We had the pleasure of a dose of Papa Mali’s time recently, covering everything from the Pipes of Pan to the guitar of Hubert Sumlin. Even though the man was a couple thousand miles away at home in Austin, TX, his “mystic spirituality” comes through the phone lines. Given enough time in his company, your bones will hum.
BR: The first step on the journey of 7 Walkers was when you and Bill Kreuztmann crossed paths. How did that come about?
PM: Billy’s girlfriend Aimee has been a fan of mine for a while and has a couple of my records. I guess she’d been telling Billy about me. When they saw I was playing a festival in Oregon that they were already scheduled to be at themselves … next thing I know, he’s backstage and we’re talking it up like we’re old friends. It’s really funny, because I didn’t even recognize him at first. (laughter)
BR: That’s cool …
PM: Oh, yeah – he was just this friendly guy backstage. We hit it off immediately; it was just one of those times when you meet somebody and you know you want to be friends with them, man. He was wearing a hat with a Grateful Dead logo on it, but –
BR: So were half the other people at the festival, right?
PM: Exactly! (laughter) But when he said his name was Billy, then I kind of put it all together: “Oh, man … how’re you doing?” (laughter)
BR: You and Matt have been friends for a while, haven’t you?
PM: Yeah, we both live here in Austin. Matt’s been working a lot with Willie Nelson over the past 12 years or so – he’s also a great sound engineer. I’ve seen him with other bands and always like the way he plays, you know? I heard he was back here doing some work and I got back in touch with him about getting together to do some projects.
BR: Had the two of you played together in the past?
PM: Only casually – not on any serious projects.
BR: He can do just about anything, can’t he?
PM: Oh, man – it’s really great to have somebody who can cover that many bases. It was so much easier making the record with Matt; we would’ve had to bring in a lot more people to do all the stuff he did with his multi-instrumental skills. I’ve done production work in the past, so I produced the record, but his engineering skills really helped flesh out the sound of the record.
BR: I know Reed Mathis is on bass for everything except “Chingo!” – that’s where we hear George Porter Jr. for the first time. Was “Chingo!” the last thing you cut for the album?
PM: Yes, it was. We did all the main tracks for the rest of the album last year in about a week’s time with Reed, Matt, Billy, and I in Matt’s studio. Matt and I were going to do the post-production ourselves, but with our touring schedules, we really didn’t get a chance to work on it until the first of this year. In the meantime, Reed had commitments with the other bands he works with and George just happened to have a window open. He was very interested in being a part of what we were doing – and, of course, we were thrilled to have him step in. I’ve known George for years and he’s always been one of my favorite bass players. By April, he’d pretty much taken over the bass role in the band. At that point, we were all out in San Francisco and had the opportunity to go into the studio with George – that’s when we recorded the basic tracks for “Chingo!”. Then we finished it at the studio in Austin.
BR: How did the band’s sound change going from Reed to George? As we all know, Reed’s a hell of a player …
PM: Oh, he’s fantastic, man. With George, I guess it’s the maturity – he’s an innovator, you know? He’s a founding father of the New Orleans funk sound. Having somebody like that along with Billy – who’s an innovator himself – is something else. They’re both American originals.
BR: Geez – you wouldn’t call yourself an American original? There ain’t nobody quite like you.
PM: (laughs) Thanks, brah, I appreciate that – but when it comes to an overview of musical history, those two names really stand out. Founding fathers of the Meters and the Grateful Dead in a band together? I’d want to check that out if I wasn’t playing with them! (laughter)
Really, though – it’s amazing to watch the chemistry between George and Billy, man. It’s just excellent.