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Papa Mali

7 Walkers

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Calling an album a classic in the year of its release seems more than a touch premature. But sometimes – if we’re lucky – we arrive at music that throbs with deep, complex vibrations that we recognize right away. Even better is when that music also loosens chakras and animates limbs, warming one from the core outward. These are works that take us years, perhaps lifetimes, to untangle, if we ever do. [amtap amazon:asin=B0043A0Q4I] The self-titled debut from 7 Walkers (released November 2 on Response Records) possesses this layered, long haul vibe, which in some ways comes as little surprise considering the guys behind it. With lyrics by Grateful Dead poet laureate Robert Hunter and a band comprised of drummer extraordinaire Bill Kreutzmann, veteran psychedelic-tinged rocker Papa Mali, bassist George Porter, Jr. of The Meters fame and multi-instrumentalist & longtime Willie Nelson collaborator Matt Hubbard, 7 Walkers oozes lifetimes of experience. Yet the whole enterprise is flecked with the kind of exuberance one usually only finds in very young bands. There’s no missing how absolutely delighted this bunch is to make music together, and the results are swampy, sensual and dappled with sticky folklore and street tales.

We cornered Papa Mali to go track-by-track over 7 Walkers’ debut. Here’s what he had to say.

WYAT Radio/Cane River Waltz
I felt people might need some frame of reference about what Bogalusa is, and I felt people actually from down there would dig a shout-out to the Washington Parish Country Grove. The only way to do that in a humorous fashion was to replicate an old country-Cajun radio station, which there are still a lot of in South Louisiana. They talk to the people in their radio audience as if they were just talking to them in their living room. And “Cane River Waltz” is actually a song I wrote a number of years ago.

Tall Trees of Bogalusa

Sue From Bogalusa
It’s one of the first songs Hunter sent me, and it made me realize this guy’s been to Louisiana [laughs]. Bogalusa is just outside of New Orleans but it’s still out in the country. In fact, some of the best New Orleans records not actually cut in the city were cut at Studio In The Country in Bogalusa, like some of the early Wild Magnolias records. Almost everything on our record has something that ties it to something historical or specific.

King Cotton Blues
This was the first song Hunter sent me, and in my opinion, it’s one of his classic tales. He’s always been a master of writing about the loner, the gambler, the drifter. If you look at a song like “Candyman” or “Loser” and then look at “King Cotton Blues” you can see the connection. It’s a classic Robert Hunter tale of an outsider who’s lost the will to go on, but not really because he’s a tough survivor. As despicable as they are, there’s always something to love about these characters. I thought from the very beginning that if we could only get Willie Nelson on one track it should be this one because he could embody the voice of King Cotton better than anybody. Willie owns a Western town on his property that’s been used in several of the Western movies he’s been in, and we recorded the original demo for “King Cotton Blues” in the saloon. The name of the town is Luck, and the sounds you hear at the end of the song are that saloon. There really were people in there ordering drinks and playing pool.

(For The Love Of) Mr. Okra
Mr. Okra is a real person in New Orleans. He drives a vegetable truck. There’s even an independent film about him. He drives around streets in a truck that’s a piece of folk art with a megaphone mounted on the top, and he sings [Papa’s voice dropping into a gravely sing-song], “I got okra and tomatoes! I got sweet green beans! I got corn and bananas!”

It’s a voodoo love story. It is the true nature of voodoo in that voodoo is a religion practiced by millions of people that has nothing to do with black magic, putting spells on people or sticking pins in dolls. It’s very much like Catholicism since it’s about praying to saints and lighting candles. It’s Robert Hunter’s take on the true meaning of that brand of spirituality is. It’s really a love story about a god and a goddess, a love song for deities.

Louisiana Rain
This song made me realize that not only has Hunter been to Louisiana but he’s spent a lot of time there. He knows where I’m coming from, too. There are so many specific references to places I grew up around. That imagery filled my head and heart as a child, and it still does as an adult even though I don’t live there anymore. There are road and highways in Louisiana that you can drive down that you really have to watch out for alligators crossing the road.

One time at the high school I went to everyone was standing outside when we were supposed to be inside. I asked what was going and it was because of a 12-foot alligator in the foyer. When I got to be an older teenager, I’d hitchhike to concerts or to see friends, and when it rained I’d go to the closest overpass, which often was a bayou cutting through. As I listened to cars passing overhead and the rain failing, I could see turtles, alligators and water moccasins swimming around right where I was. It was such a normal thing for me. Where it might sound scary to someone else, it was beautiful to me.

Someday You’ll See (Prelude)
This is the only song on the record I wrote by myself. I tried to record it several times before this band and never got a take I liked. We tried to record a band take of it while making this record, and while I really liked the band take, I did a more stripped down version of it that I liked better. I’m a big fan of instrumental music in general. I listen to a lot of soundtrack music, especially from the 1960s.

New Orleans Crawl
The first set of lyrics that were sent, we made some changes to. Then, I went back and realized that by doing that I corrupted the song as a whole. Without Hunter ever having to say anything to me, I realized it was better the way he’d written it and went back and changed it. This was the only song I tried to change the lyric on, and the reason was I felt somehow Katrina needed to be addressed because it had such a huge impact on the city. After the Saints won the Super Bowl, I realized that was a big, big step for the city I love – stepping out of one era into another. Hunter writes songs that are timeless. Even if you know they’re about something – like “New Speedway Boogie” is about Altamont – he doesn’t have to come out and say it. I’ve always admired that about his songwriting. When I changed it back I felt I got a nod of kind approval from the man who wrote it.

This is the song where Hunter and I really, really connected. We’d connected before but he really seemed to appreciate what I did with his lyrics. It almost as if I could hear the music in my head the minute I saw the lyrics, touched by the rhythm of the words and the beauty of the imagery. Billy says when he heard the song he thought it was about Mother Earth, and maybe he’s right. But we all know the best songs are best left to the imagination of the listener. In my case, I picked up on the long history of Evangeline in art, mythology and poetry. Doesn’t Longfellow have a poem about Evangeline? It’s a classic heroine, love interest and goddess of beauty. But it’s also a very Southern Louisiana thing. There’s an Evangeline Parish. You can drive down the back roads of Evangeline Parish and there are street signs posted in the trees. I’ve never seen that anywhere else on earth. It’s because the trees grow so close to road that there’s nowhere else to put the signs. This song excites all my senses at once.

Hey Bo Diddle
I’m not really sure where Hunter was coming from with the lyric for this one – I never like to ask him too many specifics – but my interpretation is it’s some sort of tribute to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, the wild sound that came out of the South and headed up towards Chicago. Bo Diddley himself is in there, but also the tall tales that surround every aspect of that music and its legacy – how people felt the first time they heard it and how it sounded coming over the radio. I get visions of Chess Records and old Louisiana and old Chicago, visions of gangsters from New Orleans and Chicago, the 50s and outer space, the atomic scare and The Cold War. I don’t what it is about it that makes that happen in my head.

Airline Highway
There’s a real highway called the Airline Highway that runs from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. Before the interstate was built it was the main way to get from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. It was built by Huey P. Long (who makes an appearance on our album as well), and it was the way bluesmen would travel on their way to Chicago. They would take the Airline Highway to Highway 61 going north. So, there’s a method to the madness that surrounds the record.

Someday You’ll See
A song I wrote a while back. Of all the songs I’ve written, I felt this one fit this record the best in its longing for redemption and spiritual realization.

7 Walkers
We took our band name from this song. It has mystery, spirituality and geography. It has specific places and things but it also has something much more mystical going on as well. On the surface, it’s a guy walking through the French Quarter having a beautiful day, but there’s something much more to it than that. There are spiritual entities watching over and protecting and guiding us. I think it pretty much sums up how all of us in the band relate to life and music.

7 Walkers by Jay Blakesberg

7 Walkers by Jay Blakesberg