The following interview originally appeared in the magazine Duprees Diamond News, issue #36
 

 

Drumming At The Edge of Jerry:
An Interview with David Kemper

by

Barry Smolin

 

         There is an expression of bemused serenity on David Kemper’s face as he leans his elbows on the porch wall outside his West Hollywood duplex, surveying the temperate weather and anticipating an imminent mail delivery. ‘Royalty checks arrive today. This’ll be my first since Jerry died,’ says Kemper sadly though with an admitted tinge of curiosity over what his friend’s passing has meant for sales.
         Known to Deadheads as the stalwart drummer of the Jerry Garcia Band from 1983-1993, Kemper possesses a gentle equanimity that informs both his drumming and his conversation. Joining the Jerry Garcia Band in 1983 provided a rare stability in the life of the usually itinerant session player. ‘Those were 10 good years,’ he sighs with a kind of nostalgic ambivalence toward his association with JGB, a tenure that ended abruptly and to Kemper’s great puzzlement. ‘I’m still not really sure why they let mes go,’ he explains. Though there are traces of bitterness buried in his wry sanguine remembrances, Kemper is basically resigned to the mystery and considers the long stint a mostly happy experience. Instead of torturing himself with the painful inconclusiveness of it all, he chooses to spend his energy on more positive memories of his relationship with Jerry Garcia.   While on tour, Kemper and Garcia shared an intimacy nourished by a combination of devout love for music and a common fascination with the creation of visual art. In addition to being one of pop music’s most successful session-players, Kemper is also a prolific artist who has sold more than 70 paintings in the last 15 years. Perhaps it is this multifaceted creative reach that allowed Kemper to enjoy a decade-long kinship with the similarly versatile leader of the Jerry Garcia Band.
         David Kemper was born in Chicago, but his father’s work for Boeing required the family to move often while David was growing up. Attending Junior High and High School in Ogden, Utah, Kemper learned, during his senior year, that his father had been transferred to Sedalia, Missouri. ‘I told them I simply couldn’t go,’ Kemper says, ‘I was playing in a band called The Groobies; we were winning all the battles of the bands, and I just couldn’t give that up.’ Incredibly, Kemper’s parents were sympathetic to his plight and arranged for him to stay in Utah with a family friend while they moved to Missouri. Kemper was not yet eighteen years old.
         This seriousness of intent was born early in Kemper, who took up drumming at age seven and was always the best player in the school orchestra. He claims to have never approached school as a means of inventing something to fall back on: ‘I just didn’t think of falling back. Music was the only thing I did. That was it. Period,’ he insists. Indeed, Kemper didn’t panic about his career choice until his draft notice arrived in 1966.
         Appearing at his pre-induction physical in Salt Lake City with a folder full of doctor’s notes calling him unfit for military service due to chronic migraine headaches, Kemper was devastated when he was classified 1A. Desperately, Kemper chose Butte, Montana as the location for his final induction procedures. ‘I figured if things got funky, I’d split across the border,’ he smirks.
        When he arrived at the induction center, he was struck by the weirdness of the people. ‘One guy had Peace and Love written all over his body. Another guy had a little duck on a string, and it would follow him around. It was all pretty hip for Montana, actually,’ he recalls. Purposely disobeying every order, Kemper was sent to the center’s resident psychiatrist, where, in a scene right out of Alice’s Restaurant, he crawled onto the doctor’s desk screaming about dreams he’d been having of hanging himself with a khaki necktie. ‘I didn’t even own a khaki necktie, much less know how to tie one!’ relates Kemper, who eventually acquired a letter from a sympathetic doctor deeming him unfit for combat. Kemper was classified 4F and was never drafted.
        A revelatory bus ride home to Ogden, during which he realized his good fortune, cemented his purpose with remarkable clarity. ‘It all lay before me, no more detours. I was very certain about what I wanted to do,’ he muses. In fact, upon his return to Ogden, Kemper received a letter from an old acquaintance who had moved to Los Angeles to build a recording studio. ‘I think you ought to move to L.A. and become a session player,’ the letter encouraged. Kemper’s first response was, ‘What’s a session player?’
        His ignorance dissipated quickly once he moved to Los Angeles in 1966, helping his friend build the studio (Independent Recorders, which still stands on the corner of Colfax and Ventura in the San Fernando Valley), and starting to record demos for ten dollars a tune, as well as cleaning up the coffee cups and wrapping the cables. He was also privileged to watch and learn from other drummers who came to play on records there’drumming legends like Hal Blaine, Jim Gordon, John Guerin, and Jim Keltner.
         Although aware of the psychedelic scene emanating from San Francisco at the time, Kemper was more interested in British Invasion-style pop music, ‘stuff with a beginning middle and end, you know, stuff with some conciseness,’ he explains. His aesthetic sensibility, however, was not so rigid as to prevent his being bowled over by Cream’s work; and Jimi Hendrix’s first album seemed, to him, ‘a complete change in the way people think about pop music.’
         His first Grateful Dead experience took place in 1968, as he describes it, a magical night: ‘Owsley Stanley came up to me with an eyedropper and said, ‘Let me lubricate your mind.’ He plopped something in my drink, and I wandered around for awhile until the Grateful Dead came on to play. You know, I watched them, and I kind of liked their improvisation, the concept of it anyway, but I felt that they lumbered along. They weren’t agile. I’d been watching cats like Miles Davis, folks who really had flexibility, and the Dead were like a big clunky old machine. Boy, they got the ball rolling, though, and it was just like a locomotive.’
         The ‘70s were a series of highlights for Kemper. Sandwiched between prodigious amounts of session work on albums such as Joan Armatrading’s Show Some Emotion and T.Bone Burnett’s Truth Decay were tours with The John Stewart Band, the Dutch group Focus, The Average White Band, and Peter Frampton.
         In the four years since his departure from JGB, Kemper has maintined a frenetic schedule of session work, for Phil Spector and others, and has just signed on as the drummer in Bob Dylan’s band. Given the large Dylan/Dead crossover audience, there will be many Grateful Dead fans thrilled to see the familiar presence of Kemper sitting in at the drums during the upcoming Dylan tour.
         In addition to his music, Kemper has also devoted much of his recent time to painting. His work has been on display in the revered L.A. hipster hangout Genghis Cohen for the past decade and sells extremely well. He is slated for a one man exhibition in Germany during the summer of ‘96.
         Aesthetically, Kemper finds the two art forms, drumming and painting, so distinctly different that he has no trouble keeping these creative outlets separate. When drumming, one is working with an existing entity’the tune’and the process is one of embellishment, Kemper explains, whereas, ‘in the art world, there’s nobody but you, creating out of the void. I feel at times like an archaeologist, only one who doesn’t know what he’s looking for!’
         Although his is a career brimming over with memorable highlights, including his current gig with Bob Dylan, it is Kemper’s decade with the Jerry Garcia Band that remains his most prolonged and intriguing endeavor and about which he seems to have the most to say. Sitting in his living room on a sunny day in Los Angeles, his wife Norma at work and his daughter Chloe at school, we spoke of those fulfilling years.

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BS: How did your association with the Jerry Band come about?

DK: Well, in 1983 I got a call from John Kahn asking me if I wanted to join the Jerry Garcia Band. I didn’t really know he had a band. I said, ‘Jerry of the Dead?’ Kahn, answered, ‘Yeah, would you like to be a member of his band?’

BS: Do you have any idea how your name came up?

DK: Yeah, I found out later that John had called a producer in town and asked, ‘Who’s happening?’,  and the producer mentioned my name. And I was working a lot. I was really busy. So John just called sight unseen, or ‘sound unheard’ I should say,  and invited me up to Front Street, the place, you know. I met everybody, and we played and everybody smiled and said ‘We like it,’ and they asked me what I thought and I said I liked it. Though inside I thought to myself,  ‘This is the strangest bunch of people I’ve ever been around!’

BS: What was Jerry like that first time you met him?

DK: I liked him immediately. He was funny. There was no pretense. He was just real, just a real guy. We got along great right away. He was really warm. Everybody greeted me very warmly, actually. I was nervous when I first walked in there mainly because of the intimidation from the roadies, you know. Those are some pretty big biker dudes. And I’m of slight build. Macho is not a part of me; I wish it were, but it’s not. And here were these guys that majored in macho.

BS: Did anything strike you immediately about Jerry’s relationship with music?

DK: I just liked the way he played. He had confidence. He was not afraid to explore. Also I realized you could challenge him, and you’d better know what you were challenging, too, like if you wanted to double the tempo or go somewhere with the rhythm, you’d better have been prepared for him to push back because that’s just what he’d do. I enjoyed that about him right off.

BS: How were the arrangements worked out? Were you told what to play? Was anybody ‘in charge?’

DK: I was never told anything. and for a while it bothered me because for a long time I felt the band never matured. I never felt we really got it right. Never. Not in ten years. And I felt that if we’d discussed some of these things maybe that would’ve helped. Instead, we’d just get together and play and talk. Unfortunately, when we talked, we would talk about everything but the music. It was unusual, you know. It was just all unsaid. There were a lot of things I wished someone would’ve said something about. A lot of things I felt just never worked. I feel we never extracted the potential from the tunes given the talent that we had.

BS: Was it because JGB was kind of a sideline for Jerry?

DK: I don’t think Jerry was the problem. Well, maybe in the sense that he’d never bust people’s chops when it became necessary, like when rhythms were off or particular parts were uninspired.

BS: Would Jerry ever tell you he liked what you were doing?

DK: Sometimes after shows we would ride back in the car together, and he would say, ‘Wow, great show.’ That’s about it.

BS: Who usually introduced new songs into the repertoire?

DK: Mainly John Kahn would. But it was open to everybody. Mainly John, though. He and Jerry would get together and decide. And John would make a tape of it and learn the chord changes and then show us sort of what we were going to do with it.

BS: Did it ever bother you that almost every song was the same tempo?

DK: Yeah, it bothered me from the very beginning. I’d say, ‘You know we need some uptempo material, it’s just putting me to sleep; the band is putting me to sleep.’ At first I’d say these things, and then I just decided to go with it. It is what it is, and who was I to say anything? This band preceded me; the whole concept of the band preceded me. Plus I didn’t bring a lot of tunes in. Towards the end I tried.

BS: What did you bring in?

DK: I brought ‘The Maker’ in, the Daniel Lanois tune.

BS: You mentioned before that you’d talk about everything but the music at rehearsals. That’s intriguing. Describe those sessions.

DK: Well, I would fly up for rehearsals, get there, we’d talk for an hour, then we’d plug in and play for ten minutes and Jerry would say, ‘Oh, man, what a workout! Let’s take a break.’ Then we would talk for another hour!
 
BS: What would you talk about?

DK: Oh, everything! The thing about Jerry is he was a brilliant mind. He remembered things, and he read a lot, and he loved to talk about what he’d been reading. We would talk about nanotechnology or psychology or how to build a log home or about motorcycles, just everything. Jerry was interested in the most diverse stuff. You could pick any subject, and I guarantee he knew more about it than you did. He was just that kind of mind.

BS: You had said to me when we spoke previously that Jerry was both the smartest and the dumbest man you’d ever met. What did you mean by that?

DK: Well, here’s an example: See, Jerry was into snakes before I met him, and for a while he was carrying around this bottle of snake essence. One day, he wondered what it would taste like. So he drank it, right from the bottle! Right away, he said it was the most horrible thing he’d ever tasted and consequently he had the taste in his mouth for, like, two months after. Well, you know, you’ve got to realize if you’re going to drink essence of snake it’s going to taste pretty terrible, and it’s not going to want to leave your mouth real soon.

BS: What else?

DK: He’d send money to Gene Scott, you know the televangelist guy with the white hair. I could never understand that attraction!

BS: Maybe it was the white hair and beard.

DK: Whatever. It just struck me as kind of dumb. On the other hand, I think what Jerry admired about Gene Scott was his intelligence, his theorizing, etc. There’s that combination of smart and dumb again.

BS: Tell me more.

DK: Let’s see. Oh, here’s one. One day he took his car in for servicing. and the mechanic called and asked Steve Parish to come in and pick the car up immediately, that there was a problem. So Steve Parish went down there and asked what the problem was. The mechanic said, ‘Look under the seat.’ He looked under the seat and there was money shoved under there, like major money. Now, for all our gigs in the beginning we got paid cash, and there were, like, ten thousand dollar checks, sums of that proportion, stuffed into his glove compartment and in other spots in the car. He would just take the gig money and shove it under his seat!  And, of course, if you’re making a million dollars, then ten thousand dollars doesn’t mean much I guess. It’s like me or you leaving quarters in our car for the parking meter.

BS: Anything further that you remember?

DK: The occasional setting furniture on fire, in hotels. I mean, you do it once, OK. But on one tour, the one with Rock Scully, almost every hotel we’d stay in we’d never stay in again. He’d light the furniture on fire. He’d just nod out with a lit cigarette in his hand.

BS: Since we’ve begun discussing the road tours, let’s talk about the shows themselves. How much improvisation went on during the performances?

DK: There was always the understanding that any time you wanted to open up any tune you could.

BS: Would you make the call sometimes?

DK: Sure. The thing about playing with Jerry was that anytime I wanted to stop playing and lay out and the band would also lay out, Jerry would just make clouds, just float. He would never panic about someone making a decision; he was always open to everything. The band was supposed to be like an amoeba: you could push on one side and it would be felt on the other side. On the other hand,  there would be some tunes that we’d always play the same. The solos were never the same, of course, and the tempos were always slightly different because Jerry would count the tempos off, and he would vary them. He would say, ‘OK, we’re gonna play ‘Don’t Let Go,’’ for example, and his amp would be off, and he’d strum his guitar and look at me and count it off’one, two, three, four’and in that count off he’d also define the rhythm. Some songs would have a straight eight beat one night, and the next night, just by how he felt it, the tune would have a shuffle beat and, to be honest,  he wouldn’t even really realize that he made it a shuffle. It was just how he’d happened to feel it that night.

BS: So Jerry’s mood would determine the feel of the song or the show?

DK: Oh, absolutely. You could sense how he was feeling it that night by the way he was counting the songs off.

BS: Would you know the setlist ahead of time?

DK: When we’d get to the venue, like if we had an eight o’clock show, we’d get there at four, we’d eat, and then we’d have three hours of joking around, which was always the greatest, the best part, because you knew you were going to go out and play and that it was ‘us against the world.’ There’d be special nights when Bill Graham would be there, and it would be the most entertaining three hours of your life, to watch Bill Graham and Jerry Garcia go after each other.

BS: What kinds of stuff would they do?

DK: They’d talk about old times. They would get in fights over how to make an egg cream. Jerry would bust Bill’s chops and say’God, I can hear him now, that nasal voice’’You know, Bill there’s no egg in an egg cream. What’s up with that?’ And Steve Parish too is a very funny man. You get Steve and Jerry and Bill together in a room and your sides would ache. Well, anyway, while we’d be hanging and joking, Jerry would write a setlist out for that night. We’d leave him alone for a while, and he’d get together the nine songs for the first half and the nine for the second half and then pass the paper off to someone to copy down for the rest of us. Just before we’d go on I’d look at the setlist ‘or I wouldn’t. It depended. We played frequently enough that I didn’t forget the tunes. It was always a challenge to try to make the band fly. There was always this feeling in my mind, ‘It ain’t happening, it’s just not happening.’

BS: There were never nights when you thought the band played extremely well?

DK: I mean, I always had fun. But I was also always comforted by the thought that it was going to be judged by Deadheads and not by people who were ‘outside the family’ because I felt in that light it didn’t hold up. Within the Grateful Dead/Jerry experience it worked. I mean, I’d see them rocking out, way in the back of the auditorium, these silhouettes just rocking away, and I’d think ‘my god 17,000 people rocking out, even way in the back,’ so something must have been happening right!  And please don’t get me wrong, for all of our weaknesses as a band, we had some great nights! We had some really  great nights.

BS: Was knowing that Deadheads comprised the bulk of the audience a comfort or was it more limiting? Did it prevent the band from becoming more or better?

DK: The band tried real hard. No one just took a free ride. It was hard work playing in that band.

BS: But you must have had an awareness of the Grateful Dead scene that surrounded everything Jerry did.

DK: Oh, yeah. It always seemed to me that wherever we went it was the same crowd. I’d look out and see the same faces in different cities, and that was kind of weird. That doesn’t happen with other bands! I was aware of all that.

BS: Did he ever talk about being regarded as some kind of deity?

DK: He’d talk about that occasionally. Early on I asked him, ‘Why don’t you talk on stage?’ And he said, ‘Because they take everything I say too seriously, too literally.’ Fans would ask him, ‘Hey, Jerry, how’s everything?’ His stock answer was, ‘I don’t know, I haven’t tried everything.’ Then the fans would say to each other, ‘He hasn’t tried everything, hmm, maybe that means we’re supposed to try everything . . .’ You see, everything was perceived as gospel, scripture, and that bothered him. Plus, he was very self-conscious about his words. He didn’t write the lyrics to his tunes. ‘I don’t have anything to say,’ he’d tell me. Yeah, right. Here’s this man who’s got more opinions, is more articulate, can answer more questions more intelligently than anybody I’d ever met in my life, and he felt he had nothing to say!

BS: Your current gig with Bob Dylan, I understand, grew out of Dylan’s interest in JGB music produced during the decade that you were the drummer. Other than that, did the insularity of the Grateful Dead scene have an effect on your career? Say in terms of getting other work?

DK: It’s funny, you know, for most of my career projects led to other projects. The engineer on one album would mention me to someone on some other album. Word of mouth would get me jobs. The JGB led to nothing. It was real strange. Not that I expected great things to come from it, but nothing at all came from it, and that was weird. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the insularity you were talking about. I think I just dismissed it. Either the work I did in that band was not high quality or else the band had no relevance outside the Grateful Dead ‘experience.’ I really can’t think of any band or project that my work in JGB led to, other than this Dylan gig four years later. And you know, a lot of people, musician friends, would ask me what I was doing, and I’d tell them I was in the Jerry Garcia Band, and they’d ask, ‘Garcia from the Grateful Dead? I didn’t know he had a band.’ I was like that myself before John Kahn called me. It’s really more insular than I had realized. These were actively working musicians who didn’t know Jerry had a band separate from the Grateful Dead. And they’d see me flying up to San Francisco to go on tour with the JGB, and I don’t know what they’d be thinking in their minds, but clearly they had no idea that we’d go out and play for 17,000 people at a time. I’d tell them this, and they’d be very surprised. Yet within the Grateful Dead community, the information was enormous, more avid than anything I’d seen. The grapevine was unbelievable; the instantaneous communication just boggled the mind.

BS: And in addition to the insularity of the band, I also detect in your analysis a sense of stagnation in the music, an implication that it never evolved.

DK: I don’t think it did evolve. I don’t think we got any better over the years. We were what we were. Always. I think the band could have been a lot better, the music could have been a lot better, and, in their position, I think the people closest to him could have influenced Jerry in a more positive way. Jerry was surrounded by a lot of temptation that didn’t have to be there had certain folks been more conscious of his weakness. But I could be wrong. When you’re that successful, and you can surround yourself with anybody you want to, and if you have that much money and influence . . . well, hell, Jerry did what he wanted to do. That’s one of the things we admire about him, right? Live your life the way you want to live it. And if you want to dress funny or wear the weirdest looking shoes, wear ‘em, and those corduroy pants and the black t-shirt with a burn in it and dandruff from his beard. Like for four days he’d wear the same thing. I could never quite understand it. But it was Jerry.

BS: He did what he wanted to do.

DK: That he did.

BS: Do you want to talk at all about the end of your tenure with JGB?

DK: Sure, yeah.

BS: What happened?

DK: You tell ME!

BS: Nobody ever told you why? That’s been a big question: what happened to David Kemper?

DK: That’s been my big question too. We did that tour in ‘93. It was financially our most successful tour. We played big venues and sold out a large portion of them. But the success didn’t translate into the music. It wasn’t any different musically from the ones before. But everything else felt different somehow. I felt that Jerry was starting to change in some way that I don’t really understand to this day. Maybe he was tired of me.

BS: How were you informed of your termination?

DK: I got a call from Parish in January of ‘94, saying, ‘Well, here’s that phone call you’ve been expecting for 10 years. Where do you want us to send your drums?’ I said, ‘Well, Steve, why don’t you send them here to my house.’ And he said, ‘Don’t you want them sent to your cartage company?’ And I said, ‘No, have them sent here to the house.’ And he said, ‘Oh, by the way, we have a new drummer already.’ and I said, ‘Oh, OK..’ And he said, ‘Well, I don’t know what else to say but ‘goodbye.’’ And I said, ‘Well, Steve, you know, you always had a way with words.’ And that was it. No explanation, nothing.

BS: Any final comments on your association with JGB?

DK: Yes, I’d like to make it clearly known that I never took the job with Jerry lightly or took it for granted. I tried as hard as I could every show we ever did. I gave it everything because I respected Jerry. He always gave it his all. I never saw him walk through a night, ever. And it’s hard work. That band in particular was really hard work. You wouldn’t think it’d be hard to play so many slow songs! But, man, there’s something about having the foot on the gas pedal and the foot on the brakes at the same time that’s utterly exhausting!

BS: That’s a great way to describe JGB!

DK: I never understood why we did that, who that was done for, or who was the architect of it. Is it what the audience wanted? I don’t know.

BS: That’s a good question to conclude with here: What do you think the audience wanted?

DK:  That’s easy: the audience just wanted to be in a room with Jerry. They didn’t care if they were hearing fast music or slow music; they wanted to be in the same room with Jerry. That’s all I could see. And it didn’t matter if it was good or bad or who he had on stage with him. The crowd didn’t come to see me or John or Melvin. They came to be in the same room with Jerry. It’s that simple. And I don’t blame them. Being in the same room with Jerry was a pretty damn wonderful place to be.

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© 1997 by Barry Smolin
email: shmo@well.com