Justin Kreutzmann on Music, Film, and a Lifestyle Inspired by The Grateful Dead

The esteemed filmmaker and son of legendary Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann discusses his artistic journey, his new documentary Let There Be Drums, the nostalgic scent of cannabis, and being handed a roach by Jerry Garcia.
Still from Let There Be Drums!

Halloween has recently passed and director Justin Kreutzmann has just trick-or-treated with his children. It’s the kind of father/kid bonding time that most children long for and enjoy. In the case of Kreutzmann, he’s simply passing along the gift of showing up as a father to his kids in the way his father provided fatherhood to him: By having fun.

When we connect by phone, the Long Strange Trip producer is ecstatic at the release of his latest film, Let There Be Drums!, which explores the history of drummers in famous bands and the drummers’ relationships with their children.

Over the course of our conversation, Kreutzmann dives into the origins of his filmmaking aspirations, the influence of the Grateful Dead lifestyle on pursuing his passions, the art of storytelling, and his firsthand look at the normalization of cannabis culture within the 70s Deadhead psychedelic movement.

High Times: Coming from such a prolific music family, how did filmmaking become your path?

Justin Kreutzmann: It became my path the minute I watched Apocalypse Now.

If you’ve seen the film, Mickey Hart tells the story of Francis Ford Coppola coming to Winterland and being blown away by the drum section. Coppola was in the middle of putting together Apocalypse Now and figuring out the score, and as anyone who has seen the film knows, it was a massive undertaking. So Coppola was really inspired by the drums and asked Mickey if he and dad [BIll Kreutzmann] could contribute to the percussion. Of course I was seven at the time and didn’t know any of this—I just knew we were going to Mickey Hart’s studio in Novato and we were going to watch this movie.

We sit down and it’s the Grateful Dead and all of the Coppola people and they put on the six hour version of Apocalypse Now. Francis sits next to the TV and describes the entire movie in terms of rhythm and what percussion sounds the jungle was making at certain points and I just loved it. With the Grateful Dead being so free and easy, you could watch something like Apocalypse Now without parental supervision. It was an amazing experience and even though ninety-percent of it probably went over my head, I looked at Francis like, “I don’t know what he’s doing, but I want to do that. That looks like an amazing job.”

So dad bought me a Super 8 camera and literally one of the first things I shot were the Grateful Dead New Year’s Eve shows in 1977. That’s how I started because you shoot what’s around. You shoot family home movies. I wish I’d shot more, but I was a shy little kid running around with a camera and the Grateful Dead scene—I know this will be a shock to everybody—wasn’t really one where it was like, “Yeah, come backstage and shine a light on all the stuff we’re doing.” You had to be stealthy, pick your moments, and not get yelled at. From seven or eight years old, [filmmaking] is what I wanted to do and I never had a fallback option.

Being around the Grateful Dead, it was very much encouraged to follow what inspired you and to do a job you love because otherwise life would be too hard. Filmmaking for me checked all of those boxes.

Still from Let There Be Drums!

High Times: Having your father do what fueled him—how impactful was that on you in terms of staying the course and pursuing filmmaking?

Justin Kreutzmann: It was the most impactful thing ever. I saw what my dad did for work and [what he had to do] to play and make it great. I saw the effort he had to put in. I also saw the fun he got out of it and the rewards—certainly financially—but more the ten-thousand people dancing and cheering [for their music]. I also got to see his part in the band and understand the team effort.

I was in the studio when the band first started rehearsing “Terrapin Station.” For anybody who knows that song, there are a lot of parts, and so it was a long day sitting there watching the Grateful Dead figure it out. It was like Apocalypse Now—it was big, it was epic and I saw it getting more cohesive. The reward six months later was watching the band play these parts on stage and people freaking out. Being able to follow the whole process was really important.

With filmmaking, there’s the writing of it, the shooting of it, editing it, showing it to a theater—I equated it to doing what my dad did in the Grateful Dead and used the examples from him but just applied it to the film world. It’s all about the rhythm of the cuts. You can be deaf and watch a film and still love it because of the rhythm, the pace and the way the beats are landing.

A hard cut in a film is like the “one” beat. But also within that cut, there might be something that is landing on the “three.” You get into these rhythms that are not so pronounced but that can be very subtle and the audience can be moving along with it even if you’re not telegraphing your punches. We all know when you’re watching something and you turn the sound off and you’re just kind of bobbing your head because you can feel what it probably sounds like.

High Times: So whether it’s a film audience or a music audience, it’s more about connecting with them on an undercurrent that transcends sound.

Justin Kreutzmann: You’re telling a story. You never lose sight of the story you’re trying to tell but you’re telling that story visually, through sound, through music and the rhythm of the cuts. A lot of the really fun stuff is when somebody sees something in there that you didn’t even intend but they get something else out of it.

High Times: Along your career journey of understanding music and film, was there ever an experience or collection of moments that validated your initial impulse at pursuing your own filmmaking hero’s journey?

Justin Kreutzmann: There were two points. The first was in 1981 when we did a parody of the Rolling Stones tour produced by Bill Graham where all the guys in my sixth grade class dressed as The Rolling Stones under the premise that we were staying over at Bill Graham’s house. My teacher set up a screening for everybody in the grade—and while it was probably a terrible film—just watching it, having the kids cheer, and having that moment where your peer group recognized what you did creatively was so inspiring and gave you that first hit of validation.

The second one was realizing, “Hey, I might be able to feed my family,” and that filmmaking was something I could do as a career while not having to go through drastic measures to try and put food on the table. When you’re getting going, you hope it’s going to work, you have big dreams, but you have that fear of, “What if I’m no good at what I love to do?” I’m not sure how good I am, but at least I’m able to feed and clothe my children. My wife can take care of herself but we’re all getting by and we’re all having a very nice life.

Still from Let There Be Drums!

High Times: There’s something really beautiful about picking a path that speaks to you—like with the members of Grateful Dead—and leaning into it. When you do that, everything else sort of falls into place.

Justin Kreutzmann: One-hundred percent. You also have to realize, growing up in the particular music scene that I did—the Grateful Dead did it their own way. Those guys were the same way back at home as the way they hit the stage. While they would have loved hits, they didn’t go out of their way to get them. They played the music they wanted to play, they had a million-to-one shot, they got really lucky and they were talented enough to make a great career. But it could have gone the other way. This was not particularly commercial radio music, and just watching people do exactly what they wanted to do musically and believe in themselves—even if only ten other people got it—that was great. But ten-million people got it, so that was better.

Growing up, the Grateful Dead didn’t have that private plane, cover of People Magazine, big celebrity thing. They were successful in doing their own thing, but it wasn’t like they couldn’t go out to dinner to a restaurant—it didn’t really impact their personal life, and in that way you kind of had the best of both worlds.

You watch the Rolling Stones and you think there’s no way Mick Jagger could go down to a 7-11 and buy a Slurpee. Maybe he could, but the assumption is he wouldn’t be able to without getting recognized. I have a lot of friends with whom we always joke we’re in the “famous father club,” friends whose dads were in The Beatles or whose dad was Bob Dylan. If your dad is Bob Dylan, everybody knows your dad—which can be tough—but Jacob [Dylan] is literally one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet in your life. Same with Sean Lennon and all those guys who would seem to have carte blanche and not be part of our world are actually really nice guys. It’s really fascinating because I always look at their dads and to me, The Beatles aren’t human, they’re this other thing that happened in the world—in a good way. The Grateful Dead were a few down-to-earth guys and The Beatles were on this mythical plane making this music that everybody loves.

High Times: In terms of your documentary Let There Be Drums!, what creatively inspired you to go on this journey and why this film?

Justin Kreutzmann: It’s something I’d been thinking about in the back of my mind for some time, something that I thought I could do well. Because of my dad, I had grown up around a lot of drummers, knew a lot of drummers’ stories, knew a lot of them personally—and originally, it was a lighthearted thing. Everybody’s got a drummer joke. Just ask [Jerry] Garcia, just ask Pete Townsend. Everybody’s got a really bad drummer joke that doesn’t end well for the drummers. So I thought we’d do this comedy of the sort of stereotypical hotel-smashing animal from the Muppets type stories. But the minute we started doing the interviews, it just went somewhere else. I blame Taylor Hawkins for this because he was the first guy to say, “Okay, I don’t know if this is for the documentary, but how stable was your home life growing up?” He started asking me questions and so instead of the interviewer/interviewee, we’re trading stories.

I’d have my list of twenty questions and the answers were all great, but the minute it went off and got more personal or into areas they don’t get asked a thousand times, it got more interesting. So when I got in the editing room, the film really told me what kind of film it wanted to be. There’s a lot of really interesting drum stuff in it, but there’s more interesting emotional and family stuff, and the connection just happens to be that it’s families of drummers.

Most everybody has a father, most everybody has a family, and most everybody can relate to issues and family stuff. I just sort of showed it in the context of being a kid of a drummer, like through Jason Bonham and Mandy Moon. I mean come on, if your dad is Keith Moon, I want to hear what that’s like. That’s really unique. Mandy’s not a drummer and she was the first interview we did for the film. I think her interview along with Taylor’s really set the tone. She wasn’t going to tell me about her dad’s technique or how he played shuffle. The stuff that really spoke to me emotionally is what ended up in the film and became the focus.

Still from Let There Be Drums!

High Times: And drumming just happened to be the way in, but really it’s a much deeper narrative that you’re telling.

Justin Kreutzmann: I’m glad it worked out that way because if the pitch had been, “Hey, we’re going to do a film about our famous drummer dads,” that blows. Because it just sort of happened organically, it ended up being much better. Seeing the different pairings of dads who are here, dads who are no longer here and all that kind of stuff—that was all in the mix. You couldn’t just put that next to a funny hotel smashing story. There’s more to it than that. And also, everybody was being so freaking real with me—there was no way I couldn’t be real when it was me and my dad. We were as real as everyone else was, and that’s what I really love and respect about all of the people in this film.

High Times: Were there any commonalities across all of the interviews that you picked up on?

Justin Kreutzmann: The connective tissue between a lot of the things—and Jason Bonham says it really well: “When your dad’s in the band, you’re like whatever. It’s not like you’re in The Beatles.” He has this great line where he goes to see his dad sellout a stadium in Florida and he asks, “Who’s on the bill? There’s no way Led Zeppelin could do this.” It’s love and respect but just a total kid thing of “this is just something that your dad does,” but your dad just happens to be in Led Zeppelin, but you’re still not impressed because you see him all the time. So that was a very common theme that came up.

High Times: What role did cannabis play for you growing up? Were there any commonalities there?

Justin Kreutzmann: Obviously growing up in the 70s in the Grateful Dead world, cannabis was plentiful, loved, and respected. It wasn’t like all drugs bad, no drugs good. Cannabis, LSD—they weren’t considered drugs. Heroin, crack—that was the bad shit. Even alcohol. But cannabis was just like cigarettes. It’s what everybody did, it was around, and we knew a lot of people who grew it.

I myself was never a weed guy. It was too strong, it made me too freaked out, and so I missed that train. But I’d have to guess I was around enough that I probably had a ten year contact high just from being near the Grateful Dead.

I remember the Grateful Dead were playing Stanford and it was the second set. I was sitting on a road case by Jerry’s area and he walks out with the rest of the band and he’s got his roach in his hand and he just hands it to me. It’s bright daylight at Stanford, everybody could see me holding his joint like he was Indiana Jones at the ark. Part of me really wanted to take a hit but then I looked around and realized ten-thousand people could see me, so I quickly handed it to somebody else.

I’m a sober guy, so I play it pretty clean, but I don’t have a chip on my shoulder. I do love the smell wafting over because it reminds me of home and I wish I was one of those guys [who was able to do it]. I did some videos with the band Slightly Stoopid and they just looked like they were having so much fun. The guys would talk about how they would get edibles for their dads, which I thought was so cool. It works for them and it’s creative and it’s fun, but I’m a father and a husband now and I don’t want to “poke the beast” as they say. Mad props for people who can just have a good time and get a little stoney.

Follow @justinkreutzmann and check out https://greenwichentertainment.com/film/let-there-be-drums/ for access to his latest film Let There Be Drums! available now

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