Percussionist Mickey Hart has had a long and illustrious career that has, in many ways, transcended his role in the legendary Grateful Dead. Author, musicologist, shaman mystic—all of these describe Hart’s life journey.
Concurrent with his Grateful Dead career, he has been releasing percussion-based albums since the 1970s. In conjunction with the Smithsonian and Library of Congress, he’s been a major proponent of chronicling indigenous music from around the world, and a supporter of music therapy. Now, his output of solo records, including the legendary Planet Drum recordings, has been re-released on Shout! Factory records. He recently toured the country with a full band for the second time in three years, hitting many of the major music festivals.
In 2006, he embarked on a tour with a band called The Rhythm Devils. Named for the nickname given to him and fellow Dead drummer Bill Kreutzman, the group consisted of an all-star lineup—the two Dead drummers, Phish bassist Mike Gordon, longtime collaborator guitarist Steve Kimock and Jen Durkin (Deep Banana Blackout) on vocals, with talking drum master Sikiru Adepoju. A multi-media recording of one of those concerts has now been released on DVD, simply titled Rhythm Devils: The Ultimate Concert Experience.
The new, re-tooled lineup, now dubbed The Mickey Hart Band, features legendary bassist George Porter (the Meters), keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth (String Cheese Incident) and percussionist Walfredo Reyes. Honest Tune caught up with Hart as his new band was preparing for their extensive summer tour.
Honest Tune: The new DVD is out now.
Mickey Hart: Yeah, it’s quite an experience. I have to blame it all on Jeff Glixman, he’s really the architect behind this –the concept and the execution.
HT: I think the use of the words concert experience on this DVD is apt. The visual aspect is featured prominently. Were those visual aspects part of the concert or were they added later for the DVD? MH: Well it was us playing live but it was mixed in with all this other footage. For me concert footage is kind of boring—sitting there watching a band play from different angles. But when you add the visual component it lets the imagination fly a little bit. I was quite amazed when I put it on my DVD player. It’s a trip. HT: This DVD consists entirely of songs written for this band by you and Robert Hunter. Are there plans to release a CD of audio-only versions of those songs? MH: That would be a logical place for it. There are a lot of other songs that aren’t on that DVD. I’m really thinking that I’d like to take this band into the studio and do these songs up. There are a lot of new Hunter-Hart-Kimock songs that we’ll roll out on this tour. It’s one of the reasons for the band. When Robert Hunter says he’ll write for the band and pulls himself away for two or three weeks specifically to write, you take advantage of that. That was one great reason to form the band, around these songs. HT: What was that collaborative process like?
MH: Most of the time I’d just give him the music and he’d give me the lyrics. Other times I might talk to him about some imagery that I’m conjuring. But his mind is so fertile I don’t want to disrupt his brainwave function with my lowly thoughts. He’s such a brilliant wordsmith, I just have faith that he’ll bring it in and most of the time he does. I think this collection of songs is some of the best he’s written in many, many years.
HT: Some of the other guys are credited on some of the songs too, specifically Steve Kimock on “Fountains of Wood.” MH: Steve and I co-composed most of the music. HT: You are going out on the road with the Mickey Hart Band now, with Steve and Jen being the common elements with the Rhythm Devils. MH: Wally Reyes is on drums now and of course the great George Porter is on bass. Kyle Hollingsworth from String Cheese has joined us on electronic keyboards. HT: Do you see this band as taking place of the Rhythm Devils or just a step towards a rotating lineup sort of like Phil has been doing? MH: Absolutely it’s an extension of the Rhythm Devils. The Rhythm Devils was just an experiment. It wasn’t going to be a permanent thing but it got us here. So we’re taking it from here. HT: What first drew you to Jen Durkin? MH: I had heard of her and starting hearing some tapes. I really liked her range and her power. I thought she could wrap her voice around these songs just right. She’s now blossoming into a deep singer. We were able to sit back and hear what we had done, because [the Rhythm Devils] was just like a flash of creativity, we just got together and rehearsed just a little bit, went out on the road and threw these songs around and tried them out. They weren’t totally birthed. They were just born and hadn’t matured yet. With this version of the band you’ll hear a more mature rendering of the songs and there will be a lot more improvising. The last time we went out we were focusing on learning the songs.
HT: With different players it will have to take on a different rhythmic quality. With George Porter, he’ll definitely bring some funk to the table. You did some Phish songs when Mike was with you. Do you plan on doing some Meters material?
MH: Absolutely. We’re going to let George loose. He’s got a great voice that many people don’t know. He’s going to be taking a lot of liberties, vocally, too. George is such a monster player, an archetype. If I were to play bass, I’d like to play like George. That’s what I would like to sound like. He’s working beautifully in this ensemble. He can get so free because of the support he gets from the rhythm section.
HT: You said this band is an extension of the Rhythm Devils. Going back and listening to the re-releases and Mystery Box, that seemed like the first step in going towards a full band with traditional pop song structures and a female vocals.
MH: Exactly. Very good observation. There again, it was Hunter who wrote all the songs with me.
HT: Right, and some ended up in The Other Ones’ sets.
MH: Yeah. I see it all as an extension of my work. If you’re an artist hopefully you grow from one stage to another, gracefully or not so gracefully. The Rhythm Devils was yet another step in the evolutionary process. I look at it like that. I wasn’t really holding on to the Rhythm Devils. It was just transitional.
HT: Too, you had an all-star cast and I’m sure there were time demands too. Mike Gordon is out touring his solo album now.
MH: I didn’t think that Mike Gordon was going to be able to tour as much as I wanted to. Certainly not Kreutzman. He told me that right up front. So I knew going in that it was going to mutate into this. He’s one of my dear friends and he’s doing a trio thing right now. He’s a monster, a giant drummer, absolutely totally amazing.
HT: This band is doing a lot of festivals this summer. Do you feel like these festivals have in some ways taken the place of the sense of gathering and community that was found on the Grateful Dead tours?
MH: Yes. It’s about community. [The fans] come out to be with each other and be with the music. There is no Grateful Dead anymore except in the spirit of it and the recordings. So the community needs to be served. They have to find their music. Every community has their music, if it is healthy. So the youngins’ that are coming up embracing that improvisational style, that’s a part of it too. HT: A few years ago you hooked up with Particle for Hydra. Clearly the whole jam band scene was sparked and influenced by the Grateful Dead. To what extent are you influenced by what some of the younger bands are doing?
MH: Oh sure. There’s a wonderful energy they have. You expose yourself to the young vibe and it is energizing. They’re learning their instruments just like we did when we were twenty. That goes with the turf. Some of it is not highly developed, skill-wise, and some of it is in and out. But the spirit is there. They’re exploring. Some of them are exploring more than others. Just like when we were kids. I listened to an old Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver tape the other day. My daughter is really into Quicksilver and the Airplane and Janis, and I have a lot of the board tapes. So people were really experimenting when we were younger. It was a time of exploration and that’s the way it is in every age—there are people exploring the periphery, the edges.
HT: When you left the Dead for a while and went to the barn, that set the seed for a lot of your non-Grateful Dead work that has just been released on Shout Factory. Even the sticker on the Diga Rhythm Band CD says “the first steps towards Planet Drum”…
MH: [laughing] Yeah, that’s true. It was our first feeble steps towards that planet, where the rhythm ruled. That’s where Zakir Hussein and I became friends, in ’72 or ’71. Then we did the Diga thing in ’74. That was the beginning of all of these percussion ensembles, including the present one that I have now, the Global Drum Project with Zakir and Giovanii and Siriku. In fact, Siriku is here in the next room. He’s my constant companion in music. I love the talking drum so much. HT: Zakir, too seems to be a constant throughout all of your projects.
MH: In the percussive world, yes.
HT: There was a story in Drumming At The Edge of Magic where you recall you and Bill Kreutzman locking yourself in a room together during the recording of Anthem of The Sun, and coming out of it locked into a rhythm from then on. Do you have that kind of relationship with Zakir?
MH: Absolutely. His father was my teacher, he was his teacher. We have so much in common yet we are so opposite. He is the man of supreme order and of course I represent chaos. I can put up with his order and he can put up with my chaos. Together we actually spark each other to places that we never could go on our own, pretty much like me and Bill. Zakir is such a master rhythmist that he’s finite. He’s as good as it gets as a human before you become a ‘bot. He’s perfect.
HT: Was part of the impetus for these re-releases that some of your recordings had fallen out of print?
MH: The catalog reverted back to me from Rykodisc Records when they went under, or whatever happened to them. Shout Factory wanted to release the percussion gems from the catalog.
HT: What is the status of the Rolling Thunder record? It’s not part of this package.
MH: I don’t think it’s out. That’s certainly something that will see the light of day. It just hasn’t happened yet.
HT: The Planet Drum record was a breakthrough for you and won the first Grammy for World Music. Did you have any expectations that it would have that type of impact? MH: In my heart of hearts, yes. I brought the best of the best from all the strongest rhythmic cultures, all in one room at the same time. So it was magic. Everything on that record was first take. It was the quickest record I ever made and the most successful record I ever made, on every level. It launched a thousand ships. A lot of people heard that record. That was a seminal record. I tried to do it again but could never get it back like that first session. That was just magic. HT: You came back with Supralingua which was credited as Planet Drum. MH: These were other extensions of it. There I went into the electronic space. That was my beginning foray into more sophisticated signal processing.
HT: That’s when you first started using what you called your Random Access Musical Universe.
MH: Yes, RAMU. I have now an advanced version of RAMU out with me. It’s a DJ unit, it’s a shortwave radio, it is a database of all my sounds. From conch shells to devil chasers to glass harps—all kinds of things you can never take out on the road. So I use a computer on the stage and I trigger these sounds. Now I’m able to do it in real time. It’s sophisticated enough that I can have delays and reverb and spatial processing and I can count tempo. I can do all these very sophisticated techniques that are normally reserved for the studio. Now I’m doing them live and it’s successful. I did it in the Global Drum Project last year. We went out for six weeks and it worked every night. It’s finally getting to a place where it’s reliable.
HT: You have tracked the history of the drum back forever. Do you see the incorporation of electronic instruments as a natural progression of that?
MH: Of course. We live in a binary world. We have one foot in the archaic world and one foot in the digital domain. Look around you, listen to what’s going on. The sound of industry, the sound of machines, the sound of electronics. It’s the sound of the future. You have to use machines in order to find those sounds and paint in those kinds of colors. They’re very sophisticated and as your skill develops and the machines get more facile, you start to dance with them and they become, really, a dancing partner as opposed to a slave.
HT: You’ve long been interested in the neurological effects of music on the human body.
MH: The most interesting frontier is the neurological function of how rhythm affects the brain, and what the brain looks like before during and after an auditory driving experience. The real science is being uncovered on neurological function as to why its so potent and healing. It’s used in Alzheimer’s, dementia. The motor-impaired are being looked at very carefully and we’re finding that rhythm kind of restores the memory and the speech, and kind of brings you out of the darkness.
HT: It makes sense when you consider the trance-inducing quality that music can have. You have talked a lot about how songs and rhythms come from your dreams. Do you still use any kind of meditation or lucid dreaming techniques to sort of tap into that?
MH: Yes. Music is my meditation, and I also do yoga. Before I go to sleep I give myself suggestions and I use self-hypnosis from time to time. So I prepare myself for the dream state. A lot of my best ideas come from lucid dreaming. I’ve been working with Stanley Krippner, the para-psychologist, for many years. He was at the dream laboratory in