Mickey Hart would be the first one to admit that his hobbies are a little out of the so-called “ordinary,” but then again, to the drumming legend and Grateful Dead member, converting light waves into sound, mic-ing up the Golden Gate Bridge to mine its aural possibilities,pondering the spiritual implications of dark matter – these things are downright quotidian.
Hart’s current band has been on the road nearly a year: an intriguing collection of players representing perhaps the most interesting group he’s ever fronted.
Naturally, it’s a band heavy with rhythm: Hart on vocals and on his usual assortment of genre-busting noisemakers – “drums and percussion,” for him, just sounds so pedestrian – Ian “Inkx” Herman on drums and longtime Hart compatriot Sikiru Adepoju on talking drum, djembe and other percussion. Widespread Panic mainstay Dave Schools holds down the bass, and the group fills out with vocalist Crystal Monee Hall, guitarist Gawain Matthews and keyboardist Ben Yonas. And new to the lineup as of late June is singer and multi-instrumentalist Joe Bagale, who shares vocals with Hall. (Bagale replaced Tim Hockenberry, who departed Hart’s group earlier in the summer to compete on America’s Got Talent.)
The band now has an album to show for itself, too: Mysterium Tremendium, which dropped in April. Seven of its 12 tunes include lyrics written by Robert Hunter, but the attraction is what Hart describes as “cosmic sounds” — light, radio and other electromagnetic offerings converted into soundscapes using computer technology – on which the songs are based.
Hart is quick to point out, however, that it isn’t “space odyssey” music, and he’s right; the album, despite its spacey-jazz patina and stretches of psychedelia, has a rock underpinning and is impressively accessible. That’s true of the band, as well, which in the live setting usually does about 40 percent Dead and Dead-associated songs and focuses the rest of the time on Mysterium tunes and stray cuts from Hart’s back catalog.
Hart’s adventures are always evolving. In addition to the band, new this year is Camp Mysterium (Sept. 3-6, Big Indian, NY), a three-day, three-night summit with Hart, his bandmates and various sonic and ethnomusicological experts that instead of a typical summer festival, will have its attendance capped at 180 people and promises an intimate, mind-melding experience of workshops, nature adventures and performance.
Glide caught up with the affably eccentric Hart just as the band was about to start the next leg of its year-long tour, with dates scheduled in the Northeast and the Midwest through mid-September.
So Mickey, as a musicologist, you’re always doing something that sounds a little experimental, a little mind-blowing and a little fun, too. We’re always hearing about sonification of celestial bodies, what you did with the Golden Gate Bridge, and all these interesting things. When did you first get into exploring sounds like these?
As a little guy, I always liked the way things worked and the way they sounded. I always liked noise. I always liked the way things came from nature. I was an odd, odd kid. I don’t know exactly when it was that I decided to go into the sonic environment, or to get deeper into it, but I would have to say it was when I started recording the rain. That was always fascinating. I think that became an obsession with me — the different ways you could hear the rain. It sounds to me like armies marching. It started there. I was recording rain drops when I had my first studio in 1969.
So you’ve been at sonification for a long time.
Yeah, and it wasn’t just pouring rain, it was how rain hit on different surfaces. It’s very symphonic. But I’ve been listening to the sounds of the whole world since i was like five or six years old. I was listening to pygmies when I was seven. My mom had some ethnographies — Folkways, Unesco, and so forth — and I was listening to the world’s music, and kind of got my ear turned a bit to other things outside as opposed to in.
Given your interest in these deep sounds and vibrations and how they relate to elemental balance and dark matter and all of those things, what was your reaction to the recent Higgs boson news?
Sooner or later, these things are going to be found out. We know there’s dark matter. We can’t detect it, but we know it’s there. These are the elements that started everything — elemental energy that was created to create that explosion at the Big Bang moment. We want to see part of this because we can find out what we’re really made of.
It could be a remedy. It could be a diagnostic. It could be an element, it could be a lot of things. But this is the micro. We can see the macro — you can see what’s tangible. But now we’re dealing with intangible. We’re uncovering the basic elements of what is matter and how is it formed. It’s a big, big thing: the secrets of the universe. This is real. They’re not just throwing around particles at CERN for kicks.
What would you really like to do that you haven’t yet? What would you mic up that you haven’t?
I haven’t done a lot of things. The Golden Gate Bridge was interesting. Besides it being a bridge, it had this great sonic architecture. I thought about it for years. So many things sonify. You take two very important senses, sound and light, and coupling them together to get a real picture of what it is. Everything has a sonic and visual component. Everything that moves has a vibration, it has a light, it has a sound, and much of it, we can’t perceive because it’s above or below our perception, whether visual or sonic. That’s why these things are so important.
The Higgs boson, that’s telling the story of the universe. The Earth is very sonic. Part of this earth rings like a bell. We’re connected to all of this, so this tells you where you are in the universe. What they’re doing at CERN with cosmic background radiation is very important in this century, and many centuries. Locating [the Higgs boson] was amazing.
All these sounds you’re after, are you looking just to hear them? Is it a goal to harness or manipulate them?
I just want to dance for them! I have no plans of conquering the universe, at least vibra-torially speaking. I think it’s mostly the spiritual connection. What they call the "God particle," well, that takes into account if you believe in a God or not so it opens the question to whole other religious things but we’re not talking about religious things. All the stories, the Bible, everything, that lives in peoples’ religious zones. This is out of that. This is spiritual and you can’t confuse that with religion.
But this is knowing your daddy and mommy. That’s what it is for me. You’re becoming the conversation happening all around. If you look at what’s happening on the sun up there, the sun is having a party — it sets off new sound waves that can be translated into signals that we can understand and dance to.
This band I have, these are really great musicians — a fierce band. They’ve all bought into this, and this is band that can make all of that come alive.
What comes across about this band is that it’s very accessible. A lot of what you’ve been talking about could be very abstract, an avant-garde type of sonic show. But this is an improvisational rock ‘n’ roll band, no?
You’re right on about that. I didn’t want this to be space odyssey music or be a science experiment. It has a lot of science in it, but we have a concertizing sound. This band can go into long epiphanies that are not rock and roll driven and get more artsy but it also likes a deep groove. That’s how I see it: it throbs and pulses. It takes on a lot of the characteristics really happening in the music — a lot of collisions.
What do you see as the biggest difference between this band and other groups you’ve led in the past?
This band is much more accomplished and on a much more specific mission than any band I’ve fostered. Each group I’ve played with is marvelous in its own way. Planet Drum, what a great band that was! But this is not a percussion band. This combines a lot of different elements into one. It’s very rhythmic, and it takes a lot from those things that came before. You develop yourself as a musician and you tweak your work in progress and use everything that came before you.
What do you look for when choosing musicians for a band like this?
Adventure! I look for people who want to take their instruments and mutate them. I want them to be heroic and be in a groove and take chances. That’s what I look for. It’s in their eyes. You look in their eyes, and when you play, you know right away. I can tell pretty much right away how far they can travel. The idea is that they will go there willingly.
They all have good intuitions, but some won’t do it naturally. That’s bad. If you’re forcing it, that’s bad. The bandleader and also the band members have to respect that even they may want to do it, they can’t, and you have to recognize that. Jamming and improvisation is iffy. If you’re with the wrong people, you really fail a lot of times. The idea is to get very comfortable with each other because you’re trying to create little sonic wonders live, and in front of people. It’s flying without a net. It’s not for everyone, nor should it be. Most people, and I can understand why, are consistent. Consistency seems to be what people want to hear. You move away from consistent and you move away from recognizable sometimes, I understand that. But you can move away from formula, too.
Were these players that sought you out?
No, I’ve been on a hunt for them. I was spending time taking light waves and turning them into sound, so I had time to find them, and work on it, and have Hunter write the words. That was very important. It took a few years. And then there was time spent developing the instrument to be able to play it all. This is not a quickie. It’s not, bang, let’s go to the studio and do a record.
How did you and Dave Schools hook up?
He’s a neighbor, and he came over one day and I was in the studio working. We really got on well. He’s an amazing bass player and just a wonderful human being.
But you didn’t have a prior relationship with Schools?
No, not really.
How did you know it was time to record an album?
I had to make sure the band was prepared well and the sounds were prepared well, and embed them in the music so they weren’t just sound effects. They have to be part of the music, I didn’t just want a special effects album. It took its time.
You’ve also got Camp Mysterium coming up. Is it selling?
It’s doing well. I wanted to do something where we could do all of these insights into the world of Mickey Hart, but where we can hang out and talk about all the sonic places I go to and it’s not just a concert or lecture. It’s going to be a bunch of fun days.
Do you have an opportunity to interact with a lot of younger fans? There’s an entire generation now of jamband concertgoers who didn’t have the opportunity see the Dead with Jerry.
Oh yeah, all the time. They want to hear Grateful Dead songs, and I love playing ‘em. They’re my babies. I miss it, and people miss it, so we give it to them. I get my fix for them every night. We play old music and new music, and because they’re young, it’s good to keep reinventing these tunes. Certain songs are better for certain bands so I picked songs that were good for this band.
What would be an example of a Dead song that fits this band?
Well, Fire On the Mountain is one of my favorite jam songs. Not Fade Away, the bass groove, how it can lead to improvisation, I like songs built that way.
"Pressure" is probably the wrong word, but do you feel pressure to include Dead songs when you’re out with the band?
No, come on, nobody pressures me. I feel honored to have the insight to play these songs powerfully. They’re all like my children, and they’ve grown up. But no one pressures me. I’m the biggest pressure on me, so that’s a funny question. No, it’s not like that, I love to play ‘em. Some of them really are great songs.
But do you put pressure on yourself to do Dead material versus, say, taking a band out that did no Dead material?
Oh, I could go out with non-Dead material anytime. But people want to hear Dead material and so do I, so that ain’t right. When I don’t want to play it anymore, I won’t. Right now, I’m having fun with them. If I didn’t have fun or I felt pressure…yeah, I don’t see it in those terms.
How often are you in contact with Phil, Bob and Bill these days?
Once in a while. Our paths cross.
Do you think the Dead, or at least a band with the four of you guys together, has toured its last?
I have no idea. Really, we have our projects and seems like we’re enjoying life and what we’re doing.
Sounds like it’s a question you’re sick of getting.
Yeah. Of course.
Do you think you and Bill will make another go of the Rhythm Devils?
You know it’s not really an interesting question for me. It’s just speculation. We’re dear brothers, we’re doing what we want to do, and anything can happen. As you say, pressure. Imagine, a world with no pressure. Can you imagine it? [laughs]
I would like to.