Mickey Hart: A Philosophy and Technique Rolled In
Just over a month after the triumphant sold out reunion shows featuring himself and his three former Grateful Dead bandmates in The Other Ones, Mickey Hart returned to the road with his latest rhythmic incarnation Bembe Orisha. With this international group of musicians, he offers fans a mix of tunes from the Dead’s catalogue, his solo work and new material that will be recorded in the studio next year.
Of course with Hart his creative existence doesn’t end with those two bands. The conversation touched upon “Mondo Head,” an album he produced by Japanese taiko drumming troupe Kodo, a compilation of his solo work, drum circles as neurological therapy and upcoming projects for National Geographic.
It took place a day a before Hart’s birthday on Sept. 11. To celebrate, the notoriously busy person was actually taking a rare break from his numerous projects.
JPG: First off, an early Happy Birthday. I hear you were out gardening today?
MH: I do that every day. I have plants from all over the world. Right now I’m doing bamboo and flax, as in tall grass. And palm. I’m tropical today.
JPG: So what does someone who seems to have a type AAA personality do on his birthday? Do you actually take a day off?
MH: Actually, my wife has pulled me away for the day and we’re going to relax in some secluded tent in the wilderness. I’m camping out tonight and tomorrow. I just want to make this one nice and calm. No tv’s. No, you know. No big explosions.
JPG: Yes, yes I understand.
MH: It was a terrible, a terrible last birthday.
JPG: Several days after your birthday you’re going to be back on the road with Bembe Orisha. Tell me a bit about the name because that’s the first thing that intrigues me about the band.
MH: Bembe is party’ and Orisha, of course, of the spirits, of the saints’ of West Africa. It’s a party for the spirits. Our music came pretty much from West Africa by way of the slave trade. You know big band, jazz, dixieland, rock and roll, all came to us from West Africa. This celebrates that trade wind. In the band there is Iranian influences, Congolese, Nigerian, Cuban, New Orleans and good old American rock and roll.
JPG: I saw two of your performances, at Darien Lake back in July with Phil Lesh & Friends. Then, I saw you at Terrapin Station.
MH: Hmmm..so, you got an idea.
JPG: Oh yeah. I was really impressed. I’m not sure how much new material you threw in there, but it just seems like the shows themselves, especially Darien, that it seemed like it was more than just a bunch of songs put together. It seemed like a musical journey. At the same time because of the United Nations of artists involved, it shows the universality of rhythm and music.
MH: Well yes and no. I mean music isn’t really universal. All musics don’t go together. That’s a misnomer. You got to pick the right musicians with the right spirit and, of course, with the right music. It’s not like taking a little bit from here, from there.
It’s difficult to mix. It’s like spices. Some spices just don’t go together. It’s taken many years to get the blend that you heard.
JPG: What would you say is the major difference between Bembe Orisha and the Mickey Hart Band that came before it?
MH: Mickey Hart Band played more English rock and roll. We’re still rockin’ out now. It’s in another language. We played about two or three new Hunter songs that day [at Darien]. A lot of it was new material. I’ve got about 30 new songs that I’m just trying out now, sort of burning em in before we go to the studio. That’s what you heard, a really enthusiastic, passionate band.
JPG: I always remember the one that, it was this long hypnotic number that Azam sang after all those hard-driving upbeat numbers. “Ek Tal.”
MH: That’s out there.
JPG: You mentioned that you have 30 songs and plans to record. Will that take place this year?
MH: We’re going to record after the first of the year. I didn’t want to record this band too early.
JPG: In reference to something you said earlier, about finding the right spices, you seem to have done that with your collaboration with Kodo.
MH: Mondo Head was a blessed event. Mondo Head was a gift from the gods. We just jammed for a week. That was the basis of our tracks. No thinking, nothing prearranged except, Just come here to my studio, let’s just play, play, play.’ Then we put vocals on and I went to Tokyo and did some overdubs. But mainly, they’re all live, first take.
JPG: Now was it a matter of mixing these jams to make it into something coherent.
MH: Editing and mixing that’s the art of this.
JPG: That’s the art, but is that the most difficult part as well?
MH: Yeah. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult. It’s time consuming and tedious work. It’s not as much fun as playing. But as a producer, that’s my job. I like it, actually. It can drive you nuts if you don’t like it. It takes a lot of concentration.
JPG: You also went into the studio to work on the compilation of your solo work on Rykodisc, Over the Edge and Back.” In regards to that particular release, it said in the press release that you picked the tracks. When making those choices, how do you view those albums?
MH: I’m not really up for “Best of’s” to be honest with you. It was because the record company president cajoled me into it. Because I really want you to do it.’ So I said, Okay’ and I did it. My stuff doesn’t really play like that best of in one cd because I’m all over the map, from the rhythm to the melody and the harmony, the Apocalypse [sessions], the Olympics. I try to make it go together, but it just barely holds as a CD. If you look at it as individual tracks, they’re terrific, but, usually, when you make a CD there’s a motif. Usually you compose the songs at the same time, so they have a certain kind of continuity to it. This doesn’t have that kind of continuity. So, I didn’t try. I gave up on the continuity part because it covered 20 years of my life.
JPG: When you were picking the tracks themselves did you look back on them as being a moment of time or did you see them as growth spurts or musical journeys?
MH: Growth spurts is a good way of looking at it. That’s how you grow, in spurts. Also, there’s a sequential quality to growing as well. It’s both. I see myself as a work-in-progress. That’s what that CD is all about. When it was all over and I listened back to it, I shook my head and said Wow. That’s a lot of ground.’ I never look back. I don’t have time for that. That was done for the record company, and it really got me into doing 5.1, which I love to do. That’s a 5.1 recording.
JPG: I could tell by listening to it that “Angola” and “Where Love Goes (Sito)” sounded different than original.
MH: Oh they’re waaay different. I mixed it all. The DVD version of it has surround sound and stereo on the same DVD.
JPG: I’ve been slow to get the mixes that you did for “American Beauty.” I have a DVD player, but I don’t have the surround sound. Will it sound good on just a normal speaker system?
MH: Oh yeah. I mix em on normal speakers. I also have Spencer speakers as well. I pump it up there just to make sure that it’s right. I mix em on $100 speakers. You’re going to love it.
JPG: You mentioned about always looking ahead, always doing new things. Let’s touch upon some other projects that you’re working on. Have you done any more field recordings that’ll be coming out?
MH: There will be field recordings coming out, but I can’t speak of that right now because I’m in negotiation, new record companies. What I can speak about is, I have a new alliance with National Geographic and I’m writing books for them. Doing internet projects. The next book will becoming out next summer about song catching from 1890 to the present. The different men and women and the technology that they used to capture the sounds. It’s a fascinating book.
Our first field recording of indigenous music was March 15, 1890 on wax cylinder. So it starts there.
JPG: Speaking of field recordings, did you ever talk to or get advice from Alan Lomax?
MH: I knew Alan very well. Advice? We’ve had many nights of conversation. I would say maybe advice. Alan had a certain way of talking, you certainly could gleam knowledge from his conversation.
JPG: I was reading about your work with the Institute of Neurological Function…
MH: I work with Oliver Sacks on how music affects the brain, which is the next frontier. We’re finding out what the brain looks like before, during and after auditory driving experience.
JPG: Have you recorded special rhythmic tracks that they can play patients?
MH: What we’re doing is drum circling now and altering the brain waves for the motor-impaired. They have been taking CAT scans and PET scans of different brain wave functions responding to different rhythms. They’re new findings. I don’t think it’s been published yet, all universally, the motor-impaired have a giant notch at 40 cycles. There’s a big 40-cycle dump frequency in all the motor-impaired. That’s why rhythm, low end, really stimulates and brings them out of their darkness, at least for a while we’re doing it. Fascinating stuff.
JPG: Working in ways that bring together music and those with physical challenges reminds me of something I saw at the Terrapin Station shows. In the pavilion, there was a group of deaf fans there with someone in front who signed the lyrics. Obviously, they could feel the rhythm, the low end of the rhythm. I saw it years earlier at an RFK show. I never knew the story behind it.
MH: We’ve been doing that for years. How did that come about? I’ve always wondered…That was always an important part of our experience. We always had someone making the signs so they could see the lyrics. Be part of that experience. Also, the people who are handicapped, we always made special sections for them. I think we were the first ones to do that many years ago. We forced Bill Graham into that kicking and screaming. He finally realized that was the proper thing to do.
JPG: One of the more touching moments at Terrapin was watching some guy pushing his friend up that major incline from the bottom of the pavilion all the way to the top again and again.
MH: Oh yeah. We really value those people. They need all the help they can get.
JPG: Now the Other Ones fall tour is coming up…
MH (laughs): Go ahead, go ahead, I knew it was coming.
JPG: Actually, I want to ask this first. For the past five years you’ve been standing up and playing. I noticed with a couple Bembe Orisha number you were sitting down as well during a lot of the Other Ones’ tunes. Why are you sitting down as a drummer again and is there any adaptability factor to it?
MH: The reason is that Billy and I are a double drumming team. That’s what we do best. If you notice I was playing all the hand drums as well during the set. Adapting is not…I can play it all, it’s like riding a bicycle. It’s not a question, it’s super adaptation. Of course it’s small, but I’ve been doing it for 30 years with Kreutzmann.
Some songs it calls out to me to play a drum set. Other songs call out to me just to play percussion. I just do whatever I want. What I hear, I play. There are no rules. I’ll switch off in the middle of the song. I’ll be playing drum kit and I’ll switch off to another drum, then I’ll drift back. That’s part of the fun and part of the experience.
JPG: What about with Bembe Orisha? Same thing?
MH: No, that’s a little different. There’s a drum kit. There’s not two drum kits. I have RAMU, which is an electronic and acoustic ring of drums. Then, there’s the drum kit in the back. You can’t play double drums that easily. Kreutzmann’s the only one I can really do it with. It’s not something that’s an easy thing. That’s why you don’t see it a lot. I don’t attempt it unless I can do it well. It’s just not necessary in Bembe music. It just doesn’t call out to me. That’s why I haven’t approached it that way.
And for many years, I got burned out on the drum kit after the Grateful Dead stopped. I said, Enough. Just do all that other stuff that you’ve always wanted to explore.’ So I did. But, now that we’re reforming, it makes it more attractive to go back and play that way, back in that style. Now I mix it up more than I ever did because I’m more fluid in another percussive style. It’s not exactly adapting, it’s just sort of going with it.
With Kreutzmann, it’s not adapting. We’re tied. It’s not like that; a matter of just getting into a groove and playing what you want to play and don’t step on your brother and stay out of his way, he stays out of yours. Together you make three. It’s just that simple. If you don’t do that then you’re just beating shit up. That was never the Grateful Dead. It’s more like a philosophy and technique rolled in. A big part of it is compassion and trust. Plays a giant role in me and Kreutzmann’s relationship. It’s not all about skill. Of course skill definitely comes into play, but it’s more like love and compassion and giving if you were going to put it in three words.
JPG: I was going to say, sounds like a singular mind type of thing.
MH: When you play in that kind of situation, you have to give a lot personally, a lot of your personal ego. I mean Kreutzmann doesn’t play things that he would normally play if he was alone. Same with me. But we tried to form this eight-armed monster. The Beast. That’s in both of our minds. Of course, we never talk about it. It’s more of an intuitive thing than it is a practiced experience. It’s only acquired over 2,000 shows. That’s the only way you can get that stuff.
JPG: There was something I saw on the net. It said something about you and Billy explored self-hypnosis to aid in drumming.
MH: Yeah many years ago. What we were doing back then, we were trying to become one. We had to play, six, eight, 10 hours at a time. Memorize very complicated rhythmic passages. This was when we were kids. We would go into deep hypnosis and we would make suggestions to ourselves for whatever we were about to do, we’re going to play for 12 hours now, not eating, no sleeping and just really focus on each other and become one. We would give ourselves those kind of suggestions. That’s how we got that root lock. That’s how we became the rhythm section. We really focused strongly.
It was a technique. We used to hone our skills when we were kids. It allowed us to dream it. It allowed us to be able to spend many hours continuously in one place.
JPG: So, before you play “Drumz” you don’t between sets discuss matters. It just happens?
MH: No. We never talk about it. The only thing we can agree on is that we never talk about it. That part of the experience is completely unplanned. That’s the fun of that. We never predestine that whole section, that whole drums thing. That’s there. That’s real. As you see it. It’s never worked out. Never.
JPG: Speaking of working things out, for a few years everyone saw this big feud happening between you and Phil.
MH: Was it only between me and Phil?
JPG: Can we say mainly you and Phil?
MH: Actually it was Phil against everybody. But Phil’s always been a brother. He’s one of my best friends. Always was, still is. But we didn’t agree on a lot of things. It wasn’t me and Phil. It was mostly Phil didn’t want to have anything to do with Grateful Dead for his own reasons. We never had a fight. I never had a fight with Phil. We’ve never had bad words. We never yelled at each other. So I think it was blown out a lot further in the press than it really was. (laughs) We never had a fight. We just didn’t agree.
JPG: What exactly brought you guys together on New Year’s Eve?
MH: It was over. It was time to get back. We all missed each other. We started calling each other. Then, we got in a room together and the love was there. Hey, what about playing? Well that’s a novel idea.’ Then, Phil said, You want to come to New Year’s Eve?’ Sure man. I’ll be there.’ Simple as that. We didn’t have any big plan. That’ s just the way it rolled out. Like I said, we were never enemies. We had our differences of opinion. The press sort of took it waaaay out of proportion. Mickey and Phil never really fought.
JPG: I had a wonderful experience at the Terrapin Station shows. I told people that weren’t there that the uplifting atmosphere was palpable. Could the band feel that onstage?
MH: Of course. I try to really focus on the music cause I didn’t want to get emotionally charged up and not be able to play. Of course, we could feel it. It was overwhelming. Oh yeah man. We didn’t want to become overwhelmed. That’s why we were very focused.
JPG: Tell me about the curtain call and the jumping and the group hug…
MH: I have no idea. All of a sudden we were out in front. I think maybe Phil grabbed my hand and I grabbed Bobby’s hand and Billy came by, I don’t know. It wasn’t orchestrated. Nobody said anything about it. I had no idea. It just happened.
I have no recollection. I just remember doing it. I don’t remember what the stage looked like or, it wasn’t like hey everybody now it’s time to go out and it was not like that. That was really surprising to see Phil jump up and down. So un-Phil like.
JPG: Then you made it the moment even bigger with the group hug and more jumping.
MH: It was real man, it was certainly real. It felt great, pulling it off.