Two Heads of Hydra
It only seemed a matter of time before Mickey Hart surfaced with some type of new project. He has come up with one interesting musical outlet after another during the periods between satisfying Grateful Dead fans' obsessive desire to revisit that band's catalogue via tours with the Other Ones or the Dead. While much of this work focused on his interests in world music, his latest creative release takes a clear step into the future.
Hooking up with the four members of Particle, the newly-formed quintet has been christened Hydra. Brief tastes of what's in store during the group's initial string of live dates, beginning April 7, can be found at www.hydra-music.com.
Besides catching up with Hart and finding out how this came to be, what to expect and what's in store for him the rest of this year, I also spoke with Particle guitarist Charlie Hitchcock in order to receive his perspective on this outing. These two interviews have been interwoven into the piece that follows
JPG: I must be honing my psychic abilities because a week or so before I received the press release on Hydra I was thinking that Mickey Hart’s been awful quiet lately. He must be working on something…
MH: He's just been private. He's been louder than ever, man. It's the loudest I've ever been.
I just haven't been out there. I've been sort of reinventing. I'm creating my instrument, RAMU, actually. I've been putting a lot of time into that and creating this instrument that is the center of my attention right now and my love, my instrument of choice, my instrument of desire. It combines the archaic world, drums, and the binary world of digital domain.
JPG: Let’s talk about RAMU in a second. First off, when did you first hear Particle and what were your thoughts at that time?
MH: I thought they were a really wonderful band. I heard a CD of em and it was definitely a trance dance band. Headed straight into the zone. No question about that. And of course I loved the idea of no vocals. That was so appealing. Real trance music. Didn't have to deal with open microphones so you could get seriously loud and really do some serious auditory driving here.
It was one of the first things I could relate to from this genre. I love Loop Guru and The Chemical Brothers and new music, but this band really attracted me.
JPG: Just out of curiosity, what do you think of the new Chemical Brothers? I’m a little disappointed.
MH: Well, it, it, um, well, I don't know, it's progress. They're progressing. They're getting lyrical content. They're experimenting with new genres. I like em. I just really like em and they make me feel good and…yeah, good record.
JPG: I love em, but it just hasn’t hit me like previous one.
MH: Yeah I know, but you've got to give everybody a chance to grow and advance. And what they're doing, they're finding their way because there's a lot of choices that you can have out there now. It's really a matter of getting your hands on the right data that you need for managing your musical sense and to be able to have enough opportunities in front of you as far as your instrument goes.
So, that's what they're doing. They're developing a new World music. And that's what Hydra's doing, too. That's what interested me. It's a great fusion of the archaic trance rituals, West Africa, and tied directly to modern dance music.
This band I thought could really fly. So they came here for a couple days and played all day and night. Fun. And they went anywhere, just everywhere. It was real moment music. Had a great time.
JPG: Now were those basically just jam sessions. Did you invite them…?
MH: Yeah, they came over, set up their instruments in my studio and we played for a couple days as I remember it. We've had a tryst or two since then. The first date was great. We did more than kiss, you understand? Serious attempt at the heart of trance was where we're headed here.
Charlie Hitchcock: We just recorded a bunch of stuff and it sounded good and just led to the idea of putting a band together. And here we are.
JPG: Was there a consideration initially of, ‘Let’s put an album out there first’ or was it, ‘Let’s just get on the road, do this live and take it up from there’?
CH: First, we just decided to write some material. Then, we wrote a bunch of material and recorded it. Nothing is like totally finished, but all the songs are there. We’ll tour and then take it from there. We haven’t really made any concrete plans for an album, but I’m sure we probably will.
JPG: Now the material itself, Mickey talked about they were jams that coalesced. Give me an idea of the sessions.
CH: When we first got together we jammed on some Particle tunes. We also did some free jams and he played along. That was pretty much the first time we went up there. For the most part it was all improv and a couple Particle songs. I think we played Grateful Dead stuff the first time we were there, and that was kinda cool.
It was just kind of meet and feel it out. The second time we went up there we played along with some pre-recorded drum tracks he had and that was definitely a different vibe to it, and recorded that. And then the third time we went up, we tried to replicate what we did with the pre-recorded stuff. We had song ideas we pieced together, but we played it all live that time around, played a couple Grateful Dead transitions and jams and stuff. Just got a bunch of different ideas for songs and spaces He’s got all these different instruments up in his place so different songs go with different stuff; a thing called the Beam, which is this crazy low end thing he used on the Apocalypse Now sessions.
JPG: I see that other people have played with you in the past — Robbie Krieger of the Doors, Buckethead, Stefan Lessard of Dave Matthews Band…
CH: John Popper just played with us. We played Austin a couple nights ago. He also opened up a bunch of shows. He’s got a side project. He opens up for us. We play with him. He plays with us, that kind of thing.
JPG: What is it about Particle that all these other people feel comfortable to jump in there with you?
CH: Well it’s definitely a very easy vehicle to come and play in. It’s pretty open. It’s not just that we’re playing these cut-and-dry songs and if you don’t know the songs, you’ll be screwed unless you’re really good. I think we have a lot of openness in our music that makes it easy and I think the music’s interesting and new and it’s got a cool sound.
JPG: Now what did you see in Particle that would work for you and what did you see for yourself that would work for them?
MH: One of the things that I liked most about them is that they listened to each other and you can see things unfolding in their music without being rushed or hurried They were having a musical conversation and they were doing it within the context of this colossal group, you know, jackhammer group and they were doing it at rapid tempos.
Darren [Pujalet] is a really accurate drummer. He's able to maintain that zone for long periods of time without blinking. He's a real rhythm machine. So, everything else can unfold gently with no panic. It wasn't about solos. It was about the Group Mind. That was what I really heard. These guys are actually playing together. I hear Group Mind I feel Group Mind. It could be very interesting.
And then we checked each other out as far as human beings. Hey, we like being in the same room together. We know we can play. We liked each other, so after we played for hours, there was no need even to listen back to it.
I didn't know their music that well, so I was just playing anything. They were just playing anything. It was new turf. Every once in awhile they might have gone into one of their songs or something, but I didn't know it. Terrific. Great fertile ground for experimentation. I also thought this is like a fertile field to have some real fun. They seemed to want a little adventure and I certainly wanted to take RAMU out again in a new form. It all made sense.
JPG: I was looking at your particular page on the Particle website influences and albums and bands you’re interested in but I didn’t see the Grateful Dead. Was it other members of the band that were into this or was it just an idea to try? What did you see in working with Mickey that would be good for Particle and for yourself and for him and listeners?
CH: Mickey definitely brings his own kind of vibe to the table and it affects us in unconscious ways. We all play a lot differently with him. It’s interesting, a lot more, I don’t know, maybe more refined or maybe not as young. I guess we play young. We’ve been playing really high energy, like running out at the races, but this is more relaxed and not trying to prove yourself all the time kind of thing.
JPG: Mickey mentioned the idea that you guys seem to really listen to each other. Do you think that is a natural component of Particle that became enhanced playing with him?
CH: I think his presence did make things tighten up a bit, throws something new in the mix. It makes you think about what you’re doing a little bit more than being on autopilot, maybe. Yeah, I think everybody was listening a lot more. We’re usually in the clubs hacking it out. It’s not too often that we go into a studio. We only have that one album out ("Launchpad"). So, we haven’t been to the studio all that much.
Live, we’re improvising a lot, but you listen a lot more intensely in the studio than you would in a live setting ‘cause you’re listening to what you’re playing and you go back and listen to it. It just goes and comes in a club and all that, so it helps us all listen a lot better, which is good.
JPG: After each series of sessions with Mickey, when you went back on the road, just the four of you, did they end up influencing how you worked with each other onstage?
CH: I think so. You can notice it’s rubbed off on us when we do our live shows. We even bust in a little stuff that we did up there in our shows, just kind of either on purpose or by accident.
JPG: You’ve been like dropping little Hydra previews?
CH: It’s funny. They’re hard to find, but the band knows. They’re not super obvious, but they’re in there.
JPG: Coming back to RAMU. You said you’ve been working on that…
MH: I've been working on it since 1980. It was actually Garcia's idea in a way. We were talking about instruments of the future and he was describing string instruments and how he would like to have them all around him. He said, Yeah, you should think about getting an instrument, think of all the possibilities of everything that you love, all the things and sounds that are dear to you and things that are not. Noise. All kinds of instruments that are who you are that you can access.' Of course, there was no digital domain then.
And we were just having a rave session about it, but it stuck and when I started getting into the digital domain when it started things started building up. One thing led to another. Then, we got Stevie Wonder's tech Bob Bralove, I think, in '86. In the Grateful Dead, he was my tech. That's when everything changed. He named it RAMU, Random Access Musical Universe. That's what he called it. He said, You've got a Random Access Musical Universe here.' I go Yeah. It's a RAMU.'
JPG: Wasn’t it Bralove who during Drums and Space would throw things different sounds to you…?
MH: Bralove was Stevie Wonder's MIDI guy. I made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Then, he worked for me until '95. So, it's really quite an instrument (RAMU) and now it's all talking to each other. Parts that have been built over the years, now one integrated circuit, which is really fun. You can sit in this Ring of Fire.
I call it the Hydra, that's where the band got its name. RAMU now is an incarnation which is called The Hydra. Like a fun machine. It's one of the most powerful rhythm tools on the planet. It's analog and digital. I got my foot firmly planted in the archaic world and in the world of today and tomorrow.
JPG: Last year during the Dead summer tour you were playing a regular drum kit as well as RAMU.
MH: Yeah. It's not that way here because Darren has got that covered. I probably have every kind of drum that Darren doesn't. I try to make it different because he's got all that other stuff covered. He stays out of my way, so we can both do more.
JPG: Now that’s interesting because I was looking back at the Jambands interview we did back in 2002 and we were talking about the Rhythm Devils and you and Bill Kreutzmann. You were talking about the Group Mind and the idea of "compassion and trust." You talk about this situation in a different way. Obviously, there’s a degree of trust as musicians…
MH: We don't know each other as me and Kreutzmann. Me and Kreutzmann, we share the same DNA. It's a different thing. I don't know the intricacies of Darren like I know…me and Billy breathe together. Different thing.
It's like knowing your brother. You know everything about em. On a good day. Bad day. If he's taking that groove up a little, kicked it back, I know it in a millisecond. With Darren and I, we're just learning, we're just establishing a language so we can speak to each other. We do it very easily and he's a great drummer. We're having a great time, but it's a whole different thing. In order to sync like me and Kreutzmann do, you really got to live with each other and have experiences outside of the recording studio. You've got to go fall down and get picked up. You know what I mean? Life experiences. That's what that's all about. But Darren and I get into some really powerful grooves no doubt.
JPG: Speaking of grooves, listening to several of the tracks that were on the site. Now were those jam sessions that were edited or…
MH: Those were just jams, little snippets. We jammed for hours. These are just snippets we took of this, my headphone mix. This is not a serious recording. I just wanted people to hear what it was and enjoy it with us. Went everywhere with it. It felt real warm and cuddly again when it was all over. And it went for long periods.
JPG: When you go out and play live, say a week or so before the first date, will you try to hone these snippets into shape and some sort of set or do you think it’ll be just as loose?
MH: No. We're getting together for a couple weeks of rehearsal before we go out. Everybody's really dedicated to this. Sure we're making songs, not in the sense that there'll be chorus and verses. It's more like motifs and maybe arrangements.
JPG: Now the press release alluded to the idea of possibly pulling stuff from either your catalogue or stuff from The Grateful Dead.
MH: I hope that's a possibility. I think you should be able to pull from anybody's catalogue, you know what I mean? I think you should pull on the world's influences. Whatever's out there. I'll be part of RAMU as a shortwave radio.
JPG: Do you plan on releasing these shows on CD or for download, especially since each one should have its individual stamp?
MH: I really haven't discussed it with the guys. I would think that would be a good thing to do.
This is a time in a band's life when it's really fun before it gets out of hand or the music gets old. It's all fresh now. Everything here is for the first time. This is like first romance, in those terms. It's a wonderful feeling. Everybody feels real good, playing at the top of their game. I'm playing good. I'm feeling good.
JPG: Several years ago you talked about recording with Bembe Orisha, will any of that be released?
MH: We have recorded a lot of stuff, but I've been moving so fast. Some day I'd like to release some of that. Beautiful band. I have it all. I haven't gotten to it. That's really a great idea I'd like to do that some day. We just had such a great band.
JPG: What other projects have you been working on over the past few months?
MH: I'm starting up the "Rhythm for Life" Foundation, which funds the study of the brain, music and the brain, in different ways that rhythmic sounds affect brain waves. With the Library of Congress on getting the archives digitized to allow access. I've been writing. I've been composing. Mostly staying at home and working on this new music that you're going to be hearing out there in Hydraland. So, that takes a lot of time just to be able to sit and focus. Creating a new instrument is something that's exciting, but it's very time consuming.
JPG: The very last thing, thousands of readers would kill me if I didn’t bring this up, so you know what’s coming. Do you have any summer plans that include rejoining with some old friends over the past several decades?
MH: Actually, there are no summer plans. I'd like to remind whoever's interested, when we started all this up that we were going to take it easy and not tour to death, and do it when we really felt like doing it. So, that's what happened. I think that at the right time it'll happen again. When that'll be I can't tell. Everybody's having a little time off now to breathe, enjoy their family and do whatever they want to do. When it happens, it'll be really good.
When it's done again, it will be done really right, man. I think it's just being patient.
JPG: In general, do you have any summer plans either with Hydra or something else or…?
MH: I'm just taking it pretty easy these days. Sit back and enjoy my family this summer, travel a little bit. Those are my plans.
JPG: Is it actual travel or are you doing field recordings as part of a vacation?
MH: Actually, I just came back from recording in Thailand. I recorded in Bangkok, the week of the tsunami. I came back from Thailand, but I'm thinking of doing a recording in Africa in the summertime.