Mickey Hart Makes Another Run For The Roses
After several interviews with Mickey Hart over the past decade, it’s become commonplace for me to view his disappearance from the public eye as a sign that he will surely emerge with a new unexpected project to bestow on to the world. The Fall of 2007 is no different.
Hart has rejoined his stellar cast of Planet Drum rhythmatists Zakir Hussain (tabla), Sikiru Adepoju (Nigerian talking drum) and Giovanni Hidalgo (congas) under a new moniker Global Drum Project. The album’s eight tracks create a concise musical world that takes listeners on a journey that’s developed further on the concert stage.
“That’s the way I like it. I don’t like to repeat. I’m kind of a private person in some ways. I like to gestate. I like to do things calmly and at my own speed, and when it’s ready for public consumption you’ll know about it. That’s the way I like it. Then, there are no expectations and I have no pressure. I have nobody tell me what to do, when to do it and how to do itand that’s freedom.”
Similar to our previous conversations, Hart is open, gracious and enthusiastic about his work, his peers and the endless possibilities that tie rhythm to the physicality and mentality of humans.
JPG: First off, how’s the tour going?
MH: Oh the tour is going spectacular. I mean, it’s rippin’. The groove is right. The groove is hot! The band is inspired, actually. That happens at the beginning of projects. You know how it is.
JPG: I was looking over my past notes to get familiarized with RAMU (Random Access Musical Universe). Is it the same RAMU we talked about previously, and does everyone have their own version of it to use onstage?
MH: Yes, well it’s a little more complicated than that. It’s mostly Zakir and myself and we have a signal processor behind us, Jonah Sharpe who is also doing the processing and sampling and holding and allowing us to overdub on ourselves live. And that was the vision of this project, to be able to create stuff that we did in the studio live. That’s why I waited so long to pull the maestros together to make another run for the roses here.
The RAMU that you know of has come a long way since, perhaps, we spoke last time. RAMU is really my database of all my professional samples. Okay. So that lives in one place and then there’s now the much more sophisticated digital processing that is available in RAMU. RAMU has grown. RAMU’s brain is much more larger and much more powerful now. Now, he is able to do things that the old RAMU wasn’t even in his circuitry at the time. In his robot brain. What happens is that signals go to him, the drums, whether it be me Zakir, Giovanni, Sikiru, and they are processed and enhanced and mutated, looped and sampled and held and all kinds of wonderful things that really wasn’t possible on a nightly basis.
JPG: Someone else s doing all that work as you’re playing or do you get to do that as well?
MH: No, we have control of it. Sometimes it’s split up. There’s a few stations that contain the power. On the stage of the musicians, the two people that are doing the traffic control are me and Zakir.
JPG: The point I was getting to by addressing the technology behind it is that while listening to the album, it still sounds natural.
MH: It is natural. It’s coming from us and there’s no synthesis. It’s all coming from acoustical sources. It’s basically a combination of the archaic world drums, membranes, percussion — and the digital domain. And we’re dancing between those two worlds. And trying to make this an intelligent dance as opposed to, well, you know on machine-run klootch where the robots and the sound druids are in control. So, it’s an interactive thing. That was the whole art. That’s the art as far as we’re concerned here. Anything you hear is not coming from a box made in Japan.
JPG: When you’re home just hanging out in the studio do you take it to the extreme where it sounds like some sort of alien warfare going on all around you?
MH: I’m not into alien warfare. I ’m more into trance. When I get into alien warfare, I pull it back. I’m more into mutating already existing sounds like Zakir playing a top line that sounds like a marimba, maybe 20 tablas or me playing a bell or something and it sounds like a gamelan. That’s the kind of spatial processing I’m looking for. I’ve always…and I know I must have said this in my last talks to you, it’s about process percussion for me whereas you take an acoustic source and take it to a place that’s not born yet, unborn sounds, and that really enriches the palette. We’re able now to paint with colors that were only in our dreams. That’s what this thing was. This is a dream. When you get the best of the best together and go out there and do foolish things like play something that you’ve done in the past that would be foolish, to waste an ensemble like this on. By the way did you like the CD?
JPG: Yes, I did very much.
MH: Well, you see it’s a soft side. And that’s where the trance lives and there’s not a great amount of soloing on it. Mostly deep drumming groove things. Very much like the Grateful Dead in some ways. It doesn’t hit you over the head. It sucks you in. It’s very arabesque, and it allows you to see inside the grooves and hear things each time that you didn’t hear before. The vision.
JPG: When I put it on, because CDs usually run around an hour anymore and this is around 41 minutes, I was surprised by its conciseness.
MH: That was just the length of what it turned out to be. There’s a lot more where that came from. I thought that was a good musical listening experience. You know what I mean? Just because you can fit sixty minutes or 70 minutes on a CD that’s not necessarily… This is the composition. So, I composed 42 minutes.
JPG: As far as the compositions, with hours not used, was it a matter of finding the songs, which came about through the collaborative process?
MH: When we sit and play it goes on forever. But that wasn’t the objective. We had clear goals when Zakir and I first started this. And we stayed with the vision. This is a very focused CD, although all of it came from improvisation.
JPG: What were some of the goals before you started?
MH: The goals were to make a unified work that would take you to another place without boring you, without being redundant in a foolish way, because Trance is about redundancy. You have to be very careful. There’s a very thin line between getting bored and going into the zone and being in trance. That was part of it.
And also it was about the sonic wonder. One of the things we have at the top of the list. Okay, whatever sounds we put on here make them sound like, you know, sounds you’d die for, really beautiful sounds that don’t have, even though everybody’s a soloist. Let’s not solo per se because that’s very egocentric and that comes in the grooves, through the grooves. When you put soloists together they have to want to groove. Create Group Mind. That was another big category Group Mind. How do we achieve Group Mind with all these masters? Any one of them…you can sit there for an hour or two and just listen to them alone. But that wasn’t the objective. You know about Giovanni?
JPG: A bit. Probably more so with your work.
MH: He’s like a deity with Latin percussion. There’s nobody like him. There’s all the professionals and then there’s Giovanni. Set a whole new standard, just like Zakir who sang. Are you familiar with Zakir?
MH: Okay, then you know Zakir is probably the greatest rhythmist on the planet. So those two guys are like brothers as far as technique and expertise and skill. Sikiru is the Mozart of his instrument on talking drum. There’s nobody better from Nigeria.
That was the real trick, how to get all of these guys playing in the groove and make it an ego-less, but free musical experience. They are soundscapes, I don’t see them as songs with verses. That was the other thing — no songs, no verses, choruses and bridges and stuff like that — because that’s not what trance is about.
JPG: At the same time when you speak of Group Mind, in order to reach that objective did you, for example, meditate before playing or anything to bring it together?
MH: No, not really. We do yoga every day, you know, breathe. We’re professional trancers. We know how to do this. This is part of our repertoire, and so everybody brings that to the table. We don’t have to sit there and hold hands and levitate. I mean, we’ve done this thousands of times. I was in a trance band for 35 years. So, I know how this thing goes. And all the rest of them come from those traditions of and are fully aware of the necessities and the characteristics of going into the Zone.
JPG: As far as trance, I’m thinking of it as far as the music helping the players and listeners to reach a trance-like state and then what that achieves for you. In a concert setting you have to deal with things such as set lists or time frames. How do you balance the rules of a concert versus the desire to achieve trance?
MH: That’s a good question and it’s an easy answer. You use soundscapes as frames and you play in them. You expand them. You leave a lot of room for conversation, improvisation, and you don’t get hung up on time. A recorded situation is one thing but in a live situation you have to infuse these grooves with passion and spontaneity without taking people to a place that it breaks their concentration. You’re trying to alter their brainwave function in a positive way. That’s what this trance is all about and put them in a non-ordinary state. It’s the transformation of consciousness that’s really what’s at stake here, not about entertainment necessarily. A good trance experience should be wonderful entertainment if done right.
But, there’s a line that you have to go to as a trancer and not be completely the trancee, if you know what I mean, because what happens, sometimes you’ll lose facility if you become too in the zone yourself. You’re able to maintain the trance. That’s your responsibility. Everyone has that skill. They go to the edge and then they can pull back a little. I think the audience goes wherever they want. But we have to maintain our skill and our flexibility and not get too out there. Of course this varies from night to night. Everybody’s skilled at it and everybody has trust and love, and they have the desire to go into…These are new zones. These are zones that contain culturally specific grooves, for sure. I mean, you wouldn’t ask Giovanni or Sikiru or Zakir or me to forget 40/50 years of our training. We’re able to let a lot of that go and let the traditional, kind of cut it loose, and come and try to form a new kind of rhythm for a new day. One of those kind of things. That was also at the top, I’ll keep referring to the list there, what the objectives were as you asked earlier. That was it. We wanted to create a new zone for us, basically, to operate.
JPG: In thinking about trance. That word has jumped out more than I recall in past interviews. It’s made me wonder for your own self and your vision of rhythm, obviously it’s been developed over your lifetime. But ideas such as trance and being a trancer, is that something that has been stronger within you recently or developed more after you wrote the books and got and even deeper sense of rhythm? How does it all fit together?
MH: I think it really started when I was a kid, when I first realized the report of rhythmic noise and what it did to me personally and how it put me in a different state of mind. I realized that this was different than anything else, than playing in the street or playing stickball, football or whatever. This was a very rhythmic matter that I could manipulate, and that made me feel good. So, it started with that and, of course, it really was nurtured with the Grateful Dead and especially psychoactive drugs. All taking them together. Going to these places, it was like circumnavigating a new musical geography. And that was also a learning experience. But once you go there, you know how to recreate it. You don’t have to get chemically high every night to know the landscape or the soundscape as it were.
And then I met [Ustad] Alla Rakha, Zakir’s father. Phil gave me a record, and that took me into another rhythmic zone. Then I started studying music in the brain and the neurological quotient — the neurology of music, the neurology of rhythm, how rhythm can reconnect, for instance, an Alzheimer’s or dementia [patient] and how music is a place in lifestyle and in wellness and as preventive medicine. These all were like little bookmarks thatand, of course, researching Drumming at the Edge [of Magic], is a major thing. I went to every culture I could find and found that many of them had either possession trance or extasis, ecstasy, all these things were associated with vibration and vibrational art and really rhythm is part of, really about drums and drumming at the vibration of things and about how you connect to yourself and to others in the vibratory world.
So, “it’s not just the rhythm, stupid, it’s the vibration, stupid.” Then, there was a discovery a few years ago about the universe, the Big Bang. The origin seed sound. The thing that created all of us in the universe vibrated at 52 octaves below middle C. Brought into our hearing, it’s a B flat. We were created out of, the first rhythm was a B flat. It was vibrating in that notes. The cosmic low end of the universe is B flat. So here we have a vibratory origin of the universe, the Big Bang. That was another factor in realizing that we’re trying to reconnect with that sound because that’s the sound that we were born from, born of, the washing over us. So all this kind of made sense in the creational aspect of why do I drum every day? Why do I dream about things that are rhythmic? It seemed to make even more sense after those 16 years of researching that book.
JPG: Speaking of such things is that your line in the CD booklet, “In the beginning was the noise…”
MH: Yeah, “In the beginning was noise, noise, begat rhythm, rhythm..” That’s from the book. That’s the way I open up the book.
JPG: I thought it sounded familiar. That reminds me how I love the idea where you hear music in the background of every day life from road construction to…
MH: I’m just coded to scan for rhythms. Rhythmic noise is a specialty of mine. I’ve always had an attraction to loud things to inharmonic sound, which you might call noise. Of course, that’s what drums really are. They’re so dense that, the sound bite is so dense that it doesn’t have a normal harmonic structure like a note; like you hit on a guitar a tonic, a third, a fourth. Inharmonic sound is quite different.
I’ve always had a strong attraction to it and that’s also what causes trance. You can induce trance easier because of that particular factor. That its power. It’s also a great short, sharp, sound bite. You can define rhythm exactly as opposed to other instruments — guitars, violins, flutes — they’re not made for rhythm. They’re made mostly for melody and harmony.
JPG: Do you think that either consciously or subconsciously it’s stored for you and comes out whether in tonight’s concert or next recording?
MH: Absolutely! It’s about freedom. It’s about freedom of spirit. Freedom of…skill to be able to leave a lot of what you know behind. And be in the moment. That’s also a big part of this cause you can bring a whole bunch of skill to the table and then you just beat the shit up by you just playing something cause you just know how to play it. That’s also part of the spirit and the freedom that you experience on a nightly basis with a group like this. Also, like the Grateful Dead, from time to time we were able to go to these places, but this band does the same thing. We don’t play Grateful Dead music, but the sonic payload you get from this band is very potent.
JPG: As far as “beat shit up,” a song off the new album, “Dances with Wood” you were using old grapevines and an old redwood…
MH: We’re actually playing it onstage. We have it out here on the road. That was another interesting development. It’s my hobby or my passion or my meditation, I go into the deep forest and find pieces of old wood that are rotting and I clean them up. It becomes like a meditation for me and I started playing them one day and recording them. Just messing around, connecting with the earth, cause I’m a big earth guy, fire and earth. Then Zakir said, Hey, let’s take it out on the road.’ So, that’s where “Dances with Wood” came from. We said let’s put it on the CD cause it’s really a meditation. Zakir played one. I played the other. Made cases for them. Put contact mikes on em and cardoid sophisticated mikes on em. We open the show with em.
JPG: I was wondering how you obtain something like that, thinking that someone called you up one day and said, Hey, I got a piece of redwood that fell and do you want it?’
MH: Part of it is I go into the forest and harvest it myself. I don’t accept woods from anybody. I’ve never done that. It’s a whole process where I go into the deep forest in northern California, the redwood forest. I live in a redwood forest. It’s part of the experience. You go in and you haul it out. Clean it up and you nurture it. You rub it. You scrape it. You put mallets on it, to it, sticks to it, toothbrushes to it. You do things to try to bring out the innate quality of the wood, the resonant factors of the wood. So, you really connect with that.
JPG: Do you have to do anything to the wood to keep it from falling apart?
MH: First of all, you have to get the bugs out. You get all the insects out and once you stop that then it lasts, well not forever, but it’ll last beyond my years. Now these are redwoods, these are hundreds of years old. Thousands of pounds some of them. And the grapes were in the ground during the Civil War. Over a 150 years old.
I was just asked if I played Swamp Cedar recently. They want to use it on one of their CDs they want me to play. It’s some well-known personality, can’t mention but… I’ve never played Swamp Cedar, but I really look forward to doing that. So, I’m going to stretch out from redwood. I’ve only played redwood and grapes. As protrusions. You can’t just play a stone, the insects haven’t devoured somehow and created these cavities. That’s what this is all about. It’s not getting a piece of wood or log and playing it. These things have hundreds of different sounds. They have different extremities, parts of the roots system.
JPG: About how long are the pieces?
MH: I have the Squid, which is the old growth grape and the Twin Dolphins, is the redwood. Twin Dolphins is about 250 pounds and it’s about 4 feet and oh about 3 feet wide. And the Squid, oh it’s maybe 50/60 pounds and about five feet long. I trimmed them when I got them and brought them down to something manageable. Part of the root and trunk. It’s not just root system. It’s a different kind of connection to the earth kind of thing.
JPG: One of the good things about starting the show off with that
MH: It puts everybody on notice that this is not a normal percussion concert. We’re not just playing. We’re trying to take you someplace else. Expand ours and yours, your consciousness.
JPG: and it goes back to the core idea of the archaic meeting the digital, drums meeting RAMU.
MH: That was right there on the top of that list we were talking about.
JPG: Absolutely. That reminds me of this, the first thing I was thinking when I listened to Global Drum Project, do you think it’s a good time for Global Drum Project or good timing for it to be achieved together?
MH: You know, I think that it’s both. I think that it’s a good time because it’s focused and has to do with the breath and has to do with the yoga of music of rhythm. And people are starting to look for things that give em a little bit of spirituality, a little bit of calmness and centered. And it’s a different dance for a different day. That’s what this is all about, the inner dance.
I think it’s really hitting on all cylinders. We’re really…this CD’s got legs. They love the music in concert and the CD has really been getting rave reviews. Actually, the best reviews I’ve ever gotten in my life. You never can tell about those things. It was a pure work that popped out very much like the original Planet Drum. It was all first takes. We didn’t sit in the studio or play these things to death. It’s like a magical work. You live with it for so long you forget that inspiration, the moment of creation; the light went on on every one of these pieces. Nothing on there is filler. And that’s why it’s 42 minutes because I wanted to be concise. Just hit ya and Boom.’
JPG: That brings up this because I to make sure I got this right, the main recording was just you and Zakir.
MH: That’s right.
JPG: And then Giovanni and Sikiru came in later to add their parts.
MH: That’s correct.
JPG: With that method, did the album form through the mixing and editing process or?
MH: A little bit of both but a lot of the tracks, Sikiru was on an original track, on a couple of them using the samples of Baba [Olatunji]’s voice. So, it wasn’t just me and Zakir. And, of course, Giovanni was originally on there from previous recordings, which we used as the basis of some of the compositions. So, it worked every different way you possibly could. And then there was the “Kaluli Groove,” which were the recordings that Steven Feld made in New Guinea and those beautiful voices of the Kaluli people (heard on the Voices of the Rainforest album).
God, there was no real boundary lines to this. We just went where we wanted to go. It was one of those kind of pure as far as we didn’t think about it too much. Mostly we dreamt about it. We came in to see each other each day. I did something. He reacted. Zakir reacted. Zakir did something. I reacted to that.
JPG: Speaking of Baba Olatunji, was that one of the original early goals, if you will, to include him on a track, which became “Baba.”
MH: Absolutely! I was putting his vocal away for a year. I recorded that vocal in the 90’s. It was always very precious to me and I was always wanting to do something with it, so that was the seed sound for that.
JPG: I’m familiar with him, but I’ll admit not in a very deep sense. So, for myself and for readers, give me an idea, why should we know Baba Olatunji?
MH: That’s an easy one to answer. He was the first to really bring the powerful rhythms of West Africa, Nigeria, real possessions of trance Gods to America. He did this in 1959 with “Drums of Passion,” which changed many people’s lives — John Coltrane, Dylan, me, Carlos Santana, who did two of his songs on his first record. Baba was a major influence for decades on music, on musicians here because he was the one who introduced the chant, these powerful rhythms to the West.
And also, he was a lovely guy. He went around and he did Clinics. He played his whole life. He was a pure spirit. He’s also the godfather of my daughter. He’s an important figure in American music, in World Music, whatever you call that.
JPG: By the way, why the name change from Planet Drum to Global Drum Project?
MH: Yeah, there was a conflict in names with another organization. We didn’t want to have any kind of conflict. So, we just changed the name. It’s all about us. It’s all about the rhythm we figured anyway without causing any kind of lawsuits, spending your life in court. We just said, Fuck it.’ It’s that simple. Nothing wrong with Planet Drum. Someone else claimed to have it and we moved on.
JPG: And then, I’ll spare you and skip the obvious last question that you probably get every day of your life regarding you and your former band mates, but I would like to know what’s next cause it seems like you always have
MH: I can’t really answer that. Everyone’s at peace with each other, I hope. See what happens, you know. I mean, if I get the call and we can agree musically on things and become friends again. It’ll happen. There’s no conflict now, so everything is calm. I’m just going to let it lie there. I mean, I love em all. There’s differences. We’ve grown separately since we stopped playing. We’ve grown, but that’s the most important thing. Everyone’s living their life the way they want to live it. If there is a call and if we get together in a room, we’ll all probably be big smiles and probably go to the next level. But that is not here right now. It’s just much better than conflict.
JPG: Interesting, but what I was getting to was that there are so many things we’ve talked about in the past from field recordings to work with the Smithsonian, studies relating to rhythm and the brain, I’m still waiting for the Bembe Orisha album. Anything coming up later this year? Next year?
MH: There’s a lot of stuff but I really can’t talk about that now for various reasons. Just concentrate on what I’m doing right now. You can be sure that somethingthere’s a lot of things that are gonna be popping up next year, that are going to be really exciting. I’d rather concentrate on the business at hand. I’ll never stop. I’m a work in progress. You know that already from our history. Believe me, I’m not going to be treading old turf. I’m not going to be beating up Grateful Dead music the rest of my life. Leave that to others.