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Published: 2012/08/09
by Dean Budnick

Mickey Hart Revisits The Promised Land

Photo by Frank Lanza

This weekend Mickey Hart returns to the road with his current group for a run of shows that will extend into October. Yesterday he was “sonifying a part of the brain that reacts to sound.” Today, perhaps he’s listening to the sounds of Mars, working on archival matters with the Library of Congress or further exploring the healing powers of music. What can be said for sure is that today marks the 17th anniversary of Jerry Garcia’s death (just 8 days following the 70th anniversary of Garcia’s birth). So Mickey took a few minutes to think about his friend and bandmate. This, however, was preceded by a discussion of the Mickey Hart Band…

MH- The band is fierce. We’ve really grown. It’s turning into one incredible super-organism.

Well, knowing you and looking at that lineup, that’s none too surprising.

MH- Well, you never can tell. We’re playing with something unique here. We’re playing with the sounds of the cosmos, and we’re also adding our music of the whole earth. It’s an interesting combination of universal music, cosmic music. Well, cosmic sound: it’s not music when I get it. When I get it, it’s light waves gathered from radio telescopes from around the world and then brought into the audio world. We change form [with] sonification from light radiation into sound. And then I take that, which is really mostly noise, a lot of collisions. I don’t want to disappoint you: it’s not like 10,000 virgins calling “Dean! Dean!” It ain’t like that. I wish it was, but it’s different. It’s mostly harmonic thumps pulsing. There is some beautiful ethereal stuff. Then I take it and sound design it, take it into what we might call music—something melodic, something harmonic, something rhythmic—that we could at least ponder and understand.

To me, it’s a no-brainer. And it’s very sexy, and it’s a great challenge. It’s everything I love in music. These musicians have now taken this and made it their own, so it’s a whole new circumnavigation of our musical soundscape, which includes everything from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago to now. I’m interested in the sounds of all that history. It’s the sonic history of the universe. Each star and planet and galaxy—they all sing their own tune. And I’m sort of joining the conversation…and playfully dancing with the infinite universe using the cutting-edge science we have available to us now. My sonification staff is just like fire. These wave scientists who understand the medium and are musicians as well, and, I might add, Deadheads!

But, you know, it’s turned into a real thing. I was just mentioning this to Bill Walton the other night. He loves the band, and I told him in the beginning when I first started telling people at concerts that some of the sounds that you hear are coming from the universe, there would always be the yahoo in the audience screaming “Scarlet Begonias!” … and then it stopped. People would be like “this is what our universe sounds like. Look at that!” You see people really grokking it, really embracing the idea. It’s a serious attempt at training with the strongest grooves in the universe: the vibrations that spawned the sun, the moon, the earth, us.

It started with drum books, trying to find out where rhythm came from. I started researching back from the Neolithic to the Paleolithic, then all of the sudden I thought, where did it really come from? It occurred that it had a start with the beginning of the creation of space and time, the Big Bang. But back then, ’91, we didn’t know much about the Big Bang. We thought it had happened between 10 and 20 billion years ago…until Professor George Smoot found the remnants of the singularity, that arrhythmic moment where the blank page of the universe exploded and the beat began! (Laughs)

So, I’m just sitting here in its wake. And so are you! And so is everybody that’s in existence. So that was my interest in it. But I love to play trance music, you know, I love grooving. I love rock and roll. So what you’re hearing now is that combination. And it feels so good, man. I can hardly talk when I leave the stage. That’s how you know it’s really good, when you really fumble around to speak. Speaking is difficult for a while when you go into those trance states. You don’t want to talk. It’s hard to express your ideas as language. And the power of entrainment, being in sync and playing music, because music is really just a miniature of what’s happening in the cosmos. That’s why music is so powerful and so attractive and so cool. It’s not just because it’s music, but because it connects us to the vibratory universe that we live in. And that’s what music really is: controlled vibrations.

So that’s where I’m at right now with this band. I’m out there on the edge, and I love it there. I’ve always loved the edge, and this is the edge live.

Is there anything that the Mars [rover] Curiosity will send back that will be of use to you? Do you anticipate images or sounds or anything that you could use?

MH- Very funny you should be asking…I’m now acquiring those sounds from NASA and sonifying those sounds—the rocket blast off and any sounds from rover—and using it in a new remix of “Marching to Mars,” a tune that Sammy Hagar and I wrote in ’96. And we were thinking about using the sonifications from rover and bringing it into the tune and remixing it, because I think that was a prophetic song… it’s our first step into the universe. We really stepped on a planet now, not the moon. This is a giant step into the universe. Of course I know what Mars sounds like, and it’s very interesting to know our place in the universe. Because the Big Bang didn’t happen in one place; it happened everywhere. There was nothing, and then there was something.

That notion of creating something from nothing—do you find it a challenge to wrap your head around that?

MH- Oh, yeah. Well, it helps to know the different theories behind all of that, and that’s why…the universe is sacred to some people. And I would think so too, because it’s where we live. We live in the universe, we live on a blue-green spinning rock that revolves every 365 days around the sun. That tells me where I am. But I love the sound of things, that’s my essence. I connect to the whole world my whole life, my wife, my kids, everything that I do all day and night to vibrations. But it took me a while to find the science…but I look at it in a musical way. I’m not a scientist.

In terms of prescience, on your Facebook page, there’s a studio version of “Fire on the Mountain” from the mid-seventies with you rapping, and it’s fascinating to me because it’s so far ahead of the game. What are your memories of that performance?

MH- I remember doing that back then. That was just right on the spot. Jerry and I were playing the tune, and then someone came into the studio—we were in the country, in the barn, we called it—and said “hey, there’s a fire on the mountain!” and we thought, okay someone is just jerking us around here. But we went outside and on the hillside there was a brushfire on the top of the mountain on the other side of the road, and the hillside was starting to be consumed in flame. Not a forest fire, but we watched the firetruck come to the top of the mountain and put it out, and then [Grateful Dead lyricist Robert] Hunter gave me these words and started writing…it just seemed like the thing to do, but you know, I can’t sing! (Laughs)

It’s around the same time that the precursors to modern hip-hop were coming together in New York City.

MH- I don’t think there was rap then or any of that. That didn’t happen till much later. If it was happening, I didn’t know about it. It was a spontaneous outpouring of inspiration. I don’t know if I’ve ever done it live. Maybe I have, I don’t remember.

It just seems to run parallel to what you’re doing now, where you’re just so far out there…

MH- There are so many frontiers for music that haven’t even been tapped yet. I mean, it just lies there. Music as a healing agent, as a diagnostic tool, as a tuning system to reconnect the broken pathways of dementia. It goes on and on. Music as medicine—that’s the most exciting frontier in music now besides performance, which is wonderful. You have to perform, you have to play music, but there is other things that music will be able to do once the science has validated and coded the powers that are innate in vibration. Because music is just controlled vibrations.

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