Mickey Hart at 70: Another Run at The Roses (From The Archives, 2007)
Mickey Hart turns 70 years old today. In his honor we’re going to share a few of our conversations with him from over the years. Here’s an interview from 2007.
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.