Mickey Hart and Dead & Company: "It’s not always in the technique; it’s in the synchronizing"
Photo by Keith Griner
Nearly one year after the Grateful Dead said Fare Thee Well with a run of five final concerts in California and Chicago, Dead & Company, the new incarnation of the legendary band, are ramping up their summer tour, the second outing for the group that includes Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart along with longtime collaborator Jeff Chimenti and newcomers John Mayer and Oteil Burbridge.
Mickey Hart talks with us about how the band has come together since they started playing last year, What Mayer and Burbridge bring to the musical conversation and how Bonnaroo compared to other shows.
How have Dead & Co. have progressed since that first tour?
Well now that the band is a real band—it’s greased. It’s become a real powerful unit now. There’s no way to bring a band together, no better way than to play. That’s what we’ve been doing, and it has become very liquid, fluid. It’s really a joy to play. It takes a while for it to seep in. Even after a performance, you don’t know exactly what quantity it is, but after doing it so many times, everybody’s relaxed and they can lay into their parts with more confidence, and the conversation now has grown.
A band is about a conversation. We’ve been talking for over 50 years now, but when you bring new people into the conversation, it takes a bit of time before they learn your language and you learn how to communicate difficult ideas for someone who hasn’t been in the conversation for all those years. It takes a while. We wound up really powerful on the last tour. The band has come to a whole new level, and it’s progressing at a rapid speed. Now [John and Oteil] own the music. Now Johnny is really understanding the music at a deeper level. The conversation becomes more interesting, more dynamic, when you know all the words and you know all the chords you can do all of that simultaneously. It’s a lot of stuff. I mean we have almost 100 songs. You know it’s not like we’re going out and playing the same set. It’s a different kind of animal here.
Was there any one moment where you realize that you guys were really coming together?
Yeah, it always happens on stage. There were some times on the last tour when it was definitely on the right path. I mean, you get more and more power, more swing, more fun. Everybody became relaxed in the group, and when that happens, anything is possible. You have an affinity for a person, and then you have to gain each other’s trust, musically speaking. And then you have to be able to throw the conversation back and forth at rapid rates, and people have to respond to your question, to your answer, musically. That takes time, and now we’re there. It feels really good, starting to become inspiring in other way, great ways. You never can tell where a band will go until the band goes there.
Do you feel like you still have more places to go with this band?
That’s the thing about music you keep going back to—there’s no beginning and there’s no end. I mean there’s the beginning, when you start playing, but there’s no end. And the thing about it is that there’s no age. There’s no age or color, it doesn’t know how much you make a year, it doesn’t recognize those kinds of things. It’s much more ethereal, more spiritual. So if you keep the end open, which is really important and we’ve always done—for various reasons. Mostly we didn’t remember what we did the day before. [Laughs] That ‘s how we did it. Then there’s limitless possibilities, as long as you don’t box that music in, you don’t call it and say, “This is it.” There has to be another alternative, another alley you can go down, and that’s what you keep doing, kind of going out there and piercing the veil every time. That’s why it’s so mysterious and interesting. If you go to the stage with that in mind, then you have chance for creativity and the ability to develop musically, personally and with the group. When that kind of chain reaction starts happening, then you got a band. If you’ve got a bunch of people playing a song, that doesn’t make a band. Band-hood is only achieved in certain ways. If he magic isn’t there, you’re just beating shit up. If you’re not listening to who’s next to you and really communicating. There are many conversations going on simultaneously. You got Bob and John, you got Oteil and Bill, you got me and Jeff, you got me and John, you got Bill and John, you got me and Oteil—all of these micro conversations going simultaneously, so if you can keep all these conversations going, then you make great music, you have an amazing conversation. When you get off the stage you just go, “Wow, that was really interesting, that was really great.” You feel like you don’t even have to walk, you’re just being propelled through the universe with no effort.
So that’s why people come back to the idea of being a band that’s really powerful—heading in the same direction, but not speaking necessarily the same thoughts—people don’t always agree on things even in real life, so you can imagine how it is in music. I mean, there’s a lot of things going on that you have to make some kind of decision about in milliseconds, and listen really carefully, not just casually. It’s deep listening. I think our ears have stretched, and if you have a well-stretched ear, then you can approach open-ended music. That’s the only way you can do it. You’ve got to hold onto the song—if you play a song, it has to be sometimes recognizable, but other times, it doesn’t have to recognizable. But you recognize it’s unrecognizable. “Wow, this is great, let’s keep going until we don’t want to do it anymore.” Then we either find a new place or go back to the old place. That’s up in the air, that’s decided in the moment by six people.
In that vein, can you talk specifically about how John and Oteil have integrated themselves into the band?
Anytime anybody enters somebody else’s world or conversation—and we’ve had a conversation going for many years—could do one of two things: they could dominate the rap, come in really powerful and big and blundering into the music, or they could come into the music as a newcomer—being part of it while at the same time being able to understand the nuance and not force your music out. Then it comes naturally. That’s what Oteil and John have, a really a good handle on it. They’re very respectful of the music, that’s the first thing. I mean, you can’t trample the music.
Do you think the addition of those new guys has changed the feel of music at all?
It’s going to change, so you have to be ready for the change. They don’t know how much it’s changed by them being here in the mix, but we do. Everything is happening—it’s very positive. That’s how they approached music, learned a lot—you got to learn a lot, practice, rehearse, listen to the old tapes, and then kind of make your own statement with the music. So all of this has gone perfectly. It’s just a blessing. First of all, we like each other very much. It’s a really wonderful family, and that’s the first thing. And so if you get a bunch of good guys liking each other playing music you like with power and rhythm and intent, then you’re doing what you do best, and that’s the experience of the whole damn thing.
They take the music at face value. They listen to the music, and then they adapt whatever their technique is to the music, and that’s what makes it powerful. There’s no way in the world we’d want Oteil to play Phil’s part—that’s ridiculous. Or for there to be a Jerry sound-alike, a Jerry clone. That’d be ridiculous. I hear Jerry in my left ear all the time, anyway. So I just fill in the blanks. When that’s happening, I just change Jerry up in my left ear and the I cut him out. So I have the ability to do that. He’s been in my ear for all those years, so there’s no way to get rid of it even if I wanted to. He made me deaf to begin with, so I think he earned it. I could see that as an art form, mimicking someone directly, exactly, but it’s something I can’t appreciate at all. It’s not just me. After you hear the real thing, any [imitation] is kind of superfluous. It doesn’t have any meaning, for me, emotionally. It’s just like fumes, you breathe in fumes. I can say that, but not everybody will agree with me. And this has nothing to do with anybody personally—it’s not personal, it’s just musical. All those people might be fine people, doing what they really love and believe in, but it’s not my cup of tea.