Mickey Hart: Grateful Dead could never unleash the dragon in the studio
Mickey Hart will be turning 70 in September, and has been on a long, strange trip to connect the body and mind with music. As a world-music percussionist and drummer -- most notably for the Grateful Dead -- with his new record Superorganism he seems closer than he's ever been. Essentially pinpointing the parts of the brain with sensors he wears on his head, Mickey and his team of scientists have developed the means to turn his no doubt hyperactive brain activity into audible rhythm.
While he still packs a wallop behind the drum set and an endless assortment of exotic auxiliary instruments, most of the rhythm tracks are exact sound replications of the electric impulses in his brain. He's taking it a step further on his current tour; visual maps of the triggered brain activity are projected on a large screen behind him and the latest incarnation of the Mickey Hart Band, which will no doubt provide quite the psychedelic freakout, man.
Ahead of Wednesday's show at Mill City Nights, Gimme Noise spoke to Hart about Superorganism, the mechanics of sonifying the brain, his love of drums, and ultimately the band and music he is best known for.
Gimme Noise: Hey Mickey, so cool to talk to you. Let's get right into this as I am having a hard time understanding what you've been up to here. When did you get on the whole brain and rhythm instrument trip you're on with this tour?
Mickey Hart: I'll take you back to the beginning of it. About four years ago, I started with the cosmos. As a rhythmist I wanted to know where rhythm came from, where the beat came from. Where time and space began. While writing my books, Drumming at the Edge and Planet Drum, I started going back in history: Neolithic, Paleolithic. Then I realized I would have to go from the beginning from the moment of creation. That's 13.7 billion years ago. So that's where the beats came from.
Any rhythmist worth their salt would want to know where the groove came from. We didn't have the sound of it then. Until recently, George Smoot actually correlated the sound; cosmic background, radiation. He won the Nobel for it. So I started there, gathering sounds from the stars, the planets, supernovas. It became a sonic timeline. It went to the sun, the moon, the Earth, and now I am sonifying, changing form from radiation or light into sound, into the micro, the body, the mind, the heart, stem cells, DNA. Now the timeline enters into the micro, that's what these songs are based on, body rhythms that scientists have given me the data sets and I've sonified them and made music with them.
That's pretty remarkable. When I first started reading about this and listening to the record it reminded me of one of your records, Music to Be Born By. So it's something you've been working at, as far as connecting the body with music for quite some time.
I didn't realize it then when I did that record. It was just to facilitate the birthing process, using the heartbeat of my son in his mother's womb to be played when she was giving birth. I did that unconsciously. Once I realized vibrations are the basis of all life. It's the most essential ingredient; without it you die. I realized that any vibration has two components, an audio and a visual. Once I realized that, then game on. I could hear things that were below my hearing and above my hearing and bring them into my own spectrum. I could tune into the matter that's everywhere. The carbon emitted from a star a billion years ago is in your cheesecake, you're part of that. "You're made of star stuff," as Carl Sagan would say. Those are the stimuli that we're made of.
But what does it all sound like? Pythagoras, being the father of the science of music around 300 B.C., called it "The Music of the Spheres." He gave mathematical equations to all the stars and the planets and could see how the tides worked and were entrained and were efficient. Then the laws of entrainment were discovered in the 1700s where any two organisms that were close in proximity would eventually be together. One thing would lead to the other and now we have radial telescopes that can read deep into the universe and we have EEGs that can map the brain. So the thought was to get these technologies together and I wear a cap on one of the pieces, called "Mind Your Head" where you'll be able to see in real time my brain wave function and I'll be able to play my brain and you'll be able hear and see it. You'll see what part of the brain lights up when I do certain rhythms and certain things. Which eventually leads to music as medicine, which is where this is all going.
Wow, that sounds like a whole other can of worms!
Well, I'm just codifying it. We don't really know what it does. Music therapy we know kind of, sort of works. But we don't know how. The music therapists are kind of seat-of-their-pants practitioners, so this will give them a road map on how to use music as a healing power as medicine. That's really what I'm after. It's not like a gimmick. I work with serious scientists that have helped me sonify and map the stem cells, DNA, and heart rhythms.
This is really remarkable stuff. This is obviously a lifetime of study on these kinds of ideas.
Well somebody had to do it! It's not about drums and drumming and music really. It's about the rhythm of things. I've been working with rhythm for 65 years. I been deep in the world of rhythm. It started out with drums and drumming, which I still love to play. It changes your body and your mind, which is rhythm central. Your mind tells you what to do. Whether you want to comb your hair or blink your eye, it has to go through the brain. We know more about the oceans than we do about the brain. How to make brain waves into music have been codified and now I am able to dance with it, in real time! You can see the brain light up when I do certain things, striking the drum in a certain way in a certain rhythm, patterns are formed.
How does that play in real time when you are performing? Does that actually affect the music which in turn affects your mind which again affects the music?
Well of course! You've got it. It's the same sort of feedback loop. Once you're in sync with your brain and the audience is in sync, then you have a major entrainment moment. That's where trance begins. That's what it's all about. Like I said, it's not about drums and drumming. It's about auditory driving. It's about the neurology of what rhythm does to the brain and to the consciousness and to your whole life. When the rhythm begins you're born, when it stops, it's over. The idea is to have a happy brain. A happy brain is a good brain. It all works into life enhancement. It kind of demystifies it all, decoding it.
All musicians learn how to read music, that gives you the skills. Now we're taking these skills and using them as medicine. Rhythm is the most potent part of the vibratory spectrum. Drums are a noise instrument. It has a short, sharp sound. That density works on certain parts of the brain more than melodic or harmony. It's mostly the rhythmic nature of the body. We're embedded in a universe of rhythm. Look around you. Everything is in rhythm. The trees and the leaves, they have their own rhythm. We as drummers have domesticated all of that and made it into what we call music. Where people can understand it, dance to it, and have pleasure. Pleasure offers up a whole new set of emotions. Once you're feeling good you can fight the good fight. Whether it be Dementia, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, those are broken pathways. Rhythm and vibrations reconnects. We're now able to really quantify and understand the power of the body and the mind. Once you can put that in a cage, that's the great story behind rhythm. Like I said, it's not just about drums and drumming.
You're talking about really scientific things but ultimately these sounds and rhythms and the elements represented in the music are kind of, I don't want to call them "pop songs," but these are actual songs that have verses and choruses..
It's OK, you can say it! This is popular music. It's not a science experiment. People are going to like it because they can enjoy it, they can understand it. I'm a groovist! I like to play in a group and I like to groove. Life is a groove. That's all I do in my life. I try to get grooved up. Now I'm beginning to really understand what it's really all about. I play very loud. I have fun with it. It took years to get here. My role is not a standard drummer's role. Like where you sit back and do a drum solo. That's back there.
You've kind of been there, done that?
It's a really old form. The power comes in group drumming. When you have more than one person entraining with another instead of showing your great skills. I can still do it from time to time but it's not my focus anymore.
You still have your chops!
That died with Buddy Rich. Ginger Baker and all that. That's not really fulfilling for me. What's the real meal is getting into a groove with other groovists and create this entrainment. Like a basketball team, like a band. We have amazing instrumentalists: Zakir Hussein and Giovanni Hidalgo, that's best of the best! Any one of us could do solos. We're getting more enjoyment out of grouping these days. I have a real powerhouse rhythm section. So how do you use that? Do you have people showing off their skills?
I remember one time Garcia and I went to see Herbie Hancock at the Greek Theater. I was watching the drummer and I was like, "Wow he's really good!" I asked Jerry what he thought and he responded, "Wow, he's great. Man, but it's like Chinese food, it just passes through you. It's not nourishing." Just because he had the finest technique and playing all over his drums it was more like a circus. Things are changing with drum circles, that's where the real power is. That's my interest.
That's certainly something you are used to, playing with Bill Kruetzmann in the Dead and every kind of world-music percussion all over the world, you're probably accustomed to playing with many other drummers.
Remember when I started Planet Drum, the drums were just relegated to the back of the bus. When I won the first Grammy for World Music in 1991 no drummer had ever charted. Drums weren't looked at in the musicological sense as music. So by putting a lot of drummers together we came up with a 20th-century Gamelon where the drums were melody. How long can you sit and listen to a drum solo? But we sold over a million copies of Planet Drum. It elevated drums to a new place. It was respect and also welcomed into the family of instruments and competed on an even field.
So that's where we are now. There's drum ensembles like So Percussion and the Blue Man Group, women and children are getting together for drum circles. These people aren't playing drum solos. All they want to do is be together and have group rhythm. Most people in the world can't play a drum solo, but anybody who can brush their hair can beat a drum. I've played with presidents, the first George Bush, Walter Kronkite, who was one of my best friends, we played drums together for 10 years. He had a living room full of drums. It was more about the lifestyle of drumming as opposed to a performance art.
Olatunji said, "Someday there will be a drum in every home!" and people laughed at him. Now you see Djembes all over the place. It's simple! I play with my kids, my wife, my friends. Before dinner, after dinner. We sit around a fire. We have a community thing about drums now. It's a life enhancement thing. Drums are a mating ritual! Any drummer will tell you that. That's why I started playing, to get the chicks, playing bongos on the beach for the pretty girls.
How was George Bush on the drums?
He did just fine. We played very simply. He enjoyed it. A fine fellow.
So on this tour you have a guy from our town, Greg Schutte, playing drums with you. That's pretty cool.
Greg is solid like a rock. He's in the traditional sense, a rock 'n' roll drummer. But he can roll over the one, get lost with me on the half beats. Start a new one wherever we put it. He's very flexible. He knows how to expand and contract, which is really important if you're going to have a vital and vibrant groove. Rocking steady is all fine and good. But if you want to find the real magic you got to go outside of the box. We're playing all kind of times; 11, 10 and 10 and a quarter. All kinds of rhythms that are available to anyone who wants to go there. The groove is elastic. As long as people are all together it makes sense, that's the power in it all. I try to relax everybody and tell them it's not about the beginning or the ending of the song. It's not even about the song. Every time you play it, it's about the birth of the song. I'm not about repetition.
There's such a mythology that surrounds the Grateful Dead, with the members individually and as a whole. There's so many generations of people who weren't even alive when the band was.
Those were great days. There was nothing like a Grateful Dead concert. We didn't create the mythology, the audience did that. They were our archivists. Since 1967 I know every place I played, how many songs, in what order. It's all out there in some form. There's so many books about the Grateful Dead; the business aspects, the social, the mystical. That all becomes part of the oeuvre. The legend, the folklore. It amuses me and I'm very proud of it as well. The recordings live on.
It's timeless stuff.
We're in the top five of all time of acts in Billboard. Right up there with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The live performances was really the gold with us though. We never made a good studio record.
Really?! You think so?!
I never thought we made a real superb studio record, maybe American Beauty, Workingman's Dead, or Anthem of the Sun was probably the closest. We could never unleash the dragon in the studio. The Grateful Dead was a live, breathing creature. It only came alive with people in front of it. Not playing for the walls. It was a beast that we unleashed every night. Then put it away at the end and let it out the next night. We could never really repeat or get that level of intensity in the studio. Believe me, we tried. The studio was to learn the songs, then we took them on the road. We could only really find the songs live.
The Mickey Hart Band with Tea Leaf Trio perform at Mill City Nights Wednesday, August 7. Doors are at 7 p.m. $30, 18+. Tickets still available.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.