Mickey Hart is at it again. He just played what seemed like a one-off show with members of Planet Drum, he's touring with his self-named band and he's also working at self-professed "breakneck speed" on a new album he plans to release this year. Hart took a break to talk about Planet Drum, how he is reinventing some of his older music, and just what's happening with his brother in music, Bob Weir.
I heard that you, Giovanni Hidalgo, Sikiru Adepoju and Zakir Hussain—Planet Drum, of course—played Berkeley, CA's Ashkenaz. How did that happen?
Yeah, that's true. What happened was the four of us were actually in town at this one time. And it was the [85th] birthday of Baba Olatunji. So we had dinner together and headed over to Berkeley and played together for the first time in years and it was magic. It was a magic rhythm carpet ride. The four of us have a real thing. It has got a real unique feeling. We are rhythm brothers from way back.
So do you think you'll do more together?
We might be thinking about reconstituting Global Drum and Planet Drum and all that stuff and maybe going out on the road with this.
What got you interested in doing some of that now? You seem so busy.
Those records— Global Drum and Planet Drum —not only did they both win Grammys but they also set pace for instrumental percussion. People love the percussion ensemble and of course we loved it too, but everybody in the band has their own careers as well. Everybody [lives] all over the map. They have the major maestro and virtuoso statuses so they have those kinds of careers.
Now we are going to get together again and try it out again and see where it takes us.
Do you see yourselves recording or touring?
Probably both touring and recording. We think this may be the right time. I think we really want to play with each other again. You might stay our trigger fingers are itching. The only way you can satisfy that is with the four of us—the core of Planet Drum, Global Drum reuniting. You can't get that anywhere else. That is the thing about music; if it feels good you want to do it again.
Can you share some details?
We just came up with the notion last week. We don't know! We can go wherever we want to go. We just have to say we want to go, where we want to go. Now everybody's looking at their schedules and saying 'When do you want to go? How do you want to go this?' Really this is just in the formative stages so it's funny you should ask me this.
That's one thing about you, is that you're always willing to try new music and not always recycling past songs in exactly the same way.
I play a little bit of that. You have to know what part of the past to bring with you and you have to know how to reimagine it. It has to grow. If it just sits there and you're playing the same song and you get into a rut, then I just don't see the value of that unless it is just a payday and unless you are punching the clock. That is where I am personally. There are some great songs that the Mickey Hart Band can play and just really devour. That is what I look for. And I look at the stuff we played and the big songs I love so much.
This week we reworked "Playing in The Band" that I wrote for my first solo record and then Grateful Dead got it. Tower of Power played horns on it. Those horn parts were never played by Grateful Dead or anybody. It never was played live. We used a different arrangement. We have learned the original version of "Playing with The Band" and "Greatest Story Ever Told," so now we are going back to the very original kernel, the birth of all these songs. The Mickey Hart band is taking some of the amazing parts we as Grateful Dead said "No. Too complicated. Let's forget it." We made it into a Dead song as opposed to a Mickey song.
How did you get the idea to re-examine those particular songs— "Playing in the Band" and "Greatest Story Ever Told?"
I was telling [the members of the Mickey Hart Band] how I conceived the beginnings of both those songs. I took the pump, we recorded the water pump, and used that as the basic track for "Greatest Story," called the "Pump Song" on my solo album Rolling Thunder and then for "Playing in the Band," I told them about that. And I realized, Jesus, those were things we never played. Let's try it out. Let's listen to the recording. For me, that is ancient history. It was like 1970, right? Something like that. That's a long time ago. We went back and really enjoyed it. I remember putting a lot of time in it. On playing in the band on my record Stephen Stills was playing toilet seat bass.
What is that?
In the studio was a toilet seat with a fret board coming off the toilet seat. And Stephen walks in and says 'Put a bass on here. Give me a bass.' The only thing I had the toilet seat. And it sounds great.
Is this true? Are you kidding me?
No. Why would I kid you?
OK—So please, go ahead.
We built something really beautiful but never played it live. So you take forward stuff that rises above, the cream. You think, "Wow, that might have been out of tune but it certainly was charming." So if I go back, I like to change it in some way that improves it if I can.
There is so much music out there to play; I wouldn't want to get locked into one repertoire in a non-Grateful Dead band. Which this is. This isn't a Grateful Dead-centric band. We do play a goodly amount of great songs and they come in and of course they play very enthusiastically with a lot of passion and with a lost of vision. That is really important to bring to the music or otherwise you are just beating stuff up.
How do you balance the nostalgia and the newer music projects? I would think the nostalgia could become a bit tiresome after all this time.
It all depends. Familiarly and nostalgia are very powerful feelings and people really love that. And I can't knock that. It is part of the human condition. After a while you have to make a cut. There are only so many hours in the day. What kind of music do you listen to? Music with a current edge to it or music with nostalgia? Both have their value.
Music appeals to a lot of different people on a lot of levels. You can't say nostalgia is bad. I've seen some music that was written 50 years ago and played for people with some kind of impairment like Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease. When the music is played, someone who hasn't spoken for years has spoken because they remember the time and place they heard the song. Song has the ability to lock you into time and place. That is very important music can lock you into time and place. Music creates a virtual reality. It creates another reality.
Music as medicine, to me, is the most important and exciting frontier for music in this century. Besides performing, I love to be a performer; the science of music is fascinating and something I want to continually explore.
The new music you've created seems incredibly sophisticated. Can you talk about the challenge of playing it on tour?
That's the trick! That is the art, to take things that are fairly sophisticated like that and bring it to your city night after night! Let's just say that is the art form. To be able to perform and have fun with all of this.
I created instruments that do this, that are quite sophisticated and complex, but very easy when you get the hang of playing them. We are out there birthing this stuff. This is about journey and adventure and birthing this kind of music. It is a work in progress and very spirited and we work really hard making it at least entertaining and hopefully memorable on a lot of levels and it is also a culmination of my life this far.
I see myself as a work in progress and so is the Dead and so is the Mickey Hart Band and it's really intense because we are really hard at work on all of it. This is not like a hobby. It is like you become very desperate to find the sound and the rhythm you can taste it. It is so energetic and it's just coming out in waves and when that happens, you can't look the other way. That is what is happening with this band.
So we're hearing lot about the new album you have coming. When will it be released?
Sometime in August. We have been working at a breakneck speed, but I haven't been able to get things done fast enough. Sometimes the muse is with you, sometimes the muse goes. It's addictive but you have to balance it with your life. You can't party as much; you don't spend as much time with your family even though you want to spend time with your family. But the muse is tugging at you, he's got his hand around your throat and he's pulling you into the studio and you can't break free. Music is like an opiate.
So everyone seems very upset about Bob and what has happened with him. What would you say to them?
Just relax, you know?
Bob will be ok. He will be fine. He just needs to take a step back. He will be totally fine. He is totally fine. He needs the rest man.
Man, Bob is a love, man. He is my brother. We have a very, very, very, very — that's four verys — deep bond. He will be all right. He just needs to rest.
By - Nancy Dunham
Photo by Larry Hulst