To the Beat of the World's Drum
October 15, 2012
"The rhythm is right and the music is flowing." That's how you know it's a good day in Mickey Hart's world. He and the Grateful Dead's music helped turn the world on its head in the '60s and '70s. He played stadiums in the '90s, and crossed the world studying the music of humanity. Now he's going the only place left for him to go—space. Hart sat down with the IN to talk about what the universe sounds like and how a seven-piece band could possibly recreate that on a nightly basis.
IN: You've traveled the globe studying the music of other cultures. What's the importance of doing that?
HART: I like to think of it like I'm sitting down at the dinner table. Sure, I can eat steak and potatoes every day, but there's so much more out there. I want to be nourished in every way that's humanly possible. Every culture has something to bring to the table, and if you ignore that, you're missing out on some incredible ingredients.
IN: Is there anything that all those cultures have in common?
HART: All cultures are connected to one another because they all vibrate. We have an impact on each other, no matter how distant or different we may seem.
IN: After so many years and different projects with different aims, what's your goal in making music today?
HART: It really hasn't changed after all these years. I make music for people who like music, including myself. As the years have gone by, I've gotten a lot better at my instrument, but it's still fun finding different rhythms and ways to communicate sonically. The advancement of technology has kept me on my toes, too.
IN: At what point did science become so fascinating to you?
HART: About five years ago, I began to wonder what the universe sounds like. We have all these visuals of space, but there's never an accurate depiction of what all that action sounds like. There's got to be some kind of noise going on, right? I decided to seek out some of the greatest minds in the field like Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dr. George Smoot to help me explore if it's even possible for us to hear these light waves. The finished product is this record, "Mysterium Tremendum."
IN: What's the most difficult part of transforming those light waves to sound waves?
HART: It was initially done with all sorts of computers and engineering, but the hardest part of the whole thing is recreating it live in a way that doesn't sound like a science experiment. There are very powerful memory bands at work trying to recreate part of the universe at each show we play, but in the end, people are there to groove to the music. It's music of the whole earth. It's rock and roll, but there's a universal side. A lot of the sounds are not of this world.
IN: With an uncommon project like this, was it more difficult to convey to your bandmates what exactly you were trying to accomplish?
HART: Not at all. The reason I choose these mates is because they were really interested in the project and were able to wrap their heads and instruments around the thought of dancing with infinite space. All while still playing rock and roll. It's definitely a matter of trial and error when working with these complex, sophisticated systems and making them fun, but we've done it. This band is fierce.
IN: Will you be pulling from the Grateful Dead catalog at all at the show here in Pensacola?
HART: We'll play Dead stuff, too. It's woven into the fabric of what we're doing, but it's definitely retooled for the strength of this band. It'll be familiar enough without it feeling stale.
IN: What does Dave Schools [Widespread Panic bassist] bring to the table that you might not otherwise have?
HART: Oh boy. He's one of the best bass players on the entire planet. He brings a great sensibility to the low end of this band. He's not only a great bass player, but he puts the note in the right place. It's not just about technique with him. He's got the feel that only the greats have. And he's such a likable guy, so he's a lot of fun to play with.
IN: You've talked about how music can be used as therapy in many different ways. How has it been therapeutic for you personally?
HART: Music is life-giving. Making rhythm is life. Good rhythm is good life. When I get off the stage, I feel 20 years younger and it's great exercise. It's also a spiritual encounter for me. When I play, I talk to the gods. It's a very emotional and deep bond for me.
IN: Can you talk a little bit about what it's like playing with another drummer on stage? It seems like it would have to be an intimate relationship to be able to do that well.
HART: First of all, you have to get the right drummer to play with. People I choose to play with like to have a conversation up there. A lot of times, the more people you have up there playing rhythm, the more confusion there is. With this band, there is none. Everybody is one complex grooving organism.
You can't see music. You can't touch it. You're trying to create magic up there. It's there, then it's gone, and you have to play with people who know and appreciate how precious that is. Our music is very improvisational, but it has strong structure, too. It's much like the Grateful Dead in that way.
IN: When we had originally scheduled our interview, you had to jump into the studio unexpectedly. What typically sparks an impromptu studio session like that?
HART: The muse. My guiding light. When it hits, everything else disappears. Two songs were written in that outpouring of inspiration last week. You have to get it whenever you can. These are the artist's priorities.
IN: As someone who's been a force in the activist community for years, what role do you feel music plays in progress?
HART: I hope with this particular project, people begin to appreciate the power of science in everyday life, and understand the idea of a vibratory universe. There is music everywhere. You just have to seek it out. Each star sings its own song.
By - Brett Hutchins