A Conversation with Mickey Hart
May 19, 2013
By now, the history has been written about the quintessence of the Grateful Dead in 1960s and early 70s America and the particular place they hold in the far-reaching and often ill-defined realm of American hippiedom. They are a metonym for all things groovy and psychedelic—they were the heart and soul of the Acid Tests, their legions of Deadheads redefined what it means to be part of a music community, and they were the winking eye of the storm around which the strange and powerful winds of the counter-culture churned and whirled—shaking up the antiquated truisms that permeated the stuffy and repressive ideologies of pre-Baby-Boomer America.
Yet Mickey Hart (one half of the Rhythm Devils, the Grateful Dead's percussion backbone) is not satisfied to bask in the glow still burning strong from the fire on the mountain. No, he has been working hard in his various musical laboratories to synthesize the vibrations of the universe into resonant frequencies that we can hear; he's been inside the human mind to see what effect rhythm has on the brain for therapy purposes; he has been a lifelong Songcatcher, capturing the sounds of ancient civilizations for future generations to appreciate; and he has used his talents for good by advocating for numerous causes including writing the song "Jersey Shore" for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. Hart is a generous conversationalist who is genuinely excited to discuss his passions and current projects. I spoke with him about his band's new album Mysterium Tremendum and the Worlds Within Tour that is making its way to the Paradise Rock Club in Boston on May 19, as well as a host of other topics that walked a well-cultivated line between science and artistry. We went to the edge and back. Hopefully you, dear reader, can come along for the ride.
KWS: You worked with George Smoot, who was the 2006 Nobel Prize recipient in Physics for his work with the Cosmic Background Explorer. How did the two of you join forces?
MH: George was a fan, and I had met him backstage a couple of times. Then when I started to investigate the cosmos, who better to go to than George? He measured the beginning of time and space, the Big Bang. I was really interested in how it all began, and George happened to be someone I knew. He pinned the tail on the donkey.
With this album you are focused on the astrophysics, the realm of the extremely large. Do you have any plans to go into the quantum?
Right now I am going into the micro, as opposed to the macro. Currently I am sonifying brain waves, stem cells, DNA to find out what the essentials of life sound like. I am trying to complete some kind of timeline from the beginning of time into the essential ingredients for life itself.
You've also worked with Adam Gazzaley, director of Neuroscience Imaging Center at UCSF; could you tell me about that? You were able to convert the Alpha, Gamma, and Theta rhythms of your brain to music.
He's another colleague that is interested in the rhythm of things, the brainwave function is one of his specialties. I do my research at the Gazzaley lab where they have all the machines to measure the micro. At the beginning, we were able to find out what your brain looks like and sounds like in real time and we were able to play with it, to be able to manipulate it in some way to make music with it. That is another way of investigating the mystery of rhythm. That's what we're finding out now about from these really important sciences—that the basis of all of this is rhythmic, and that is where I come in. This is my personal investigation into what powers rhythm has: medical powers, diagnostic powers. I'm studying what rhythm really does beyond just making us dance and enjoying life.
What are some of the things that you've found that rhythm has done beyond just making us dance?
One of the things that is most important is that we know that we are made of vibrations. We are all vibrations, even our cheesecake is vibrations, and the Carbon in the cheesecake comes from vibration. We know that rhythm is the basis of all life. On a cerebral level, rhythm reconnects the broken synapses. Usually in dementia or any kind of brain disease there is a breakdown or a disconnect, the rhythms in your body aren't firing and there's no clear channel. What we do know is that rhythm and music reconnects those synapses and allows for vital organs to function. So, we are just learning about the science behind that, and that's what I'm involved in. What does rhythm do to the body? What does it do for Alzheimer's or Parkinson's or Autism disease?
On this album much of the music is in a darker tonality that engages the listener not necessarily on a foot-tapping or finger-snapping level but instead sends you into a thoughtful space. Did the science you are working with influence this aspect?
That's the science of music, that's the science of emotion. Those kinds of sounds and those kinds of keys allow you to reflect a little bit. It lets you get inside and it creates a certain kind of trance. Music can do a lot of things: it can entertain you, it can make you laugh or cry, it makes you think, and it can dumb you out. So that is part of the investigation and it just so happens that this is the kind of music that helps with that kind of investigation. That's how I picked the band, finding musicians—and these are great musicians—I chose the willing. These are individuals who are interested in going into space and other zones and making music while having fun there, but really being enthusiastic, passionate and visionary about it. I'm having a blast with this band. The band is growing, it's getting deep—it's like a super-organism. It's a very complex but happy organism and it's growing.
How long did it take you to find that place where you connect with the other band members?
A long time. It wasn't so easy. I auditioned these people, I researched them and I went to go see them. I got to know them first, and it finally came together. They had to be willing to change from their original style of music to play Mysterium Tremendum. The music we're playing is different, it's a hybrid. That's something you just can't demand from someone, they have to really want to do it. This is a different kind of thing, these aren't people who just want to punch the clock. Our whole life is devoted to this passion. I've spent thousands of hours in preparation to play this music. That's important to me, I take that very seriously. It's an opportunity for me too. It's an opportunity for the people there, as well, to hear real music—something that is new, inventive, visionary, bold. Robert Hunter is writing beautifully now. We have something like ten new songs we'll be playing from the next record that he's written.
Robert Hunter has been an influence on me and countless other people out there, can you talk about his writing on Mysterium and the upcoming record?
The thing about Hunter's words is that you find yourself in situations that you can't explain, and all of the sudden one of his amazing epiphanies explains everything. When you first heard it you may not have known what it actually meant, but here we are years later and something comes up and there is only one way to describe it and that was through those amazing insights that he had. It's really fun working with him now because he's soaring in his writing. This next load of songs is the best I think that we've ever done. Hunter and I have had a wonderful relationship for the entirety of the 47 years that we've worked together. You don't have to prepare with Hunter, he goes to places that we have no idea even exist.
In your book Songcatchers you go into the balance between rhythm, ritual and the trance. Is this album continuing on this search for the balance.
That's the game and that's the dance. You walk up to music and you look at it for transformation. That usually happens in some kind of a ritual, whether it be a personal or some kind of a group ritual. When do you cross over? Well that is the personal investigation you have with music. Ritual is really important in finding that place where you cross over into the trance. It's not like it happens every time. You have to work your way into it. It's an altered state of consciousness, just like getting high, after you do it a long time you know how it's done. You have to have the ability not to go too deep or too far, because you sometimes lose your ability to play, your dexterity. It's the edge, I'm an edger—I love the edge. That's where I have the most fun. That's the commodity, going to the edge and bringing people there and coming back three hours later. Nobody gets hurt, everybody gets moved, everybody has an emotional change. I take it very seriously every night. It becomes a vehicle for transcendence, it becomes more than just a rock and roll band playing notes. That is the goal for me, not to play the song perfectly, that's the least of my concerns. The idea is to conjure the feeling.
The band is an organism made up of complex systems in close proximity, all trying to sync to each other. That's really quite a dance. Music is a miniature of what's happening in the grand scheme of things, what's happening up there in the spheres and the cosmos—music replicates all that, and that is our connection to the vibratory world. That's why music is so important, we don't yet know how important, but I tell you what, this is the century to find out.
Once we find out all the science behind the music will it then be demystified or will it make us even more awe-inspired by its power?
It deserves demystification, because that is the mystery. Once you find the code you will be able to repeat it on a day to day basis. Then it becomes really value, then it becomes medicine, not anecdotal. It needs to reinvent itself as another form, not just as entertainment. It is so much more, just like Tesla, when he first fell upon the powers of electricity—we didn't know what to do with it, it's invisible. You can't see it, you can't taste it—but you can feel it. It is a very magical and mysterious thing that needs demystification—but demystification will not dilute its power, I assure you. It will only increase it. It's like DNA, once we find the rhythm of DNA and what rhythms do what at what time and for what reason then we have real power. When we have music as medicine and can prescribe for diseases that are afflicting us, we have power.
That's the most interesting part about music in this century for me. I have to find out what it does first.
How different is the experience of playing live versus working in the studio?
I need both, because in the studio it's really a laboratory for me. The studio is really important, because they're the incubators. You find things, you forage—you make, you do, you do more. You can look at is as a really solid handshake between science and art. This is real science, not pseudoscience, if you look at the players they're respected scientists. This takes real investigation. Without the studio, without the laboratory it's unsophisticated.
People don't have to be part of my science experiment if they don't want to be, they can just be enjoying beautiful music—that's the art side of it. I'm living the best of both worlds right now, and it's really exciting.
One of the integral aspects of music is being able to break down the barriers that separate different cultures. It also plays a role in helping generations shake off the old ways of thinking. Has your experience been at all related to those aspects of music?
When I was five or six years old I came upon Pygmy music, and it riveted my imagination, so I was listening to music from other parts of the world, that was my diet. I began to appreciate music as the sounds of the whole earth. I didn't know what I was listening to, because they were just discs sitting in my house that I had no idea how they got there. That expanded my consciousness, and allowed me to become a Pygmy, to experience a part of their life. It started to dawn on me that there was a world of people out there, not just people we were at war with. There were forests where people lived and made music—it gave me a worldview. I wondered why every culture had their own kind of music, even back then it fascinated me. That's a big idea, to think that we were all part of world music. It is a certain kind of language. It freed me from having to live in this tiny little attic with my Mom in a Cape Cod house. That wasn't much fun, but when I started listening to the Pygmies living in the forest, and so when I saw that the forests were being destroyed I thought to myself, "there is music that is getting destroyed as well."
It reached me and freed me.
By - K. Winslow Smith