Dead’s Hart releases long-in-making album
November 5, 2017
By Joel Selvin
November 2, 2017 Updated: November 3, 2017 6:01pm
During the Obama administration, Mickey Hart would bring a box of a couple dozen CDs into the Oval Office for the president. They were recordings of ethnic music from countries around the world drawn from the sound archives of the Smithsonian Institute, where Hart serves on an advisory board. “How can you know about these countries if you don’t know their music?” he once asked the president.
Grateful Dead drummer Hart does know something about other countries’ music. He traveled down the Nile to play with Nubian tar drummers. He supervised a CD series of “Endangered Music,” field recordings from pioneer musicologists. He’s written books about the history of percussion. He has won two Grammy Awards for previous multiculti, all-percussion records by his group Planet Drum. His life is a river of rhythm.
“I’m recording every day,” he says. “That is my job. When I’m not playing Dead music, I am in the studio every day.”
About to leave for a 15-date East Coast tour with Dead & Company — the latest iteration in post-Jerry Garcia Dead units that includes former bandmates Billy Kreutzmann and Bob Weir, along with pop star and guitarist John Mayer — Hart will release a solo album Friday, Nov. 10, many years and thousands of hours in the making, titled “RAMU,” where Hart plants his flag firmly in exciting new sonic territory.
In the wake of the 50th-anniversary celebration concerts of the Grateful Dead featuring all four living members in July 2015 called Fare Thee Well — the largest-grossing concerts by a single band in history — Dead & Company have benefited from a robust renewal of interest in all things Grateful Dead. The band broke attendance records throughout its last summer tour, selling almost a half-million tickets, grossing more than $1.5 million per night for 23 shows. Now, in addition to this month’s sold-out indoor swing, Dead & Company is scheduled to make an appearance Thursday, Nov 9, at Band Together Bay Area, the North Bay firestorm benefit concert at AT&T Park, and is planning another extensive tour next summer.
But over lunch in the design district of San Francisco, where he keeps a pied-à-terre, Hart grinned broadly and shrugged his shoulders at the mention of Dead & Company, an unprecedented third act nobody saw coming. Instead, the wiry 74-year-old musician, who strains to hear conversation after a lifetime sitting behind crashing cymbals, wanted to talk about his new record.
“My job is to make new music,” he says. “Normally I don’t make rules, but this time I laid down some guidelines: no bass, no keyboards, no cowbells and only a few tom-tom fills.”
In the works since well before Fare Thee Well, Hart’s new album is the fruition of a technological marvel he has been building for more than 30 years called “RAMU” or Random Access Musical Universe. “It’s a digital work station,” he explains, “a sound droid.”
Operated through a bewildering array of knobs, sliders, switches, pipes and pads to bang on, “RAMU” contains a gigantic database of samples Hart has collected since the ’60s. Every drum in his huge collection has been sampled — and his collection is epic (he once shipped an entire container full of percussion instruments from Indonesia, and a portion of his holdings was displayed at the San Francisco International Airport in 2000).
He also collaborated with astrophysicists several years ago. Using radio telescopes, the scientists captured light from stars millions of miles away and Hart transposed the signals into noise using the astrophysicists’ supercomputers, a process he calls “sonification.”And he’s been actively involved for some time in neuroscience research relating to rhythm and the brain. He is a long way from Gene Krupa.
The combination of advancing technology and his increasing skills at operating the complicated system allowed him to create this unique sonic space he inhabits on “RAMU.” “Now I can dance with this like never before,” he says. “I am smarter. The instruments are smarter.”
Deep in his sound files he found some experimental sessions from the late ’80s he ran with longtime bandmate Garcia, who died in August 1995, checking out the possibilities of a guitar/synthesizer interface. “He would play and I would scroll,” he says, “and we would audition all the sounds. I had forgotten all about it, but it popped up in my tape vault.”
The great Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji of the landmark album “Drums of Passion,” who died in 2003, makes a similar posthumous appearance on the album.
Hart also mined his vault for actor Peter Coyote reading in his most elegant, echo-laden tones from the Carlos Castaneda book “The Teachings of Don Juan” (“…on any path that may have a heart, there I travel,” Hart recites over lunch), for “Big Bad Wolf.” Fresh talent from New Orleans, Tarronia “Tank” Ball of Tank and the Bangas, tops off the track, with an exclamatory rapped tirade directed at today’s Trump administration.
Hart is not taking CDs to the White House these days — the current occupant probably thinks Julio Iglesias is ethnic music — and the shadow of Donald Trump falls heavy on “RAMU.”
“Musicians are supposed to reflect what’s happening in society,” Hart says. “That’s how we scream. That’s the power of song.”
Hart, long a political activist, takes aim at the president on several numbers on the album, including jeremiads supplied by longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who contributed lyrics to several songs, including the forceful “Who Do You Think You Are.”
“Hunter really delivered this time,” says Hart. “In addition to his floral, romantic mystical stuff, this time you see his political side.”
But Hart also partnered with a number of young musicians besides the aforementioned Ball. With his 25-year-old daughter Reya Hart working with him, Hart has been introduced to a lot of new music, especially from New Orleans where she is located. She worked hard “stretching” his ears, Hart says, evident in the collaboration with the album’s co-producer Michal Menert of the electronic music duo Pretty Lights and vocalist Avey Tare from the experimental pop band Animal Collective.
“I went there. I listened up. A little. No, a lot,” he says. “I went where the young ears go.”
Joel Selvin is The San Francisco Chronicle’s former senior pop music critic.
Band Together Bay Area: 6 p.m. Nov. 9. $49.50-$199.50. AT&T Park, 24 Willie Mays Plaza, S.F. www.bandtogetherbayarea.org
To hear the “Big Bad Wolf” featuring Tarronia “Tank” Ball: https://youtu.be/1p2chgtecTo