This is Mickey Hart’s Brain on Drums

August 12, 2013

In July, I was scheduled to interview Mickey Hart, legendary percussionist, music historian and music preservationist, for a piece in The Maine Edge. Shortly before the interview was to take place, I received a message that Mickey wasn't feeling well and had cancelled all interviews for the day. His pending tour preparations prevented a rescheduling, and I'm grateful to Danny Sigelman, journalist for City Pages, his city's arts and entertainment paper, for allowing me to incorporate quotes from his recent interview with Mickey Hart below.  

Mickey Hart's personal musical roots may be firmly planted in the past, but he refuses to spend much time there. At this point, no one would fault Mickey if he elected to comfortably rest on his laurels and spend his golden years spinning enthralling tales from 25 years as a key member of the Grateful Dead, one of rock's most iconic bands. But Mickey, who will turn 70 in September, has little interest in reminiscing.  

"I don't have a lot of time to tell Grateful Dead stories these days," Hart said. "The Grateful Dead are history. I'm really not into the past. I'm mostly into the present and the future. I don't have time to look back." Read on and you'll see that Mickey does occasionally talk about the Dead, and he has an opinion that might surprise some fans.  

On Sunday, Aug. 18, Mickey Hart will bring his eight-piece band to Portland for a show at Port City Music Hall that promises to be unlike anything the audience has seen before.  

This week, Hart released his latest album, "Superorganism" – a record that combines music with science and the human brain. "This band rocks," Hart is quick to emphasize. "This is not a science project – it's a rock and roll band, man. It's fierce!"  

But in a big bang kind of way, this is a project involving science. On Mickey's current tour (and on his latest album), his brain-wave signals are translated into  rhythms that the audience will see and hear, thanks to an EEG cap that he wears behind the kit.  

"On one of the pieces, called 'Mind Your Head,' you'll be able to see, in real time, my brain wave function, and I'll be able to play my brain in real time," Hart said. "Parts of my brain will light up when I do certain rhythms, and you'll be able to see it when it happens."  

Always one to look to the future with as much fervor as he's preserved the past for the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, Hart has spent a big chunk of the last year acting as a musical mad scientist of sorts, working with actual scientists who have mapped his stem cells, DNA, heart rhythms and brain waves.

"For 66 of my 69 years, I've been deep in the world of rhythm. I still love to hit a drum – and the rush that comes from playing drums – but this changes your mind when you tap into rhythm central," he said.  

Where did the original beat come from? Hart is convinced that he now knows. "While writing my books, I went back and researched a lot of history. Then I realized I had to go back to the moment of creation – 13.8 billion years ago. That's where the beats came from. I started gathering sounds from the stars and planets and that became a sonic timeline. What does the universe sound like? Pythagoras, the father of the science of music, called it 'the music of the spheres.'"

While copious amounts of cosmic sonic experimentation will emanate from the stage of Port City Music Hall on Aug. 18, concert-goers will also hear some very familiar tracks. Expect a healthy mix of rearranged Grateful Dead chestnuts and new tracks from "Superorganism," written by Hart with longtime collaborator and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.        

And about that legendary band with which Mickey Hart will forever be associated? He looks back – just for a moment.  

"Those were great days. There was nothing like a Grateful Dead concert, as they say. The fans created the mythology and were my archivists - they databased everything. Going back to 1967, I know every place I've ever played, the songs that were played and in what order.  

"The live performance was really the goal with us. I never thought we made a truly superb recording away from the stage. Maybe 'American Beauty' or 'Workingman's Dead' (1970). Our second record, 'Anthem of the Sun,' (1968) was probably the closest (we came) to a good studio record. We never could unleash the dragon in the studio. The Grateful Dead is a live, breathing creature that only came alive with people in front of it. We could never do it in the studio, but we could sure as hell do it live."

By - Mike Dow

The Maine Edge