Into the Trance Zone with Mickey Hart
June 4, 2012
As a founding member of the Grateful Dead, ethnomusicologist, sound archivist and preservationist, and seeker after billions of years old vibrations from the deep recesses of space, Mickey Hart has done more during his years on earth than many of us could imagine undertaking over several lifetimes. At 69 years of age, the California native has energy to burn. He credits his good health and curiosity to an ability to distinguish between the good and bad rhythms the world offers and to play through them. I've had the chance to interview Hart a number of times over the years and he's never sounded as excited as he does about his new 'Mysterium Tremendum' album and tour. I reached Mickey on a tour stop in Oregon the day before he was scheduled to perform in Vancouver.
Mickey: Hey! Thanks for finding me. Where are you calling from?
DR: I'm in Vancouver where you're going to be playing tomorrow night. I know you've just had a week off. Looking back, how do you feel about how things are going so far with a new tour, new band and new CD?
Mickey: Things are going extraordinarily. Over the top good. We're having a blast and the band is playing in top form every night. The people are loving it and the CD is a beautiful representation of the band and it is doing very well on the charts. So, life is good.
DR: I've been watching some video of the current band's performances. What elements of this band are you enjoying the most or happiest with?
Mickey: Well, they're becoming larger than the parts. They're creating group mind and becoming magical in their performance and that's what I go for.
DR: And they're a group of players that aren't really associated with the Grateful Dead or jam band music in any way.
Mickey: Other than Dave Schools. He's the bass mountain. He's a jam master, but the rest of them are kind of feeling their way – except for Sikiru.
DR: He's a veteran of many tours and bands with you.
Mickey: He and I have been down the rhythm trail a long time.
DR: So, for those who are newer to this trail, how is it working out? For those testing the waters - I'm fascinated by your bravery or if not your bravery, your conscious decision to seek out different kinds of players. Musicians who aren't necessarily working within your comfort zone.
Mickey: Let me qualify that. We're all testing the waters. These are high level professionals who have been playing their whole lives. All of these guys – they're life long players. Crystal Monee Hall, one of the singers in the band won a Tony award for singing in the musical, RENT.
DR: What an amazing voice.
Mickey: Yes, amazing. I picked her and all of them for their sensibilities, their desire to go different places in the music. In this particular case, we're going to the cosmos. We're playing with light waves, sound waves from the infinite universe. It's not for everybody.
DR: So, I'm imagining you sitting down with your musicians and telling them 'you're going to be playing light waves from the infinite universe.' What kind of reaction did they have?
Mickey: Well, I played it for them first and told them this is where I'm going. By the time we got to work, they knew what I was up to and that's why I chose them. I knew that they had that sensibility. They were all interested in going to a wonderful new place and they play beautifully. Sometimes, they don't show too much of their surprise to me, but at the same time they're doing things they've never done before. Nobody has. I haven't.
DR: I want to talk about that wonderful new place a bit and I wonder how conscious it was that you chose musicians who had never been there before – who weren't part of psychedelic music. If you'd simply wanted to recreate your trademark sound, there are lots of musicians in Grateful Dead cover bands waiting in the wings.
Mickey: No, no, no, no. You don't need me for a band like that. I've already covered that ground in the real sense, I don't need to do it again. But, you know, we play Grateful Dead songs.
DR: Did you ever consider not playing any of that music?
Mickey: NO! It's a part of me. I helped birth these songs and I helped write a lot of them. So, I can't run from it, nor would I want to. It's something that I embrace, but only partially.
DR: Can you say a little more about what you mean by 'partially?'
Mickey: Well, the idea is that I'm playing new compositions as well. It's more like I'm offering a complete music diet – to my audiences and to myself. I look at music as nourishment. I mean, I love some of those Grateful Dead songs. We revisit them and play them beautifully with great respect. But, we're a new band and we don't try to be Jerry or Phil or Bob. That's not the way I want to spend my life.
DR: With good new material like you've written, it would be a shame in my opinion not to focus on it in the live show.
Mickey: Well, I've been pleased with the reception. The sales are fine and the crowds have been ecstatic. It's an ecstatic band! They go into zones of trance very easily. We lose our minds collectively - which is really the object of music!
DR: Yes, I agree. How did you become fascinated with the sonic nature of the cosmos, specifically the sound and radiation waves you're manipulating in your new music?
Mickey: That's a good question. If I can go back a little bit, in the early nineties I wrote two books, 'Drumming at the edge of Magic' and 'Planet Drum.' In those books, I investigated where these vibrations came from, where the grooves came from and why we are so fascinated with rhythm. I kept moving back through the Neolithic and Paleolithic periods and eventually I went back 13.7 billion years to the Big Bang. That's where it all started, where the vibrations and grooves that move the universe and the creation of what we now know as life began. There were no instruments to measure what we now call background radiation. That was the seed sound. Now, as the result of the work of people like George Smoot who received the Nobel Prize for his work discovering the Big Bang, there are instruments for measuring and capturing this radiation. Whooh! That got me thinking, so now that we know where 'the beat' came from, we can also hear what it sounded like! Wow! So, that's where it started and I started sampling bits of the universe and then during the Dead 09 tour, each night I started playing a very primitive version of what I'm doing now. I started introducing different parts of the universe into the performance during the drums and space section of the show. That was a seminal tour in that respect because it spawned this – what I'm doing now. Besides me doing all that drums and space stuff over the years, you know that and building the instrument that I have now, it all went back to the early Grateful Dead experiments in the seventies and eighties. When I started messing around with these types of technology what was available was very primitive. So, that's the geneology of my interest in deep space and these deep mysteries. The mysteries are starting to unravel now about where we came from and why we are here.
DR: When did you first become aware that there was a spiritual dimension to all of this? In other words, when did you realize that percussion could help a person release into something bigger?
Mickey: I realized it when I was a baby, I think. I can remember being three or four years old sitting for endless hours watching things move and listening to different noises. I must have been an unsettling child. (big laugh) My mother must have wondered why I was watching or destroying various things or standing out listening in the rain. I was very interested in noise and the movement of things, so that was the beginning of working in time. Watching time pass was fascinating to me and I liked hitting things. I had a drum pad when I was four years old. I played with it endlessly, and this was obviously a tell-tale hint of things to come. My mother encouraged it and – here we are!
DR: So, what do you think is triggered in us when we surrender to a groove or a rhythm?
Mickey: It's all about vibration! The universe is made up of vibration. It allows us to sense the matter that passes through us and around us. My field is rhythm and time and music is made up of vibrations. That's why music is so powerful – it's made up of the elements of the universe. Music is a kind of all in one thing – we get pleasure from it and it's also a great support system, but most importantly it's a tuning system that tunes the mind and body and allows us to be human. It's one of the main forces or energies that created the species. It's allowed the species to prosper and it brings us together. Music is a miniature version of what's going in the cosmos. It's something that emulates or tunes us into the most powerful rhythms in the universe that came originally from the singularity – the Big Bang. The creation of the planets created a timeline – and I love timelines – and I happened to have been dropped on the earth playing an instrument that is very good at laying down rhythm. I wouldn't be doing this if I was a banker or anyone else like that. This is my job, my profession. It's what I do!
DR: But, have you ever seen a banker dance?
Mickey: (laughs) Everybody who's alive has rhythm. When you're born, the rhythm begins and when you die, the rhythm ends.
DR: What happens to us? I watch kids dance and they're totally free. Then, I watch a room full of 40 year olds try to remember how to dance and –
Mickey: The rhythm changes during life and if you don't change you'll lose it. There are a lot of bad rhythms out there. Things happen to you in life to knock you off your feet. Some rhythms are happy. Some like hate, war and greed aren't. They're bad rhythms. You're being affected by life. Health is a good rhythm. Disease is a bad rhythm. And, when you get a disease, it means your rhythm isn't working right. These are the things that affect life. There are lots of arrhythmic events that you have to be prepared to deal with.
DR: Does your profession allow you to stay healthy?
Mickey: Oh absolutely! I look at things in rhythmic terms, so if something isn't right in my family or my daughter or whatever, I think 'we're out of rhythm and we've got to get back.' I take a deep breath and try and get back into the rhythm. I see things like that. Walk too close to the edge and you'll fall off. I try to rhythmically not violate the way things move in life. When things go well and flow the way they're supposed to, we call that rhythmic entrainment. It puts us in synch with the world around us. It makes us feel happy and think about good things. It gives you personal power.
DR: Thanks Mickey.
Mickey: I really appreciate your questions and look forward to you hearing my new band play, so we can dance the night away. Take care and see you soon!
By - Dale Rangzen