Mickey Hart: Rhythmic Science

Feeding the fires in the depths of the engine room of the Grateful Dead for over thirty years would be more than enough for most aging musicians.  A long and tumultuous ride that began in the heart of the idealistic 60’s and ended in the grunge hangover of the mid-90’s should have been more than rocking chair worthy.  But Mickey Hart wasn’t able to ride off into the sunset when the Dead died.  And why would he?  That iconic rock group was only part of his one-half Rhythm Devils equation.  Sharing the anchor spot with Bill Kreutzmann all those years will undoubtedly be his most notable achievement, but it’s far from his only contribution to music, history and even science.

A purveyor, student and teacher of world music, Hart eventually became involved with the presservation efforts of indigenous works.  His dedication to the project earned him appointment to the Board of Trustees of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress where he heads the sub-committee on the digitization and preservation of the Center’s ever-growing catalog.  And when he’s not looking into the past, he’s pushing forward into the future.  For the last five years, he’s worked with the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at Beth Abraham Hospital where he has lent his efforts to aid in the ongoing discoveries of the healing power of rhythms and it’s direct effect on brain function. 

Now, in what he emphatically calls the best years of his life, Mickey Hart is going full circle with yet another project – seated alongside Kreutzmann once again for the Rhythm Devils.  The all-star cast accompanying them this time for a short fall tour and appearance at Vegoose is comprised of none other than Mike Gordon, Steve Kimock, Sikiru Adepoju and Jen Durkin.  It’s a fiery mix, full of deep exploration and heavy beats that is pushing the envelope the way Hart and company have done for decades.  Not bad for a guy in his 60’s. 

I wanted to begin by asking you about the preservation efforts at the Library of Congress – specifically, what sort of progress have we made on the endangered music project?

The endangered music project is my baby over there, and we’ve made lots of progress on identifying rare and endangered collections.  To be specific, the materials on which these great recordings were imprinted on are decomposing – wax, tin, acetate, magnetic tape – they all have their own problems.  The idea is, ‘how do we get to these collections before that aren’t retrievable?’  The Library of Congress is the largest repository of indigenous musics in the world, so they contain all these stories – the hopes, the dreams, the histories of thousands of years of evolution in these songs – so it’s an important project. 

Are we unearthing strains of music that were previously undiscovered before?

Oh, of course.  There are musics that have disappeared years ago that are being preserved.  Music from the Philippines, music from Egypt…we have more music from Egypt in our library than they have in the library in Alexandria. And the same thing with the Middle East, the Coptic songs.  Not only secular, but sacred music as well. So yeah, it’s all over the map.  There’s so much music there, even the library doesn’t know what’s in the library.  It’s so huge.  Music has been donated since 1890.  The first field recordings were made March 15, 1890, so we have the recordings from 1890 till the present.

As we moved into the digital age, there was initially a great deal of fear that it would kill the record industry.  But now that we’ve kind of passed that threshold, do you think it’s become a better spot for an artist at this point? 

Of course.  To get your music out to the masses is really what it’s about.  Of course its also about being paid properly for your intellectual property and your ownership of that music. So there’s a moral issue here.  ‘Cause if you take music without some kind of compensation to the artist, you’re stealing. 

So how do you combat that?

It’s a moral issue…its really hard to legislate that.  You gotta teach the kids that it’s the right thing to do – to pay a nominal fee for your music.  And not charge it when you send it around, you shouldn’t be in business, you should give music away freely…but there has to be some kind of compensation for it.  So it’s a fine line. 

My daughter is thirteen, and she does chores around the house.  I pay her for her chores, and I put money in her Apple account, and she spends it wisely on music. As a musician, I spent my whole life learning my skill, and so, when I go into the marketplace, it’s the music.  Its like a doctor or a lawyer, or somebody who works in construction – you get paid for your work.  So, she realizes that.  No amount of legislation is gonna stop that.  I see it as a moral issue.  Like we gave it away as the Grateful Dead, but that was our prerogative.  But having music taken from you without your permission is another thing.  I firmly believe in that. 

What about the digital age and it’s effect on percussion.  Are you getting new toys every year?

Oh my God, not every year, every day.  Yeah, it’s really evolved.  I just came back from a Planet Drum tour where we tried out some advanced techniques of signal processing and real time.  It’s a wonder…we just had a great tour, and it worked.  And we’ll be taking some of that into the Rhythm Devils with us – these advanced techniques of delays, reverbs and sound-on-sound, all kinds of innovations that allow us to dance with the digital domain as opposed to being ruled by it.  Now we’re able to interact on an intelligent level with some of these smart machines.  And that’s what I’ve always been about – process, percussion. 

You and Bill Kreutzmann have been drumming together for close to 40 years now.   How does that connection continue to grow in the post-Dead era, when presumably you’re not seeing each other on such a regular basis?

Oh we see each other all the time.  Yeah, Bill and I are very good friends.  We hang out socially – we’re emailing and talking every week.  We’re as tight or tighter than ever, spiritually and musically.  Bill is in great shape, so am I, and somehow we’re getting this real deep drumming groove now which is something about age – being in the groove for 40 years together.  If you can keep the edge, and be enthused and passionate about your work, and you’re in good physical condition, it gets better man, I promise you. 

It’s always the goal to go deeper and better and have more fun in the groove.  We spent a lot of time in the groove, so we’re very relaxed with each other, and Bill is open to this experimentation on the edge here – we’re really riding an edge – and Bill is really embracing it, and he’s doing really well with it.  And we’re having a blast. 

Obviously [Steve] Kimock is no stranger to the Dead family.  What does his exploratory talent bring to the mix?

Well Kimock has the ability to get inside the note, inside the music.  He’s an extraordinary guitar player, there’s no doubt about it.  He’s very sensitive, and he’s capable of transforming a note into its own universe, I like that about him.  There are a few guitar players who’ve been able to do that.  Jimi Hendrix has been able to do that, Jerry [Garcia] has done it, Kimock can do it…it’s possible.  Kimock has a touch that is very powerful in my estimation. 

How did you come to invite Jen Durkin to the band?

I’d heard of her, and I listened to her music and her voice and I thought it would be a perfect match.  Hunter has been writing new songs and I thought that these songs had a voice and our music would be a real perfect match, especially when you add Sikiru Adepoju on talking drum and it gives it that world music, that ethnic flavor because of the nature of his instrument.  So it seemed like the perfect ensemble.

What did you take away from the Hydra project with Particle?

Well Hydra was also a work in progress and that’s where I bread-boarded a lot of the electronics that I’m using, an instrument called the Hydra.  That’s where we took the name for the band.  My instrument is called Hydra, ’cause it has many heads and many parts to it.  It’s got a digital brain and it’s got membranes and it’s got short-wave radio and DJ, it’s got CDs as part of it, all kinds of stuff.  So, the Hydra was further developed in the group called the Hydra.  I’m a work in progress.  These projects play into my evil plan…called ‘world percussion domination’ or something (laughs). 

That’s the next band’s name?

(laughs) World Percussion Domination?…No, I don’t think so.

Working with these younger bands that have followed in the greater footsteps…in your opinion, is there another Dead or Phish in the works, or was that a once in a lifetime thing?

I haven’t heard any.  [Pause]  First of all, you have to have a certain kind of spirit, you have to have songs.  Jamming is possible, ok, but you have to have skill and a lot that goes into being a great jamband.  One of the things that the Grateful Dead had, besides our free spirits, and our absolute, I would call it desperation – we were desperate men, and still are I might add – we’re desperate for this music, and then we had Hunter, we had the songs, and that’s a big part of this.  You can jam your eyeballs out all night, if you don’t have any songs to hang them on, its just noodling.  So we’re blessed now with Hunter writing fulltime for this band, he’s just at it. Every few days we’re beating out another song.  He’s prolific now.  And that’s what I think it takes to be a great jamband.  You just can’t take a bunch of great  jammers and put them together unless you have, what we call, ‘the lumber.’  And we got the lumber.  Kimock is versed in that kind of spirit, so of course is Gordon, and me and Bill, we’re the engine, so it’s a very easy, fun machine.  It’s sort of like a time machine. 

Why do you think the Grateful Dead dual-drummer rhythm section is so rare in rock?  

Well it’s difficult.  You really have to love and trust and have a chemistry with the other drummer.  I’ve never been able to drum with another drummer like I can with Bill.  I can’t tell you why, it’s just something that happens from the first moment.  Our styles are not the same, but together we’re bigger than each one of us.  There’s a kind of symbiotic dance between us – a conversation is a better way of putting it as opposed to a battle.  I’ve drummed with quite a few other drummers in the double drumming team, you know in one of those guest spots where you sit in with the other drummer – the only one who came close to being kind of cool and it was really deep was with Molo.  John Molo was a really great drummer to play with, but it’s nothing like me and Bill. Me and Bill got something that I don’t even want to analyze too much, because it is – it’s magic between us.  We can anticipate each others moves and we don’t think about it, we just feel it.  We don’t rehearse, we just sit down, look at each other eyes and open out hearts and get deep in the groove and have a conversation is the best way to put it.  And our ongoing conversation for 40 years has been mostly stimulating. 

Will the Rhythm Devils sets include a drums/space?

You better believe it.  We’re gonna go outside this time.  We’re planning to go deep. 

You eluded to this earlier, but I wanted to ask you.  If you intend to continue pushing forward, how do you plan on drumming well into your 70’s? 

I don’t know, I’m not in my 70’s!  No, but how do you do it?  First of all you still have to have the fire, because when you get into your 60’s, which I’m in, 63, I workout everyday.  I try to drum everyday, or at least five days a week a little bit, if not a lot.  And you have to stay in shape or else your bones, your joints start to…especially if you’re heavy hitters. We’re power drummers and we’re long distance drummers.  And if you’re gonna be a long distance drummer, you have to be in shape, no bullshittin’.  We don’t go out there for an hour and fifteen, an hour and a half and call it a night…that’s just our first set.  I think that you really have to want it.  Because it takes more effort as you get older to ‘smack leather’ as we call it, to smack a drum, get a real report from a membrane. 

So at 63, you’re an author, accomplished musician, Grammy winner, historian, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, what rocks are still left unturned? 

[Add] Father, husband, music lover…I mean that’s pretty much it, that’s enough.  You do that well, you’re doing ok.  I’m really happy, this is the best time of my life.  I’m feeling real healthy and I’m playing with my best friend, and playing with a lot of really great musicians.  I mean Mike Gordon, my God man he’s world class.  And Sikiru….and I’m looking forward to the Jen experience.  You know, if might take 40 years to do this stuff really well, I don’t know.  But I’m not slowing down and I feel really good in the groove.  The groove is like a gift.  Sometimes the gift of groove as you might say, is a wonderful thing to give.  And we’re still able to do that.  I have to be in a groove of life, because when you play the music, when the music is right, your life is right.  When the rhythm is right, life is good. 

That’s really what it’s all about.  It’s not about drums and drumming, it’s not even about music.  It’s really about the synch of it all, the rhythm of things. And rhythm and music and drums are a great way of getting in synch with yourself and giving that synch to everybody else that wants to be part of it.   

The most interesting part of music now is the science, the neurology of music, what music does to the brain.  And that’s what I’m really interested in now, the research to try to decode this invisible energy called music.  It’s very mysterious in how it works, but we know that music alters brainwave function.  And that means that you can reconnect Alzheimer’s, dementia, the motor impaired.  So this ‘music is medicine’ now is becoming a legitimate science. Nothing to do with the art, just the science of music is the most interesting part of music in this century, and it will be.  That’s where music is heading.  Besides all the downloading and the live performances and CDs and all that stuff…the real action is happening in the science. 

We’re about to break the rhythm genome. You’ll be seeing in the next few years the science will be overwhelming, as far as pointing to music and the healing properties that are innate.  We know it feels good, as practitioners we know that, but we don’t know how to repeat, how to do it on a daily basis.  It’s kind of seat of the pants now. Sometimes you can get the magic, you can get the rhythm, get the groove, go with the trance, but once you decode it, then a doctor will be able to write a prescription for music.  Your HMOs and your insurance companies will be able to pay for it, and music will be a legitimate preventive medicine, as well as other things.  Music is an incredible energy, most people don’t realize the power that music has, but they will, its inevitable.   

So following the October tour, what’s next for you and the Rhythm Devils?  Is it open-ended?

Yeah, Bill and I wanted to keep it kind of loose.  We’ll take it step by step.  We’re gonna probably do a CD and a DVD of it, we wouldn’t want to waste this opportunity, ’cause the band’s hot.  And once we burn this new material, then we’re thinking about going into the studio by the end of the year and knocking something out. 

With this same ensemble?

Yeah, pretty much I would think. If it’s working, it’s working, and so far we’ve been getting really great response.  And we love it, Bill and I love it.  Right now Bill is rolling down the Grand Canyon with Bill Walton, three weeks in the Grand Canyon.   So he’s getting out of the canyon in a day or so and then we’ll start hitting the bricks.  He’s really in great shape, his heads in a marvelous place and he’s physically feeling great. And that’s part of this whole experience – you gotta feel good about yourself and about life or else you can’t give it to anybody else.  If you don’t have it, you can’t give it away.  You gotta really be focused and connected to your own rhythm.

For more info see: RhythmDevils.net

Live photos by Richard Clarke

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