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Conversations with the Rhythm Master: An Interview with Mickey Hart

By Brian L. Knight

 

This fall, in a few select small venues, New England will be blessed with Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum. This massive rhythmic groove session will be appearing at the Troy Music Hall on October 20 and Boston’s Orpheum Theater on October 24th. As a drummer with the Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart has excited New Englanders on many occasions during the band’s thirty-year history. Recently, he has come to the area with both Planet Drum and The Other Ones, playing in larger venues. We will now get a chance to see the master in more intimate locations.

Throughout his tenure with the Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart continuously experimented with the art of percussion and drumming. Hart used a Grateful Dead concert as a palette for his rhythmic investigations. During every performance, there was a half-hour delegated solely to the band’s drummers and their craft. Hart’s passion for percussion has evolved way beyond the realm of a Grateful Dead concert, and he has traveled the world researching different cultures and their associations with rhythm. These explorations have culminated with several drumming books, numerous percussion recordings, and essentially have made Hart one of the world’s premier percussion and rhythm authorities.

Hart’s most recent musical endeavors have been through Planet Drum, which is an all-percussion band. Along with Hart, the touring version of Planet Drum is comprised of fellow world percussion enthusiasts John Molo, Giovanni Hidalgo, Rahsaan Fredericks, Umberto "Nengue" Hernandez, Glenys Rogers, Rebeca Mauleón, and Gladys "Bobi" Céspedes.

The Vermont Review had a chance to speak to Mickey Hart on his car phone, as he was about to cross the Golden Gate Bridge on his way to his daily rehearsal with Planet Drum. It seemed like an apropos place to chat with someone so representative of the San Francisco music scene. Mickey clued us in on A LOT: everything from his influences and philosophies to cultural anthropology and music creation.

BK: What kind of venues have you been playing in during this current tour?

MH: Theaters.

BK: How do you like that change going from large stadiums with the Grateful Dead?

MH: They both have their merits. There is the intimacy of the 2-3000 seaters, and there’s the big hit of the stadiums. It’s a different kind of emotion. The idea is that you’ve got to create an intimate vibe, an intimate environment on the stage, no matter if you play a 60,000 seater or a 2,000 seater. You still have to get the communication between the band, and then you can just pump it out, but I like to be able to see their eyeballs. That’s a good thing to be able to make contact with the audience, so the smaller venues are probably more preferable to me.

BK: Can you claim any particular drummer as an influence?

MH: I studied w/ Gene Krupa. And, Buddy Rich, Olatunji, Airto Moreira, and the people I’m playing with right now. These are my influences and also my associates.

BK: So you started off with a jazz background?

MH: Well yeah, I was in big band.

(After some brief technical difficulties the interview continues. So about those influences…..)

MH: I was also influenced by the Latin music of the city: Tito Puente and Machito. These are my big influences. Its funny that’s where I’m winding up right now. The Planet Drum is favoring these powerful rhythms of the black Diaspora - Aruba, West Africa, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Cuba. It seems like its led me back to where I started.

BK: When do you first realize that drumming was your calling?

MH: I was a kid, a young boy, but it wasn’t really drumming that fascinated me at first, it was the rhythm of things. I found myself transfixed by the rhythm of the city, the trolley cars, the traffic anything that moved and had a rhythm and a pattern, I would be riveted to. That was my first tip-off. And then, drums came in later.

BK: Are there any musicians in your family?

MH: Yes my mother and father were both drummers. I’m coded for this; this is not something I fell in accidentally. It is part of my code.

BK: "Supralingua" (the new album), what does the name mean?

MH: It’s beyond language. It’s actually from the Latin - super linguam. A lot of the vocals on this record have no literal translation, they’re phonetics. Perhaps when we first got together and grouped as humans these were utterances coming from deep down, maybe subconscious or soul stuff. So they had meanings but they didn’t necessarily have literal translations. So that was the challenge to create something in what we call in the Supralingua. In that place that lives outside of language, above language.

BK: Are vocals an integral part of creating rhythm?

MH: Vocals? Well not necessarily in creating rhythm. Rhythm is created by the percussion, and that’s what makes these recognizable patterns, that we call the groove. The vocals are a natural fit, a natural component. A great groove needs a voice, and that comes on the breath. It’s something that is the essence of the human. You’re breath is your essence; without your breath you’re not alive so its a very spiritual, sacred kind of a thing. The vocal is carried on the breath. So when you put strong rhythms and beautiful vocals, you know a meaningful vocal component to it, you’ve got something very powerful and inviting, and that makes for "the trance". That’s what we are after, "the trance", the uplifting of the consciousness, and you do that by ecstatic trance.

BK: I saw you at Furthur Festival two years ago and a trance is exactly what you accomplished.

MH: Well this live group is a little different. We have some feminine influences here. We have some women drummers so we’re giving the drums back to the women. We know that the first drummers perhaps were women. The mother-goddess cultures of ancient Europe were using large cylinder drums, and then of course we [men] took it back and made it into a war drum. Recently the women have started to drum once again. So no planet would be complete, you know what I mean, without this feminine touch. So this Planet Drum has that as another added attraction of this group. The singers also play percussion.

BK: Now you said these mother-goddesses were from ancient Europe...

MH: Yeah, old Europe, in the Neolithic. They were very peaceful seeded earth cultures. Fertility. Then as the ice melted and we followed the herds down south, we overran these cultures, us guys-Kurgens they were called. We took back the rituals that they had and we started praying to the sky gods, and the drum was taken back from them. But now, we are giving it back!! As it rightfully belongs to them.

BK: Alright! It seems that in our culture today, drums have to do a lot with life and death and celebration. Have they always served that purpose?

MH: Well yeah, life is about rhythm. When rhythm is right, life is good. When we are out of rhythm, we’re not so healthy. So you can look at rhythm as good rhtyhm=good health, bad rhythm=not so good health. Love is a good rhythm, hate is a bad rhythm. The body is full of rhythms and life is full of rhythms. How we deal with these rhythms is how well we go through life. Its more than drums and drumming - its the rhythm. And that’s the way I look at life, as a series of multi-dimensional rhythms. The rhythm is a metaphor for good life. Also its a practice, a meditation, its a yoga and that’s what this is all about, this is not just a rhythm band. This points to another reality, that with good rhythm you have good life. Of course there is a human quality to it; there is a spiritual zone that this trance takes you into, as you just pointed out a minute ago.

BK: On your new album, "Supralingua", you are given credit as the man behind it. However most of the songs are written by six or seven people. Can you describe the songwriting process?

MH: Well there are two ways we go about this. One, I have an idea of what I want, and I have a sequence or I have a place that I wanted to head into and then I open up for the group to participate in. That’s why I credit it with them, its the right thing to do because they put their energy into it and the credits should be passed around because they add their very special sauce to the groove. Then the other thing is, that we just let it open each day for free play and sometimes we take a piece of that and we make a song out of it. We play for a couple of weeks and then I sit in the studio and carefully edit it because there’s so much stuff. That’s my job as producer and editor.

BK: Do you have a particular favorite percussion instrument?

MH: It changes from time to time. I like many drums. Its a revolving kind of a thing, sometimes I like a frame drum sometimes I just like a cow bell. Right now I’m into the Indonesian music, and the Indonesian instruments which are bronze and iron. They’re my favorite now so I’m playing them a lot. I also like the bamboo and the wood instruments. It changes over the years, I start gravitating towards different instruments; it’s sort of like having a full diet. The world’s percussion is vast. Every culture has percussion. Every culture has music so if you seek it out you’ll find the most amazing instruments. I mean we’ve come up with thousands of ingenious ways of making rhythm, as a species. Its a never-ending discovery. I just keep scanning for good stuff.

BK: Percussion and drums are a very traditional instrument, like you’ve said its been around forever. Has it evolved over time? Has technology helped it evolve?

MH: Sure. Well not only that. The Iron Age. The percussion instruments have mutated over the years. Sometimes they are made of wood, sometimes they became iron, sometimes they become synthetic material. Now the drums are becoming "tootable", membrane, membranaphones they call them. These are becoming very sophisticated. Then there is the digital technology associated with the archaic world. We live in a very interesting time historically. We are close enough the archaic world that we still know the roots and we can reach back in time and honor those traditions and still remember them and play them. Yet we look ahead to the future, the digital technology, that allows to process and to mutate and alter all these archaic traditions, and create new ones. So we live in a certain kind of golden age. For an artist to live in this time we are very fortunate, we are sitting on a mountaintop as far as the kind of creativity that is at our disposal right now.

BK: Is that where your RAMU instrument comes in?

MH: Yeah, it stands for Random Access Musical Universe, a digital work station that contains all of my sounds and my samples from over the years, all of my instruments that I’ve collected. We put it in RAMU and it can be triggered by a keyboard or by pads. So this is the instrument of the future.

BK: I’m going to jump to some Grateful Dead questions. When you guys did "Drums" how often were they premeditated or how often were they improv?

MH: Improvisation totally.

BK: Everytime?

MH: That was the place for that. That was the part of the show that was totally improvisational. There was never really any thought put into that. That was the idea-don’t think. That part was moment music.

BK: Now maybe this is just confirming a rumor for me, but you had a one-time drum that you could light it to a certain temperature and then you could play it for a little while and then you couldn’t play it anymore?

MH: Rumor.

BK: During the Other Ones performance you took vocals on "Fire on the Mountain" what was that like?

MH: It was very natural, and it seemed easy enough and it was my song so I sort of rendered it as it was originally. See I had given it to Jerry to sing, and he sang it in a different way, and it was a beautiful thing, but it wasn’t the way it was originally intended to be, so I just took it back in a way. I like vocalizing, it fun for me; its not like singing, its more like the spoken word, rapping, its my own little style. I don’t fancy myself as a great singer.

BK: How about the new song from the Furthur Festival -"Banyan Tree"?

MH: That was a song that Robert Hunter and I wrote. Bob (Weir) sings. Its what ii is. It sort of cropped up. Along with Babo Jingo. Those were two new things we brought out. Those are two songs that Robert Hunter and I wrote.

BK: This is not the first time that you have collaborated?

MH: We also wrote Playing in the Band. We wrote a lot of things. We wrote the Greatest Story Ever Told. They (Bob and Jerry) sang those songs, even though I wrote them. I didn’t really sing in the Grateful Dead. There was no need to because there were all those singers. I didn’t want to so I gave them to Bob or Jerry or whomever.

BK: Any plans for The Other Ones to go into the studio?

MH: No. We just finished a live record. I just finished mixing it. We recorded the tour. It’s a beautiful 48 track digital recording of it. That’s going to be coming out in the fall. It is beautiful. I’m really pleased with it.

BK: How about the Apocalypse Now soundtrack sessions, how was that experience for you?

MH: I was ecstatic, you know, I really learned a lot; that was my first movie. . Working with Francis (Coppola) was a real treat and I got to build a lot of instruments. The Beast was built there, you know those big steel drums for the air strikes. It was a monumental experience in my life.

BK: Did working on Apocalypse Now sessions lead you into doing the soundtrack to the Vietnam war documentary?

MH: Yeah, everything leads into the next thing because music is a process. So you learn something from this and you take it to the next place, and then you learn something from that, and it goes on, and that’s the thing about music, you can’t learn it all in a day; it takes a whole lifetime to learn your craft. Its unlimited, its never-ending. Its something you can do until the day you die, and you can learn something everyday, and I try to.

BK: Does any particular era with the Grateful Dead stick out more than another?

MH: The sixties were great musical moments for the Grateful Dead. We were discovering the music for the first time. We spent the next twenty-five years playing it.

BK: At home, we have somebody called the Stratton junk-man, and he plays nothing but garbage for percussion instruments.

MH: We call it found metal.

BK: What is the most unusual item that you’ve used as an instrument?

MH: Wooden Shoes, I used combs, wine glasses, crushed glass, how about human skulls?

BK: You’ve traveled all over the world, what’s the most beautiful place you’ve seen?

MH: I’d have to say Bali. Probably the greatest arts are there, the most beautiful instruments. They take great pride in how their instruments look and sound.

BK: In 1991 you went to testify for the U.S. Senate Committee On Aging. Why?

MH: Well they asked me to testify with Oliver Sacks (renowned psychiatrist, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat) to testify on the power of rhythm and healing, so there would be funding for research for this subject. What does rhythm do to the brain and how does it work? How is used to help in Alzheimer’s and dementia, and all of these diseases? Rhythm is a tool for healing, and so that started the rhythm based therapy back then. We found a lot since 1991. We know that rhythm is a powerful tool in uplifting the spirit.

BK: So what do you do when you’re not exploring music?

MH: Well, I have a wonderful family life. I have a wife, two children (5 and 15). So that is of great interest to me. I read a lot, I write.

BK: What does your wife do?

MH: She’s into environmental things, Environmental Psychology really. She’s linking environment with good health. The psychology of environmental preservation, people who destroy the environment have something wrong with them, its a mental illness, and so its Ecopsychology. She’s also on the open space commission here in Sonoma County. She creates open space. She purchases land to keep green. She works in environmental causes. She’s a lawyer; she was a criminal lawyer, but now she’s using it for environmental practice.

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Check out Supralingua, currently available in stores. Planet Drum will be arriving at the Troy Music Hall on October 21 and the Orpheum Theater on October 24th so Hart’s rhythmic groove will be in close proximity. Furthermore, The Other Ones do more than just fill the void incurred by the cessation of the Dead. They have built upon the existing foundation and taken it even further. So check out Planet Drum or The Other Ones if you can! Finally, make, buy, borrow, or uncover a percussion instrument and get in on the positive vibe good rhythm can create.