For Mickey Hart, “the world is my oyster” is too limited a phrase – it’s more like the universe is his playground. One half of the fabled drumming team that formed the backbone of the legendary band The Grateful Dead, the 69-yearold Hart has spent the past 18 years since the band’s demise ratcheting up his lifelong pursuit of exploring the connection between rhythm, life and the cosmos.
And he’s done it utilizing everything from light rays to brain waves, while never forsaking the Bo Diddley beat of “Not Fade Away.”
“The theme of my music, particularly my last two records, is cosmic sounds,” said Hart earlier this week, minutes after the expansive eight-member Mickey Hart Band had descended from the stage in Hamilton, Ontario, after performing almost two hours of rockified world music and Dead classics. They were beginning the second week of a two-month tour to promote their new album Superorganism, that will see them perform on August 22 at the Mount Scopus Amphitheater in Jerusalem as part of the city’s Sacred Music Festival.
“The first album [2012’s Mysterium Tremendum] dealt with the macro – the big bang 13.8 billion years ago, the planets, the stars, the sun, Earth and moon. I collected the radiation light from radio telescopes and sonified them into sound and used them in the compositions,” said a relaxed-sounding Hart from his backstage lounge.
“On [the brand new] Superorganism, I explore the micro – the human brain, what the brain waves look like on the screen and what it sounds like, all in real time.”
Hart was referring to the tour’s marriage of music and science via an electroencephalography (EEG) cap he wears during the shows that reads the neural oscillations created by his movements and transmits to a giant projector screen behind the band, in essence creating a brain-powered light show.
“What it becomes is a real-time performance of the brain and what it looks like on the screen,” said Hart.
MIND-BOGGLING light shows and exploration of the unknown are nothing new for Hart, who joined the great musical experiment known as The Grateful Dead in 1967, two years after they were formed in 1965 with charismatic and gifted guitarist Jerry Garcia at its helm.
Together with fellow “Rhythm Devil” partner Bill Kreutzmann, Hart, the only Jewish member of the band, conjured up the trademark polyrhythms that powered the music of the hippie acid-rock jam band that evolved into a musical institution that remains one of rock’s most quirky and enduring stories.
Either music fans loved the Dead or hated them, mostly with equal passion. While their music could veer from thrilling to tedious, sometimes in the course of the same song, the Dead really made their mark by following the philosophy of never treating a song in the same way, reinventing themselves via Garcia’s stream-of-consciousness leads, bassist Phil Lesh’s twisty, winding patterns and Hart and Kreutzmann’s telepathically created rhythms.
“It was really easy in some respects having two drummers because Bill and I just fit together really well,” said Hart of the rare double-drummer setup the Dead employed. “We knew that together we were larger than either one of us individually, and that together, we created something special and powerful. We were very different types of drummers, but together it was a real tractor beam.”
“In the early days, we really worked on it, practicing hundreds of hours, just locking in together. But the music we played was spirit music, and for you to play it, you need trust, skill of course, and some kind of love. And when it worked, it was like rhythm magic between Bill and I.”
Surprisingly, Hart said that he and Kreutzmann, though close friends, rarely discussed what they were doing behind the drum kits with each other, preferring to let the dialogue remain nonverbal.
“We didn’t try to dissect the music, and we [took] special care not to talk about it,” he said. “Our language was in the rhythm and we had our conversations all those years rhythmically. It was fun... and very powerful.”
No place did the power expose itself more than in the nightly drum and percussion duels Hart and Kreutzmann held halfway through Dead shows. They gradually expanded their percussion arsenal to include rare, exotic instruments gathered from around the world, as well as a Pythagorean monochord known as the “Beam” which, when played by Hart, produced other-worldly sounds.
These excursions fueled Hart’s desire to learn about various cultures that produced them, which led to a lifelong passion in musicology resulting in several diverse forms of expression: a percussion supergroup with Zakir Hussain, Babatunde Olatunji and Airto Moreira called Planet Drum; various scores, soundtracks and themes for a number of award-winning films and television shows including Apocalypse Now and The Twilight Zone; and four books documenting his fascination with the history and mythology of music, including Drumming at the Edge of Magic.
In 1999, Hart was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where he helped to establish the “Save Our Sounds” project, a collaboration between the AFC and the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, where he currently serves as member of the board of directors.
In 2011 the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings released the Mickey Hart Collection, 25 albums focusing on his efforts to cross musical borders, some of them recordings from musical traditions at risk.
Since the Dead’s breakup following the 1995 death of Garcia, Hart has occasionally played with his former band mates, including The Other Ones, a 2006 grouping that included Kreutzmann, guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh, and another configuration that toured as The Dead. But of all the former members of rock’s eternal hippies, Hart has strayed farthest from the comfort zone of retreading the old classics by challenging himself and his audience with music from the edge. Still, he doesn’t negate rejoining his old friends at some point.
“Anything is possible. It’s just that everybody is doing what they want to do right now, and it’s working well for everybody,” he said. “As long as we’re above ground and in performing state, it could happen if we all wanted it to happen.”
But for now, Hart is focused on his own band, and talked about it and Superorganism, with the enthusiasm of a teenager after playing his first gig.
“It’s glorious, every night we’re finding the magic,” he said. “This is a precious time when everything is working and the concept that we’re trying to achieve is being achieved every night. The band is really tuned in, and is become a superorganism itself.”
At the same time, Hart reassured longtime Deadheads that first and foremost, it’s a rock & roll show, with the Hart band featuring Grammy winning percussionist and longtime band mate Sikiru Adepoju, Tony Award winning vocalist Crystal Monee Hall, singer and multiinstrumentalist Joe Bagale, drummer Greg Schutte, guitarist Gawain Matthews, bassist Adam Theis, and keyboardist/ sound engineer Jonah Sharp. And keeping the Grateful Dead connection going deeper than just one of its drummers, Superorganism’s songs feature lyrics written by the Dead’s primary lyricist Robert Hunter, author of timeless words that graced virtually every Garcia-penned tune.
“The band is really on fire, and we have some great new songs from Robert Hunter, who I think is writing his best lyrics,” said Hart, adding that he’s worked a number of Dead classics into the repertoire including “I Know You Rider” and “The Other One.”
“Putting this band together, it was like ‘ok kids, tonight the theme is the sun – we’re going to be playing the sun.’ I wanted everybody to be into all this stuff, to be able to traverse the macro and the micro, and to be able to do it willingly and with great vision and passion. And we’re having a blast doing it.”
Hart once said that the Grateful Dead weren’t in the entertainment business – they were in the transportation business; moving peoples’ minds and bodies with their music. With their futuristic combination of illuminated brain waves, doo-dah cyberspace, cosmic spirit music and good old-fashioned boogie, the Mickey Hart Band is apparently keeping that Dead tradition alive.