Dead Notes #15 :: The Mickey Hart Interview


In late 1967 at a Count Basie concert at the famed Fillmore Auditorium two brothers in the groove were introduced by a stranger who quickly disappeared into the technicolor ethers forever altering the course of modern music. Mickey Hart and his new rhythm devil brethren Billy Kreutzmann left the show that night with sticks in hand as they ‘played’ the streets of San Francisco until dawn — giving new meaning to ‘the world is your playground’. Hart joined the Grateful Dead officially the following month establishing the band as one of the first with a two drummer back beat as Billy and Mickey physically locked arms and conjured up the spirits of yore with a pummeling mixture of primal tribal rhythms meets big band syncopation. As they say the rest is history and Mickey’s is one of many paths.

We were fortunate to spend a brisk November afternoon in Boston with Mickey as he discussed his new politically charged album RAMU and his history within The Grateful Dead along with his philosophies on life, music and everything in between. Like Jerry Garcia’s notable 1972 ‘Stoned Sunday’ rap with author Charles Reich we let the conversation dictate it’s own course much like Mickey himself who thrives on improvisation and the unknown. We hope you enjoy.

RAMU is out now on Universal Music. words / d.norsen

Aquarium Drunkard: RAMU is one of the most political things I’ve heard from a Grateful Dead member in a very long time. Did you go into this album wanting to do something politically charged?

Mickey Hart: Yeah, for sure. That’s absolutely right. The thing is, the music is supposed to mirror life. It’s also a miniature of life and what happens in the cosmos and in the universe in general. That’s what music is: it’s a miniature of life and the movement in life. Specifically, the social movement and what Mr. Trump represents is what I call “crimes against the groove and the rhythm.” He’s creating new bad rhythms as opposed to positive, life-giving rhythms. The rhythm he’s giving off is disruptive. I see things in rhythmic terms. There hasn’t been any great protest songs that you can really put your teeth into.

AD: I think we’re still early, too. We’ll see what comes out in the next couple of years with other artists. There will be more for sure.

Mickey Hart: They’ll also be disguised in many forms. It’s the way you scream, the way a musician talks to the world and reflects what’s going on not just in his mind, but in the mind of the world. I think that’s an important part of music.

But did I set out to do it? You bet. The idea is that coming up with that kind of protests, the music has to uplift. It has to be entertaining. It has to tell a story — it’s a story thing. Even though the stories are tragic, there has to be some humor in order to bridge the gap between political unrest and entertainment and being uplifting. Robert Hunter wrote these songs not necessarily with Mr. Trump in mind.

The thing about Hunter’s songs is that they’re poetic. The things that he writes years before come into view at different times. They’re very powerful statements, so I took advantage of that. Robert wrote these great songs and they just fit perfectly, so that made my resolve even stronger to make a record that has a political and life angle to it. Music is supposed to shed light on darkness and highlight not only the good but the bad. Music is all about involving people with life. We live in this world, whether we like it or not.

AD: Yeah, we’re all living together — for better or worse.

Mickey Hart: We’re all on this blue-green spinning rock no matter what. We’re hurtling through space. [Trump is] part of the situation with Nazis, skinheads … all that stuff.

AD: I mean they’re literally outside right now, which is the scary part. They were out in the Boston Commons for a free speech rally earlier today — which is kind of crazy and frightening.

Mickey Hart: It’s all part of the fabric of where we live. I thought it would an appropriate thing to do – without bringing people down – to shed some light like only Hunter could do. Tank [Tarriona “Tank” Ball] has a real special gift. Tank is able to translate feeling into songs and sing about them and make them entertaining but cutting-edge biting.

AD: Especially “Big Bad Wolf.” It’s been a long time since hearing something so overtly angry and politically charged, like “Throwing Stones,” come from the Grateful Dead camp.

How did you meet Tank?

Mickey Hart: My daughter. She’s my eyes and ears into the young generation. She gives me great insight to all of it. When it resonates, I pick up on it.

AD: Were you intentionally looking for a female artist to put on there?

Mickey Hart: Yeah, that’s really the bottom line. I wanted a female artist, because there was a lot of male. In my world of music, there is a lot of “male” in music. Remember, being a musician was not a feminine occupation for many years. It’s changed over the years. For the most part, it’s been a man, masculine dominated profession.

AD: I have a young daughter and I often find myself intentionally trying to find female artists who would be interesting to her. I played her a lot of Joni Mitchell this summer and Margo Price and some others like Karen Dalton — women folk artists who are absolutely fantastic and strong. Tank is an evolution to them. You can hear that in her voice.

Mickey Hart: Oh yeah, she is. That’s absolutely correct. She is a wonderful mixture of a lot of things. She’s a southern gal. She’s from New Orleans which means a lot, because New Orleans is the birthplace of American music.

AD: Absolutely. The origin of jazz music.

Mickey Hart: And not just jazz, but American popular music. You have to understand the history in that the slave trade, which came from Western Africa, and spread to Brazil, Central America, Haiti, Cuba and Puerto Rico – in the 1800s, it all went to New Orleans. Not only did people go there, but they bought their music there. Music was trance-based music in West Africa; it involved very powerful rhythms and that infused New Orleans, which was piano based. It turned into boogie-woogie and then it went up the river and spread to Kansas City and New York.

AD: Sure, up the Mississippi to Chicago and beyond.

Mickey Hart: The next basis was called the backbeat. The turn of the backbeat turned into American music. It was music that was trance-based music, really. You have to understand the music diaspora as well. There’s a sound in New Orleans that permeates all of American popular music; it took over. That’s where Tank comes from. She comes from that. She’s very vital. She’s a strong woman and she has very powerful roots which make her very relevant today. And Dave as well.

AD: Dave Portner [Avey Tare of Animal Collective], right?

Mickey Hart: Yes!

AD: Oh man, I’ve been following them for a long time. I moved to Boston in 2004 and they were one of the first shows I saw. There wasn’t really anybody else doing that very primitive, back-to-the-roots yet electric kind of sound. They were channeling that trance into their music.

Eight years ago they used a sample of “Unbroken Chain” for their song “What Would I Want? Sky”. Was that your introduction to Dave?

Mickey Hart: Well just Animal Collective in general. The sound of it all and the way he phrased things was very appealing. It had a very trance-like quality to it, which I admire and I go to naturally in music.

AD: Oh totally, you want to be transported somewhere else.

Mickey Hart: The idea is that music is a state of mind. There are different ways of creating that state of mind, of course. But, he had an angle on it which I found very appealing, and it fit the kind of music I was making, because my music doesn’t have a lot of chord changes. Mine is a stream of consciousness. It’s a zone. I go for the zone. Whether it’s good music or bad music, if it reaches the zone and puts my head in a certain space, it’s good.

AD: I’d agree with you. I’d say there’s a certain time for certain music. Some folks can’t just say “I’m going to go listen to Animal Collective” at nine o’clock in the morning. Some people, it works for them. Some people it doesn’t.

Mickey Hart: Some music is made for the time of day. Indian music is based around the scales that have meaning. There’s different times of the day, different kinds of weather — like a rainy day — there’s early night, late night music, that have notes in the scale that evoke that kind of feeling and sense of space and place.

The thing about music is that if you look far and wide, you’ll find all the sensibilities. For instance, we were walking in the park there and we saw this gentleman playing a single stringed instrument from China. I remember when the Grateful Dead used to have the Chinese Orchestra open for all the Chinese New Year shows. It took me about five years of listening to them for me to hear the music, because it’s very dense. There are many notes between A and B. It’s microtonal, so the ear isn’t trained for that. Once I heard it, I really got it. My ear was stretched, so hearing this again brought me back to the days where I listened to Chinese music.

Music is all about feel. You hear music and it takes you to a time and place and space. Music is a metaphor for life in that way. It reflects life and it also it professes it. It tells the story of where you’re going, where you’ve been, who you are right now. There are all these kinds of stories in music. You just have to have the ear to hear them. Modern music that is popping up now …

AD: I was going to ask … What are you listening to in modern music? Besides Animal Collective. Obviously, you had Michal Menert from Pretty Lights on the album as well.

Mickey Hart: I listen to a lot of electronic music.

AD: Are you more attracted to electronic music?

Mickey Hart: I am, because I like adventure in my music.

AD: You’re a pretty technological man.

Mickey Hart: Well, I’m a modern man filled with technological curiosity. Remember, the machines are getting a lot smarter. Here you have sounds unborn.

AD: Is it easy for you to grab on to these new technologies?

Mickey Hart: First of all, you have to find out your taste — your personal menu. All you have to do is be a musical circumnavigator and go for a sail, a journey, and find things along the way that are appealing that make you say, “That’s music. I like that.” I like things I don’t know about and I know a lot of stuff, because I studied it.

There comes a time in your life when you want to experience other tastes and other people’s sensibilities. The only way to do that really, unless you go live with them and eat the food and talk the talk and tell the stories, is through the music. Music is the crucible. It’s what holds all the stories and makes you understand who these people are and what it means to you. It’s all about personally how you relate to things …

In personal music — going back to your question — is as the machines got smarter, so did we. They are both progressing in a parallel. There’s the world of the analog which we were born in. Perhaps not you.

AD: Borderline. [laughs] Though I find myself going towards a more analog approach in most personal creative things.

Mickey Hart: A lot of people were born digital. Everybody who’s been there and studied that, there’s the birth of everything and digital. That’s when digital started. It opened up a whole lot of other possibilities that were so beyond and different than analog is this one instrument that does this certain thing and there are certain combinations. We’ve pretty much exhausted most every combination. Now we’re just trying to find different ways of expressing ourselves with these different combinations in innovative ways.

That’s what music is for; it’s inventive; you invent things. You discover things and then move on in life. You tell stories. That’s what music is really for. It’s also about mental and physical health and how you go through life and time. If you have good music and the music is nourishing, you have a better life. Music in the old days wasn’t necessarily about entertainment; it was mostly about the ritual of life and how you go through it.

AD: And sharing your story with the next generation.

Mickey Hart: Yeah. You dance to it. You sing to it. You become human. That’s where music came in. It brought us all together in groups. It brought us in tribes. It brought us together to become stronger and to be able to become human. That’s what music does.

Also, music is an aphrodisiac. It’s part of the survival process of humans. You make more, so the human race goes on. That’s really the power of music. Power to heal, power to make better, raise consciousness, power to dance and to sing with it. That’s why there will always be music.

There’s no culture on this planet that doesn’t have music. It’s universal. It’s culturally specific and culturally defining. It tells you who they are and who you are. That’s why music is so popular and is a multi-million dollar industry — it wraps its arms around the whole globe. Now, we’re finding out that the universe is filled with music, not just the music of the whole Earth. We find out that the music of the spheres, the music of the cosmos is translating radiation of light to sound. It’s called sonification.

AD: Is that an idea for a future project?

Mickey Hart: Well I’ve been doing those for quite a long time.

AD: I know you’re always trying to tap into it. I can tell.

Mickey Hart: It’s really exciting. Now we’re able to hear the celestial world and make sense out of it as if it were an instrument. The whole universe is an instrument which is playing us, because we are affected by gravity. The tides. Everything in cycles. The moon, the sun coming and going is what makes us us.

So when you think of music, you have to not think of the music of the whole earth, you must think of what Pythagoras would call “Musica Universalis” or the Music of the Universe. You are part of it; you are embedded in that. You are with the machines, but you are embedded in the universe of rhythms. I’m trying to come to grips with the great mystery of time which is one of our greatest mysteries.

Einstein didn’t figure it out. No one has really put their finger on time, what time is, where it’s going, and how we deal with the world around us which is all time-based. That’s the big enchilada. Rhythm is how we break up time. Since vibration is the essential of life — without vibration there is no life; it’s inanimate. If it’s alive, it has to have two things; it has to have a light and it has to have a sound.

AD: Back to the album — it shares a name with an instrument that you created.

Mickey Hart: Random Access Musical Universe (RAMU).

AD: How did you collect all the sounds?

Mickey Hart: Sometimes you create the sounds. Mostly the sounds that are in RAMU are sonifications of the heavens of the cosmos. They’re sonifications of raindrops. Storm out at sea.

RAMU is a workstation. It’s a digital workstation that allows me to have all these sounds that I’ve collected and found in one database. It’s a live performance whereas I can change the composition instantaneously and go at any tempo, any soundscape instantly.

AD: Did you create this instrument with somebody else?

Mickey Hart: Yeah, I worked with scientists and engineers over the years — since the 1980s. It’s a work in progress.

AD: Did you work with Bob Bralove too?

Mickey Hart: Bob was the one that coined the term RAMU.

AD: Interesting. I did not know that.

Mickey Hart: That’s right. Then they were just tape loops. It was very primitive. It was very simple.

AD: You were more analog at that point?

Mickey Hart: That’s right. It was very analog. We’re in both worlds. We’re in the world of analog and we’re in the world of the digital. We’re straddling both worlds right now. RAMU plays into that. I have the possibility of anything I can think of. It’s limitless.

AD: Do you have it on-stage with you now? Is it with Dead & Co.?

Mickey Hart: Oh, yeah! It’s my home.

AD: It’s your home! I wasn’t sure if you only had it physically in your studio.

Mickey Hart: That’s a good point. I’m able to do with RAMU live what I could do in the studio — with studio controlled things. Here, it’s wild. Remember, what you get out of the studio becomes wild sound. Anything can happen and the combinations are endless. You can only do that if you have control on things. That’s studio work; it’s controlled. What you get in a live performance is the loss of control.

AD: You’re never going to find out what the possibilities are without trying it in all environments.

Mickey Hart: That’s where you find what’s really happening in your world — what you sound like, where you’re going, where you been. It tells you your life and sound as opposed to reading something from a piece of paper. Like, if you want to play Mozart or Brahms a lot of people play it and they appreciate it and love it, because they were great artists. That’s recreation as opposed to creation.

RAMU is a creational tool as opposed to a recreational tool. Every time I go to a certain setting and find that very thing. I can add space to it and all sorts of stuff –what we call “sauce.” You have to put the spice to the stew [laughs]. That’s what modern music is all about — trying to represent yourself or what’s going on in your body and mind and culture.

AD: I think it’s hard to limit yourself. Like when people say, “I only listen to rock and roll” or, “I only listen to country,” But have they experienced — we’ll say the Alan Lomax recordings? A lot of those recordings, or even the Anthology of American Folk Music, were such a significant influence of music for you guys, Bob Dylan…etc.

Mickey Hart: There were a lot of people that went out in the field in the early 1930s and 1940s that captured the sounds that were indigenous and disappearing. Music disappears and it’s okay. Music will be here forever, but when music doesn’t serve a purpose in a community, it dies. It falls out of favor and there’s no need.

What communities need is music and music needs a community to serve. Without that, they’re inseparable. If we didn’t have Deadheads, there would be no Grateful Dead or Dead & Co. You can’t play for yourself.

AD: I always tell people who aren’t into the Dead like “There’s a lot of different Dead to experience.” You guys had like the country-era and you had the more popular era with “Touch of Grey”. Then you have … well, I just love 1968. You and Billy are just like an ouroboros. You two are locked hand-in-hand and it’s fire music. You also have people who are like, “I only like drone music” and I say, “Well, have you heard “Seastones”?” You guys have tapped into so many different categories of music. It’s incredible.

Mickey Hart: It’s fantastic.

AD: The evolution from song to song, era to era …

Mickey Hart: It’s all a story. Music isn’t for everybody. Music, in general, serves a lot of purposes. It’s very meaningful on a lot of levels. People who are without music, they are less for it, because they are not involved totally in life. Music is that thing that brings you together with other people. It allows the imagination to fly. The consciousness and imagination are really important in life or else you’re just punching the clock. You’re just not wasting time, but suspended in time. You’re not really being nurtured or nourished by passing through time. Music is one of those ways of doing that. It’s worked for thousands of years and it’ll continue to work until there’s no planet.

That’s also a product of bad leadership — getting back to that. Music is talking about a lot of things — the human occupation of Earth. Where we are in the universe is what music is really all about. It tells us all those stories. Imagine if there is no life. There would not be music as we know it. You would have the insects and creatures chattering around, but there would be no ears to hear — no human ears. That’s a bigger picture. When we think of Trump and what he’s doing to the environment and what he’s doing to culture, he’s ripping it apart. Music coalesces things. Music brings together. It’s the absolute opposite of music of what he’s doing.

AD: Do you think it’s sometimes needed though? To create that disruption and to create something new?

Mickey Hart: Yeah. It is.

AD: As much as I hate the guy, I’m very curious what’s going to happen to the world of music and art as a result.

Mickey Hart: Here’s the take on that. The idea is that you check the loss. If they fall down, they aren’t supposed to be there.

AD: Yeah. I’d agree with that [laughs].

Mickey Hart: But if they stand, then they mean something. Trump is shaking the walls and they’re crumbling. If he doesn’t go too far, the walls will still be there and they’ll be rebuilt. He has the ability — the horror — of nuclear weapons to annihilate all of human life. This is really serious. That’s music. Once you take away the sound — the song of human beings — it’s a bleak planet. It’s a planet without sound and light. It’s dark, vast. It’s a vacuum. It’s a lot of things.

Being the Grateful Dead, we were able to explore all of the things that weren’t necessarily being explored with modern music that were very codified. Every night you take psychoactive drugs and you go out there and play your heart out and you’re listening to your brothers and they’re listening to you. You create great beauty out of nothing. That is life-giving. We never had a lot of discipline on ourselves nor did other people have any control over us, so were operated as our little empire.

AD: Well you guys are unlike anything else. Bands like Phish have come along and they’ve gone down a similar road as you guys, but the Grateful Dead is an entity of its own. Modern concerts wouldn’t be as great without the influence of the Wall of Sound.

Mickey Hart: That’s what happens when people don’t say no. This is what happens when people are allowed to forage. I like to forage; I like to explore. All good music comes from that. I remember coming off the stage every night, and we would say to each other, “Gee, I learned something tonight” a lot. That happened for many years. Then, we stopped saying it, because we learned so much that it’s taken the rest of our lives to figure out and being able to become good at it. Maybe it takes 50 years to become good at music — if you live that long and play music.

AD: Now, you have Dead & Co. Do you feel like this new revival and rejuvenation is changing your outlook as a musician now? Has that helped you move forward?

Mickey Hart: Grateful Dead music was not meant to be stuck in. The thing is that we always left the room — consciously or unconscious — with improvisation. Remember, our base was improvisation. You stayed a sound; you stayed a song. Everything else is up for grabs. You can do whatever you want in a song as long as you identify the song with a beginning and ending — sort of, kind of [laughs] — and then say, “Okay, nothing in this is crystallized.”

Let’s say “Dark Star.” All “Dark Star” is now is [makes “Dark Star” sound]. When we made that we said, “There are no limits to “Dark Star.” We said, “We can do anything we fucking want with “Dark Star,” because it’s a vehicle.

These songs became vehicles for exploration of consciousness which is the basis of personal life — how you view life and how life treats you and how you treat life. It’s everything. It’s embedded in those songs, so it’s not just songs; they’re vehicles. The other thing is is that we couldn’t remember what we did the night before.

AD: [Laughs] Which is good and “bad”.

Mickey Hart: When we realized that wasn’t important, then we were able to let those ties go.

AD: Then it’s an open slate every time.

Mickey Hart: We cut the rope. We don’t have to play four-minute songs. We were marginalized and laughed at and misunderstood for many years, but it didn’t matter. It really didn’t. We actually took great pride in that — that we were breaking ground. It all depends what you’re after in music. It’s easier to play the same songs every night. But is it the easy part of music? Perhaps.

AD: Maybe? For some people …

Mickey Hart: Then there’s the challenge like in life as in music. There’s the challenge of creating something from nothing. That’s really what the imagination is all about. It’s limitless; the only limit is your own limitation. You’re own imagination. We made sure that that was the vehicle that we wanted to spend our life in — one of exploration and chance. You talk about chaos or order – the Grateful Dead is the pendulum from order to chaos and from chaos to order. That’s where all the good stuff is on the edge. It’s on the edge of magic. If you’re looking for magic, that’s one thing. If you’re looking to play good music, that’s another — or what you call good music or correct music. The universe is unpredictable.

Einstein said, “God doesn’t throw dice with the universe,” but he does. The universe is full of chance and full of chaos. It’s totally unpredictable. So, why shouldn’t music reflect that? That’s what makes it real music as opposed to music in a bottle, which is cool. A lot of people are not really keyed into exploratory music or music that takes you somewhere else. They like to go to — sometimes I do too — favorite recordings. I love to go the Beatles and Crosby, Stills, & Nash. I love lots of different kinds of music, so when I want to feel happy and uplifting, I’ll listen to the Beatles. I listen to music that makes you happy that is of a time and place. It tells me, “Ah, I was young in the ‘60s” and I remember every Beatle record when it came out and who I was with and the room in which I heard it in and even the system on which I heard it on and maybe the store I bought it in that gave me that record. Music defines a time and place. That’s really good. Those are the things you want to hold on to.

AD: With the album, you included samples in “Auctioneers,” an Alan Lomax field recording, and there was another track, “Jerry,” where you had an unused Jerry Garcia piece. Were you working on these songs and decided that the missing piece was an Alan Lomax thing or a Jerry lick? What influenced you to pull in those outside sources that you hadn’t personally created yourself?

Mickey Hart: When you’re looking for something and you’re exploring … there are many ways. For me, it’s dream time. All my good ideas happen from the dream. When I wake up in the middle of the night of something I dreamt and I realize it during the day. I say, “Oh, yeah!” And that gives me an idea and toehold into finding the art.

I’m always looking for new, so my mind wanders. I have a wandering mind. Sometimes it winds up crazy juxtapositions that would never happen before. Very much like this groove over the “Auctioneers” or the Lomax one — all those things. I’ll be like, “Wow! This would really sound great if I put it in this context.” Then there would be a new “gumbo” and exciting possibilities. You can find them in a lot of ways like listening to the radio or daydreaming and then all of a sudden an idea and then you run into the studio or write it down.

AD: Did you feel that way with “Jerry?” Was that something that you had in your head?

Mickey Hart: Not at all. This is another way things come about. My archivist found these tapes in my vault. I had all these Jerry tapes from the ‘80s. Jerry used to come through the house screwing around with many synthesizers. I record everything when I’m home and then I just put it away.

AD: You never know when you might need it again or you want to reference it when you have a spark of an idea.

Mickey Hart: That’s true, but you’re recording history. It tells you where your footsteps are in the sea of time are.

So, I’ll listen to them and think it was absolutely beautiful. It was a sound marker, and it told of our live in the ‘80s, and that moment came back and I thought it was well done enough to be able to mix it with an electronic groove and put my backbeat to it with no vocals. That’s why I called it “Jerry.”

AD: Is that the first time you “played” with him since he passed?

Mickey Hart: Oh yeah.

AD: What was your reaction to that? Did it feel weird? Because he’s not there as a physical entity but he’s spiritually with you every single day. Did he feel like he was in the studio with you?

Mickey Hart: Totally delightful. It’s like visiting your best friend again. We were friends in sound, but we were friends in life too. We had a lot of adventures outside of sound. This was a sonic adventure that we had. He was discovering something of great value and he brought it into the Grateful Dead. It brought back a whole bunch of memories — it represented our friendship and our life together. That’s valuable. Those are the things you want to hold on to if they were pleasant and uplifting — which it was.

It sounded just like Jerry. I don’t have to listen to a recording of Jerry – he’s still in my left ear. That’s how monitors work. He’ll always be there. This was a time and place that was very defining in many ways, because that was the sounds of the Grateful Dead and just the adventurousness of it all even if it wasn’t the sound itself. It was the idea that someone was out there pushing the boundaries which was always a hallmark of the Grateful Dead. If you don’t push the boundaries — why are you here? That’s why we all fell together, because we all had similarities. We were outcasts in many ways. We couldn’t play with other musicians, because we were too weird. Our sensibilities were a little too strange for straight music. Then when we found each other.

It wasn’t that Jerry was such a great soloist, he was also a great group-ist. He loved the group ensemble to play and so did everybody else in the band even though everybody else could solo in some shape or form. It was the group mind that we were after and that’s when we rang the bell. That’s what they all were there for. If not, they could listen to the records or anybody else who wasn’t exploring inter space.

That’s the idea: to take people on a trip. You take them to some place that is new and that they hold equity in the moment. It’ll never be repeated, so we own that. The people who were there that night own it too. It’s like that. It’ll never be repeated. It’s an original. If you have music that’s original even though it’s based in song — in the Grateful Dead, it wasn’t frowned upon to go outside of the form. It was actually encouraged — to a point. There’s sensibilities, so if you go so far out that you disturb the force then it becomes destructive to the overall zone of the music, but if you all find it together, it’s power. That’s what they feel. That’s why they keep coming back. I mean he made a lot of mistakes; we failed more than we succeeded as far as music speaks.

AD: You have to do that in order to get to the next plateau. You have to find where your faults are. Similarly, looking at recordings like Rolling Thunder from ’72 and Diga Rhythm Band, Planet Drum in the 1980s and 1990s – is there anything you’ve ever thought about remixing or re-recording now that technology is changed enough? Jerry had this saying, “Once we’re done with it, it’s theirs.” Do you still feel that way?

Mickey Hart: Well, it’s both. The idea is that if you want to hear that, that’s there.

Would I like to go back and remix my records? You bet. If I had time and there was a reason to do it. I would love to go back and reimagine it. Because it was recorded so well. That was just my take on it at that moment.

Now, with modern technology, I could create, yet again, another version of it that would be stunning. It would be different maybe not better. Sometimes it might eclipse the original. That’s just prerogative. I have a lot of other things that are on my agenda now. The universe is calling. The sounds of digital technology and the ability to make new music is just blinding.

AD: What is your dream project that you haven’t accomplished yet?

Mickey Hart: Everything I work on is a dream project.  I don’t work on project that aren’t dreams.

AD: Then what’s the most far fetching one if you could go anywhere in the world? If we could go to space right now that’d be fantastic.

Mickey Hart: There was two things I missed. I was just talking to my daughter about this morning. We were talking about going out on a real serious remote — recording the world’s music next year.

There was a time when I wanted to record the Quran and great Jewish works to make audiophile recordings of these great works. Which there are really none of – they are mostly inferior recordings and they aren’t really thought of in audiophile ways. They are works that represent great cultures. I tried two times to record The Quran and failed both times for various reasons, but that was a challenge. It has nothing necessarily to do with the religion; it was the sound of it. Also, the Jewish books, I thought they would be a great match set. I figured out that it would take 14 CDs a piece at one time. I had a record company that would do it.

AD: Was this the Smithsonian? Were they willing to do stuff like that?

Mickey Hart: No. This was Rykodisc with Don Rose. I called him up one day and was like, “This is what I want to do.” And they go with a little silence, “Oh, okay. Cool.” But, I never completed it for various reasons. That was an itch I never got to scratch. Now, my thoughts go more to gravity, to electromagnetic fields, the music of the spheres, the things around us that make us us. That’s one thing that really interests me now. The groove, always, has to be there. If there is no groove, you can’t dance to it. I like dance music, so I always gravitate towards that. I, also, like space. Space is very dear to me.

AD: Can I tell you a funny thing that happened to me last night? During “Drums” and “Space”, I was standing up dancing and the guy behind me who was sitting down and tapped me on the shoulder and was like, “You’re blocking my view and I’m not enjoying the show anymore.” I was a little insulted. I was like, “You’re missing one of the best parts of the show!”

Mickey Hart: Drumbo head! [Laughs]

AD: The energy and the rhythm! I go back to Fare Thee Well and hearing you guys play “Drums” and “Space” in such a large stadium as it reverberated, it was fantastic. I loved that! The guy actually called an usher over on me last night asking if I was supposed to be sitting there. I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” [Laughs]

Mickey Hart: [Laughs] Well, he’s missing the point.

AD: Yeah! He was missing the point. It was shocking to me.

Mickey Hart: A lot of people miss the point, but they can listen to records. That’s for them. But if you want to be part of an experience — because music is experiential and being a part of the music experience is really important. You take things from there into life. I always say to the audience, “Take what you feel now — this good feeling that you have and the good thoughts — and take that out into your world and do some good with it. Hug your child and wife. Use this energy to make a better world.”

That’s what music is for. That’s its prime reason to exist — to make a better world for you and everyone else. I always believe that it’s a positive force for good. There is music that is destructive. Some people use music as noise.

AD: Well you guys played with Metallica two weeks ago. What were your thought about seeing them? They are kind of the antithesis of the Dead, yet very noisy.

Mickey Hart: I didn’t see them.

AD: Okay. But you’re aware of them, being from the Bay area.

Mickey Hart: Oh yeah! They’re an export of a certain type of music.

Mickey Hart: Yeah. Lars and I had a great talk. I hadn’t really interacted with him much over the years, but we got together and had a wonderful time together. You have to respect anybody’s music, because that’s their badge of identity. To say “Metallica is noise,” well, it is.

AD: It gets chaotic at times.

Mickey Hart: It’s noise, but there’s good noise and there’s bad noise. Drums are noise, and I’m proud of being a noise-ician. A noise-ician is a good thing to be. Sometimes you want more noise in your music; sometimes you want more melody and harmony, but that’s personal taste. It’s hard to put down or evaluate somebody’s music, because it’s a very personal thing. Anytime somebody takes that stand on music, they don’t really understand the essence of music.

AD: I feel that way when friends that say they don’t like certain music. I can respect why your ear hasn’t found the reason why you should enjoy that yet. You might enjoy that ten or 15 years from now. It might be a week, but it’s going to happen.

Mickey Hart: Your ear has to be educated, just like the brain, the heart. It has to be educated. It’s important that they call it the “well-stretched ear.” When you stretch your ear, you listen to a lot of different kinds of music. When the ear hears something it doesn’t understand, it calls it noise. It doesn’t make sense, so it’s non-sense — which is noise.

But, noise is a big part of the universe. Big part! More than melody and harmony actually. Rhythm underlies the whole thing. The one constant in the universe is rhythm — not melody, not harmony, not noise — but the rhythmic value of time and space. That’s everything. Without rhythm, everything would be bumping into each other. It would be crashing and burning.

The universe is billions of years old. Everything is the speed of light. You’re made up of light. You’re made of carbon that’s in your cheesecake. Everything about you is stardust. You’re stardust. If you start realizing that music and rhythm comes before eternity. It’s endless. The thought of that is driving me to go deeper and deeper into the mystery of sound and space.

AD: I hope you find it.

Mickey Hart: Yeah. I just can’t sleep now, because I’ve been on this. That’s a dream. You talk about dream projects. That’s a dream project. That pulls together all the important elements that are important for life. It tells the story of time; it tells the story of space; it tells the story of us. What’s our place in the universe? Where did time and space come from? Where did the groove happen? Where did music come from? These are really big questions that I find irresistible and real sexy. It’s romantic.

In high school, I wasn’t good in science and history. The only thing I did was music. It’s funny how later in life it turns to the scholarly texts to find out where we came from as musicians. We didn’t know what made a musician and why there are musicians and drummers. Where did they come from? Why do we spend our life in search of this groove? Where do we find it and how do you know when you got it? If you practice, you’re a practitioner of rhythm your whole life. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to wonder where did the brotherhood and the sisterhood come from. Why are you beating on drums or making rhythms? Why? Then you find out that that’s what makes you human. You are rhythm, so you’re making now a rhythm of your own and sharing it with someone else. That’s food; that’s nourishment. That’s everything.

My cosmic view of music is being nourished now. I hang out with astrophysicists now and musicologists — people who really know what’s going on in the universe. I listen. I learn. I’m a student. Always have been, always will be a student. I’m not an expert on anything, but I’m a student of everything. That’s the way you stretch your imagination and that’s the way you stretch your ear. If you do that, you are a person of the universe. You’re a working member; you’re making something and life worth living. Sometimes you go through life and you don’t really know what the meaning of life is, but you can find it in music. That’s where I gravitated. I’m very fortunate.

I love to observe and play with the worlds of rhythm that are all around. It was an enthusiasm at one time when I was a kid. I didn’t know anything other than it made me feel good. As you go through life, you start thinking about why rhythm and what’s the importance of it and how does that play into everything. Then, you come up with the meaning of why you’re alive and why you’re living. How can you make it a better world? Which is what I believe music is really all about. It makes you healthy in your head and in your body. Look, I’m 74 years old.

AD: You look great for 74.

Mickey Hart: Music made me like that.

AD: It keeps you healthy.

Mickey Hart: It keeps me healthy. It keeps my juices flowing. Every night when I go up there, I come off the stage different. I’m never the same. Every night — even on a bad night — you’re different. Something happens to you that you take from the music and you use it to make the world the world. A lot of people don’t realize how important music is to the human race. They just don’t put it all together.

If you study history — Pythagoras, Galileo, Newton, Copernicus, Einstein and all of the thinkers that tried to make sense out of nonsense. It’s hard to make sense of everything around you unless you’re a scientist. Or else it’s philosophy. You can be a scientist; you can be a philosopher. I tend to go to science, because that’s the bedrock of existence. You have to know what it’s made of and why.

I know this is a really different route than perhaps you were looking for.

AD: This is perfect actually. I have been a fan of the Grateful Dead for 20 years now and I’m always finding something new about you all which keeps it exciting.

Mickey Hart: I always think when we do Grateful Dead stuff — specifically the “Jerry” track — what if Jerry was sitting here? What would he think? If he was listening to that track, he’d be smiling from ear to ear.

AD: I actually had a conversation with Howard Wales yesterday as the Garcia Estate is doing a vinyl reissue of Side Trips. He was going on about the same thing that Jerry — how they go down to the Matrix and have fun. There was no plan.

Mickey Hart: Fun is so hard to have these days. Jerry was a fun machine. He laughed a lot. He was funny as hell.

AD: You can hear it in the recordings. You can hear physically his laughter.

Mickey Hart: It’s not so much you can hear the laughter. You can hear it in …

AD: You can hear it in his playing too. There was that Dave’s Pick (#23 – 1/22/1978) that was released recently with the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” jam that is just out of this world. No pun intended.

Mickey Hart: Jerry was plenty weird. He loved the weird. He would go to the weird. He would rather go to the weird than any place else. We all kind of had a share of that. That’s what made us a group. You can’t just take a bunch of good players, mediocre players — or even bad players — and make them a group.  As a matter of fact, I was just talking to Elton John the other day and I told him, “I’ll never ask you to be the piano playing person for the Grateful Dead. You can be sure of that.”

We started talking about Bruce Hornsby, Pigpen and Steve Winwood. I told Steve one time that we wanted him to be in the band. But I told him, “Steve, I love you man. I don’t want to do this to you.”

AD: So you are like “You don’t want to be a part of this shit?” [Laughs]. Steve Winwood being part of the Grateful Dead would of been fantastic!

Mickey Hart: The schedules didn’t work out. The keyboardist come and go in the Grateful Dead.

AD: Howard called it a curse, yesterday. He said, “I don’t know if I ever want to be a part of the keyboardist curse.”

Mickey Hart: To be honest, I never heard piano in the Grateful Dead. Piano was never an instrument that I really thought fit in Grateful Dead music.

AD: When you look at Pigpen, he was …

Mickey Hart: He never played piano.

AD: He didn’t, but he …

Mickey Hart: But he played Farfisa.

AD: Right, right he played Farfisa but it was an accent instrument if you really think about it. He didn’t play it all the time. But there were certain cuts like “Viola Lee Blues” it sounded so good with him on Farfisa.

Mickey Hart: His sound is so unique and its defined the attitude of the Grateful Dead. He could hardly play; he wasn’t a keyboard player. He was harmonica and singer. He played his little dobro. He was a blues guy. The Grateful Dead was way too weird for him. It turned from a blues band to an experimental music band. I loved Pig.

AD: Which is sad. Europe ’72 was obviously his last tour which was fantastic.

Mickey Hart: It happened way before that.

AD: Yeah, you’re starting to see him disappear in 1970-71 when the Cowboy Dead thing started happening.

Mickey Hart: The band started to turn away from the blues.

AD: 1969 you’re starting to get pretty out there. You added Tom into it.

Mickey Hart: It started to leave Pigpen behind. Pigpen wouldn’t go; he wouldn’t stretch. It wasn’t in him.

Pigpen was a blues guy — just like a bluesman. He drank himself to death. He lived that life, but he never could transform as the band was transforming. It wasn’t part of his DNA. I loved Pigpen. He was a great guy who was the sweetest guy. He wouldn’t hurt an ant. He was just the kindest, nicest person you would ever want to meet. But he was a blues guy.

We used to hang out with him upstairs, because he lived upstairs. No one wanted to hang out with Pigpen. [Laughs] No, I’m just kidding.

He just wanted to be alone and drink and cackle. Janis [Joplin] and him shared a room and were drinking and cackling all night. Tour buses used to come by and say, “Oh, it’s the home of the Grateful Dead. Fear the Grateful Dead.” Pigpen used to have these old guns. What do you call those big, long rifles?

AD: Oh, I forget but I have seen them in photos. There’s that photo of you guys on the steps of 710 with everybody else from the ballroom scene out there.

Mickey Hart: Totally inoperative. We used to stand there with the rifle and then we used to shoot them a moon. We both used to do that when the tour buses came.

AD: Wait, they literally went up the hill?

Mickey Hart: Oh, yeah! Right in front of us. You could hear the bullhorn.

AD: Jesus Christ. That’s insane. That street is tight and steep.

Mickey Hart: We used to moon them. [Laughs]

AD: Good. [Laughs]

Mickey Hart: When I first joined the band, they said, “Put him in with Pigpen” like he was going to scare me. [Laughs] So they threw me in with Pigpen. I love him and we got along really great.

There’s a lot to be said about the evolution of Grateful Dead music. It happened also in a time and place when there was a lot of experimentation with psychoactive drugs which play a huge part in Grateful Dead music. We just had a conversation recently about that. In my estimation, without that there would not be what you know now as the Grateful Dead.

AD: Have you seen this Sunshine Makers movie yet? It’s about Nick Sand and Tim Scully and what they did with Orange Sunshine LSD. It’s a pretty interesting story. There’s video which is shocking to me that they actually filmed themselves making LSD.

Mickey Hart: Is that right!?

AD: They have it in the film and I’m like this wow would have been so incriminating 50 years ago and they had physical film of it! It’s a fascinating story. I’ve watched it a couple of times now. I think you guys would like it. Obviously, you guys are mentioned briefly.

Mickey Hart: The thing about Owsley [Stanley aka Bear] was that he never took me to the lab. He always wanted to keep us out from danger.

He was really an extraordinary human being. He taught me a lot. He taught me about the soundscape of things. He described music and recorded music very much like how you would look at a landscape. To him, it was a soundscape with dimensions. Once he started to describe something that music physically looked like.

He was one of the big reasons I turned into a recordist — especially remote. He gave me my first Nagra. Bobby (Weir) thought it was a brilliant idea to go to the zoo on the full moon to record the animals, so I went to Owsley and I got his Nagra. We went there and started scaling the gates. We were laughing so hard. We were so stoned. The guards came and busted us and just escorted us right out. It was my first and least successful recording in my life.

AD: [Laughs]

Mickey Hart: But it started it all. The Bear was a big part of a lot things.

One thing that should be mentioned about Owsley is now his son, Starfinder, is working to take all of his recordings and digitize them.

AD: Which is amazing. They had the fantastic Doc Watson release earlier this year.

Mickey Hart: Yes! That was their first release and Starfinder did all the artwork for that and they have a list of acceptable engineers that are elected that he only wants to work with. Those people have all remained involved with it. It’s a really incredible project.

AD: It’s fantastic. I’m very curious what’s going to come out of their archives because I can only imagine what they’re sitting on.

Mickey Hart: The Bear’s recordings are sonic journals. That’s how he looked at it. He would record the band, not so much to record the band but to see how his microphone techniques worked. That’s how all those original tapes — and his fascination and interest with sounds. He was a scholar and sonic explorer. He was very much responsible for our thirst for good sound.

If it weren’t for Owsley in the old days, we wouldn’t have picked up on the importance on delivering a beautiful sonic payload. He was the guy that pretty well insisted on excellence in everything. He was as crazy as a bed bug. In his craziness, he was brilliant.

Mickey Hart: Anyway, I think unless there’s a last question …

AD: No! You gave me so much.

Mickey Hart: You could write a book now.

AD: Oh I could write a book! [Laughs] Thank you, Mickey. I really appreciate it.

Archives: Aquarium Drunkard — Dead Notes (Volumes 1 —14)

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2 thoughts on “Dead Notes #15 :: The Mickey Hart Interview

  1. What an amazing interview! Love Mickey’s fact-checking Howard Wales statement. Tribal, indeed.

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