Interview with Grateful Dead drummer & musicologist Mickey Hart

Drummer Mickey Hart joined the Grateful Dead in 1967 becoming one half of the infamous ‘Rhythm Devils’ with fellow drummer Bill Kreutzmann.  After singer Jerry Garcia’s death and the band’s dissolution in 1995, Hart continued to play with his remaining Grateful Dead alumni in The Dead as well as a project with Kreutzmann known as The Rhythm Devils and his own Mickey Hart Band.  In 1991 his Planet Drum project spent 26 weeks at the #1 slot on Billboard’s World Music charts and earned Hart his first Grammy award.  Hart has continued to play with a variety of different musicians as well as authoring a number of books on the power of music and percussion and has been working with the  Library of Congress and The Smithsonian to preserve recordings of music from around the world.  The Mickey Hart band will be presenting some of their new material based on the sounds of the cosmos on August 18 at The Brooklyn Bowl and on August 20 The Blue Point Brewery in Patchogue, NY.

It’s been over 15 years since  Jerry Garcia’s passing and Grateful Dead’s parting, you’ve gone on to do a number of different projects but when you look back at the Dead do you gain any perspective on the band’s legacy?

Well, one of the things that’s kind of unbelievable is that the music is still vital, that people still love it and they want it.  Its longevity is surprising.  I kind of knew it had power, but seeing the response to it these days and after all these years is very gratifying.  That’s one of the things about the power of music, some music, it lasts a long, long time and when I look back, I think we did a good job.

Yeah it’s amazing, I teach high school and you still see the Grateful Dead shirts and groups of fans.

Well, there’s new fans that have cropped up and that’s even more important, the younger generation have been touched by it.

Yeah, the bands influence, just the footprint of the band is sort of amazing.  You’ve influenced a lot of groups, some sort of directly like Phish but I was listening to Howard Stern the other day and Lady Gaga was on and she said she was a big Dead head and wrote a song about it.  You must have some interesting perspective on that, were you aware of Lady Gaga being a big fan?

I had no idea that Lady Gaga was into our music at all but it crosses a lot of different demographics you know I actually talked to a Navy Seal a few weeks ago and he was in SEAL Team 5 and he said “yeah, thanks for all the years Mickey” you know that kind of stuff coming from a Navy Seal, it’s all over you know; politicians, business people, it’s hard to imagine that the band made such a deep impression on so many different kinds of people; republicans, democrats you know, all kinds of folkways.

Yeah, it’s tremendous.  After the Grateful Dead, you worked with a number of different bands but what was it like getting the recognition of receiving your first Grammy award for the Planet Drum Project?

Well at the time it was very uplifting especially for percussion, you know the first Grammy was for percussion actually, it was very uplifting to know that rhythm and percussion was taken seriously and it was nice to be recognized by your peers.  You know, we did it just with voice and drums, that was always the dream in the old days, that’s what I always wanted to create, a new kind of gamelan, a new kind of orchestra and Planet Drum was the beginning of that series. You know Global Drum won a Grammy as well and it was very gratifying.

I know you’ve done some really important work with percussion and The Smithsonian as well as The Library of Congress. What first got you involved in doing the recordings?

Well my specialty is digital transfer and I’m also deeply into ethnic music that lives out there, the worlds’ music, so my work at the Library of Congress and now with the Smithsonian has to do with that.  Part of my collection will be released in a few months on Smithsonian Folkways, 25 of them will be released in a few months so it celebrates the worlds’ music and I’m very proud of that.

That’s terrific. What I find amazing after reading about you is that you were influenced by these world musicians really early on. From what I understand, in high school?

Before high school, when I was a kid, when I was about 6, 7, 8 years old I was listening to Pygmy music from the Ituri rainforest so it was way before high school I was teething on these marvelous voices from the rainforest.  I just love that music out there.  Western music was great: I love the blues and I loved rock and roll when it first started, big band music, Latin music- I was a lover of music, still am, nothing’s changed. Except now my appetite has gotten more sophisticated, but I’m still hungry for the worlds music.  I listen to music every day, I love sound, I love noise, I love music, I love playing rhythmic music, and rhythmic noise has always captivated my imagination, so there is nothing new about that, it’s just part of the journey.  It’s the same thing I’ve been doing since I was 3 years old but you know, this is just another progression we’re doing now with this new band.

You’re talking about the Rhythms of the Universe project? 

That’s what we are doing now. This band is built around the Rhythms of the Universe, and this band has to do with the sounds from the epic events of the universe.

It’s really an interesting idea. What gave you the inspiration to take that on?

Well all my books: Drumming at the Edge and Planet Drum all started with the first beat, the first sound which was the big bang 14.7 billion years ago.  There were no instruments to measure the sound of it back then, until recently we really couldn’t go back that far in time to the beginning of creation, the beginning of time and space, the beginning of the universe. But the thought was to sample the light waves that came to us from those epic events.  Radio telescopes have brought us these wave forms and then we crunch those wave forms, turn the light waves into sound waves, and then be able to manipulate them and play with them, make music with them.  This band celebrates that and we’ll be playing some of these amazing pulsars, supernovas, big bangs, black holes, the sun, the moon, the Earth, Saturn, all of these marvelous spheres.

That’s really interesting. What has been the response from the scientific community?

Oh, they love it.  You see, science, they weren’t really into the sound of it, they see it as wave forms and numbers so when I, it’s called sonification, when I started to sonify it they were amazed.  I became good friends with George Smoot, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for the discovery of the big bang in 2006, so George and I are partners in this endeavor, so yeah, the scientific community is very enthused about it because not only can you see it but you can hear it so it brings a whole other dimension, a whole other dynamic to the creation of the universe.

It’s pretty exciting.

It’s really exciting, I’m thrilled by it and like I said, this band was built to play those rhythms and those sounds and Robert Hunter wrote beautiful songs that go with all of it and it’s a dance band, it’s got vocalists, lots of rhythms, bass, guitar, drums you know, it rocks!

I’m looking forward to hearing it. I know you’re on tour and you’re going to be coming to New York for a couple of stops at the Blue Point Brewery and Brooklyn Bowl. I know you were born in Brooklyn- did you live in Brooklyn at all?

No, no I mean I did when I was a little kid, I was born in Brooklyn for sure but I left when I was really, really young.

So you have no memory of it.  What was your experience like growing up on Long Island?

Yes, I remember that, I went to high school on Long Island at Lawrence High School and then I left and dropped out of school as a senior and went to Europe.

And how did you eventually get together with the Grateful Dead at first?  I know you were with the band really early on.

I was at the Fillmore watching Count Basie and someone introduced me to Bill Kreutzmann and they were The Warlocks, they had just changed their name to The Grateful Dead.  Bill and I just hit it off and he asked me to sit in with his new band and that was it, the magic was there and we didn’t look back, it’s been 45 years or something more.

Catch The Mickey Hart band August 18 at The Brooklyn Bowl and on August 20 at The Blue Point Brewery in Patchogue, NY.  

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About Tim Needles

Tim Needles is an artist, photographer, humorist, and writer from Long Island, NY. His writing and art work has been seen in multiple exhibitions and publications around New York as well as the Photographer’s Forum, French Photo, the New York Times, and LI Pulse magazine. He is also an educator and currently teaches art and film at Smithtown, NY and as an Education Leader for Adobe. He was recently the recipient of the Robert Rauschenberg Award in Washington DC and serves as the director of Strictly Students, a non-for-profit group for media and education. His work can be seen on his website: www.timneedles.com
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