A Chat with Mickey Hart

By: Dennis Cook

Mickey Hart by Michael Weintrob
Mickey Hart has played some big spaces – Madison Square Garden, The Great Pyramids, Golden Gate Park – but he’s going really BIG with his latest project, Mysterium Tremendum (released April 10), which finds the Grateful Dead percussion shaman casting his attentions into the wide universe. Joined by a crack new band featuring Widespread Panic’s bass powerhouse Dave Schools, percussionist Sikiru Adepoju, vocalists Crystal Monee Hall and Tim Hockenberry, Tracorum drummer Ian “Inx” Herman, guitarist Gawain Matthews and keyboardist/producer Ben Yonas, Hart is translating the light waves of the cosmos into music.

With help from scientists at Lawrence Berkeley Labs and the crew at Meyer Sound, Hart and his gifted team – which includes stellar lyrics by the great Robert Hunter – have merged the noise of space with something more earthly – the Music of the Spheres brought into the dance halls Hart has inhabited since the 1960s. The album incarnation of this project also features guest turns from Steve Kimock, Reed Mathis, Zakir Hussain and Giovanni Hidalgo. It is a work that feels very much of today and a bit of tomorrow, and the material continues to grow and shift as the Mickey Hart Band carries these tunes into the live setting (upcoming shows here). It’s unlike anything else Hart or any of the other Dead alumni have put out, and it shows how engaged with the “new” Hart remains after his many decades making music.

New Album
JamBase: This new record may catch people off guard a bit. I’m not sure folks will be expecting something quite so modern from you.

Mickey Hart: I don’t know if I should take that as a compliment or what [laughs]. Are you saying I’m archaic…which would be a really good thing to say to me because I do think I am [laughs].

JamBase: It’s meant entirely as a compliment. It’s a pleasure to hear a veteran of the Grateful Dead sounding so wonderfully contemporary. You’ve been moving in this direction for a few years but it seemed like a lot of ideas fully came together with this album and project.

Mickey Hart: Yes, that’s absolutely correct. It’s a logical extension of my previous work. It does reflect what I’ve done in the past only in a very good way, and adding in the cosmic elements of sounds from the universe put it over the top and gave me direction – a very serious direction and a whole new sonic world. It’s a whole new playground for me and a new arena where the universe is held together in vibrations and what those vibrations sound like. That’s why it’s called Mysterium Tremendum. We are touching on some major mysteries here as we attempt to dance with the sea sounds of the universe. That kind of focused me.

Just starting the album with a tune titled “Heartbeat of the Sun” helps orient people that this is something different than the typical rock record.

The Sun
Oh yes! That was never the intention. I was never trying to make a rock ‘n’ roll record even though I love to rock, to dance, to trance, all the things rock ‘n’ roll does best. It was more about trying to dance with the infinite universe and have some sort of conversation with the cosmic interplay. I was also trying to discover the sonic wonders that lie above the clouds. They’re having a party up there. The sun is really active, and much of the universe is quite active – collisions and a lot of things up there – and when brought into our perception these things are fascinating, and sonically as well. It’s a vast new playground and it opens you up to at least pondering the big questions – How did we get here? Where are we in the universe? Who are we and why are we?

A lot of the questions can be partially answered and others can’t be approached on a scientific basis yet because we don’t have the instruments to calculate them. The instruments that brought these light waves [which are converted into sounds] only existed for us recently. I had thought about the Big Bang being the start of the universe – the downbeat, the One, where the groove began – but back in 1991 we couldn’t measure that. We didn’t even know when the Big Bang was. We thought it was between 10 and 20 billion years ago, but in essence it’s 13.7 billion, which George Smoot spotted and won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of cosmic background radiation. I’ve been working with George, and it’s been really fascinating. I’ve met a lot of great physicists, astrophysicists, and explorers. It’s like the book Songcatchers I wrote for National Geographic. Well, these people I’ve met are catching light waves and radiation and circumnavigating the universe, in a way, and they brought back this information that I’m now turning into sound. The stories of discoveries are very interesting, from Pythagoras to Galileo to Newton to Taiko Brahe to Kepler – men and women who tried to pierce the veil and figure out how we got here.

The comparison to cartography is really apt. As maps of the world changed through direct discovery and actual information, the general outlook on the world changed. This is very much the same process, where our collective vision of the universe keeps getting updated and filled in and refined as they embark on this circumnavigation project.

Early Cartography
I’m getting into the story of The Story. We’ve reached a place technologically where we’re starting to understand what’s all around us. And I’m drawn to the sounds. Lights and visuals are great but I can only understand so much that way. But you give me sound and a whole other sensibility kicks in. I was interested in all this because I’m rhythmist and I’m looking for the beginning of rhythm and vibration. That was the original intention. It started with that and the realization that the natural world is music.

I talked to David Crosby recently. I hadn’t spoken to David in a while and just called to say, “Thank you.” He said, “Thank you for what?” I said, “For turning me on to the idea of the natural universe being music.” Years ago, Phil Lesh and I were sleeping on David’s floor somewhere in Laurel Canyon, and David was so beautiful by waking us up early with the sound of humpback whales singing. It must have been the 60s, and I remember opening my eyes to these eerie but musical sounds. Back then I’d never thought whales or anything in the ocean was music, but now I know music is everywhere – the world is music if you look at it right. David told me after my thank you that it was Freddy Neil that turned him onto the idea. They were in an elevator and Freddy told him to listen to the straps of the elevator pulling them upwards. That was what turned David onto the idea, which he then spread to me.

It’s important to honor and respect the gifts others bestow upon us. I think that’s part of the great love people feel for the Grateful Dead and the music and life you’ve lived in general. You’ve been a catalyst for this kind of stuff for a lot of people.

15th Century drawing of
Music of the Spheres Concept
There’s certain lights in your life that light up and you realize new things – call them catalytic moments. Pythagoras knew it in 400 B.C. with the Music of the Spheres that there were sonorities to the stars and planets and that’s how they all held together in this heavenly clockwork. He applied musical reference to the all the rotating spheres, and he claimed he could hear the sonorities of the spheres. That’s where we got the octave and the fifth and all that. Once I realized that music was just a miniature of what was going on in the universe, well, that piqued my interest. So, we have this thing called music, and the idea is music has a direct connection to the physics of the universe, which made me realize we’re toying with a greater truth here, something wholly other. Music isn’t just an isolated thing you dance to. It’s a replica of the whole enchilada…

…a manifestation of the interconnectivity of the universe.

You got it, man! Here’s the thing: we can now understand it, play with it, dance to it, love to it, die with it, do everything with it. Every culture has a sound. Once I realized that back in the 90s, I realized that this music is something different. There are things in music that we don’t know about – innate things in the vibratory spectrum of music. What powers does this represent? What powers does this have? That’s another reason that [the Mysterium Tremendum project] became very dear to me.

As you embarked on this project there was the practical concern of what musicians will you use to bring it into being. How did you put this group together? In line with the greater themes, there is a resonance between these players that’s unique. It’s an entity one feels as soon as one hits play on this record.

Mickey Hart Band by John Werner
That’s true, and I picked them very carefully for that reason [laughs]. I wanted only the willing. I didn’t want to be with people I was paying to go out into deep space and explore these phenomena. I wanted people who’d go willingly and explore with all their hearts and emotional content. I approached this very carefully and it took me a long time.

Each member is unique individually, and even on paper it raises the question of how such unique musicians would gel.

The vision was there, and the idea was to uncover the nuances of it all and make music of them. Space’s harmonic sounds are very dense and there’s a lot of noise. So, when you get the light – the radiation coming from these objects – they are very dense. When you turn them into sounds it’s quite harsh and not what most would consider music. This is a different kind of sound. This is nothing sub-lunar. We’re thinking above. So, you have to take them and sound design them into music that can be enjoyed and interacts in some pleasant way with the archaic world of instruments.

For all the cosmological implications of this project, there are some very earthy tunes. “Slow Joe Rain” is hearty, intense, and very much a rock ‘n’ roll song. So, there’s a balance of elements where this very sky-minded stuff mingles with things of this Earth.

Mickey Hart Band by Jay Blakesberg
Well, that’s where I live. I like the Earth and I am of the Earth, but the idea now is to pick up on the tunes being sung by all these planets and stars. They’re all singing their own tune and we’re just busting in on their party [laughs]. For instance, if you look at the sun it’s clear it’s having a party up there with solar flares, solar wind, and so on. It’s very active, and it’s very fun to drop in on it. I couldn’t be on the sun – it’s not a place for humans – but I can listen to it and play with it and have some kind of mystical/mythical conversation with it. So, this is a science project but musicological in nature. It uses science seriously in the art.

That’s a challenge to take these two worlds that we often view – consciously and subconsciously – as fairly far apart from one another and meld them. It has to be a challenge to marry these two realms.

Yes, it is…was…is. This is a complex problem that we’re trying to take and play simply enough to have fun and dance with every night. You can do a lot of shit in the studio but jamming with it every night is a whole different bunch of shenanigans. We had to dream up simple systems that would be interactive between the musicians and not just have us pressing buttons all night. We had to figure out how to play with this every night. So, we can play the main elements of the album but we’re able to go to different parts of the universe at will.

In the live setting are you focusing on this record or are you attempting to mingle it with pieces from the rest of your career?

Mickey Hart Band by Jay Blakesberg
We’re mostly doing the record but the Grateful Dead is part of my life’s work and some songs fit perfectly into it. We’ll be soaring along and suddenly out pops “Bertha” or “Fire On The Mountain” and it seems like a natural way to go. I’m not trying to run away from my past when it works. This band doesn’t play all the Grateful Dead material well so I picked the material this band can really sink its teeth into.

In bringing this sort of conceptual work to audiences, how do you convey the larger ideas of this project to folks who’ve come out to drink and boogie and may not be into a science lesson?

You don’t. That knowledge is only meant for those curious ones who want to go deeper. In that case, they can go to The Mysterium section of my website and they’ll see all the individual space sounds and what they look like. This is for the people who want to go deep, not the ones who want to drink beer and jump up and down. I love to play for them and I don’t want to lay my trip on them completely in detail. Some people just want to have a good time, and I want to entertain them because music is about pleasure. But there are people who want to know more, and in The Mysterium I’ll give them the back story and they don’t have to be labored at a concert that this particular galaxy emerged 10 billion years ago and so on. I wouldn’t burden anybody with that, nor would I want ME to be burdened with that. You go out to entertain, and many come to have a nice night out and forget their troubles and be in sound and meet people – all the good things music does. They don’t want to have a bunch of big scientific ideas shoved down their ear-hole, and I understand that.

It’s a sign of the personal work you’ve done that you don’t have those expectations of an audience. It’s a hard thing to let go of as an artist sometimes.

Sonification In Action
Nah, it’s not hard. There are so many sound worlds to investigate. I don’t hold onto much. I hope a whole bunch of people will go above the moon looking for sounds and make some music with the universe. It’s infinite and I could never cover it all. This is called sonification, and the idea is to make sound marks out of things that you wouldn’t normally think of as sonic. Anything that moves has at least two components – a visual and a sonic because it makes vibrations. So, there stimuli coming at us from all over and most of them we can’t feel or sense, but they definitely have something to do with our lives. These [sounds in the Mysterium Tremendum project] are just some of them. We’re not alone out here – we’re part of a MUCH larger thing – but I’m not going to burden the guy who comes out on a Saturday night to blow off some steam and dance with his baby. I’m not going to start telling him all the things I’m telling you.

A lot of the time the truths we need get into us in much more subliminal and poetic ways.

Of course…OR maybe this will spawn a whole bunch of new science, a wave of young scientists that are turned onto physics and stuff sonically. And maybe new curriculum will come into our schools because of this. That’s also a hope.

The marriage of what you’ve done musically and what Robert Hunter has done lyrically resonates on levels beyond normal conscious awareness. He has the ability to work so subtly and beautifully in all the varied projects he’s involved in.

He’s a visionary, and with this one I asked him to look at the concept of Man in the Universe, and he delivered the mother lode. He’s a singularlity.

I think the same goes for you, Mickey. There’s not another musician I could compare you to.

That’s a great compliment! Thank you so much…for better or worse. Maybe nobody even wants to be me [laughs].

From the first time I saw you with the Grateful Dead in 1984, I’ve thought, “That’s a unique animal.”

Well, hopefully I’m not on the endangered species list for musicians [laughs].

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