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From The Grateful Dead to Rhythm Devils: A Conversation with Mickey Hart

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2010-09-03-TheRhythmDevils.JohnWerner.web.jpg
courtesy of Rhythm Devils

A Conversation With Mickey Hart

Mike Ragogna: You're on tour now, right?

Mickey Hart: I am on tour with the Rhythm Devils. I am in Pittsburgh, yes.

MR: How is Pittsburgh?

MH: It's beautific, actually. It's very nice. Pittsburgh is a good city. I love it here.

MR: You and Bill Kreutzmann, who make up the Rhythm Devils, are on the road with a gaggle of friends.

MH: Well, it's a very interesting combination of personalities. We have Sikiru Adepoju, who is from Nigeria and plays the talking drum. He's the master of the talking drum. Then, we have Tim Bluhm, from California, on guitar and vocals. Davy Knowles, the young man from the Isle of Man, sings and he is a virtuoso guitar player. And finally, we have Andy Hess on bass. So, it's quite an interesting combination. It's a dance band. It's not Drums in Space. We play Grateful Dead music and also original Rhythm Devil music with lyrics by Robert Hunter. It's electric, and it's a very powerful combination of personalities.

MR: Can you share how you got the name Rhythm Devils?

MH: Sure. Garcia called Bill and I rhythm devils in the '70s one night. He said, "You guys are rhythm devils. The way you go after it, you're devils." It kind of caught on, and the kids started calling the Rhythm Devils "Drums in Space" --you know, our drum excursions during the second set. So, that became an improvisational moment in The Grateful Dead concerts. Then a few years ago, we made a band out of that played this kind of dance, trance music. We went out for a few shows, and then Bill called up a few months ago and said, "Let's do it again." So, that's what happened. We revised our lineup together, and we're out here just having a blast. There are very few times when you wish the tour wouldn't end, and this is one of them. There's something about this band that's really, very attractive and very powerful.

MR: Are you recording some of these dates in order to put something out that would be a nice documentation?

MH: Michael, I record everything.

MR: (laughs) Of course, what was I not thinking!

MH: Always record more than you erase, Michael.

MR: Got it. So, after Jerry passed, the remaining members did all sorts of things such as The Other Ones.

MH: Yes, indeed.

MR: And The Other Ones was meant to carry on the tradition of The Grateful Dead though it was without Jerry.

MH: Yes, it was a Jerry-less band.

MR: But you were still holding the flag. Then came The Dead, and now, of course, we have the Rhythm Devils.

MH: This is a work in progress just like The Grateful Dead was. Musical life is a journey, and Jerry was part of The Grateful Dead, he wasn't the whole of Grateful Dead, but he was a big part of it. He certainly wouldn't want us to pull up stakes and say, "Okay, the music's over." He'd just think that would be very lame. At first, it was a major blow, but once we realized that these songs were birthed by all of us and some of them were written by us, we thought it appropriate to keep our tradition going, and the feeling, the groove going. So, all those incarnations of Grateful Dead music were serious attempts at maintaining the legacy and the lineage of Grateful Dead style music.

MR: Beautiful. Now, over the years, one of the many projects you've also been associated with is Planet Drum.

MH: Yes, indeed. Planet Drum, and now it's called Global Drum. Both of them were fantastic groups, and we won Grammys for both of them. So, they were very successful, and I hope to be doing more of them next year.

MR: When you do a Planet Drum record, do you plan it out or is it more whimsical?

MH: Well, you do a little bit of both. First of all is trying to get everybody in one room because they're all over the world doing their rhythm thing and bringing everybody together. There are certain kinds of plans we make, but mostly, it's conjured once we get together as a group because that's what made it so powerful to begin with. It's rhythmic bass with very little melody, but it's mostly like melodic percussion. That's the basis of Planet Drum or Global Drum, whatever you want to call it.

MR: You've been working with archivists and ethnomusicologists at the American Folk Life Center and The Library of Congress. In fact, you're on the board of trustees for the American Folk Life Center. What is your function within those groups?

MH: I'm on the board of the Smithsonian Folkways as well. Mostly, my expertise is in digital transfer and my love of indigenous music. So, I'm very involved with the endangered music project, which resides at the Library of Congress. So, that's mostly what I do, supervise that and just work on the boards.

MR: Of course, that makes perfect sense being from The Grateful Dead where everything you guys did was archived, if not by you then by the fans.

MH: They were my archivists, actually. It's funny how that happened because if I want to know where I was on any date, what I played, how well I played it and for how long, all I have to do is look it up in the Dead archive, which is called Deadbase. And they were very serious, so it's a very articulate and accurate archive. The work I do at the library is chronicling music from 1890 to the present day. It's music that's been recorded in the field, mostly. It's indigenous music from out there, folk music and so forth from other parts of the world besides America.

MR: In addition to other parts of the world, has there been any emphasis on Native American music?

MH: Oh, absolutely. I've done pow wows in Wisconsin, and we put out a CD at the Smithsonian that was called Honor The Earth. It's war songs of Native Americans from Custer to World War I, to World War II to the Gulf. All of these Native Americans who served their country, America, while they were being persecuted at the same time, was a fantastic story. So, I'm a great supporter of Native American music, and a lover of it, I might add. I listen to it constantly.

MR: You have an interesting piece called "Rhythms Of The Universe," which is a composition based upon a variety of astrophysical data?

MH: Yes. That's the next project that we've been working on for over a year. It's transferring the light waves and the radio waves that come from the stars, the planets, and the big bang into audio waveform, and then using it in a musical context. So, transferring the form from light to sound is what I've been after for a year and a half. That will be coming out next year. As a matter of fact, Rhythm Devils is the only sub-lunar music I'm doing right now, really. Most of the music I'm doing is in the cosmos, playing with space and time. Going back 13.7 billion years, listening to the sound of the big bang--the moment of creation--is just something that I couldn't resist. So, that's where my head and my heart are at right now--trying to hear what the sounds of the universe, the music of the spheres, as Pythagoras would say. That's my hot love now.

MR: Mickey, how did this come to you? How did you think of doing something this immense?

MH: It's very simply because every story needs a beginning. As a rhythmist, my story starts with the beginning of time and space, which was the big bang, when the blank page of the universe exploded and created the stars, the planets, the sun, the moon, earth, and us. So, it all went back there, then I realized that I actually wanted to hear what that sound was. So, I turned to science and to the radio telescopes around the world and to NASA to transfer these light waves into sound. Scientists just think of these vibrations in waveforms. They don't usually think of them sonically because they live in another waveform, light. They call it the cosmic background radiation, but I'm very sonically minded. I think in terms of audio all the time, besides light. If there is light, then there's a sound behind it because there is a frequency there moving it. So, that's what was the catalyst to it. I wanted to find out where I came from. It was kind of like the sound of God, in a way, because this is the moment when the universe was created, and I believe, if there is a God, it has to be a vibration and an arrhythmic event. One of my colleagues discovered the big bang in 2006, he won a Nobel for it actually, and he placed it at 13.7 billion years ago. That kind of was a catalyst as well. It was just too much for me to look away because it had just been discovered and all this information was coming in, and I thought it was a natural thing to go to the stars.

MR: I love the crossbreeding between metaphysics and science because I have a personal belief that everything comes from one point, and as the point becomes aware of itself, it has all of these layers that come out of it forming structure. I believe that structure is within sound or music.

MH: Absolutely. You've got it, Michael. It's a wonderful opportunity for music and art. It's a great handshake with science. The scientists are loving it too. I've played at cosmology conferences, and it really just brings it full circle for them.

MR: It seems like you're a man of science who thinks broader than most. Is it frustrating for you to see that science seems to have taken a back seat in America?

MH: Absolutely. Science is really hurting because the teachers need a new way of teaching science to make it more fun or other ways to teach teachers to teach in a different kind of way into the next decade. This is one of those ways, and I'm sure that schools will be picking up on the sonic dimension of space. Science is really taking a back seat in our schools, and hopefully, this will go a ways to increase awareness and enthusiasm and make it fun. You have to have fun at what you're doing. You have to love what you're doing or else you might be doing it for the wrong reasons.

MR: Interesting. Also, I'm saddened that science has taken a back seat to religion in so many households, and religion has practically become institutionalized nationally. Sorry, oh separation of church and state.

MH: You know, the Vatican has an astrophysical department. They collect meteors and everything, and they're listening to science now. They know the dogma is not bullet proof, and they're trying to reconcile their ideas of the world with the infinite universe. There's a lot to be said about that. Religion is looking at this very carefully.

MR: Yeah, though I think many religions fear it. On the other hand, science sometimes embraces certain aspects of religion.

MH: The Hindus had it, and a lot of the ancient, archaic religions and mystical writers have alluded to this for centuries. But now, science is putting a new spin on it and making it kind of legit. Pythagoras was really onto it. Even though he lived in 400 BC, he had it right. He fathered the science of music, and created the octave, the fifth, the third, and the tempered scale. Now, science proves that there is a mathematical equation to all of the revolving orbs in the solar system. So, there's something to it. Now, science is starting to validate some of what the ancient, mystical thinkers were writing about and knew.

MR: Science and religion intersecting.

MH: It's really fascinating. It's a real eye opener or ear opener, as it were.

MR: Mickey, what is an issue that's bugging you?

MH: Well, it's about the rhythm of things. If you look around at the Gulf, North Korea, or Iran, it's a rhythmic thing I see. We're out of rhythm with the world. It's a rhythmic universe, and nature is very efficient and likes to be in rhythm because it's most efficient. When you break that rhythm and come between it, you have arrhythmic events and it will destroy, it will not build. It will decompose as opposed to compose. Saying the world has gone mad is not a proper way of saying it, but I look at it as the world has gone out of rhythm. If you look at it in rhythmic terms, it's much more explainable. It's gone out of rhythm, and we're not in rhythm with it, and that's the problem we have in all of these hot spots and these scary places with the Islamic militant views and the extremist religious views. All you have to do is tune into the Dalai Lama, who is about the opposite of that. Now, that's a rhythm master. That guy is really in tune with things. So, we need to be listening to more of that, and we need to be thinking of things in terms of getting along in rhythm, and being efficient and flowing, and being more aware of our surroundings. When I look at the news, in total, that's what I think of.

MR: How do you reel this back in? The Dalai Lama is saying wise things, but how do you get people to actually listen to folks with wisdom?

MH: I talk to (people like) you about things, I write books; I create music which creates a virtual reality where your priorities can be straightened out. So, I create environments that fill you with that certain kind of energy--you go into the world and do some good with it. That's the only thing I can really do. You can't tackle huge issues like nuclear proliferation or global warming; you have to do what you do to relieve and alleviate the pressure, and to bring more awareness to the issue. So, that's what I constantly do because, for me, it's the audio signal that has the power. Music is the magic wand for me, and also the word, and to be able to articulate these issues. This type of consciousness, maybe, would do some good. As the Dalai Lama says, if it touches just one human ear...

MR: Beautiful. May I ask you something a little more personal?

MH: You mean like, what kind of toothpaste I used this morning?

MR: Or, maybe it's something more like how Grateful Dead are all brothers in a band, and you've gone through so much, created so much music together and you've effected each other's lives. Having played with Jerry Garcia for all those years, what's the void like without Jerry? It's been awhile, since '95, right?

MH: Right.

MR: What's the void like for you, personally?

MH: Imagine...in your own life, do you have a best friend that has passed?

MR: Yeah.

MH: Okay, well you know there's the shock, there's the grief, and then you come to grips with it. You think of all the good things that you shared together, and it makes you smile. I miss him, of course, like you miss anyone, and he comes to me sometimes. I always think, "What would Jerry say?" or, "What would he do?" You think of things you did together and smile. Mostly, I smile when I think of Jerry because he was a very funny guy, and he kept me laughing for thirty-five years or something. So, I move on, but he's always with me in some shape or form. I couldn't get rid of him if I tried. He's with me all the time. It's like some real, real good memory. He was just a grand guy; very sweet, funny, and very bright. He cared about people, especially the underdogs--the people that didn't have that much, he was especially fond of and supported. He liked the weird in life, and I like that too. So, our sensibilities were similar in many ways.

MR: Nice. Thanks for sharing that with us. Just out of curiosity--and I know it's like naming one favorite child over another one--but do you have some favorite Grateful Dead songs that are favorites?

MH: Well, any song that I play well and we play well as a group is my favorite song, really. There are so many great songs that I've played or that I wrote or had been part of over the years, it would be just like naming one child over another, like you said. It's a very individual thing, and it's on a daily basis. When you play a great "Fire On The Mountain," that's as good as it gets. That's my favorite song tonight. That was my most recent memory of my songs. It's really a hard thing to say, and it' s really in the performance of it and how it's rendered and the commitment to the groove. That's how I measure the best song I've ever played. You can't do it overall; it has to be on an individual basis.

MR: And it's almost an unfair question because you have such a vast catalog, so yeah, where do you start? You guys have been releasing Grateful Dead concerts and all sorts of things over the years like Dick's Picks.

MH: Dick's Picks, yeah. Dick (Latvala) was our archivist, and that's what he called it, Dick's Picks.

MR: It doesn't seem to me that you guys are over-anthologized, but you have had a few classic "greatest hits" or "best of's" over the years. Even those must be impossible to compile with your vast catalog.

MH: I don't do it, I couldn't do it, but we have someone who really understands Grateful Dead music. See, I don't really listen to Grateful Dead music, personally, because I hear the mistakes and the blunders in them. It's over for me, pretty much, once it's performed, but then it's for everybody else. So, it's difficult.

MR: Again, what kind of advice do you have for new musicians?

MH: Don't do it unless you really, really want to do it, unless it really means something to you, and it becomes a necessity to play music. The music business if very difficult, it's not just the skill to play music, but be able to survive in a world where music is not necessarily honored for the power that it has. It's a very difficult industry. So, that would be my advice to any musician; unless you are driven, and you know it's your love, and your destiny, don't bother. Just listen to it, don't make it a business (just) because you work really hard at playing music, if you know what I mean. You practice endless hours just to get onstage for a few. You travel all around the world, just to deliver that sound for a few hours. If you look at it logically, it's not really a great payoff unless what you're getting at the end is that goal. It's that essence of what you really believe that you should do with your life on this Earth. That's what I would say to any prospective musician.

MR: Well, unless we've left something out, which I don't believe is possible...

MH: I think we got it, man (laughs).

MR: Then I really appreciate you talking to me today. I loved this conversation.

MH: Thank you for asking. Have a great day.

MR: You too, sir. Have a great one.

(transcribed by Ryan Gaffney)