MICKEY HART: THE WIND OF DISTANT DRUMS

June 25, 2009 – 2:08 pm

After Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead died in 1995, the band’s drummer, Mickey Hart, went on to pursue an interesting musical career starting with the Mystery Box, his follow-up to the  critically-acclaimed Planet Drum album. The articulate and energetic Hart, who has written several books on the history and mythology of rhythm, spoke to Matthew Lewis while on tour in Park City, Utah. He was nearing the end of a 40-date concert tour, the so-called “Deadapalooza” extravaganza that also featured Dead guitarist Bob Weir’s group. This article was printed in BigO #129 (September 1996).

It’s been a year since Jerry Garcia died in 1995, but former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart hasn’t missed a beat in building his solo career and championing a wide array of ethnic music. In June 1996, Hart released Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box on the Rykodisc label, a surprisingly accessible, pop-oriented follow-up to the 1991 Planet Drum, which won a Grammy award for Best World Music Album.

Mystery Box seems a surprising departure for you. How did you go from Planet Drum to Planet Pop?

Oh interesting that you perceive that. It’s really a logical extension from Planet Drum if you look at it with the right eyes. I’m using the engine of Planet Drum, the same great drummers, and I’ve the lyric content of (Grateful Dead lyricist) Robert Hunter.

I wanted to make songs out of it. It wasn’t the rhythmscape I was after, necessarily. I was after tune, percussion and chant, and I wound up with what you heard. I wasn’t really heading into a pop world, necessarily, although I knew that it would be more popular than Planet Drum, because it had words.

My advance copy of the CD is short on credits. Did Hunter write all the lyrics?

Yes he did. That was a big part of all this. In all my Grateful Dead days I hadn’t written that many songs with Hunter. It was just one of those great moments where we could spit out 10 songs… I didn’t want to do another Planet Drum. I’d already done Planet Drum. I like new experiences every time I go out, fresh ideas. The imagination changes every day.

There’s no need to keep pumping out Planet Drums. All of us that did Planet Drum are out here having a blast, with six-part harmony over the top of this beautiful, sinuous rhythm. I mean, wow! We couldn’t resist that.

We’ve got (Puerto Rican) Giovanni Hidalgo, who is the master in the world of Latin percussion. And Zakir Hussain, the great maestro from North India, and Sikiru Adepoju from Nigeria. This is not a pickup band. This is sort of a percussion dream team. We wanted to come together and play songs for once. We thought, Geez, wouldn’t that be nice?

How did you hook up with The Mint Juleps (the female a cappella group that sings most of the songs)?

Interesting story. Actually (Jerry) Garcia led me to it. He had seen a Spike Lee video called Do It A Cappella, Spike had made about different a cappella groups around the world. I went and rented it, and there they were. I went to Europe to meet with them in London, by way of Jamaica. They didn’t sound like a generic Western backup group. They had the world’s influence. I liked their smooth style. Four of the six of them are sisters. They have that blend that only sisters can have.

One thing (the album) didn’t have, which I tried not to have any of, was guitars or other instruments clouding up the beautiful percussion. The lack of all that stuff was intended. I tried to do things with percussion that we would do with other instruments. That’s why the talking drum is like a lead guitar in this band.

How did you achieve the percussion sounds on this album?

I achieved them by going out into the zone and finding them. They were achieved by processing, mostly of acoustic sounds. I have a formidable percussion collection. In this collection, as we sample things or play things, I would process them. What you hear on most of this is not synthesizer sound, they’re processing of some kind of unusual percussive sound. That was part of the game, the composition. That was part of the beauty of this.

It wasn’t like you got it out of a bottle, or a number. It’s a custom job, if you will. A hot rod. I have my own studio. I can spend enormous hours in it. Whereas you couldn’t put in the time that it would take to do some things like this in a real studio, in a renter. So I was able to experiment, and find these gourmet percussive sounds.

Mystery Box strikes me as one of the most accessible projects that any Dead member has ever been associated with. Would you agree?

That’s amazing, with all the drums and everything. It’s the voices, and all that harmony and all that melody. It’s interesting, because there are two sides of the Grateful Dead: there’s one of order, and one of chaos. I’ve always been up there in the chaos side. This seems very “sane” in a way. But I meant it to be like that. This is the way I wanted to do it. These were songs that Hunter wrote, and I wanted the lyrics to be really heard.

Did you write all the music on the album?

I co-wrote all the music on the album. There were others who wrote with me, like (keyboardist) Vince Welnick in the Grateful Dead, and the drummers contributed to the composition as well. A fellow by the name of Dave Jenkins. He used to play in a band called Pablo Cruise.

Mickey, you sing on three of the songs on the album… Is this the first time you’ve sung on record, and how do you feel about your own voice?

Yes, it is. Oh, I can listen to it. It sounds good. You see, it’s not singing, it’s more like the talking blues. It’s an attitude. It’s not like, my God-given great gift. “Mickey Hart, Vocalist” will not be the thing that we remember. I know that. Whitney Houston, she keeps bothering me with these phone calls, wanting to duet with me constantly. You understand how this is changing my life.

The song, Down The Road, seems an interesting tribute to John F Kennedy, John Lennon and Jerry Garcia. What’s the background?

That’s what folklore is all about. You take your heroes and you sing about them. Well, all of these are big-time guys, and they did a lot in their time here on earth. Of course, Hunter wrote that lyric after Jerry died. It was one of those things that just came to him, boom, in a flash. I don’t think anybody even thought of writing anything like that; we already had a fourth verse. He just came in and said, ‘You know that fourth verse? I think I have a better one.’ I said, OK. He went and sang it, and around the middle of it, we realised he had said it better than anyone could have said it.

At this time, we were not feeling so good. This was not our best moment here. We were grieving at the time he wrote it. It was like, very heavy times. So it relieved a lot of pressure and it really put everything into perspective, and it’s a way to heal. There’s no better way to heal than with music. That’s what you do when you’re a musician, you go to your music.

It’s been about a year since Jerry Garcia died. Do you miss the Dead?

Oh, of course. You can’t look back, though. You did a lot with what you had, and you really did well - the Grateful Dead was a wonderful thing. It still goes on in the hearts of people, and it ripples out into society in many ways, it’s not forgotten. But you know that life has to go on. Jerry does not live physically on this plane, but I think of him all the time. I see him here and there, images that look like that little bearded Santa Claus. And physically, I hear that guitar in my left ear - the ear that he partially deafened (laughs). In the other part of it, I can hear his guitar singing.

Are the any Dead-related projects in the pipeline?

Oh, there’s a lot of them. But Phil (Lesh, Dead bass player) mostly takes care of that.

What’s the status of the Library of Congress Endangered Music Project that you head up?

We’re about to release another batch, from South America, Africa, the Philippines, in a few months. Stay tuned.

What is your next project?

I just want to go further with this Mystery Box. I work on things all the time. I go into the studio every day. I just record every day. I’m recording always. I’m always laying down tracks and recording and composing. There are movie scores, CD-ROMs in the making.

How often do you see the other Dead guys?

I see some of them more than others. Every day I see at least one of them.

Who’s that, Bob (Weir)?

Yeah. I see him every day, multiple times, maybe. (laughs) I see the other guys from time to time, we run into each other. We’re all friends. Nothing has changed between us.

Mickey, thanks very much for your time and for all the years of good music.

Thank you for asking, or for giving this time. This is important to me because I really want this band to perform in Asia.

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