Mickey Hart brings his new band to Aspen
December 8, 2011
ASPEN – From behind his drum set, Mickey Hart saw the Grateful Dead experience in a cosmic way. The Dead, which featured Hart and Bill Kreutzmann in a percussion duo known as the Rhythm Devils, weren’t just playing unusual, improvisatory music; they were in search of a profound connection.
“It was a trance band, and a ritual band,” Hart said. “It created that group mind, trying to make everyone into one organism – what we called being ‘on the bus.'”
While the Grateful Dead entity was known for its spirit of out-there exploration – their nightly segment devoted to free-form sound is known as “Space” – Hart was one of the principal drivers of that approach. A devout student not only of percussion but of rhythm itself, Hart recorded drumming traditions from around the world; recorded drum-centric albums like “Music to Be Born By” and “Global Drum Project”; and wrote books like “Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey Into the Spirit of Percussion.” In the Dead, Hart’s kit included Asian gongs, Middle Eastern tars and West African talking drums. Clearly this was not your average banger keeping time behind a couple of singers and guitarists. The Grateful Dead might have been a rock ‘n’ roll band – albeit one with myriad influences and fueled by the psychedelic movement of San Francisco in the ’60s – when it began. But with addition of Hart, in 1967, the band jumped a few more levels toward the interstellar.
“I was passionately into drums, percussion and things that moved – the wind in the trees, the surf, jackhammers, cars,” Hart, the son of two drummers who played marching-band style, said of what he brought into the Dead. “It was a natural progression into the Grateful Dead. It was a gear change, a smooth one.”
The death of Jerry Garcia and the subsequent break-up of the Grateful Dead, in 1995, hasn’t touched Hart’s inquiry into drums and rhythm. He has continued to record percussion-centric albums and write books on the subject; in 2000, he became a board member with the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, to continue his investigation into the healing power of rhythm. In October, the first installment of “The Mickey Hart Collection,” an effort to preserve and expand music traditions from all over the earth, was released; among the titles in the 25-album installment are “Eclipse,” by Egyptian drummer Hamza El Din; “Freedom Chants from the Roof of the World,” by the Gyuto Monks of Tibet; and “The Apocalypse Now Sessions: Rhythm Devils Play River Music,” the soundtrack Hart and Kreutzmann created for Francis Ford Coppola’s film about the Vietnam war.
This past summer Hart debuted his latest project, the Mickey Hart Band, whose vanilla name belies the band’s mission. The group aims to go deeper into the cosmos than even the Grateful Dead ever did; the Mickey Hart Band’s music is taken, as literally as possible, from the Big Bang, the explosion, 13.7 billion years ago, that created the universe and everything in it.
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Not surprisingly, the rhythmic repercussions of the Big Bang have fascinated Hart for some time; he began writing on the topic in 1991’s “Drumming at the Edge of Magic.” “I was chasing the idea of how we became rhythmists,” the 68-year-old Hart said from a tour stop in Portland, Ore. “And rhythm started with the Big Bang, which created pulsars, black holes, stars, planets. I wrote about it, but there were no instruments to measure it. It was all theory.”
That changed a few years ago when George Smoot, an American astrophysicist doing work on cosmic microwave background radiation, discovered a method for measuring the light and energy resulting from the Big Bang. The work earned him the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics, and gave Hart a chance to turn some of his more esoteric ideas about rhythm into actual music. For three years Hart has been working on methods to translate energy into sound, and those sounds are the basis of a set of new songs.
“This band was built around the idea of having a real conversation with the cosmos, not fictional,” Hart said. “My musical horizons have gone from global to interstellar, universal music.”
The eerie, wobbly sounds usually associated with outer space, through episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and numerous sci-fi films, are about to get a rethinking. “That’s not what space sounds like,” Hart said.
So what does the world’s original music sound like? Not a whole lot like music. “They pulse, they chirp, they whirl – not what you’d call music,” Hart said of the raw materials he was working with.
When Hart brings his new band to Belly Up Aspen, on Thursday, Dec. 8, listeners will hear not just music, but songs. Hart brought in Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead’s primary lyricist, to contribute words to tunes with names like “Starlight,” “Let There Be Light” and “Supersonic.” The band features a pair of singers, Tim Hockenberry and Crystal Hall, guitarist Gawain Matthews, keyboardist Ben Yonas, drummer Ian Herman, talking drummer Sikiru Adepoju, and Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools. Perhaps oddly, given that Hart’s music outside of the Dead has generally not been rock-oriented, his interpretation of the music of the galaxies sounds a lot like rock ‘n’ roll.
“It’s a rock ‘n’ roll band – that’s one way of putting it, It’s heavily rhythmic, but it’s not a drum orchestra,” Hart, who is nearing completion of an album of the music, set for release early in 2012. “It’s electric and it rocks. But it’s its own take on rock ‘n’ roll.”
Merely rocking out, though, is only part of the point. As he did with the Dead, Hart is looking for music to serve a higher purpose – time travel, universality.
“You get to connect to the vibrations that created you,” he said. “You’re dealing with your ancestors, with the things that brought life to Earth. It’s the macro, the big picture. It gives a perspective on being human, on your place in the universe.”
Hart has long seen humanity in rhythmic terms. Channeling the Big Bang into music might be the ultimate expression of his interest.
“This is the seed sound, the moment when time and space were created,” he said. “That was romantic and sexy – especially for a drummer. That’s where the rhythm started, and rhythm and vibration makes you happy. When the rhythm stops, you die.”