By Ray Chelstowski
Mickey Hart has had one of the most fascinating careers of any modern rock musician, let alone any member of the Grateful Dead. His work in the preservation of music has had a profound effect on curation, cataloging, sharing and the awareness of indigenous sounds. He also has assembled a collection of percussion instruments that is as renowned as the Grateful Dead music it has been part of.
This past year has been spent bringing the timeless music of the Grateful Dead back on the road with a new lineup of musicians, touring as Dead & Company. To date, the reception has been extraordinary with shows selling out as quickly as they did back in the day. An entirely new generation of fans has been born out of these concerts, energizing not only the old guard but the original members of the band as well.
We caught up with Mickey and talked to him about the Dead’s new dynamic; what makes this music so lasting, and finally what he has on deck for the year.
GOLDMINE: Word from a lot of loyal fans is that you guys sound tighter than ever. Any material you held back on performing until you felt like the band was really gelling.
MICKEY HART: I wouldn’t say it was that kind of plan. In fact, there is no grand plan to this. It’s just a matter of us trying to sync and become musical friends and have a great conversation at a very high level and to learn about the common groove. To become “a band.” Once you become a band you can play any song. We study the songs before we get on stage, then it’s just a matter of rendering it. It’s not supposed to be exactly like the Grateful Dead played it. So now this band is starting to get some musical identity of its own and it’s not like a copy of the Grateful Dead. We’re playing Grateful Dead music alright because we invented it and there’s no reason to throw it out because it’s really great music. It’s made to be reimagined. It’s like jazz. There’s the head. Then there’s the belly of the song which is anything you want to make it. Then there’s ending which we’re not really good at. So you know it’s perfect. We never had endings that’s why we would tag songs together and make a seamless go of it.
So we come up with an idea on the tour. Something like “let’s do this.” On the last tour I said “Deep Elem Blues.” Great song. We used to play it. We loved it and yet we hadn’t played it in this band. It’s easy. So that’s how it happens. There’s no master plan. We just gotta keep including John (Mayer) and Jeff (Chimenti) and Oteil (Burbridge) in our in tractor beam. The idea is that me and Bob (Weir) and Bill (Kreutzmann) are telepathic after all these years. And so we have our own conversation going on all of the time. It’s not about the songs so much as it is about finding the same wavelength. It’s about if you are caught up in the groove and emotionally committed. That takes time and that’s why people think it’s a really great band, because we’re getting the grease.
GM: I have to imaging that it’s fun playing with musicians of this caliber, especially Oteil Burbridge. He’s a much different bassist than Phil Lesh. It must be fun seeing where this can take the music.
MH: Well both are brilliant visionaries and Oteil brings another sensibility to the plate. I mean there’s nothing like Phil, he’s totally unique and it’s hard to describe his playing. It looks like he has a bass in his hands but he’s not really playing the bass. He is playing Bach, Beethoven. His sensibilities are completely different than Oteil’s who is basically a prodigy. He can do anything, and he’s a marvelous rythmn and blues bass player. But he can’t be Phil. He goes to amazing places just like Phil goes to his.
It’s great to play with John. John is fluid and he listens and he’s now part of the conversation as is Jeff. And playing at that level is what we are used to. That’s the Grateful Dead, a very high level of musicianship.
GM: Oteil Burbridge has been singing more tunes as the tour goes on. How do you decide who sings what?
MH: Pretty much anyone can pick whatever they want if they really have a feeling for it. That’s what Oteil did. He said, “I gotta do this song. I love it. I can do it” and he went out there and delivered first rate singing. I couldn’t believe how beautifully he could sing ballads. So Oteil is really part of the vocal armada now. There are times we pick a song and John says “that’s a bit too out of my range. Bob you take it.” Or Bob says “hey why don’t we do this song” and then John will say “yeah that’s great, I can do that.” And so it just happens like that. We have soundcheck every day. That’s where we learn songs and if someone wants to try something new we go through it at soundcheck. If it works in soundcheck, we play it. If not we do it again in soundcheck and that’s for sure where we’ll make it work.
GM: Back in the 80’s and 90’s you would invite a lot of guest musicians on stage with you. That added a very cool dynamic, especially when someone like Branford Marsalis joined in. Are you looking to do any of that moving forward?
MH: It’s totally spontaneous. No plan. If we want to do something we do it. Right now we’re trying to become a band and that’s the most important thing. All of the other stuff follows. I think that’s the top of the list. When you have people sit in, you change everything. Everything changes because you have to welcome them, compromise much of the song in giving it to them. Sometimes something really powerful happens. But much of the time it’s not successful in many ways because our music is complicated. It’s not like it doesn’t have its nuances. I love Branford, or Ornette (Coleman), you know. Those guys add that special stuff. We don’t need any more guitarists. I’ll tell you that.
GM: One of the things folks have really enjoyed was the decision to do “Dark Star” as an acoustic piece? How did that come about?
MH: I think Bob or John might have mentioned it and they just did it. They got it in front of the mikes and they started the song. It was spontaneous which is different from how we used to do things because we took a lot of LSD together and then played music for long periods of time. That’s where you go into a whole other reality. Sometimes memory is not the strongest point. The idea was not to necessarily remember everything that you did and we couldn’t because we did a lot of things. So we decided to just let the song take you wherever you wanna go, wherever it wants to go. You follow it, it follows you. And you wind up in some amazing place. That will turn into something incredible if you let it, and if you pace it. So I think that taking psycho-active drugs for years and then performing it became an art form. It wasn’t like we were just taking acid and having a party. It was an integral part of the art form. That’s probably the only way you can do it.
And there was never any blame. Ever. Whatever happened happened. That was the art of it. We didn’t talk about it. In the beginning we used to listen to the shows after in the hotel room. We’d play a recording of the evening and that was our entertainment at night. We would listen to the performance and it was off to the next city. But that didn’t continue because it played itself out. We didn’t want to hear ourselves. I don’t listen to Grateful Dead music. I hear all of the mistakes where the groove should have been this or that. There’s no reason to look back. Once in a while my daughter will put it on but I don’t want to repeat. That’s not my idea of music. I’m not in that game and there are a lot of people who are. I am not of that world. I tip my hat to them because they are amazing performers but I could never be of that world. Our music was never like that. Our music was full of chaos and inconsistencies. It was jazz. It was like a musical journey where you were always looking forward, arching toward the future.
GM: Any new material being developed on the road that might lead you guys into a studio?
MH: We could if we wanted to but we don’t. We’re having such a blast playing live; the studio is a whole other world. To do studio right it takes time. To me this is not necessarily a recording band. It could be. But right now it’s a live band playing live music for live people. That’s different than performing into a microphone and trying to perfect music that you’d put into a recording. Completely different.
GM: You have been an avid collector of percussion instruments for years. Anything special make an appearance this time out on the road?
MH: Well, I have a new rig now, or a new home I should say. And it’s electronic in nature with new sounds made from old instruments. Some of them are my great “buddies,” my little family. Every tour I take more or another part of data from the collection which is all sampled. Because I would need semi-trucks to take the collection around. It’s too cumbersome and it’s not practical, even in my world. But I change it up all of the time and I record around the house, environmental acoustic-ecology kind of stuff.
I try to record sounds that are unborn. That’s my favorite thing to do, to birth sounds. Then there’s the wonder that accompanies all of that. Not only for yourself but for the listener. I’m also into multi-channel. Stereo for me is a pastime. I don’t listen to stereo anymore. I’m in 9.1 multi-channel all of the time. That’s where I live when I’m not on the road.
GM: You have done a great deal of work in helping preserve musical history and traditions with your charitable work with organizations like the Smithsonian, the American Folklife Center and Save Our Sounds. What’s next?
MH: I’m thinking of restarting the Endangered Music Project at the Library of Congress and going through the stacks, seeing what’s in them and repatriating this music to the rest of the world. I love indigenous music. It’s been a great privilege to work with them.
GM: Goldmine interviewed Donovan. There he mentioned going to see the Maharishi with George Harrison and had a funny anecdote to share about the Grateful Dead waiting next in line for their own visit. The Maharishi apparently giggled when he heard the Dead’s name?
MH: I heard that! It was a terrible name. We didn’t give it a second thought, I’ll tell you that. He also told Bob that he shouldn’t have anything touching his skin but silk. So Bob went and bought a silk shirt which was not really practical because we were all living together and eating spaghetti out of a pot. (laughs) So it was not very practical in our world.
GM: What are you looking to do in 2018? What’s your musical goal, objective—what are you looking to tackle?
MH: Good question. A Sounds and Lights Experience. I have a two day takeover of the Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium on April 13 and 14. So I’m composing a piece that starts at the beginning of time and space and it ends at the atom. A journey through time and space. There are incredible images from NASA. It’ll be a great thing. And I’m thinking of playing a couple of festivals next year outside. That’s what it’s all about!