An Interview with Mickey Hart
By Toni A. Brown
Following their most recent East Coast tour, Relix had the opportunity to meet with Mickey Hart, Grateful Dead percussionist extraordinaire.† Over a late breakfast and the rattle of dishes, we set into conversation.† We discussed his life and love of percussion.† We discussed his life and love of percussion, and his two newly released solo albums, Dafos and Yamantaka.
RELIX:† There are many people out there who put on your solo albums and donít get what they expect of them.† How do you feel about those people?
HART:† I donít think of those people.† I donít know what they expect.† I try to sound like what I feel.† This is what I do, I play music and I would hope that someone would like it.† If they donít, that would be their misfortune and mine, but I couldnít play to their tastesówhatever they may be.
RELIX:† Did your Egypt experiences help you transcend the traditional percussive boundaries?
HART:† It started before Egypt.† When I went there, I had learned the instruments of Egypt so I wouldnít be a gringoóa stranger in a strange land.† I learned their language, their customs, and their instruments.† They knew I took the time to share their culture.† Iíve been into other percussion in other worlds for years.† I knew that the world of percussion didnít end with a bass and snare drumÖ I was always attracted to it because I like the sounds.
RELIX:† On Rolling Thunder, your first solo effort, you used a variety of unusual soundsórain, marimbas, a water pumpÖ
HART:† Thatís what ďThe Greatest StoryĒ started with, my water pump.† I live in an old place, and the pump brought the water out of the well.††† Those were early experiments, because everything was sound.† In my life, the early Grateful Dead life, letís say, everyone was taking acid and smoking pot and doing all kinds of weird and crazy things.† Everything started having their own individual meanings.† It was time to think about things to hear things other than the normal waking everyday sounds.† Iíd say we were more aware of our surroundings in the music.
RELIX:† What were your earliest influences, and what drew you to expand beyond tradition and consider yourself a percussionist, as opposed to being a drummer?
HART:† I donít think I tried to become a percussionist.† It just happened.† I never realized the difference.
RELIX:† But you donít stay within any confines, as most drummers do.
HART:† Oh no!† There are no rules for me.† The only rules are what I want to sound like and the inspiration I have to go to an instrument.† When an instrument comes into my path, I have to find out if I can feel for it.† I usually pick it up and it will mean something to me.† And if I have a feeling for it, then Iíll sit down with it.
RELIX:† Do you find it easy to pick up a new instrument?
HART:† Sometimes.† If itís an instrument I should be playing.† For some reason, youíre better suited to certain percussion instruments.† Iím talking about devoting time to an instrument.† Iím not talking about picking it up and playing it for an hour.† Iím talking about bringing it into your home, like a child or a friend.† My home is filled with these instruments, and one by one, I pick them up and I go around playing them.† Some of them wind up way in the back of the barn.† Some wind up right in my bedroom, hanging from the walls.† Those are the instruments that are dear to me.
RELIX:† Do you use the same timing and rhythms with the Grateful Dead as you do with solo efforts?
HART:† Itís really all the same thing.† But I do use different instruments.
RELIX:† What is the strangest instrument youíve ever played?
HART:† The human skull.† Living human.† His name is Steve Parrish.† I played him in L.A. when we were making Terrapin Station.† I got him into the studio, put a couple of mikes on his skull, and used a giant beater, put it through some processing, and played a human skull!
RELIX: Are you constantly making additions to the Beast?
HART:† All the time!† I added a new one this last time around.† Itís called the Ballaphone from Kenya.† Itís a marimba.† All the bars have been tapped electronically.† So, now itís an electric ballaphone.† Itís the first of its kind.† A new breed is born.
RELIX: On the Apocalypse Now Sessions, were you given a set of circumstances to work within, or were you given artistic freedom?
HART:† Artistic freedom, Iíd call it.† Frances (Coppola) wanted a performance of Apocalypse and I assembled the instruments and myself, Airto, Billy (Kreutzmann), and we played the movie.† He just said, ďmake it happen,Ē and we did.
RELIX:† Is there still a Diga Rhythm Band?
HART:† Oh no.† Diga was just a whole group of people.† But that was then.† We couldnít keep that band together.† I think there were 15 of us.† That lasted for just a little while.† That was a band, a percussion orchestra.
RELIX:† Letís talk about your newest release, Dafos.† I sense some jazz overtones.† Were the songs pre-arranged and rehearsed, or somewhat improvised?
HART:† Somewhat improvised.† We assembled certain instruments to play, and described it beforehand and talked about it, then played it.† It isnít overly composed music.† Yes, it has a jazzy flavor because it just turned out that light.† Instead of the Marshall drums, this is a more musical drum.† This is more tune percussion.† Itís really clean.† Then there are Airto, Flora Purim, and Bobby Vega, the bass player.† These people are really accomplished musicians, they really play.† So, itís percussion, but itís also got what people call music because itís got melody in it.† Itís easily digested.
RELIX:† Whose idea was it to bring this particular group of musicians together?
HART:† My idea.† But the idea isnít as important as the result.† Iíve had a lot of ideas that were good, but this sounds good.† This situation just turned out to be ideal.† The production was done really well.† The people at Reference Recordings are real good people.† The production was flawless.† We had an easy time with a lot of people.† Bill Graham let us use the Bauki Theater in San Francisco.† We moved in there.† There was a real large stage, so we were able to set up the Beast and all the instruments of Batucaje, the Brazilian Players and Keith Johnson, a recordist.† He built his own 3 track machineó2 channel stereo, then he has a bass track in the middle.† Heís a great remote recordist.† He was able to capture and phase correctly the ambiance of the Kabuki Theatre without sacrificing any of the transient responses.† It is quite accurate.† And he has an 8 track mike remote unit.† Itís analog, but itís so clean, almost digitally clean.† So the percussion was able to live in this environment and sound good in it.† This record travels at 45 RPM.† Thatís to enhance the groove depth, or the fidelity.† You remember the 45ís and how they sounded so robust coming off the machine.† That was because of the depth of the groove.† This record shares that.† Itís an LP, but it revolves at 45 because of the extreme highs and lows put on this record.† This record was made as an audiophile record, that means that it was pressed on virgin vinyl using extremely high tech techniques.† A lot of care was taken for quality.† Itís an expensive record.† Each stage of this record was cared after.† It wasnít something you throw down to the mastering lab and itís over.† So what youíll hear is the imagery.† Itís just beautiful.† You can really see the whole band there.
RELIX:† Itís a very exciting record, some very up moments.
HART:† It has moments of up, down and sideways.† I wanted it to be both soft and hard at the same time, quiet and loud.† Sort of a Zen record.† I wonít do another record like it for a while.† The package is also beautiful.† The photo on the cover is by John Werner.† He developed a special process.† Multi-track photography.† He never advances the film and keeps shooting the same frame.† It took him three days to do it.
RELIX:† Is there a special audience youíd like to reach with this album that you havenít necessarily reached before?
HART:† The audiophile people.† The people have really fine equipment and appreciate frequency response, sonic quality.† Some Deadheads, I imagine, are audiophiles, or will become audiophiles.
††††††††††† This record was made by listening to the playbacks on really fine equipment so you could hear the extreme lows, the extreme highs.† Thereís nothing like a percussion album to let you know what your system really sounds like.† But itís not a bunch of drummers making sound effects.
RELIX:† When you being to put an album together, are you concerned with commercial success?
HART:† Iím concerned to the point that Iíd like the record to make enough money to pay for itself.† The record company should be able to make their money, at least.† This is the record business.† Me, itís another record.† Iím in the Grateful Dead and I play live music.† Thatís how we make a living.† We donít make our livings selling records.† Itís part of it, thought not a major part.† But if a record could make enough money to enable us to make another record, then that would be commercially successful.† But weíll go on anyway because we have to make our music.† Some records are just more successful than others.† Now, Dafos is getting incredible reviews and I didnít expect people to like it as much as they do.† Itís my music, and itís a very personal thing with me.† But thereís some easiness about listening to this album.
RELIX:† You have another release entitled Yamantaka.† I havenít heard much about it.
HART:† Yes, thatís another audiophile record.† It just happens that Dafos and Yamantaka were released at the same time.† I didnít do them at the same time.† Sometimes, it takes a long time to get a record right.† This one was done on Teldec vinyl and they were having trouble with the process, so it took a long time to come out.† This is a record with no membranes.† There are no drums used.† Henry Wolf and myself, heís the Tibetan bell player, we struck things, metal things, and we rubbed things.† We did so many different things, but we didnít hit any membranes.† So, this is more of a music record.† Twenty-first century kind of music.† You wonít hear anything youíd recognize on this record.† Itís lighter percussion.† You can meditate to this album.† Itís really out there.
RELIX:† Youíre stepping out of boundaries again.
HART:† This is just another part of me, another dream.† This is what the dream sounded like.† This wasnít made for great commercial acceptance.† I donít know what people think this one yet.† It was released by Celestial Harmonies.
RELIX:† What does Dafos mean?
HART:† Dafos is a placeóAirto and I are into collective consciousnessóthis is a fantasyland where this record lives.† We painted a picture of a place where things happen, like the ďDry Sands of the Desert,Ē ďThe Gates of Dafos.Ē† Those are physical representations of this land our imagination takes us to.† We sit around and talk about other places, other worlds, other levels of consciousness, and how they would act, how their music would be.† Itís just our imagination running away with usóus having a good time with our imagination.† Thatís what Dafos is.† Itís not like anything else, it doesnít sound like anything.† Itís just a place.
RELIX: A form of concentrationÖ
HART:† Sure.† And sometimes I have to do some superhuman thing, like climb over a building.† I use it if Iím tired, if I have to be sharper, or if I have to remember something.† I use hypnosis in that way in my music.
RELIX:† Where do you see yourself going in terms of future solo projects, film sound tracksÖ
HART:† I do have a lot of things coming up, but itís really hard to talk about them because theyíre all in the works.† Some will happen and some wonít.† Iíve worked on a film, ďThe Whales Weep Not,Ē shot off the coast of Sri Lanka.† Itís a whole family of sperm whales playing under the water.† Weíll be working on another one by the same people.† Iím doing some of the microphoning of the whales.† Iím going to mount some contact mikes in their mouths to analyze their sounds and put them through the computer and see what their frequency response is.† Iím doing underwater recording, digital remote recording.† Iím going out on the weekends and recording everything in sight.† I stay active in the recording world all the time just by recording things.
††††††††††† Iíve also written a play with Barry Melton about humans and insects.† Iíd like to see it brought to the stage.
RELIX:† Where do you see yourself going with regard to the Grateful Dead?
HART:† Upward and onward.† Weíre just coming into our own.† Really feeling good.† It takes a long time to really play good music.† Iím enjoying it.
RELIX:† You played St. Stephen on your last tour.† That was a thrill!
HART:† Yes.† It really was.† Itís a good song.† What great words.† Robert Hunter is always with me with those words.† ďWriting Ďwhat for?í across the morning skyÖĒ[ Close Window ]