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An interview with Mickey Hart


Mickey Hart
Mickey Hart is playing at the Englert Theatre on August 8 at 8:00 p.m. — photo by George Burrows

Although most people know Mickey Hart as one member of the “Rhythm Devils” percussion section of the Grateful Dead (along with Bill Kreutzmann), he has had a notable solo music career with an astonishing 14 releases to his name.

In addition to a prolific musical career, he has a passion for ethnomusicology which has led him to serve as a member of the board of directors at The Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, where he curates the Mickey Hart Collection, a cross-section of his music output as well as other recordings he includes in a 25-album series. His books Drumming at the Edge of Magic and its counterpart Planet Drum are a two-volume exposition of his journey exploring the world of percussion: They examine his personal history tied into the history and folklore of drumming, and are essential reading for those looking to understand what has brought him to his two recent releases as the Mickey Hart Band.

Recently, Hart has been working with Dr. Adam Gazzaley at the University of California, San Francisco to explore the effects of rhythm on afflictions associated with aging. Part of the research involves monitoring the brain using an Electroencephalography cap, which Hart used to create sounds for his latest album.



Little Village: You’re releasing your second album as the Mickey Hart Band in August–Superorganism. Can you tell us about the album and the band?

Mickey Hart: It’s kind of an extension from Mysterium TremendumMysterium Tremendum contains a theme of sonifying the universe–taking radiation from epic events, from the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago to the planets, the stars, the sun, the moon, the earth–it was like a sonic timeline of the universe.

This project is the micro: the body. [Superorganism] contains sounds … of brain waves, heart rhythms, stem cells, DNA … So, it gives a kind of sonic timeline of what we are, where we are and who we are. It’s about the sonification of … the brain, which is rhythm central: Everything goes through the brain. We know that music has a lot of power, but we don’t know how it works. We know we can dance to it, we know it makes us feel good, we know it’s great to make babies with, we know it does a lot of things. It gets us through the night. But we don’t know really how it works–we don’t know the science of it.

[Dr. Gazzaley and I] want to know what role music plays in medicine and diagnostics of Alzheimers, Parkinsons, dementia. How it reconnects the broken pathways and fires the synapses when these folks are exposed to music’s rhythmic stimuli. So, this is like a rhythmic DNA process that starts with the Big Bang and of course ends with right now–us! And, having fun with it, making music with it, dancing with it–we’ll be able to do this in real time. I’ll be wearing a cap that has eight sensors that records my brain wave function and puts it in my computer and I’m able to trigger the different parts of the brain. You’ll be able to see it on a screen as well … So you’ll be able to see on the screen what part of the brain lights up and what part I’m playing and what it does. In real time!

So, this is really quite amazing. I’m working with neuroscientists who measure these stimuli and I turn it into sound. This is electrical stimuli and I make sound out of it–music! So, the job I have undertaken is to make music of it and let the band devour those ideas and come up with songs based around the inner workings of the body. It’s music–you dance to it you enjoy it–it’s not like a science experiment–it’s a performance. But, I use a healthy dose of science in the musical presentation.

LV: Is the band you are performing with the same band that is on the album, or is it a variation of it?

MH: It’s mostly the same band and it’s the same band that I’ve been touring with. These folks are really “on the bus” as it were, as far as exploring these unknown musical zones. It’s not, like, for everybody. When I conscripted these musicians I only went for the willing–only people who were interested in going on a trip. I said, “okay, man, what do you think about this?” and if they really lit up and if they were very skilled then they were on the short list. One by one, they were shanghaied! [laughs] They love it, we love each other, I love them, they love me. We’re just a really happy musical caravan out there. I really get high from this music–it drives and it pulses. No kidding around, it’s ferocious!

E. O. Wilson who won the Pulitzer for his work on–I believe it was called The Ants–wrote another book called [The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies] and in it he explains the concept of superorganism. A band is a superorganism, the mind is a superorganism, ants are superorganisms. There are a lot of different levels of superorganisms.

You see, with the Grateful Dead we had six guys on stage out of their heads trying to make sense of it all–each one of them a complex organism in proximity to another superorganism: a human. To be able to entrain that into a group mind … it takes superorganisms to do that. That’s what the title of the record is all about. To take the brain waves, and the heart rhythms, stem cells, the DNA, we’re able to make beautiful music around it. And then [former Grateful Dead lyricist] Robert Hunter [wrote] these marvelous songs that have to do with man and the universe. I guess that’s the big theme I’ve been on for the last four or five years. It ties it together. Now that I think of it … We rock and roll, we pulse, we throb. To be able put that all together and do it every night and have fun with it. [The challenge was] taking something this complex out to the people and having fun with it every night.

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LV: Such an interesting cross-section of music and science!

MH: Yeah, and I’m having fun with it, too. It’s not a science project strictly, but certainly I’m handshaking with science big time. I’m thrilled to be able to touch the things that created us–the things that created me. My DNA is mostly like your DNA, but there is a small part of it that identifies me as me. That makes me ME. But, we’re very similar when you look at the DNA, but there is that little percent at the end that says, “Ah, you’re Mickey Hart.” So, that is very powerful stimuli to get up every morning to find out more. And also bring some people and enjoy it with them, and say, “Hey, man, check it out–this is who we really are–this is what we are dancing with.”

LV: It has been an absolute honor talking to you and I can’t wait to see the show in Iowa City!

MH: Well, don’t scare the children with “brains”–my brains are not going to fall out! [laughs] We’ll have a great time–don’t worry about my brains!

Michael Roeder is a self-proclaimed “music savant.” When he’s not writing for Little Village he blogs at www.playbsides.com.


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