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By Ray Chelstowski
There are few artists in modern music who have more to do at any given time than Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. Born to drumming parents, he grew up in a household regularly filled with worldly and progressive percussive sounds. It is therefore not surprising that his relationship with the music of other lands and cultures blossomed further when he too became a professional musician. In the late 1960s, he began to slowly introduce instruments and sounds that he had discovered “on the ground” in parts of the world into the world of rock. It started to change the way bands approached drumming and, frankly, rock was never the same. Any modern artist who incorporates sounds of the world into their music has Mickey Hart to thank for pushing boundaries and blurring musical lines. He continues to do so to this day, being above all an advocate for all that music can do to change the world.
In 1991, along with percussion virtuosos Zakir Hussain, Giovanni Hidalgo and Sikiru Adepoju, Hart released the first Planet Drum record. He exceeded the Billboard on the charts for 26 weeks and won the first-ever Grammy Award for “Best World Music Album”. They have now released the third installment of this series, In the Groove. The supergroup’s first album in 15 years, In the groove finds them in great shape with an even broader sense of creativity and daring. Here, across six tracks, there’s a tremendous amount of sonic material to tap into and explore.
Hart has long been connected to organizations such as the Institute for Music and Neurological Function which continue to explore the healing powers of music. In the groove is a record built with that specifically in mind. Released with the intention of building cultural unity in a time of heightened discord, it is essentially a dance record, designed to get listeners moving. Like all things “Mickey Hart”, this record accomplishes a lot; All at the same time.
The band’s new video for “King Clave” is a prime example. It was created with Playing for Change and features the band performing with over 50 traditional drummers and dancers from around the world. The clip was seen by over 600,000 viewers and further amplified the record’s important mission.
Gold mine met Mickey again and talked about the making of this record, the endless healing powers that continue to be discovered in music, and learned what’s next from this prolific artist whose energy and enthusiasm for Life remain an inspiration to fans around the world.
Gold mine: What prompted you to embark on this Planet Drum project?
mickey hart: Well, one thing about the pandemic was that nobody was filming. So I thought it would be the perfect time to do this recording, either in the studio or remotely. The world is really out of rhythm right now. It’s out of time. It takes rhythmic stimuli so people can find joy in watching many cultures play together and show that they really love each other. It is a good example for a country struggling with its problems. Rhythm brings things together in a very unique way, and I hope what you take away from these rhythmic experiences will be good vibes that you can share with your family and friends.
GM: Where did you record the new album and was it done in the studio or remotely?
MH: We did both. Sometimes we met and others it was at a distance. We recorded in India, Puerto Rico, Paris and America, remotely. Remote recording is different from studio work. There’s more adventure in there! Things can go wrong, but when things are going well, you press the bell. It keeps you on your toes. The technology is now available to get things done without delay, which had been the curse of remote recording; especially across continents. Also, remember that these players are prodigies. They are in no way pedestrian instrumentalists. These guys are virtuosos. Zakir Hussain from India is the factory’s first rhythm player and a tabla master. Giovanni Hidalgo is all “Latin”. And of course there is Sikiru Adepoju from Nigeria.
GM: How did you start building these songs?
MH: It starts with a rhythm. There is also a melody because all the percussion is in tune. It’s not like normal percussion. It’s a tuned orchestra. Melody, harmony and rhythm are central. Sometimes an idea comes to me in a dream and I walk into the studio and pitch it. Other times Zakir starts it up and then we pile in. And then sometimes we’re all together and someone just starts things. It really runs the gamut. With virtuoso players, you have to cross your fingers first because any one of them can hold your attention for more than four hours on their own. It was supposed to be a dance record and that meant it wasn’t really a place for virtuosos. So they all had to get into the rhythm and off we went.
GM: There are so many sonic components in each of these songs. When do you know enough is enough?
MH: I am often asked that because I am a big offender. It’s hard to say when it’s done. Normally Zakir has to pull me off the board kicking and screaming. The same was true with Jerry (Garcia) and me. We kept playing with the recording until the end, then beyond the end. It’s just hard to tell when you’re done. Sometimes you say “OK, that’s it. It’s perfect!” Then you wonder if it’s possible to make it more perfect than perfect. I have my own studio so I don’t have to leave. I can stay there 24/7. 7.
GM: Was there an instrument used on this record that made its way on tour with Dead & Company?
MH: Well the groove is provided by The Beam, which is like a bass. It’s the first. There are also some sounds provided by my workstation that allow me to choose new sounds every night; from opera singers to monkey singers from Indonesia. I learned about many of these cultures from around the world through field recording. So I have a lot of material to choose from.
I try not to repeat. Every night is different. It keeps me interested and certainly keeps fans interested. When I do Rhythm Devils and Dead & Company nothing is really composed. Billy (Kreutzmann) and I always left this section open so it could be improvised. Right from the start, we decided that we shouldn’t make this beat rock solid. We should let it form between us and the public. Then we can better capture the magic of this night and the groove, the spaces and the zones as we call them. Every night is a different zone.
GM: You’ve been on the “world music” scene since the late 1960s. Is there anything that’s tugging at your ear right now that readers should listen to?
MH: When I was five, six or seven years old, I listened to the music of the pygmy rainforest. But it’s not “world music”. There is nothing like that. It is “the music of the world. After I won the Grammy, I called their president and said “thank you for the medal, but there’s no world music!” and he just dropped the phone. (laughs) If you’re down south, Appalachian music is “world music.” It is culturally and geographically specific. Music defines the species and is also species specific. I listen to all kinds of music. It turns me on and itches my toes and makes my hair stand on end. This is the gift I found something. So I look for thrills and find them in world music. Music is also about neurological function, what the brain tells the body to do. It is the master clock. A good ear is a good ear. When you listen to a lot of music, you become aware of the world.
GM: You are always busy with a wide range of activities. What is your next project?
MH: I’m right in the middle. I’m taking Planet Drum on what’s called “Dolby Atmos” which is a new listening experience. It’s kind of like Dolby 5.1 on steroids. It has speakers that sit above your head so you can get vertical movement. You can place objects in space, etc. This is the next forum people will listen to so I’m in the middle of it.
GM: In the end, what do you hope to achieve with this new version of Planet Drum?
MH: I think people will really be able to enjoy it, dance to it and do good with it. This is the most important thing. After listening to the record, take that feeling and go out and do some good with it. That’s what I call a successful musical experience. Always remember, “That’s the stupid beat!”