Grateful Dead Forum


[note from Geoff: this interview comes via kind permission of the author, Doug Heselgrave, for publication here]

July 30, 2000 WOMAD USA Festival, Redmond, Washington

The Vibratory World: An interview with Mickey Hart

Last July, I had the opportunity to speak with Mickey Hart after his performance at the WOMAD USA festival for an article I was writing, originally intended for the Hong Kong English language music press. Earlier in the day at a drum circle, Mickey spoke about the power of rhythm and how it is used for healing in many cultures. I had the chance to get him to expand on some of the ideas he brought up related to this as well as giving him the opportunity to discuss some of his non-Western musical influences. I found Mickey to be very open, reflective and to have come to terms with whatever healing was necessary in the wake of the demise of the Grateful Dead. As his fresh and lively performances of Dead classics that afternoon attest, some of Hart’s greatest musical explorations may still lie ahead of him.

Doug Heselgrave: From looking at your new book, Spirit into Sound, and reading Drumming at the Edge of Magic, I know of the academic awareness of percussion lineages and traditions you bring into your work. How conscious is this knowledge in the moment you’re actually playing? How much is educated and how much is letting go and being in the moment?

Mickey Hart: Well, it’s a combination. You have to have skill. That’s the basis. That’s the foundation. And, then you have to forget everything, or much of what you’ve ever learned because we want to be in the moment. It’s a meditation. You don’t want to be too strict. You want to caress it, make love to the clave and the beats as opposed to play them strict. It’s a sonic yoga. It takes years to be able to get friendly and get loose, and still stay accurate and fulfill your mission as a Rhythmatist.

D: So, do you find you’re getting freer all the time?

M: Oh man, I’m much more free than I used to be. I’m being able now to let loose. I don’t play as fast….

D: You talk about going into the zone.

M: Yeah. I get into the zone easier now. I still have power. I mean, I’m fifty-seven, I’ll be fifty-seven, so some of the speed is gone, but I don’t really need that speed now. What’s happened is that I commit more to the important stuff as opposed to flashing over the top.

D: What’s the important stuff?

M: Well, the important stuff is the sub-divisions, which are the major sub-divisions and the way the rhythm is divided. The committing is really all-important, it’s how much weight you put to it, or don’t put to it, it’s how fast you push when you get off of the beat and the groove and how you feel the groove. It’s a really delicate process. It looks real barbaric sometimes, but it’s not. In the hands of a practitioner, it’s a very … It’s a dance, really. That’s what it is.

D: You’ve played with Zakir Hussain a lot. What have you learned by performing with him? What has he offered to you?

M: Zakir is, of course, one of the greatest percussionists in the world , and I have learned how to manipulate the rhythms and be able to fuse certain rhythms within other rhythms and to be flexible within the groove. It was his father, Alla Rakha, who really taught me a lot, and of course he carries on that tradition as well. We have a chemistry. You know, it’s not how good you are, it’s how you feel for each other, how your styles go together, and our styles go together well. We respect each other.

D: You did sessions recording in Bali a couple of years ago. What did you like about that? Gamelan music — is it going into the same place you want to go?

M: It’s ensemble. It represents the community and the combination of dance, membranes, voices of metal. All these voices coming together in a community of instruments. It’s a great grouping. They’re groupists.

D: The Diga Rhythm Band had the feel of a Gamelan orchestra.

M: I’m glad you heard that. It’s twentieth century Gamelan. It was modeled after a Gamelan from the archipelago. That was my intention with Diga — to create a new kind of Gamelan. Something that I could relate to that was more culturally specific to what I was involved in. Very much so. That was always the carrot. Creating the new Gamelan.

D: I want to ask you about Tibetan music. I’ve heard some of your music with the Gyuto monks. Did working with them influence you?

M: Theirs is a sacred dimension. It’s a sacred art. That’s a vibratory world of the monks. It’s very calming and centred, blissful, but powerful. The message is that they create a new universe every day with every chant. They reconstruct and deconstruct a mandala of sound - which is really very hip.

D: I was surprised to hear you playing so much Dead material in your set today. Do you see yourself reconstructing and deconstructing the music every time you play it?

M: Yeah, I found a new reason to play them again. I started wanting to play them again after five years. Do you like the way they turned out?

D: Yeah, I really did. I think I read Phil Lesh say that he looked at approaching Dead material as a body of music, like work by composers like Mozart that lots of different people can interpret. Do you find it’s liberating to play the same music with different people?

M. Right. Yeah, I do. Very liberating. It’s just how you interpret it. That’s the whole thing. It’s not just reinterpretation in general. It’s specific. I mean, if you play it like you were playing it, it’s not real re-interpretation, it’s just plundering the catalogue. There’s a difference.

D: Do you ever think you plundered the catalogue?

M: I wouldn’t do it. That’s why I didn’t do it for five years. I didn’t want to play it badly the same way. (laughs) Now, I’m playing it well a different way.

D: Are you playing different songs every night?

M: Oh yeah. Today was pretty stiff…. An hour and a half. We weren’t able to stretch out our songs.

D: How was your show in Vancouver last night?

M: It was a high. The commodore’s a nice place. It was a high. It was really wild. It was an hour longer than this one.

D: This is a different band than I was expecting. I was thinking you’d be with Planet Drum. How many different bands are you working with now?

M: Just this one and The Other Ones. In two days, I’ll start rehearsal. We’ll go out in September around North America. Kreutzman’s back. Weir, Hornsby and Alphonso Johnson. We’ll all be playing together. Looking forward to it.

D: You testified in front of a senate committee about the importance of young people and old people making music together. Can you say something about that and what you think the healing powers of rhythm are.

M: Drums and drumming aren’t just for rhythm masters. They’re for everybody. They’re for kids and they’re for grannies. They’re for everyone who wants to share sound and rhythm. On a simple basis, just like beating together and playing. Especially in a learned groove. Just being in the groove together. It’s really empowering and also gives a sense of well-being. It uplifts the spirit and allows for the healing process, and that’s basically what I pitched to the senate. You know, for rhythm therapy.

D: Were they receptive?

M: Oh yeah, they gave me a million dollars. It kind of jump started the rhythm based therapy in this country.

D: You were talking about the heart having a brain in it. Can you pinpoint in the body where healing takes place?

M: Well science isn’t weighed in totally on it, but I would say it is a mind-heart continuum, something to do with the brain and the heart. That’s for sure. Through all the organs, then it reaches down through to the perineum, works its way up the spine, so there is something, some continuity there. We don’t exactly know, but we’ll know in five years.

D: Do you think these mystical states or zones are scientifically mapable?

M: Oh yeah, it’s reducible. We’ll be able to crack the code. It’ll just be like the atom, or like DNA. We’ll be able to find the DNA for trance. Once we do that, it’s the Holy Grail. That’s the grail. Once we find that, for us… Wow.

D: Thanks very much. It’s been a real pleasure meeting you.

M: Thank you so much.


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