As the percussionist in the Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart explored the outer reaches of American popular music. As a musicologist with the Smithsonian Institute, Hart has explored historical rhythms from around the world. But in recent years, Hart has been exploring music from outer space – quite literally. Space itself is a vacuum where no sound can escape, so Hart commissioned a team of scientists to measure the properties and light waves of certain celestial bodies – from planets and stars to entire galaxies and nebulae – and convert them to sound waves using advanced algorithms. It’s a process called sonification. “And what we find out in deep space is very, very noisy,” Hart tells Rolling Stone.
Hart first began using these sounds of the universe in the famed “Drums -> Space” segment of Dead shows in 2009. Since then he has assembled the Mickey Hart Band, which features Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools on bass and Broadway performer Crystal Monee Hall on vocals. For their new album, Mysterium Tremendum, Hart built songs around the sonification of “epic events” that have happened in space, using his new stella library. “I just couldn’t resist the thought of dancing with the beginning of time and space,” he says. “It was so romantic. It was so sexy.” He employed Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter to fill in the words, but the result is an album with grooves that have more in common with Thievery Corporation than, say, American Beauty.
Before launching a national tour, Hart sat down with Rolling Stone at his studio in Sonoma County, California to discuss why – while he misses the “brotherhood” – there could never be another Grateful Dead.
Do you ever feel burdened by the pressure to still play at least a few Grateful Dead songs every time you play live?
I don’t feel burdened at all – I birthed this music! These are my babies. And certain songs really play well into this band. Not all of them. The sensibilities just aren’t the same as the Grateful Dead. But there are certain songs that this band could just completely kill, and so we slowly bring it into the repertoire. And I love playing Grateful Dead songs the right way – the way I think the energy should be. This band doesn’t really know about the Grateful Dead. This is wonderful. They don’t have to copy Jerry [Garcia]. We don’t have a Jerry clone or a Phil [Lesh] clone or a Bob [Weir] clone – God forbid. There can’t be two of them!
The Grateful Dead still release so many archival concerts. Archivist David Lemieux said that he doubts anybody in the band actually listens to the finished CDs, but your bandmate Bill Kreutzmann told me that he personally does. Do you?
No, I don’t think we really listen to them. Mostly. I’ve already done it and it’s in the past and it’s for everybody else now. It’s like reliving your artwork. Looking at your artwork over and over again. I’m moving on to the future. I’m trying to become a better musician. Because when I hear us, the Grateful Dead, I hear a lot of mistakes, things I would’ve done better, this or that. Every once in awhile I’ll listen to it, sure. But it’s not something that when I get a new release I go to the speakers and listen to it. Like I say, it’s for everyone else to enjoy, take with them and do good stuff with it.
What do you think it is about the Grateful Dead’s music that makes it still so important to so many people and still so relevant today?
Well, I think it’s a combination of who we are. That’s one thing. I think it’s also the passion and the energy and the commitment that we made to the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead was our life. It was part of our DNA. It was like a mission from God . . . It seemed like destiny.
I don’t think there could be a Grateful Dead now. I mean, considering the laws of the country. We were a bunch of outlaws running about the country, ingesting psychoactive drugs, playing this amazing music from another time and space. So we were exploring a new musical topography. It would be really hard to get away with that these days, especially going through airports and everything – borders. Let’s think about the reality of being the Grateful Dead: We weren’t a Girl Scouts troop. So it had its dangers. But the upside was more than the dangers of being in it. And everybody loved each other.
There was a real love and respect and community within ourselves and we knew that we were doing good things, and we knew that we were certainly uplifting our consciousness and certainly uplifting the people that were in this sphere. In a way, it was a social experiment, and so it was a duty for us to do this to get people high. To go to places where they needed our juice, our sound, to make a better world, to create more kindness.
The Grateful Dead were very kind. It was Santa Claus. It did good things. It allowed other people to benefit. The benefits that we played were enormous, and we played free. So you’ve got a band that loves to play free, and that was a wonderful thing. We played free so beautifully because we didn’t owe the people anything, so we just played out of our heads, and we just played whatever came into our heads and into our soul. There were very little restrictions. People didn’t blame anybody for making a mistake. There was no such thing. No one got yelled at when they got off the stage. Most of the time we never even talked about the music. We’d get into the van and we were talking about anything, but not normally the music. That’s magic, and it’s really hard to talk about something that’s invisible. And music is invisible. You can’t see it. You can’t touch it. You can hear it and you can feel it – you can be touched by it.
The way you still talk about the Grateful Dead, there’s a lot of heart and soul in it. Do you miss the band, on a day-to-day basis?
Oh yeah, of course. I certainly do. Are you kidding? Yeah, I miss the Grateful Dead. I miss that groove. I miss the brotherhood. Absolutely. There’s no doubt about it.
How actively do you maintain friendships with your old bandmates?
We run into each other and we talk. I had dinner with Bob a few weeks ago. We correspond.
I would think with Kreutzmann especially, sitting and drumming beside you for so many years, that there is a chemistry and a bond there that would never go away.
Oh, no way. We play like the wind. There will never be a relationship rhythmically that I will ever have that will supersede with what Bill and I do.
In my recent interview with Kreutzmann, he speculated that right before Garcia died, he had grown unhappy with the Grateful Dead and may have been looking to leave the band. Do you agree with that assessment?
That’s speculation. Jerry was getting sicker and sicker, that’s what was really happening. It wasn’t the band. It was him not being all there for one reason or another. And also the band was feeding off each other, so if one head is not there, that’s a real burden . . . If Jerry was healthy and if he was there, he would be a vital force, because he loved the band, he loved the music. I don’t think he got bored with it. It was that he just couldn’t function anymore in that capacity, as that amazing voice. He was having trouble feeling the [guitar] pick and things like that, physically. He was getting very troubled. His heart was enlarged. He had diabetes. He wasn’t healthy. He probably was the most unhealthy person that I ever knew that was still alive. So it was a series of things. I appreciate what Bill said and, partly, that was true – but a lot of that was [Garcia’s] own doing. And that’s the way I see it.
If he had been able to clean up his act and get healthy, do you think the Dead would’ve continued, even if they had to take a break for awhile?
Yeah, I do. I really do. I think that if the organism was healthy and Jerry was healthy – which was very important, because he was a guiding light. He really was. And his guitar said more than just a note. It was not just a note, it wasn’t a song, it was some kind of passion and meaning that was quite deeper, and that’s why his sound was so special.
There were many times during our career when he could’ve quit and done something else. But he knew that his power was with the Grateful Dead. He didn’t want to go solo. Jerry was a groupist. He loved to group. And with mutual respect, ultimate total respect, for each other. Which I still have, totally, with everyone in the band. It’s just now we go our own ways, we explore our inner orchestra and find out what our dreams sound like.
We know what the Grateful Dead music sounds like. We’ve done that. I speak for myself. I mean, you can reinvent it and reinvent it forever. And I like to do that too, sometimes – and I do that with this band. But we’ve done it.