From his early days working in his Dad’s drum shop through his years with the Grateful Dead to his diverse work as a solo artist and ethnomusicologist, Mickey Hart has been fascinated with the inner workings of rhythm, melody and harmony.
His latest album, Mysterium Tremendum, combines the lyric poetry of Robert Hunter, the rhythmic celebration of a Dead concert and the science of light turned into sound into a critically acclaimed and wholly satisfying musical experience.
While on tour in Seattle, he took a moment to share his thoughts on his long relationship with Robert Hunter, his departed colleague, Levon Helm, and how the music of the spheres found its way onto his new album.
How’s the tour been so far?
It’s been really uplifting. The band (which also appears on the record) is playing beautifully. The groove is right; the rhythm is right. It couldn’t be better.
A lot of people don’t realize you co-wrote Dead songs like “Fire On The Mountain” and “Playing In The Band.” What were your contributions there?
“Fire On The Mountain” and “Playing In The Band” are actually my songs. A lot of the music of the Grateful Dead I birthed or helped birth. It’s something that I’m very proud of. And those songs pop up during our current performances, different ones every night.
Can you tell us a little bit about the new album, Mysterium Tremendum?
What I’m doing is investigating the sonority of the universe going back 13.7 billion years ago to the beginning of time and space, the moment of the creation of the universe. “Beat one,” you could say.
I take visual cues from epic moments in the universe, because space doesn’t support sound. Once I find those light waves, I can change their form into sound. Then I make music out of it to have a conversation with the infinite universe.
Every star, every planet sings its own song, its own tune. So there’s an orchestra going on up there and I’m just tapping into it and having fun with it.
When did you start writing the music on this album?
Almost three years ago, during the last Dead tour. That’s when I started introducing celestial sounds into The Rhythm Devils in the Drums and Space segments.
Many reviews of Mysterium Tremendum have focused on the “spacey” aspects of the album, suggesting this is a sort of New Age record. But there’s funk, soul and gospel permeating the music, too. You’ve managed to reconcile the scientific with the human.
You have to remember I am human and I play music of the whole earth. That’s what I know how to do. So this is combining celestial music with the music of the whole earth. You’re absolutely right: it is a great combination. It is spacey but it’s not without a deep groove to dance to.
How did the collaboration with Robert Hunter come about?
As always, Robert writes my words. I usually create the music partially and he takes it and writes the words. Usually he comes up with the themes; he’s a master at that.
But this time I asked him to concentrate on the theme of man and the universe. This was the first time we worked like this but, of course, he delivered the mother lode. It’s just beautiful.
So he tuned in right away to what it was that you wanted to do?
Yes. He was very interested and challenged by it. So he broke away for a couple of weeks and really focused on that message.
How would you categorize his lyrical style relative to some of the other great lyricists we have in our world today?
When you’re in a situation in the future and you can’t explain it, very often a Hunter line or two or three will explain something that’s unexplainable.
Is there a Grateful Dead song you would single out as one of his greatest works?
Every one of them has the same features to them. Multiple meanings, hidden metaphors, all kinds of stuff.
He’s not prone to being interviewed. Do you have any insight into why he doesn’t want to talk about his lyrics?
Well, he doesn’t want to have to explain the words. The words should be a very private thing as far as your interpretation of them. You can’t explain magic. That’s what he’s after.
And the listener gets to apply to his own surroundings, as well.
That’s right. Hunter doesn’t know where you’re hearing these things, and how, in what situation and what meanings you bring. Why limit it? I don’t even ask him what he means. Only once in awhile do I ask him a question because I like to figure it out.
What does he say? “Figure it out for yourself?”
No. [Laughing.] He doesn’t do that.
Is the same true with music?
Absolutely. You should interpret it personally. We create it, we give it up. Then it’s up to you to figure out what it all means. Or let it just reside in your consciousness and you make the call. It’s so much better, so much more magical than someone telling exactly what you they were thinking. It’s probably not as good as what you conjure.
How well did you know your brother behind the drum kit, Levon Helm?
Pretty well. He was an amazing guy. He had a great groove, a great backbeat and a very swinging, rolling way of playing the drums. He was a very powerful player. He was an original … and a very nice fellow, too.
What are you listening to these days?
I’m listening to Native American music quite a bit: recordings done in Maine in the 1890s and some that was recorded for a 1940s radio show in Oklahoma called Indians for Indians Hour. They recorded all kinds of drums and singers and blasted them around eight or nine states on one of those big AM radio stations.