Mickey Hart On His Experimental New Solo Album And Why It’s Impossible For Him To Leave The Grateful Dead

For 50 years — save for a brief spell in the early ’70s — Mickey Hart has been a drummer in the Grateful Dead, one of the most popular and longest-running American rock bands ever. He has also had an esoteric solo career, releasing more than a dozen albums that explore various world-music styles and exotic rhythmic grooves.

Hart’s latest LP, RAMU, might be his most eccentric yet. The album is named after a vast database of sounds from around the world that Hart has collected over the years that he calls the Random Access Musical Universe. Hart treats this database as an instrument, both on stage and as a compositional tool in the studio, creating a collage of sounds that he later shapes into highly unconventional songs. (The RAMU even brought Jerry Garcia back to life — the song “Jerry” is built around an unreleased live track of Garcia jamming on his MIDI guitar in the late ’80s.) Other collaborators on the album include Avey Tare from Animal Collective and bassist Oteil Burbridge, Hart’s bandmate from Dead & Company.

At 74, Hart remains an energetic musician and conversationalist, particularly when the topic is the Grateful Dead’s enduring legacy. I caught up with him during an off-day for the current Dead & Company tour. Hart was suffering from a head cold, but it didn’t stop him from talking for nearly an hour about his love of “rhythm and noise,” his relationship with the Dead’s other drummer, Bill Kreutzmann, and his mixed feelings about this year’s acclaimed Grateful Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip.

You’ve been on road now for several weeks with Dead & Company. How long does it usually take for the band to gel?

For it to really be greased, it takes about a week and a half. Because there are a lot of working parts, especially in a band that improvises. There needs to be a certain kind of magic. There’s a conversation with me and Bill, and me and the rest of the band. and then John and Bob. There’s all these separate conversations that are going and then eventually we’re all able to speak as one voice. That takes time. It’s always been that way.

How do you know when it’s working?

There’s a certain kind of weightlessness that you feel. Everything that you do works, and everybody’s smiling and jumping up and down. There’s magic, and you know when magic happens because then you move through the world in a trance. Once you acquire trance, you’re there. And we’re a trance band. That’s our specialty. We don’t do things right. I wouldn’t say we’re a proper band by any stretch of the imagination. There’s a lot of chaos — a lot of mistakes or whatever you call it, a lot of chance, failure everywhere.

But then you set the table and it happens. If you crystallize everything and say this is the way it is, this is what I’m going at, you don’t really leave that much room for magic and that’s the name of our game. It’s not like going up there and playing the tunes.

Do you have magical moments every night?

We’ll have a minute or two or three or five of something really special and then it will leave. Then it’ll come back again later. It comes and it goes. Some nights, you can feel it through the whole evening, but it’s something that’s not easy to find so when you find it, we just try to hold on to it as long as possible.

That’s the art of the trance, it doesn’t happen every night. That’s what brings them back. It certainly not because we do good endings or beginnings of songs. It mostly happens in between the beginning and the ending.

Do you think Dead & Company will ever make a record?

It’s a good question. I don’t know. It’s been kicked around, but we’re a live band. The Grateful Dead’s repertoire is 450 songs and as quickly as John and Oteil can learn them, we bring them out. We brought a few out this tour. Every tour we break out some more songs. But going into the studio? I don’t know. We were never a great studio band, to be honest with you. The magic with the Grateful Dead … it was sporadic, shall we say, or uneven, studio-wise. It’s like being in a cage in a way. The beast just does not always come out in the studio. Most of it is very sterilized and it’s a controlled atmosphere.

How did that inform your work on RAMU? It sounds like the recordings were spontaneous.

It took me a long time to do that. There’s a lot on the cutting room floor. But I like first takes, I’m a first take guy. Even if it isn’t perfect, it’s still real because you haven’t reworked it a million times. You take the best parts and you put them all together and voila you have RAMU, which is probably the best record I’ve made. It took me almost three years.

How exactly were the songs composed? You have this instrument that can conjure all these different sounds. Were you just improvising in the studio?

Yeah, it’s foraging. I’m a forager, I like to discover things. I’ll go in there and I’ll mess around until I’ve found something that really means something to me, and that will be the beginning. Then somebody else will add something else to it. People were in different parts of the country — some of it was done long distance, some of the sessions were done in three cities, simultaneously.

I created a live instrument that contains enormous amounts of data — my pet sounds from all the years that I can recall instantaneously, whether it be live or in the studio. RAMU is the name of the record, and RAMU is the instrument. It is my home. That’s what I call home.

My music doesn’t have first chorus, bridge, third chorus. I don’t do that. That’s not my kind of music. A lot of key changes and things like that, that’s not my kind of music. In trance, you can’t have that. Your mind has to relax and be able to follow something that plays without it changing too much.

How did you get hooked up with Avey Tare? Are you an Animal Collective fan?

My daughter Reya, she lives in New Orleans and she’s my ears in the younger generation and to all the good stuff that’s happening there. She led me to them. With the people on this record, they just were totally self-motivated. They’re the ones that have to really be able to make new music. I wasn’t interested in older forms. Rhythm and noise [are things] I really love. I like ballad-ing and I love harmony but they’re not the primary movers in my music.

This has been such a great year for the Grateful Dead, in part because of Amir Bar-Lev’s great documentary, Long Strange Trip. What did you think of that movie?

Well, that movie … it was sad. That was a very sad movie. It was mostly a Jerry movie. It was mostly a farewell to Jerry movie, it wasn’t really about the Grateful Dead, the whole Grateful Dead. It didn’t really speak to that. The Grateful Dead isn’t sad, mostly we’re a bunch of bloody yucks and we’re funny. We have great fun. That movie wasn’t fun. It’s not a date movie. That’s the only thing I can say about it. And it’s also one person’s idea of what the Grateful Dead might be. They have no idea. I have a pretty good idea of what the Grateful Dead is. But it’s part of the story.

See, the thing is, Jerry was dying in front of me all those years, I don’t want to go to a movie to watch it again. It’s not pretty for me. Matter of fact I didn’t even see it at the premiere, at Sundance. I was there, but I left and had dinner and then came back at the end.

Did you see it?

Yeah, I saw it

What did you think?

As someone who didn’t live through it, I thought it was really interesting! Though I understand someone who did live through it not wanting to re-live it.

If I would have made the movie, it would have been different. But I didn’t make the movie, nor do I want to. You know, I am the movie, I don’t want to make the movie about a movie. See, the Grateful Dead is a live experience. It’s really almost impossible to make a movie of the Grateful Dead. I can’t imagine that anyone would really want to make a movie of the Grateful Dead, or a successful movie because it’s way too complex and multilayered for anybody to really walk away from that movie and get the spirit of the Grateful Dead and what the Grateful Dead is about. It’s about spirit, it’s about freedom, it’s about a lot of things. But it’s certainly not about the death spiral.

But don’t you think it’s a good gateway for newcomers interested in the Grateful Dead?

How can I put it without stepping on anybody’s movie here? The Grateful Dead is a great success story. It’s like Santa Claus. It’s a giving, wonderful thing and it’s uplifting. It’s uplifted many thousands, millions of people, including myself.

One thing the documentary didn’t address is your hiatus from the band in the early ’70s. What was it like to watch the Dead from a distance, and was it hard to re-integrate into the band?

You know, once you’re a part of the Grateful Dead, you’re never out of it. You may not be playing with the band for a few years, but I never signed up and I never signed out. It was my elective to leave the band for a while for personal reasons. [Hart left the band in 1971 after his father, who briefly managed the Dead, embezzled money from the group. He returned in 1974.] And then when I decided I wanted to be a part of it, I got my drums and I played and I was a physical part of it again. That’s the way it works. I left because of personal reasons, which had nothing to do with the band really. It wasn’t a very pleasant time for me, it wasn’t a happy time. So I had to work out my situation myself and then one day I decided it was time to become part of the Grateful Dead again. That was it. Just that simple. No big cathartic thing, it was just you don’t sign up, you don’t sign out. There’s no contracts. We just played together. Then of course it became business. But at first it was nothing like that.

Was it hard to reconnect with Bill?

Nah, not really. It’s not like that. We put in so much time when we were younger together playing. That bond can never be broken. I mean, it took us a while to get the grease back but you know, that takes practice.

Once you have that bond nothing, absolutely nothing, can stand in its way. It’s absolute. We never talk about it either. We never talk about performances or The Rhythm Devils or anything. We never plan things. We never blame each other, for anything. If somebody screws up, most of the time it’s just a laugh. We know everybody’s giving their best, so there’s no blame. I think that’s one of the big reasons that we can do this for over 50 years. We actually never blame each other for things. It happened once, and then we decided that if we’re going to do this for the rest of our lives, we can’t blame each other for anything. So, that was kind of the code.

What was that one time you blamed someone?

It was about Bobby. Bobby was supposed to play something, and we had rehearsed and we were going to do something as soon as he did that, and of course he didn’t remember to do that, so we got on him after the show. It was ugly, and we realized right then and there, that can never happen. We were able to maintain that for most of our years. We might grumble behind somebody’s back but it was never really a “you’re out of the band”-type thing. We knew we could always avenge it the next night.

Everybody in this band believes they are the reason that this band works. That’s the thing, it’s just that way. That kind of attitude served us well.