Interview: The Dead’s Mickey Hart Explores the Sounds of the Universe

While the Grateful Dead may have been described as far out, drummer Mickey Hart's new album, Mysterium Tremendum goes farther than ever before, into outer space. In addition to musicians from all over the world, Hart has brought the sounds of the universe to this album, which he is sure to dip into at the Tralf this Friday, July 27. Working with scientists at Penn State, the Lawrence Berkley Labs, and Meyer Sound, Hart recorded electromagnetic radiation from other planets and stars, and made them audible through the process of sonification. Mysterium Tremendum, which was released in April, is built around these sounds and global music played by Mickey and his band.

While recording the sounds of the universe may seem like a lofty science experiment, this is still a rock'n'roll album. It may bring you to outer space, but this band brings you back down to earth throughout Mysterium. Collaborating with longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and lengthy jams keep the spirit of the Dead alive, while sounds from this world and beyond keep it sounding progressive and fun. Hart went out searching for musicians to share in the experience of this album: Ian "Inkx" Herman and talking drum and djembe player Sikiru Adepoju join him as percussionists, along with Dave Schools from Widespread Panic on bass. Gawain Matthews on guitar and Ben Yonas on keyboards, along with multi-instrumentalist Joe Bagale and vocalist Crystal Monee Hall, complete the band.

I had a chance to interview Hart last week to talk about his new album, his current tour, and just how one goes about performing the "sounds of the universe."

Can you tell me a little bit about the new album?

I can tell you a lot about the new album. It was based on a few things that are interesting. One is the cosmic sounds that I've been gathering from deep space, from the beginning of time and space 13.7 billion years ago—the stars, the planets, galaxies, pulsars, the epic events in the universe: the sun, the moon, the earth, and so forth—and translating those light waves and that radiation into sound waves and using that in the music. Radio telescopes capture the wave form then we have scientists bunch that information and turn it into sound. That's one of the big elements of this effort. [Then there are] beautiful words by Robert Hunter, so it's not just space music, it's rock'n'roll, it's man and the universe. That's kind of the theme of this. And it's having a conversation with the universe. It was a place I always wanted to go; I always wanted to hear the song of the universe, and what it actually is saying out there, and what the meaning of all these things are. We were born of vibration, we are of vibration. That's why this is so interesting to me, this project.

Where did you get the idea to record universal sounds like this?

My books in 1991, Drumming at the Edge and Planet Drum, they alluded to the beginning of the beat, where the groove started. That was the whole book, it was finding out where the brotherhood and sisterhood of drummers and rhythm came from. I finally wound up, after the Paleolithic and Neolithic, at the beginning of time and space, of the universe, at the big bang. But in those years, there was nothing to really read the big bang … Now I can read it. Once they have any kind of wave form, you can take that wave form and turn it into light, and you can turn it into sound. It was perfect for my cosmology as a percussionist and rhythmist; finding the sound of the beginning of the universe, well I couldn't resist that, that was really sexy. Also, it's the beginning of everything! Creation was a series of events that happened, which spawned the sun, the moon, the earth, and so forth. So all these planetary orbs have a certain kind of resonance, and they each sing their own song, but you have to be able to read that. And to put it into music, you have fun with it … I'm not a scientist, but I love the idea of it all and I know more about science than I ever thought I would—astrophysics and all that—because I've been immersed in it for about three years now. So I'm quite familiar with the subject. And it's fun playing with a whole new palette of colors, feelings. This is the oldest music in the world, you could look at it in those terms.

It must be a lot of fun playing with all those different types of sounds.

It's fun, and it's meaningful on a lot of levels.

How do the sounds of the universe translate to the live show?

Well that's a good question; we had to take on a very complex project and simplify it and make it so it's fun. So I have device called RAMU (Random Access Musical Universe) which controls and can change all of the database from the universe for all of these sounds. I draw that up on pads, just pressure sensitive things that I touch. And the whole band is dedicated to emulating and playing into the deep space, so it's a different kind of approach to the music. Robert Hunter wrote some beautiful songs, just wonderful lyrics and we just married them together and we all walk together on the stage in a very magical way.

How is it collaborating with Hunter after decades of working together?

Hunter is irreplaceable. He's a singularity, we know each other very well and he's a great wordsmith. We know each other, and that's really important, it's just a connection you have with another artist. Hunter is an amazing resource.

Have you kept the format of two drummers on stage for the show?

It's actually three. Sikiru (Adepoju) plays talking drum and Inkx Herman plays the traps and I play RAMU and the drums, Gawain Matthews plays guitar, and Crystal Hall and Dave Schools on bass, and Ben Yonas on keyboards … they're playing a lot of the universal sounds.

What was it like when you first started hearing these sounds?

It was profound when I first heard the big bang. See, it's not music, it's noise, so after you sonify it you have to make it into something pleasant, something that's pleasurable, which is music. But when you first find it, like the big bang was very important because it was what created everything, what filled the blank page of the universe with planets and stars and so forth, so that was very profound. Listening to pulsars became very interesting for a while because they have, of course, a pulse; a supernova star giving off energy pulses. You can actually play with them. They sometimes have what you or I would call a rhythm. So once you get them you have to turn them into something really cool and interesting. It's great exercise, a great challenge and it's new music.

What were the methods of converting these things to sounds and music?

There were many different ways; you can expand it, contract it, you can raise it in pitch, lower it in pitch … It's kind of like the wild west—there's no tuning system, so whatever you find you can put wherever you want in the audible range of human hearing … Pythagoras called it the "music of the spheres"; he saw the universe as a musical instrument, I believe in that same kind of order.

How long have you been working on the album?

Well first you have to develop the concept. Then you have to gather the sounds of the universe then convert them to songs and Hunter had to put the words to it then you have to find the musicians to play it, so I think it was about a three year run. The album really didn't take that long to make, the idea was to translate the sound and make it work in the music for it to be a meaningful work of art as well as something pleasurable to dance to. [You have to] be able to let it take you where music takes you. I didn't want to co
mpose a space opera of just isolated sounds; it wasn't like a new age kind of effort, it's a dance, man, it throbs and it pulses. That's what this band does.

For the recording of the album, was the band together in the studio or were parts recorded separately?

Mostly it was live in the studio; some overdubs, but all the sounds were pretty well live in the studio.

Are you excited to start the tour?

We're gearing up for it; we're in preparation for it. We are going to try out a lot of new material—the band is ready to rock and roll.

By – Matthew Riley

Buffalo Spree