As the house band for author and counter-culture icon Ken Kesey's notorious acid tests, the Grateful Dead made music perfectly suited for mind-bending exploration. With the Mickey Hart Band, the Dead's longtime drummer and Grammy-winning percussionist Mickey Hart continues this fantastic voyage of discovery with his new album, "Superorganism," on which he transforms actual brain waves into music, with the aim of better understanding our brains, ourselves, and the world around us.
Download.com chatted with Hart, between tour dates, about turning brain waves into music therapy on "Superorganism," file sharing, whether spirituality and software can ever work in tandem, and what it was like to be part of perhaps the most mythologized rock band of the 20th century.
So I've read that there is all this neuroscientific work being conducted at University of California, San Francisco that's enabled your work on the "Superorganism" album and tour.
The thing about the Bay Area is that it has the latest technology in many fields. So being able to access brain wave functions, stem cells, DNA, heart rhythms — that's what is happening down there in Mission Bay. It's all biomedicine and very energetic scientists finding the keys to the mysteries of many things, life being one of them; rhythm and vibration is the basis of all life, so it's perfect. The Bay Area has always had a penchant for adventure and innovation, so it was the perfect place for this to be hatched.
Are you hands-on with the software, underlying all of this?
A team of scientists builds the software and I turn that information into music. When it comes to me, after we read the brain, the electrical signals of the brain waves, it comes to me as noise. And then I take that and sonify it and then make it into music. Then words are written by [lyricist and longtime Dead collaborator] Robert Hunter, and I can have a dialog with the microworld, which is the world of the unseen.
The last record was the "Mysterium Tremendum," which dealt with the sounds of the cosmos, but now we have a new technology that allows us to see into the microworld, very discreetly and very accurately, where I'm able to wear an EEG cap during the performance that measures my electrical activity and sets it to visuals. It also allows me to hear it so when I'm standing there I see my brain rotate and all the patterns of it, in color, and am able to hear what it's doing, as well, simultaneously. So that's the bottom line here, in this story, to be able to figure out what those patterns do, what they mean, and how to learn to be interactive with the brain.
When you were producing the album "Superorganism," or are performing in your current stage show, are you very hands-on with the computer?
Absolutely. I have a SounDroid up there and it's called "Ramu" and it stands for Random Access Musical Universe. It's not just the historically standard drum kit, but also it has a very powerful memory bank and is able to recall all this data from the universe from the macro and the micro and to improvise — so the answer would be "Yes."
Do you have a favored software for that?
I use Ableton.
Your new album is titled "Superorganism." What does that word mean to you?
Where it came from is E.O. Wilson wrote a book called "Ants," which won The Pulitzer Prize, and in the book he talks about the ants as one of the most complex organisms on the planet and he goes very deep into the ants.
Recently he wrote a book called "The Superorganism," which talks about not just ants but also different kinds of insects who are very complex and multilayered, which he describes as "superorganisms." So he took me into the world of the ants and the superorganisms and I realized that the brain is rhythm central and the brain is the perfect superorganism, as well. A band is a superorganism, which gave me the idea that being able to create music like this is a superorganism and takes space and time and using sounds of the brain, itself, because in rhythmic terms that's what the whole brain is made of. The central thing of the universe is rhythm and it stands to reason that music is so powerful that it's a replica of what's happening in the macro. It's not just about something we can hear; it's about the vibrating planets, it's about the moon, the sun rising, the tides, circadian rhythms, and vibrations.
What have you uncovered through your sonic research?
Music has plenty of power that we don't know about and we don't know how to control it or use it. This is part of this journey of investigation to be able to codify rhythm or music or a moment of ecstatic enjoyment — or connect a neural pathway for someone who has dementia, and reconnect it to that moment and find out how to repeat it. What does the brain look like before, during, or after an auditory experience? We hardly know anything about the brain; we know more about the ocean.
There are a lot of people out there who use sound apps for mood elevation, relaxation, sleep, etc. Any thoughts on that?
Yeah, it's the healing power of music that's important to me now and the neurology of music and science of music as opposed to the art of music, which is completely different.
Grateful Dead was well known for letting fans record their concerts and share them among fellow Deadheads. What are your thoughts on file sharing today?
It's a very complicated issue. I'd like to give it away but because you have to make a living at it, you have to sell your music somehow. That's your trade. You spent your whole life working at it so you deserve to be compensated. There is a market for new music, but now live performance is the only place to make a living. So I think if they paid money for it to get in, then let them take it with them; that's fine. People should pass it around. They should also buy it when they can or download it, legally. They should do the right thing.
We're working musicians and people have to come to grips with the fact that there are people who love music so much, they'll do anything to make it, because it's so powerful. It should be respected as a great craft and a gift in some ways, because music has a magic to it that is very valuable, as spiritual information.
When fans went to shows, prior to the mobile phone explosion, it was more directly experiential. Now many people have their Smartphones out, either photographing or videotaping the show and posting it all over Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat. How does that feel from a performer's perspective?
There are many ways of enjoying yourself in music and I won't draw the line. With the music that I make, even if it touches one ear and makes a difference, then it's worth it. I know music reaches people on different levels. For some people, it's entertainment and they clap — and I hate clapping, myself. It really disturbs me when I'm playing. Normally I go a whole night without having to hear the people applaud, because they have to applaud at the end of the night to show emotion. But it's more of an experience that I'm looking for, from a deeper place. There are people snapping photos, talking, swaying, dancing, and that's what freedom is all about, man, and that's what music is all about, freedom; so you just watch the rhythm of the people and they tell you whether they got you or not. Sometimes it goes really deep, and I'm looking for the experience that changes someone's life. I'm really after the magic.
For me it's sacred music, where I get my spiritual strength to live and what makes me, me — and makes me whole. For me it's different, because I don't have to make music. I can just sit back and retire and drink beer and watch football games. But I'm in an unusual position, because I have to have it. I'm a sound addict. Sound is very important to me. It's not about music; it's about the science of sound. What does it contain that I don't already know?
Can you describe the experience of playing with Mickey Hart Band?
I've played valleys, bars, and everything in between, and people know that it's not strictly entertainment and that it's a spiritual experience and they let me go where I go. I go where I go every night, differently, and I try really hard to find the magic where it is. Everybody goes on the journey together. We're a good band and we know what we're doing. But there are great and not so great performances, so everyone takes risks. Music is like a gamble, because there is no roadmap for it, because it's really seat-of-the-pants stuff.
I just played a sacred music festival in Israel and someone said "Sacred music?" and I said that sacred music is how it affects you. To a 13-year-old kid, Justin Bieber is sacred music, because they're totally invested and focused on it, and they live for it. It's about what it does to you. I can hear a Tibetan multiphonic choir and that just stops me in my tracks…that can take me to where the gods live. And that's where I'm after every night. I go and talk to the gods. We have conversations and then I come back and transform into something totally different.
It's great that at this time in my life I have the luxury and support of my fans to be able to go out there and do something like this. I so appreciate the people who come out to see me, and people are loving the CD and getting the science of it. They're understanding that it's a probe into the micro of the thing we can't see but the thing that makes us human. If you get a good look inside the body — a microscopic view — you'll see that it's in total rhythm and the patterns are music. I can hear what they look like. I can compose to the patterns. It's interesting, because it's all vibratory in nature and maybe that's why music's in every culture. No other language can explain what you can in music. That's why music is the place to look for remedies and cures; and if music is medicine, this is how you can find it. You'll have to dance with it, play with it, and learn what's going on…and it's fun, man.
You keep mentioning spirituality and I was wondering if you think that spirituality and software can work in tandem?
Oh sure, absolutely, because technology will allow you to explore and probe what makes you, you, and what makes life worth living. Absolutely, I totally buy into that, because we don't have the antennae to be able to see into the micro. The eyes, the ears, the nose, our senses, are all very limited. Technology is the only way to explore what's not known.
I'm not a scientist. I'm a musician and I love sound, rhythm, and music. Right now it's at the beginning where I'm being able to interact with my brain in real time. The brain is everything and there's nothing more important than the brain.
Being part of a band that's been so mythologized for so long, did you ever say to yourself, "Yeah, I'm a great musician, but I'm also just a regular guy on my days off, yet there are all these people around the world who are so devoted to us. What are they seeing?"
That question takes a lot of answering, but I will try to…the music touched us all and that's the bottom line. There was music made that was important in many ways and I realized that and they realized that, and it's something that you shared; you have a bond together. There was magic made and these people were a part of it; and they feel equity in it and I have to say that if it wasn't for them, there'd be no us. You can't just sit around and play for yourself.
Can you describe the experience of playing with the Grateful Dead from the performer's point of view?
I'll tell you, the music in the beginning was really strange. I know and they know that I practiced my craft. I'm a musician first and I got out there and sometimes I became something very powerful and uplifting and I realized that it lives in the same body; but you do change when you perform at that level. You really go out there and channel an energy…and other people in front of you, they paid money, but that wasn't the thing for the Grateful Dead. We were playing from a different place. For us, it was more like musical salvation, in a way. For us, it was church, a sacred act. It was our way of finding out who we were and who everyone else was — and it was the soundtrack to it all. I recognize all of that. And sometimes when we're all together, something happens that is larger than the parts. It won't happen unless there's a certain combination. The thing that we had was telepathic and it was magical, so music does have those places you can go to, but that was very special. A deep Grateful Dead groove — it explains everything that couldn't be explained.
-By Josh Rotter