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King of Rhythms

Catching up with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, still on that long, strange trip

Grateful Dead drummer, solo artist and rhythm scholar Mickey Hart is on the phone and ready to talk about any aspect of his long and storied career, in particular Spirit into Sound, his 1999 album and its companion piece, a book of the same name that is a collection of inspirational and provocative quotes about music. But before we go any further, Hart wants to know one thing: Is it true that his Bay Area buddy Sammy Hagar is, shall we say, inordinately famous in St. Louis?

Bet you a case of Mas Tequila -- Hagar's tequila company -- it's a fact, Mickey.

Interestingly, the Red Rocker actually played a significant role in bringing Spirit into Sound (the book) into existence. Hart had been collecting random quotes about music -- its origin, power and cosmic implications, from sources as varied as Miles Davis, Son House and (no kidding) the Ayatollah Khomeni -- for more than two decades. He faxed a sample of the quotes to Hagar, whom Hart describes as a "reader and a spiritual player." Hagar was intrigued, and Hart decided that "if Sammy liked it, everyone will."

Mickey Hart: His passion boils down to the beauty of rhythm, whether it's the sound of his own heart beating or the sound of a single solitary drum.
Mickey Hart: His passion boils down to the beauty of rhythm, whether it's the sound of his own heart beating or the sound of a single solitary drum.

Hart is something of a spiritual player himself, and during the downtime of his 30 years with the Grateful Dead, he released a number of solo albums -- some of them with his Planet Drum ensemble, with which he'll perform on May 27 at the Firehouse. He also wrote two previous books, Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion and Planet Drum: A Celebration of Percussion and Rhythm.

In explaining the concept of his latest book, Hart speaks with the authority of someone who has spent a lifetime investigating and celebrating sound and how it relates to human consciousness. "How do you turn a spirit into a form? That's what it's really all about," he says. "Spirit is invisible. You can feel it, but can't touch it. It's a mysterious energy. In the case of the sound shapers, the musicians, it's sound. That's the commodity that we're dealing with. Hence, spirit into sound -- how do we turn our feelings into something that's tangible, that we can share with another person?

"It's also about the magic of music because it is magic. We can't explain this alchemical thing, this energy we call music. It does something to our hearts and our brains, and it makes us feel a certain way. How that works exactly, well, science is beginning to weigh in on that -- the physiology of it, how sound affects the physical being."

Hart's book is meant to show that there are any number of explanations for such questions, each of them worth further contemplation. "In the book, you see everybody from Plato to Confucius to the Ayatollah Khomeni weighing in on the power of music, whether positive or negative. Here is the testimony of all the great thinkers, and maybe some not-so-great thinkers, but they all saw that shaft of light for a few seconds. A good quote is hard to find, you know? I've been through thousands of 'em, and these are the cream of the crop, the tastiest fruit from the top of the tree. You won't find any lame biblical quotes here. I mean, I don't want to offend any Christians out there, but music and the Bible were never a big thing."

For the Spirit into Sound album, Hart attempted to create a sort of soundtrack for the book, just as Drumming at the Edge of Magic and Planet Drum also had accompanying CDs. "Any book about music without music is mute," Hart says. "(The album) is what I was thinking musically while I was compiling the quotes. It has a spiritual side to it, a Zen kind of soft side -- a low vibe, if you will."

That softer side of Hart's work comes as something of a surprise. After all, his teeth-rattling duets with fellow Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann were often highlights of the Dead's marathon concerts, and his solo albums have emphasized the power of rhythm more than its subtleties. Spirit into Sound is a definite departure from all that. "It's just what's been going through my consciousness lately," Hart says. "I've been toying with scales from around the world, and a lot of these sounds have been put into my computer. I'm accessing them and creating scales from different parts of the world with these unique instruments that normally only have one or two notes to them. Using my computer, I can put these into incredibly ornate scales. That's what I'm toying with right now. I've been doing a lot of research into the world's music over the last few years, and this is sort of a walk in the park for me.

"Also, I was thinking nature thoughts when I composed this music. A lot of my thoughts were involved with nature spirits, so it was calm and soft and loving. A come-hither sort of thing. Instead of beating you over the head with a big backbeat, I thought I'd seduce you a bit here. Because that's what it did to me, with the panpipes, the flutes, and all the softer sounds from Indonesia and Brazil, and all these exotic instruments. Now, for the first time, I was able to manipulate them into these unusual and soft zones. You don't have to play a drum hard to get a beautiful sound out of it. Normally, we play the drums too hard. I just wanted to explore the soft side for one CD."

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