Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart is a theologian, a historian/archivist of planetary sounds. He's a big-bang worshiper, an author, and a Grammy-winning deep thinker. Life skims into and through his neurons as quantum physics and vibratory patterns. Leaves rustling on trees are Kepler equations. A quarter left lying on the curb is a portal to a desert world. Hart sees and hears the parallels. He's a traveler who's gone inside his own psyche to reach the outer limits of time and space. As a human, he's a being of and for sound, and he's as experienced a percussionist as you'll come by.
Hart's discography includes 22 albums with the Grateful Dead and 14 solo efforts. In 2000, he joined the board of directors of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function to research the healing, scientific qualities of rhythm and how sound can help people with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. Last month, Smithsonian Folkways and the Library of Congress released a Hart-curated series called "The World," which presents field recordings of musical traditions at risk. Sounds range from a Latvian female choir to Gyuto Monks in Tibet to his son's heartbeat recorded in utero to powwows of North American Indians to Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri rainforest. Hart spoke from the time and space of Sonoma County, Northern California. We talked about Nickelback.
I see you as a seer because of your abilities and experiences playing music, traveling the world, and collecting music. You've gone way in, and out, and looked into a different cauldron of life. You see and hear deeply into the world. What are your latest findings? What are the latest discoveries from Mr. Mickey Hart, Theologian?
I'll tell you. Speaking as Mickey Hart, Rhythmist, it's about the rhythm of things. Everything is interlocked. The world is rhythm. Everything in the world has a vibration. Anything that's alive and moves has a vibration. And if it has a vibration, it has a sound. And if it has a sound, there's an effect emotionally that it can have on you, spiritually perhaps. Whether it be through brain-wave function or something that makes you dance, it's all interconnected. Music is just a miniature for what's happening in the universe and deep space, from the beginning of time 13.7 billion years ago.
I'm trying to explain and allow people inside the vibratory universe. It's the key to everything. Life is rhythm, on simple terms. Like Einstein's theory of relativity: He wanted to boil it down to one little equation. Now I'm working in the cosmos, translating light waves into sound waves, from the big bang to the present. I'm looking at the science of music, as opposed to the art of music.
Light waves from space?
Yes. I'm working with NASA and scientists like George Smoot, who won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for his discovery of the big bang. We're changing radiation light waves into sound waves. Pulsars, galaxies, supernovas, black holes, stars, planets—they all have a vibration. And since space is a vacuum, there's no sound. The only way those vibrations can travel is through light waves. Once we've gathered those with radio telescopes, I take the algorithms and make sound out of it. And that's what this band I'm touring with now is about. The band will be playing these sounds and having a conversation with the universe.
What does it sound like? Whale song? Noise?
It's not noise when I get finished with it. It does come to me as noise. With computers, I make music out of it. It wouldn't be that interesting otherwise: It's very unharmonic, dense sound.
Not exactly. I open the light readings up and extract pieces from it, put it in various keys, and make music out of it. The band plays with it and has a conversation with the infinite universe. You'll be hearing sounds that no human has ever heard before. The sounds that spawned you. These vibrations that are your ancestors.
Holy fucking shit.
These are the seed sounds. This is where we came from. We came from vibrations, then we crawled out of the swamps with myosin proteins helping mobility, and became humans. But it all started with a vibratory origin. Music is controlled vibrations. This music comes from the beginning of time and space.
What is time and space? Why are we here? Are we even here?
Yeah, we're here [laughs]. There are many theories. Like the multiverse, where different times happen at the same time, different realities at the same time in parallel universes. String theorists say time moves backward and forward, and we live in all these dimensions simultaneously—that there are different realms of perception.
Like hallucinogenic drugs.
We're talking right now, but things are happening that we can't perceive. We are alive. And we do live in the past and the future simultaneously. Many levels of perception are available to us if we have the sensors to pick them up.
Do you believe in God?
If there is a god, it has to be a vibration. I don't believe in a god, I believe in a creational force. In my case, it's a rhythm—the beginning of time and space—the big bang, that's my god. Rhythm. There could be something that came before the big bang. Before the beginning of time and space. They say gases came together and caused an explosion, but no one really knows.
Right. So who made God?
God is a human invention. Humans try to explain the universe, which is unexplainable, so we come up with myths and legends, like God as a superior being that created all this. No one out there said, "Let this happen." It happened through a physical event 13.7 billion years ago. Even the Vatican recognizes that now. Organized religion is starting to come to grips with the God stories. Great minds have tried to explain the universe: Plato, Pythagoras, Kepler. Pythagoras gave numerical equations to the planets, the earth, the sun, and the stars. He saw the universe as giant heavenly clockwork. He discovered the octave, the fifth. A lot of the ancients were right, they just didn't have the instruments to measure it.
What do you think about the band Nickelback? That's not vibration. That's marketed, Walmart/Clear Channel schlop.
There are a lot of different sounds for a lot of different kinds of people. It's very much like food. Some people don't like asparagus. Some people can't eat meat. I wouldn't be presumptuous enough to comment on how good or bad Nickelback is or isn't. To some people, maybe it's the sound of God. Some people may think it's noise. And that's the way it should be. There's a lot of need in the world for sound. There are a lot of hardworking musicians out there trying to make good sound. If you don't like it, don't buy it. Then it will go away.
What are some of your findings on Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease?
When someone has a motor impairment, the neural pathways are broken somehow—from disease, a weakened immune system, the aging process, whatever. A lot of things can break the connections. Vibrations reconnect these broken pathways somewhat. We don't know how exactly, but we know that it does. That's the grail. It's like how finding dark matter would be to an astrophysicist or a string theorist—the glue that holds the universe together. Besides protons and neutrinos, 80 percent of the world is dark matter. We don't know what it is, but it's out there. It's the same thing with music. Music is very powerful. It's really only been used for celebration of life, dancing, entertainment, making love, and things like that. But now the therapeutic qualities in music are being noticed. Harnessing those, you have to understand where rhythm came from and where vibration came from. It's the big bang, of course, 13.7 billion years ago. The moment of creation, time, and space, and how it led us to being here, 13.7 billion years later, as Homo sapiens on this blue-green spinning rock. Once you know that, you can start to crack the code. There's like a musical DNA. How it works and how you can repeat it on a daily basis. Very much like a doctor would prescribe medicine. You can also think of music as medicine and prescribe music for certain ailments once we figure out the code. And that's what we're about to do.
The Grateful Dead had the improvisational "space" sections in your shows. Journeys for people on various journeys. What were some of your visions, or things you saw, or thought of, during these sections? Did Jerry Garcia ever turn into a crab or Gandhi or anything?
[Laughs] Jerry looked like a fish a lot. I wouldn't have visions. Sometimes there were colors. I'd put everything out of my head and be totally in the moment. That part of the show was not about thought, it was just about emotional context. Certainly, people and places take on certain characteristics, especially when you're in the zone. The answer to a question you didn't ask—that you almost asked—is that those parts of the shows, we would never talk about them, afterward or before. We'd never arrange them. They were supposed to be what we were feeling right there at that time.
Or the multiple times happening at that time, in the multiverse. Eleven versions of ourselves living simultaneously in 11 existences. In three, I am breakdancing. Like, I'm a state champion breakdancer. In seven, I live falling in a bottomless pit, with a society of fallers made and arranged to fall. In the last one, I'm a tangerine, or a dolphin.
You have to put them completely out of mind afterward, so you can create something original the next night. That's improvisational art—creating a very sophisticated superstructure, then throwing it away. It shows the impermanence of life. If there are any images for me from these sections, that's it—creating the wonderful mandala, then just blowing it away. Gone forever.
Mickey Hart Band play Thurs Dec 1 at Tractor Tavern.