Mickey Talks About His New Band and “Mickey Hart Collection” Re-releases
by Blair Jackson
It seems as though there’s always something to talk about in Mickey Hart’s universe. The Busy One has been working in the studio on an album with his dynamic new band, and at the end of November will embark on a big West and Midwest tour with the group.
Equally exciting, though, is The Mickey Hart Collection—Smithsonian Folkways’ re-release of 25 albums Mickey originally shepherded for a series that began more than two decades ago called The World. This astonishing repository of world music spans several decades, comes from many cultures, and also brings back into print some of Mickey’s own most-loved titles, including Dafos, The Apocalypse Now Sessions and Music to Be Born By. In the Mickey Hart Collection you’ll find long out-of-print titles by friends-of-the-Dead such as Babatunde Olatunji, Airto and Hamza El-Din, Mickey’s amazing recordings made during the Dead’s fabled 1978 trip to Egypt, the other-worldly chanting of the Gyuto monks, old and more recent recordings from Bali, and fascinating excursions featuring the Kaluli people of the New Guinea rain forests, the Yoruba from West Africa, recordings of Indian music masters, Native American tribes and much more. The albums are being offered for download and CD-on-demand through Smithsonian Folkways, and for a limited time at the same site you can download 10 FREE tracks from the Collection. Check it out—this stuff will bend your mind!
On October 6, Mickey and I hooked up by phone to talk a bit about the new band and to discuss the Mickey Hart Collection and some of his field recording experiences over the years.
I was really impressed when I saw your new band at The Independent in SF a while back.
I’m glad to hear that. We’re really cookin’. We’ve actually gotten a lot better since then.
Y’know there’s a real, dare I say, commercial sound to some of that material, but in a good way. Some of it reminds me of Peter Gabriel, for instance.
Someone else said that, too.
Well, Tim Hockenerry’s voice is a little Gabrielesque at times, and obviously there’s the whole rhythmic world music undercurrent in there…
It’s a good comparison. But of course we’re not trying to imitate him in any way. But I can see why someone might say that.
So you guys have been in the studio recording?
We recorded almost all the basics [for an album], believe it or not, in four days. I’m telling you—I’ve never done a record that fast! Before this, my quickest record was Planet Drum, which was all first takes that we then worked with. We did that in about five or seven days. But with this one, having the basics done in four days—that’s light speed for me! [Laughs] Mystery Box took me a year.
Is it just because the band knows the material so well already?
No, it’s not that so much. But this really is a great band. I’ve been choosing these people really slowly and carefully and wisely, and the sensibilities all match up. Nothing is forced. We’d just take a couple, three takes of each song and it’s been really smooth. I keep listening back wondering “What’s wrong with this?” [Laughs] I’m not used that.
Do you think we’ll see an album next year?
Oh yeah, you will. I’m actually shooting for the end of November for it to be done and mixed and then it should hit the streets in February.
It’s really been beyond my expectations. I’ve always loved the ensemble, and these are real ensemble players; all of them. Some of them can step out and be extraordinary soloists, too, but they’re not pompous and self-righteous players. I love the [vocal] blend of Crystal [Monee] and Tim.
I really like your guitarist, Gawain Matthews. He’s so fluid in so many different styles.
Yeah, he’s all over the map. He can play lead, rhythm, slide, and he’s not an egomaniac! He chooses his notes and he doesn’t feel forced to play every second if he’s not hearing something he wants to play. He’s also loose enough to drift, which you need in this music.
And now we’ve got ol’ Bass Mountain—Dave Schools [of Widespread Panic]—coming out on tour with us and that’ll be fantastic! He’s in love with this band and we’re in love with him. He’s playing his ass off.
I know you’ve only played a handful of gigs so far, but how did they seem to go over?
Everybody I’ve talked to seems really over-the-top about this band. In fact, this is just about the best reaction I’ve ever gotten from any of my enthusiasms. Hunter really hit it on the head with these new songs. He came backstage after the show in Napa and he was really excited. That really meant a lot to me. See, I don’t play him the songs until they’re done and we play them live. I don’t play them for him when they’re in progress or anything. I give him the music, he gives me the words…
So you give him grooves?
Oh yeah. That’s how it works with me and him.
And some of these were a little more specific because I’ve been using the sounds of the cosmos. So this batch was a bit more focused, as opposed to my saying, “OK, here’s a melody, here’s a rhythm, go after it.” Maybe half the time I’ll give him a [possible lyric] theme, and half of those times he follows the theme and half of the time he just throws it away and writes what he wants. [Laughs] It’s all good! I tell him where my head’s at and if he likes it and thinks it will work, he does it. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. It works just fine.
Let’s talk about the Mickey Hart Collection. How would you characterize this extremely diverse collection of music for someone who doesn’t know a lot of this music?
Oh, that’s tough. I don’t think I could generalize about it in that way. It’s all music that stirred my soul and reached inside me, to the point that I wanted to find more of it however I could. Some of it came to me, some of it I went to and recorded. Really, it’s the world’s music—including rare stuff that’s part of the Endangered Music Project— and it covers decades. Some of it goes back to the ’30s, which of course I didn’t record. The music I recorded in the field is the highest resolution. It was Nagra [the top-of-the-line field recorder for many years]. You know me and Nagra!
They call you Dr. Nagra…
The evil Dr. Nagra to you! [Laughs]
Do you find that you have a closer relationship to the music you personally recorded?
Sure, when you’re actually there recording the music yourself it’s incredible. There’s nothing like it! But I love the stuff I didn’t record, too. Let’s take Music for the Gods, the music of Bali [recorded in 1939]. I fell in love with [Balinese] gamelan music a long time before I found this particular music in the Library of Congress. I went through over a hundred hours to find that one hour [on the CD], so you get to be really inside a music when you listen to it over and over again. It was like that with all of these.
All I really wanted back when I first started doing some of these field recordings, was to be able to take the tapes to The Barn [his home studio in the ’70s and early ’80s], smoke a joint, sip some cognac and listen to the Nagra master of the greatest music in the world. I never thought of releasing it back in the day. I was more interested in making sure the music was being preserved. Once in a while I would give somebody a cassette for their birthday or if they were having a baby. Bit I had no commercial plans for any of it. But I knew it was magic music and they needed help getting their music out to the world. Maybe it was an elitist thing at the beginning—me wanting to hear it in private.
But I also loved that adventure of going out a recording in the field—like that first adventure with Weir that never happened…
What happened there?
It was at the San Francisco Zoo. In 1967, Bob and I were high on acid and he said, “Let’s go to the zoo and record the animals on the full moon!” “Yeah, man, great idea!” [Laughs] Neither one of us knew how to record in the field. So I went over to Owsley’s house and told him I needed his mono Nagra and—it’s amazing thinking back on it that the Bear gave me his Nagra and showed me how to use it: “Here, I’ll put the tape on for you, and here’s and RE-15—one mic,” and he gave me about 30 feet of mic line to do a two-foot job.
So we’re lugging it there and then Bobby and I are sneaking up at the gate and we start climbing the gate and mic line starts getting tangled on the gate...
You mean you were breaking in at night?
Yeah, breaking in at night! We had to do it during the full moon. So then my pants get caught and we’re laughing hysterically and just when we get to the other side, a guard comes up with his flashlight and that was that. They opened the gate and we were escorted out. So my first recording in the field was a total failure. But it piqued my interest and made me realize maybe it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought! [Laughs]
So what was your first true ethnic recording experience?
It was Indian music. It might have been Ali Akbar Khan over in Berkeley, where he had a house when he first came over from India. I think it was an Ali Akbar Kahn class. It was in a bedroom in this house. When I got it home, I noticed you couldn’t hear the tabla that well, so when I went back the next time I brought a stereo Nagra Owsley had just gotten and a couple of 15-inch speakers Owsley loaned me, and I had two Mac 75 tube amps and a tiny little [mixing] board and two RE-15s, one for the tablas and one for the sarod; the tamboura just bled in. So I did two mics stereo and went straight into the Nagra at 15 ips. I said [to Khan], “If you ever want to do anything with the tape you can. I just want to listen to it.” I did it for nothing, they got the best recording they ever had gotten of their music, and I got to go back to the studio and listen to the virtuosos playing this incredible music. I never thought of releasing it until Don Rose and Arthur Mann [of Rykodisc Records] made me an offer I couldn’t refuse—they said they would finance anything I did. They had heard Diga [Mickey’s 1975 recording with the Diga Rhythm Devils]and really loved it, I guess.
So that’s how “The World” got started? Boy telling Mickey Hart he can do “anything” is pretty dangerous…
[Laughs] That’s right! “OK, I want to record the Koran and also the Torah and the Talmud, 14 CDs apiece.” They said OK, so I said: “Great, you’re my company!” [Laughs]
But you never got to the Koran and the Torah…
I tried twice and I was thwarted.
You mean you had people actually reading those books into a recorder?
Yeah. There are different versions out there. Some read it and some semi-sing it. I went over to Egypt [in the ’80s] and a cricket destroyed my first attempt. We were recording in the basement of a mosque outside of Cairo; a beautiful-sounding place. I had arranged for different chanters to come in and record their different styles. So we’re there and I’ve got my headphones on and one of them starts in. [He imitates a chanter] All of a sudden I hear… “Chirp! Chirp-chirp!” What the? There was a cricket somewhere! So I stopped: “Wait a minute! Wait a minute!” And we looked all around and we couldn’t find the damn cricket. But it freaked the singer out—he thought it was the voice of God telling him he shouldn’t be recording this. So that was the first time.
The second time, there was a war going and it was starting to get really hot in that region and my wife said: “Sure, you’re going to go over there, running around Islam—around Cairo and Turkey and other places—with a Nagra, being a nice Jewish kid from New York. No way! You ain’t going nowhere!” I had it all set up! I had four or five countries, all of which have different versions of the Koran, and there was no great recording of the Koran. The ones that were out there were distorted. I wanted to give them their greatest work. And I wanted to do the same thing for the Jews. I wanted a box set, 28 CDs, 14 and 14—that was calculation at the time; I can’t remember how we came uyp with that number. I had all these chanters lined up in four countries. So that’s one I always wanted to do that I didn’t get to do.
You know, in Egypt, when you have the TV on at night, there’s this guy who’s reciting the Koran. He does it all night. I first heard it when I was over there with the Dead [in 1978]. We were eating hashish, staying up all night and listening to this guy going through the Koran. It was really entrancing. That’s when I got the idea. So I started listening to the recordings that were out there, and there weren’t any audiophile recordings. Or in the Jewish tradition. I thought it would be a great gesture. But I guess it’s third-rail stuff politically. I was just a hippie recordist trying to do a good thing for the world.
Well, at least you got to release your recordings from the ’78 trip, which are now part of the Mickey Hart Collection.
The Aswan and Alexandria recordings were put out, but I still haven’t released the café recordings I made. I went up and down the Nile recording music in the cafes It’s great stuff—all these indigenous instruments playing this amazing music for the tourists and the locals. Playing double-reeds; third-eye music, man! [Laughs] People were drinking and having cups of coffee and smoking hash and this wild music was going down. You hear the clinking of glasses and laughter. These guys were really going after it musically. I always had my Nagra with me no matter where I went. If I went into the shower I had my Nagra. If I went to eat I’d have it at my feet, because you never knew where something cool might be.
The final thing [on that trip in ’78] was I went out in the desert outside Cairo, and I was recording a horse. I had made a gauntlet: I had the two microphones and the horse was going to run through the gauntlet and I’d record it. It was the end of my journey. In my mind, that was going to be the close of the Egypt tapes—a horse running through the soundfield. What happened was, when he got right up to the microphone, he stopped short and spun around and kicked up this giant plume of dust! It was like it was in slow motion—I saw the dust go up in the air and slowly come down… right on the Nagra! I jumped on the Nagra as the sand hit and I stopped the reels and I put my whole body over the Nagra. I didn’t even look. I turned off the Nagra, sat there for a minute, took a deep breath, put the case on, put the plastic top on, put it in its holder, wrapped the microphones up, didn’t stay a word—I was in shock. I went back to the hotel, got my stuff went right to the airport, came right back here and immediately took the Nagra into the shop and explained about my terrible accident: “Please clean it up! Please make it right!” [Laughs] So they got all the sand out and even rebuilt some of it. And it ended up being fine. But that was the end of my recording days in Egypt.
Do you feel a kinship with the other folks who have done these sorts of recordings? Fahnestock or David Lewiston or whoever—the community of recordists?
Sure I do! We’re all songcatchers. I wrote a book about them [called Songcatchers: In Search of the World’s Music, published in 2003]. I’m really proud to be part of that world. They’re great heroes and heroines. Some were women: Fahnestock, Henrietta Yurchenko. She was 84 when I met her and she wanted to marry me: “You are like a reincarnation of me!” [Laughs] She had done all the great Peruvian stuff. Laura Bolton was another early one [recording in Africa in the ’30s]. I went back to Jesse Fuchs in 1890 and read his first-hand journals of his recordings. I definitely feel there’s a brotherhood and sisterhood of songctachers.
And you know what — the Dead Heads are in that, as well. Because they caught me. So it was the songcatcher as the songcatch-ee. [Laughs] So even though with those guys it was a pretty cushy setting—we even made space for them to record—they in their own way were another link in the chain. I feel real honored and I feel like I’m in good company.
I’ve also tried to write the wrongs of some songcatchers who copyrighted the music for themselves and didn’t pay royalities. I’ve always made sure that the cultures that spawned the music I was recording got the royalties— when I could find them, if they weren’t nomads. When they were nomads, I’d donate money to put lightbulbs in the Cairo museum or sponsor a music program in Aswan or, in the case of the [New Guinea] rainforest, we give the money to Kaluli. Or the [Gyuto] monks—100 percent of that money goes to the monks in exile.
There’s hundreds more hours where this stuff came from. Hopefully there will be another load of things coming out. I haven’t released the Arctic tapes, or Ali Akbar Kahn or Alla Rakha….
Are the Artic tapes the ones you made up in Alaska when the Dead were up there in 1980?
Yeah, I went up to the Arctic with Rudzo—Ramrod’s kid [Rudson Shurtliff], and Justin Kreutzmann and Creek [Mickey’s son]. They were all under 12 years old.
Were they your roadies?
They were my roadies! We called them the MERT Men—mobile engineering and recording team. We went in by plane and they carried the microphones and mic lines and all that, and we went in igloos and recorded some really great stuff—hoop drumming and singing. I remember one night the sled dogs came in the middle night to eat our food, and I told the kids they were wolves. [Laughs]
I have more stuff that hasn’t been released than has been released. Like, I only released three CDs of the Bali recordings and there’s another 12 more hours behind that.
Are some of these traditions completely gone or so transformed in recent decades that we no longer can really hear the ancient music of these people?
A lot of them have changed through the years. Of course. What happens is you have new players playing old music on old instruments, or new versions of old instruments. And new compositions, too. It’s hard to say.
The only thing I can point to and say that it’s still pretty much the way it was 2000 years ago is the sacred music of Tibet—the monks. Remember, until 1965 when Huston Smith heard their multiphonic chanting, the monks had never been recorded, and before that nothing went in—they had no radio or anything—and nothing went out. That’s some of the only non-fused music on the planet. Even the Kaluli in New Guinea have changed, because they’ve been exposed to guitars and so forth. You go there now and they’re playing charmingly out-of-tune guitars. [Laughs] They still play their indigenous music, too.
But in a place like Bali, some of that old traditional music survives because people heard the early recordings of it. What happened is, during the war the Japanese took the iron gamelans and melted them down to make bullets and weapons, and the tradition sort of disappeared for a while. Later, the young ones came back to it, so it’s not exactly the way it was in 1939 [when Fahnestock recorded Balinese music]. That sort of thing has happened other places, too: the old music was destroyed by war or natural disasters—famines, floods, whatever; the instruments were destroyed or the people who made the music died and there was nobody to replace their knowledge and skill.
Well, that makes having these archives all the more important.
Absolutely. That’s part of the story—a lot of this music was saved in the attics of the world. Take the Fahnestock collection, for instance. There was going to be an event at Town Hall [in Manhattan] to present this music to the world a week after Pearl Harbor [December 1941], but after the bombing that was that—the tapes went up to grandma’s attic and stayed there until the ’90s, when the grandson asked, “Grandma, what are all those old discs up in the attic?” “Well, dear, me and your grandfather and his brother took a schooner and sailed to the South Seas and we recorded the music of the archipelago of Bali and Java in 1939.” “But Grandma, they’re all rotting and have this green stuff on them! Maybe we should give them to somebody to fix them up.”
This sounds like a job for Mickey Hart!
[Laughs] Right! Actually, I found them at the Library of Congress in a box tucked in some corner. I thought: “Balinese music? 1939? Oh, yeeeeeah!” I was a happy guy. It’s been so rewarding to be able to get some of this music out to the public.