Behind the Magic: Bill Kreutzmann & Mickey Hart Talk To Billy Martin

Billy Martin on May 7, 2021
Behind the Magic: Bill Kreutzmann & Mickey Hart Talk To Billy Martin

On the occasion of Bill Kreutzmann’s 75th birthday we share this piece, which originally ran in the Feb/March 2009 issue of Relix.

Over the years, many friends and fans have expressed their experiences witnessing the Grateful Dead in concert as transcendent. I always wondered what it was that made it so magical. I always assumed LSD probably had a profound influence. However, after speaking with the band’s two drummers, Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, light has been shed on plenty of The Other Ones.

Most of you reading this article probably have had more experience as fans of the Dead than I have – you don’t need me telling you what they’re about. But, having the chance to talk to both of them and getting exposed to their personalities, it gave me an inside look at their basic philosophy: the sum is greater than its parts.

We – Medeski Martin & Wood who I play drums for – opened for The Others Ones, as they were known then, at Oakland Arena New Year’s Eve, 2002. I felt the collective love in the arena, onstage and backstage – the band’s well-crafted magic was in the air. The fans were very warm, as were the crew and band. Some of the events backstage that made it special were Chris Wood losing his slide piece and one of the crew giving him Jerry’s to use. And, as we were going onstage, Mickey saw me with a Brazilian cuica instrument and yelled some kind of supportive gesture, which I couldn’t make out but, whatever it was, the supportive vibe continued.

Photo by Danny Clinch

I actually remember Mickey Hart more as an ethnomusicologist having attended one of his seminars back in the ‘80s. I was in my early 20s living in New York City, digesting as much music as possible, especially African and Brazilian. His knowledge of world music really impressed me and made me want to pack up and start traveling to these far off, vanishing musical worlds. More importantly that evening, he indirectly introduced me to the writer and philosopher Joseph Campbell, who in turn, saved my life. Campbell made me understand an artist’s place in this world when I was in dire need of direction. And, in interviewing Mickey now, I could hear the effect Campbell may have had on him in his poetic and philosophical responses to my questions.

As for Bill Kreutzmann, to me he always sounds like a humble magician who’s not afraid to lose the beat for the bigger musical picture. And I say “hooray” for that! He seems selfless and genuinely interested in what other musicians are doing. I definitely recommend listening to the fantastic Rhythm Devils music for the film Apocalypse Now. For me, that is what I got from these guys many years ago, without even realizing it was them.

Many people say that Bill and Mickey’s chemistry onstage is what gives the Dead its unique magic. In talking with them, they both believed they learned that unique way by listening to the others in the band and growing from that. I got the feeling that they are still growing and very open to the idea of conjuring up some more magic this spring.

Editor’s note: Billy Martin was to interview Kreutzmann and Hart together, but with the former running late, Hart spoke at length about his musical relationship with his fellow Dead drummer. Curiously, when Kreutzmann finally called in, Hart felt he had said enough and promptly left the call.

Where you are now?

Hart: Northern California, in the middle of a forest.

I’m in New Jersey.

The weather is great here. That’s one of the things about the East Coast—you’ve gotta be a hardy soul.

I have this plot of land with a yard and bamboo grove and a tree house. When you live in the city you understand the importance of that.

I know that. My grandma had tulips in this little patch. So what are you up to?

Got some time off from tour. Just been spending time with my kids, doing some film and art stuff.

How did you get roped into doing this?

It’s those crazy guys at Relix. They thought I’d be the perfect drummer to interview you. I’m honored. I’m a fan, you know. I was going to wait for Bill to get on, but we might as well just talk.

He’s probably peeling his last pineapple of the morning. He’s only on his second pineapple. He loves water, I love forest. We’re different. That’s what makes this whole thing special. Because the one thing we agree on is the rhythm of things.

You two have the perfect chemistry; different personalities is what it’s all about. A lot of young people think they need to emulate each other, but really it’s important to complement each other.

Be larger than life. That’s where the magic is. We’ve been playing for over 40 years and nothing feels quite like playing with Bill. He’s an amazing drummer. He’s the center of The Dead, the anchor. I move around in my way. Bill and I had to adapt a whole symbiotic thing. The visionary bass things that Phil was coming up with at first were unnerving, but in a way he really made us what we are with his bass styling. And we really liked each other from the start. We lived together as brothers with drums in the early years, and that was that idea of bonding and the idea of making this telepathic and taking it out of language. The language that Bill and I share is not spoken – it’s body language, winks and movement. It’s telepathic… It’s a secret language that we cannot describe.

It’s a unique relationship that I’m sure took work.

More drummers should play together but you have to have willing participants. You have to consider the band. We’re on the front line all the time, jamming. We drop the one just to see how they’ll jump. We’ll throw out something and it’s like, “Oh my god, what is Bob [Weir] going to do?” And you watch him and you listen to him. Then you’re like, “What is Phil going to do?” You look over at him and he’ll either wink or nod or do absolutely nothing at all. He knows what’s going on and the game is, “Is anyone going to care? Is everyone going to just let it go?” So Bill will get half of the guys to go his way and the other half will just pick me off and I’m on another pulse, I’m on a three and he’s on a four and we’re revolving. It’s like being on a magic carpet… The idea is when anything comes back there has to be some initial statement of musical intent that has to be reinstated by another musician. Then we’re really getting back to Earth – back to what we call music, organized sound, as opposed to jamming and freeform. All of these nuances that really are the basis.

Sure, there’s technique but I don’t want to talk about technique – everyone should have technique or they shouldn’t be playing. Technique isn’t the primary ingredient that you need in order to play with another drummer in conversation as opposed to just beating out parts. There is a difference between having a dialogue than Bill playing all the straight parts and I play all the cowbells – no, it’s way deeper. You have to give and take. There is so much nuance in doing what we think is right and that’s something that is very elusive because what’s right one night might not be the next. Me and Bill have decided, not in the spoken language, but we both know what’s really good.

We have certain sensibilities that make for a perfect union, I wouldn’t call it a marriage. I never married Bill. Sure being in the Grateful Dead is like being married, but we’re partners, we’re linked forever. Nothing will ever come between us. We’re the only ones who do that thing. So when I go off and play with Zakir [Hussain] or Giovanni Hidalgo – these are the greatest drummers in the world but I get a different feeling. It’s wonderful and glorious and I love playing in Global Drum Project. By the way, it’s been nominated for a Grammy in the world music category. We won the first Grammy in that category in ‘91. But it’s still so much different with Bill. Sometimes I just sit back and listen to him because it’s breathtaking. It’s beyond words. When he’s playing he’s playing.

That’s so poetic. I gotta see you guys this spring – it sounds beautiful.

Damn, it’s beautiful! It’s a rhythmic miracle. I play with other drummers – the best – and it’s wonderful, but it’s different. They are as good as musicians can ever be, but I am not complete. Now I’m complete because I have my love: my rhythm machine. Things are really great. This is a really wonderful year. As you know we’re going out next year and we’re going to have at it. We’re in a really great place in our heads and happy in our lives. This is also rhythmic entrainment. Just being good onstage that isn’t enough. We wanna go some place marvelous and miraculous the only way you can do it is by bringing all the good vibes you can muster and that good feeling, it’s the bottom line. You can’t play good rhythm unless you are filled with love. No way. You wanna play good rhythm you gotta have love. All the stuff that hippies say and all the stuff the Dead is all about. I mean I’m getting old, I’m 65 but I think I’m 40 or something. You gotta really train and get in shape for touring. We play for four hours a night. I wanna play like I’m 40 so when I hit the stage I’ll be smiling. I feel good! I feel good! Wooohooo! And it’s early in the morning.

You sound in really good spirits.

Man, I’m in great spirits. Drumming, all daydreaming about drums. You know about that. It doesn’t always happen. You have problems in life; you’re daughter wants to go to another school or something, whatever, financial problems, the Earth is dying. Whatever. If you don’t got it how you gonna give it? If you don’t got the good feeling how you gonna share it? It’s about getting all these guys’ hearts beating at once and taking the energy they raise and going out into the world and doing good with it that is the ultimate payoff. I’m not interested in the good performance, it’s gotta be emotional. Otherwise I have failed. I know when Bill gets up on the stage and he’s got that look in his eyes that it’s within reach – It’s really important to bring to the music everything you want it to give other people. If you don’t it’s not powerful spiritual material. We’re specialists in that. We try to go to those spiritual zones. We spent our whole lives trying to go there as opposed to repeating ourselves endlessly. We tried but we couldn’t do it. It’s a different payload. You miss this and miss that, but if the spirit is there it becomes powerful spiritual material. Our ritual is powerful. It’s about being real, it’s not about playing “St. Stephen.” Anyone can play “Truckin’.” It’s not about that. It represents something else. It represents a whole other plain of thought and emotion. When I approach the stage that’s the payoff, and I do this for fun. Don’t get me wrong this is not some spiritual Jihad, but I have been accused of world domination. I’m done!

Photo by Danny Clinch
[Bill Kreuztmann joins the conference call.]

Bill Kreutzmann: I’m here

Hart: You were eating your second pineapple.

Kreutzmann: I’m really sorry to be late, it was an accident.

Hart: I just raved about you. So it was good you couldn’t hear it. Think I said it all.

Kreutzmann: Who else is on board here?

Hart: Billy Martin. I’ve been talking to him.

Kreutzmann: Oh, hey Billy. I love your band.

I’m really honored to be talking to you.

Kreutzmann [to Hart]: You really wanna head out?

Hart: Yeah, I said my thing. But if you want me to stay on I will.

Kreutzmann: That’s okay. I can’t wait to play together…

So Mickey was just saying how tight your chemistry is and he’s been really poetic in his description.

Kreutzmann: Like I’m an eight-million-armed drummer?… Yeah, we play so differently from each other. I play with a traditional set which I love and I put some different symbols on there and stuff and do some electronic drums on the side where I can get really good jam-based sounds or whatever sounds I wanna do. It’s never really planned out.

I’m interested in your different personalities. You can’t have a good conversation if you’re clones. Did you always have this chemistry or did you work on it?

We worked on it and it evolved. As the music evolved so did the style. We started playing rudimentary stuff together just to make sure we were on the same page, then we’d open it up more. Mickey was really inspirational to me. I was playing with the band and I met him at The Fillmore West and we went outside to the car and he taught me all this great stuff that I put in my bag of tricks. Yeah, it’s all part of your vocabulary. Where did you learn yours?

I grew up in New York City and my first teacher was my brother, who was learning to play drums. When he put them away, I pulled them out. My dad was a violinist, and he had a friend who knew a drum teacher who was a student of [Dave Brubeck drummer] Joe Morello. So that natural technique was helpful in the beginning. From then it got more creative/jazz style.

I listened to a lot of African. I grew up in Palo Alto [California] and would listen to a lot of records in my room and I’d be the first guy at the record store getting the latest record. I had this teacher who was becoming a physicist at Stanford and he lived right by Stanford University on Perry Lane, which was next door to Ken Kesey, who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I was just 13, so I wasn’t aware of this at the time, he was just another college student. But my drum teacher’s apartment was completely decorated in Hawaiian palm trees and green and there were drums everywhere and after my 30-minute lesson he’d let me play that set for hours and I finally bought a drum set from the cat.

You also met Aldous Huxley when you were young, right?

Yep. I went to prep school in Arizona, and when I was in seventh grade, they let me have my drum set in the barn, so that after class I could go play. One day the headmaster and this guy who couldn’t see very well – who happened to be Aldous Huxley – walked into the auditorium and the headmaster gives me the shush sign. He put his thumb up to his mouth and I obeyed. Then the guy next to him is like, “No, keep playing.” Not only did you brush shoulders with one of the greats, but he was like, “Keep playing!” I was too young to really appreciate it… He was a psychedelic kind of guy. The farthest-out thing that ever happened to the Grateful Dead was that we all took acid together. It was really cool. It’s not something we do today but it really opened us up for playing and not making so many rules. I really like what John Coltrane said: “Damn the rules.” I’m getting to play with my new trio and it’s just a kick.

Yeah, with [Allman Brothers Band bassist] Oteil [Burbridge].

Yeah. You know Oteil?

Yeah. That must be a blast.

Yeah, he can do no wrong, that guy has such big ears. He suggests something and it becomes part of the moment. We’re a trio just like you guys.

Are you just collaborating? Is it a collective thing?

It’s totally a collective thing. We’re writing pretty fast. It’s not like a chore or anything. We got 12 new tunes in about seven days. We’re going to try to do some recording.

That’s great. I can’t wait to hear it.

Yeah, [Robert] Hunter writes some incredible words. He’s a master poet and he’s underrated, unless you know about the Dead, then of course you probably know him.

I want to talk about your artwork. I saw a bunch of your art and there is a bunch I really dug. Like these striped masks. One is a skeleton with like a circuit board tattooed on.

I drew the skull then drew the circuit board mask and laid it where the skull was. I use Photoshop. What do you use? I know you’re an artist.

I love to play around with imaging, too, but for some reason more of my improvising comes out with oil pastels and paper. It’s a little bit painterly and you get these mistakes that happen. Now that I’m in to film I’m really into tying in my artwork digitally. I’m not a purist. But I love your artwork. Are you going to have a show?

There’s a store in Fort Collins that sells a lot of musician art. I’ve done shows a couple years ago but not now. I’m playing music now. I usually do one or the other. It’s hard to have it all. I did the artwork because I was frustrated with my life. I’m not now.

That’s funny. That’s how it came about with me. I was touring and I was in Europe and I was in my hotel all depressed and I started drawing. You gotta transcend the depression by expressing yourself or you will kill yourself.

I learned Photoshop on the road. I knew Garcia knew about it and he came into the room and told me about it and it was all over from then. With a person’s imagination you can do anything you can think of. You just have to figure out how to do it. That’s what I love about art and music. I’ve always been a drummer.