The Core: Mickey Hart on Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter and the New _RAMU_
For RAMU, his first studio album since before Fare Thee Well, the Grateful Dead’s global-music scholar fuses his trademark percussive dance beats, a set of fresh Robert Hunter lyrics and some lost Jerry Garcia recordings with the help of Tank and the Bangas’ Tarriona “Tank” Ball, Animal Collective’s Avey Tare and many others
ON THE HIGH SEAS
With RAMU, it feels like I’ve been out on the high seas for three and a half years. The winds, the rain, the laughter— all of that goes with longdistance recording. And it was eventful, quite a journey. It started off as a dance version of a percussion record with these exotic instruments and wound up differently as a song record. I don’t think I’ve worked on a recording this intense before and I’ve been part of a lot of them. This one is filled with lots of detail, lots of wonderful grooves.
And then, [Robert] Hunter delivered what I consider the motherload. Once he started throwing these lyrics across my bow, there was no way I could look back. They were so there; they said everything I wanted to say. This was through all of the Trump madness and all of that leading up to it. And when Trump came along, well, that was my greatest inspiration.
MAKING AMERICA GRATEFUL AGAIN
The damndest thing about Hunter is he writes from a place that’s very prophetic. He could write about something that you don’t really understand—metaphorically or otherwise—just beautiful prose and poems and wordplay. And then, all of a sudden, you run into a situation that you can’t explain in life and one of Hunter’s lines explains it perfectly. That is genius; that is magic. So when you’re faced with that, you can’t turn away from it. It’s just like the Grateful Dead—once you see those words, the music flows. And the words become part of the music. I call it “the magic.” It’s dangerous stuff because you don’t know where it will lead, but I like danger in music. There should be a struggle to it. It should have everything that life contains.
And then, all of a sudden, Trump came around and, my God, I can’t imagine any artist not being inspired by Mr. Trump. He’s gut-wrenching. So I started to scream, and the only way I scream is through the music. Hunter wrote a lot of this stuff before Trump—I don’t see it as being totally political, although it says things about politics and about all of the things that I find amazingly destructive, disturbing and life-threatening about the existence of somebody like a Mr. Trump. He comes from a place that inspires the best in you, actually. How can you fight something like that? How can you live with it? How can you turn that energy into something good? Trump had a great influence on me—not necessarily in the best of ways.
OLD AND NOT IN THE WAY
The other part of this album is just feel-good dance music. My attempts to mix lyrics and dance music have been semi-successful in my mind, some more than others. But that’s not been my forte. As you know, percussion and bass music are my first loves. This record has a lot of rhythm. Zakir Hussain, Giovanni Hidalgo, Sikiru Adepoju—all of my Planet Drum mates—are all over this. And now, in the days where digital technology has caught up, you can actually perform on these robots and sound droids using the latest technology; combine that with many of my pet sounds from over the years that I’ve been holding and saving—things I’m emotionally tied to, whether they be grooves, sounds or rhythms—and voila! I also reached back in history to some of my favorite archival recordings from over the years that I’ve fallen on.
As a trustee at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, I’m exposed to the world’s music. And also, I’m on the board of directors at Smithsonian Folkways. So I was able to embed these amazing sounds from the past in this new electric music. I took an old 1944 Alan Lomax recording from Tampa, Florida for “WINE, WINE, WINE,” and “Auctioneers” was a recording of an auctioneer selling tobacco. I’m hoping to bring awareness to these recordings from around the world.
Someday, I’d like to take RAMU on the road—take it out to sea and see what it does. Thinking about when I go out live, I might want to use Jason [Hann of The String Cheese Incident and EOTO] because of his electronic sensibilities and also because of his very powerful backbeat. I’ve played with Jason over the years, and he’s joined The Rhythm Devils a few times—he’s a solid drummer. I asked him to come in and do a little double drumming, pepper the record and reinforce my parts—that added a little more weight to them.
Jerry and I both liked the studio. He would come out to my place and just pick. And, of course, when you come to my place, it’s about recording. I was the first one of us to have a studio back in the late-‘60s, even though we didn’t have any money. So around ‘86 or ‘87, when he started learning his new MIDI guitar, he’d come over and just pick. I would be turning knobs and he’d be sitting there, playing and responding to what we called “the scroll,” which is just moving through sounds until we’d find the ones that we loved.
Walter Cronkite was a dear friend of mine for 27 years, and he asked me to do this thing for the America’s Cup in 1987. So I called up Jerry, Carlos Santana and Zakir Hussain, and we had these sessions around the same time. I forgot about the recordings until one of my archivists found all of these beautiful Jerry tracks. I brought those back into two songs [“Time Beyond Reason” and “Jerry”]. So you can hear his sweet guitar and the MIDI signal, which could be a bassoon, a flute or other instruments. You can look at Jerry as indigenous, in a way.
I have these miniature donkeys [on my property], and they make these amazing sounds. We have a pond with a frog and I have my Sony recorder with me almost all the time, recording everything. I think there are 30 of my field recordings in the Mickey Hart Collection at the Smithsonian. You can find out everything about a culture through its music—like talking books. That has always been a fond thing for me.
My mom had inherited a Count Basie/Duke Ellington collection from one of her relatives, and in the middle of it were these 78s— it was pygmy music, rainforest music from Africa and so forth. I fell in love with those charming, out-of-tune voices— they never let me go. When I was a kid, I was foraging and hunting, and, like the pygmies, I took on that persona. Even though I was young and didn’t understand why, I was attracted to it. The walls used to just disappear. I lived in a very small place. When you put these recordings on, you transform into a whole other person, a whole other being.
TAKING IT TO THE FINISH LINE
Dave [Portner, who records as Avey Tare] has such a beautiful, smooth voice and is such a nice fellow. I really like Animal Collective [and they were the first outside artists to receive a license to sample the Grateful Dead] so he was tapped to give a voice to these recordings. And he just fell in with Hunter. He understood those words, felt it deeply. Hunter’s style is not for everybody; only for the few who really have the passion. So we had a few sessions and he worked perfectly. It was just a joyful experience.
And then there was Tank [Ball], who was a recent addition right toward the end. I wanted more of a female energy in these recordings; it was getting so male that I needed that to balance it out in order to get a clearer picture of humanity. She’s a brilliant, young lady. She nailed it; we co-composed some of the words. And she interpreted Hunter perfectly. She does what they call “slam poetry,” which is spoken-word but fast. She’s like a machine gun. She also has this lovely side—her voice is so expressive, just like Dave’s. They both have this wonderful emotional hit to the sound of their voice. They were easy to work with, and they were hungry. They really wanted this. And I let them fly as far as I could take them, as far as they wanted to go. We went to places I’ve never been before. Every day became an exciting vocal experience.
[Pretty Lights producer Michal Menert] also moved up this way. He was living in Colorado and needed a break. I’d heard Pretty Lights, and Michal and I just gelled well. He helped in the arranging and recording because of his expertise in Ableton Live. That’s really one of the big electronic helpers in composition—someone who could use that as an instrument and whip it around and have fun with it. He was a very important player in all of this, and he devoted almost a year of his time. We worked very closely on it together and took it to the finish line.
Oteil [Burbridge] is a master groovist. He’s a virtuoso player, totally in charge of his instrument on every level. You’d think somebody with that much technique would be able to do anything, yet he goes for the groove. He has this fantastic ability to play things that are out of the range of 99.9 percent of bass players. His hands are like greased lightning. His fingers move at a blinding speed, and yet he’s able to maintain the groove-solid. So he has all the embellishments you could want, while creating a deep pocket, which is the basis for the whole record. He just happened to show up at the studio, and I said, “Hey, Oteil, why don’t you try this?” I was mostly using my monochord, what they call “the beam,” as a bass.
I wanted to make a modern record without a lot of the cliché sounds: no keyboards, no cowbell, not very many tomtoms, and really no guitar— except for Steve Kimock, who is on a couple of tracks. That was one of the marching orders when I first started: I wanted to make new music with new instruments. Many of the sounds are homemade, homebrewed. They were born and raised here. They didn’t come from a Japanese machine, or somewhere from China. But there were a few songs where I just wasn’t satisfied with what I was getting on the beam. It was one of those serendipitous moments when Oteil came in at the end. Oteil’s my bandmate, and I know what he does. So he just folded right into the music.
THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED
As [Dead & Company] go along, we pick up new songs for John [Mayer] to learn—and for Oteil—but mostly John. It’s a giant learning process for him. We bring old stuff in and make it new, and it sounds different with John and Oteil than it did with our former bandmates. There’s still a lot to be said in this music. We’ve revamped the Rhythm Devils sections [on this upcoming tour]. It’s a new roller-coaster ride with new sounds and new ideas. The band seems to be humming. It feels good; everybody’s happy and everybody seems to be smiling.
We’re going to keep the tempos up when we can, and we’re going to play our hearts out. That’s the bottom line here: Making sure that we’re up to speed, so to speak, playing the songs at the right tempo. And we play them all in different ways: The songs can sound good slow or sound good fast, sound good loud or sound good quiet. We’re experimenting with quiet now. After years of ridiculous volumes, now we’re learning the soft side. And I like it. We want to be well-versed on everything—to go slow and fast, play loud and soft. So dynamics are a big part of this band. The Grateful Dead could be quiet as a mouse and then explode like a lion.