Music News

Grateful Dead Drummer Mickey Hart Taps the Cosmos

In 1972, free jazz pioneer Sun Ra proclaimed, "Space is place," in a bizarre sci-fi/blaxploitation film of the same name.

Space remains the focus of intense interest for astronomers, astronauts, moviemakers, and UFO hunters, and it also serves as the latest inspiration for former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who seems to be heeding Sun Ra's advice some 39 years later.

Hart has been tapping the cosmos of late, working with NASA and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists to turn ancient light waves beaming in from space into sound waves he can adapt into music for Deadheads and average listeners alike.

The collection of astrophysical data Hart translates into sound audible to the human ear includes rumblings caused by galaxy and star formation, supernovae, quasars, cosmic background radiation, and even the original creation of the known universe.

"I've been involved in sampling the epic events of the universe from the Big Bang to now — everything that makes up our lives," Hart says on his website. "It's all about the vibrations of life. In this case, they began as light waves, and these light waves are still washing over us . . . I want to bring these light waves into the human range and use that as a musical catalyst and play with it."

As crazy as that sounds, this type of far-reaching endeavor isn't unexpected from Hart. Wearing his ethnomusicologist hat in collaboration with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Hart spearheaded the "Endangered Music Project" to record and preserve musical traditions at risk.

Given that Hart's been exploring music from the Earth's farthest reaches longer than he played behind Jerry Garcia, space (which always followed drums) is the next logical step.

Hart, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee with The Dead, was unavailable to explain the scientific process of turning light into sound (too busy tinkering around in the studio, we're told) but notes on his website that anything that vibrates has a sound, and light waves vibrate. Hart's cosmic samples are as much about texture and feeling as recognizable musical content.

"I add a little spice to them with some reverb and some delay," he told Rolling Stone. "It makes for a hot little stew."

That stew provides the Mickey Hart Band a working platform for its not exactly un-Dead-like jams. Naturally, Hart's music has a heavy percussive element — the band features drummer Ian "Inx" Herman, percussionist Greg Ellis, and talking drum/djembe player Sikiru Adepoju — along with Hart on his expansive kit.

The music is both new and familiar, showing off traditional song structures amid lengthy jams that shift from psychedelic to funky. Vocalists Tim Hockenberry and Crystal Monee Hall, guitarist Gawain Mathews, and Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools complete the band.

Bolstered by lyrics from longtime Dead collaborator Robert Hunter, Hart is debuting these compositions — along with songs from throughout his career, including Grateful Dead favorites like "Fire on the Mountain," "Scarlet Begonias," and "Casey Jones" — on his current tour.

Hart plans to release an as yet-untitled CD of finished material in the spring. Yet, no matter how good the music turns out — and live videos on YouTube provide early positive affirmation — Hart can't win another Grammy Award, if there isn't a category for what he does. World music? Sort of, but the fact is — it's far out, man. Like, outer space far out.