By Brian Ives
Earlier this month, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart reissued Planet Drum, his 1991 solo album that saw him working with percussionists from all over the world. The album, in fact, won the very first “World Music” GRAMMY, a term that Hart laughs at, a quarter century later. But whatever you call it, Hart’s all for drumming, in any form. “Drumming is a great practice, it’s good meditation, it’s good for your health. It serves a lot of purposes beside the social interaction. You can get together with someone from the other side of the world, and you can share the universal, with rhythm.”
Planet Drum is the first Hart reissue as part of a new deal that will see him re-releasing his extensive solo catalog. Radio.com spoke to him about the album, how to play in a drum circle, and the future of Dead and Company.
Planet Drum helped to introduce the idea of “world music” to an American audience.
It hit a chord in everyone, yeah, it was a big one. It was very popular. And it symbolizes a lot of things: people getting together from different parts of the world. We called all these rhythmists together, and found a new groove. It’s very current, if you think about it. That’s what the world is missing. All these cultures coming together and making sense out of being together. It was beautiful, it was like a summit. It was all first takes. It was magic. So we thought this would be a good way to start the reissues.
Did you know all of the musicians on the album before you started recording? Were any of them familiar with the Grateful Dead?
I knew them all, I had played with most of them. They knew who I was. I brought them all together, I was like the hub of that wheel. They didn’t know each other. And they didn’t know too much about [my history in the] Grateful Dead; we were celebrating percussion and rhythm, it was a brotherhood. That was what it was all about, it wasn’t about the Grateful Dead at all.
You’ve played drums with lots of people…
I’ve drummed with presidents.
I drummed with 41 [George H.W. Bush]. It was a joyful occasion. All kinds of people from different sides of the fence come together and play, it’s a really good medicine. Walter Cronkite was my best friend for over thirty years, Walter became a real enthusiast and played every day, right until the end. Walter was really a lover of rhythm. All different kinds of people can come together and enjoy rhythm. That’s the beautiful thing about Planet Drum and the idea behind it. The music is secondary, in some ways. It’s the idea behind it: that people can enjoy rhythm, and that can’t be overlooked.
I saw the Grateful Dead a couple of times, and watching drum circles was always interesting. It never seemed to be about if the playing was good or not.
That’s a good point, it’s not about being good, it’s about recognizing someone next to you. It’s not about perfection at all, that’s the last thing on your mind when you’re in a drum circle. You’re trying to become a powerful group, a rhythm organism.
When Planet Drum first came out, it was being categorized as “World Music,” which was a new term at the time. What did you think about that?
[Laughs] We won the first world music GRAMMY with that very record! After I won it, I called the head of NARAS and said “Thank you very much for the GRAMMY, but there’s no such thing as ‘world music.’ It’s the world’s music. If you’re from the Philippines, then Appalachian music is world music. You can’t really define what world music is. It’s the world’s music. Even though I keep winning GRAMMYs for “world music!”
Pete Seeger used to say, in regards to the term “folk music,” that all music is made by “folks.”
Cows don’t make music! Folk music is made by folks!
But was it a big challenge to get record stores to understand what this music was, and to carry it?
It was a big challenge. In those days, people didn’t even recognize this music as being music. It was totally misunderstood for many years. It was hard to even get it into a music store. But what I did, was try to present it like a Grateful Dead record. Every one of those records were done with the highest resolution sonically, we did liner notes… it was a really hard fight to get this music recognized. It’s important to preserve the music of the indigenous people of the world: it tells us who we are, who we were, and who we will be.
I read that you’re working on a new album. What can you tell me about it?
I’m going to surprise you! When you hear it, you’ll know where it’s from. It’s going to be rhythmically driven, but there’s going to be vocals. I’ve been working on it for a while and I’m really proud of it.
Will you do shows?
I’ll probably tour for it.
Related: Dead and Co. to Tour in 2017
Talk about the experience of playing with Dead and Company, and having John Mayer as the lead guitarist.
John’s great, John really gets it. He really was thirsty, he came to drink at our fountain. And he took major gulps! He was so enthusiastic, a great student of the music, he gave everything he had. That was a great commitment. He’s really a nice guy to be around, and he plays his a– off.
He didn’t try to copy Jerry, he’s not a clone, he’s not a Jerry clone at all, but he definitely respects the songs. That’s what you would hope someone would do when they come into this kind of thing. We have 450 songs. Next year, we’ll probably learn some more songs to expand our repertoire. Right now we’ve got like 90 under our belt, so it’ll grow. He’s really a true musician, very much like Jerry. Jerry just cared about the music and playing his guitar. I couldn’t speak more highly about John.
I think some Dead fans were cynical because of his history as a very mainstream pop star.
All music has its beauty to it; he writes those beautiful pop songs. But he’s not a pop star in the Grateful Dead, he’s a recovering pop star (laughs). He plays pop music very well, though. I’m not really into pop music myself.
He adapts, he’s such a great musician, he’s like a gunslinger on the guitar. He has a great mind; he remembers a lot. After we do a song a few times, he thinks about it and then he dreams about it, And once it gets in his dreams, then he can really have fun with it. I told him it would happen for him. I said, “Be careful John, if you get in too deep, it’ll turn into a habit, so understand what you’re getting into!”
Have you guys talked about going into the studio to record new music?
We haven’t really talked about it, I couldn’t answer that. We’ll see next year.
What’s the secret to playing with another drummer?
It’s trust. It’s a certain kind of love you have to have to give yourself up to a common beat. You have to listen deep, that’s the most important thing: to listen. Deep listening. You have to try to come up with a unified sound. If you don’t really listen, you’re just beating stuff up. It won’t work. A lot of drummers can’t play with each other because they’re egocentric, or they’re not really listening and hearing what the other person is doing. Or they’re not trying to add to it and become a giant organism, to breathe together.
All of that stuff is what’s behind the collaborations of multiple drummers, whether it be the Grateful Dead or Planet Drum. It’s love. You know, I love [Grateful Dead drummer Bill] Kreutzmann, and we have a great conversation going over all these years. We made it work, it’s special. We don’t exactly know how we do it, and we never sit down and analyze it, we don’t talk about it. Ever. We just do it. We give each other signals, a wink, a nod, but we’re also telepathic. It feels great when it works.
Besides your solo reissue, I know the Grateful Dead is reissuing the catalog on Rhino Records. Are you involved in the reissues, choosing bonus tracks and stuff like that?
No, I don’t get involved in that, and we have someone in charge of it, David Lemieux. He knows what is good, we don’t. We just hear the flaws [laughs]. And we don’t really listen to Grateful Dead music too much. You’ve got to be in the now; what we did back then is for everybody else. That’s what Jerry would say. “Once we’re done with it, they can have it.”
We appreciate the love [of the music]. I heard we recently entered the Billboard charts with a new Dave’s Picks [their series of archival live albums; Dave’s Picks Volume 20, recorded in Boulder, CO in 1981, entered the charts at #39]! It’s crazy. It’s fascinating to watch new, young people enjoying music that we made back then, it’s really very rewarding. Anyway, [Indian tabla player and Planet Drum member] Zakir Hussain just walked in, I have to go play drums with him now!