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Mickey Hart & Bill Kreutzmann

“Drums and drumming. It’s not about drums and drumming; it’s about the feeling that they make. And it’s dealing with vibrations,” he says, introducing what turns out to be one of his favorite conversational memes. “Music is invisible. You can’t see music, can’t see vibrations, unless you look on a machine. So you can’t see the rhythm, but you can feel it. And to allow people to get into that feeling when they’re young, you will chase that feeling for the rest of your life.”

There’s plenty of truth in that sentiment, of course. Although anyone familiar with Hart’s interview style knows his penchant for discussing rhythm and music with the sweeping generalities of a New Age mystic. It’s as if he’s always eager to connect the mundane act of bashing objects with sticks to some larger cosmic purpose. And it would be easy enough to dismiss this talk as deliberate mythmaking from an icon of ’60s counterculture were it not for the conviction and stubborn persistence with which he sells it. Hart’s a believer, and he has a way of making others believers, too.

“You have to really want to make rhythm with another person,” he says. “It’s not easy to do. We know that when we make good rhythm, it’s even larger than both of us.”

Kreutzmann nods in agreement. “That’s well said, man. It becomes something way bigger than two people.”

“It is something other,” Hart continues, “which is a magical, mystical thing, and you don’t want to mess with that. People go through all kinds of changes, live in weird places, and play dives and stuff, to find the feeling to pursue the thing that really turned you on to begin with.”

Kreutzmann brings it back to the topic of material preparations. “When we used to warm-up before the sound check, we would even check our heart rates,” he says, going back to the early attempts at synchronicity. “We’d do everything we could to make it as tight as possible.” Everything up to and including hypnosis. Sometime in the late-’60s the pair got self-hypnosis training from a man named Stanley Krippner, a doctor of parapsychology at the Dream Laboratory at Maimonides Medical Center, in Brooklyn. This, they would also employ in their entrainment practices.

“We would say to each other that we were going to play, like, ten hours but it’s going to feel like two,” Kreutzmann remembers. “And that we were going to play faster today than we’ve ever played. Or we would be this or that. So we made suggestions to ourselves, and we did this a lot.”

“We were using these advanced techniques,” says Hart. “We didn’t know; we were just doing it because we wanted to make the best possible union.”

Pioneer Spirit

Hart and Kreutzmann, in league with the Dead, can claim a lot of firsts, but one of the most influential was the decision to add Hart to the lineup to begin with. “Nobody did two drums sets in a rock band,” Kreutzmann says definitively. “James Brown used it, but that was a funk band.”

The initial idea of using two drummers, much copied since, was simply to bring a more powerful sound to the rhythm section. “Since then, it has morphed into something different,” Kreutzmann says. “We have really developed it way past just playing drums together, where we have completely different sounds that complement. I still stay on the old archetypical, archaic drum set, which I love, as a matter of fact. And Mickey brings in all these beautiful electronic sounds.”

Hart’s rig is a source of obvious pride for him, which he demonstrates later down in the studio when he walks me through its many wonders. “You can look at it as a very powerful percussive tool. You can look at it as a soundroid. You can look at it as my digital jukebox,” he says, sitting proudly at its center, clearly at home amid his toys. “In the memory unit, all these drums you see” — he waves his arm at the stacks of world percussion instruments lining the walls of the studio, which he’s either acquired as gifts or purchased from around the world over the course of the last 40 years (“This is nothing. They’re in warehouses. There are thousands.”) — “when they first come into my collection, they are sampled, and they’re put into my memory banks, which are called RAMU, which is ‘Random Access Musical Universe.’ So, I built a contraption. It lives in both worlds: The archaic world and the digital domain.”

Easily the most unique element of the kit is the infamous “beam,” an 8’, 13-string “Pythagorean monochord” that has been a staple in Hart’s repertoire since the late ’70s, when it appeared on the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now, and became famous through countless Dead shows in the long-standing “Drums>Space” section, which helped define the Rhythm Devils as a separate entity long before this incarnation.

Hart fires up the beam and the deep, pulsing thump of what sounds like chopper blades fills the studio, reverberating through our conversation. This pulse can take on any sound — anything sampled into Ableton Live, anyway. And though used in other contexts over the last 30 years, it has become a true Hart signature.

Another sonic distinction of Hart’s is his choice to play exclusively with mallets. He likes the way they feel, he says, but mostly it’s to complement Kreutzmann’s “archaic drum set” stick sound. It’s his voice in the running dialog.

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