Mickey Hart & Bill Kreutzmann
“See, we have a conversation between me and him, rhythmically speaking,” Hart explains. “Here’s how it goes: First, me and him have to lock up and entrain, have a real cool conversation, or else we can’t give it to the front line. Then they have a conversation with us. But we’re always constantly having an inner conversation between ourselves. And talking about how we’re interrelating — but not in language, you understand; there’s nothing verbal in our relationship when it comes to music.”
“Words are too slow, really,” says Kreutzmann. “I think we stopped [talking about it] when we actually replaced our vocabulary and became all music. Became drumming. And our drumming talked to each other.”
What really makes the conversation work, though, even back when it was just two drum sets, is that their distinct playing styles have always kept them from ever saying exactly the same thing in the same way at the same time.
“I was born with a shuffle,” Kreutzmann says. “I was born with a triplet. I don’t know how else to say it. I just hear things, like, really relaxed. That’s another great combination of Mickey and I. Mickey hears in more of a straight-sixteenth staccato, and I put a little more dotted thing with it. And that actually is a really good combination. That really works.”
“He walks more and I am more clave-oriented,” Hart agrees. “It’s really a rhythmic language. We’re in a clan. We are in a real closed club, you know, of two.”
Finding people to bring into that closed club of two would seem the challenging part. Not to mention finding musicians who could add a new dimension to that insular conversation, but who still possess enough of the jam gene to hang with the drummers for the Grateful Dead. “Hey, I think we wore them out the other night,” Hart says to Kreutzmann at one point, conspiratorially. “I don’t know if they know about the long, two, three, four-hour jams. That might be little unfamiliar to them,” he laughs.
The 2006 Rhythm Devils lineup featured jam band heavyweight Steve Kimock on guitar, Phish’s Mike Gordon on bass, Deep Banana Blackout alum Jen Durkin on vocals, and percussionist Sikiru Adepoju, whose rarified talking drum mastery was apparently irreplaceable enough to keep him on for the 2010 version of the band.
The new hires milling around the studio during my visit are über-shredder Keller Williams on guitar (later replaced by Tim Bluhm of The Mother Hips) Andy Hess on bass, and freshman lead singer/guitarist Davey Knowles, a 23-year-old hotshot from the Isle Of Man whose voice carries a surprising amount of soulfull grit.
“It’s a pleasure, man,” Hart says of this lineup. “You get a lot of baggage over the years, you know? And some of these guys never even heard the Grateful Dead. They’ve never seen us. Davie’s 23. I’ve adopted him now,” he laughs. “I am going to my lawyer for papers. Davie’s a star.”
“I’m tickled pink by this band, I tell you,” says Kreutzmann. “This band is really fun, and why for me it’s really fun is because it’s a departure from the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead was really fun. But that lived its life. It had a life expectancy, and this is, like, a new life. And the material never dies.”
Lucky thing, that last part, considering the bulk of Rhythm Devils material is taken straight from the GD playbook. “The worst thing that I know is when people do Grateful Dead material and do it badly,” says Hart. “They miss the nuances and they kind of slur the vocals and they don’t really have the feeling of the original song they’re trying to do.”
“If you don’t have the feeling, you don’t have anything,” says Kreutzmann. “You just have an empty song. You know, it sounds like it but it isn’t it.”
What material is new is still given the Dead treatment by longtime GD lyricist Robert Hunter, with whom the two still collaborate frequently. And even the classics are treated to an occasional rewrite to better fit the current vibe. Kreutzman tells the story of how, for the last tour, he’d sent Hunter their “updated” interpretation of the bedrock GD tune “Eyes Of The World,” and challenged him to write new words to it.
“He wrote me back and he said, ‘I’ve already written the words for that song.’ I said, ‘Don’t listen to the words, listen to the jam ’cause the jam is already different.’ Then he wrote back and gave me some great songs. But he’s writing like crazy now. Thanks to Hunter we have this great wealth of beautiful songs from the Bill-Mickey era. And those songs, they don’t age, you know? And they deserve reverence, and we’re doing that.”
Kreutzmann pegs the other obvious benefit to what they’re doing, which is that Deadheads now have another place to congregate, a phenomenon that, 15 years after the Dead ended, shows no sign of abating. “We’re giving them that,” he says. “And we’re doing that with our library down in Santa Cruz, the Grateful Dead archives down there.” That would be a reference to the groundbreaking physical and digital archive located on the University of California, Santa Cruz campus, which includes a 12,000 sq. ft. space housing the lion’s share of Dead memorabilia from its 30-year history — everything from letters to old ticket stubs to an estimated 20,000 photos. “Real Grateful Dead folklore,” as Hart calls it, that until now had been gathering dust in a series of privately held warehouses. And in another year or two, all of it will exist on a globally accessible interactive database.