Two For The Show: Rhythm Devils

Years After Their Grateful Dead Debut, The Original Rhythm Devils Are Still Sticking Together, And Sharing Their Secrets To Staying In Tune

Grateful Dead

You see those guys with the hair and teeth? That was us in 1967,” says Mickey Hart, pointing to a photo of The Grateful Dead hanging on the wall of his studio foyer. “That’s where all this started.”

It’s late July at Hart’s Sebastapol ranch, a lush retreat tucked into the winding evergreen back roads of prime Northern California wine country, complete with a “swimmin’ hole” pond in the front yard and a converted barn bigger than the main house where Hart keeps a full professional studio. It was here where, minutes earlier, the latest incarnation of the touring jam/trance project known as Rhythm Devils just wrapped up day five of rehearsals.

Rhythm Devils serves partly as an homage to Hart and drum-buddy Bill Kreutzmann’s Grateful Dead glory days (Jerry Garcia christened the pair with the name many years ago), but mostly as a reminder to aspiring musicians everywhere that, if you play your cards right, you too can spend your retirement years blissfully jamming on your old reworked classics for a sea of worshipful fans, surrounded by eager virtuoso musicians half your age. And if you’re really lucky, you might even be as giddy about it as Hart and Kreutzmann obviously are.

“I was having the most fun in rehearsal today listening to him,” Kreutzmann says, beaming across the desk at Hart in the cozy upstairs office where we conduct the interview, the walls of which are adorned with abstract psychedelic digital prints of a distinctly Dead vintage. “We’re tight as mothers, you know? We’re so tight. Damn, I love this!”

If any two musicians can appreciate the band-marriage metaphor, it’s these guys, who have been at each other’s side, with little interruption, since that picture on the wall downstairs was taken more than 40 years ago. Yet right now, still buzzing with the energy of the lastest jam session, you’d think they were still in the honeymoon phase.

Having bourne a lifetime of trials both inside and outside the public eye, this dynamic duo still crackles with fresh enthusiasm. A long strange trip indeed, but one that seems fused in that ultimate hippie cliché: honest-to-goodness brotherly love. “As much as this Rhythm Devil thing is all about anything,” says Hart, “it’s about me and Bill, and our relationship, and how it’s evolved over the years.”

Beyond Words

Like any good relationship, theirs had an auspicious start. They met at a Count Basie concert in San Francisco in 1967, and hit it off immediately. Hart recalls them “playing the streets” of San Francisco with a couple of pairs of sticks borrowed from Basie drummer Sonny Payne, on their way to watch Janice Joplin with Big Brother And The Holding Company shred a tiny club called The Matrix on Divisidero Street.

Kreutzmann remembers it slightly differently.

“Michael Hinton was there. Michael Hinton and Mickey are, like, extraordinary rudimental drummers. They actually won the national rudimental competition one year, which is no easy feat, and so I was introduced to both of them. I was watching Count Basie, and I went outside. I didn’t play. Mickey and Mike did, and blew my mind. Like, God, I don’t know all that stuff. So Mickey was kind enough to be the best drum teacher I ever had, and showed me all the rudiments, and gave me really good instruction, stuff that I use every minute.”

It wasn’t long before Hart began sitting in with the Grateful Dead, by then a two-year-old outfit already well regarded in San Francisco’s booming psychedelic rock scene. “We had this natural entrainment,” Hart remembers, “where we could lock up and sync up. We stalked it. We hunted it, the groove, and we didn’t really talk much about it, but we used to work on it a lot.”

“We did,” Kreutzmann agrees. “In the early days we practiced and practiced and practiced. Hey, Mickey, you remember the thing we would do? ...”

“… One arm?” Hart interjects.

“You knew where I was going with that. See, we finish each other’s sentences,” Kreutzmann laughs. “So, Mickey would play a rudiment, and he would play the right arm and I would play the left. And you had to make it work.”

“And we’d put our arms around each other to make it sync,” says Hart. “That was another lesson of entrainment, rather than just drumming. Do you understand what the laws of entrainment are? About being in sync, being in the moment, being in time? If any two objects vibrate and are in proximity, eventually they will sync.

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“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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“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.”

Recruiting Devils

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.

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“It’s going to be trick,” Hart says, grinning broadly. “It really is. It’s not, like, your Dad’s archives. And this gets to the bottom of the whole thing, which is that the scene around the Grateful Dead was such an amazing scene, it just needed to be preserved. And they’re doing that. They’re keeping that legacy alive.”

Heeding The Call

Since the official dissolution of the Grateful Dead after Jerry Garcia’s death in August of 1995, Hart — who calls that experience a “crushing blow. Our dearest brother was taken from us” — has kept consistently busy with a litany of world-beat collaborations and projects. Kreutzmann kept a lower profile, moving to Hawaii (where he still lives) and generally staying off the public radar until a newfound motivation in the last couple of years saw him forming two new projects: BK3 (or Bill Kreutzmann Trio, with Scott Murawski and Oteil Burbridge.), in 2008, and, a year later, 7 Walkers (with Papa Mali, George Porter Jr., and Matt Hubbard).

“You know, I needed to heal, too,” he says of the aftermath of Papa Bear’s passing. “But when you don’t play music for a while you kind of get sick. I don’t know how to say it any better. You just start feeling funny because you’re not going to that high place. Your spirit is knocking at your internal door, you know? Your spirit’s going, Hey, come on, what about me? The thing that keeps Mickey and I alive — I know it’s true for myself and it’s true of Mick, I bet you, is you never come to the end of this. There’s always something to investigate. If I have any addictions it’s to music. I mean I’m seriously addicted to it.” [laughs]

Still, it’s been four years since the first Rhythm Devils tour, so the obvious questions are, why again? And why now? Kreutzmann is quick with an answer. “Well, one reason, I’m going to say for myself, maybe Mickey might feel differently: I didn’t want to play in Further,” he says, referencing the Dead-nostalgia band-slash-festival headed by former Deadmates Phil Lesh and Bob Weir. “I still wanted to do Grateful Dead and I still wanted to play with this guy, and so this was the obvious way to go.”

Both Hart and Kreutzmann are reluctant to say anything negative about their old bandmates’ respective attempts to keep the Dead flame alive, but the subtext is that there’s something akin to sibling rivalry going on, some ancient rupture between the sons of melody and the sons of rhythm that hadn’t quite been set right during the various attempts to get the whole band back together in the wake of Garcia’s death.

“The end of the last Dead Tour, I’m gonna tell you the truth,” says Kreutzmann — whose media filter, it should be noted, is less finely meshed than Hart’s, “I was getting bored. These guys were playing the songs like this, like this; it was not as much open jamming as I would like to have. So, for myself, I didn’t do another Dead tour after the last one because I’d done enough, and I really wanted to play with other musicians. This cat right here, I can rely on him every minute of the week, I mean, I know that.”

Hart seems a little more willing to leave the door open a crack. “There might be a time, as long as we’re above ground,” he offers on the speculation of the “Other Ones” getting back together. “It’s, you know, not our plan, and it’s probably not their plan. I saw Bob a couple of weeks ago. You know, uh, good few moments together.” He pauses. “With Bob, it’s like taking a breath, taking a big breath and maybe seeing yourself in a different way. It’s really cool. You know, they’ll always be our brothers. The Grateful Dead — you don’t sign up and you don’t sign out with the Grateful Dead.”

As for he and Kreutzmann, that’s a contract that goes deeper still. And who better to sum up the depth of that arrangement than Hart? “Think of the rhythm over 40 years,” he says. “You’re thinking of the larger rhythms, the rhythms of the universe. And we have a long rhythm going here. A 40-year conversation going. And that’s really rare to have with anybody. There’s only one person that has been in continuum all those years.

“That’s very interesting, as a rhythmist, to have a drum brother, a mate, in that way. To have someone you relate to rhythmically on a constant basis who you’re also in business with. Remember, this is a business as well as a pleasure. And it also happens to be a necessity in both of our lives, which allows us to keep coming back to this. And that’s the important thing to know about drums and drumming. So, if you have any message to DRUM! Magazine readers: That’s what it’s all about. It’s not about how fast you play a paradiddle.”