Inside Mickey Hart's Mystery Box
It’s 10:00 in the morning, two hours north of San Francisco, and Mickey Hart’s sprawling estate is just starting to wake up. Sleepy-eyed folks mill about, sipping hot coffee, stretching, slowly congregating around the perimeter of Hart’s barn-like recording studio. Across a dirt road in a large manmade lake, simple fountains provide a soothing backdrop of gently lapping water. Next to the studio stands Hart’s impressive home, all but obscured by a grove of trees in the rock garden that Hart landscaped himself. Up a hill is the guest house, a rambling structure from which band members slowly appear, one by one, some walking, others bicycling, down toward the studio and the smell of freshly brewed coffee.
Dogs – lots of dogs – rollick through the complex, sniffing out newcomers, licking familiar hands. And we’re not talking Chihuahuas here. These are big, imposing dogs, mastiffs and Dobermans, some the size of zoo gorillas. Surely, unwelcome visitors would not go unnoticed, but fortunately for those of us who are intimidated by such beasts, they turn out to be friendly sorts who have grown accustomed to having strangers wander around their property – at least those who aren’t lurking about suspiciously (and woe to them).
While Hart’s estate boasts all the accouter-ments of a luxurious summer camp, one gets the distinct impression that this is a place where work gets done. And, indeed, it does. One by one, everyone in sight turns his or her attention to some task – sound technicians string cables, caterers lay out chips and guacamole, drum techs change heads, engineers test tape decks, publicists usher pesky journalists around. This is clearly a major operation, and no wonder. Hart’s new band is scheduled to rehearse today, and the boss is about to make his appearance.
With time to kill and coffee mugs in hand, we wander into the recording studio looking for photo opportunities, and find nothing but. The cathedral walls of the huge tracking room are lined with gear – primarily percussion, of every imaginable description and most ethnic origins, a United Nations of rhythm. On the back wall sits Dave Garibaldi’s Yamaha kit – home of the backbeat. To Garibaldi’s left is Giovanni Hidalgo’s setup, a fiery Latin sea of congas, bongos, timbales, cowbells and cymbals. Next to Hidalgo is the platform where Zakir Hussain sits, an Indian buffet of small drums, clay pots, metal percussion and, of course, his tabla set. Tucked next to Hussain is Sikiru Adepoju’s comparatively modest collection of talking drums, representing the roots of Africa.
And across the room from Hidalgo, Hussain and Adepoju – dominating almost the entire span of a wall – is Hart’s setup. We peer at it from afar, give it a closer inspection, then step back again, cock our heads sideways and try to take it all in. What the hell is it? Well, what the hell isn’t it? Electronic pads and pedals, sticks, brushes and scrapers, djembes, hoop drums, xylophones, cymbals, gongs, shakers, rattles, bells, microphones, racks of electronics, not in a tangle, but methodically strung up, clamped down and laid-out, collectively define its foreign parameters. It looks and acts like a percussion setup, but we would soon learn that it’s actually the central command for the entire operation called Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box. Hart dubs this invention RAMU (“random access music universe,” he explains forthrightly, as if anyone in his right mind would be able to figure out exactly what the acronym stands for).
RAMU is like Hart himself, not content to be any one thing at a time. His story is well known: Hart experienced great success as one of the drummers and songwriters with the Grateful Dead. But that wasn’t enough, so he established himself as a percussion scholar, chronicling the history of rhythm cultures with his best-selling books Drumming At The Edge Of Magic and Planet Drum, as well as his documentation of field recordings for the Library of Congress. Still not enough, he found time to lead a long strand of ambitious side projects – featuring many of the world’s greatest percussionists – ranging from the Apocalypse Now soundtrack to his Grammy Award-winning 1991 album Planet Drum.
Yet while his career has been nothing if not a series of unpredictable twists, Mystery Box represents his hardest left turn yet. Instead of being strictly a percussion album – as ardent Hart followers might have expected – Mystery Box is a pop album first, and a percussion album second. A heavy bed of world percussion combines with fat western backbeats and the soulful voices of the Mint Juleps – a British six-piece vocal group – all of which is supported by electric bass and colored with synthesizer and the merest sprinkling of guitar. While the recipe is hardly orthodox – mostly drums and vocals in the final mix – Mystery Box may be the most commercial record Hart has ever recorded.
We wondered why? Why now? In fact this whole process actually started long before now, almost immediately after the success of Planet Drum, while Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead were both still alive and touring like mad. Hart wanted to do something different. “This time I wanted to do songs,” he says later, in the studio’s second-story office. “I wanted it to be dance music and not just an exploration into the purest realms of extreme percussion. We had all of these articulate drummers, the Olympic Dream Team of drumming. Where could you take them? Where would they want to go? Where to explore next? I hate to repeat exactly the same thing. It’s not art. To me, it’s not as interesting.”
So with little more than a concept in hand, Hart began to invite some friends to his studio, such as Hussain, Hidalgo, Adepoju, Babatunde Olatunji and Airto Moreira. He put them in the tracking room – either alone or in groups, depending largely on who happened to be around that day – fired up a click track and started rolling tape; as simple as that, without the benefit of having written a single note of music. “This whole record was made with percussion as the main tracks, and then the voices were added to it,” Hussain explains. “The percussion actually dictated what the voices sang. Myself and Giovanni, we play tuned percussion, so we created a lot of melodies on the drums.”