hand-drum

Inside Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box

mickey hart

(Left) Giovanni Hidalgo

“It was spontaneous,” Hidalgo says. “We’d put something down with the click tracks, and then we’d stop and analyze that completely. ’Let’s see what happened? Well, we can do this over here, but what can we do to develop that?’ We were in complete concentration, complete focus. As soon as I did one idea, then I would do a second idea and Mickey would say, ’I like it.’ And we saved it. We saved everything.”

That, as it turns out, is more than an understatement. “I have 250 rolls of multi-track on this record,” Hart says, without the slightest exaggerated inflection. “I’d just roll tape and let them do as many takes as they wanted, because these are maestros. I didn’t give anybody cassettes to work on. When they came in, it was the first time they heard it. I just want the way they’re interpreting it, their gut, not what they think about after they’ve practiced and made it all perfect.”

After laying down the basic percussion tracks and recording the drum-set parts himself, Hart brought in the Grateful Dead’s resident wordsmith Robert Hunter to write lyrics for the new material. Even though the song structures were implied in the existing percussion parts, Hunter had to work without any distinct chord progressions or melodies onto which he could hang his words – a situation he had never before encountered. “I wanted to see how Hunter would react and write to the drum parts,” Hart says. “That was a challenge for him, and he wrote much more rhythmically. So I had Hunter wanting to write a personalized kind of message for me, with me. And allowing me to edit him and turn the verses inside out, and just really jam. We went at the songs with the spirit of adventure, in the lyrical content as well as the musical content.”

mickey hart

(Left) Sikiru Adepoju

While Hunter crafted lyrics, Hart concentrated on a painstaking process of carefully processing each sound. “With all the sophisticated digital processing, I’m able to take these percussive sounds and mutate them,” he says. “I can make woodblocks sound like 5,000 strings. I’ll take a quica and run it backwards and throw a bunch of stuff on it and process the hell out of it just to see what happens. Then you get new sounds that you still can relate to, and you will be able to speak a new language. Speaking the same language all the time is boring.”

Hart worked with his friend Dave Jenkins and the Grateful Dead’s keyboardist Vince Welnick to craft chord changes for the rhythm tracks, and as Hunter’s lyrics trickled in, he would sketch out basic melodies. But he wasn’t sure who would sing them until he happened to see a video produced by Spike Lee called “Do It A Cappella” featuring the Mint Juleps. He was immediately sold, and jumped on a plane to England, where he spent three weeks fine-tuning melodies and harmonies every day with the singers. Then he brought the six women to his ranch, where they took three more weeks to cut vocals.

All the while, Hart continued to overdub rhythm tracks with his coterie of percussionists whenever he could, but would play back to them only the most skeletal percussion tracks, without revealing any melodies or progressions. “When I came to the studio, Mickey only played me whatever he wanted to give me, even when he had the whole arrangement on tape,” says Adepoju, who overdubbed his tracks after Hussain, Hidalgo and Hart had finished most of their basics. “So sometimes I could only hear Giovanni or Zakir and the click. So I picked up the feeling from the other drummers.”

Hart explains the strategy: “If I wanted him to get on a groove, I would only play him the absolute necessary ingredients so that he would respond in a certain way. That’s what a producer does. He doesn’t necessarily give everybody all the information all the time. You don’t know what you’re going to use in the end, so that if you gave him everything, that’s what he’s going to react to. Every one of these guys will react. They listen to whatever you put in front of them, and they’re so quick on their feet that they will not let anything go without doing something to it.”

He thinks for a nanosecond and then changes tangents by two degrees: “It’s a real odd collection of hats that I had to wear.” This is understand-able. As the album’s chief songwriter, session drummer and producer, Hart had to keep close track of who he was supposed to be at any given moment. “The most difficult thing that I do is having to be both critical of myself and able to perform,” he continues. “And then to sit back and take this chaos through a board and bring it onto a machine and into two speakers, and create the atmosphere in the session. This is my job, to get the best of the breed with the best instruments in the best possible place, miked the best possible way, and let it rip with some direction and see what you come up with. This is my idea of a good time and a party.”

It was one hell of a long party. Yet once the tracks were mixed, mastered and couriered to his record company, a new kind of party began, which posed its own set of unique challenges. His biggest question was, after endless tracking sessions, in which layer after layer of highly-processed sounds were endlessly stacked and sorted, how would Hart transform such a formidable, polished album of percussion pop into a touring band playing for grateful Deadheads in sheds and arenas? The answer, as it turns out, was RAMU. “I planned to play trap drums right until the realization really set in. How was I to play RAMU and play drums? There was no way,” he says. “And I didn’t want a bunch of keyboardists doing it because the only way you can deliver those parts is through a percussive hit.”

So he relinquished the drum-set duties to Dave Garibaldi, Tower Of Power’s original firebrand funk drummer, who had recently renewed his friendship with Hart when he visited the ranch to play tapes of his percussion ensemble, Talking Drums. It was a good choice. “Mickey had to make up his mind because he had a lot of things to consider in a group like this,” Garibaldi says, “especially the way that he does things. Your ability is really important to him. But the chemistry is just as important as your ability to play and to fit in the right spot.”

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