Inside Mickey Hart's Mystery Box

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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.”

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(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.”

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(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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(Above) David Garibaldi

“You need more chemistry than art,” Hart clarifies. “That’s what I was counting on from these guys – chemistry. Their artistry was beyond question. Everybody in this room really can play, maybe too much.” He stops and smiles, remembering something amusing. “I was on the Internet the other night and I saw a message from somebody who was talking about the band. He said, ’Do you realize what’s happening here? Mickey’s got Giovanni and Zakir. And then I found out Dave Garibaldi’s on drums. Garibaldi! He’s bad-ass personified plus tax.’ I call him ’Plus Tax’ now,” he laughs.

Other Garibaldi disciples should take note: Don’t expect to hear the complex stickings of “What Is Hip” during Mystery Box’s live show. Garibaldi lays it down thick and uncomplicated. He calls it “big grooves. I’m not playing funk beats, Giovanni’s not playing Afro-Cuban conga drums, Zakir’s not playing Indian percussion, Sikiru’s not playing African talking drums. Everybody’s kind of playing ’the song.’”

Hussain agrees: “Mickey’s allowing us the opportunity to cross over and look at our traditions from the other side. Now that’s an important thing. My importance as a musician dawned on me when I stopped being an Indian musician. I uprooted myself from my roots. I left those roots behind and tried to be somebody else. But I still have that skeleton to put it on, and that’s really at the core of why we’re here today.”

Of course, they’re really here to practice, not to chat with journalists all day, so we head back to the studio to find out what Mystery Box is all about. Inside the atmosphere is relaxed, but not nearly as laid back as it was this morning. There’s a reason why: This band has no backup musicians. Almost everyone here is a recognized virtuoso, an accomplished solo artist, a creative leader, and consequently possesses an intense personality, laughing a little more loudly, gesturing a bit more dramatically, acting out generally more than your usual rehearsal banter.

This is a big band – 13 pieces – and when you factor in the various guests, workers and dogs that have finally assembled, the tracking room is packed with bodies. Initially, at least, nobody seems eager to discuss the music, choosing instead to rave on about a concert in San Francisco the night before that featured Hussain and his father Alla Rakha on tablas. One by one the musicians position themselves behind their setups, make some adjustments, play a couple of warm-ups, then make it clear using body language that they are ready to go.

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(Above) Zakir Hussain

After some discussion of new parts (we would learn that Mystery Box likes to talk about music almost as much as it likes to play it), they launch into the album’s opening number “Where Love Goes (Sito).” We’d heard the album. It’s a good tune. The first time through, it resonates as a catchy song with hit single potential. But by the fifth time through everyone in the room is hypnotized by the lush harmonies and relentless rhythms – especially the rhythms, and the non-verbal interplay between the musicians from which they originate. Everyone is smiling widely, as if they’re on the inside of a special secret. It’s pretty damn cool in here.

We remember earlier in the day when Hart said, “These guys clap at themselves when they finish. That hasn’t happened to me in years! In the Grateful Dead, we know each other so well, can you imagine us sitting around and clapping after a practice? We just put the instruments down and walk away because we’ve done it before.”

Hart clearly is having fun. “In some ways this feels like a new beginning. But it also feels like a logical extension of where I have been. I go where my spirit takes me, where my passion is and where the art is. I’m definitely driven, and I’m not necessarily the one who’s doing the driving. I’ve always thought that I’m being danced. That’s always the best thing, to be in those spaces when it’s just happening and I’m being guided, and I’m in rhythm, I’m in time, I’m in the groove. That’s when my life is right. These are the good times.”