PLAYING BY HART

It’s one minute early when former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart calls for our interview slot, a better than punctual result in the rock world, where late is to be expected. But Hart has an explanation.

”If a drummer is not on time, who will be?” he says. “This job is all about time. All I do with my life is keep time.”

Moments later, when I exchange pleasantries and ask how he’s doing, the answer is swift, and unexpected. ”I’m full of love,” he says, slowly, without a trace of irony or platitude.

Somewhere between those two statements lies the essence of Hart (no pun intended) and the fellow members of Planet Drum – world-renowned tabla player Zakir Hussain and percussionists Sikiru Adepoju and Giovanni Hidalgo – who were all part of the groundbreaking 1991 self-titled album that won the first-ever Grammy in the World Music category. The disc explored the interplay of rhythmists, influencing scores of other musicians who have followed, and leading to Hart delving deeper into a territory that has produced several books and a respected output of solo discs.

Now, 15 years later, Hart has reformed Planet Drum for a new concert tour that kicks off in Santa Barbara. The drummer discussed the band, his history and the spirituality of music over the telephone from his Sonoma County home studio.

Q. Why are you getting back together now and launching the tour?

A. Basically, because the technology has caught up to the vision. There was no reason to do it unless we could go into a new sonic playground where we could have some fun in deep space. Now the signal processors, reverbs and relays – sophisticated gear that only lived in the studio – are now available in computers. It feels like the vision will be fulfilled.

Electronics? I thought the music was supposed to be organic?

It is organic – real drummers playing real drums in real time. But it’s severely processed. It’s a handshake between the archaic world – the world of membranes – and the digital domain where we live today. That’s the dance and it’s a challenge. This is the next step in our evolution as rhythmists. You can’t reinterpret old rhythms forever. We honor them, we love them, we know them and we do play them, but there are new ones emerging. We’re like an antenna picking up new rhythms for new day. There are horrible things happening in the world and getting the rhythms of life right is the first thing you have to do.

Is there trepidation as you start, knowing you’re entering the void for a moment?

Yes, and the expectations are great. The older you get and the more you know, the more you keep trying to climb that mountain. Sometimes you slip and can’t get there, and age tempers that ability, because you can’t hit the bull’s-eye every night. It’s improvisational music, and failure goes with the turf. If you’re not ready to blow it big time, you shouldn’t be doing it. But success? Ah, it’s so sweet. When you hit the right note, you give the gift of groove to yourself and everyone in the theatre. You just ride that magical feeling to glory. Everybody’s with you, at least for the moment, and you can make sense out of life.

So let’s back up. You are billed as playing songs from the original album. So you can’t be doing pure improvisation, right?

Sure, there are song forms, just like we did with the Grateful Dead. Then there’s the improvisational heart, which you keep going after to find the essence every night. The songs are just vehicles, not cast in stone. So maybe we just decide on a time signature, a theme and some place to begin so it’s identified as a piece, and then everything else is open, fair game. Obviously, you have to be with skilled musicians to do it, you have to have confidence in yourself and the people you’re playing with. Otherwise it’s Baghdad. But these guys are serious players, really the best and they’re a pack of hungry animals. When they get at it, they’re not kidding around.

What did it mean when the Planet Drum album won the first-ever Grammy for World Music? How much influence do you think the record has had over time?

Absolutely, it meant a lot to me – how can you not have pride when your record is number one in Billboard for twenty-six weeks and you win a Grammy – but it meant more to the world of percussion. Tuned, processed percussion was recognized as a legitimate player in the pantheon of music. That opened doors for many people, and certainly was a boon for my explorations. I kind of knew it was going to hit a chord, because it was all first takes, and it only took us five days to get it down, the easiest thing I’ve ever done.

The way you talk about this, I’m guessing you must have been the kid in the back of the class always drumming with a pencil on the notebook.

It’s always been a part of my life, but I had a great mother who was a drummer so she didn’t shut me up. She protected my ability to practice, even when it caused people great pain. We lived in the small attic of a house and there was a truck driver living downstairs. He’d come up and knock on the door and my mom just defended me. I met the guy years later when the Dead were playing Madison Square Garden and he came backstage and told me even though he’d lost a lot of sleep, he was really glad he hadn’t shut me down back then.

After Jerry Garcia’s death, the Dead became The Other Ones and now it’s back to the Dead again.

After awhile we decided it was time to take our legacy back. But more recently, we had a lot of conflicts over the business side, and that was never what we were about. It’s still a major corporation and we had disagreements about how the Grateful Dead should go into posterity. That was sad because it cost us friendships, but now we’ve dissolved the corporation and gave the business to Warner Brothers to run so hopefully it will allow us to be friends again because there’s nothing to fight over. So maybe we’ll play again.

Is age finally taking its toll?

I’m sixty-two. But I work out everyday. I’m clean, relatively speaking. I don’t abuse my body. And I practice almost every day. It’s not like guitar players who can just turn up the knob. Pickies are their own breed. You have to stay up on it or you won’t have the physical power to get it done. Being a power drummer at this age doesn’t happen for free.

I’ve read that you’re doing work with applying rhythm for medicinal purposes. Can you tell me about it?

Yes. Scientists now are validating the healing power, the neurology of rhythm, and that’s the most exciting thing for me. How music affects brainwave function and relates directly to the motor-impaired and how it came mediate the situation. It feels like we’re on the path of cracking the code.

(Planet Drum appears in concert at the Lobero Theatre on September 20 at 8 pm. Tickets are $50 [$100 patrons]. Call 963-0761.)