Mickey Hart’s Sonic Playground

Mickey Hart extends a hand over his desk and smirks. “Would you like some water?” the 74-year-old longtime Grateful Dead drummer asks. “Beer? Vodka? Anything? Opium?”

It’s hard to tell if he’s joking. In his sprawling compound on the top of a hill in the rural paradise of west Sonoma County, where Hart both lives and records music in a custom-built barn-size studio, the chance that mind-altering substances are regularly consumed hardly seems out of the question. But it seems a little early in the day to start actively messing with reality.

The truth is, the trip became strange the moment I arrived. I got out of my car and was engulfed by an impossibly deep and throbbing bass riff emanating from inside the barn. Hart calls his setup RAMU (Random Access Musical Universe), an ever-evolving concatenation of drum rigs, synthesizers, MIDI pads and an enormous database of sound samples that he has been collecting all his life. The particular sounds that greeted me were generated by the most visually impressive part of RAMU’s infrastructure, the legendary “Beam” that has been a fixture of Dead performances since the Seventies – an eight-foot-long, 13-inch–high-and-wide chunk of metal strung with 13 piano bass wires all tuned to the note of D. “It’s a real battleship,” Hart says fondly.

RAMU is also the name of Hart’s latest album, featuring vocals from Animal Collective’s Avey Tare, Tank from the New Orleans funk-soul outfit Tank and the Bangas, and contributions from a stable of musicians that Hart has worked with for years, including longtime Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and tabla player Zakir Hussein. Hart mixes the old – samples of blues recordings captured by Alan Lomax, snippets of never-before-heard Jerry Garcia guitar – with percussive, pulsating electronica. You’ll want to put on your highest-end headphones to listen to it.

RAMU ranges far and wide across the sonic landscape, and so does Hart in conversation. With his dog Fang by his side and a manuscript in progress (“The Tao of the Drum”) sprawled across the table, Hart seems utterly uninterested in conventional album promotion.

“Who cares?” He fires off a short burst of demonic laughter after I make an attempt to steer the conversation to the album. “I don’t care! We’re having a good time.”

Today, Hart is thinking about the devastating Sonoma fires. For weeks the air all over Northern California has smelled like apocalypse. The fires never reached Hart’s compound, where he and his wife, Caryl, have lived for a couple of decades, but he says they would have been ready. A large pond adjacent to the barn is equipped with pumps designed for exactly such an eventuality. “When you live here, the odds [of fire] go up – that’s the roll of the dice,” says Hart. “So you better be prepared. You can’t just sit there and take it. Fire has no mercy!”

He segues into another imminent catastrophe: Donald Trump – RAMU, the album, is in part a response to “the freak” in the White House. Then, we are in Indonesia saving the folk music traditions of the gamelan for posterity, or on a yacht with Walter Cronkite – the two men struck up a great friendship after Hart wrote the theme for an America’s Cup introduction that Cronkite narrated. He ponders the enlightenment of acid, the rhythmic imperatives of the mating game – in the beginning, says Hart, drumming was all about meeting women – and his belief that anything from stem cells to nebulae can be “sonified” into aural experiences. Barack Obama makes a cameo in another anecdote. (In his capacity as an archivist helping the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress organize their music collections, Hart occasionally sent the president “gift baskets of music … to stretch your ear.” After the drummer sent him some Indonesian music to help the president get in tune with his roots, Obama wrote back: “My ear, you did stretch.”)

Occasionally, Hart slaps his palms on the desk, beating out a quick tappity-tap. The child of a pair of drummers, he’s been rapping out rhythms since he was five years old. You’ve never seen a septuagenarian so restlessly boyish, so exuberantly in the now.

“I love chaos,” says Hart. “I embrace chaos. But you have to be orderly to make chaos, or else it doesn’t have much meaning. So you go between order and chaos – that’s the fulcrum, the yin and yang of life and of music. You’ve got to keep track of your instruments, and your data.”

The self-described “noisician” and “sonic circumnavigator” is a curious soul always on the lookout for that next unusual sound. Putting aside his work with the Dead, Hart has released 15 albums under his own name or with other collaborators, produced dozens more (mostly world music under the RYKO label) and written four books, including the well-received Drumming at the Edge of Magic. He contributed percussion to the Apocalypse Now soundtrack and wrote theme music for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. And, of course, he tours constantly. “I’m a working musician,” he says, as if it was a badge of honor.

RAMU, the analog-digital machine mash-up, has been part of Hart’s life for decades. Why, now, did he decide to give the same name to an album? The answer is that technology has finally caught up to Hart’s unlimited musical ambitions.

“Jerry would be smiling from ear to ear,” says Hart. “He once said to me, ‘If you had the possibilities at your disposal to forage far and wide and your own imagination was your only limitation, you would be able to play a thousand instruments in real time!'”

“I was like, ‘Sounds great.’ But that was way before the digital era. We were just playing loops and exotic instruments onstage. We were never able to bring it all together.”

Now, finally, he can. Four steel-pan drum sets playing simultaneously? Sure. The Great Bells of Russia? Bird calls from the New Guinea rainforest? No problem.

“It’s gone way beyond my imagination,” says Hart. “With RAMU, I am straddling two worlds – to the right is the world of the archaic, to the left is the world of the digital domain, where anything is possible, any rhythm can be conjured. Every day I find new things, different ways of putting things together, different tempos.”

Hart doesn’t have to worry about paying the bills, and he could be excused if, after a solid half century of touring and recording and partying, he decided to take it easy. But that’s not how Hart is wired, something that becomes apparent when I finally ask him if he’d like to take RAMU for a spin.

“Are you sure you’re ready for RAMU?” he asks slyly.

We move into the studio that occupies most of the barn – an acoustically pristine space that bears more resemblance to modern Scandinavian architecture than anything having to do with agriculture. RAMU occupies center stage, surrounded by scores of exotic drums and rhythm instruments from all across space and time. Within seconds, it’s clear that this is where Hart is meant to be. In the blink of an eye, he transforms into a whirling dervish, a spirit-channeling shaman. He taps pedals, pushes faders, twiddles knobs and slaps his drumsticks with the enthusiasm and energy of a three-year-old child who has just been handed a pot and pan to bang together.

I express some amazement that after all these years he still is putting in the hours. He shrugs.

“It gets me high,” he says, grinning yet again. “It just gets me high.”