In the era of '70s psychedelic rock 'n' roll, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart transformed the art of percussion, accessing the outer realms of musical thought and transporting Deadheads on cosmic trips into the ether. But for the rhythm cosmonaut, his time with the Dead would mark just one of many encounters between his musical peaks and the celestial depths.
Three years ago, the three-time Grammy winner found himself toying with deep space transmissions generated by giant radio telescopes and state-of-the-art spectroscopic instruments near his home. The idea of jamming with the literal rhythms of the universe had hooked him like a new drug, and after a little convincing, it captured the intrigue of the local scientific community also.
Astronomers, physicists and sound engineers from Lawrence Berkeley Labs, Meyer Sound, NASA and even Nobel recipient George F. Smoot climbed aboard, and soon Hart's endeavor to transform starlight into song took flight. While the scientists used sophisticated algorithms to convert 13.7 billion-year-old light waves into sonic frequencies, Hart sampled the pulsars and gamma rays, subtlety weaving the space sounds into a more terrestrial music.
"I'm working with the strongest grooves in the universe. They created us, and the moon, sun and Earth—it's turned out to be very musical," Hart says of the sound-work, on the phone from his home. "But it's not what you would call melodic or harmonious. There are a lot of collisions. There's thumping, whirling and chirping—it's very noisy."
With the material sound of the big bang uploaded like a quantum drumbeat to his computer, Hart switched gears and turned to the local art community in search of musicians who weren't totally earthbound. After a healthy dose of astronomic ponder, what formed is the new Mickey Hart Band, a tightly packaged sputnik of funk, blues and rock infused with outer space rhythms, lots of percussion and original world music.
Set to release April 10, the album's songs also feature lyrics penned by longtime Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. "We're a jam band, not a space band," Hart says, despite the cosmic theme on the group's debut album, Mysterium Tremendum. "The most important thing is that it makes you dance, that it's high energy—that it's rock 'n' roll."
The Mickey Hart Band play Wednesday, March 7, at the Raven Theater. 115 North St., Healdsburg. 8pm. $35. 707.433.6335. Mickey Hart is currently offering 10 free songs for download on his site at MickeyHart.net.