Interview 'A Chemical Thing': Mickey Hart  

'A Chemical Thing': Mickey Hart Chats About Hydra and the Dead By Bob Makin

At 61, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart isn't about to slow down. He could be taking it easy, recording in his own state-of-the-art studio in Northern California or playing with his latest percussive invention, the Hydra, which follows the ambient RAMU (Random Access Musical Universe).
Instead, Hart is out on the road with cats less than half his age. He's formed a new instrumental supergroup with members of Particle, also called Hydra, which was inspired by the aforementioned invention.
The funky, trance-like Hydra recently made its debut tour throughout the month of April. "It's a chemical thing, just like in the Grateful Dead," says Hart, who liked Particle's recordings so much, he invited the band to jam in his studio a few months ago. "It's a group mind, which is one of the principles of trance music, besides repetition."
Also like the Dead, Hydra has two drummers. Having been playing with Bill Kreutzmann for 40 years as part of the Dead's Rhythm Devils, Hart says he hopes to form as organic a relationship with Particle skinsman, Darren Pujalet.
Hart expects to tour with Hydra, as well as the Dead, again soon.
To sample the new band's sound, visit Also visit

How did Hydra come to be? How did you get close enough to Particle musically to commit to a new band?
A mutual friend sent me a CD and DVD, which I really liked. I liked the way the music unfolded, the conversation that they were having. When word got back that I liked the stuff, they came up to jam for a couple of days. It was pure magic. It's a blast. I'm having a lot of fun. Right now, it's just free; no compositions. But it was there, no doubt about it. They're very energetic and really push me. It's a challenge.

How did you come up with the name of the band?
I had an opportunity to create a new instrument. I had created RAMU (Random Access Musical Universe). This is an extension of that. I call it Hydra. They were like, 'Hey, we like that name. Why don't we call the band that?'

What is Hydra, the instrument, like?
It has an electronic side with a short-wave radio and a DJ mixer. It has all kinds of electronic sides to it. I had this vision for this new instrument. I slowly had been putting it together when they popped up, and it became this great playground. This is one great way of taking it out and developing it further. It's made for trance bands. These kids were born digital. Those sensibilities are innate. It wasn't like me, where I had to learn everything smack dab in the middle of it. They're very good musicians. The oldest guy is 28. I'm 61. They just want to see me collapse behind my kit, but I won't be doing that.

What attracted you most about Particle and the possibilities of making music with them, and how does that translate to performances?
I really like their musical conversation. It's moment music. Jam band doesn't describe it. The Japanese say it's 'the way of going.' These guys have that kind of way about them that I could relate to. I thought it was powerful and fun. This is a fun band. Nobody had to think too hard to make this music. It's more like giving it up than making it up because everybody has skills. It's a chemical thing, just like in the Grateful Dead. It's a group mind, which is one of the principles of trance music, besides repetition. You hold onto it just long enough, then give it up and go somewhere else. Enthusiasm is a big part of this kind music too, as opposed to good taste.

How is Hydra different from Particle and how do you influence that?
It's a lot more electronic. Hydra is full of electronics, but the weave is different because of the interplay of the percussion. It has a stronger backbone. It's a jackhammer groove. There are a lot of possibilities when you have two drummers. I have a different kind of relationship but similar with Billy Kreutzmann of the Dead. Bill and I have that conversation going, but with him, it's been 40 years. We share the same DNA. Darren is a fine drummer. We like each other. The bottom line is, if you play this kind of music, you have to have a mutual respect. Trust in the people you're playing with also is an ingredient of this kind of music. It works well. There's magic in the air. You can cut it with a knife. Whenever that happens, you have to recognize it or else you're a fool or not paying attention. With this, there really is no doubt about it. Compare playing with Darren to being part of the Rhythm Devils. In order to play like me and Kreutzmann, you have to live together, cry together, do everything together for 2,500 shows. It's not that way with Darren because we're just beginning the relationship. Billy and I breathe as one. Hopefully, Darren and I can get to a place similar to that, but the only way to do that is to play.

Are the members of Particle fans of the Dead?
I think so. I know they're familiar with the music. We don't talk too much about the Dead. It's not a topic for conversation. Sometimes when we're playing, some of the Grateful Dead music seeps through the cracks.

What are Hydra's touring and recording plans?
It all depends on how it goes. We're open-ended about this. We went into it like that. We had a great time in the studio. It's a wonderful experiment and a great challenge. I know it will make magic and be a magnificent tour. After we're out there for a while, we may decide to go into the studio (to record) and do future gigs. We'll see. There's no major commitment here. We didn't want to record the music prematurely. It's a live band. We have a whole new repertoire that's not Particle and it's not Dead. It's its own Hydra repertoire. We spent some time in composition, and the influences will be recognized. Fun projects are a natural progression in their careers. It's an unusual occurrence in mine. Not that I need another career, but I sure need the fun. Sometimes the fun is lacking in the music, especially if you're playing big stadiums. But we're playing Roseland in New York. That's a wonderful, great place because you can actually see the people sweat, see their eyeballs popping out. That's great. I love playing in those kinds of places. It's manageable. You actually fit everything into one big truck instead of 20 semis. That's a boon. It's like you're mobile. We can do things at the spur of the moment that we couldn't do with the Dead. I remember we used to show up in a park and play for free. I hope this band does things like that. Of course, we'd get arrested. But we used to do it on a regular basis. We'd play one free and one for pay. We'd play better when we gave it away. I remember we did that at Columbia University. There was a student revolt in 1968. They took over. We played the revolution (laughs).

You come from an era when rock was an art form and the album was its canvas. Given that, how do you feel about downloads?
I think you should pay for intellectual property. To take something without permission is stealing it. If you share it, give to each other, that's one thing. But there's got to be some middle ground. And you can't legislate you're way out of it. It's a moral thing. We chose to give it away. We said, 'Hey, let's make a good record, but if they want to record the concerts, let them go ahead and have it. When we're done with it, you can have it.' But to take someone's intellectual property without consent is not the right thing to do. My daughter is 11. I gave her a download account at ITunes. I've been doing that since ITunes began. She has a computer filled with the latest stuff. It's part of her allowance. She does her chores, and I give her credit at ITunes. That's how I teach her the morality behind it. She says, 'Hey, it's for free. Everybody's doing it.' And I say, 'But that's wrong.' That's not what you do if you want great music to be composed, for songwriters to make new works. That said, it should be fair business. The artists and songwriters should get a fair price. From a CD store, a record company makes millions. Artists make very little off CDs. So people who know the business of it know the morality of it. They make an informed decision: Do I want to keep major labels reaping the profits? There's a lot of inequity with a lot of these things. But I think the album has fallen by the wayside as a part of history. With digital downloads, the sound is better and it's more convenient. I have an IPod, and I use it every day. I have music on it that I love. I don't have to have the whole CD. I just take what I like. But the artist has to be paid for his services. A doctor couldn't work for free all the time. And once you get a taste, you want more.

Did the Dead's allowing tapers pave the road for free downloads?
Here's how it went. We weren't great visionaries allowing people to record our concerts. It's what happened. The fans wanted it, and they kept coming to shows with equipment. The guard would take it away and give them a pink stub so they could claim their equipment on the way out. They came to us and said, 'We need more guards.' We had two choices, let them in or become cops. Now, we didn't want to police the situation, to turn into recording cops. So we just said, 'Let them in. When we're done with it, they can have it.' We didn't have any great business vision. We didn't know it would increase our audience by millions. They started with cassettes. We realized, 'Hey man, the audience is taping, but the real thing is in the board tape, and they'll buy it.' It's about a thirst for music. If it's something rare, like moment music or jam music, people will really want it because it's unique. They have an equity in it because they're there making the music with us. When we play compositions, they're ours, but when we're jamming, the content is the audience's too. They are owners of it in a way, time sharers. It increases the thirst and the hunger. We went to mega-Dead. We couldn't even play stadiums. At one time, we thought about folding the tent. People were being killed, being thrown off balconies, fighting with police. We were like, 'That's not what the Dead is about. This is getting out of hand.' But with digital downloads, it eases that pressure. Everybody is having to be there to share it it; maybe not in that moment, but eventually they'll share it. There's a lot to be said about that. But you have to understand that the musician has to support himself in order to go on writing new material. Particle must be pretty psyched. They're playing with Mickey Hart and opening for Trey Anastasio this spring.

What plans do you have after the Hydra tour is over?
I'm writing and researching books. I enjoy being with my family. I'm recording. I'm doing remote recordings around the world. I just got back from Thailand and going to China to do a major recording over there of indigenous music. And I'm composing. I own my own studio, and I'm working in it every day. I go to work like you do every day. My work is composing music. I do that till dinner time. I live in my music world all day until I pick up my daughter at school and hang out with her. I like to see the leaves fall, the seasons change. All those years on the road, I wasn't able to do that much. I'm not anxious to spend my whole life on the road. There's a balance in life. I'm having fun with it. But I think maybe Hydra will do more gigs. You might see us work some more, maybe record a DVD. Will the Dead tour again? Maybe. We might do a Terrapin Station thing. Hydra might be a part of that.

What do you think of Phil's new book, "Searching for the Sound?"
I haven't really read it. I skimmed it. I don't really read books that dissect the Grateful Dead. But I read some parts. What I read was hilarious. There are some funny moments between me and him, so I read that stuff. It's really funny. But I don't read those books. They're certainly interesting to other people, but I lived it. It's like eating the same food over and over again. I know that Phil worked hard on it, and it's probably a wonderful book. I hope he does well with it. It's good therapy for him.

Bob Makin is an award-winning music writer from New Jersey and co-founding volunteer director of Jersey Jams Fund (, a United Way music education program for NJ children.