The Grateful Dead’s Billy Kreutzmann & Mickey Hart

What happens during a Kreutzmann-Hart solo is unique; totally out of, and above, the ordinary.Their performance is the perfect wedding of music and theater.

They have reached this point in their development through their own approach, concepts, and individual techniques. Their approach to music is open ended and continues to evolve. Their techniques are geared to serve their personal drumming styles. Equally important, their methods of practice and physical fitness training are designed to fulfill their specific drumming needs.

What Mickey and Bill play is a mixture of many forms—rock, jazz, country. Latin, etc. They venture into time signatures and pulses most drummers shy away from. It is true fusion.

BK: When I was in 6th grade, I got kicked out of the orchestra because the teacher said that I couldn’t keep time on the bass drum! I was so hurt. In fact, I’ll never forget it. That is the most negative thing a teacher can say to a youngster. To turn off a kid at that age is criminal. Because of that incident, I left music for awhile. Yet, it was that kind of thing that made me real gutsy. I said to myself, “Am I going to let this teacher tell me that I can’t be a drummer? Hell no!” So about a year and a half later, I found my first private teacher. His fee was 3 dollars a half-hour. After the lesson, he’d let me play on his drums for hours. Eventually, I bought his drumset, and paid him 5 dollars a month, which I earned from my paper route. Well, the drum set was too large for my bedroom, so my dad gave me the garage to practice in. One Sunday afternoon, while mom and dad were in the backyard, and I was in the garage pounding away, one of our neighbors took a baseball bat and began pounding on the garage. I’m playing, and all of a sudden I hear this BAM, BAM,BAM! Then, I hear my dad holler, “You S.O.B., don’t ever again say anything to my son about playing the drums!” You see, the neighbor was trying to listen to a baseball game. My dad practically jumped over the fence and went after the guy! That will give you some idea of the support I got from my dad.

MH: I went through the same thing. Neighbors would come to the door to complain, but my mother would say, “He’s going to be a drummer!” And they would say, “Oh, yeah? Over my dead body.” Supportive parents are so very important. My advice to a young drummer is, “Man, get good parents!” It’s especially difficult for drummers’ parents, because drums are so loud and drummers often sound so bad when they are beginners.

CI: As soon as some parents realize their child wants to play the drums they say, “Wow, what did we get ourselves into?”

BK: My dad never said that. And my mother was teaching dance at Stanford University at the time, so loud sounds were everyday stuff to her. Anyway, I left home when I was 16. Before I knew I was going to be a drummer, say about eight-years old, my mother would have me tap out the beat on an old American Indian drum for her dance class. She would say, “Oh isn’t he cute, that’s my son!” She was an effective teacher. She taught me about bars and pulse, where the first beat of the bar fell, and so forth. She knew intuitively where the different beats of the bar belonged, and she taught it to me. That’s a true story. Both my parents were really supportive. They loved music. Maybe it was because they were happy.

MH: Did you know that my mother was a rudimental drummer?

BK: Your mother? I thought it was your dad.

MH: They both were. That’s how they met. My mother was World Champion Rudimental Drummer. My father was Senior Champion at the 1939 World’s Fair.

BK: I honestly didn’t know that!

MH: She taught me all the rudiments. My father left when I was young, so my mother took over and she made it happen for me. I still have my father’s practice pad and all his sticks.

You know I never even talked about this before. This is very interesting. It’s just something that is taken for granted. No one ever talks about it. We lived in an apartment. This guy who lived upstairs came in at 5 o’clock after working all day on a construction job. I lived upstairs with my mother and I started playing at 3 o’clock and didn’t stop until 9 or 10. And I mean she had to defend my rights as a person. If she didn’t defend it, I would not be a drummer because I would have broken down and…

BK: You would have been scared by the guy because you were a kid.

MH: He would have stopped me. This is such an important thing.

CP: The interaction between the two of you is excellent: You coincide, echo, answer, and play independently of each other. And you do the same with the rest of the group. Each of you represents an additional and important musical voice. Another thing, your patterns are centered around the clave beat and take the form of meter within meter—3 + 3 + 2’s and the like. Very inventive stuff. You two are not rock drummers in the strict sense of the term, you’re freer, more improvisational.

MH: Thank you.

BK: That’s a complement to the whole group, because the Dead plays more than one kind of music, and Mickey and I are given the space to speak our minds musically. I can play rock-and-roll in my sleep, that’s no big deal. But to improvise is another matter. That’s where you have to be creative.

MH: It’s personal. We take a rhythm and it’s not just, “ooka cha ka, ooka cha ka,” there’s a place where we put it that makes it our own.

BK: It’s like a personality.

MH: We make it more than just a rhythmic statement.

CP: It’s not coming out of a method book, that’s for sure.

BK: We can tell you ways we think about stuff. Mickey and I, these last few nights, have agreed to get a 6-beat pattern going. I just feel it, and then if I’m holding down that 6, I’m not going to make it sound 1,2,3,4,5,6. I’m going to play it as melodically as I can, and that will give Mickey the freedom to play over and around it.

CP: But you know how to listen to each other.

BK: This is the key. If you’re going to teach any person that’s learning to drum, teach them to listen.

MH: To listen, man, it’s so hard.

CP: Many drummers don’t like to listen to anyone but themselves. It takes a bit of doing to get them to open their ears.

MH: They haven’t found the best part of music yet.

BK: They won’t ever be in a band that’s worth anything until they learn how to give.

MH: I rarely listen to my own music, but I do listen to everyone else’s. Therefore, I get a perspective of who I am, what’s happening around me, and where it came from. That makes me more aware. When people like Billy Cobham, and others, who are really good at what they do, come into our world and are moved by it, that says something to me because I respect them.

There’s a new thing happening with drummers, at least with the people I hang out with. There’s a much freer give and take with far greater communication. It’s getting easier to hang out with other drummers, whereas they were once my least-favorite people. Now, however, we have a more collective exchange of ideas.

When I sit with Airto—that’s discovery! We trade knowledge about different instruments from around the world. For instance, he turned me on to the great Brazilian martial-arts instrument, the Barimbau, and I showed him percussion instruments from Ghana.

CP: How can one continue to discover the new after so many years?

MH: Begin by developing a frame of mind that is conducive to discovery. Put yourself in situations that lend themselves to discovery. Associate with people who have good minds, who are alive, and seek the adventure and thrill of investigation, learning, and discovery.

I think Kreutzmann and I are on the right track. Drums are taking us to a new art form, to a new way of saying something. A merging that’s now showing itself to he capable of functioning collectively and still leaves us enough room and time to develop individually.

There was a time when I played Buddy Rich’s solos, but it’s not relative anymore. Needless to say, Buddy is an outstanding drummer. He’s best at the form he plays. That’s why there is little value in emulating it. It’s Buddy’s—period. You have to say to yourself, “I’m not going to attempt to play like Buddy Rich.” He’s the expert at it. If I were some young drummer coming up, I wouldn’t want to be Mickey Hart. I’d strive to be myself, whoever that might be.

CI: Billy, do you read music?

BK: I can’t read music.

CP: But neither does Buddy Rich. That doesn’t matter where creativity is concerned.

BK: But reading is an art.

CP: In a way, sometimes depending on one’s reading skill, interpretation, etc. It can also be strictly a mechanical skill and not musical.

BK: I know what you mean, but I would love to get a hold of some traditional African rhythms and be able to notate them to see what they look like.

CP: But African musicians don’t read either.

BK: No, but I’d like to analyze their music by writing it. Now I do it by ear.

CI: That would be very difficult to notate because the playing is so personal.

MH: Where you place the pulse is also very important.

CP: Look, you two guys could write down everything you play, but no other two drummer/musicians would be able to play it with your exact interpretation.

BK: That’s a point well made.

MH: Kreutzmann always talks about “massaging” the beat. And it describes the way we play. We creep up on it, we climb on top of it, and we’ll come in the back door, so it’s elasticity. It’s the way it breathes. It has natural movement.

CI: You solo very well together. Were there times in the past when you got in each other’s way?

BK: Sure, you always go through that, maybe before you learn to love each other. It also happened because neither of us were that good at soloing together. At that time, the idea of two drummers playing one solo was new. No one had ever done it. Another reason we work so well together is that we have completely different personalities, which complement one another.

MH: Kreutzmann and I beat in the same time. Sometimes before the show we’ll feel each other’s pulse. We just sit there a minute or so holding each other by the neck to feel it. Sometimes we’re right there. True, we have different metabolisms, but we beat in the same time. Airto and I do the same thing. You start playing with some people and it’s really easy, and you wonder why. Usually, you’ll find there’s some kind of common denominator in the pulse rate. I think both physiological and psychological factors are involved here.

CP: Tell us about the drum solos.

MH: They are a musical conversation that takes place within a flexible structure which allows us to respond freely to one another’s ideas. Long ago Bill and I agreed not to prearrange what we play; that’s why we never wind up in a dead end. We’d rather play something new, and take a chance of it not coming off, rather than settling for something safe. Sure, it’s hard to resist rearranging something that we know is going to work up the audience to where they will be clapping and screaming. The temptation is great, especially in front of a large audience! But we don’t get caught-up in a situation where the audience plays the band. If you have an audience that listens like a Grateful Dead audience, they’ll tune into what you’re saying and allow you the room for exploration, which eventually leads to that famous link between audience and performer.

CP: I notice that sooner or later in every solo there’s a “six” or triplet pulse.

BK: Yeah. I find the Afro 6/8 a very compelling rhythm. We establish the 6/8 pulse, give it a firm foundation, then Mickey plays the stick talking drum while I play the hand talking drum. The African talking drum has a tone I just can’t believe. They use it in Ghana to communicate over long distances.

CP: There is a lot of joy, fun and happiness that flashes back and forth between the two of you in performance.

MH: Yeah! When we play drums, even though it’s sometimes fierce, it’s friendly. There’s no hostility.

BK: If we ever have trouble getting along while playing it’s usually because I’m mad at something. But it has nothing to do with Mickey, or vice versa.

CP: I don’t sense any hostility in your playing.

BK: Oh, sometimes I get mad because my bass drum pedal isn’t working, and my equipment guy doesn’t pick up on it immediately so I sit there kicking it with my foot. But that’s just to get his attention so he will fix the thing.

The other night, one of the video technicians made a funny comment to me. He said, “Billy, sometimes you look so mean when you’re playing.” I told him that he really misconstrued the look on my face; that it’s just concentration. I don’t feel mean when I play.

CI: What’s your opinion on some of the other rock bands who use two drummers?

BK: There are other rock bands who use two drummers who don’t impress me in the least. They mimic. They play the exact same thing.

CP: I don’t know of any other drummers who play so well, so musically together.

MH: We’re not into copying each other. You know what Cobham said last night? He said, “It takes so much compassion and understanding to do what you guys are doing. It’s so compelling, how could someone not dance to it? Now I understand why there isn’t more double-drumming, because it’s so hard to do well. But when it’s done well, it’s magnificent.”

CI: I’ve heard you both play as one drummer and then break away into two completely different rhythm patterns.

MH: That’s interesting because it also gives the guitar players other opportunities and other rhythmic possibilities.

CI: Did you ever feel there was a particular drummer that you just couldn’t play with?

MH: If that happened it was usually an ego problem.

CP: Do you ever run into that problem with other instrumentalists?

MH: When groups get together I think that’s part of it. But when they share common experiences over an extended period of time, and become familiar with one another, they are able to relax and talk simply and easily about important ideas. What might be thought of as complex ideas, concepts, and feelings can be reduced to more simple terms through music. It’s communication of a higher level, something other than verbal. Emotionally, more important things can be expressed through music than through language. I think everyone would want to be a musician if they knew the “getoff’ of being a musician. I can’t imagine anyone turning their back on it if they got a taste of playing music when it’s at its best.

CI: With all the equipment involved in a Grateful Dead concert, your drum roadie, Ramrod, must be a very important part of your crew.

BK: He’s easily as important as any musician.

MH: With this many drums to care for. when we walk up there, everything must be set to go. If the cymbal is a half-aninch off, we’re going to rip our hands because we are moving at rapid speeds within these drums. He’s developed an art form in transporting delicate percussion instruments over long distances safely and bringing them back intact. He does this effortlessly, accurately, and with love. You couldn’t pay him enough to make him as precise as Kreutzmann and I demand.

BK: If Ramrod gets to read this, I would like to thank him for his dedication and the quality of his care.

CI: What is the Beast?

MH: Basically, what it is right now is suspended drums. Large metallics and wooden drums suspended with congas, eight roto-toms, Octobans, cymbals and a marimba.

CP: This whole thing you’re calling the Beast?

MH: Yes, the whole thing is the Beast.

BK: The Beast keeps having babies.

MH: The Beast grows. It never stops evolving.

BK: It’s like cells dividing. Growth. The first fertilization was in Mickey’s mind. He had this concept of this circle of drums and now it has kept growing and growing.

MH: We are trying to make melody, harmony and rhythm. It’s a 20th Century percussion instrument basically.

BK: Before you know it, you’ll see other percussionists copying it. I’ll tell you something that happened to me. I found a little 14″ Sonor floor tom, took the legs off and put a rack mount on it. About three years ago, Mr. Charlie Alden came to Boston to see Mickey and me play. Mickey took him on stage, and Alden noticed that we had mounted a deep 14″ drum. Now, Sonor is putting out Signature series with deep drums. Where do you think they got that idea?

CI: Let’s talk alittle about the Beam.

MH: It’s a large I-beam 14-feet long with piano strings stretched end to end, with bridges on either side. A large magnetic pick-up was built to accurately reproduce the enormous density of this low stringed instrument. I used it in Apocalypse Now for the Napalm, and as sound reinforcement for the artillery.

The Beam is played with a Superball mounted on a chop stick, with finger picks and sometimes a large L-shaped aluminum rod.

It is usually tuned to some open tun ing, to some kind of chord. I get a wide variety of sound out of it. ranging from an explosion to a high bell-like sound which has unearthly qualities. Francis Coppola was a great admirer of the Beam and used it freely through Apocalypse Now.

CP: How about the Gumbe?

MH: The Gumbe is an interesting drum from Ghana. You use one foot to depress the head behind you as you sit on it. It can be played with mallets or your hands. We took a primitive instrument, updated it and made it tunable, which allows it a larger range with more flexibility.

CI: What is the heritage of the Barimbau?

MH: The Barimbau is from Brazil. It’s a string instrument similar to a music bow, with a gourd on one end. To play it, the string is struck with a thin piece of bamboo.

When the people of Brazil had their weapons taken away from them by the ruling class, they turned to the martial arts. The Barimbau was used to induce the right state of mind for practicing the martial arts, which were outlawed. When their captors would walk in on them, the people would play the Barimbau and dance. But when their captors left, the people would return to the martial arts.

This instrument can really grab hold of you. I once found myself neglecting my family and everything else, just practicing the Barimbau for days and weeks on end. I called Airto and asked, “Hey, Airto, what the hell’s happening? What is this instrument all about?” He said, “Well, look man, it’s the real thing. They use it in the jungle for the very thing you’re doing right now.” No wonder this instrument grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. Months later I wound up saying, “Holy shit, I’ve been sitting here and practicing the Barimbau six hours a day.” And one day I looked around the house and realized there were seven or eight Barimbaus hanging up all
over the place.

I get into things like that and lose myself. But that’s how I learn different instruments, one by one, spending a lot of time with each. Whenever I’m not doing anything I pick up an instrument and devour it. Sometimes I really get into it and wind up in never-never land. It’s not entertainment. It’s a whole other world.

To help me get into the spirit of an instrument, I cook the native foods of the instrument’s mother country. It’s a little game that makes learning the instrument more authentic, more interest ing. Sometimes I simply can’t sit down with a method book. I like to know the instrument and the culture, etc. of its native land.

CI: Tell me about the suspended drums.

MH: We’re suspending three conga drums in the Beast. I really tighten them up and play them with sticks. They sound like cannons. The sound shoots out immediately as you strike the drum.

CI: The very large drums on the Beast’s right, were they custom made?

MH: We made those drums. We rolled our own steel and welded it. Then we got our own tension rods and counter hoops. It wasn’t easy keeping it round. I needed it to get that big sound for the air strike scene in Apocalypse. What gets big sound is big drums, so we built big drums. We hang them up in the air, wide open, and when you throw them through the best P.A. in the world, it sounds like the coming of the end of the world. They’ve got those big, dark, rich tones. We go to any lengths to reproduce that sound accurately. Our sound system is pure, you can really see the shape. It’s like sound sculpting.

CI: Does the sound of the audience interfere with your sound sculpting?

MH: I cut the people out. When I’m into it, I don’t even know anyone’s there. If you’re thinking about the audience, then you’re really far away from where you have to be. Once in awhile, when the cheering overpowers the drums, then of course, it’s disturbing. It breaks my concentration. You could be into something really delicate, frantic, or intense, and it takes everything you have just to stay there. Suddenly, you’re distracted by all this energy coming at you.

CI: Why haven’t you endorsed any particular brand of drums?

MH: Why? Because a kid who goes into a store and buys a Mickey Hart drumset doesn’t know that Mickey Hart takes off all the lugs, stuffs them individually with felt, etc., and changes all the hardware, even though he loves the shells. You can’t put that in an ad! So. I don’t do ads.

Moreover, I haven’t come across a company that’s truly responsive to the individual drummer’s needs, say, mine or Bill’s. I won’t endorse something I don’t fully believe in. Neither will Bill.

CI: How do you prepare yourself for a performance?

MH: I raise my awareness by a slow psych (psychological process) beginning several hours before the show. I begin with mental and physical exercises, and continue building my personal stream of consciousness which, of necessity, gradually screens out external distractions. I become increasingly clear the closer we get to the performance. By the time I go on stage, I’m in an altered state of consciousness, and able to address my instrument freely, with a clear mind. And I achieve this state without drugs.

For instance, I don’t use cocaine before I play because it affects the auditory nerve. In frequency response, cocaine rolls your highs and lows off. It desensitizes your inner ear.

I’ve measured frequency response before and after getting high. You get phase-shift. You’re creating a mirage— an audio hallucination. You see things falsely. The harmonics become less apparent. You have an unbalanced spectrum of frequency response. Moreover, I don’t like coke because of what it does to my timing. It alters my concentration in a way that makes time too elastic. Furthermore, it causes me to lose compassion. Cocaine doesn’t induce warmth. It’s a cold drug, and one needs sympathy in music.

Let it be understood that every person has his own chemical balance; that I’ve chosen my own way, as everyone must. What works for me is not for everyone. And I don’t advocate drugs for anyone, for any reason.

Look, drumming itself can put you in an altered state—if you stay with it long enough. The idea is to concentrate fully, without being disturbed by outside influences, so as to work yourself into the desired state of mind. That doesn’t require drugs.

Let’s talk about the physiological aspects of playing drums and the importance of being in top physical condition. Today’s drumming burns up a great deal of energy. To do the job right, therefore, you have to be able to stand the pace, which can become furious at times. If a drummer is not in good shape, his out-of condition body will eventually have some kind of adverse affect on his playing.

The weirdest thing in drumming is to feel that your hands and feet are not part of your body. So when I wake up in the morning, I verbally greet them. I address them to make contact with them. If it’s done early in the morning, then I’m able to stay with it all day. After that, I get out on the road and run—rain or shine. That gets the cardio vascular part of the body working to get the blood flowing and take in fresh oxygen. After running, I go to the punching bag. It develops endurance for holding your hands and arms above your shoulders while rapidly striking a moving object. It also develops fast reflexes and sharper coordination of eye, mind, hands, and feet. Next, I do push-ups, sit-ups and judo squats. I then go to the gym and use the Nautilus machine, and then I go into the sauna. After eating, I loosen up with stretching exercises and isometrics. Then I’m ready to begin practicing.

The idea is to have some kind of consistency that your muscles can respond to. If I’m on the road, I get up earlier than usual. That’s all there is to it. You’ve got to make time for it. I do all of that three days a week, and on the other days I do yoga, which teaches you how to breathe.

You have to be an athlete to deal with the kind of music we’re talking about; drumming at that level of intensity. You have to say up on it. Then, I think you will enjoy your optimal potential for a long time to come. Picasso, Van Gogh and Dali worked at those high levels of intensity, and they weren’t youngsters, chronologically speaking. It may take fifty years to be a great musician. So you better stay in shape—mentally and physically. In fact, it takes many years to develp a mode, finding out where you’re at, and then dealing with it. Look at the great violinists who have been playing 20, 30, 50 years. In fact, when we (the Grateful Dead) went to Egypt, I met hundred-year-old drummers who began playing drums when they were three years old! They were actually playing 90 or so years! They told me the same thing: Drumming began getting really clear to them after they were playing for fifty years! It was at that point that they began to get a certain clarity to their work, and could interpret their feelings more accurately. They weren’t necessarily faster, but they were considerably more accurate.

CI: Mickey, tell us about the warm-up exercises you do.

MH: I do singles and doubles, using my fingers, wrists, and arms, and try to isolate them. I’ll use my left stick alone for a good while with just my little finger. Then my next finger, and so on. I take them one by one and put them together. That’s the way I’ve been doing it lately, and it works very well for me. The idea is to loosen up before you play. The looser you are when you go on stage, the sooner you will hit your stride. The danger in not warming up is that you may incur stress on portions of your body that can least take it. If you grab a stick and hit a rim shot, the concussion will travel up the arm, through the elbow, shoulder, and neck. If you shock your body regularly before warming up, there’s a good chance that you might develop arthritis or some other such thing.

When warming-up, start easily, gradually building up to performance level, and then stop. By then, your mind and body will be properly geared for performance. I begin working on my pad about an hour to an hour-and-a-half before the show. In that way, I reach the desired level of preparedness about 5 or 10 minutes before I go on stage.

CI: Do you practice during intermission to maintain your performance level?

MH: I’m always on the sticks during intermission. I go right to the dressing room and pick up either a talking drum or a practice pad. I don’t sit around doing nothing—I might get cold.

CI: Have you ever had nights when one of you was a bit down and in a slump? How does that affect the Grateful Dead’s percussion team?

BK: If he is low, I help him get up. It’s very rare that we are both low at the same time.

MH: When we’re low, we don’t smile. When we’re happy, we smile. We are not entertainers; we don’t put on an act.

BK: If Mickey’s feeling great and he has the energy that I need, it makes me come back up to feeling good again.

MH: Sometimes, when I’m distracted by something in the audience, Kreutzmann will say, “Look at me. Don’t even look at them.” He pulls me right back in where I belong.

CP: How can one make a living playing music, and continue to grow artistically?

MH: One way is by retaining your musical integrity. Another is by not prostitut ing your life playing horrible music simply for the bucks. If you do, you’re living a false life, and ultimately, your music will become a representation of that hypocrisy. That’s why so many guys are junkin’ out and going crazy, because they are not tuned-in to what they are playing! But what do they expect? When a true musician sells out for money, music is going to come back and bite him. You don’t mess around with music— it’s a serious art. Fun, yes, but nevertheless serious. It’s not a cheap thrill. But only real musicians would know that.

CI: It’s really difficult to put down the cats who are caught in the economic trap. You know, play bad music or stop eating regularly.

MH: I’m not putting anyone down, but some people are simply not cut out for serious music, whereas they’re fine for the show-business thing. Any performer should consider himself lucky to play music. I do, and they should too. Success depends on how diligently you investigate your art, and how well you maintain a high artistic level. Maybe you can work at being an artist and making a living at the same time. That’s why I study a lot and continually up-grade myself as a 20th century percussionist/ drummer. But I think almost any talented drummer can do it his own way.

CI: Both of you have a very intense interest and love for the instrument. How has this affected the other members of the Grateful Dead?

MH: It opens up the world of rhythmic alternatives to them. Jerry Garcia says that looking at us is like watching a snake eating its tail—our movement is perpetual. One thing crawls inside the other. What we play will be interpreted by him in his way, and we throw ideas back and forth. The next thing you know, there’s something of value, and it’s more than any one of us individually.

BK: When Mickey and I are happening, the band’s happening. Even if one of the other musicians isn’t happening, if Mickey and I are, we pull the band together.

MH: The Grateful Dead is an organism. It has many heads, and we drive it.