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Grateful Dead Legend Mickey Hart Samples 1948 Tobacco Auction Audio for New Song:
The Random Access Musical Universe (RAMU) has allowed Grateful Dead/Dead & Co. percussionist Mickey Hart to do what he likes best -- play with sound. And nowhere is that more true than on his upcoming album RAMU and its opening track, "Auctioneers," which is premiering exclusively below.
The song is built from Library of Congress recordings of a 1948 tobacco auction in Kentucky, over which Hart and his collaborators built an uptempo, polyrhythmic swirl of sound. "It's the rhythm of the auctioneers, that's the energy of (the track)," Hart, who works regularly with the Library of Congress as well as Smithsonian Folkways, tells Billboard. "They're selling tobacco, but at such a rapid speed that it's just fantastic, rhythmically, and it has a melody to it and it fits into the dance. It's kind of a precursor to rap, in some ways. So I just created something on top of that old sound recording."
For Hart, that's also illustrative of the mission he brings to his solo music.
"I want people to appreciate and understand what's lying in the archives of the world, just sitting there waiting to be discovered," explains Hart, who began developing RAMU -- which he describes as "a digital data base" for composition and sound organization -- during the '80s and has continued to refine the device, which he also uses in live performance, over the years. "I live with that stuff all the time, just being in the archives all these years. I've got my finger on the button there, and I've always loved it. All these things have never really coexisted; I mean, I've found things that never coexisted before and kind of married them and the music. You can really have fun with it, and 'Auctioneers' is a perfect example of that."
The RAMU album, due out Nov. 10, is not devoid of human input, mind you. Hart's collaborators on his 14th solo set include vocalists Tank (Tank and the Bangas) and Avey Tare (Animal Collective), as well as Dead & Co. bassist Oteil Burbridge, guitarist Steve Kimock, the String Cheese Incident's Jason Hahn, Planet Drum cohorts Zakir Hussain and Sikiru Adepoju and others. Longtime Dead conspirator Robert Hunter provided lyrics, and the track "Jerry" even features samples of the late Jerry Garcia experimenting with MIDI guitar during the late '80s.
But Hart strove to push RAMU beyond conventional approaches.
"I didn't want it to sound like a standard record by any stretch of the imagination," Hart says. "I didn't want to use cliche elements that you would normally put in a pop or rock 'n' roll (album). I didn't use much bass at all, very little guitar, no keyboards, not a lot of cymbals, not a lot of tom-toms leading into verses, choruses or bridges. I pulled out a lot of those things that I identify with modern music. I was looking for the new."
Hart plans to tour in support of RAMU -- "someday," he says, when his "day job" in Dead & Co. allows. That group hits the road again this fall, playing the Band Together Bay Area benefit for wildfire victims in northern California on Nov. 9 in San Francisco before starting a tour with shows Nov. 12 and 14 at New York's Madison Square Garden and running through Dec. 8. "There's really hardly any words to describe it 'cause it's so good now," Hart says of the troupe, which also features Dead mates Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann as well as John Mayer. "We finally know how to do it, I think, after 50-some odd years. I think we finally figured it out." Dead & Co. has been touring regularly since early 2016, and Hart says the group, which focuses on a Grateful Dead repertoire, may also produce some new music of its own.
"We've talked about it," Hart says. "We've got some new songs from Hunter, and we're considering it, just thinking about schedules and when we want to go in the studio and so forth and so on. It's one of those things; We were never a great studio band. All the fun is really live. The only reason to go into the studio is to learn new songs. So we never really excelled as a serious studio band. There are a few studio records that have stood out in the past, but it's really our live performances -- and it's not just the music but kind of a community experience when people come. It really is about them, not us. I think the music is secondary in some ways. We're kind of just the soundtrack, just like it's always been."