Mickey Hart on Dead & Company’s Staggering Sphere Run and His Vegas Art Exhibition: ‘The Stars Are Aligned for Us’

There are subwoofers embedded in the seats of Las Vegas’ Sphere, which is part of the reason why Mickey Hart’s nightly extended percussion segment, titled simply “Drums,” is one of the clear highlights of Dead & Company’s current 30-show residency at the venue. But that’s not the only great use Hart has been making of low-end frequencies that people can experience when they come in for a show by the Grateful Dead offshoot.

Next door to Sphere, at the Venetian resort, a gathering space called Dead Forever is being anchored by an exhibition of dozens of Hart’s paintings. His method in creating these works is to gather a unique blend of paints and then let very loud speakers make the colors dance. Hart has adopted the term “vibrational expressionism” for this visual artwork, although obviously it applies in some way to everything he does, not least of all to giving Sphere-goers an all-new understanding of what a bottom end can really be.

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Between Dead & Company’s weekend engagements at Sphere, Hart got on a Zoom call to discuss the pieces he’s put on display at the Venetian as well as his contributions toward blowing Dead fans’ minds for at least one more run across the street.

Where are you as we speak right now?

I’m back home in Northern California now for a couple of days off, and then I’m going back in a few days and go after it again. It’s a new experience for us. We’ve never played in a place this long, ever. We played like 13 Madison Square Gardens or something once, but this is more than that. This is going to be a real run.

It must be gratifying for you, when you get to hear people saying that the nightly “Drums”/”Space” segment that focuses on your percussion is a highlight of the Sphere show, and that your work is really augmented so much by what’s happening on the screens.

Yeah. Well the big get-off for me is all those drums that you see rotating and flying and hanging and moving (on the overhead screens) — that’s my collection! It’s part of my collection of drums, which have been 3D-photographed. Each instrument has its own story, its own history, and I know them like the back of my hand. They are like children, or fellow travelers if you will. I’ve been collecting and playing these drums for over 50 or almost 60 years. So just seeing these babies that large, it’s really a get-off for me. Because I spent all my time with these instruments over my lifetime, and it’s very gratifying that people are enjoying the drums so much. I’m getting the most incredible feedback.

You had a very rare vocal moment the other night, during the third night of the Sphere run.

I rapped a “Fire on the Mountain” the third night of the shows, which is back to where it originally started when Jerry and I created it. I can’t really sing in the proper sense of the word. Jerry started singing it, but he wanted me to sing it, but I said, “No, no, no, no, man. You do it, you sing it.” And then I thought, well, after all of this, I wanted to take my baby back and let the people hear all of the verses that (lyricist Robert) Hunter wrote that fateful day. We were in my studio in Novato, and there on the hill across the road, there was a dairy farm and a blaze, a grass fire. The kids came running into the studio, saying, “There’s fire on the mountain, come watch it.” I thought they might be joking, but all of us, including Hunter, went out, and enough… And so Hunter just took it (and wrote the verses) and he said, “Go in and sing it.” So I did. Now it’s really a joy to take it back again and let them hear the way it originally was written.

No one knew I was going to do it, and the whole place went completely nuts when they heard it. The whole place went completely nuts. Because they all knew there was one version I did in 1972, my rap version, and people have been after me for all these years to do it, and I never thought it was right or didn’t want to do it, for whatever reason. That was a big get-off on the third night, the rapping version of “Fire” — I never got a reaction like that in my life.

Some of your art is being projected on the exterior, or exoskeleton, of Sphere as people come in or exit. And then that is some of your art we see during “Drums,” too, when we’re not seeing the 3D renderings of your drum collection, right?

I’m very honored that they chose my art to project on the exosphere. It looks fantastic at night. I mean, the Sphere is 360-some odd feet, so when you see your art in those proportions, it’s a whole different ballgame. I’m learning a lot from the proportions and what the Sphere does to my art… And yes, we are using some of the art during the show in “Drums,” and in “Space,” of course. The (paintings) will appear and they’re being mutated and transformed in some ways by the very creative forces that the Sphere can apply to visuals.

Remember, this is a very sophisticated, very complicated robot we’re dealing with. I mean, it’s like being in the belly of a giant robot, and a very smart one, I might add, that is designed for sound and lights, as opposed to a football stadium or other theaters that are not really designed for sound and lights. This one was brilliantly designed to accommodate very sophisticated lighting and extraordinarily high definition. And the dimensions of it are incredible, and the movement — you don’t know if you’re moving or if it’s moving, when you look at it. I saw Bono and U2 in it when they first opened up, so I had a sense of the grand proportions of it.

But I’m using low-end frequencies, which vibrate the seats as well. So you can take a ride as well. You know, you get a little anal excitement there. You get a bone conduction that helps and, all of a sudden, you’re in another world. It’s not just your ears, it’s your whole body as a musical instrument, and that’s a different kind of music, and very visceral and vibratory in nature. It’s powerful.

I did get a tip that, for other portions of the show, standing might be fine, but for the “Drums” segment, you need to be sure to sit down so you can feel the rhythms literally coming out of your seats. And I’m glad I did, because I could probably go to all 24 nights of the engagement and not get tired of hearing and feeling that part of the show.

The funny thing about that, since you mentioned it, is that someone noticed and told me that sometimes people are lying down on the floor (during that segment) and looking up at the visuals, because it’s a 360 kind of a thing that’s never happened before. People are feeling it in that respect — they’re putting the sound and lights together in their own way by looking up while they’re feeling it vibrate from the floor. So that’s fascinating.

During the couple nights that I saw the show, it looked like you’re very intent on your work most of the time. But as your own image was being magnified on a big screen within a big screen, I noticed you looking up once or twice, spontaneously, like you kind of had the passing impulse that you should look in and take in the whole scope of it yourself.

Yeah. Once in a while I do. I can’t do it very often, because it’ll throw me off, because there’s a delay between the sound and the light, and it’s hard to keep the groove going when you’re not exactly in sync. But the people see it in sync. Yeah, it is a new kind of experience, this spherical arena. Normally if you are thinking of playing in a spherical venue, it’s kind of suicidal. Everything’s bouncing around all over; you can’t tell where anything’s coming from. But what we have here is an extraordinary system where everybody supposedly hears the same sound, wherever you are. Now, I don’t know if that is true or not, but I think it mostly is.

At its best, these are alchemical moments; when it all comes together, the sound and the lights, it’s magic, it’s glorious. It’s way different than a concert in a stadium or in a shed or in a theater, because this is designed for sound and lights. These are very smart computers and the people that are running it are very skilled. What you see is being played in real time, by somebody there who’s playing it. This is real-time performance visuals. It’s different than just playing loops and so forth. So it’s interactive and it’s in the moment, which is kind of cool.

Let’s talk about your art exhibit, at the Dead Forever exhibition in the Venetian, adjacent to Sphere, which has a really healthy selection of your work. Is is correct that this is actually your first solo exhibition?

No, it’s not my first, but it’s the most paintings that I’ve ever exhibited. I’ve done a couple of small ones on the east coast, but nothing of consequence; this is the real deal.

How long have have you been doing this type of artwork?

Well, maybe about 25 years. It started as a hobby and it kind of got out of hand as I really got into it and loved it. To me it was just like music. It’s improvisational, only it’s in the visual domain. And I approach it very much like I do when I approach the stage: I try to empty my mind of everything. Pretty much (the cerebral part is) the mixing of the paints. That’s something that you have to really focus on. They call this “vibrational expressionism” — which is kind of cool, I kind of like that, because that’s really what it is.

What’s the best description for your painting method?

I use the Pythagorean monochord, what they call the beam, through a subwoofer. And I use the low-end vibrations to vibrate the paints, which come up through each other, revealing these amazing details that you can never paint. You couldn’t really actually do this — they have to form through the vibratory nature of it, and it just births right in front of you. You cannot tell exactly how it’s going to go, because I put different frequencies into each of the works, whether it be on canvas, wood, plexiglass, glass, whatever surface. The vibrations drive it and bring it to life.

How much of this work do you do?

I paint a lot. I work at it quite a bit. These are improvisational in nature. And you know what happens in improvisation? You fail sometimes. They don’t measure up to what you would call art, you know — a reflection of society and of your own consciousness. I practice a lot — in my music, I practice, and you have to practice this stuff. It’s not a seat-of-the-pants kind of thing in that respect. It takes hundreds and hundreds of paintings to become consistent. You’re always looking for the magic no matter what you do, whether it be audio or visual. Some of them are not worth seeing. Others, perhaps, are awesome, and those are the ones that make it to the galleries, are the ones that I just think are superb, that do a thing that take you to a place and raise your consciousness, get you high, make you happy. You know, meditation is a good word to use in this kind of work. It has, to me, meditative qualities to it. If you look at it long enough, you can see things into it. Just like music — if you listen carefully, all of a sudden music turns into something quite different than just applause. You feel it in a different place, and that’s where my work is headed.

I noticed that, in terms of just the shapes of the paintings, a lot of them — not all of them, but many — are circular. I just had to to wonder if, being a drummer, where a lot of what you’re playing is circular, maybe you are drawn to that.

[He jabs his finger, in a knowing or approving fashion.] Yeah, very good. Very good! But… no, not necessarily. It’s more cosmic, it’s planetary. Because I do a lot of work in the cosmos; because I sonify a lot of planets, stars, cosmic events. So I’m thinking of that when I am coaching the easel. It talks of the Big Bang. You know, it comes from 13.8 billion years ago, when the universe was created and the beat started — the groove, downbeat, the Big Bang, they call it singularity, whatever you wanna call it. It’s a reflection of all of those vibrations that are washing over us.

And yet it is true that the drum is round. It’s a circle. But so are planets, as well. So my paintings are not necessarily reflective of drums, even though they are in the round. I don’t like edges, really, that much. I’m not really into squares so much, and right angles. I mean, they’re OK! I appreciate them. But for me, I love the spherical nature of shapes, because there’s no beginning and there’s no end, as opposed to a square or a rectangle or a triangle.

It sounds like you’re in a great place right now, between what people are experiencing of your musical work on a nightly basis inside Sphere, and then having this daily Dead Forever exhibition where people are discovering this whole other side of you.

That’s really gratifying and humbling, actually, to be honest with you. I mean, they just love the art. You prepare for anything, but when people really give you very powerful feedback on it, it feels good. And it makes them feel good. It takes them to a place, which is what art is all about. It’s an escape from reality into another virtual place, which is consciousness-raising. You need that in this crazy fucking world that we are living in now. Anything that does that helps.

Is that a good description of how you want people to feel when they experience what you do, in art or music? That they’re escaping this world somehow?

Yeah, you bet. I mean, reality is one thing. Art is not necessarily reality in that respect. It takes you to a new head space. It’s transformative in nature. It’s like the business of transportation. It’s really, what business are you are really in? What are you really delivering? And you hope you’re delivering a consciousness-raising that people love and that they take home and they do some good with it. I mean, I would hope that people wouldn’t just leave it there. I would hope that the feeling they take home would be something of great value to their family, their friends, to themselves.

I don’t see a concert ending at the end of the concert. A good concert should take someone to another place in their daily reality. When you come back down off of that high, you should take some of that with you and make a better world. Certainly not make make it worse; I would not think that your art would make somebody go out and commit something that was not consciousness-raising. No matter what kind of art it is, it’s supposed to raise your consciousness, and if it doesn’t, it’s not real art. It’s probably the numbers kind of thing.

Based on how the Sphere run has started off, it sounds like you’re happy to be there.

I’m happy about it. It was a challenge because you just never know. When you go into a different environment, you don’t know exactly what it’s going to be like. You have to ease into it. You’re creating a new work environment, and a new musical environment is not one of those things that are easy. You have to have the right attitude — I think that’s a good word — and the spirit and the will to succeed. If the will is not there to make it work, it won’t work. So all of these things seem to be aligned. The stars are aligned and we’re going with it, you know, as we always do.

If you guys found a way to make it an annual experience, fans would probably not turn that down.

I don’t think we’ve thought of it that way, but that’s not a bad idea. You know, we don’t think too far ahead. We try to stay in the moment and enjoy the moment. And we are doing that right now: We’re really enjoying it.

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