Ex-Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart is always up to something interesting. He's kind of like a mad scientist, but in drummer form. Last time we spoke with him he was sonifying the Big Bang and building music around the sounds that were produced at the beginning of the known universe, as well as sonifying the Golden Gate Bridge to celebrate its 75th anniversary. For his new album Superorganism and its associated tour, which brings him to Norwalk Concert Hall Friday night, Hart has switched from macro to micro and is now setting his focus on the sounds of the body, like heartbeats, stem cells, DNA and brain signals.
For the shows on this tour, Hart will don EEG headgear that will yield rhythms he can use as his rhythmic foundation. At selected shows on the tour, there will also be a screen on stage with Hart's brain demonstrating the action in real time.
"The people will see the screen, but I'll have a cap on with eight sensors that pick up different parts of my brain rhythms," Hart says. "They'll be going through my computer and I'll be making music with them, and the band will be playing, and you know, we'll be rocking out to my brain."
The new record once again features lyrics by longtime collaborator, lyricist Robert Hunter. The first songs the pair worked on together go all the way back to Dead classics "Playing in the Band" and "The Greatest Story Ever Told."
"He goes about doing what he wants to do and it usually is not what I asked him to do — it's always much better," Hart says of Hunter. "It's just a starting point I give him, and he might take that cue. At times he does. And sometimes he sees something else in the music and... he's just irreplaceable. We've been working now since 1967 so we have a nice relationship."
As Hart approaches his 70th birthday in September, he continues to look at the road ahead on this tour without getting stuck too deeply in the past.
"There'll be some Grateful Dead songs, but it's really looking at the future of music," Hart says. "I just can't play nostalgic music all the time. You have to play the songs you love from the past — the past is static. But the future... you can do anything. There's only so many ways you can change 'Playing in the Band,' or reinhabit it as it were. And I love to do that. But I've done it for most of my life. Now I have a different rhythm going through my brain, and it's really important to talk about the brain and to understand it and find out how it works."
Another thing that's been keeping Hart busy is a visual art project called Drum Ki. It consists of images of light trails left behind by the movement of his drumsticks through the air, a visualization of the sound.
"It's kind of like being in my head, in a way," he says. "It's kind of like what I see when I play."
But the work Hart seems most proud of these days involves his work with music therapy, a health profession still in its infancy that's said to benefit those with mental health needs, developmental and learning disabilities, Alzheimer's, substance-abuse problems, brain injuries, physical disabilities, and acute and chronic pain.
"The brain is rhythm central," he says. "Whatever you do... if you want to touch your toes or tap your feet, it's got to go through the brain. We know music has a lot of power but we don't know how it works... Now we're trying to codify it, demystify it, find out the ABCs of it. It's not just for entertainment and dancing and making love and getting you through the night, which are all very important functions of music, it's here for other reasons. It's a healing agent. [Superorganism] is kind of like a byproduct of that."
As for the static past, one of the most recent offerings from the archive hunters in the Grateful Dead camp is a box set containing shows from May of 1977 (available at dead.net).
"We were in good shape," Hart says of that tour. "Everyone was feeling good. It's just one of those things. Those things are really hard to tell."
Hart's future wife (whom he didn't meet until 1990) was attending Cornell in May of '77 when the Dead played a show that became arguably the best concert recording of their career at the university's Barton Hall on May 8th of that year. But she didn't attend the show.
"She went out with her boyfriend to see Barry Manilow or something," says Hart. "I know a lot of Deadheads consider that really a great concert."
On his weekly-when-he's-in-town talk show "Weir Here" (broadcast on tristudios.com Wednesday nights), Dead bandmate Bob Weir has recently fueled conspiracy theories that the show never actually happened, and that it was all a government mind-control experiment.
"What goes on in Bob's head is a mystery to begin with," Hart says, before pausing and laughing wildly. "Anything is possible. Bob might be right. Maybe I wasn't there and just the publicity of it all... Maybe someone's faking it. Maybe it didn't happen, you know, Bob might be right."
Friday, Aug. 16, 7:30 p.m. Norwalk Concert Hall, 125 East Ave., Norwalk. (203) 854-7900. 7:30 p.m. norwalkct.org; fairfieldtheatre.org