While hanging out with legendary big-band drummer Sonny Payne at a Fillmore Auditorium Count Basie show in San Fransisco, Hart was introduced to Kreutzmann by an anonymous stranger; the two immediately hit it off. After Basie’s set ended, they grabbed two pairs of Payne’s drumsticks and made their way to a Janis Joplin show. “We walked all the way across town, playing on garbage cans, sign posts, cars, bumpers, and had a drum-bonding time,” says Hart by phone from his studio.
Afterwards, they met on several occasions for industrially set drum sessions and, eventually, Hart joined Kreutzmann in the Dead, a lifelong friendship was formed.
“We’re drum brothers, and over thousands and thousands of hours of playing, it’s evolved. We can really do together what we can’t do apart. It’s chemistry and how we agree on rhythm—it has to be greater than the parts or there’s no reason to do it,” Hart says.
After the Dead disbanded in 1995 after Jerry Garcia’s death, each has had several new projects, including one together called Rhythm Devils. The name—originated by Deadheads—derived from lengthy, improvisational drum duels during most Grateful Dead concerts. Sikiru Adepoju (talking drum), Davey Knowles (guitar, vocals) and Andy Hess (bass) will join the Rhythm Devils tour this summer, as will guitarist and looping guru Keller Williams. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm. It’s new for Keller—it’s a stretch. We thought it’d be a real good experiment because [Williams] is so rhythmically inclined and he’d make an interesting conversationalist,” Hart says.
The music’s not just drums in space; it has big grooves, too. The metaphysically inclined Hart says, “It throbs and pulses ... the basic elements of the universe.”
Hart says the preparation for the tour has been extensive and exhausting. They’ll perform Grateful Dead and new songs, some written by former Dead songwriter and longtime collaborator Robert Hunter. “[Hunter] adds the whole mythic image and wonderful depth to the song’s content. Having him write for you is a great boon,” Hart says.
Hart owns thousands of percussive devices, and they’ve never all been in one place because of sheer volume. While perhaps out of control as a collector, he loves every one for its unique sonic coloring and feeling, from American handcrafted snares to jungle drums. They could never all be brought onto one stage, until now, thanks to what he calls “the tool of the future.”
Since the ’70s, he’s cataloged thousands of sounds from across the globe into his playable, electronic encyclopedia called Random Access Musical Universe, or RAMU. “If you have a sound you love, you must sample it,” Hart says. To conjure the exotic and interesting, there are pressure-sensitive pads in different keys, with additional pads for finger-tapping work and numerous knobs to adjust different settings.
“RAMU is my database, my sound droid, my jukebox, my constant companion and my great love. Now, it’s very sophisticated and has taken a giant leap. This is where man meets machine ... and wins, hopefully,” says Hart.
While embracing electronics, the Rhythm Devils will still bang on skins and real drums with their sticks and hands. It’s just another way the lifelong drum brothers have evolved in creating syncopated sounds. “It takes ingredients to make a harmonious rhythm life. We are both sworn to the drum. We took an oath even before we met each other. We have a certain dedication to the instrument and to each other,” Hart says.
It’s a camaraderie transcending loyalty, kept somewhere in the cosmos of vibratory patterns.