Saturday, June 7, 2014

Henry Kaiser 13 Questions

Grammy winner Henry Kaiser is widely recognized as one of the most creative and innovative guitarists, improvisers, and producers in the fields of rock, jazz, world, and contemporary experimental musics. The California-based musician is one of the most extensively recorded as well, having appeared on more than 250 different albums and contributed to countless television and film soundtracks. A restless collaborator who constantly seeks the most diverse and personally challenging contexts for his music, Mr. Kaiser not only produces and contributes to a staggering number of recorded projects, he performs frequently throughout the USA, Canada, Europe and Japan, with several regular groupings as well as solo guitar concerts and concerts of freely improvised music with a host of diverse instrumentalists. Mr. Kaiser was, perhaps, the first recording artist to employ digital looping, on his 1978 albums ALOHA and OUTSIDE PLEASURE.

Evidence of his exceptional musical breadth and versatility can be found in a partial list of the extraordinary artists with whom he has recorded and/or performed: Herbie Hancock, Richard Thompson, David Lindley, Bob Weir, Lukas Ligeti, Michael Snow, The ROVA Sax Quartet, Elliot Sharp, John "Drumbo" French, Raymond Kane, Michael McClure, Bill Laswell, Steve Lacy, Fred Frith, Barbara Higbie, Terry Riley, Jody Stecher, John Abercrombie, Leo Smith, moe., Negativland, Michael Stipe, Terry Riley, Jim O'Rourke, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sergei Kuriokhin, Zero, Critters Buggin', Diamanda Galas, Sonny Sharrock, Hans Reichel, Chris Cutler, Henry Cow, John Zorn, Andy West, David Torn, Bill Frisell, Joey Baron, Davey Williams, Eugene Chadbourne, Evan Parker, Sang-Won Park, Material, The Golden Palominos, Victoria Williams, Jin-Hi Kim, John Oswald, Glenn Phillips, Toshinori Kondo, John Stevens, Tom Constanten, Kiyohiko Senba, Bruce Anderson, Sang-Won Park, Yuji Takahashi, Jaojoby, John Medeski, Zoogz Rift, Ngoc Lam, Dama Mahaleo, Merl Saunders, Freddie Roulette, Mari Kimura, Harvey Mandel, Danny Carnahan, Robin Petrie, Rakoto Frah, Rossy, Alan Senauke, John Tchicai, George Lewis, Kazumi Watanabe, Peter Brotzmann, Zero, Bob Bralove, Greg Allman, Billy Kreutzman, Jerry Garcia, Miya Masaoka, Miroslav Tadic, Cecil Taylor, Nels Cline, and Amos Garrett.


On the global roots front, Kaiser has made 4 albums of cross-cultural collaborations with Korean musicians Sang Won Park and Jin Hi Kim. He is also known for the 10 albums that he has made with musicians from Madagascar, his many albums of collaboration with musicians from Sweden and Norway, his album with Zimbabwe's Thomas Mapfumo and Wadada Leo Smith, several collaborations with Vietnamese musicians, and his production work on 6 albums of music from Burma, as well as his numerous productions with Hindustani musicians such as Ali Akbar Khan and Brij Bhushan Kabra. Most recently he recorded 2 albums of collaboration with Carnatic musicians from South India, playing together with a Chinese gu-qin player from Beijing and two other American Improvisors.

Kaiser has had a parallel career in the film and television industry for over 35 years, working as a producer, director and soundtrack composer. He directed and produced many hours of science television programming. He received an Academy Award nomination for his work as the producer for Werner Herzog's ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, he was also the underwater camera and soundtrack composer for that film. Kaiser worked on 3 other Herzog films: THE WILD BLUE YONDER, GRIZZLY MAN, and LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY.
He is a scientific diver in the US ANTARCTIC PROGRAM. 2012 marked his tenth deployment beneath the twenty foot thick ice of the Ross Sea. Previously he taught underwater research at THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AT BERKELEY for 17 years; where he was a an early pioneer in the use of underwater video for scientific research and diver training. Mr. Kaiser has more Antarctic under-the-ice footage in films and tv shows than any other underwater cameraman. With ten scientific diving deployments to Antarctica, he probably has more dives under fast ice than any other professional videographer.

 What do you remember about your first instrument?

I still have it. A 1972 Telecaster that I bought at Tavian Music in Newton, Mass on Oct 11th of 1972, back when I was in college.

I know I bought the guitar that Monday, because I had been to a great Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band concert at Tufts University on Saturday, where Elliot Ingber played an amazing solo on Alice in Blunderland. That Magic Band show, along with a John Fahey concert a few days before, inspired to find a music a store and purchase a guitar on the Monday (the next day a store was open), following the Saturday, Oct 9 Beefheart concert.

You can listen to that Beefheart show here:

The version of Alice in Blunderland with Elliot’s great solo is at 43:20. Since this is before The Spotlight Kid album came out, Elliot is improvising, as opposed to trying to recreate the solo on the album, which Don had him do after the release date in January of 1972. Elliot solos a lot on this gig, even in songs that usually do not have guitar solos. 
Kind of amazing isn’t it, that I can point you at the exact moment when I decided to buy my first guitar? It is at 47:37!

I really do have Elliot to thank for all the time that I have spent with guitars. If it had not been for his playing that night, I probably never would have gotten a guitar, and taken some time, and figured out how to play the ways that I play.
Mississippi Fred McDowell was the opening act. Here is the Beefheart set list:

• Bass solo: Hair Pie
• When It Blows Its Stacks
• Japan in a Dishpan
• Click Clack
• Grow Fins
• I'm Gonna Booglarize You Baby
• Black Snake
• Peon
• Abba Zaba
• Bass solo with sax/drum improv: Fallin’ Ditch
• Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop
• Alice in Blunderland
• Spitball Scalped a Baby

In the image from this gig below, you can see my inspiration, Elliot Ingber with the stratocaster and Hawaiian shirt, off on the side of the stage, in front of Zoot Horn Rollo.
I am just out-of-frame, and to the left, in front of Mr. Vliet. Elliot will always be an important guru for me. I spoke to him on the phone for an hour two days ago. We talk several times a year and meet up in-person every decade or so.

Here’s the Tele is on the cover of my Aloha album, in a photo taken in Hawaii in 1977.

By the time of this bloody photograph in 1976, I had changed the pickups to Bartolinis and added a Modulus Graphite neck.

Here’s the Tele in two videos from the early 80’s
A live gig in Germany, done with no rehearsal; the first time that Andy West, Michael Maksymenko and I played together, in what was to become Crazy Backwards Alphabet.

Here it is today, with Bartoilini laminated core humbuckers, that have graced it since 1980, and with a new pick guard plus sanded-down belly and arm cuts:

I still love it and play it often. If I die before Jim O’Rourke, I bequeath this instrument to him.  I know that he loves it, too.

Why did you decide dedicate your life to music?

Actually, my life is not dedicated to music. I’d say that my life is dedicated to SCUBA diving. I have been a diver since I was 11 years old.
Now, at age 61, I am a scientific diver, under the ice of the frozen Ross Sea, down in Antarctica.  I taught underwater water research for many years at the University of California at Berkeley; diving on science projects all over the world in that capacity. I’ve also worked in film and video production since before I started to play guitar at age 19, in 1971. The film career probably has produced the most $$$$ income over the years since then.

Is music a hobby for me? Not exactly. I’ve appeared on over 250 albums and played 1000’s of concerts. I would say that I have three professions: diver, filmmaker, and musician. But diving is what my life is dedicated to.  Film work has definitely produced the most income. With tv and film scoring royalties coming in at second place. Diving breaks even, but satisfies my heart the most. Music probably costs money nowadays. In the 70’s/80’s/90’s it made money; sometimes good money, but that’s not really possible any more. I guess I do it for love and to keep a balance in life.  I do feel like I am doing my job when I get out of the way and let the music come through me to the audience, from wherever it might really come from... from outer space, or wherever.

So, what's your relationship with the guitar?

Down in my basement studio, I have too many of them. I do love them, first as tools, and secondarily as physical objects.
It’s a comfortable interface to play music with. I cannot imagine using a piano, or a violin, or a sax as an interface.

Which work of your own are you most surprised by, and why?

The surprising thing is that I have gotten to play and record with so many of my early musical heroes:

Sonny Sharrock
Jerry Garcia
Derek Bailey
Elliot Ingber
Richard Thompson
Wadada Leo Smith
David Lindley
Cecil Taylor
Freddie Roulette
Barry Melton
Phil Lesh
Terry Riley
John Stevens
Evan Parker
Zakir Hussain
Michael Snow
Amos Garrett
John Abercrombie
Fred Frith
Keith Rowe
Eugene Chadbourne
Glenn Phillips
Tom Constanten
Peter Brotzman
Merl Saunders
Harvey Mandel
Steve Lacy
Hans Reichel
Paul Rutherford
Motoharu Yoshizawa
Tisziji Muñoz

to name just a few.

What's the role of technique in music, in your opinion?

I think for a guitarist to sound like themselves, and to optimize their own personal expression, they need to discover/create their own personal techniques of playing. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my relationship with the instrument. The guitar, both electric and acoustic, is wide open for
experimentation and creation of new techniques. The possibilities are infinite. So much is waiting there to be discovered. That’s my technical goal: experimentation and discovery. It’s very much ALWAYS a science project.

Fred Frith & Henry Kaiser - 2-4-84 kuumbwa s.c.1st show.

Depict one sound you're still looking for? 

I don’t really look for sounds. The sounds tend to look for me and some of them find me. I don’t have much to do with it. I just try to get out of the way.

Which was the first and the last record you bought with your own money?  What were other early records you bought?

The most recent record that I bought was from Downtown Music Gallery mail order and it was this one by Tisziji Muñoz, purchased two days ago: Tisziji Muñoz and Paul Shaffer, with Ra-Kalam Bob Moses, Don Pate, and John Lockwood: Taking You Out There! Live at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’sClub Coca Cola February 7, 201, Anami 024.

I recall that the first 3 records that bought with my own money, at a record shop in Carmel, California, were:

I had heard them on the radio and wanted to have them myself.

A few other early records that were important to me, from 1968 or earlier were:












How would you define the present time in musical terms?

I don’t really think in those terms. I would observe that the most interesting and creative musical activity on the the planet seems to get passed
around to different countries, in different decades, and it’s not so present in the USA right now. Last decade Madagascar and Korea were really happening, but it seems to be slowing down there now, too.

What quality do you admire most in a musician?

Ability to create surprising improvisations. Ability to sound like themselves. Ability to have good, unique, and personal tone on their instruments.
Ability to listen. Kindness. Generosity. Sense of humor.

A valuable advice that someone has gifted to you in the past?

Cecil Taylor said: “If it’s not fun, why do it?”  That’s an excellent question to constantly ask oneself about one’s musical activities.

How many guitars do you have? Select only one and tell me why

Way too many. Near 100.  Most of them are my odd experiments in guitar parts assembly.  Different Warmoth necks and bodies with odd pickups and hardware.
Though I do have some instruments by modern luthiers. Vintage instruments are not my thing.  
I think I contracted the too many guitars disease from my pals David Lindley, Andy Marshall, and Alex Varty.  
can say that they may have worse cases of the disease than me. But I guess that does not excuse it in me. I think of them as my tiny retirement fund. Time to slowly get rid of them now for the next two decades.  What would be the last ones to go? Guitars by Danny Ransom, Steve Klein, Ulrich Teuffel, Alan Beardsell, John Monteleone, Steve Helgeson, Rick Turner, Kari Nieminen, and Chris Larsen.  I do get rid of anything that is not being used for work. Having access to lots of instruments for different guitar sounds in the studio, is a usefulset of options to have; particularly for soundtrack work, where I match timbres to visuals.

The most practical working guitar for me is my Klein Custom Electric #025, that I got in 1991. If I had to keep just one electric for work, studio and live, this would be the one.

That's because: it’s easy to carry on airplanes, it has an excellent and expressive Steinberger trem, and has my favorite Alembic pickups in it - which sound like me.

This guitar is invisible to me whenever I play it; it gets out of the way, and helps to lead me out of the way.

What do you dream about?

I don’t dream in the sense that most people seem to. I never have. No stories, no humans, no narrative sense, no animals, and nothing “objective” or “subjective" in the dreams.
Just drifting through clouds of differently-colored lights. I see music the same way when I play or listen. Same thing as swimming thru the underwater environment.

My dreams look EXACTLY like the experimental films of Jordan Belson.

This allows me to show you what my dreams are about with some frame blow-ups:

A common question that music journalists usually ask me is, "What do you think about while you are improvising?" Playing music for me is largely an internally visual experience. Even though it may look like I'm smiling at the drummer or the piano player, inside my mind, and without the addition of recreational chemicals, I'm drifting thorough glowing clouds of light among coruscating fractal and geometric forms that shimmer in and out of existence. Rivers of light, like oceanic streams of phosphorescent plankton inflamed by the wakes of playful sea lions, dance in time to the music before it happens; giving me my silent cues, like the clouds a glider pilot watches to catch updrafts. It's pretty much like I have a Jordan Belson movie running inside my head all the time, but it's easiest to look at when I'm playing music and on the edge of some kind of natural trance state.

When you were a pre-school kid did you, like me, lay in your dark bedroom at night and press on the lids of your eyes to generate phosphene patterns of internal light that danced in your head before going to sleep each night? If you can remember those images - have you ever thought of the similarities that they bear to spiritual and psychedelic art through the ages? From a Tibetan mandala, to a Fillmore poster, to modern computer art, to a Rothko painting, their is a not-so-hidden connection between the way our brains are wired and man's quest for spiritual understanding of the universe through visual art. That’s what my dreams are like and the experience of playing music is the same. No sound in the dreams, though.

Visual imagery is my kind of tablature for remembering music.  I don’t recall something by looking at notation or notes on paper, but by having associated non-objective imagery.
I don’t think I really hear, or fee,l melodies or rhythm. I do here timbre. I think that any melody or rhythm in my playing is likely a subset of timbre for me.  And timbre exists inside me
translated into internal visual imagery.

One impossible project that you'd like to realize?
I wish that the music industry and market could still support collaborative projects with non-Western cultures, like David Lindley and I accomplished so successfully in Madagascar, back
in 1991. But those days are over. I wish I could do projects like that in Comoros, Korea, Burma, Vietnam, Peru, and New Guinea.  And I would most love to go back to Madagascar and make lots of Salegy records. That’s #1 on my impossible wish list. But nobody will ever pay for that in the world we live in today.  Lindley and I may go back to the big red island for a BBC documentary on Madagascar in 2015, but there will be no money to record anything, and it won’t so much be music documentary. Zero market for Salegy in the West, and decreasing market for Salegy in the environmental/political/economic disaster that is Madagascar in the 21st Century.

Not liking to end on such a downer note (or actually downer timbre, for my perception of things), I would say that, in the years coming soon ahead, I really wish to record with some particular folks, that I have not worked with so much in the past. I sure hope that I have the opportunity to do that, and get the music out to an audience.  Some of these folks, in no particular order could be: Wayne Krantz, Lucas Jaojoby, Jonas Hellborg, Terje Rypdal, Matte Henderson, Hedvig Mollestad, Stian Westerhus, Scott Amendola, Mary Halvorson, etc.

Folks that I have not worked with in a while, that I hope to record with soon could be: Jim O’Rourke, Evan Parker, Jim Thomas, Knut Reiersrud, Andy West, Nels Cline, Tisziji Muñoz, David Lindley, Richard Thompson, Marilyn Crispell, Bill Frisell, and Phil Lesh.

Folks that I have not worked with in a while, that I hope to record with soon could be: Jim O’Rourke, Evan Parker, Jim Thomas, Knut Reiersrud, Andy West, Nels Cline, Tisziji Muñoz, David Lindley, Richard Thompson, Marilyn Crispell, Bill Frisell, and Phil Lesh.