Grateful Web Interview with Henry Kaiser

Grateful Web recently had a unique opportunity to speak with veteran psychedelic guitarist, producer and composer Henry Kaiser. Few have as vast of a musical resume as Kaiser, who has contributed to countless studio recordings both as bandleader and accompaniment. His inventiveness has additionally yielded a long list of film scoring credits and soundtrack work. While Kaiser is frequently busy and rarely promoting a certain singular work, Dylan Muhlberg focused the conversation on Kaiser’s potent new album Ocean of Storms. A focused yet free studio session with titan collaborators Wadada Leo Smith, Tania Chen, and William Winant was worth the attention. Kaiser opened up about the art of playing space music (and how the Grateful Dead changed things,) his work as an Antarctic diver/videographer (which led to producing documentaries with legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog,) and the status quo of recording in a rapidly changing music industry.

GW: There’s this continuing thread in your work: setting as inspiration for the music. How did the moon become the setting for Ocean of Storms? How much deliberation was there between you and the other players beforehand?

HK: It was actually just me who added the title and concept afterword. I asked myself where the music was and it occurred to me, it’s on the moon! So that was after the fact.

GW: What about listening back to that session made the moon feel like a fitting context?

HK: I grew up with space music. To me, space music was something the Grateful Dead were doing in the 1960s. It means something Sun Ra was doing. It means something Karlheinz Stockhausen was doing. They were all manifestations of something that was in the air or outer space. I grew up with that. Just like I’ve tried to continue the job of being a psychedelic guitar player in the sense of consciousness exploration and expansion. So I continue searching for more space music. I think we went on a mission that day in the studio and we brought back space music. I wanted to package it in some way that showed how the music existed in the continuity of that tradition.

GW: Yes! It was all fittingly recorded at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. It’s also your latest in a career long continuation with Wadada Leo Smith. How would you describe your relationship after all these years? What have you learned playing together?

HK: I’ve known Wadada for over forty years. On my first solo album Ice Death, he wrote a guitar duet for guitarist Eugene Chadbourne and I. I met him back then at the very end of my college days on the East Coast and we always stayed in touch. In the last twenty years we’ve had many opportunities to play together. We’ve put out five Yo Miles albums. We’ve got two others albums coming out this year and other things being planned. I’ve known him pretty much my whole musical life. I started playing music in 1972, and I met him in 1977. He’s just somebody who’s always been important to me. He’s a kind, wise man of music whom I’ve learned a lot from.

GW: Beautiful, and the relationship continues. All four of the players on Ocean of Storms are virtuosic and provocative artists in their own right, with varying approach and background. How well did you know William Winant and Tania Chen previous to this project? How did this quartet assemble?

HK: Tania Chen recently moved to the Bay Area from London. I made an album with her a few years back called Mega Sonic Chapel. Willy and I have been playing together for twenty or thirty years. We’ve only recorded together on a few other occasions but we go way back. He’s probably the greatest contemporary percussionist in the U.S. and I feel fortunate to have him in the Bay Area and fortunate that he’s always happy to join in on any improvised music project he’s asked to do. He’s like me in that sense. If somebody asks me to do something, I always say yes.

GW: This time around, there are five tracks and they’re all throwing back to topography of-

HK: Yes, human names for “lunalogical” features on the moon. The Ocean of Storms references when man first landed on the moon.

GW: How much music did you record at Fantasy Studios? Is this the entire session or just segments?

HK: That’s everything we did in the exact order that we played it. Lately that seems to be the way things work with Wadada. We go into the studio and play and that’s the album in order. The whole thing comes out in the correct order. And there’s no talking about the music aside from indicating whether I’d play electric or acoustic at some given time during a track.

GW: That’s unbelievable. There are no moments of total isolation or solo actually.

HK: It’s more of an ensemble.

GW: Yes! I’d hesitate marginalize it as experimental. I’ll admit that as a non-musician and just one who appreciates. Do you think that musicians would get more out of this stuff than other listeners?

HK: Not really. I’m like a medium, imagine if I’m getting struck by lightning you can reach out and see what the lightning feels like. I don’t really think much about that. I don’t have much ego in that sense. It’s a roll I enjoy. Just to bring it back to the Grateful Dead for a moment, that was something I experienced watching them play as early as 1966 and throughout the 1960s, in those years in particular. That’s where I learned about that social function of music making. That whole ensemble improvisation aspect existed in jazz and other types of music. I first time I personally appreciated it was with the Grateful Dead in the 1960s when I was a kid. They of course were influenced by jazz, World music, and contemporary classical music. From there they developed as playing together with one mind and all improvising together at the same time. I was taught about that by seeing them so many times, without consciously being aware of that. That is not the way a lot of people in pop music make music.

GW: True. Admittedly I discovered you as a deejay in college when I came across Eternity Blue (Kaiser’s 1993 Grateful Dead tribute album.) It’s all very fitting that it would relate back to some of your earliest experiences with music back in the 1960s.  Most of your artistic pursuit seems to be exploring the realms of the unexplored. As a pioneering ocean videographer and scientific diver you continue to survey where few have been below frozen seas of Antarctica. How have these experiences affected you as an artist?

HK: Profoundly. When I’m in the water and under the ice, it’s kind of a psychedelic world. The light coming through the twenty-foot thick ice looks like you’re floating off of a gas giant planet in space. The water has this incredible 3,000-foot visibility down there. There are all kinds of weird critters like Weddell seals, these 800-pound spirit animals come right up and confront you. They make sounds like electronic music that sound kind of like the score to the Forbidden Planet movie. It’s a very different world. Your sense of time becomes different and your heart slows down in 28-degree water. There’s a different rhythm to the life there. All those things go into my body and become superimposed in the music later on. There’s the song the whole underwater ecosystem is singing to me when I’m down there. Then I naturally play some of that back when I pick up the guitar. Whether it’s rhythms, sounds, shapes, colors, or timing. That’s where a lot of my ideas come from. I’m aware of it but I also don’t think about it a lot.

GW: That’s also testament to why you’ve had such success in scoring films. You’ve done quite a bit of soundtrack work. Some of your most celebrated work has been with legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog. You scored his films Grizzly Man and (additionally produced) Encounters at the End of the World, amongst others. Can you speak about your parallel fascinations of exploring the unknown? What was it like working with Herzog?

HK: I worked on four or five films with Werner. I first met him by accident sitting next to him on a plane many years ago. He knew friends of mine very well. I got called in to advise on the soundtrack of the film, Little Dieter Needs to Fly. I’ve had other great opportunities to work with him as a cameraman, a producer, and a soundtrack composer. I have to say Werner is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. He’s a model of kindness to other human beings. That is not exactly evident in the public persona that he presents. He’s an absolute pleasure to work with. Sometimes he’s stubborn and maddening but he’s always listening to everybody else’s contributions. It’s been great to work with him. It was great to bring him to Antarctica to this place that I’ve loved. Through him I’ve been able to share a little of what our life is out there with everybody outside because no one has ever seen some of the things we showed in [Encounters at the End of the World,] or heard the way people talk the way we let people talk in that film. It’s a very honest film.

GW: It seemed like a collaboration that was waiting for both of you. It’s incredible how your work inspired him to go to Antarctica and to film things that had been previously unseen. Switching the focus again to Ocean of Storms, amongst this single project you were and are always playing and recording in different formations with numerous concepts. Still, do you intend on taking any of these musical ideas out in a concert format? Will this lineup play any gigs?

HK: Sadly there’s less and less money for those sorts of gigs in the U.S. That kind of thing almost doesn’t happen anymore in the U.S. We can’t even get the Yo Miles project [into clubs] to play, which is a more commercial product. It’s tough. Once in a while you’ll get opportunities at European festivals. It’s not very often that we get to do that. It’s bleaker times for music that explores or experiments than it has ever been. It’s the bleakest times since I’ve been alive. There’s just less opportunities to gig. One has to wonder how much longer there will be high quality recordings in studios and the economic support for that sort of thing. The day we made Ocean of Storms was the second album we cut that day. Beforehand was a tribute album to the great soprano saxophone player Steve Lacy, called Saxophone Special, with the Rova Saxophone Quartet and me. Cutting two albums in one day is the only way it’s affordable is to utilize studio time. That’s the only way we can break even.

GW: What do you think has removed the commercial interest from these sorts of exploratory pursuits?

HK: There are several factors. For one, every town used to have an independent weekly newspaper and non-commercial radio that would play experimental music. That is gone in most cities. Most weekly newspapers are owned by chains that don’t properly cover local events while the listener-sponsored and college stations are quickly disappearing too. There are also fewer venues to play. Kids don’t get to see live music in high school; they’ve instead been replaced by DJs at dances. In the Bay Area, there’s 20-30% of the clubs that there were thirty years ago. There’s way more people and way less clubs. I guess we’re in a trend away from live music.

GW: That is fascinating to consider at the same time we’re in an era where mega-festivals are supposedly thriving while the recording and record industry is essentially fading.

HK: I also think there is a betrayal the way the Internet’s download music is sold through I-Tunes and such. They take a huge cut, way bigger than record companies took and they also have way lower costs. If you buy a song for 99 cents on I-Tunes, by the time all the middlemen take their money I’m left with 3 cents. It becomes very difficult to make a living from recording since there are few record stores and little is physical really sold aside from Amazon or gigs. Additionally there’s no curation anymore, where the guy at the record store would make suggestions and sales that way. The way that functions on the web through YouTube or Amazon.com it will make suggestions for the best selling Taylor Swift singles. It won’t make relevant suggestions. It just picks what sells the most or has the most views. It becomes increasingly difficult for people looking on the Internet, which seems wrong, because it should have made it easier. 

GW: It’s true. There’s also the audiophile aspect of it. They’re selling mostly MP3 singles instead of any true measure of quality in either direction.

HK: Some of those audio formats are such low quality that most of the depth disappears. Most folks don’t have adequate systems to listen either. Instead it’s earbuds in their phones listening to MP3s. Much of what animates the music, the spirit, is gone when the audio is degraded that much.

GW: So is recording with these musicians, hammering out these double recording sessions in one day, just about the joy of playing with the artists? Is their any audience you’ve got in mind?

HK: Essentially it’s for the very small audience that your can still reach with physical CD sales and good quality audio. We’ve just tried to develop an economic way of recording in the studio to reach whomever is willing to buy that and enjoy it. I’ll keep doing that until it’s impossible to break even. Now it’s barely possible. I hate to be a pessimistic guy. I’m getting old, and maybe I’ll be too old to play by the time it all ends.

GW: Yeah it’s also a tough time for clubs, even in the Bay Area.

HK: There’s so many less than there were. It makes it harder to gig as a jazz artist or playing to an intimate audience in the way you used to be able to. In New York there’s many jazz clubs, but in the Bay Area it’s disappeared because of booking politics.

GW: That is unfortunate. To wrap up, you’ve played and collaborated with so many greats. Are there any that come to mind that you haven’t yet had the pleasure?

HK: There always are. I always want to play with my heroes. I am in the practice of not hesitating to going up to artists, for example Cecil Taylor or Bob Weir, and saying, “Hey, lets play a gig!” Even playing with the sons of my heroes. I just asked Terry Riley’s son Gyan to make a record and he was up for it. I just keep asking different people. I have had the pleasure of making probably fifty or sixty albums with my heroes, to give you an idea. I’m always looking for new people to do things with. Richard Thompson and David Lindley are examples of artists who have been so kind to me.

GW: You got to play with your big times heroes too like Ali Akbar Khan and Derek Bailey.

HK: It just comes from going up them enthusiastically and asking them to do something. 90% of the time people say yes, because I have interesting heroes and I want to play stuff with them that they might not normally do. That’s how you keep it interesting.

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