Clouds of colored light
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2016 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
Henry Kaiser has only ever had one person to answer to throughout his career: himself. The experimental, improvising guitarist has consistently demonstrated uncompromising, nomadic instincts. He goes where the muse takes him—and it’s taken him down incredibly diverse and intriguing paths. His output has incorporated genres as diverse as rock, jazz, free jazz, fusion, folk, fingerstyle guitar, minimalism, noise, and world music. Kaiser’s explorations of the latter have included the music of Africa, India, Japan, Korea, Madagascar, and Norway.
It’s important to note that Kaiser focuses on the intersections between musics. He fearlessly incorporates different elements from these universes—sometimes seamlessly, sometimes intentionally chaotically. He sees no boundaries whatsoever between any musicians and idioms. To that end, he brings together performers who wouldn’t typically play together. Sometimes they rehearse in advance of projects. Other times, they’re thrown together in a room just to see what happens.
Kaiser picked up the guitar relatively late at age 20 in 1971. His fascination with the instrument’s possibilities has propelled dozens of albums under his own name. He’s also appeared on more than 150 albums by other artists. If there’s a defining element across all his output, it’s simply having an open mind.
Kaiser’s recombinant tendencies go right back to his earliest musical interests. The first three albums he bought as a kid were by Ali Akbar Khan, Albert King and Stockhausen. In many ways, all three of those influences continue to resonate in his work. The San Francisco Bay Area native was raised on underground radio, paying close attention to the now-defunct KMPX’s freeform approach, which leaned toward psychedelic and progressive rock, and importantly, the global influences that informed those worlds.
His adventurous listening habits informed his decision to become a professional musician. Just six years after starting his guitar journey, he released his first album Ice Death. He’s gone on to release six or seven albums pretty much every year since. After a brief recording hiatus, Kaiser has put out more than 15 albums in the last 16 months alone, including Garden of Memory, a five-disc solo guitar box set; Leaps, a duo disc with drummer Scott Amendola; Megasonic Chapel, in which Korean court music intertwines with new music; and Echoes for Sonny, a collaboration with guitarist and producer Robert Musso that pays tribute to Sonny Sharrock.
Beyond his solo work, Kaiser has collaborated with some of the world’s most important musical visionaries, including Derek Bailey, Eugene Chadbourne, Nels Cline, John French, Fred Frith, Trey Gunn, Mike Keneally, Bill Laswell, David Lindley, Wadada Leo Smith, and Richard Thompson—just to name a few.
In addition to his prolific activities as a musician, Kaiser has a multi-decade film and television career. He’s served as a director, producer and composer for science television programs for outlets including the Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel. He was nominated for an Academy Award for producing Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World.
The Herzog film focuses on the filmmaker’s journey to Antarctica. He was inspired by Kaiser’s other key realm of interest: serving as a scientific research diver. Kaiser has captured vast amounts of under-the-ice footage in Antarctica for multimedia use in documentaries, films, commercials, and music videos. His most recent music video work incorporating Antarctica visuals is for minimalist groove artist Nik Bärtsch in support of his new album Continuum.
Innerviews met Kaiser at his home near the Santa Cruz mountains. It’s part living space and part art and music studio. He and his wife, the visual artist Brandy Gale, exist within a flow of creativity. Situated amidst scenic views and wildlife, including the occasional mountain lion, the locale is endlessly inspiring. Within his working environment, Kaiser is surrounded by guitars of every shape, size and color, and an enormous record and CD collection that mirrors his eclectic interests. There are also three cats and a large, friendly gray-and-white Alaskan Malamute dog named Kida who ensure there’s never a boring moment in the household.
We began our interview sitting in an office area where a newly-adopted white Turkish Ankora cat named Spencer was just getting acclimated to the Kaiser homestead. With Spencer leaping about across interviewer and subject, popping in and out of paper bags, and pawing at the the microphone cord, we began our career-spanning conversation.
After a few quiet years, you’re back in prolific mode again. What’s driving this renewed activity?
I’ve traditionally been this prolific. I’ve been on more than 270 records. If you average that out going back to 1977 when I first started recording, that’s six to seven records a year. I’m inspired by people like Derek Bailey and Evan Parker in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. They were putting out many more records every year. But the last few years I’ve had some challenges. There were three years when my mom was in hospice and was extremely ill, which made it impossible to get things done. So, I didn’t make any records during that period. Now, I’m back to my normal level of output.
Another thing that’s motivating me to release a lot of music is that it feels like we’re in end times for the kinds of music that I love the most and the possibility of any sort of hi-fi distribution to end users. I don’t think we’re going to be able to sell reasonable resolution audio releases for much longer. CDs sure seem like they’re going away. Most of the streaming services and iTunes offer very low audio quality. Most people don’t seem to care about audio quality anymore. Very few people have systems to listen to stuff on properly either. For me, timbre is the most important thing. It’s far more important than melody, rhythm or harmony and it doesn’t survive when things are compressed into low-resolution MP3s.
Music needs to be reproduced with higher frequencies and dynamic resolution for it to sound as it was intended. Let’s use György Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” as an example. It’s a complex and beautiful-sounding piece. There’s no melody or rhythm on it. It’s just clouds of timbre. If you listen to that at full resolution on a good system, whether it’s headphones or speakers, it’s a transcendental experience. If you listen to it on a low-resolution MP3, it sounds like a grade-C TV soundtrack, not something transcendental that can change your life. Timbre does not survive in low-resolution formats. Listening to MP3s is like trying to watch an amazing sunset with Vaseline smeared on your glasses.
I understand you feel no matter how different the project, it’s all part of a single musical perspective.
Yes. With me, everything boils down to wanting to experiment and try doing new things I haven’t done before. Improvisation is a really important part of that. It’s my most important tool for making music, whether it’s rock, jazz, contemporary classical, or world music. I care about the project being an experiment. If there’s improvisation, it’s going to have an element of surprise. That’s the only level I see music on. I work mainly in instrumental music. I don’t deal with lyrics. I’m not interested in political content that springs from words. However, I feel that instrumental music can be as liberating or world-changing as music with words.
How do you choose the people you collaborate with?
Simple. I work with whoever wants to do something. Here’s an example. Richard Thompson’s 23-year-old son Jack is someone I’ve known since he was born. Jack recently graduated from Humboldt State University and had a radio show there for years. He’s really interested in experimental music. His dad has always liked experimental things and Jack got that bug as well. Some of it probably came from my corrupting influence, too.
Jack plays bass. One day, he called me up and said “Hey, I want to come down with my pal Kobe Dupree and make a record. My friend Alexei Pliousnine happens to be in town then." Together, we recorded a quartet album called Talk to Me About Invisible People. This was done with no advance notice or planning. It just happened quickly and organically.
If I think something is going to be fun and interesting, I’ll do it. My friend, the bass player Damon Smith, brought me to Austin to play some concerts and we thought we’d make a record. I thought “We have enough time to make two records. It’ll cost the same. I said to Damon “Let’s call Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, the Norwegian bass player who lives here, to come on over and play too.” It’s also important to note that when I’m playing with people who are familiar like Damon or Weasel Walter, we try to do music we haven’t played together before. We don’t want to have an established format every time.
Is it challenging to create an audience for so many recording projects?
It’s hard to know how the world works these days. There’s very little curating of non-commercial radio in which people get exposed to new things. That used to be the rule in the U.S. and now it’s a very rare exception. There aren’t many outlets covering things that are more fringe or experimental these days. The major media turns away from that stuff. And independent media seems to be disappearing. So, if I want to work with music that is experimental and improvised, I have to assume the mainstream world won’t want anything to do with it. I do hope and try to reach new people.
I supply all the music to a couple of distributors who sell it nationally and abroad. I don’t do a lot of promotion myself. So many musicians who run their own websites and social media over-promote themselves. They want to tell you what they had for breakfast every day and I find that so offensive that I shy the other way. I let the distribution channels announce the availability of the new music.
What do you consider the highlights of your recent output?
Garden of Memory, the five-CD box set I recorded at the 2014 Garden of Memory event in Berkeley is one of them. I think it’s amazingly lucky that I can sit there and play guitar solos for five hours and have it be releasable without cutting out anything. I am both perplexed and feel amazingly fortunate that it went down that way. I’m proud of that one. It’s also accessible for regular people. They won’t run away screaming if they hear it. [laughs]
Everything Forever, a single-disc solo guitar album, is also one of my personal favorites. I love the way it sounds with its hyper-realistic and detailed direct guitar sound. It was done in the studio and sounds a little better than Garden of Memory, sonically. They’re both career high water marks and two different views into the same world. I could probably make an album like that a week and every one would be different. I found this particular niche with the guitar and I find I can keep doing different things with it. Essentially, it’s square-wave modulation of long delay times. I’m instantly modulating the time and pitch changes in this sort of improv style. For Everything Forever, I recorded it direct. There weren’t microphones or amps. I was talking to the engineer the whole time, while I was playing. I wasn’t even thinking about what I was doing.
What’s common to both Garden of Memory and Everything Forever is that I'm using a guitar with true temperament frets, which is a unique Swedish temperament system different from the equal temperament systems on other guitars. I also use very high-fidelity pickups by Q-tuner or Alembic. So, I’m able to capture the sound and timbre of the guitar very accurately.
The way I play the instrument on those albums is influenced by the way people play the Chinese guqin, which is a type of zither. The music is a mixture of Persian music rates of development and change, Chinese guqin music, Larry Graham, and Hubert Sumlin. It’s also related to Terry Riley’s time delay organ music like Shri Camel and Evan Parker’s solo saxophone work. Certain ideas from Conlon Nancarrow and Cecil Taylor are in there too in terms of the way they deal with large amounts of notes.
Another album I’m very happy with is Megasonic Chapel, which is an improvisational recording that fuses traditional Korean court music, Shaman music and the Morton Feldman school of 20th century classical music. It happened after Willy Winant and I went on a scholarship to South Korea. Gugak, the Korean classical music institute in Seoul, had several people teach us the rudiments of different instruments. Soo-Yeon Lyuh, the haegum teacher, said she was coming to the U.S. and I suggested we should make a record. We really enjoyed working with her and I thought we could create a great project.
I always felt that Morton Feldman and Korean court music go together. So, I took a solo recording of Soo-Yeon and put it over a Feldman piano piece and played it for her. I said “Can you play just like you play no matter what’s going on in the background?” She said “No problem.” So, I said I’d get some people together and we’ll play a gig and record. Willy, the cellist Danielle DeGruttola, and the pianist Tania Chen all knew Feldman’s work really well. So, that was our jumping off point. Gravity would pull the group into other directions occasionally and Soo-Yeon would always rise to the occasion and fit in. She never got flustered, even when I started doing my screaming guitar feedback stuff. [laughs] It was done at the dynamic level of her instrument, so it wasn’t loud in the room.
It was a great experience. We went into the studio and all of a sudden, there’s an 80-minute piece and we all go “Whoa. Where did that come from?” Soo-Yeon really liked how the album came out. It was about having remarkable musicians interact and collaborate. Willy is probably the best new music percussionist in the country. Tania is an incredibly good improviser and interpreter of John Cage and Feldman. Danielle is also one of the very best improvisers in the Bay Area. It was a really great group of people.
The Celestial Squid, the album I made with Ray Russell, is one more album that came out well. He’s an early hero of mine who worked in the early ‘70s in England as an experimental guitarist. He was in a parallel stream with people like Derek Bailey and Fred Frith, but didn’t associate with them much. It was really good to work with him because he was part of my history and a key influence. He’s also so positive and wonderful. He can play anything and when you work with him, it raises the level of your own playing. That also goes with for people like David Lindley or Richard Thompson. I always learn something and become a better player around those three musicians.
Recently, Echoes for Sonny is a Sonny Sharrock tribute project that I put together with Bill Laswell’s long-time engineer Bob Musso. Both Bob and I worked with Sonny. This CD expresses our love and appreciation for Mr. Sharrock.
Tell me about the process of performing for five hours in a row as you did for Garden of Memory.
For me, it’s no different than playing for six minutes. I just improvise. I don’t even know what’s happening. Metaphorically speaking, I put the saucer of milk out for the elves and go to sleep, like the cobbler in the fairy tale. When I wake up, the shoes are ready. It’s like that whenever I play. I don’t think at all about what I’m doing. I’m not there. Maybe I’m in a trance? Maybe not. I'm just gone. I’m not at all conscious of what I’m doing when I play. It’s not something that is a concern of mine—to think about what I’m playing. I realize this is something that’s atypical. I also don’t touch the guitar unless I’m going to record, perform or if I'm fixing a piece of gear. Otherwise, I have nothing to do with any guitar. I don’t practice. I never really have.
Do you think there’s an inherent danger in practicing given your desire to continue uncovering new things?
I don’t know, but I know I don’t desire to play the same thing over and over again. I think it’s good to stay away from that. If I want to discover something new, I don’t want to discover it while I'm at home practicing. I want to discover it when I’m playing a gig or making a recording. I’ve got so much else going on with film production work, Antarctic research, and diving, on top of the music, that there isn’t the time to sit at home and practice like, say, Julian Lage does. He’s amazing and performs at a very high level in a way no-one else can. It’s a different skill set to what I do.
I’m trying not to be bored and to continue to surprise myself. Tisziji Muñoz to me takes a similar approach, but for practical reasons due to old hand injuries. Also, spiritually speaking, he wants to connect with the great beyond, and he can’t necessarily handle the lightning going through him all the time. Maybe there’s a bit of that in my case too, but I have no idea if that’s real. I just leave my conscious mind and go away when I play.
Have you ever stopped to reflect on the nature of channeling inspiration?
No, I couldn’t care less. I’m very process and project oriented. I enjoy the process of creating a project and then I go do something else. As long as things are working, I’m always finding surprises. If people find something I do transformative one way or another, it’s the audience generating that response. I can always easily create music I’m happy with in the studio, and do it quickly.
I suspect that I have little or no egotistical involvement in the music I work on. As Seargent Friday says in Dragnet, "I’m just doing my job.” It’s pretty much a non-commercial calling. I feel like it’s a service that I was drafted into without really realizing what was happening or having much choice in the matter. I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 20, and then I discovered I could do what I do really easily and also make records very quickly and efficiently. I developed the skill set for production before I started to play guitar. It's very easy for me to make the music that I've produced over the years. It’s the way it’s been since the very beginning and I don’t really know why. I notice that it was that same way with musician friends of mine who came from some other kind of professional production background before entering the field of music. I also note that the true roots musicians that I've known—be it African-American blues, Malagasy, Korean, or Indian musicians—all find it pretty easy to make music, after coming up through their roots music backgrounds. It seems to me that the folks who develop through formal, Western pedagogical musical education face the most challenges in actually making music—in both the senses of production and creativity.
Provide some insight into your childhood and how it contributed to your ability to trance out as you improvise for lengthy periods.
When I was a little kid, I didn’t have any traditional family situation after second grade. I was institutionalized grades two through four. My dad was dying and my mom was in a psychiatric hospital because she threw boiling water on me, threw me down the stairs, broke my leg, and gave me boric acid in an attempt to poison me. Much physical harm was caused to me over several years, prior to second grade. My dad was mostly dying in the hospital, so he couldn’t have noticed. The odd thing about what she did to me is that it wasn’t personal. It had nothing to do with me. I was just punching bag that happened to be on the gym floor that day.
I was stuck in a military boarding school in Palo Alto, California during those years. I had no home or relatives to go to. When it came time for school vacation periods, they would just leave me locked in a dorm room and bring in food twice a day. There would be no adults or kids. I was completely alone. It’s amazing to think they would just leave a little kid in there day after day, night after night, but that’s what they did. I wasn’t allowed to have books or go to the library. It was a small room with knotty pine on the walls. They wouldn’t let me go outside to play or do anything. I would do this for two weeks through Christmas, a week at Thanksgiving, and for months during the summer. I once had to sit in that room for an entire month during the summer of second grade.
So, when you’re forced into a situation like that, you either go crazy or you find a way to space out or meditate. I would just go away into these big clouds of colored light and drift through them all day. This gave me access to all kinds of different mental states that people might find through tantric meditation.
I recognized these patterns again in the work of experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson when I first went to college. He was a really serious meditator and psychedelic explorer. He made abstract films about what he saw. When I first saw his films I said “I know what this is. I know where he’s coming from.” It was clear we had seen the same things. Jordan and I were good friends for 30 years. Whenever he made a new film, I always knew exactly what he was talking about in it. It was a common language I experienced, too.
Maybe this stuff is deeply wired into the brain. I don’t think it’s cosmic. I think it’s about how your brain is programmed. I accessed all of this stuff when I was really young. When I learned to dive at age 11, I would go into the same kind of meditative states underwater.
When I was 20 and suddenly became a guitar player, I saw it as a creative science fair project. To this day, I still think of my music in that way. I would summon all the mental resources I had because I was too lazy to practice. Plus I was self-taught and nobody ever told me that I should practice. So, I would find something interesting on the instrument in another way. I also had the models of a lot of different improvisers in mind. I looked at the ways they worked and how they kept things fresh and found my own ways.
I think my childhood is related to the fact that I think of music as patterns and shapes. I’m not a drug person, but I’m definitely a psychedelic guitarist in that I try to have my music be like a drug for people who listen to it. It’s that Salvador Dali thing when he said “I don’t need drugs. I am drugs.” [laughs] I think part of my job is to provide audiences with alternative points of view. As I said, I’m not political, but I want the music to make people look at anything they’re looking at, differently. That’s also what psychedelic drugs do. That’s also what music has always done for me as a listener.
What made you decide to pursue guitar seriously at age 20?
It was a combination of several factors. I had been a long-time, obsessive and eclectic listener to improvised music and guitar music. I never thought I would play music myself on an instrument and didn’t pick up a guitar with the intention of actually playing it until late 1971. Though, oddly enough, back since fourth grade, I had messed with my late dad’s Magnatone amp and steel guitar. I was just making feedback and manipulating the vibrate circuit to create sounds that reminded me of the soundtrack to Forbidden Planet and Japanese science fiction movies like The Mysterians. I guess that’s basically what I still do today.
Another factor is I had heard Derek Bailey for the first time a few days before getting my first guitar. And it was that guitar music that spoke the most to me more than anything that I had heard before. He was speaking my language. So, playing with Derek’s vocabulary, but making my own statements with it, was the first thing I did when I got a guitar and the easiest thing for me—easier than learning folk chords and folk songs.
Also, around that time, I went to a terrific John Fahey concert at Rindge Tech in Cambridge. It was a sober Fahey, with a case of cola next to his chair on stage. He played for three hours and performed pretty much his entire repertoire, eloquently and intensely. That showed me how powerful guitar could be for expression.
To get really specific, I picked up my first guitar on October 10,1971. The night before, I had been to a gig by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band at Tufts University Gym. Elliot Ingber played a solo that night on “Alice in Blunderland” that caused the floor to fall away from beneath me and it felt like I was flying through space. That show is on YouTube as audio if anyone wants to hear it.
The precise moment at which I decided I needed to buy a guitar the next day is at 47:22 in that YouTube link. I went to Tavian Music in Waltham, Massachusetts and bought the black Telecaster pictured on the cover of my Aloha album, that I still have today.
One thing I seem to be doing a lot of the time when I play rock solos, is being an extension of whatever Elliot was connecting to when he played that live solo. I was very excited when Captain Beefheart’s The Spotlight Kid came out in early 1972 and I could hear the studio recording of “Alice in Blunderland.” Elliot has always been a sort of dysfunctional guru for me. I stay in touch and try to make sure that he’s doing okay down where he lives in Hollywood. I got him a new guitar as a present last year, since he had to sell the vintage Strat that Frank Zappa had given him many years ago.
When I brought my first Telecaster back to my college dorm room from the store, my immediate action was to borrow an amp from someone down the hall and try to play along with five different albums I had. I went on to play with most all of the folks that were on the specific albums that I made non-technical slide guitar noises along with that evening. The albums I’m talking about are Pharaoh Sanders’s Tauhid, featuring Sonny Sharrock; The Grateful Dead’s Live Dead; Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s Mirror Man; Sylvestre Randafison’s Valiha Madagascar; and the trio album Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and Han Bennink made called Topography of the Lungs.
It seems pretty odd that I would go on to work with those people, but the music dragged me to those future collaborators. Experiences like that have been more the rule than the exception in my musical activities since the beginning.
What led to the recording of your first LP Ice Death in 1977?
Things began with me appearing on Eugene Chadbourne’s Volume 3: Guitar Trios album that same year. Side two of it features Eugene, Owen Maercks and me as a trio. Owen and I had a band called Monster Island. We recorded a studio composition of us as a duo for radio titled “For Loved Ones.” Owen sent a copy to Eugene, who wrote us back and said “Can I come to town and we’ll make one side of a record with you guys on it?” I didn’t even know I could make records at that point, so thank you Eugene. After that, he said “Why don’t you make your own record for my Parachute label?” So, we did Ice Death. From there, I made a couple of records with John Oswald for the Music Gallery label. After that, Larry Ochs, Greg Goodman and I came up with the Metalanguage label and made a bunch of records ourselves. Celluloid and SST were other labels that would pay me to do stuff in those days, too.
How do you look back at Ice Death?
I look at it as production work. The way I went to college is that I attended every other year. I’d go to school for one year, then work in film production for another. I’d then return to school. I used that alternating yearly pattern until I finished my undergraduate economics degree. What I brought to the Bay Area via the Metalanguage scene was a skill set based on doing general production work and getting things done effectively and cheaply—something I had learned in film production. I figured out that with experimental music, you could go to a really good studio, get a really good engineer, book them for a short amount of time, work really efficiently, and make something that didn’t sound awful or unlistenable, like a lot of the experimental, self-released records I had bought in college.
Once I get the product done and ship it off to the distributor, I don’t care much about it anymore. It’s something I got from working in films. When you get something done, it’s done. Next. I’ve worked on all kinds of television shows and industrial documentaries for companies like Safeway and Polaroid. For a year, I did all the Safeway training films. The production discipline I learned in that work, I then used in the music work.
Your 1991 trip to Madagascar with David Lindley, resulting in the A World Out of Time album series, was life-changing for you. Reflect on that period and what it meant to you.
I’ve always loved music from Madagascar since I was in college when I had a 1964 Valiha and Marovany record called Valiha Madagascar. I fell in love with Malagasy music when I heard that. When I first got a guitar in 1971, I remember putting that record on, putting a slide on my finger and trying to make some sounds with it, as mentioned earlier. We made A World Out of Time in 1991 and I remember in 1996 somebody asking me what I did the first day I played guitar. I mentioned a Sylvestre Randafison track on Valiha Madagascar and I realized that 20 years later I got to work with him during the making of A World Out of Time. It took me five years to realize it. Randafison has gone on to become one of the ancestors now, as have more than a few of the great Malagasy artists on the A World Out of Time recordings.
Going to Madagascar was a rhythmic revelation. I had been listening to the tiny bits of music that would escape from Madagascar and they always spoke to me. I had an idea of how the rhythms worked, but it really did change my life when I experienced them firsthand. Now, these rhythms sneak into everything I do, all the time. Music from Madagascar really is some of my favorite music, especially two particular dance music genres called Salegy and Tsapiky.
We made 12 records on that trip—far more than most people know. There are the three A World Out of Time volumes, of course, but there’s also The Legendary Mama Sana, D’Gary’s Malagasy Guitar, Tarika Sammy’s Beneath Southern Skies, and Rossy’s One Eye on the Future, One Eye on the Past. A few more are still unreleased. Paul Hostetter went there a few years later and made a various artists album called Resting Place of the Mists and the guitarist compilation Moon and the Banana Tree. So, a lot of music emerged.
I remember getting to Madagascar thinking we’d be lucky if we could make one record. Five days after arriving, I called Shanachie, our label at the time, saying “I need more money to pay more musicians. We’re going to make at least five records and you’re going to want all of them. Send money to the bank right now so we can pay these guys in cash.”
David and I were really pissed off at the time about high-profile Western artists that gave disproportionately low pay to the so-called Third World musicians they worked with. Some of these guys would also take the tunes from these African artists and take writing credit for them. If you look up the Los Lobos stories that the band tells about Paul Simon and Graceland, you’ll see what I’m talking about. We wanted to do the exact opposite of that. We didn’t put our names on anything anyone else had written. We paid ourselves a per diem and took no money for the projects. We paid the musicians really well, so people were getting a year or two of income for a day’s work. We even set up a special publishing company through which they got 90 percent of all the royalties. We sent the musicians in excess of $150,000 over the subsequent decades. It all went to these very poor musicians in Madagascar. We felt we did something really good. It was a major statement in that way, but nobody noticed that, because to talk about it might have seemed too self-promotional.
You co-produced two Ali Akbar Khan albums in 1982 titled Soul of the Sarod and Halfmoon. What was that experience like?
I’m a big fan of Hindustani classical music. It has so many of the things I care about in music, including improvisation, articulation, and detail in playing. While I’m not playing music with raga development in my music, the articulation and ornamentation elements do find their way into what I do.
I grew up listening to many Hindustani recordings in the Bay Area. It’s where the Ali Akbar College of Music is based, so I was able to go to lots of great concerts in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. A lot of albums were being made at that point by a lot of small companies. I would routinely get production jobs doing work for other artists. I thought I knew how to make a better Ali Akbar Khan record than some of the others I had heard lately. I remember how great the ones on the Connoisseur label were. I knew someone connected to an Indian label in New York City and I said “Let me produce the next one. I’ll get Khan Sahib to do something he wouldn’t normally do.” That also occurred when I asked Bill Laswell to let me make a Brij Bhushan Kabra album for Celluloid. He’s a great Indian slide guitarist. I’m always an advocate for things like that.
Khan Sahib was a big kahuna, so I would try to make him as comfortable as possible and get him in the best head space we could. He could be really humorous and a lot of fun. We had a great conversation once about an idea for an album. I said “In the old days in the court patronage system, I’m sure the Maharaja would have sex while the musicians would play behind a screen or something to provide a musical background. After all, one of the rasas is about the erotic. We ought to make an erotic raga record in which you play as erotically as you can, just to capture how powerful that could be.” He laughed about the idea and liked the suggestion, but the album never happened.
Here’s a bit of trivia about the Halfmoon album. Half of the LPs have one version of “Rag Malashri Gat” and the other half have another. Both takes were amazingly good performances and we couldn’t decide which was the better take. So we put them both out simultaneously. You can only tell which version you have by looking at the matrix number.
You’ve been exposed to many different spiritual traditions through the people and music you engage with. Have you distilled your own spiritual perspective through those experiences?
No. I don’t think about that stuff. I just get the job done. But yes, I’m really associated with people from different shamanic traditions. I feel it’s not my job to put my hand up so the lightning can hit it and have someone else holding the other hand who doesn’t die so they can understand what it feels like. I play with people from all over the world who are trans-shamanic musicians and for some reason, I can just play with them and make sense of what they’re doing. I don’t know why. I can play lines that come out of nowhere that have some meaning to them. I love the types of music in which the musicians are intermediaries. I’ve also made a couple of albums with Rev. Monk Heng Sure, who is part of the Chinese lineage of Buddhism. He’s a few years older than I, and a great Chinese scholar. We’re talking about doing another album this autumn. That’s basically folk music with Buddhist lyrics.
What’s your perspective on the state of world music today?
Most of it isn’t world music. It’s cheap New Age, disco or pop. It’s rare that it’s roots music that comes from somebody’s culture anymore. I blame it on the terrific music by Buena Vista Social Club and how it was marketed in the States. When they emerged and became enormously successful, the Cuban sections in all the world music sections in the record stores suddenly got twice as big. Half of the discs would be Cuban CDs of other Cuban artists, displacing other countries’ musics that had been there before. The stores thought everyone was going to buy them, but nobody did. They sat there and sat there, then became cut-outs. Later, the stores took out or shrunk the Cuban sections. In the process, they shrunk the world music sections as a whole to half of what they used to be. There was such an oversupply of stuff that it ruined the situation. That’s my theory about what happened during the CD era. Now, if we go look at “world music new releases” on iTunes, I count 10 real roots music releases this month and 126 releases that are bogus Western-produced junk with no roots, no heart, no soul, and no connections to people’s lives. It’s very very sad.
There’s also the issue of the disco lords wanting to control everything, turning everything into the factory beat with synthesizers and Auto-Tuned vocals, because it makes people stay in line and do what the bosses and big corporations want, so to speak. They don’t want people questioning the boss. So, they tried to replace the real music with that kind of product.
Do you believe music can serve as a societal control mechanism?
Do I believe the drum machine and disco were created to kill funk because it became too powerful? Yes. It’s about the way an ecosystem behaves when one thing wipes out another. In the ‘70s, funk was making really strong societal statements. Then disco comes in with the hammer-on-the-anvil factory beat and wipes out funk. It pretty much goes away and what’s left is mostly played by white guys on keyboards.
Reflect on the making of the two French Frith Kaiser Thompson albums.
They were great. There was some mild friction between John French and Fred Frith which perhaps resulted in them not being as fun to record as they could have been, but more than half the tracks on those records are kind of magic and really cool. All three other members of the band, including Richard Thompson, are great heroes of mine.
The project came together because I went to a Richard and Linda Thompson Shoot Out the Lights tour gig at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in 1982. It was the show where Linda threw a bottle onstage which cut Richard’s head open. I was in the front row with Amos Garrett and saw it happen close-up with the blood flowing down Richard’s face. I then drove down to Santa Cruz for one of Richard’s solo shows some months later and went up to him and said “I’m Henry Kaiser. We ought to make a record someday.” Richard said “Sure.” I said “Really?” [laughs] He gave me his contact info.
After two years of being in touch, I asked him if he’d like to make an album with Fred. He said “Yeah, I love his work.” Then I said “What if we got John French to play drums?" He said “Sure.” And that was that. The sessions were a blind date in which everyone came to the room with three or four tunes and we all went “Let’s do these.” We rehearsed them for a couple of days. Then we played them live at The Ashkenaz in Berkeley. After that, we went to the studio to record them and the first album was done. Richard always has way more tunes than he releases. All of his contributions are great. I realize the albums seemed like very intentional projects, but they were really just thrown together. It’s still what I do. But we were all good at making records, so they came out well.
I found it humorous that the band was named like a law firm.
It was the art director’s idea to make it look that way with the cover art. The title came first. The first album’s title, Live, Love, Larf & Loaf, was a quote from Painting with Light, a book by John Alton, one of the greatest cinematographers in history. The book was about cinematography, but there was a chapter on filming at sea on ocean liners and the title came from that. We changed “laugh” to “larf”—the Len Deighton spelling of it. It was a great time to make albums. They were made in an era when you could get small financing to do almost anything. The first album came out on Rhino. Those days are decades past now.
How did the second French Frith Kaiser Thompson album Invisible Means end up coming out on Windham Hill? It was as far from their aesthetic as could possibly be imagined.
Bob Duskis, who was Windham Hill’s A&R guy at the time, asked us if we’d do one for them. There was more friction between John and Fred at this point, but we still did some great stuff. It has an amusing mini-opera track by Richard called “March of the Cosmetic Surgeons” on it. It’s too bad we weren’t able to do any touring after the second album. There just wasn’t a way for us to afford it. So the two nights at The Ashkenaz, along with another show at The Palms in Davis, California, were all we did for each album. It was such a fun and weird kind of supergroup. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen often. Some live tracks from the Ashkenaz ended up going on the reissues of the albums a few years back.
You’ve taught improvisation at Richard Thompson’s Frets & Refrains camp in a class called “How to sound like yourself.” How do you teach that to people?
I start by saying “Look, you all like Richard Thompson and improvisation is really important to him. Let’s see if we can make it important to you, too.” I try to establish who really wants to do this and give them some extra tools that help them do it. My point is “Richard Thompson sounds special because he sounds like himself. So, you should also sound like yourself. You can sound like him on the way to sounding like yourself, but don’t make your goal sounding like him or anyone else."
I ask attendees to pay attention to musical qualities besides melody, harmony and rhythm. I suggest considering space and emptiness, timing, timbre, dynamics, ornamentation, bending and articulation, duration, shapes, narrative, storytelling, context and frame, purpose and teleology, ritual, and interaction with room acoustics. I also ask them to consider their instrument and the audience as improvisational partners.
I also promote advice like being yourself. Don’t try to be somebody else. As Carlos Santana so wisely said, "Your grandmother should be able to recognize your playing if she heard you on the radio.” So, take chances and don’t be afraid of risks. Be eclectic and broaden all your horizons. Try new ideas from new places. Play with feeling and commitment. Music isn’t about notes. It’s about feeling. Improvise. Play with as many new people as possible. Listen. Find new and undiscovered things about yourself.
Another thing I do is direct people to listen to music that’s improvised so they can develop an appreciation for it. I came to improvised music largely thanks to Hindustani classical music and The Grateful Dead, and those gateways can provide easy entry to some folks.
In addition to your own music and production work, you’ve contributed to Robbie Basho and John Fahey restoration and reissue projects. How did you get involved with those releases?
It happened because I was standing around one day at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley where they do these projects. Bill Belmont, the reissue producer of these albums, throws that work in my direction because there’s nobody else who will be a sucker and do it for free. [laughs] There’s no money in this. You do it because you care.
For the two Fahey greatest hits albums, there was space for more tracks on CD than LP, so what would they be? I was the person who got to decide. I wanted to ensure people heard cool things they wouldn’t hear otherwise, so I made sure they’re on there.
Right now, I’m working on a new Fahey box set with live material nobody’s ever heard. It will also include a DVD with absolutely terrific video. I’m going through tons of live stuff for this box. There's an audio sequence from a live show in which Fahey plays some tunes by Skip James and talks about him, that is pretty remarkable. There is also a video of a live shoot for a Los Angeles area TV magazine show in which the camera was, perhaps covertly, left running between musical takes and you get a fly-on-the-wall view of what Fahey was like in his home, interacting with a TV crew.
Another one of my jobs is putting something together that will introduce him to new listeners but also make the fans who already have everything happy, too. I want it done right so nobody complains about it. I hate it when people do bad jobs on these packages. The recent Captain Beefheart box set on Rhino was terrible. The song titles were wrong for the unreleased material. They didn’t put the best of the unreleased stuff on it, even though they had it available. It was a really slapdash, cheap, fast job with mistakes and that kind of thing drives me crazy. I don’t like seeing that happen to music I care about. So, that’s my motivation. I care about the music and believe in it.
Basho and Fahey are core influences for you. What makes them special to you?
Basho and Fahey were people I heard when I was in junior high, long before I ever thought of getting a guitar or beginning to consider playing music of any sort myself. I’d go to Moe’s Books in Berkeley down the stairs into the music department and buy the LPs. I remember buying Basho’s Falconer’s Arm I when they were opening the shipping boxes to take the first copies out.
I always loved Basho and Fahey because they represented whole other worlds with the guitar. Each of them occupied a different world with so much emotion, feeling and colors. They transformed the steel-string guitar into an American concert instrument. Leo Kottke came along after they did and he’s great, but he was never as experimental as Fahey and Basho.
One really unusual and notable thing about Fahey is that both women and men seemed to equally enjoy his music. You don't see that often in music that diverges from the mainstream. It’s also true for Terry Riley, but I can't think of many other examples of that in music that is experimental. I remember in high school and college, girlfriends would have Fahey records and know them well. That didn’t hold true for Basho records. There was something universal about Fahey that doesn’t hold true for other fingerstyle guitarists. As I’ve said several times during our conversation, it’s about a certain magic that’s there.
I’ve always liked the Fahey and Basho stuff, but I’m too lazy to learn how to play the way they did. But I’ll flirt with those areas once in awhile because it’s an area I love a lot. But I figure it’s not my job to be another guitarist of that type.
One other thing about Fahey is that he appreciated Derek Bailey as much as I do. He put out a Bailey album on his Revenant label, which meant Fahey had pretty big ears. Most people can’t listen to Bailey and understand what’s going on, but Fahey could.
In 2013, you released Requia and Other Improvisations for Guitar Solo inspired by Fahey. It also included artwork that served as an homage to Fahey’s Requia album. Tell me how that came together.
The album came about after a friend of mine died named Fred Lieberman, who was a great ethnomusicologist. I was sitting in a friend’s kitchen in Berkeley and had the guitar plugged into the laptop. I played a little requiem for him and thought it was pretty good. So I sent it to John Zorn and he said “That’s nice. Do you want to make a record of solo stuff for Tzadik?” I said “Sure, how about all requia?” He supported that and I realized that it reminded me of the Fahey record. So, I made an album of all requia in which I think of people who are gone and say something about them with the guitar. Then I tried to duplicate the photo shoot of the Fahey cover with him holding the Bacon and Day Senorita guitar. I was happy the record sold really well.
Give me a snapshot of your early ‘80s days as part of Bill Laswell’s orbit in the Downtown New York scene.
I went to New York once in awhile back in the early ‘80s. I was out at dinner in 1982 with a bunch of people, including Laswell. After that first meeting, I helped him and Fred Frith set up Massacre gigs in Northern California. They’d come stay at my house during those runs. Laswell then asked me to do some Material gigs in 1983 featuring Sonny Sharrock in Europe. I’m forever grateful for that because Sonny is one of my greatest heroes. I stayed friends with Sonny until he died. I remember that tour also had The Golden Palominos on it with Nicky Skopelitis and Anton Fier. Laswell was in both bands.
This all happened after the Herbie Hancock “Rockit” single. Before it was a Hancock single, it was a Material tune. I remember playing “Rockit” live with Material. It was the first time a DJ scratched live with a band. That was Grandmaster D.ST., now known as GrandMixer DXT. It was an interesting moment to be a part of. Bill asked me to play on the follow-up Hancock album Sound System from 1984.
Basically, back then I was playing in so many different bands with so many different people in ad-hoc groupings. There was a band called Mad World Music with Fred Frith, Toshinori Kondo, Bill Laswell, Mark Miller, and Charles K. Noyes. It was really good but didn’t make any records. I was also involved in variants of The Toy Killers.
Laswell and I didn’t do anything together for a long time, but all of sudden we’re in touch again and we’re performing at gigs and recording again. I don’t know if it’s by chance or if I’m easier to be around than I used to be. [laughs] We’re all better musicians now than when we were younger. It’s more fun to play these days because we have so much common history and background. We just understand how to work together. He just did a mix translation for a forthcoming Wadada Leo Smith album we both play on.
Describe Sonny Sharrock’s impact on you.
Back in the ancient days of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Sonny was the only person to really play free jazz on guitar and make a totally original and powerful statement on record after record. He was a real mystery. He was someone you would almost never see interviews with. There wasn’t much information about him, but he was this big, warm-hearted, funny guy that was so sweet and positive. In addition to playing with him in Material, I remember one time when Sang-Won Park couldn’t get into Canada for an Invite The Spirit show, a trio that also included Charles K. Noyes. I called Sonny and said “Do you want to do this gig?” He did and came and played with us. I also ended up playing some duo gigs with Sonny in Europe.
Sonny was really special and took a relatively non-technical approach to guitar, in relation to normal jazz guitar. Sonny had great technique but it was his own original tehnique. Derek Bailey was very technical to an ultra-virtuoso degree that few musicians ever reach, yet it was his own original technical approach. Derek could also play like Jim Hall anytime that he wanted to. But Sonny’s mode of technique had less to do with typical melody, harmony or rhythm in jazz. He found his own way to make music.
I think about Sonny most times when I play at some point. I think about Derek as well. Those are heroes who are now gone, without whom I wouldn’t play the way I do.
Tell me more about the people who helped shape you as a musician.
It was very kind of Eugene Chadbourne to record me for that first record all that time ago. I might not have gone down the path I did had he not done that. I’m forever grateful to Chris Muir, the musician I’ve played together the longest with. I met him in college. He’s such a terrific guitarist and electronics designer. We understand everything about each other, musically. We just made a new album called At CNMAT with David Wessel. I’m also thankful to Owen Maercks for including me on his 1978 Teenage Sex Therapist record.
Wadada Leo Smith is another critically important person to me. My relationship with Wadada goes back to 1977. He wrote a guitar duet for Eugene and I got to play on it. Wadada is very wise. He knows an awful lot about music. He has really interesting points of view that are different from the White pedagogic way of looking at jazz. He uses very valuable, intellectual tools for making excellent music. I also always think of him as a family member for some reason. Maybe because he’s like a great ancestor to me, but he’s still alive. I know he feels that way about Miles or Coltrane. I feel that way about Wadada. There are two albums with me and Wadada that should be out soon: Ocean of Storms and Pacifica Coral Reef.
Derek Bailey is someone who helped me and many other improvisers and was very encouraging. Other people include John French, Fred Frith, Richard Thompson, David Lindley, and John Oswald. Having people like that around my whole life is what made my music career possible. These are all people who stepped up for me. Conlon Nancarrow also provided some critical thinking and was personally very positive towards me.
Anthony Braxton was also very important in terms of formative thought. The way he organized his language pieces, his solo alto saxophone approach, and the strategies he employed in his quartets were really critical. I adapted all of that into what I do early on.
Terry Riley is another major influence. He’s a 20th century classical composer who emphasizes the value of improvisation. He cares deeply about Hindustani classical music and that informs and influences what he’s doing. I paid close attention to his language. Terry is so enormously creative and psychedelic. Look at In C—it’s crazy psychedelic no matter who plays it. Even when stiff guys in tuxedos play it, it’s still psychedelic. There’s magic there. He’s been a great friend to talk to as well.
My other particularly favorite 20th century composers are Iannis Xenakis, György Ligeti, Morton Feldman, Giacinto Scelsi, and Toru Takemitsu. They all have that magic too that goes beyond melody, harmony, rhythm, and notes on the page. That’s what excites me about their work. You don’t often hear much magic in today’s modern composers who perform and record, though there are exceptions.
Of modern composers, Takemitsu, in particular, had a really major impact with the subset of his music that combines Japanese and Western musical approaches and sounds. His compositions “November Steps,” “Eclipse,” “Voyage for Three Biwas,” and “In An Autumn Garden,” as well as the soundtracks to Masaki Kobayashi's Hakari and Kwaidan, and Masahiro Shinoda’s Assassination are key examples. I heard all of that material before I began to play guitar. What I took away from it, besides the great sounds of the Japanese shakuhachi and biwa, was what Takemitsu specifically did in “November Steps.” He put the sounds and language of the Japanese instruments next to the sounds and language of the Western orchestra, without trying to integrate the two in any way. They’re just happening at the same time. To me, this created a rich listening experience. One can imagine moment-to-moment imaginary rules and language syntax that could describe the relationships between the two parallel musics.
I’m a pattern guy when I listen to music. I listen with my idiot savant pattern detector on, all the time. I hear complex rules and grammar structures that I know don’t exist and are simply imaginary in my brain. I think I took the way of listening I experienced with “November Steps” and applied it to the way I listen and interact in group improvisations, be it free improv, rock, jazz, or whatever idiom. This gave me an even greater range of freedom as a player—and more escape from the limiting musical prisons of Western melody, harmony and rhythm. I think this is a key observation and something I’ve been taking for granted. It’s likely quite different from other people’s ways of making sense of complex improvisation and music in the air.
An album I made with the shakuhachi player Kiku Day called Zen Kaiju relates to this. This principle operates a lot in that duo recording. But at the same time, my guitar feedback imitates the sound of the shakuhachi flute and Kiku’s shakuhachi imitates the sound of my guitar feedback. So, you have the two of us not being together and being together at the same time. It’s kind of a paradox, but another level beyond the “November Steps” approach that just developed naturally for me. It’s one of the main reasons that I continue to play music—the experience of this kind of surprising reward, pleasure and satisfaction with the process of working and improvising.
Tisziji Munoz is a guitar friend who is very important and inspiring to me. Same with Ray Russell. Also, Terje Rypdal is very important to me. I've never met him. But without hearing him, I would not be what I am today. Damon Smith and Weasel Walter, both close personal friends of mine, have also had a very large musical impact upon me.
Do you mentor younger musicians as well?
I try to do that. It’s what I was taught to do. My heroes did that for me. I’m especially interested in helping and encouraging improvisers—particularly those who aren’t selfish and have a positive, open attitude. By selfish, I’m talking about people who just want to promote themselves and pay themselves five times what the rest of the band gets. That’s not how I learned to do stuff. Derek Bailey and Evan Parker taught me that everybody in the band gets paid the same, always. You split it equally. And by example, they taught me that you try to help and enable new folks who want to enter the music as much as possible. If you do that, you generally learn as much or more from the newcomers as they might learn from you. So it’s a rewarding thing to do in all directions—including for the audience and the entire music community.
What do you recall about working on Herbie Hancock’s Sound System album?
I went to the studio and Bill Laswell says “I’m going to go have dinner, put something on these tracks.” Bill came back from dinner. I said “Do you need to hear what I did?” He said “No thanks” and gave me a check and I went home. That’s all it was. Herbie wasn’t present. I appeared on “Hardrock” and “Metal Beat.”
It’s a shame Pete Cosey didn’t shine on the Hancock recordings, but he did the best they could get him to. He never played at the level of Miles Davis’ Pangaea or Agharta albums again on any album. But he could still be that amazing live. Pete is another great hero of mine who was very kind to me and told me a bunch of very helpful stuff about his approaches to guitar. I first talked to him back in the early 70’s. I subbed for Pete at a Miles From India show. He came back to play at the next gig. He said “Come sit next to me. I’m gonna tell you everything I’m doing.” So, I got to watch what he did during soundcheck and rehearsals. He’s one of the great ancestors as Wadada Leo Smith would say.
You’re renowned by many, but also the subject of brutal criticism. What do you make of the naysayers?
I’m an experimental guitarist that doesn't sound like Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton or John Mayer, so some people have a negative reaction, because I am not what they like. Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock were hated by a lot of people. That’s the way it goes if you do something weird or different. If you play like everybody else and do a superb job of it, most people are going to like you a lot. If you do something really different, that’s never going to be the case. People would tear into Bailey saying he doesn’t sound like Jim Hall or he can’t sound like John McLaughlin, which isn’t the case. The thing that’s changed recently is that there are so many places online that people can express their opinions, so you read a lot more of that. I don’t really care, because I know what I do is peculiar and eccentric, but has value. I know there are people who enjoy what I do. There are also musicians I trust and respect like Richard Thompson and David Lindley, who are happy to work with me. So, who cares what some critics say? There are way more people that happen to like what I do.
What’s a guilty musical pleasure no-one would ever typically associate with you?
ZZ Top. I covered “La Grange” on the first Crazy Backwards Alphabet album with John French, Andy West and Michael Maksymenko from 1987. It was released as a single on SST. I got Billy Gibbons’ management address and sent it to him. Four days later, a package arrived in my mailbox from the management. I opened it and there’s a cassette tape labeled “For Mr. Kaiser” in it. I played it and it’s a board tape of ZZ Top playing “La Grange.” When Gibbons gets to the drum break before the guitar solo, he says into the mic in the big stadium “Have mercy Mr. Kaiser.” And then the tape just cuts off at that point. There was no letter with it or anything. Just “Have mercy Mr. Kaiser.” [laughs]
How did Crazy Backwards Alphabet come together?
It was four guys getting together that came from different influences. The group began with a studio session in which Maksymenko was playing drums and John French came by to say hello. French sat down at the drum kit and we recorded “La Grange” with Russian vocals, spontaneously together, just because Maksymenko liked ZZ Top a lot. I’ve always loved the music of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band and Crazy Backwards Alphabet is an outgrowth of that. It also overlaps with another band I was in called Name that made a couple of records and an EP. It was based in the Bay Area and included Bob Adams, Erling Wold, Everett Shock, Judith Stadtman, and Lynn Murdock. It was a very important group for me. I still sit around and play Name and Crazy Backwards Alphabet tunes if I’m warming up or testing a guitar. I have great affection for both of them.
What continues to propel you forward after decades of pursuing music on the edge?
This is the state I enjoy. It’s what’s fun. Cecil Taylor once said “If it’s not fun, don’t do it.” So, I just do what’s fun. That’s my motivation. I try not to lose money doing what’s fun. [laughs] If what I did was losing money, I would have to stay away from having too much fun. So, there are some particular crimps on having fun. But I’m so lucky I get to make so many records and play with so many cool people around the world. I’m going to keep doing as much of this as I can before the clock runs out.