Henry Kaiser has earned his Pioneer label not only by championing experimental guitar for over three decades, but by exploring the fantastical underwater playground of Antarctica. His massive output spans genres and cultures while never sounding like anyone else. He has collaborated with a who’s who of the guitar world from roots players to experimentalists like himself. His ability to conceptualize and clearly express his musical ideas in words makes for a fascinating interview.
Early Henry with Dixie Dregs Andy West on whammy bar bass
What kind of music were you playing when you started out on guitar?
I started out doing several things at once:
a) Experimental music: I wanted everything to be an experiment and always new.
b) Improvised music: 95% of what I have done and what I will do is always improvised – that’s where the life and spirit is for me in music, in improvisation.
c) I wanted to play the psychedelic music I grew up with in the Bay Area in the late ’60’s.
d) I wanted to figure out how to play my favorite sorts of world music on guitar: Malagasy, Japanese, Vietnamese, Hindustani, Chinese, Burmese, etc. I particularly wanted to play stuff on guitar that was not originally played on guitar. Roots music, not commercial music, from alien cultures. This was very appealing in the same way that science fiction novella about alien worlds were to the young me—another way to go way out there. It’s probably true that experimental music was another kind of science fiction for me, too—I don’t think that I can overstate the importance of that.
e) Blues being among my favorite listening material, and also so easily accessible on guitar, I wanted try to find my own voice in that. Focused throughout the music of my particular blues heroes: Hubert Sumlin, Albert Collins, Robert Pete Williams, Skip James, Harvey Mandel, Fred McDowell, and Ry Cooder.
f) I wanted to understand and play the music of especially favorite artists of mine: Beefheart, Mahavishnu, Rydal, Basho, Fahey, etc.
Today I do exactly the same things that I started doing in the first day that I got my first guitar, a Telecaster, in 1972.
I guess I am the three things that I wanted to be: An improvising guitarist, psychedelic guitarist (in the sense that what comes out of my guitar should be mind-expanding, and an experimental guitarist. Putting those three things together is what all the years spent with guitars has been about for me.
What led you to create experimental and improvised music?
I think it was the LP and radio listening I did before I played guitar. Also the many concerts I went to as a young teenager, non-commercial, underground, and listener-sponsored radio of the 1970’s, as well as the Bay Area music scenes. What floated to the top for me were the particular qualities of music that was improvised and experimental; no matter what the genre or idiom. It’s what was in the air all around me in my formative years.
Whose music inspires you?
Conlon Nancarrow, Gyorgy Ligeti, Morton Feldman, Iannis Xenakis, Toru Takemitsu, and everyone I mention in this interview, especially those I have collaborated with.
How did you get better at your current style?
At this point it seems to be conceptual. I have never really chosen to practice at all. Technique that I desire came vary easily. Most any theoretical music info is out there and easily accessible. I really only play guitar in the studio, at a gig, and if I am repairing or optimizing individual instruments.
I think the expanding LISTENING, seeking out new unheard recordings and types of music to listen to is really what helps me get better the most. New concepts and ideas are what I look for. The best and most productive ones are things that cannot be written about or put in music notation. Things that cannot be described in terms of melody/harmony/rhythm—that’s where music and style is for me. I do think reading a lot of what ones musical heroes, and even enemies have to say in print can be enlightening too. I guess I am always looking for new little enlightenments. I seem to get better in quantum enlightenments, not with gradual improvement.
What are you trying convey with your music?
Nothing much that I am specifically aware of, I just try to get out of the way and let the music convey what it wants to convey. I like to be surprised and I assume that the audience wants to be surprised along with me. So, I might be attempting to provide that. And I like to have fun with the music, so probably trying to provide that for the audience and me too.
What’s currently the most essential gear for you?
a) Clean hi-fi pickups: Alembic or Bartolini or Q-Tuner
b) A clean hi-f amp with JBL speaker: Dumble, Two Rock, Fender, Glasswerks, Rivera, Divided by 13.
c) Tech 21 Comptortion distortion pedal
d) Ernie Ball volume pedal
e) A hi-fi compressor: Old World Audio 1960 or Origin Effects Cali 76
f) Two of these three: Eventide Eclipse, Eventide Pitch Track, TC Flashback
g) Ancient Lexicon PCM-42 or PSP-42 plug-in emulation of the Lexicon.
h) Colorsound Wah or Wilson Colorful Clone
i) An option that is increasingly necessary is True Temperament frets
Give me that stuff, and I can be my maximum self on electric. It does not really matter what individual guitar. For acoustic guitar, it does not matter much. I’m spoiled with a lot of great and favorite acoustics at home: Monteleone, Sobell, Beardsell, Turner, Howe-Orme, Bohmann, Moonstone, Bourgeois, etc. But anything with new strings will work for me.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
They are pretty much the same for me. I feel the future audience when I play in the studio, and I somehow feel like I am playing to them. And with a live audience, I really aim to connect with them, even doing the weirdest stuff. Solo and ensemble improvising are also equally fun for me. But if I had to choose one, I would always go for interacting with other players in real time. A lot of my use of digital guitar processing has been based on finding ways to surprise myself when playing solo, so that I feel that I am interacting with something that is outside of myself. I never have felt like I am doing any sort of self-expression in music, actually. I feel more like I just try to get out of the way, so that some cosmic message or joke gets through from Planet Zongo, or wherever.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
When I first started out in the mid-’70’s, improvising and experimental musicians could easily put own their own albums through fairly effective distribution channels, and actually make surprisingly good money—at least enough to go on putting out more albums. That seems to be way more difficult now, and I don’t see it getting easier in the near future. Fairly early on I was quite present in the mainstream music media (which covered experimental things much more back then). As I made more commercial rock and jazz recordings, that allowed me to build more of an audience. A lot of film and TV soundtrack work did not build an audience, but it did help pay for more self-released things, and allow me to record things on spec, and then sell them to independent labels. Nowadays I just don’t know. How does one build and audience for experimental stuff, when good quality audio is practically absent in the commercial distribution of music? I think that experimental stuff, so often concerned with sonic detail, timbre, and color, simply does not survive to recruit new listeners in the lo-fi MP3 format.
What influences your music besides other musicians and music?
During my entire musical career I have also worked in film production and in underwater scientific research. Those other areas have always heavily affected my science fair approach to guitar and music making. Since 2001, I have been a research diver in the US ANTARCTIC PROGRAM. I think I have spent two years of my life living in a tent on the frozen Ross Sea and diving beneath the ice daily there. That kind of experience really changes everything about one’s life. But there’s not really the space to go into that here.
My favorite filmmakers have always been as much an influence on the music that I play, as my musical heroes. Primary among those might be: Jordan Belson, Pat O’Neil, Akira Kurosawa, Preston Sturges, Masahiro Shinoda, and Michael Powell.
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
I have gotten to play or record with so many of my biggest heroes: Jerry Garcia, Derek Bailey, David Lindley, Evan Parker, Terry Riley, Cecil Taylor, Wadada Leo Smith, Richard Thompson, Sonny Sharrock, Michael McClure, Glenn Phillips, Raymond Kane, Michael Manring, Andy West, Bill Frisell, Barry Melton, David Torn, Jaojoby, Drumbo, John Stevens, Freddie Roulette, Nels Cline, The Mermen, to name just a few. Many of them have become good friends of mine and I look forward to new, future collaborations with them.
I love doing soundtrack work, whether it is cheap TV, or the projects that I did with Werner Herzog. I always want to do more soundtracks. It is very appealing to get that kind of work done efficiently and effectively. It’s not the easiest work to come by nowadays, as things get more and more conservative in the film and TV worlds.
I wish I could do more of the sort of world music collaborations that I have done in Madagascar, Norway, Korea, and Japan. But that’s not something the market really can support nowadays. I sure wish I could do a project in Burma. And more stuff with Korean musicians. David Lindley and I may go back to Madagascar in 2015 for a British TV documentary. I hope that happens.
A project in Iran, would be really tempting. There’s a great label there that does lots of cross-cultural projects: Hermes Records.
Your solo album EVERYTHING FOREVER is an 80-minute guitar solo, using your signature square wave modulated delay effect. What ever led you to doing an 80-minute solo track?
It had been bothering me for a while that my last electric solo guitar piece on CD, A Little Stroke Of Light, was only 70 minutes long; when a CD can hold 80 minutes. I thought that it might stop bothering me if I did do an 80-minute solo. One take, no overdubbing, live performance. What’s going on musically and conceptually here for me is: Terry Riley, plus Evan Parker, plus Malagasy Tromba trance music, plus Xenakis type attitude towards stochastically sprayed-out clouds of notes (though quite consonant, in this case), plus square wave modulation of delay times with a couple of 30 year old Lexicon digital delays, plus Persian music structural concepts of “gushes,” staying away from rock guitar language and gestures, as well as some structural ideas from the music of Robbie Basho that were also likely to have been inspired by Persian music. When I recorded the 70-minute solo the year before, it seemed like 10 minutes had passed, subjectively speaking. This 80-minute solo felt like a 3-hour solo, while I was playing. The two projects are quite different, and I am super happy with both of them. I guess you can listen to these as background music, or in the car on a long drive. But I think they do hold up to close attention also, if a listener can maintain that kind of attention for 80 minutes. I used my parts Strat with a True Temperament neck, which produces nearly just intonation; in combination with the just 5ths and 4ths from the square wave modulation of the delays’ clock rates, I can almost reach some of the areas of just intonation electronic solo performance that I loved so much on Terry Riley’s just-intoned organ works like “Shri Camel” and “Persian Surgery Dervishes.”
What are your latest projects?
I’ve always been fairly prolific; I think I have been on about 250 or so albums at this point, since I was first on Eugene Chadbourne’s Guitar Trios album, back in 1976. For the most of the past three years, I had a mom painfully dying in hospice. The nearly full-time job of dealing with that slowed recording down quite a bit during that period for me—probably only three or four albums a year. I hope I am not overreacting too much with over productivity, now that I am back to working full-time again, but there are a myriad of projects suddenly happening for me.
I recorded with the great Afro-American trumpet-player and composer Wadada Leo Smith. Wadada and I made three double-CDs 10 or 12 years ago with our Yo Miles! project, which explored the electric music of Miles Davis in his most experimental period, from 1972 through 1975. This new recording was a kind of return for us to those textures and sounds. Wadada came up with some wonderful compositions for a one-off band, with Bill Laswell on bass, Pheeroan Aklaff on drums, and three guitarists: me, Michael Gregory, Brandon Ross. We probably won’t see this issued for a while as the Tum label has two or three other Wadada recordings lined up for release first. It was a great session though, and we really got all three guitars to work well, playing together at the same time. Those two guys are super-terrific players and it was a great pleasure to be in the studio with them.
In a few weeks I’ll be in the studio with the amazing Ray Russell and a big band with two drummers, two basses, and four sax players. We are going to return to the musical areas of Ray’s more experimental stuff from the early ’70’s. Ray is someone who is totally amazing in many different senses for the wide range of things that he has done.
Working on a couple of new solo guitar albums: The Deep Unreal, another 80 minute trance guitar solo, similar to my Everything Forever , and a solo album using a lot of different 12-string guitars, both acoustic and electric.
Weasel Walter, Damon Smith and I have another Plane Crash Trio album in the pipeline.
Looping brothers Bill and Rick Walker are talking about a trio album with the three of us.
A few months ago I made three albums in Houston in one day: an acoustic duet with the great guitarist Sandy Ewen, a duet with my old pal and bassist Damon Smith, as well as a quartet of the three of us along with Houston guitarist Ryan Edwards.
A project with Peter Brotzmann and I with a Danish band called Elektro seems to be up for recording in Denmark in July.
Jonas Hellborg and I have been starting to plan a quartet band recording.
Trey Gunn, and Morgan Agren and I are talking about expanding our Invisible Rays trio to a quartet, with the addition of Matte Henderson and recording in Sweden sometime in the not too distant future.
This stuff should keep me fairly busy for the next 12 months.
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I’m putting together a benefit concert for Bonny Doon School, featuring local musicians and bands in June. Wondering if Henry might be interested in playing.
Hi, I am the program chairman for our local Santa Cruz SIR (Sons in Retirement) group…I want to invite Henry Kaiser..guitarist and Antarctic diver to give a talk to our group..would you be able to forward this to him, with my email (email@example.com)…Thank you, Dave B.
“Trey Gunn, and Morgan Agren and I are talking about expanding our Invisible Rays trio to a quartet, with the addition of Matte Henderson and recording in Sweden sometime in the not too distant future.”
thanx fer the HK action.. (he’s a hero of mine..)
Henry is a true and fearless pioneer…I’ve been fortunate enough to record and tour with him and cherish his friendship and collaborative spirit to this day
Excellent story and video selections on the every evolving Henry Kaiser. I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed his work and his perspective. Thanks, Michael.