An Interview with Henry Kaiser

I conducted this interview with Henry several years ago for the now-defunct Kronosonic website. The original transcript is republished here for the Psychopompos blog with an updated introduction and fresh ancillary materials.

“Widely recognized as one of the most creative and innovative guitarists, improvisers, and producers in the fields of rock, jazz and experimental music, California-based musician Henry Kaiser is one of the most extensively recorded as well, having appeared on more than 140 different albums. A restless collaborator who constantly seeks the most diverse and personally challenging contexts for his music, Mr. Kaiser not only produces and contributes to a staggering number of recorded projects, he performs frequently throughout the USA, Europe and Japan, with several regular groupings as well as solo guitar concerts and concerts of freely improvised music with a host of diverse instrumentalists.”

Henry Kaiser continues to be a diver in the US ANTARCTIC PROGRAM, as well as an improvising guitarist. For more biographical information on Henry and a staggering overview of the music he’s created and the vast array of musicians he’s played with, visit his web site.

IE: What’s the latest in Henry Kaiser’s world right now and what can we expect in the near future?

HK: MAY RELEASE of YO MILES! SKYGARDEN double CD/SACD on Cuneiform label. A couple of things coming in the GAFF label soon: HK BAND THE RECKLESS YEARS & NOSTALGIA FOR INFINITY – LOOPING GUITAR SOLOS. Still finishing ANTARCTIC GUITAR

Not many gigs. Bad market time now for gigs. Going to Fiji in April with Richard Thompson to dive and scout for a potential project there with RT. Wish and dream that RT + Danny Thompson and me could do the Islamic project in Comoros that we want to do, but that the market will not support at this time... Finish the Palace of Love and some other CDs that have been too long unmixed. Going to play at Kuriokhin Festivals in Moscow and St. Petersburg in May. An NYC gig or two in July. Immediately, now, waiting for the plumber to bring the new water heater right now.

IE: Are you at the point where the things you play on your instrument mirror what you’re hearing in your head – i.e. some nearly unmediated expression of the mind (what Howard Roberts used to call “music at the speed of thought”) or are you constantly surprised at what’s coming out as you improvise? Is what you’re doing mostly conscious and deliberate or some parts unconscious and accidental?

HK: I don’t think about it much. I just play and enjoy and criticize what comes out. It’s more like I see shapes and colors in space and they become the music. Interviewers typically begin by asking me about my influences. I’ll go on for a while mentioning Derek Bailey, Gyorgy Ligeti, B. B. King, Jerry Garcia, World Musics, Country Blues, Free Jazz, etc. But then I tell them that my favorite artist in any medium and the most influential of my heroes is the filmmaker Jordan Belson. This is invariably met with a blank look followed by my enthusiastic exposition on Belson’s work and its effect upon me that is without fail deleted from the interview by the time it gets into print.

Belson, a long-time North Beach resident now in his 70’s, has made about 36 short, abstract or non-objective films since 1947. In the ’60s and early ’70s it was fairly common to see them in programs of experimental films the world over. He makes his films in his tiny apartment on a specially constructed optical bench. The films are 100% special effects. Sometimes cosmic, sometimes sub-molecular, they are like abstract paintings come to gentle and furious life. Simultaneously windows into the depths of internal spiritual processes and mega-galactic interplay, the films resemble fantastic living creatures of light that briefly enter this dimension for each screening. Even Belson’s early work surpasses what George Lucas’ ILM team needs millions of dollars to accomplish. Belson’s work was a crucial influence on the psychedelic ending sequence to Kubrick’s, 2001, A SPACE ODYSSEY. Director Phil Kaufman hired him to do some effects used in THE RIGHT STUFF. Belson has been around for a long time, but he keeps the lowest of profiles.

I was fortunate to see his work when I was in my teens at about the same time that I began to play guitar. Belson’s artistic innovation was a big inspiration to try to create my own personal forms of musical expression. He created images that transcended the film medium and I wished to do likewise with sonic imagery. He created his own visual language and grammar and he had a lot to say with it. Visually his films are as exquisite as anything in nature. I’ve kept up with his work over the years and have seen most of his films many times. It’s simply my favorite art in all terms: style, technique and content.

From 1957 - 1960, in collaboration with the musician Henry Jacobs, Belson staged one hundred “Vortex Concerts” in San Francisco’s Morrison Planetarium. Those unprecedented presentations of abstract sounds and images are still talked about today. My own 10 year series of concerts in Oakland’s Chabot Planetarium owed a great debt to those first explorations.

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

When you were a pre-school kid did you, like me, lay in your dark bedroom at night and press on the lids of your eyes to generate phosphene patterns of internal light that danced in your head before going to sleep each night? If you can remember those images - have you ever thought of the similarities that they bear to spiritual and psychedelic art through the ages? From a Tibetan mandala, to a Fillmore poster, to modern computer art, to a Rothko painting there is a not-so- hidden connection between the way our brains are wired and Man’s quest for spiritual understanding of the universe through visual art. When I saw my first Belson film during my second year of college, I immediately recognized this and was nonverbally transformed by his work to see all sorts of connections that I’d never seen before. And when I started to play guitar, soon after that, he became the major influence on my approach to playing.

IE: Do you ever experience creative lulls or periods where frustration and, if so, how do you go about working through those spells?

HK: Never! It’s all pretty much easy and fun with THE MUSIC. My main goal is to serve the music, and not myself. I think that makes it easy. The music business is almost always frustrating. Much more time spent on getting live gigs and recordings financed or sold to labels than on playing music.
95% music business – no fun – work. all for: 5% fun music time.

IE: One of the reasons for recording in the Antarctic was to express in musical form the natural environment. As you said “I need to absorb the landscapes, weather, light and soundscapes with my own senses...I need to absorb the texture of life at the American bases. I want to talk with scientists about their Antarctic work. I'd like to visit historical sites and attempt to record in some of those locations." In a sense I gather you’re acting as a sort of antenna. When I think of Antarctica I think: whole lot of natural landscape to absorb and not a lot of social facts. So let me take you back to your recordings in Madagascar with David Lindley (A World out of Time). You were there in 1991 during a period of social and political unrest. And, in fact, right after you left single party rule came to an end and the IMF and World Bank set about restructuring property and financial relations in that country. I’d imagine that Madagascar, unlike Antarctica, has as much social textures as natural to absorb. Do you think you adequately “absorbed the texture of life” in Madagascar? How do you get attuned to the social and political environment of a time and place?

HK: It was not our aim to absorb life texture in Madagascar. Our goal was to play TOGETHER with Malagasy musicians and to make Malagasy roots music together. Also to document things that had not been documented – like D’Gary. So, I spent two weeks in the studio, recording 6 CDs and did not get any sense of the life and the country, except through the folks we worked with. No time for anything else. Just playing and recording.

In the Antarctic – I was trying to create my own vision of Antarctic Music. So I needed to live there for nearly 3 months and experience EVERYTHING and UNDERSTAND everything about the place that I could. And the release of the project is actually delayed because I am trying to get back as a working diver next season – so that I can get more video to use as promotion for the ANTARCTIC GUITAR CD.

IE: You’ve said (in “Eclectic Electric”) that music is “dangerous” and a “vital force” for good and making music leads one to participate in the life of positive energy, and so on. That’s rather vague but you also said that collective improvisation is inherently democratic and that the product is greater than the sum of its parts. Now those two related ideas are very sociological in nature. Is this where “vital force for good” and democratic practices merge? Instead of “my music touches on current events, political, social, etc.” you have organized group music making around practice forms that in a way counteract the effects of social problems. Is that a reasonable interpretation?

HK: I could buy into that interpretation. But it’s only one view of an awfully big elephant. Kind of like just touching the hairs on the trunk... You ask, “Is this where ‘vital force for good’ and democratic practices merge?” Maybe in anarchy? I think there is some vague kind of spiritually energetic thing that goes hand in hand with truly improvised music. Maybe that’s why 90% of the human music on earth has been improvised?

IE: Can the facts behind the lyrics for “Aye-Aye Monster” (Mistakes) be revealed yet?

HK: I think it is pretty obvious... to anyone who might care...
key: Hanitra means good smell in Malagasy.... Maimbo means bad smell Marina means one who speaks the truth Marina = Sammy of Tarika Sammy Maimbo = someone named Hanitra Jethro = someone with the family name of Anderson, who was not in Jethro Tull....

THE AYE AYE MONSTER (by Kaiser-Keneally)
Aye Aye Monster nourished by primeval slime plotting out sins; Maimbo grins and wrecks havoc through recorded time; Marina sings in the village of kings his music brings magic to many while in the wings Maimbo thinks things that he sings will bring many a penny; In another strange land we find Jethro a man who has money and evil ambitions; The Aye Aye seduces and quickly deduces the path to Marina’s traditions.

Aye Aye Monster with money man deep in its pocket steals Marina’s music and conceals Marina’s magic where none may unlock it; Marina cries to the merciless skies as the evil ones carry out their mission the money man yawns and crushes his pawn who does deeds not of his own volition.

Marina begs them they capture his legs then that he cannot return to his home he threatens to shout they capture his mouth that their evil shall never be known.

Aye Aye Monster brings pain without warning or cause Lays with the money man with Marina impaled on its claws.

I would be more than glad to tell the story the way it really is but jackals would soon emerge and feast on my pathetic head. It’s so very nice to know in Modern America that must never unveil the truth about the injustices under the bed - where industry’s born and bred without risking wrath from a gaggle of blood-starved men who’ll strip you of all that you are before you count to ten. And so I must sing you this tale as a metaphoric stew because if you knew all the facts that I knew they might come for YOU.

Aye Aye Monster nourished by primeval slime prey for the day it no longer wrecks havoc through time;

IE: Who would you most like to collaborate with that you haven’t yet?

HK: I’d like to make another recording with Evan Parker. I had not played with him in over 20 years until we played together at TONIC last month. My pal Buckethead and I should do something substantial together someday. We were supposed to do that project with Shawn Lane, but he died first.
I want to do more music with Korean shamans. Would love to play with Wayne Krantz. I have actually played with most of the folks that I want to play with by now.

IE: I read that you were looking forward to a possible collaboration with Shawn Lane and Buckethead. I did notice on your web site an unreleased project: “UNTITLED with Greg Goodman, Buckethead, and Mark Crawford.” What is this project like and when might we see it?

HK: Goodman just sits on that master. I hope he lets it be put out someday. John Oswald plays sax on it, too. It’s something like Cecil Taylor meets Mahavishnu meets Beeheart meets speed metal. That’s my memory. Have not heard it for years.

IE: What do you look for in a collaborator? What gets you interested, in, say, the case of Glenn Phillips for example (Guitar Party), in what another person does? Is there something common to them all beneath their unique qualities?

HK: You want like a personal ad? I can use the same words to describe both who I would like to play with and myself.... intelligent, kind, open, playful, healthy, fit, trustworthy, completely honest, open to change, open to adventure, energetic, self-confident, likes to discover new things, sense of humor, brave, creative, etc. Must have nice personality. No smokers. Good improviser. Sound like themselves.

IE: You’re known for having a jaw-dropping, continuously changing, and ever expanding guitar collection yet your amp and effects system seems to have remained relatively stable over the last few years. A lot of players get inspired by a new pedal whereas it seems that new guitars bring out something new for you. Can you explain your relationship to the guitar? What does a new guitar do for you? What do you look for in a new guitar?

HK: Actually I always return to the same favorite guitars. But sometime old ones that were in disfavor will suddenly rise to the top of the pack. Another pal with too many guitars, Steve Kimock, and I were just talking about that.

Maybe there are a couple of more aspects to too many guitars? Always searching for the better one. (That’s Steve and me.) Collecting a lot of obscure and odd guitars as aesthetic objects (that’s Lindley and me.)

They are just different tools for different jobs. Generally, I like Fender scale length and I like clean, active pickups, such as the Alembic Activators. I get really inspired by new fuzz tones. Way too many fuzz pedals here....Now I have a new guitar in = an old guitar out policy. And I see that there are too many guitars to play in the decades of life left to me. So it’s probably time to reduce stock. A new guitar does bring out new music sometimes. Especially in the studio.

IE: I have a trashed out toy guitar that I converted into a microtonal instrument by sliding the bridge around the top. It apparently had five songs in it – no more, no less. Do you find that in your guitar collection? Each guitar has a few songs “built into it” and then rather than coaxing something out of it that isn’t there you, instead, reach for another guitar?

HK: Different guitars just have different voices. And it is interesting to hear those different voice try ALL the “songs.” Sometimes it is interesting to force yourself to use the wrong guitar for the job.

IE: You recently took possession of your second Teuffel Tesla (the new one a six-string model with a Steinberger Transtrem). There are a lot of us who marvel at Teuffel guitars but haven’t had much direct contact with them. Can you tell us about the Tesla? Have you tried out or considered the Birdfish model?

HK: BIRDFISH is a lovely design, but does not appeal to me personally. The TESLAs have an amazing tone! Perhaps due to their unique construction. And it is an interesting handicap to adjust one’s hand position to them... The TESLAs sound really great directly into the board; I also like it with the internal mic on. The 7-string is a great Cecil Taylor guitar. And the 6 string with the trans trem has a great P90 kinda tone. Kinda like Leslie West meets Elliot Ingber meets early 1967 Jerry Garcia, ANTHEM OF THE SUN, side B tone.

IE: You’ve been getting deeper into 7-string guitar lately. How is that going? Will you go further? Perhaps custom 8 or 10 string instruments? Have you thought about trying a Stick or an NS Stick?
HK: I can barely play 7-string. I can only play bass guitar if it has 6 strings, like my Danelectro. Any more strings are too many. Less are too few. I’m basically just a 6-string guitarist. And the 7-strings only work for me in the Derek Bailey style, the Industrial or Frith guitar-as-sound-source-style, and the fuzz lead with few chords style. I’m not much good at composed music on 7-strings. Too much work. I am lazy.

IE: It would be pretty much impossible to build the “Henry Kaiser signature guitar” wouldn’t it?

HK: There would need to be 3 electric ones: My graphite-necked Moonstone M-80, where I can bend behind the bridge; my Klein with the wood neck and Alembic Pickups and a trans- trem ; and my Ransom, hard tail Strat-type with Alembic pickups. Those three are me. The next one would be my Tom Anderson Cobra. I think they make the best production guitars.

And I am married to the same Dumble Overdrive Special 100 watt amp that I have used for 25(!!!) years now. Though, I have other amps that I flirt with and use in special cases. The K&M, TWO-ROCK amps are really great. So is the Divided by 13, my Fender Super Champ, and my old ADA COBRA amp. I LOVE my THD bivalve!

IE: What do you think about guitar synth and why have you not exploited that technology more?

HK: But I have, in the ancient past. And I have moved on. Look at POPULAR SCIENCE with Sergie Kuryokhin. Or at the few synth solos on LEMON FISH TWEEZER. I just lost interest, after taking it as far as I could. And it’s too much more gear to carry around.

I’ll note that I was the first person to really use digital looping with guitar. Back in the late 70s. Reference: RE-MARRYING FOR MONEY and ALOHA and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. So many loopers now. I stay away. And it’s painful to hear famous folks (and pals!) who are great players using looping in lame ways, by my old critical standards. Just go back and listen to RE-MARRYING FOR MONEY on SST. I stand proudly by that looping work – but it’s mostly unknown and forgotten. Sometime I do loop things at home to give to folks who like it as personal gift CD-Rs. I just decided to put out a CD of some of that material on GAFF, entitled NOSTALGIA FOR INFINITY.

IE: Good looping?

HK: David Torn, my pal Chris Muir, and Nels Cline.

IE: What’s been the highlight of you musical career so far?

HK: ANTARCTICA. MADAGASCAR. NORWAY. PLAYING with Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, John French, Richard Thompson, Cecil Taylor, Mark Crawford, Lukas Ligeti, Terry Riley, John Oswald, Greg Goodman, Jerry Garcia, Wadada Leo Smith, Raymond Kane, Jim O’Rourke, John Stevens, Sonny Sharrock, Bill Frisell, Shawn Lane, Kiyohiko Senba, Rossy, Dama Mahaleo, D’Gary, Freddie Roullette, Tisziji Munoz, Marilyn Crispell, Danielle DeGruttola, Bob Bralove, Tom Constanten, John Hanes, Steve Kimock, Michael Maksymenko, Knut Reirsrud Mike Keneally, Andy West, Fred Frith, Glenn Phillips, Harvey Mandel, Barry Melton, Bob Weir, Mark Dresser, Damon Smith, Davey Williams, NAME, ROVA, and Eugene Chadbourne.
I probably forgot somebodies..... Apologies to them.

PRODUCTION highlights: Brij Bhushan Kabra, Prof. Li Xingtang, D’Gary, Ali Akbar Kahn, Dama Mahaleo

IE: If you could be transported to any time or place to play or study with any musician who would it be and why?

HK: ROBERT PETE WILLIAMS!!!! In Lousiana in the late 60’s. Why? My favorite bluesman. And I think that we came from the same planet....

IE: What’s the last great book you read and would recommend?

HK: THE KNIGHT by Gene Wolfe. That was the last great one. I read a couple of books a week. (I have slowed down..) A few favorite authors: Thomas Pynchon, Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Eric Kraft, Phillip Pullman, Theodore Sturgeon, Avram Davidson, J. G. Farrell, John Crowley, Daniel Pinkwater. I read a lot: esoteric fiction and non- fiction.

Off the top of my head: some favorite things of the last decade of reading: MASON & DIXON - Thomas Pynchon, I CAPTURE THE CASTLE - Dodie Smith, HIS DARK MATERIALS - Phillip Pullman, STRANDLOPER - Alan Garner, VISUAL EXPLAINATIONS - E. Tufte, LIMEKILLER! - Avram Davidson, LIGHT AND COLOR IN THE OUTDOORS – Minnaert

IE: What’s the last great movie you saw and recommend?

HK: Mmmmmmm… What do I like in the past? SOME DIRECTORS: Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, the aforementioned: Jordan Belson, Preston Sturges, Fuller, Kon Ichikawa, Masahiro Shinoda, Michael Powell, Satyajit Ray, Nicholas Ray, Robert Altman, Robert Aldrich, Jacques Tournier, John Pierre Melville, Bunuel, Sirk, Alton, etc.

Last great film? A Japanese film not released in the USA, but available on region 2 DVD from Japan, AME AGARU, (AFTER THE RAIN). Based on a Kurosawa script and made by his old crew.

I don’t watch TV at all. Have not for 20 years. But I just watched the canceled Fox series, FIREFLY on DVD and was impressed by that. I am glad that they are making a feature now for UNIVERSAL, called SERENiTY.

IE: What’s the last great album you heard and recommend?

HK: There are several a week But MOST RECENTLY I really like the 3 new HULA music CDs by George Kahumku Jr. and Daniel Ho. I just saw them play last week in Kona and they were selling the CDs at the gig.

IE: A couple of recurring, family-related themes pop up when people talk about you. There’s the Henry Kaiser who had a painful childhood (sketched out in your own autobiographical “Flintstones” piece) and, simultaneously, there’s the Henry Kaiser who is the grandson of the industrial titan Henry J. Kaiser and who enjoys extraordinary wealth and privilege. The two themes often converge in the minds of your fans – for example:

“I actually read about his upbringing and it was sort of sad. Something to the effect that one of his parents died young and the other one had been institutionalized (I think one of his parents had MS or the like) in some respect so his money was held in a trust fund and his upbringing was somewhat sad I believe: I think he had to live in some kind of institution himself and he didn't really have any family to contact at all - he'd just get doled out checks for clothing and food. I have to see if I can dig up this interview because it sounded seriously grim.”

Another person reflected:

“Maybe nobody asks to be a role model but Kaiser was for me. I thought he had unlocked the mystery of the universe. He makes this brilliant but anti-commercial music, lives in the [high rent] Bay area, has all the coolest guitars, goes all around the world, knows everybody...tons of record[ings].... you think you can do it too if you just work hard and stay true to your vision. And then I found out that his family had billions and it dawned on me that his music wasn’t supporting his lifestyle but that his lifestyle supported his music. It was really a crushing [revelation] and I went into a depression that lasted for longer than I’d like to admit. I knew then that he hadn’t found a way to be a self- supporting experimentalist and neither would I – never. If he was from a normal background like the rest of us and making the same music he’s always made he’d be stuck in a day job instead of living the life. I think Kaiser is a genius and musically I’m always amazed but I wish he had come with a warning label that said ‘This isn’t how it works! No matter how hard you try you can never make it like I have.’”

Yet another:

“At the Jeff Greinke show a little while back I met a dude who just moved here from the Bay area, and is now working at a local music store. He was dropping a few names and mentioned Kaiser in the process. He claimed everyone thought that he was rolling in trust fund dough. But the ‘reality’ was that, though he led a reasonably comfortable existence, was not the rich kid that everyone supposed.”

Can you sort out the reality from perception for us? How does your family and class background impinge upon, affect, and support your art and music?

HK: I’ll be precise. I don’t have millions of $. My dad died when I was eleven and he left a fund that paid for my high school and college education. That was all. All of the rest of the money that my dad had was stolen with a substituted will scam of my wicked uncle, my Dad’s brother – so that’s where the miliions went.

Oddly enough – a son of the wicked uncle, also named Henry Kaiser and resident here in Oakland, was just taken down by the FBI on charges of wire fraud, four counts of interstate transportation of fraudulently obtained property, four counts of money laundering and four counts of money transactions in criminally derived property. Charged with stealing 23 or 25 million buck I never had contact with his part of the family. Or any family, really. I am sure glad that I did not have millions of dollars and end up facing 35 years in federal prison like that other Henry Kaiser.

During and after college I made money in film production. (I went to college every other year and worked in film in the years between). Music makes a moderate amount of $. But I made a good deal of $ from the publishing from a TV series that I scored, SECRETS & MYSTERIES. That paid for my first house and a lot of gear. No megabucks here: I just work very, very hard. I work all the time. I work much harder than most folks that I know. And I am really productive with my time and choices. So: after
college I am more or less self-made. Working some other kinds of jobs at odd times, too. Teaching underwater research at UC Berkeley for 17 years. My dad also left 20 Disney cells that Walt gave him in the early 50’s. I found those a couple of decades ago. I sold them. They helped me to pay for the new home I live in now, when I sold them. So I do have a really nice house and lots of cool gear – but it’s certainly through my own efforts.

No special class upbringing here. From 2nd grade on I was on my own, with no responsible adults or family. My background of having to be totally self-reliant equipped me well to work hard and have fun and to make all of my own choice without worrying about what anyone thinks.

I would say that my personal identity rests more in being a research diver, a free diver, and a Scientific Diving Instructor, more than in being a musician or guitarist.

IE: Is there a question that’s never been asked of you in an interview that you just can’t believe hasn’t been asked? What is it and what is your answer?

HK: No. Can’t think of anything. I just think of “nothing.” So the proper Japanese Zen answer would be: “Mu.”

Thanks Henry!