Henry Kaiser Interview
Widely recognized as one of the most creative and innovative guitarists, improvisers, and producers in the fields of rock, jazz and experimental music today, California-based 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. The respect of his peers has earned him membership on the advisory board of Guitar Player Magazine, and the appreciation of his creativity by the music, film and television industries has kept him in demand as a composer and producer. He scored the weekly television series Secrets & Mysteries and has assisted dozens of artists from Ali Akbar Khan to Richard Thompson with their recording projects. Henry spoke to Abstract Logix about his music and Antartica.
AL: WHO IS HENRY KAISER?
HK: Experimental guitarist. I like to try new, untried things and see what happens.
AL: WHERE DID YOU GET ALL THOSE STLYES YOU PLAY?
HK: It may seem to listeners like I do many different styles of music. But they are all the same to me. Just like the free-form underground radio that I grew up listening to would play Miles Davis next to Ravi Shankar next to Karheinz Stockhausen next to Captain Beefheart next to BB King next to Sun Ra next to Jimi Hendrix next to Cecil Taylor, all of those things are valued the same, they are just music. And I just do musical experiments; the idiomatic demarcations are not particularly evident to me…. I can tell the difference between music that is improvised and music that is not improvised and i tend to prefer music with more improvisation going on.
AL: YOU JUST CAME BACK FROM PLAYING MUSIC, IN ALL OF PLACES, ANTARTICA!
HK: In 2001-2002 the National Science Foundation sent me to Antarctica on an Artists & Writers Program Grant. My job was to record a solo guitar album about Antarctica. It will be released later in the year. ANTARCTIC GUITAR is the first album to be recorded on the Antarctic Continent. I worked at both McMurdo Station and South Pole. Details of my adventures can be found in my Antarctic journals at: http://www.kff.org/docs/about/henrykaiser.html One of my favorite things about being on the ice, as they say, was that I got to do a lot of SCUBA diving under the ice. Diving has always been a big musical inspiration for me and this was the most inspiring diving of all. I also got to use the actual South Pole as a guitar slide. Outdoors at 40 below zero, not many folks get to do that!
AL: AGAIN, IT SEEMS LIKE YOU ARE PLAYING DIFFERENT STYLES ON YOUR DVD.
HK: The stuff on the DVD all seems like the same style to me….. Melody is something that I don’t really think about at all. If and when it occurs, I think it is random and unconscious. I am certainly influenced by all the music I listen to and melodies that I play often are unconsciously influenced by that. Korean Shaman music, which I listen to a lot, (see: http://www.soundspace.co.kr/index.htm and click on LABEL PRODUCTS – that’s what I listen to a lot!), shows up a lot in my playing. Probably I think more about note articulation, timbre, timing (not rhythm), space, and shape, more than I think about melody, harmony, or rhythm. This was probably also true of many of the great blues guitarists, I suspect…. I have a decidedly non-Euro-centric musical outlook. So the ways that Europeans traditionally analyze music are not of much interest to me. My models come from other cultures. What European models I relate to probably come from late 20th century composers who were trying to get away from the strict melody-harmony-rhythm thing. Nancarrow, Scelsi, Xenakis, Stockhausen, Riley, Feldman, Ligeti…. those guys I can relate to. Also I am influenced by European Free Improvisors, in particular, Derek Bailey, Keith Rowe, Evan Parker, John Stevens and Barry Guy.
AL: YOU SEEM TO BELIEVE IN THE PENTATONIC SCALES.
HK: I use them a lot. A rock-playing habit of mine is to superimpose two different pentatonic scales and use that instead of a diatonic scale. (For instance: superimpose Em and Am pentatonics = 6 note scale or Em and F#m = 8 notes or Am and Bm = 6 notes or Am and Bflatm = 10 notes… etc.) I also tend to look at scales from a North Indian Classical music perspective. Not just a set of notes – but statistical patterns within the set of notes – ways that certain notes are treated, hierarchy of note importance, different notes ascending and descending, etc. Again this comes from my listening habits.
AL: IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN EXPERIMENTATION AND IMPROVISATION?
HK: They are one and the same for me. New things. New patterns. New information. New interactions. New People. New Places. New Things. New Sounds.
AL: THAT STEVE KLEIN GUITAR IS INTERESTING.
HK: I have an early Steve Klein custom electric. I think David Torn told me about it first, then I got on and told Frisell and other players followed. I use Alembic Activator pickups in mine, which give my characteristic sound. I like the portability of the guitar. I like the trans-trem a lot, although it is a pain to maintain over more than a decade. I have a nice psychedelic, clown vomit, celluloid pick guard on it. That helps my playing a lot!
AL: WHAT CDS ARE IN YOUR PLAYER?
HK: I love listening to music. At home, in the car and in the studio while I work at the computer I usually am listening to something. Here are three pix of what I have just been listening to in the past week: the actual CDs taken from the RETURN-TO-SHELVES pile in my studio. Also a picture of the studio which is very messy this week….
AL: DO YOU HAVE OTHER INSTRUMENTS OR AMPS?
HK: You can see most of my favorite guitars in my BUNCH OF GUITAR SOLOS DVD that was just released. Here are my two favorite amps that I have had since the late 70’s, a Dumble Overdrive Special and a Dumble Steel String Singer. I use them for 75% of what I do. I also enjoy my Fender Super Champ, a couple of Two-Rock amps and a great Divided by 13 amp.
AL: YOU ADMIRE SHAWN LANE ENOUGH TO MENTION HIM ON YOUR WEBSITE.
HK: Shawn is amazing. Of course his technique is so far beyond most other electric players, but what really gets me is the wide range of ideas and influences that fuels Shawn’s musical imagination. We once team-taught a week-long workshop together. In that week we discovered that we both have an EXTREMELY wide range of interests. Some things overlapped and some things were completely different. It was fun to share and contrast our passions. Shawn’s love and knowledge of concert piano is as intense as my love of Korean shaman music. I always enjoy hearing Shawn’s new recordings! We both love film and that influences both our music a lot, too. I am sure that both of us cannot play guitar for an evening without thinking of Andrei Tarkovsky…. who else thinks like that? A while ago a label that Shawn is working with called me to try to set up a recording with Shawn, and my old pal Buckethead. I hope this comes to pass. It’s difficult to schedule stuff with Buckethead out with Guns & Roses……
AL: WHAT IS THE STATE OF PROGRESSIVE MUSIC IN AMERICA TODAY?
HK: Hmmm. I don’t know much about that. My pal Steve Feigenbaum runs the WAYSIDE/CUNEIFORM progressive distribution/label business. He seems to be able to keep putting product out. So things cannot be that bad…..
AL: WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN THE NEAR FUTURE?
HK: I WANT TO GO BACK TO ANTARCTICA! I am working on that. New CDs coming from: YO MILES!, PALACE OF LOVE: Bjorkenheim-Cline-Keneally-Kaiser-Manring, Kaiser-Senba-Uchihashi-Uemura, HK solo, HK BAND reissue, HK QUARTET unissued, Kaiser-Boisen. I want to do a project with Evan Parker. I want to do a project in Comoros with Richard Thompson. I want to do another project with Korean Shaman musicians.