Henry Kaiser’s Magic Land

February 5, 2014
California-based guitarist Henry Kaiser has played on hundreds of records, ranging from relatively accessible collaborations with Richard Thompson and David Lindley to avant-garde outings with Fred Frith and Derek Bailey to Miles Davis-inspired improvisational excursions with Wadada Leo Smith to a variety of idiosyncratic solo offerings. And that’s not to mention his many sideman credits and film scores, including several for celebrated German filmmaker Werner Herzog. Needless to say, Kaiser is something of a stylistic Cheshire Cat, though his musical raison d’être is to avoid sounding like anyone else—even himself (his chronic Jerry Garcia and Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band fixations notwithstanding).

To facilitate his desire for sonic diversity, Kaiser has amassed an immense collection of guitars, amplifiers, and effects pedals, some of which are collectors’ pieces, but many of which are simply unique instruments and devices of little value other than for their ability to provide particular tonal possibilities. Observing the guitarist in his studio, surrounded by this sonic armada, one gets the impression of watching a mad scientist at work in his laboratory—an impression reinforced while watching him create soundscapes via sophisticated effects processors and his singular live-looping techniques.
Kaiser is also something of an ethnomusicologist. He traveled to Madagascar with David Lindley in 1991, where the two “made lots of roots music records with people there,” resulting in the magnificent A World Out of Time and two follow-up albums. “The music we discovered there changed us radically and permanently,” says Kaiser. That was followed by a similar excursion with Lindley to Norway, and the release of Sweet Sunny North in 1994 and Sweet Sunny North Vol. 2 in 1996.
In 2001, Kaiser spent ten weeks in Antarctica on a National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers Program grant, and has subsequently returned nine times as a research diver and cameraman. His underwater video footage has been featured in two Herzog films, one of which resulted in an Academy Award nomination.
Kaiser’s most recent releases include he and Lindley’s intriguing soundtrack for Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World [Fractal], the lovely “80-minute live trance guitar solo” Everything Forever [self-released], and the delightfully eclectic Requia and Other Improvisations for Guitar Solo [Tzadic], featuring heartfelt remembrances of several of his musical heroes.
You’ve been looping for decades. Describe the various technologies and techniques you’ve used over the years.
The first looping I did was with an old MXR Digital Delay that had less than a second of delay time, and after that I switched to the Lexicon Super Prime Time, which had longer delay times. I very quickly became dissatisfied with locked-in loops, however, and developed a technique that I still use today, which involves long delays that only repeat once, modulated with square waves, which creates new pitches or harmonies in real time as I’m playing. You could do that with the old Lexicon PCM 42 and Super Prime Time delays, and now with the PSP Audio PSP 42 software plug-in, which I run on my laptop because it is easier to carry around. I developed a whole style around that technique.
You always use just a single repeat?
Yes. There’s none of that Terry Riley, Robert Fripp thing. There’s just one repeat. But the rhythm and the pitch of the delay are changing all the time due to the square- wave modulation.
Do you prefer a particular delay time?
It doesn’t matter. Three to 17 seconds is a good range.
How about modulation rate?
I usually set it to either heart or breathing rate, because those are natural healing rhythm rates. But although the delays and modulation are repeating with a consistent periodicity, I’ve learned to play in ways that disguise what’s going on, because I don’t want anybody to ever hear a repeating pattern. I want to make it sound like I’m playing more than any person possibly could, but in a way that doesn’t sound like looping in the usual sense.
You accomplish that by phrasing in particular ways?
Yes, phrasing is a big part of it, but also the timing. Many people that play with delay, especially with it set for multiple repeats, tend to play in time with the repeats. I can play out of time in some irrational ratio that doesn’t evenly divide, so you can’t tell what I’m playing and what the delay is doing.
There are lots of examples on your recordings.
Yes, starting on an old LP called It’s a Wonderful Life [1984], and more recently on Everything Forever, which I think is the best thing I’ve ever done.
Describe how you made that recording.
It’s just a guitar going into an Old World Audio 1960 compressor and then into two Lexicon delays, a PCM 42 and a Super Prime Time, along with a little reverb. I just thought I’d see if I could do an 80-minute guitar solo and I was lucky that day.
Why did you use two delays, and how did you have them set?
They give me three different voices or parts. One delay is mono and the other is stereo, but the stereo delays are modulated by two different clock rates, so the sound gets very dense. I’m actually only playing about a third of the notes that it sounds like I’m playing.
What guitar did you play on that piece?
That was a parts Strat with a True Temperament neck from Sweden, which uses a different intonation system. It works very well because when I set the depth of the square-wave modulation to be a perfect mathematical fifth, the more-or-less just-intoned notes of many of the scales on that neck fit really nicely with that and produce a very pretty and more natural world music sound. It results in some kind of just temperament as compared to the equal temperament of Western classical music.
You also use reverse delays frequently when playing live solos. What’s going on there?
That’s something I’ve worked with a lot to make it sound like a real backwards solo on a record, and I also use it to change my groove and rhythmic relationship to a track or a band. I’ve been doing it for 25 years, first with an Eventide Harmonizer and now with a little TC Electronic pedal. I’ve seen so many great performers do something superhuman, and I wanted to do something kind of superhuman, too, but rather than having a lot of technique and practicing in the conventional sense, I developed a way to do it with delays.
Having spent all that time working with those devices, do you find similar sounds and approaches creeping into your playing even when you aren’t using them?
Yes, I find a lot of the rhythms and things that have happened playing with those kinds of delays got into my body and I’ll play things on, say, an acoustic guitar that sound just like what I was doing with the delay, in imitation of myself.
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