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 , 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.
Your approach to looping and signal processing is extremely idiosyncratic. What advice would you give to budding young loopists and others trying to find their own voice using today’s technologies?
Instead of doing what you’ve heard your heroes do, or the obvious things that anyone who uses a particular piece of gear does with it on the first day they have it, find a way to do something different. There are always an infinite number of possibilities, but you have to conceive of them—it’s conceptual.
Much like playing the guitar or playing music in general.
Right. All the time I find that with the same amount of technique I already have, my concept will change. For example, when I was starting out and I learned how to play the minor pentatonic scale, at some point someone said, “Hey, you move that three frets down and it’s the major pentatonic scale.” It was like, “Oh my God!” And all the sudden I could play twice as much stuff without having to acquire more technique or practicing.
You’ve got a lot of guitars. What are the guitars that you tend to come back to over and over again, and how do you decide which one would be best in a given situation?
I’m really concerned with timbre and sound color more than I am with melody, harmony, or rhythm, so I know the personality of every guitar—how it sounds on every fret, how its pickups sound, how it sounds into different amps, etc. Just like a painter who looks out at the ocean thinks, “Okay, I want to paint it just like the ocean but I want it this color instead,” I hear the color of the guitar that I want. If I’m in the studio I’m happy to have ten guitars there, whereas when traveling I’m pretty much stuck with my old Klein custom electric that I can carry on an airplane without any problems. It’s a great guitar with a very nice old Steinberger tremolo, and I put Alembic pickups in it, which are my favorite pickups.
Your amp collection is also impressive. What are a few of your favorites?
I met Howard Dumble when I first started to play. He visited some friends of mine who were jamming in a garage, and brought one of his amps for us to try. That was in the late ’70s, and it sounded fantastic. Then, years later, I got one from him, so I grew up as a professional player with this really versatile, amazing amp. I’ve always preferred those Fender descendent Dumble amps, and the amps that evolved from them, especially the amps made by Two-Rock and Glaswerks. I also use JBL 12" speakers, because my idea of rock guitar tone comes from ’60s and ’70s Captain Beefheart and 1972 Grateful Dead—kind of a clean powerful sound with a very complex dissonant harmonic content that makes the beauty of the dissonance clear without sounding too ugly.
Do you get your overdriven and distorted tones out of the amp or from pedals?
I used to use the overdrive in the Dumble, but now I get it from pedals, and if I could only have one it would be the Tech 21 CompTortion. But if you look at whatever pedalboard I’m using, it’s going to have four, five, or six distortions or fuzzes on it with different colors.
You’re addicted to fuzzes.
Yeah, I’m addicted to fuzzes.
You have hundreds of pedals. Besides the CompTortion, what are a few of your current favorites?
I like many of the other Tech 21 pedals, too, including the British overdrive. I also really like Paul Trombetta’s pedals, such as the Tornita, a really psychedelic-sounding fuzz that he made for David Torn. Red Panda also make a couple of very interesting pedals. I got a Colorsound wah a long time ago and I like that sound, so I got a Wilson clone of the Colorsound, which is my current favorite. I’m also fond the Buzzaround family of British distortion pedals, one of which was the legendary fuzz that Robert Fripp used in the ’70s. There are about two-dozen clones of them being made and they all sound really, really different. Ghost Effects in England makes the best one I’ve heard, but the most interesting-sounding one is a clone of the Buzzaround circuit called the Elka Dizzy Tone, made by an Irish guy named Jimmy Behan.
Do you have any favorite sounds that result from combining particular pedals?
I have lots of pedals that sound great together, but I don’t keep track of the different combinations, or try to repeat anything—because I don’t want anything to be predictable. I play my best when I am discovering new things, whether it’s on the fretboard or with the gear or with the other players.
You do, however, almost always play in standard tuning.
That’s true, unless I’m playing some blues thing that’s in a non-standard tuning. And on “Basho’s Journey,” from my new solo album, I’m playing a 12-string acoustic that’s in an odd tuning that was inspired by Michael Gulezian. It was some kind of dropped-D tuning where the fourth and sixth strings and octaves were the same, but everything else was tuned to different harmony intervals, like minor thirds.
Do you mostly play with a pick?
I always play with a combination of a pick and my fingers. I use very heavy picks, including Dunlop Graphite and Gripick nylon picks.
Why a heavy pick?
I don’t remember why I started using them. It could have been because I wanted to sound like the guitarists on Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, who used metal fingerpicks and a flat pick, but I didn’t want to wear metal fingerpicks, so having a really heavy pick was the easiest way to get that sound. And then I later discovered that Jerry Garcia and a lot of other people I like use heavy picks.
Do you also use heavy strings?
Not particularly heavy, though I rarely use anything lighter than a standard .010 set. And my favorite electric strings are GHS Progressives, which sound great, never break, and last forever.
Are you still doing “prepared guitar” music?
I only really did that when I was playing with Fred Frith, like on our album With Friends Like These, back in 1979. Keith Rowe really started all that, and I love his playing, but it was never my thing. Derek Bailey was my number one guitar hero when I was growing up, and while he played the most extreme avant-garde guitar of anybody, it was always in standard tuning and with no tricks. So, I kind of felt like that was the kosher path.
Describe the way in which you and David Lindley scored Encounters at the End of the World.
I had worked with Werner Herzog on several films previously, and I was hired by Discovery to be the producer for that film, so I got to do the soundtrack. David and I had worked together a lot, and we work really fast as a team. That’s important, because the way I do soundtracks is very, very quick. We recorded everything in a day or two and then mixed it in a day. For a 90-minute film with about 40 minutes of music, we actually record about five hours of music. In that case, we used a lot of rhythms from Madagascar, and we knew that Werner wanted to use some Georgian and Eastern European choir music, so we took the harmonies in that music and kind of superimposed them onto other things.
Briefly describe the circumstances surrounding the recording of Requia.
It began with the death of my dear friend Fredric Lieberman, a great professor of ethnomusicology, which had a big impact on me. About a week after he passed, I was sitting at a friend’s kitchen table, with my guitar plugged into a laptop, and I just hit record and played a 22-minute guitar solo while thinking about him. I sent it to John Zorn, who said, “That’s really nice requiem. Do you want to make a whole album of requiems?” John Fahey had done that back in 1968, and I loved the idea, so I said yes. I just sat down and thought of people I knew who died that I cared about and played guitar requiems for them. One of those people was Pete Cosey, who played with Miles Davis. In the middle of recording, Sonny Sharrock, showed up in my playing, and said, “I’m going to be here too.” So I thought, “Okay, I guess I’m playing a requiem for both of you.” That piece is called “Tandem Ghost Bike.”
What is creativity in the broader philosophical sense?
I didn’t even think about personal expression in music until about ten years ago. It was all just a science fair project—doing an experiment and seeing what happens. I never thought that I had anything to say. I was just getting out of the way and discovering something. And now I think that maybe my job is to be some kind of intermediary between the audience and the big unknown that they cannot quite connect with themselves. Like, I can go diving in Antarctica under the ice and shoot a video and show it to you. You likely could not have done that or seen that. I like to be able to point at some musical structure hanging in the air that they may never have seen.
Where is it though? What is the air that it’s hanging in?
I don’t know. I like Robert Hunter’s term “the deep unreal.” It’s just something out there and things show up.