Henry Kaiser recently returned to his home in Bonny Doon from an eight-week scientific expedition to Antarctica, during which he braved temperatures that got as low as -40 F, did 40 dives and worked 20 hours a day, seven days a week—all to secure a picnic cooler worth of samples that will further the study of single-celled organisms called forams. It was his 11th deployment as a freelance diver for the United States Antarctic Program, and coming back from 8,800 miles away isn’t so disorienting anymore.
“It used to be weird to come back and see green things and animals and people under the age of 20,” he says. “But now it just seems normal.”
Normal, however, is relative; when he’s done visiting faraway worlds, Kaiser is known for transporting other people to them—through his music. As an internationally acclaimed experimental guitarist, Kaiser has appeared on some 270 albums, including 10 in 2015 alone. Besides his solo work, he has collaborated with Richard Thompson and David Lindley, along with dozens of other musicians who share his love for improvisation and musical exploration. He also has a passion for film, shooting and editing video of his Antarctic trips both for research and documentaries, and scoring films for director Werner Herzog—including his Academy-Award-nominated work on the soundtrack of Herzog’s 2007 documentary about Antarctica, Encounters at the End of the World.
So between his work in hard science and radical art, there would seem to be an extreme left-brain, right-brain split going on in Kaiser’s head. He realizes everyone thinks this, but he straight-up denies it exists.
“No! Everything’s the same. Everything’s experimental. Everything’s just a science experiment,” he says. “Music is science experiments—you try something nobody’s tried before to see what happens. I didn’t start to play music until I was 20, and I don’t really think about it as self-expression. I do the experiment, present the results, and then move on to the next experiment.”
These musical experiments are just as controlled as the scientific ones, he explains. No matter how far out there his improvisations get, he says he never worries about losing sight of the song, or that an entire performance will come crashing down from one wrong move.
“It doesn’t fall apart,” he says. “It’s just like if you were painting a room in your house yourself. You might want to stencil some stuff or paint the trim a funny way, but when you’re done painting it, it’s going to be OK.”
Bob Bralove, a Bay Area musician best known for working with the Grateful Dead for almost a decade, including producing their 1991 album Infrared Roses, has been collaborating with Kaiser regularly for almost 25 years. He laughs when he hears about Kaiser’s metaphor.
“That’s so Henry to turn it into painting a house. It’s just like him to keep it down at that level,” says Bralove. But he thinks the painting metaphor does describe Kaiser’s guitar work very well.
“It’s Picasso with a line,” he says. “It’s that sure hand.”
Kaiser was born in Oakland, the grandson of industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, who is most remembered today for founding the Kaiser Permanente health care organization with physician Sidney Garfield in 1945. So yes, he’s heard many times about how he’s supposedly the heir to the “Kaiser fortune.” But the true story of what happened to the elder Kaiser’s billion-dollar estate and array of companies is a twisted one. To sum up: Kaiser is not the heir to any fortune.
“If I was, my bumper wouldn’t be duct-taped to my car, probably,” he says.
He discovered diving before he discovered guitar. Inspired by the late ’50s show Sea Hunt, he got certified at 11—since divers were supposed to be at least 12, he lied about his age.
But even before he started playing guitar, Kaiser was picking up strands of cultural DNA that would come together in the free improvisation movement of the ’60s and ’70s, of which he would be considered one of the most notable members, along with contemporaries like Bill Laswell, Derek Bailey and John Zorn.
“There was a lot of improvisation in the music I grew up around—what I heard on free-form radio, what I heard on non-commercial radio,” says Kaiser. “I developed an appreciation for that from what I heard when I was in junior high school and high school.”
But it wasn’t just music he was drawing on for his experimental creative philosophy.
“A science fiction writer takes some ideas and creates a whole new world with those ideas. It’s kind of an experiment in a book,” Kaiser says. “I could pick Ursula K. LeGuin—Left Hand of Darkness is a really famous book that does that. But there are so many books that did that. I’d read about how those writers thought, and I applied that to music.”
He was also influenced by experimental American independent filmmakers of the ’60s and ’70s, like Stan Brakhage, Jordan Belson and James Whitney. “That was similar,” Kaiser says. “They were making art that was new and looking for something new. They seemed to be able to produce a lot of things that were very different. And you didn’t have a lot of people in music at that time who produced a lot of stuff that was really different from thing to thing. That’s what experimental improvised music was doing, more than other things were.”
Kaiser’s first record was 1977’s Ice Death, a title that has a somewhat morbid but still pretty cool resonance almost 40 years later, with Kaiser working regularly in Antarctica. Tellingly, that first record features a surprisingly faithful cover of the song “Dali’s Car,” originally on Captain Beefheart’s legendary 1969 album Trout Mask Replica.
It would be impossible to list all of the influences on Kaiser’s music, because his sound has a shapeshifting quality—it can be a gorgeous shimmer on an African folk song; or the off-kilter, dissonant post-punk he played in the late-’80s Crazy-Backwards Alphabet project conceived and written by The Simpsons creator Matt Groening; or something completely insane and almost disturbing, like “Meet the Flintstones” off 1991’s Lemon Fish Tweezer.
But the more one listens to Kaiser’s vast body of work, the more the influence of Beefheart can be heard pulsing through it. From their music’s wildman-blues edges to its kinky-jazz core, they share a sensibility that careens unpredictably—and in its own way, beautifully—from unrestrained primitivism to the height of sonic sophistication.
THE CALL UPS
“One of the best things about the music is the long-term relationships you make with people,” says Kaiser.
For him, that includes celebrated British guitarist Richard Thompson. They met at a show in Santa Cruz in the early ’80s, when Kaiser walked up to him and said “Want to make a record?” It took a couple of years, but they’ve since made several together. A few years later, they were in a band together called French Frith Kaiser Thompson, which also included John French, the drummer on Trout Mask Replica and several other Captain Beefheart albums, and Fred Frith, another cornerstone of the free improvisation movement. (Among the band’s achievements is a downright terrifying cover of the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA.”) Last year, Thompson invited Kaiser to teach improvisation and other classes as a faculty member at his acoustic guitar and songwriting camp, Frets and Refrains.
“He’s one of my best friends,” says Kaiser of their long relationship. In an interesting twist, he recorded an album last year with Thompson’s son Jack, who he’s known since birth and taught to dive. Jack Thompson’s tastes lean more toward experimental, noise and ambient music, which was a kick for Kaiser.
“I’m part of the roots of that, in a distant way,” he says of Jack Thompson’s industrial-edged sound. “It was really fun to play music together.”
Nor is Richard Thompson the only musician he’s gotten to know after just walking or calling up and suggesting they make a record. In fact, he does it all the time.
“I’ve always done that thing where I’ll go up to heroes of mine and say ‘Hey, I’m Henry Kaiser! Let’s make a record, c’mon!’ And generally speaking, they say yes,” he says. “So I’ve got to record with more than half of my biggest heroes. Like getting to work with David Lindley, or everybody in the Grateful Dead, or Richard Thompson, or jazz guys like Wadada Leo Smith, or the people in Captain Beefheart’s band. If I just look at the list, it’s kind of crazy how it goes on and on.”
Kaiser and Lindley have done some remarkable records together. They met while working on the 1989 Neil Young tribute album The Bridge (on which they combined “The Needle and the Damage Done” and “Tonight’s the Night”). Shortly after, Kaiser was planning a trip to Madagascar to perform with some of the island’s musicians, and Lindley expressed interest in coming along. The resulting sessions, featuring the pair sitting in with a number of performers from Madagascar, became the basis for the album A World Out of Time, and its two subsequent volumes. Though the records proved to be extremely popular, Kaiser and Lindley decided not to take any money for them, instead directing the profits and the publishing rights to the musicians they had played with there.
“We didn’t want to be like Paul Simon or David Byrne, so we just took a per diem for the hotel while we were there. At that time, it was the best-selling release of real world music, roots music collaboration,” remembers Kaiser. “We got a special publishing company so they got 90 percent of the publishing—the publishing company only took 10 percent. The record company took nothing. We gave them all the money, and the guys in Madagascar who would have made $400 in a year made $10,000.”
When Kaiser and Lindley used the same model again on a trip to Norway for the next album, though, they got quite a different reaction from the musicians there.
“They all get paid more than we do!” says Kaiser, with a laugh. “We still did the same thing, and they were like, ‘Ten thousand dollars? OK. Not very much.’ Kind of the opposite of Madagascar.”
Last year, someone turned the tables on Kaiser’s cold-calling technique—and he loved it.
“An old guitar student of mine from when I taught one summer 20, 25 years ago at the National Guitar Summer Workshop became kind of a famous guitarist on the East Coast, Alan Licht. He said ‘I want to make a record with you,’ and I was like ‘OK! Come on out and we’ll do it.”
The resulting record, Skip to the Solo, is one of the wildest concepts of any Kaiser record yet, actually delivering what the title promises.
“We recorded the songs and then cut away everything but the solos,” he says. “Isn’t that a funny idea?”
The concept hearkens back to his college days, when he says he’d take a record home and play only the solos—just dropping the needle on the solos over and over—in other words, skipping to the solo. He’s surprised to learn that not everyone did this.
“Maybe it’s just a guitar subculture thing,” he says.
Besides Kaiser and Licht, the album also features another guitarist who lives in Santa Cruz, Mikko Biffle.
“He’s lived here for decades,” says Kaiser. “He’s a world-class guitarist that nobody knows about. It’s crazy how good he is.”
Also on the album is local drummer Rick Walker, who shares Kaiser’s passion for looping instruments.
“We’ve known each other forever, and we have a lot of friends in common who are loopers,” says Kaiser. “And he’s a great, great drummer.”
The two also performed together on another record that just came out, Can’t Get There From Here, which improbably blends western improvisation, Chinese traditional music and South Indian classical music.
“It’s completely impossible that it worked, but it did,” said Kaiser. “No matter what we did, it seemed to work. We ended up with a two-CD set, there was so much good stuff.”
Even though he’s surprised by the outcome, he’s not.
“I always believe it’s going to work,” he says of his offbeat collaborations, “and it usually does. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the spirit of the people I pick to work with. Nobody’s diluting what they do. It’s more than the sum of its parts. Instead of less than the sum of its parts, like when people try to make it sound like bad spa music.”
Kaiser says when it comes to improvisation, he just wants to be in the moment with his collaborators. He doesn’t even necessarily want to know exactly what he’s going to get out of his effects pedals.
“I want to walk a line between predictable and unpredictable, where I’m reacting to it like it’s another person, because it makes some sounds I don’t expect,” he says of his equipment. “But I know I want to get a certain type of sound in a certain category. It might be because I want to allude to something people are familiar with in guitar, or maybe because I want to make it sound like an oboe from Kashmir all of a sudden. I’m not thinking about it, I’m just trying to get out of the way and keep my head above water at the same time. I have no idea what I’m going to do five seconds before I do it.”
Bob Bralove says that’s one of the craziest things about playing with Kaiser. “It’s an amazing thing, because it requires a sense of presence in the moment that is very unusual to find,” he says. “It also requires huge confidence that the moment is going to bring out more than an expectation would.”
And you can absolutely get swallowed up in it. “I’ve done recordings with Henry where I’m so present just to be on that plane with him that I’m not even sure we got anything,” says Bralove. “It’s only when I leave and listen back later that I realize in one session we did the whole album.”
BACK TO THE END OF THE WORLD
As Kaiser’s music career progressed, so did his career as a scientist.
“I taught underwater research at UC Berkeley for many years. When our research diving program there ended, I slid in 2001 into the U.S. Antarctic Program as a diver,” he says.
Even Kida, the 9-year-old Alaskan Malamute Kaiser can often be seen with around Santa Cruz, has a research job. She walks a treadmill at Long Marine Lab, where her oxygen intake is measured as part of a metabolic study of dogs, mountain lions and wolves.
Kaiser doesn’t take a guitar with him to Antarctica anymore, because there’s so little time to play. Even at home, he doesn’t really play guitar unless there’s a performance, or a recording, or he’s learning something on it. Most of his time is taken up with his research work around the Antarctic trips, and both he and his wife, artist Brandy Gale, are basically workaholics, he says.
“There’s an endless amount of work for Antarctic stuff that happens before and after every season. It’s crazy,” he says. “Video editing for scientists, things like that. It’s way too much stuff. And I’m always doing extra work for other groups, like ‘hey, let me just make an outreach video for you guys! I’ll just come out to your camp while everybody else is asleep.’ Basically, I want to work all the time. Because the work’s fun.”
More than any other project before it, Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World brought together Kaiser’s own two worlds. In true Kaiser fashion, his long history with Herzog started with a simple and unexpected introduction.
“I met Herzog a long time ago, like 30 years ago, on an airplane. Sat next to him by accident. And then I’ve worked on four films of his since. So I’ve just known him forever, and once in a while he’ll call me to do something,” he says.
Kaiser did underwater camera work on Herzog’s 2005 science fiction film Wild Blue Yonder, and served as music producer on his 2005 documentary Grizzly Man—for which all of his pieces were recorded in a day and a half, and mixed in one day.
“Everything’s done really fast. That’s not the way film soundtracks are usually done, but there’s no money,” he says.
“I just looked at the film and made a list of where I thought cues should go. Werner said ‘no that’s too much music, I only need half as much music.’ I was like ‘no, we’re going to make cues for all these.’ Then I just went through the film, and all those things were pretty much improvised on the spot, not looking at the picture. I’d just say ‘OK, we need a 17-second cue that’s sad and then goes up at the end.’ We did all that, and then the editor threw it on the film, and we talked Werner into using more music than he thought he was going to use. He was open to it.”
Kaiser was even more involved on Encounters. Besides being a producer, he created the soundtrack with David Lindley (again, in two days), shot underwater footage, and appears in the film, as well. Cellular biologist Samuel Bowser, who is featured in the documentary, has led several of Kaiser’s deployments. In other words, Kaiser was closely involved in every stage of the film.
“When we brought him to Antarctica, everybody was like ‘oh he’s going to be this crazy guy like his reputation,’” Kaiser says of Herzog. “And I said ‘no, just see what he’s like.’ And the most common thing that people said to me was ‘we were so surprised he was so kind.’ He’s one of the kindest people I know. He’s the first person to wash the dishes and help out and carry that heavy thing over there with you.”
Nor is Herzog’s reputation reflected in his process, says Kaiser.
“He knows what he wants in films and he gets it done,” he says. “He has his own funny preferences and artistic obsessions, and he follows those—sometimes in expected ways and sometimes unexpected ways. But as somebody to work with, he’s so professional and so great.”
Interestingly enough, that’s not too different from how Michael Manring describes Kaiser. A Bay Area bassist best known for his years of collaboration with the late Michael Hedges and his work on the Windham Hill label, Manring also says people often don’t fully understand Kaiser’s vision. He remembers when Kaiser approached him in the late ’90s about a new project he was working on called Yo Miles!, which celebrated Miles Davis’ electric period in the 1970s.
“That music at the time was famously hated by everyone,” Manring says. “I remember when he called me up and told me about it. I thought ‘this is really weird. I don’t know if this is going to fly.’”
But Yo Miles! turned out to be a huge success, selling out the Fillmore in San Francisco twice, and Davis’ music from that time has had a critical re-evaluation.
“He was one of the first to see that. But that’s typical Henry. He’s a real genius, and a major force in music,” says Manring. “Anytime Henry calls, I’ll say yes, no matter how crazy it sounds.”
Video & Guitar Show
On Wednesday, Jan. 27, Henry Kaiser will show Antarctic video, tell stories and play solo guitar. The performance is suitable for all ages, and will be held at 7:30 p.m. at Don Quixote’s in Felton. $10.