Bralove’s latest, Ultraviolet Licorice, is a collaboration with avant-guitarist Henry Kaiser, the Berkeley-based wonder who knows a thing or two about freeform music himself (and is also responsible for co-producing two of my all-time favorite albums of African music—A World Out of Time: Henry Kaiser and David Lindley in Madagascar, volumes I and II). Bralove and Kaiser have known each other for years, and played together on occasion (including the excellent mid-’90s album Second Sight, spearheaded by Bralove), but the new CD marks their first as duo. The title, you have perhaps deduced, is a play on Infrared Roses, and those of you who know your Garcia quotes will know the Grateful Dead derivation of the second word in the title—in a 1981 interview with Geraldo Rivera, Garcia famously noted, “Our audience is like people who like licorice. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people who like licorice really like licorice.”
Ultraviolet Licorice consists of a 14 live-in-the-studio improvisations by Bralove and Kaiser, nearly all of them played on top of synthesizer pieces Bralove made years ago as transitional material between “Drums” and “Space” at Dead shows, or as film music cues for other projects. Bralove played grand piano, Kaiser electric and acoustic guitars, depending on the track. For the electric work, he told me, “I used different fuzz boxes on every track. A few years ago, I decided, ‘No more new guitars,' so I decided to get more fuzz boxes instead.” The duo spent a day at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley—“We recorded all the tunes, we had lunch, then we mixed all the tunes,” Henry says with a chuckle. There’s tremendous variety in the improvisations, from sharp, abstract pieces to more sonorous and mellifluous jaunts. Adventurous Heads will definitely want to pick this one up.
What follows are highlights of a recent interview I did with Bob Bralove about the project.
So, how did this project come about?
Well, I had this material I’d been sitting on for a while, as DATs [from the Grateful Dead days], and there were also a few things there that are from film scores that I’ve done; some of them rejected cues that I thought were much better than the ones that were approved.
What do they know!
Eaxctly! [Laughs] But those things are jobs, and you do the best you can and you’re trying to please both yourself and whoever you’re working for. So I had them as DATs and hadn’t really focused on what needed to be done with them, and Henry and I were talking about them and it came up that maybe there was something for us to do around these DATs. So I sent him a CD of the material and he really liked it, and he said, “OK, we’ll find a time to go into Fantasy and record. We’ll throw these over to two tracks of the multitrack and then play live to it.” I said, “Sure, great!”
Henry gets excited…
Yes, he does! [Laughs]
Were some of these piano sketches?
No, it was all synthesizer and samples. Everything from bird whistles to synthesizers to the Cracker Jack stuff—there’s a whole section I did with things I got out of Cracker Jack boxes.
I said to Henry, “You know I haven’t really listened to these in a long time,” and then, in his inimitable style, he said, “Good, promise me you won’t listen to them again until we record,” so we’d both be approaching it with fresh ears.
Well, as someone who has always liked spontaneity, that sounds like an idea you could get behind.
Absolutely! The whole idea was that the material was going to inspire free improvisation, and that’s how it worked out. I’ve been playing piano more than anything else recently, like on my solo record [Stories in Black and White] so Henry said “Let’s use the piano at Fantasy,” which is a Steinway, and then he played electric and acoustic guitars. He also played a ukulele on a track but that didn’t make the CD. It was really a blast.
You must have to concentrate so hard when you do this kind of spontaneous creation…
It was really an intense recording session. It was intense because you’re listening to the track and you’re listening to Henry and it’s a bit of a feeling of not being there—you’re present and you’re trying to respond and let the music through you, but somehow your ego’s not involved. By the end of the session I had no idea what we had. I knew what the material was, but I had no idea whether it was strong or not, and it wasn’t until days later that I began to hear how powerful I think it is.
There are times when we really soar and times when we get very quiet. We have a connection that is undeniable. I feel that all the time with Henry, but it really seems strong on this record.
So all 14 tracks on this album started out as some kind of synthesizer piece or sketch?
Not every one, no. A few we did just the two of us right there; like “Red Queen.” But the overall premise was we would have these sketches, which are very open, and then we would play on top of them. The sketches, if you want to call them that, set the mood and gave us a sense of direction of places to go. But it was very walk-in-and-play; respond immediately. For me, it was so much about being present, I couldn’t really judge what was going on.
How much discussion would you have before you would do a take?
We didn’t really have any discussion [Laughs] Our mentors in this world—the Grateful Dead—didn’t discuss it much. I was part of that. They’d just go out and play.
Even something like “Red Queen,” which has a chord progression and song-like elements?
Actually, that one there was a discussion and that was Henry said, “I have an idea; just follow it.”
Are these one-take performances? Or did you take multiple stabs at each one? There are some overdubs.
Henry did some overdubbing [on two tracks], and there were some things we prepared, like where I put my keys and other things on the strings of the piano, and Henry wired his guitar up to do different things—clipping things on to the strings.
Infrared Roses was heavily edited by you and John Cutler. How much editing is there here? Are some of these from longer jams where you carved out the best couple or few minutes from it?
There’s barely any editing at all. This is pretty much how these actually went down.
All that Pro Tools editing capability going to waste!
But all that wonderful energy of interaction not going to waste! [Laughs] Of course Infrared Roses wasn’t done on Pro Tools. It was tape multitrack and it was quite a struggle to edit that.
Were there times when you tried an improvisation along a certain line based on what you were hearing and then abandoned it: “Nah, let’s try some other approach”? Because, you can’t be expected to nail it every time.
There may have been one or two. But that’s the impressive thing about this project. We did it in a day. And we had more material than is on the record. Of course there are going to be ones that didn’t make it for us, and the ones where we felt we did better are obviously the ones we included.
How about some of the sound effects on there—like the thunder on one track? Were those in place already from your sketches?
Yes. There was a track of thunder that I created in the studio. I grabbed come commercial samples of thunder that I chopped up because I liked the crack of this sample, but the rumble of this other one. But I had also done a lot of sampling when I was on the road. There was this amazing night when the Grateful Dead was in Cleveland where there was a thunderstorm that was terrifying. We were in this hotel that was sort of V-shaped and the reverb and echo in this V was amazing. So I stuck a stereo DAT out my hotel room window and recorded that. It was incredible. So I cut those up and used some of that; actually I used some of that material in a couple of Grateful Dead shows, too.
How did you come up with the song titles? On Infrared Roses you turned that task over to Robert Hunter. I presume “March of the Wind Potatoes” is yours?
[Laughs] I’ve been titling tracks on my own for a while, of course—or with Tom [Constanten]. I think in this case I came up with a list of titles and e-mailed them to Henry. He responded immediately with some alternate titles and some of them were just changing a word. That then went back and forth a couple of times. And sometimes it’s a question of somebody doesn’t like this, and then the other guy will say, “Well, I’m trying to reference X, Y and Z” “Oh, OK, in that case…,” or, “Let’s try a Mark Rothko quote”—which is where “Silence is So Accurate” comes from.
You might even call those discussions you have with Henry “Conversational Algorhythms,” which is another cool title.
Or the music itself! By the end of the process you don’t know whose is whose, and that’s perfect.
Tell me about how your and Henry’s styles mesh. I think of him as being an abstract thinker who’s not tied down by conventional rules and likes to go his own way. And I think of you in much the same way.
Yes. I think of myself as being a little more rooted in traditions—not only song traditions, but classical tradition. Henry is also rooted in traditions, but they tend to be Asian or…
Exactly! Some of our connection, of course, comes through the Grateful Dead, and that music had that quality—there was ethnomusicology going on with the Grateful Dead. Phil had all those classical references going on. Everybody was coming from a different place and found this meeting point where they could reference it, but make something original. That’s what Henry and I try to do. I certainly have avant-garde listening in my listening repertoire. I think I came at it from more of a Stockhausen kind of place at first, and then I got turned onto it through jazz, through the kind of free improvisation that happens in the ’60s and ’70s.
Ornette; the Art Ensemble of Chicago, maybe.
Definitely. I remember an Art Ensemble concert in college that totally blew my mind.
Getting back to your question, though, one way our styles mesh is that Henry pushes me to an edgier side in a really wonderful way, and I push him the other way, and that’s a very interesting mesh. Sometimes, playing-wise, it can feel like a struggle, in that we’re going different directions, but the end result of that the struggle is often wonderful to listen to. Sometimes I’ll feel like, ‘Boy, if I had my way, I would’ve gone in this direction,” and then I listen back to it and I think, “Jeez, it would’ve been awfully boring if I’d done it the way I originally wanted to.” [Laughs] I’m hoping people feel the surprise we had in the moment. That’s really what we were aiming for: To surprise each other, and, hopefully, the people who listen to it.
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You can learn more Ultraviolet Licorice and also order it by going to bobbralove.com.