Yo HK! An Interview With
Henry Kaiser: Experimental Guitarist

HK - Yo Miles! Fillmore SF 3-4-00
(click on any photo for a full size in a new window)

Conducted March 7th, 2000 - San Francisco Bay Area, CA
by Bret Heisler and Rob Lucente

©2000 and

All photos ©2000 Schnee (Kristen Schneeloch) and Rob Lucente, and All rights reserved.

This interview or any photos included may not be reprinted anywhere in
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Henry Kaiser, a prominent figure in the Grateful Dead's extended family, has taken music to new improvisational levels with many musicians in the Bay Area, through North America, and in cultures in many corners of the world. While appreciating the merits of world muscians present and past, Henry strives to experiment with the unknown in order to create something unique and in the moment. One of his latest projects, Yo Miles!, employs the improvisational methods used by Miles Davis specifically between 1972 and 1975 to "open a secret door into another universe."

Recently, had the pleasure of speaking with Henry Kaiser about his many musical explorations - growing up with the Grateful Dead, contributing with many other musicians over the years including, most recently the Yo Miles! band, Phil Lesh and The David Nelson Band, and many more. Be sure to check out a few of his 160+ albums and don't miss his rare live performances!

This is how it went...

PZ: Your involvement with the Grateful Dead has been very unique. You’ve worked with the Dead and a lot of the musicians in the Grateful Dead community, but you started out as a fan – a listener – you must have a very interesting perspective of the whole scene.

(hear the following in RealAudio)

HK: Well you know I grew up with the Grateful Dead before I ever played guitar. I never touched a guitar until I was twenty years old in 1972. Before that, I’d been going to see the Grateful Dead since 1966 as a kid. I’d been to an Acid Test at the Longshoreman’s Hall and I saw a lot of those things and I appreciated a number of things about the Grateful Dead. I appreciated that they were really improvising, they were taking chances, they were being experimental, they were being eclectic, they were taking their musical ideas and ways of working from a lot of different places and putting them together in novel ways that nobody had ever done before. The Dead were really cooperative in the way they worked to make music together, and they had a respect for their audience and they wanted to treat their audience well.

Yo Miles! Fillmore SF 3-4-00Those values I learned seeing them, so they influenced me very early on. Then as I became a musician myself. I probably developed those values in myself and I still relate to the historic Dead through my own values. Back in the early 80's I was going along with my musical career and one day I thought, "Gee wouldn’t it be funny to do Dark Star on a record? Nobody’s really done any improvising with Dark Star"– this is before there were a lot of Grateful Dead cover bands, whatever year it was that we did that. I took my friend Bill Frisell's band, and a great guitar hero of mine from Atlanta, Glenn Philips, and we went to a studio in New York and fooled around, improvised, and did a Dark Star. It came out on an album and it was popular and some Deadheads picked it up because it was a novel thing for somebody to do that. We didn’t do it in an imitative way, we did it like the Miles Davis music – we talked about Dark Star as a door that you open. It goes somewhere, and takes you somewhere. We weren’t trying to recreate what the Grateful Dead did. So I did that and then after the record's release I was kind of surprised that some people in the Grateful Dead like Garcia, Dennis McNally, and other people noticed what we did and started being friendly to me and putting me on the guest list to shows and things like that. They suddenly started treating me like I was part of the family. I guess I responded appropriately and I then became part of the family.

One day I asked Weir if he wanted to do something with me and he agreed. I was over at Garcia’s house a number of different times for different reasons and asked him to be in this British documentary on improvisation that I was an advisor to and I brought guys from Madagascar over to play at his house with him and open for him and Grisman at the Warfield. I met Bob Bralove and started to go sit on stage next to him because I really enjoyed watching Dead shows from that perspective. While I had not kept an active eye on the Grateful Dead for the last decade or so before that – Yo Miles! Fillmore SF 3-4-00because my favorite Grateful Dead was really up through about 1974 (that’s what I personally related to the most and less later on) – later on I got to know the people’s personalities, and got to play with them, and I got to go to Japan and play with Bob Weir in front of 60,000 people. That was a different experience – I was suddenly the bandleader, and I was standing there playing Playin’ in the Band with him. I remember sitting on the edge of the stage, right at Garcia's feet, in May of '70 at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., as they performed a Playin' in the Band Jam [DeadBase omitted the Playin Jam from the Kresge show, but it is on the live tape] and I remember looking up at Garcia, who was standing two feet away from me, and looking over at Weir. Suddenly in Japan I flashed back on that experience as we played that song in Japan 24 years later. That is just a truly unusual experience for a fan to get to have.

PZ: Tell us the story behind that show with Weir in Japan. (In the band, The Valentines, Henry played with Bob Weir, Vince Welnick, Bobby Vega, and Prairie Prince August 27, 1994 in Tokyo).

HK: I don’t fully remember, but a Japanese promoter who knew me asked me if I could bring some rock stars over for this special big city festival gig. So I said, "Sure, I’ll go ask some guys from the Grateful Dead" and I asked them and they said, "Yeah."

PZ: And then you did one more Valentines show in....

HK: ...Yeah, we did one show at the Fillmore on Valentines Day '95. I played with Weir at the Sweetwater a bunch of times and for some other occasions too. Perhaps the best show we have ever done together was the wake for Dick Latvala at the end of last summer. That was truly amazing and magical. Dennis McNally called me up a day or so before the wake and put me in the bandleader's seat. (Lesh was out on the road and only Mickey and Bob were around from the Dead) I knew Dick and I knew his favorite songs and shows and so I did quite a bit of homework so that we could quote some of his historically favorite jams (Feelin' Groovy Jam, Mind Left Body Jam, Other Spanish One Jam, etc). Weir, Hart, [Bob] Bralove, [Jeff] Chimenti, [Jay] Lane, [Gregg] Anton, and [Bobby] Vega turned up to play. No rehearsal - but it was magically easy to connect with the music and connect the audience with the music too. We played after a long and moving tribute to Dick, with 100's of folks each speaking out in turn about him.

My favorite moment was standing next to Weir, facing Mickey, in the middle of the first set and saying to Mickey, "OK, Saint Stephen" and Mickey saying, "Saint Stephen? That's got a lot of arrangement details. Does the band know that?" I smiled and said, "No, they don't know it at all." Mickey said, "But, uh…, maybe we shouldn't try to…" and Weir interrupting with, "1-2-3-4" and us both smiling and starting the song anyway. That was a great feeling of jumping off past the point of no return. There were some ragged mistakes - but the spirits were there in spades for that song - as they were for most of that night. The board tapes are a little rough sounding, but Don from Ultrasound and myself keep trying to clean them up a bit before they finally leak out into the rest of the universe. The tapes don't really communicate the special magic and love that filled the Phoenix Theater [in Petaluma] that night. You really had to be there to understand. Dick Latvala you are missed and loved by many!

PZ: Several hundred fans were lucky enough to catch one or both of the two Yo Miles! gigs at the Fillmore – one earlier this month (see the complete March 4th setlist and band member listing here) and one back in the fall. How was Yo Miles! conceived?

Yo Miles! Fillmore SF 3-4-00HK: Yo Miles! is a number of different things. It’s an excuse for people to collaborate who wouldn’t ordinarily get together – myself, Wadada Leo Smith, and the rest of the musicians we play with. Also, it’s kind of a tribute to Miles Davis, but it’s more than anything a tribute to the music Miles did between 1972 and 1975 which was a really open period where there was a lot of improvisation in his music. People never really understood it then and they haven’t understood it so much later.

(hear the following in RealAudio)

Miles kind of pointed to a secret door into another universe and he’d go through it every night when he played a concert and come back and he and the band would bring and show all this weird stuff they found to the audience. Nobody has been through that door much since then. We’re just trying to open that same door and let in what comes through. What we do is not like most of the tributes to the Miles Davis Jazz Quintet where they try to do what Miles did or stuff that sounds like that. Instead we use the system they used and go through this magic door into the other world and bring back something totally different we’ve never seen before – that’s our goal. So it’s a different kind of tribute than most – it’s a tribute to the spirit, and the method, and the creativity, not to the product that Miles made.

Yo Miles! Fillmore SF 3-4-00The whole point of Yo Miles! is very different then the point of, say, the amazing Steve Kimock doing tribute to Miles with Foot Prints, a tune by Wayne Shorter that's associated with Miles. During the mid 70's Miles was reacting against the music like Foot Prints that he had done before and was moving away from the European approach to music, characterized by tunes like Foot Prints, and moving to a more Afrological, spontaneous, and collective way of creating music. Miles wanted to break open the logic of the music and have the rules change completely every night. Oddly enough, it was a way of music-making more akin to the Dead playing Dark Star than to conventional jazz. Just as the improvisation in Dark Star can differ greatly from night to night, and the tune part is not really that important, the Miles stuff from the mid 70's, from start to finish, is pretty much all like the middle of a really open Dark Star – completely different each time it occurs.