Bob Bralove interview by David Gans KPFA Grateful Dead Hour - January 5, 1994
(The program opens with a recording of Bralove's own group, Vortex)
Gans: With me here in the studio is Bob Bralove, the architect of Vortex as well as the digital audio/sound/performance librarian for the Grateful Dead, and all-around interesting guy. How ya doin', Bob?
Bralove: I'm real glad to be back here.
Gans: It's fun to have you here. Um, Vortex - well, explain what that cut was, and we'll talk about what Vortex is doing...
Bralove: Our tunes have these little cryptic names for them. One is called "Slide," because it's the tune that Henry [Kaiser] uses a slide guitar on; that's the only reason it has that name. It sort of goes over the deep end of one extreme, and Henry leads us there on his solo; Bobby Strickland's playing saxophone, does that great intro to the groove there, and sort of cooks along.
Gans: Was that recorded live or in the studio?
Bralove: That was in the studio. There was a saxophone overdub on that particular cut, but aside from that it's pretty much just as we played it.
Gans: Interesting stuff. So, who's in this group now? What sort of line-up do you have?
Bralove: We've got Henry Kaiser on guitar; I'm playing keyboards; Vince Welnick is sometimes with us on keyboards; Mark van Wageningen is on bass; Paul van Wageningen on drums; Bobby Strickland on saxophones and reeds and flutes and didjeridus and bass clarinet and - he's an incredible wind player.
Gans: When we talked on the phone the other day, you referred to this as "a very, very wired band." Now, 15 years ago that would have meant one thing, but these days it means everything is plugged in to a bunch of different things.
Bralove: Yeah, everybody has the option of getting electronic. I think sometimes that the tunes can be basic and simple, pretty straight-ahead stuff, and then there are other times when it gets a little further out. There's one tune, for example, that we call "The Chase," and basically what happens is we play a chase scene: we sort of fantasize a movie chase scene, and we play it. I'm playing a keyboard that's full of samples; half of the keyboard is samples of Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and the other half is gunfire and explosions.
Gans: So your left hand, the bass line, is gunfire and explosions and the melody is....
Bralove: Well, we've got bass players, too, so it gets a little more out there. Due to the beauty of electronics, anyone can take any kind of role. Anybody who knows the work of Henry Kaiser certainly knows that _any_ sound can come out of his guitar, and he, in fact, does stuff like helicopters and whooshing sounds; the drummer has samples of other explosions and sirens, and the bass player is playing a European kind of police siren whizzing by, and it gets pretty abstract.
Gans: When you say you've got "Rite of Spring" on half your keyboard, does that mean that a given keystroke will play like, a bar of something from "Rite of Spring," or a really, really brief - is it a chord, is it...?
Bralove: Actually, all of that is possible. The chase scene starts sort of quietly. That is, the tension builds, like in a movie. So I can play whole ensemble phrases from the "Rite of Spring" where the woodwinds are playing these kind of light notes over these tense string chords, and Bobby will pick up the woodwind lines on the saxophone or bass clarinet, and start a conversation that's going from that. Then, you know, then gunshots are heard ...
Gans: And everything picks up.
Bralove: Yeah. And the sirens start coming in, and then it's a full battle, with saxophone wailing on top, Henry just going to town, you know, so it can have that kind of abstract cycle. The scope of this doesn't come strictly from an old form music - we're not doing changes that way, although some of the tunes we do.
Gans: I solicited some questions from the Well, and somebody was asking if there was any interaction between you and Candace [Brightman, the Dead's lighting designer] when you work with the Grateful Dead.
Bralove: We've been focusing on that, and I think that has caused a sense of interaction between us. She's doing some new design things so that I'll be able to feed her MIDI information and she'll be able to manipulate that. We have yet to figure out exactly what the information will be. I think for some of the drum solo stuff it might be tempo-related, it might be actually be note-specific if we can get note-specific; certainly she can then interpolate anybody's signal - whether it's Phil's, Jerry's, Mickey's, Bobby's, Vinny's performance information - into something, and perhaps - you know, she's been integrating video into the stadium performances, and I think she might be even working on some stuff for the arenas, some video feeds. Now, there's been that sort of expanding little place in the show when the band - there's nobody on stage....
Gans: That's you back there.
Bralove: Yeah, I'm sort of tweaking knobs and playing keyboards and messing around, and we're trying to make a little communication thing happen there. From where I'm playing behind the drum riser, it's a little difficult to see exactly what's going on with the lights because the equipment is in front of me, but we're trying to do something a little different there, trying to shift the focus away from the stage so that the center of the show becomes the audience.
Gans: I've noticed that she lights the house a lot. It sometimes seems that Candace is spending as much energy illuminating the arena for the people on stage as she does vice-versa, you know. Which is kind of fun, when lights go sweeping out across the arena and stuff.
Bralove: She's great.
Gans: There's also a time, it seems, and I want to get some clarity on what's you and what's them here: sometimes during the drums and space, it seems like Healy picks up a whole little passage of music and gets it into some digital memory and starts swooping all over the room with it - you know, he gets the quad stuff happening. Is there sort of a gross sampling that happens of the whole thing where you can just grab it and paint with it in the space?
Bralove: Um...that's certainly possible. You'd have to be specific about what it is, because it's it's possible that somebody's feeding him a sample, and it's possible that he can sample whole phrases like I did with Stravinsky. He has that capability, but he also does something that's sort of in-between, where he grabs the live performance and processes it and moves it around in the quad so that it sort of gets transformed by the mere process of his manipulation; even though what you're hearing performance-wise may be not a sample, his manipulations of it take it beyond the realm of what you would necessarily consider straight performance.
Gans: Well, that was what I was asking, because the word "sample" suddenly takes on a couple of different levels of meaning. Have you interacted with Healy then, during that period?
Bralove: Yeah, sure. I mean, we interact. For me, it's often a moment of panic, just trying to fill some musical space there [laughter] and I'm not hearing everything that he's doing, because with the earphone monitor system, suddenly I have to pull off my own monitor to play into the house, because I hear what he's doing is completely different from my monitor perception of it, and I want to be playing for the audience. And other times I can feel it work; the resonance of the house, though it's sort of back from where your monitors are, volume-wise, you can feel it sort of resonate, and you know he's doing something that's congruent with what you're performing, or what you perceive yourself to be performing. It's sort of a virtual reality. You can't really tell which one's real. You think that what you're playing is real, but maybe it's what's going out to the house that's real. ...
Gans: Let's talk about that space between the drums and the space. Was there a conscious decision to open that up for you and put you in? Did somebody say, "Okay Bob, you're on?"
Bralove: Um, not particularly. I hate to call it totally conscious, but - it sort of evolved. A little while ago, I started to generate these textures to contrast what was happening with the beam. I wanted to take the beam performance into a new place. So I started working with these textures, these drones, overlays of synthesizers that would be something that Mickey could play against or into or away from, so that it wasn't by itself. And then there would be these lengths of time when Mickey would leave, and he'd say, you know, "Let that thing go."
Gans: Get that thing wound up as far as it would go and then just throw his sticks off with a big flourish, and head off the stage.
Bralove: Right, and then the beam would resonate, and he'd say, you know, "Go ahead and bring that other stuff that you've been doing, bring it up and let it resonate with the beam." And then he'd be off the stage. So that little section started to open up a little bit, and I really was pretty cautious about it; as soon as somebody would step out there, I'd pull it out. And I think Phil was the first guy who came back as he was heading towards the stage and said, "Keep playin', man."
Gans: All right! And he started playing with you.
Bralove: The headphone systems allowed me to plug into Jerry's headphone or Phil's headphone while I'm playing and see how I am playing with them from their perspective.
Gans: That would be a useful tool, for sure. Hear what they're hearing, basically.
Bralove: Yeah. When we had speakers, I could barely hear them at all. I wouldn't even know that they were out there.... These huge speakers are in front of you and they're generating 130 dB, and there's sort of a wall between you. Now, those speakers are visually out of the way and acoustically out of the way.
Gans: I want to play a little bit of tape here. This is from the middle show of the December run at the Coliseum [12/18/93], after "Uncle John's Band"; you hear Phil and Jerry and the drummers - Bob [Weir] took off first, then Vince took off, but Phil and Jerry stayed out there for a really, really long time jamming.
Bralove: Yeah, that was great.
Gans: It really was. It was fun. And it was a good 15 minutes longer than usual there. And at one point Jerry started cycling through a bunch of sample presets and stuff - he stood back by the rack and he played a little bit, and then he'd hit a switch and a different sound would come up and he'd play that a little bit. It was like he was cycling through a bunch of stuff, and when he found something he liked he came back out front and played some more.
Gans: Jerry's making this complicated kind of sound. How do those kinds of things come up? They're generated from somewhere by the two of you in collaboration?
Bralove: Well, they generally come from stock synthesizers, in the first place. So what we do is go through a couple of synthesizers and see what Jerry likes, what has a certain appeal for him.
Gans: And he'll do that by actually playing it for a while and seeing how he likes it?
Bralove: Yeah. And I'll throw things up for him and, you know, have you tried this, try that. And he says, well, I like this sound, and sometimes he likes the stock sound and that's the one he wants to play, and we just have to make it manageable for him.
You know, a lot of people tell me that they can't tell who's playing what when everybody gets into the synthesizers, and certainly I understand that. It's not usually a problem for me because I'm so intimate with the sounds, but I think if you listen to all of them playing, you'll start to hear that they sound like themselves no matter what sound they're playing. When we've nailed the sound for Jerry, you'll hear all of his left hand vibrato coming through, and so making a sound that sounds good, either on a keyboard or just plucking a note, respond to Jerry's fingers, is part of the task.
Gans: Now, that very specifically is one of the things that was hardest to do in guitar-synthesizer interface, right? For years and years, you couldn't make a synthesizer interface that tracked a guitar note precisely because of that sort of thing, that you're always wobbling the note with your left hand, right?
Bralove: Well, yeah. Luckily, I didn't have to deal with a certain sort of lower level of technology in dealing with these guys. I didn't have to go backwards too far, I didn't have to step back into the technology where things were just not responding at all. It requires a communication standard between the player, his converter to the digital realm, and the synthesizer. Most sounds, for example, won't come no matter what synthesizer you use them from; even if Jerry wants to play a stock sound it has to be customized for the way he plays, because there is so much variability in how a guitar player approaches a note, manipulates the note after it's generated the pitch, how he leaves the note. All that, I mean, it's so much more than what happens in a keyboard.
Gans: Which is a whole stack of on-off switches...
Bralove: They've gotten much more sophisticated than that. There's pressure and touch and all that kind of stuff, but it's all being manipulated electronically after the electronic contact has been made. This is trying to emulate a contact of a finger and a string.
Gans: I think all of this stuff is providing the synesthesia that the psychedelic music scene always wanted, you know, for years, and finally the technology is able to deliver. Like connecting the lights and the music and all this stuff. Now Jerry can finally play a horn, you know, like he always said he wanted to.
Bralove: Well, it's certainly pretty exciting times. I think the slow link has been the bass, and I think we're getting pretty close with the new bass system that we're getting worked on, but it's been a little slow in terms of being able to have an instrument that responds with sensitivity and responds to the kind of inspiration that Phil has. He's such a brilliant player. It's frustrating for me not to be able to give him what I think he deserves, but it's a harder technology. I think we're getting closer. I think he's much more able now to be playing real lines and real expressive things as opposed to just playing color.
Gans: Yeah. Is there going to be a time soon when he doesn't have to switch instruments...?
Bralove: Yes, yes. That's in the process.
Gans: I remember in '87 or '88 when we first saw that MIDI stuff, Jerry changed guitars for that section of the show. And now it's all on the same instrument. I look forward to seeing that for Phil, too.
Bralove: Yeah, so do I.
Gans: So any of those guys can open up into anything. It's interesting, too, you talk about each guy sounding like himself. One of the things I always thought would be fun would be to have them play each other's sounds somehow.
Bralove: Well, certainly that's a possibility. Actually, I had some discussion with some of the people - not so much playing each other's sounds but actually cross-referencing their data in another way than what they're used to, so that Jerry might pick pitches and Mickey might pick rhythm. So that they're both playing, they're sort of communally playing an event, and being able to [connect] the stage in these sort of unique configurations of digital information.
Gans: Everybody would be connected together and each providing different information into a single collective sound, or one....? Who knows?
Bralove: Yeah, I mean, we're just beginning to conceptualize it, so.... [laughs].
Gans: Well, this must be a really fun gig for a guy like you, to have musicians that are willing to get all the way out there with you.
Bralove: It's wonderful. It's wonderful. They're great, I mean, they can push me and pull me back at the same time.