By Toni A. Brown
Bob Bralove, the wizard behind the Grateful Deadís MIDI technology, has been with the band for almost seven years.† He is strengthening his musical identity through several solo projects.† Vortex is one of the side aggregations he has been working with.
BRALOVE:† Vortez played at this yearís Digital Arts Be-In (in San Francisco, January í94).† There were some technical problems that interrupted us, but we had a good time playing.† Henry Kaiser is on guitar.† He was nominated for a Grammy for World Out of Time Vol. II in the World Music category.† Bobby Strickland is on saxophone, bass clarinet, woodwinds, oboe; he seems to be able to play just about anything really well.† [The Relix] audience should know him from Todd Rundgren and from the Affordables.† Iím playing keyboards.† Sometimes Vince [Welnick] sits in with us on keyboards.† He didnít at this recent gig, but itís always a pleasure to have him.† Heís always a great addition to the band. †And there are two brothers from Holland on bass and drums, Paul Van Wageningen and Mark Van Wageningen on bass.† Vinnie turned me on to them.† The musicality between them is just incredible.† Theyíre from the Bay Area and play here on a lot of jazz gigs. †Theyíre the first-call percussion sections for many of the Latin and Brazillian gigs, and theyíve played on a lot of records.† This is really a different context for them to be playing in.
††††††††††† Iím hoping to finish a Vortex album in the next month.† The band has only played out three times, the first time was for the first Digital Arts Be-In.† That was the reason to create the band.† Someone offered me a time slot at the Be-In to fill as I pleased, and a t first I thought Iíd do something with a lot of machines and me, and maybe Iíd do something kind of spacey and weird, a kind of drum solo vibe, which is what this guy knew me for.† That was why he offered me the opening spot.† But then I realized that I get to do that drum solo thing with the Dead so much, and here was an opportunity to do something else.
††††††††††† I thought it would be great to go through my little book of musicians and see who I havenít played with that Iíd love to play with, and what I could put together that would be different and fun for me.
††††††††††† I got these guys together with the arrangement that whatever we played, we would be co-writing.† The point was to come in and share, not for me to be an autocratic band leader, but to really write together and share in the creative process.† The understanding was that we would be improvising.† We got together three days before the first gig, and with the help of the brilliant John Cutler, we recorded the rehearsal sessions.† So we wrote, recorded, and rehearsed for three days.† We just walked in the first day and said, ďOkay, Iíve got these ideas.† What are we going to do with them?Ē
††††††††††† For the second gig we did the same thing.† After these seven days of recording (three days for the first gig and four days for the second gig), I have more than enough material for an album.† These are brilliant improvisers.† The trick is to unleash people like these and see what happens.† Theyíre all such sophisticated musicians that they catch each otherís references.† So real musical conversations come up.† A tune can take a dramatic left turn, and everyone will realize, ďThat was a hip way to go.† Letís go there.Ē† That creates the environment for people to really play and be supported, and I think that some wonderful music has come out of the band.
††††††††††† My big hope is to get a [record] deal for the album and then to perhaps put a little tour together supported by the record company.
RELIX:† What music do you listen to personally?
BRALOVE:† Iím a really eclectic listener.† I listen for things that work for me.† If I like it, itís good music.† I listen to everything.† Iím always amazed at how much great music is out there.† Iíve certainly been listening to the Dead a lot the last six or seven years.† But I like a lot of different kinds of music.† I come from a traditional classical background.† I used to write and study chamber music in school.† In that scene, I love Bartock, thereís some Coepland that I think is absolutely brilliant.† Stravinsky is one of my favorite composers.† We do a piece with Vortex in which Iím using samples of ďThe Rites of Spring.Ē† The keyboard is divided up in half Ė ďThe Rites of SpringĒ and the other half is gunfire and explosions.
††††††††††† Itís an interesting balance because we have a lot of technical stuff at our disposal.† With the technical people like me and Henry (Kaiser) there, in terms of the technical stuff, weíre very sophisticated.† We know how to get something out.† And with the other people that are sort of initially being exposed to it, itís a wonderful check.† We use samples and synthesizers, and somebody can say, ďthatís a really great sound, but it doesnít feel right for here.Ē† So it allows us to put that stuff in balance.† And the technical aspects of the band, to me, donít feel like the most important issue.† The music is the most important issue.† The technical stuff is just another means of getting it across.† Thatís kind of Grateful Dead training for me.† When I was with Stevie Wonder, the technical thing had a sort of supreme seat in that pop scene where you want to be the first out with a certain sound on your record.† You wanted to be the first one to use a certain technology, the first one to master a certain machine.† The Grateful Dead, you just have to make it right.
RELIX:† In playing out on your own, youíre brining more back into the Grateful Dead.
BRALOVE:† Yes.† I really feel that encouragement from the band.† The kinds of things I have learned just by playing out and being able to assess what it is one is hearing and experiencing in that moment of creation is allowing me not only to communicate with the band members better, but design sounds that will be easily integrated into that moment.† Sometimes you want to feel that moment, and you want a new sound to come in and surprise you, and bring out the energy and move it into a direction that you expected it to go in, but didnít know how to pull in.† Sometimes that moment is very subtly integrated.† Vinnie might be playing a keyboard sound, and very gently that piano sound turns into a flute.† But over that length, thereís a whole phrase while a horn section maybe needs to come in right now for this chorus.† And being out there, getting a sense of what itís like to be playing, and hoping and expecting things like that has really given me a handle on how to communicate non-verbally with the musicians.
RELIX:† Can we expect any technological updates within the Grateful Dead?
BRALOVE:† Iím just now setting up a more sophisticated MIDI communication system.† Iím not quite in a position yet to say that itís going to be what I expect because as software and hardware communication developments happen, things take different turns.† Thereís now the ability to network communication boxes and machines in the digital domain so that in the short run, it will allow say, Vinnie and myself, a more solidly interactive communication with the sound sources.† It will give us each additionally power, so weíve gone from course tuning to fine tuning the sound.† That development will also carry over to everyone else.† The drum system will get refined in the same way.
††††††††††† The software that Iím trying to write now will allow me, in performance, to come up with a mix for sound, a certain combination of instruments and volumes for those instruments.† In live performance, Iíll have [a band member] turn around to me and say, ďThatís it, thatís the one I like.Ē† And weíll be able to store it, digitally, right there and still each of us have the ability to manipulate it.
RELIX:† Are there any other projects youíre working on?
BRALOVE:† Several of us have been asked to write orchestral pieces for a large orchestra and Jerry Garcia.† Iím doing one, David Grisman is doing one, John Kahn is doing one, and David Byrne is doing one.† Iím very excited about the material Iím working on.† Each piece will be five to ten minutes long.† My impression is that itís for a recorded project as well as something live.† Itís about a year off.† I canít be more specific at this time.
RELIX:† Do members of the Grateful Dead have technical equipment at home with which to work?
BRALOVE:† Everyone has differing degrees and styles in which they work.† I think to some extent, everyone has some option to set things up the way they want.† Phil does a lot with his pre-writing, or sketches for tunes, with MIDI, drum machines, and parts done out.† Bobby and Mickey have full 24-track studios in their homes, and at the same time, Bobby can come up with a tune for an acoustic guitar and say, ďthis is the kind of feel I want.Ē† Or he might call me and say, ďletís do a MIDI version of this.Ē† Heíll have written it.† Or sometimes weíll have writing parties up at his place to do that sort of thing.† It all depends on how involved theyíll be for a given thing.† When Jerry was ill, for example, I used to go up there and play with his stuff in the MIDI realm and in the visual realm as well, install painting programs and stuff like that.† His computer art is mind-boggling.† You saw the cover for Infrared Roses.† He does other stuff thatís really gorgeous.
††††††††††† Everybody has differing degrees of sophistication, but certainly everybody is capable of coming up with stuff like that.† But itís not always the way you want to express yourself.† Sometimes you just want to clap your hands and sing a lyric.† At the point you want to get it to the band, there are enough competent people to help that happen and have the band members do just as much as they want.† Most poignantly, in Philís case, itís a full board demo that he could bring out of his home with vocals and bass and drums and keyboards and horns, anything he wants to bring in.† If everybody had to do these demos, some of the tunes might not have the same organic quality that they do.† Personally, when Iím writing with a band member, I enjoy leaving holes in the demo because if I come up with ad rum pattern, I donít want to put something there thatís going to try to be what Mickey and Billy can come up with.† I want to put something there thatís going to keep time, so that when Mickey and Billy come up with something, theyíll blow me away!
††††††††††† My approach to writing for them in the MIDI world is much simpler than in other situations.† Iím in the midst of doing this sound track with Jerry for a dive video called Touch of Blue.† Itís a couple of dives with Jerry in Hawaii.† Thatís extensive MIDI work.† Weíre trying to really scope that out.† That would be very different than doing a demo.
RELIX:† During a Dead performance, do you ever find yourself with a gap in the middle of a solo, and you have to fill in that space?
BRALOVE:† Thereís been this little section between drums and space that seems to be opening up where Iím playing and nobodyís on stage.† Thatís been growing a little bit.† The equipment that I have to prepare for that, which is pretty much a keyboard, has allowed certain seamless qualities to open up so that, if indeed, Iím setting up for a moment and somebodyís not there, I can add it.† Then they can turn around and say, ďOh, thatís what you meant!Ē and be right on it.† Itís a lot of fun that way.† This is during the drum solo where I can add a line underneath somebody.
RELIX:† Do you have freedom on stage to develop what youíll deliver?
BRALOVE:† Thatís how that stuff develops.† You have to have your freedom or youíre not going to be able to deliver.† But the most important thing to me during a drum solo is to make Billy and Mickey happy.† And I have full freedom to do what makes them happy.
RELIX:† Have you ever not made them happy?
BRALOVE:† I would think so.† But I donít focus on the way things donít work, unless itís technical, as much as when they do work.† I try to figure out what it is that we did when it worked for us more than the moments that we missed.† Itís a fine line Ė how to give them the space that they need and also provide support.† Every night we go out there, itís different.
††††††††††† There are sometimes references that we like, or sonic environments that we like or processing that we like.† Sometimes Mickey will say, ďkill this, and move this up,Ē or Billy will say, ďjust change my sound.† Iíve played this sound enough.Ē† Weíre right in each otherís faces back there, so communication is not only musical, but visual and auditory.† We hear what weíre doing with these headphone monitors.† Thatís the thing that has dramatically opened up that moment of the show where Iím playing solo.† Before, when I had the speaker monitors, I couldnít hear what Jerry, Bobby, and Phil were doing.† I couldnít even tell when they were out there.† I couldnít see them because they were blocked by speakers, and I couldnít hear them because my volume was so loud near me that it was burying any subtlety that they were doing.† Now if Iím playing, I can plug into Jerryís, Bobbyís, or Philís monitor and say, ďhow are they playing to me?Ē and figure out the best way to make that segue to support what theyíre doing.† The thing is how to make it happen musically, and when you canít hear them, itís pretty tough!
RELIX:† Itís impressive that the Grateful Dead has been able to progress technologically the way they have.† They havenít isolated themselves within their own music.
BRALOVE: †I think thatís part of the magic of who they are.† They are not isolated musicians.† One doesnít have to look very far to see the vast influences that come across this band.† Whether itís the Guyoto Monks or Phil reading an Elliot Carter String Quartet score on the plane or Jerry listening to reggae music or Bobby doing what heís doing with Rob Wasserman Ė this is a band that really feeds musically on its diversity and its disagreement.† Part of the magic to me is that they are such different musicians.† There isnít anyone whoís replaceable, in a musical sense, that if the person is replaced it would truly define the band.† When Vinnie came in, it seemed to me that the sound of the band changed.† To me, the technology is an advancement of that.† Itís viewed by the musicians as an element in helping to explore the diversity and difference that they can make musically with each other.† But because it is an element in this bigger picture, itís not relied on as the sole element.† They were always diverse musically, and they will continue to be.† And theyíre using all the tools that they have.
††††††††††† I think the sound system has always been high-end quality.† It seems like they were the first band to realize that youíre not going to find interactive musical magic in a system that you canít hear each other with.† So, their sound system on-stage is very sophisticated, and has been for a while.† And then when you make the assumption that if we have to hear well, then what are we doing this for?† They have to hear well!† The audience has to hear what weíre doing.† So you end up with the best sound and monitor system in the world.† My feeling is that when [the Dead] had the opportunity to explore the MIDI realms and the digital communications possible through musical instruments, itís sort of the next step in a continuing march.† A lot of people think there are very distinct stages in this.† The only distinct stage that I have experienced was when I got hired, and everything else seems pretty fluid in its development, to me.† When Jerry first played his MIDI guitar, I suppose it was a big moment to the audience.† But for me, it was the next logical step to where we had been going.† Some day he was going to play this.† And when he felt comfortable enough, and I had done my job well enough, he was going to play that little horn line, because it sounds like a horn when he does it.† Of course, itís a great moment when something Iíve been working on is performed in front of an audience because thatís what weíre all living for, making that moment happen.† But itís not like that moment lives by itself for me.
RELIX:† The Grateful Dead has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame!
BRALOVE:† They deserve to be there.† I feel very privileged to have worked with two acts that have entered that scene (Stevie Wonder was inducted previously).† To me, itís a great honor because it means that their music really does stand up over the long haul.† Itís also meaningless because their music would stand up either way, but itís a very nice recognition.† I just feel privileged to be part of that music, whether it gets into the Hall of Fame or not!† I worked with Stevie for six or seven years, and now with the Dead for six or seven years.† Thatís a huge artistic and emotional commitment for me, and I canít do that without really believing in these people, sharing the vision that theyíve been trying to communicate.† Itís nice that somebody else sees that, too.[ Close Window ]