Interview by Hank Harrison, spring 1971.
Harrison: In writing my book I’ve had trouble expressing the consciousness of the contemporary music. I certainly don’t want to use that well-worn and inept acid-rock, folk-rock cliché. I want to distinguish contemporary music from show biz. “There was a huge value difference between the concept of show biz and the concept of music, unrecorded music as played in San Francisco in the early days. The Trips Festival was music and it was ‘serious’ music.” But that’s a cliché, too.
Phil: But it was music that was seriously intended to get you high. It wasn’t serious in the sense of deadpan. In a sense it was both high farce, just like the Acid Tests, and it was music that actually changed people’s personalities. It was warping. There we were all together. Somehow the music would make us act in unison, but it was only one of the factors in that impulse. True, it was the loudest individual factor (aside from LSD). But only because you’ve really got to have something to relate to, especially when reality is hitting you right in the guts.
Harrison: It was pure music in those days. It was innocent. There was something for everyone within that nucleus of music. I don’t mean “Big Brother.” That’s another concept. I don’t mean “The Charlatans” or any other group around. I mean that the Grateful Dead specifically had a cerebral level, a rhythmic level, and a very funky Pig Pen level, with other levels all mixed in together so that there was something for everyone.
Phil: There is also an Owsley level and a Kesey level that still haunt us occasionally. But electricity is what really does it. It’s the Gutenberg Galaxy in the sense that electricity conveys the musical meaning as heavy as the music itself. Even now, rock records are starting to sound refined. Not only that, but the refinements are starting to sound musical. In other words, more global. All the toys of the technology are just starting to mature.
Harrison: Were the Beatles aware of the electronic technology at any point?
Phil: I think so. I thought so from the beginning. Take “Strawberry Fields” and “I Am the Walrus.” Their style and techniques got more sophisticated and it started sounding better and better. Mabe it was George Martin more than anything else? Or maybe they intuitively understood “AM car radio” stations mixing/combining/alternating to fit into Joe Mustang’s concept of music.
Harrison: What about the Rolling Stones?
Phil: Well, the Stones were into the SOUND of their music, I think, more than the Beatles were; they still are. And their music, too, has got more sophisticated; much more texture than there was before. They haven’t gone in the same direction as the Beatles. The Beatles went in a more conventional direction. Into conventional kind of voice leadings and that sort of thing. The Stones are into lapidary kinds of music – in other words, layers of music. But their music smells funny – a bit too commercial for me.
Harrison: You’re on one of the David Crosby albums, and I noticed David gave you a Martin D-24 for your very own. The tone of this $1200 Martin is unbelievable. So to me there are layers of music just within that one guitar that don’t exist on other “good” guitars. Now from the first strum, the tone of that Martin gave you a flash…I saw your eyes light up. Did you have this same experience with your first instruments?
Phil: Yes, I started out with a stringed instrument, the violin. It was the highest thing I could find. It always got me high, but I never learned to play very well. I was eight years old when I started playing the violin. I played it about six years and then gave it up for the trumpet.
Harrison: That’s a fantastic contrast in instruments. Was the trumpet more of an adolescent trip?
Phil: Right; most definitely. So I played the trumpet until I was about twenty and then I quit.
Hank: You played trumpet on “Born Cross-Eyed.” Just a little riff. I dug it; wish there had been more. But playing trumpet with a band is considerably different than composing. Where did you make the transition from playing to writing?
Phil: That is very subtle. It was part of the adolescent trip. It was part of the trip that led me to play trumpet. I just wanted to do more. Playing second violin was not enough. It was a pretty empty scene. I thought playing trumpet was “it.” What I learned from the guy who taught me trumpet was a whole lot about musicianship in general.
Hank: Who was that?
Phil: A guy named Bob Hanson. He taught in Berkeley – still does. His sons have come to see us at the gigs. Bob has three kids, and they were learning to play all the instruments they could. I’d have loved to have been one of those kids. He was kind of a father to me at the time. A real hail-fellow-well-met kind of guy. We would spend most of the time rapping and joking. My mother would bitch because we had more goof-offs than trumpet lessons, but I learned to be a professional from that guy.
Harrison: Was your mother at the lessons sometimes?
Phil: Well, we had a pretty small house.
Harrison: Oh, he’d come over to your house.
Phil: Yeah, he’d come by on his route. He was just a good old guy, a real good musician, and he got me so I could play in orchestras with him. There I was, playing trumpet instead of violin, which is considerably more of an exposed and responsible place. Playing bosser music with adults and professionals instead of violin in kid orchestras. Somehow, I could pick up the trumpet fast enough so that in two years I was playing symphonies, whereas before it took six years to play the violin and I couldn’t get far enough to play really well. Through all that, I got into an appreciation of musicianship which struck the long-forgotten chord which led me into music in the first place…
Harrison: What was that?
Phil: I got this huge hit from the Brahms Symphony when I was four years old.
Harrison: The first recollection of music was the Brahms Symphony?
Phil: Brahms’ First Symphony, conducted by Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic sometime in 1944. I heard it on the radio. My grandmother said, “Philip, come listen to the nice music on the radio.” I walked over and sat down next to my grandmother (who I dearly loved – anything to be next to my grandmother). And wooow! This fucking thing comes out of the radio and knocks my head off. I have never been the same since. But dig this irony: Six years later, when I was ten, my violin teacher took me to hear the same conductor performing the same symphony in San Francisco. It was a big evening for me; I got to go out to dinner with my violin teacher. Very reinforcing.
Harrison: When did you start to write jazz compositions?
Phil: About 1956 or so. Jazz was where it was at. The reason I switched high schools was because I could get harmony lessons elsewhere. They wouldn’t teach me anything about what I really wanted to know. You see, I spent the first two years at marching band at El Cerrito. It was marching band and social studies time. They didn’t have any harmony classes at El Cerrito and no ear training classes. They didn’t have any kind of classes except fucking blowing your horn on the band master’s chart. So I went to Berkeley. It was really a good flash for me because I was the new kid at school and one thing I could do was play trumpet. Another reason I left the school was I could play trumpet as good as the guy in the first chair, but the band master wouldn’t let me play and all the other bullshit. He thought it would be bad for my head, but all it did was put me very uptight.
Harrison: So you became Wagnerian for awhile?
Phil: True. Sad but true!
Harrison: Didn’t the same thing happen at San Mateo in the jazz band with Buddy Powers and Dick Crest?
Phil: Yes, but Buddy had all the wind and the chops to get all the really high stuff which that chair, in that band, really demanded. You had to have the endurance to stay up there all day, which I couldn’t do. But he moved on, so I got the chair anyway. Al Molino was in that band, too. Some of the nerviest guys I ever met – Pat Britt, Lenny Lasher.
Harrison: I remember you wrote two very pretty atonal charts in those days.
Phil: Actually, there were three, but the first never got through rehearsal. The other two I wrote were played at the concerts.
Harrison: The first one that was in rehearsal…what was that?
Phil: I don’t remember. Something I wrote the first year I was there. It was awful hard. The acoustic bass player had to tune down his bass for the first line and then he had to tune it back up again for the whole rest of it. All the brass players started out in the highest register of their instruments and each section of the band was in a different key. It was like blocks of granite sliding together. It was pretty weird for junior college.
Harrison: Yeah, but it was a very advanced junior college. Did you know that Garcia and Hunter went to that same San Mateo Junior College at the same time, and also Rod Albin?
Phil: No, I didn’t. But a lot of weird people went there. So Garcia probably would have.
Harrison: At that point it seems to me the music became secondary for the first time in your life. Trips started to become important. The good times.
Phil: Well, that came later on. After I had gone through the whole composition number. The experience of playing in big bands and writing compositions for big bands was one turning point. After that I was no longer interested in playing trumpet. I was interested in composing. I wasn’t interested in playing instruments any more in a band where I was a part. I was interested in playing the whole band. From there it got heavier and heavier. At that same time I was into Ives and all that.
Harrison: Also into all kinds of music – atonal jazz, Bartok, all-night sessions, Coltrane, Miles…remember?
Phil: At that time I was just raking it all in. That’s the time when you’re supposed to be learning. I had never known there was so much music, and all of it hung together so neatly.
Harrison: At that same time you had a job in the college library, right?
Phil: That’s right. My job was to judge the quality of incoming recordings. In other words, if they were scratched, I would send them back for duplicates. So I got to listen to all the new recordings. All the jazz and all the classical recordings.
Harrison: Two years later you worked at KPFA for Gert Chiarito, “Midnight Special,” as an engineer!
Phil: It was the same trip. You go where the information is, no matter what you have to endure or sacrifice. Luciano Berio was at Mills College at the time (1962). I had met Tom Constanten at Cal so we did our self-education number, since “formal” school was actually retarded. I got away from Berio and composed the thing that was in me for that level. Then I didn’t have anything more to say. That was in 1964. I wasn’t doing anything for awhile. Except getting high a lot.
Harrison: What were you doing in the Haight besides delivering mail and fitting Jackson Pollock puzzles together? Weren’t you composing anything?
Phil: Yeah, I was trying to compose some stuff. But that was about the time I got dried out. I came to the end of the road, and the opportunities for having what I had written performed were so limited, and the way I would have to channel my musical thinking was unpleasant to contemplate.
Harrison: You had the Mime Troupe for small compositions.
Phil: Right, but those small compositions didn’t get me off. The thing I had written in 1963 was a huge orchestral work called “Foci” for four orchestras. It required 123 players and four conductors. Needless to say, it will be difficult to perform it.
Harrison: What is your visual imagery like when you’re performing live before an audience?
Phil: Since I first began seeing music I saw music as notes on spaces, sometimes colored, paisley, sometimes fragmented, and sometimes whirling notes and treble clefs with little feet running around them; but I see the notes we’re playing all the time, at least the notes I’m playing as they are played. Sometimes the register is horizontal; sometimes waving like a flag. It seems like funny little cartoons sometimes, but I never see tangible seascapes or mountain sequences or pastoral roll-by or anything like that. I rarely have dreams of that kind either; they are almost always symbolic. It would be easier to define how high I am, what level of consciousness I’m at at any given time. If we’ve been on the road for thirty days we’re usually very tired. It is always a thrill to play music live; that’s what keeps us going with a smile. But what pisses me off is the crowd’s screaming for more like at the Roman Circus after we’ve laid the finest riff out there already. That New York crowd screams for an encore no matter what; then go berserk if we don’t take requests. That kinda fucks up the imagery.
Harrison: What about when you hear a tape back during mix-down?
Phil: In that case, I have time to associate things to thousands of other things. I can feed it back on infinite loops in the studio, but that’s where it gets weird because that’s where the powers of criticism come to play; that’s where the toys get really complex. So I’m free, but limited by the very thing that frees me. In that case the imagery is notes, symbols, and layers of music, plus anything else – classical forms, v.u. meter readings, etc. It’s much more intense during a performance, and the studio is usually informal except when we’re working against a deadline.
Harrison: How does your classical influence come into the Grateful Dead music?
Phil: It hardly comes in at all, Only indirectly. Only in certain kinds of instances.
Harrison: Is this the same with the jazz idiom?
Phil: I would say so. We’ve always tried to make the music as natural as possible in the sense that I, for instance, don’t try to bring any kind of classical “tricks” into the Grateful Dead.
Harrison: But vast classical and jazz informations are stored in your educational computer.
Phil: Oh, yeah. All the data is there, and I draw on it subconsciously all the time, no doubt.
Harrison: Just like Garcia touches on bluegrass and…whatever else.
Phil: True. But it’s all very subliminal at this time. It’s all like melted together into non-categories of stuff. I mean like there aren’t any direct Beethoven influences or that sort of thing.
Harrison: I was thinking more of things like Bartok and the atonal percussive pieces.
Phil: Well, I don’t consider that truly classical music. That’s sort of the precursor of what we’re doing. It’s like classical music is one extreme and what Bartok did is another, and we’re the synthesis of those two extremes.
Harrison: So, everything that happened in the 19th century was contra-Wagner. The Mahlers and the Stravinskys and so forth created a new energy force.
Phil: The four I consider to be the real creators of MODERN music are Ives, Debussy, Schoenberg, and Mahler. Metaphysically they all sound very much alike.
Harrison: When you say “alike” you confuse me, because I perceive great, vast and subtle differences among those composers.
Phil: I mean, to the casual listener who’s talking to someone while he’s listening, it all sounds alike. This is how the majority of music gets listened to. If people would listen carefully the gimmicks would die out. But people habitually categorize music into simple, harmonic textures and dismiss it at that. Ives and Scriabin were using a pantonality context which involves the extremes of noise and dissonance and the extremes of consonance. That was their spectrum. Now the four composers I mentioned were able to make a synthesis somewhere on that transitional line between the two kinds of thinking. That’s why they are valuable to me. I see them as precursors to what we are doing. In other words, we are attempting to create a music which involves the highest possible number of ways of playing all other music which has evolved in the world, even in the distant past, up to and including us. Those four guys together represent a plateau or hub of musical consciousness. Each of them was modern, but ancient at the same time. They were transcendental because they had resolved the time contradiction.
Harrison: And you, with a five-man crew, have only been able to skim the very beginning of the surface?
Phil: That’s absolutely correct, but it is only limited by our own inadequacies in our minds as to what we can do with our instruments; that is, of course, the instruments we are playing. Now consider Garcia – all of the shit he gets out of an electric guitar. They say that an electric guitar is a very limited instrument.
Harrison: But he hasn’t reached the bottom on that yet.
Phil: No, he certainly hasn’t.
Harrison: When he got into pedal steel that seemed to feed back to the electric guitar which fed back to the banjo, and that opened up new avenues. So, the guitar is only as limited as the cerebral cortex and the neural connections to the fingers. Garcia makes it look easy.
Phil: Yes, but I can’t emphasize the word ELECTRIC enough. When I first played an electric instrument, I played it for seven hours straight, and I couldn’t sleep that night. It got me so high that I knew something had to be happening. Something extremely different from acoustic. Then, of course, you start taking acid, and the phenomenon magnifies further, and you are hooked on ELECTRICITY. You start working with actual electronics and the amplifier without worrying about knobs or gauges. When we are playing I very rarely change anything but the knobs on my guitar. A slight volume change or switch between two distributions of sound. The rest of it is done with my hands. How I hit the string, how long I hold it, etc.!
Harrison: The next logical thing would be to talk about your new electric bass. It seems to me that that instrument is a conceptualization which evolved from your early dreams of music unlimited. A way of opening up more business, more possibilities?
Phil: Yes, but always with the basis of the struck string and its overtones. It is infinite because the higher you go the closer they get together, so eventually they become noise. In the sound of the struck string there exists a microcosm of the entire spectrum of possibilities. When it’s amplified, you can hear it all. That’s what the electronics do – they amplify the overtones to a degree never thought possible in an acoustic instrument.
Harrison: What about the giant Bach organs?
Phil: The overtones are mechanically limited and constructed and fed together like an electronic music machine. Like a Moog. Fed in together so you have your 16 foot stops with the pedal, and for each one of those 16 stops you have an 8-foot, a 4-foot, and a 2-foot, which are octaves of one another. So, depending on how the stops are arranged, any one or all five of those will sound when you hit one note on the pedal. With the struck string, they are all there; you only have to select or emphasize one with your finger, or electronically with a foot pedal or a computer! With the organ, your control is limited.
Harrison: So the new bass is quadriphonic, which will allow an array of effects across the stage out to the audience. And you can stagger these effects as you see fit?
Phil: Yes. I have a six-position switch which Ron Wickersham has designed. This switch has the percussive distributions that I want.
Harrison: Is it true that with this amount of control you can actually create standing illusions – throw your voice, as it were?
Phil: Hopefully. It is going to depend a lot on the response of the system because bass notes seem to come from everywhere. That is the nature of bass notes; i.e., notes below 250 cycles.
Harrison: Could that be because bass notes have always been played through monaural systems? They have never been played quadriphonically before in the history of music. So, this is going to be an exciting thing, to find out if you can localize those bass notes?
Phil: In a small room it definitely works. But the quadriphonic aspect is only half the trip of that bass. The other half is the regular system whereby the individual pickups, bass and treble, have a kind of tone control which gives you more flexibility. Most tone controls are simply a treble cut; they’re really hard to get going. It is very hard to find the right setting. You have to experiment endlessly.
Harrison: This new bass also has a second stage which is still under development, is that right?
Phil: Actually, one is the bass and the other is the little black box with the pedal controls, which has some extra toys in it. The bass also has regular pickups with modern, efficient tone controls that actually boost certain frequencies and in certain band widths. Then it has the quadriphonic or the individual string pickup option. This, then, approaches a bass synthesizer concept. The foot-pedal black box would have four channels. It would essentially be the same thing as all of my four Fender pre-amps. It would have four inputs, and it would distribute itself to the four inputs in which I would have volume, treble and bass controls and a bright switch for each channel – which means 1400 watts of MacIntosh tube power. Yowee! In other words, I can control each speaker with those four channels plus a vibrato which would have a speed control and an intensity control. That would make the music sound fuzzed and go anywhere from a woooowoooowoooo to a rhhhhrhhhhrhhhh. It would also have peak expander which expands the dynamics for “precise” control of all four channels.
Harrison: What is stage three?
Phil: This is the one that has to have the relays built into the neck.
Harrison: Oh…the computer!
Phil: Yes. The blackbox servo will ultimately feed to an analog computer which will feed to a digital computer which knows what note it has to sound when a given fret is pressed. It scans the note and, depending on how hard I press, it stops. If I press very hard, it will go fast to the top of what it can see or perceive from the string and stop there. If I press a little softer, it will go up slower. It will be a complete and ultimately controllable thing. When I kick that in, I will be able to scan the note and bring out any harmonic I need – all with my fingers. It will also play conventionally. I won’t have to play with any knobs. All with my left hand on the strings. That is the goal.
Harrison: Total efficiency of movement.
Phil: Exactly. The only control on that bass, hopefully, would be a master volume and a function switch which will indicate pickups, quadriphonic, or computer, or whatever. Of course, the individual pickups would have volume controls on them for balance, but there would be very few tone controls.
Harrison: Can you conceptualize writing music for that?
Phil: No! See, writing music has come to mean a whole different thing. THIS INSTRUMENT IS STILL AN ELECTRIC BASS. Even though it has more range than any bass instrument has ever had, it is still fundamentally a bass for use in a rock and roll band. Whereas if I wanted to get anything else out of it, I would have to start building in other tones like higher strings, or work with computers and octave-doublers. So then I could kick in an octave and I would get the note I was playing an octave higher. That would mean I would have to develop my technique to play bass lines down at the bottom and rhythm stuff in the middle, etc.
Harrison: That’s what I thought the treble cut was for…so you could play rhythm.
Phil: That is sort of what I’m after. Also, play bass and lead at the same time, in order to bring a more polyphonic concept into our band.
Harrison: Wow! Zen consciousness!
Phil: Almost. That is what the big “lady” has taught me. I call it a lady, you see…
Harrison: Well, what has it taught you?
Phil: That all and everything is possible.
(from Hank Harrison, The Dead Book, 1973, p.29-45)