Darwin Grosse: Okay. Today we are starting with part two of our discussion with Ned Lagin. In the first half, we talked a lot about the people that make up Ned's history as well as his interface with technology. What we didn't talk very much about was sort of the influence of music. How he became a composer, and what that composition process looked like. We're going to start there. Ned, why don't we have you kick off by talking a little bit about your interface with music. What it is about music that kind of inspires you and kind of turned you onto being a creative musician because you've been involved in so many things. Why music and what about music drew you in?
Ned: That's both a simple and a difficult question to answer, so I'll try the simple answer first. The simple answer is that I was given piano lessons and playing piano and listening to music with my parents when I was really very young. Before I ever thought about being a musician, I became a musician by absorption and by education. When I started taking academics more seriously, and, of course, when I went to college, it was in the sciences. As a back-up to that I was studying music at college and at the Berklee School of Music, MIT and the Berklee School of Music. My plans were not to be a composer or a musician primarily. Those things changed because of the cultural changes that were occurring at the time. The Vietnam War, and various other things. I'll come back to that in a little while to talk a little bit about Renaissance music, and how it relates to what we're talking about today.
One of the things that I'd like to say now in retrospect is that music is technology and chemistry. The chemistry is biochemistry. There are two overlapping sides to my music, and, I think, to everybody's music making and music listening. I wrote a note to myself a few years ago, again in retrospect, about photography and visual arts which I do primarily now, but also about music. I said, "Art is spirit, animating form. It's a way of being present." Those are the things that have guided me compositionally for the last 50 year, I guess. I hate to admit my age, but 50 years. If you think about it, music is a way of being present in the world. It's not only a way of being present in the world as a performer or as a composer, but also as a listener. There are various aspects of music and we could talk at some point about maybe, a little bit about the theories of musical evolution.
One of the things that's very interesting about music is the concept of entrainment. Predominantly, we understand entrainment as rhythmic entrainment. You hear it with birds and crickets. You hear it with all sorts of rhythmic human activities and songs that were written or composed or evolved to function as entraining organizing social principles - like work songs.
As I said a moment ago, I wanted to talk a little bit around Renaissance music because it relates to your general discussion of art and technology. I studied Renaissance music because it was recommended to me as an undergraduate thesis by one of the professors that I was studying with. I didn't know anything about Renaissance music before then or any more than you'd get in a regular musical history one-term course. The Renaissance, and other eras of music ... I'm focusing on the Renaissance because that's what I studied, but this is true for other eras as well. The technology of the era evolved the music and the art, and the art and the music evolved the ongoing technology.
In the Renaissance, two really interesting aspects come to mind. One is the evolution of what was church music and polyphonic music into secular music. When I talked about entrainment before, religious music, church music, particularly Catholic church music, was to bring a kind of spiritual entrainment to the people in the church listening to the music. A poetic symbolic entrainment. That evolved in the Renaissance and later in the Perotin classical music. We're talking about western European music now. That evolved into secular music, and secular entrainment.
The other interesting thing, and this relates a little bit more to technology, is the evolution of two technologies. One, a particular musical technology, the evolution of keyboards. Prior to the Renaissance, there were simple organs and there were clavichords. Through the Renaissance and then into the Baroque, we developed first harpsichords, and then pianos. These were very instrumental in the development of even orchestral and other forms of music by laying out visually and spatially the scale.
The other interesting thing, and I find even when I think about this now, I find this really profound, is the emergence of the Gutenberg printing press. The Gutenberg printing press made books available, and hence, individual learning/information experience to the "masses" where before you had to read Latin. Most people were not willing to ... In Latin, they couldn't or they couldn't read at all. The printing press opened up individual experience. It was the first individual media creation technology.
The other interesting thing about it is that it has sustained us all the way through to the 21st century because most people, setting aside the individual expression and experience of information on an iPad, for example, which is a vast expansion of the Gutenberg galaxy, as McLuhan used to call it. Integrated circuits, microprocessors, the foundational electronics are all artifacts of printing. They are lithography.
It's interesting to understand that our technology today, our electronic technology today, evolved out of the printing press, and being able to print things and particularly images, lithography.
So I studied Renaissance music. I wrote a term paper on a particular composer. It led me deeply into the understanding of music as an entrainment process, as a symbolic and poetic process, and as one that was tied to the technology and the spirit of the times. For my spirit of the times, it was the beginning of television, computers, and electronic music, and electronic devices. I hope that made some sense.
Darwin: Yeah. The one thing I'm wondering, though, is you kind of also tied that to chemistry which, I assume, in some way you were implying a touchstone with brain chemistry or emotional response. The physical chemistry behind that. How does that tie in?
Ned: Well, first, generally, we're all chemistry. In fact, we're all electricity because chemistry is basically electricity. The molecular bonding and interactions of all molecules whether to DNA or anything, chlorophyll, anything that's living, and/or not even living, in organic chemistry. These are all electronic ... They have to do with the electrons in the molecules and in the atoms. On a fundamental level, we're all electricity, and we're all chemistry.
When we talk about music, we're talking about biology because when I say "spiritanimating form equals art", we're talking about something that's intrinsic in biology. The making of art and the making of technology. These are not things that are isolated or separate or unique to human beings. They're not unique to ... How shall I say it? They're not tied specifically to the technology without the biology.
I'm probably being a little confusing because it's a hard thing to wrap your head around. The idea that ... Well, let me ... I guess the best way to put it is, it takes biology and then these biological entities, human beings, to play instruments. While there's a lot of discussion about music being generative without human beings, is that ... The idea that there's music, however it's created, is a chemical idea.
Darwin: Right. Right. Yeah. It requires that chemical reaction in order for us to make that identification.
Ned: Right. It's physiological which is chemistry. When I say spirit animating form, I'm thinking about ... I don't have them in front of me. The quotes by Charlie Parker, the famous bebop saxophone player, but also by Ansel Adams, photographer, and Alfred Stieglitz, photographer for the early part of the 20th century, where they equated art as an affirmation of life, and that art was completely entwined with art. Those kinds of thoughts influenced me as a biologist as well as a musician because I realized, and this relates to Seastones, that the art that you create is not only part of your life, part of your natural history, but it is an affirmation of your life. It is a manifestation of you as a biological as well as a technological entity.
Darwin: I see. That then leads us to how you brought all of this stuff together to formulate some sort of working process, right?
Ned: Right. Well, again, without being too structured or academic, composition, whicch is what we want to talk about, can be divided up into two areas, I think, or at least I divided them that way. One is what is now called pre-composition. We've just talked a lot about that. It's how you live your life and what you think about and composition. Composition, there's a couple of different dimensions that are important in composition when you start thinking about composition. If you don't think about composition, you still can compose. When you take on the mantra of being a composer, and all artists in a sense are composers in the sense that they're composing in the media that they choose. Then, you have to think about meaning and intention. You have to think about the metaphors or the models, the forms that you're using unless you're doing what they used to call the free jazz which is forming as you're playing rather than pre-forming and then building the form. Then, there are the processes.
To tie this to electronic music, for example, when I did Seastones ... When I started Seastones, I was introduced to 16-track tape recording. Prior to that, it was all cutting up and splicing two-track tape. It was an electromechanical function to compose electronic music. By the time I was done with Seastones, we'd gotten to digital control of analog. Now, in the last 30 years or so, we've gotten to the full digital composition. There is all of these processes that are involved as models or metaphors for composition. In synthesis, there's additive synthesis and subtracted synthesis and FM synthesis and digital synthesis. There's mathematical synthesis. There are choices that are made for you by the form that you've chosen or that you choose to adopt. Those all are associated, again, with ... I like to use the word metaphors, though it might be imprecise. You can choose metaphors.
Again, to get deeply into sound synthesis for a moment. You can have sounds that evaporate. You can have sounds that condense. You can have forms that assemble, that are mobile - Seastones is one of those. You can have forms that replicate - generative music is like that. You can have forms that come from natural history, like geology or biology, growth, physical processes. All of these things were in my personal encyclopedia of thoughts and processes that led me to Seastones and its mobile score. My ties to jazz and improvisation and pre-composition for improvisation were fulfilled in five years that I did Seastones.
Darwin: Right. Okay. When you talk about mobile composition, what is the manifestation of that? What does that look like? I mean, did you have written scores or are you using that phrase as a sort of ... your mental collection of what you were working on?
Ned: Actually, both. If you go to ... The bands that I played with, but all bands have a set of tunes. Say The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. When they do a concert, they don't necessarily do them in the same order each time. The ordering may have to do with the mood of the crowd, the mood of the musicians. It may have to do with other poetic or symbolic or other issues. Mobility is not a unique process to what I compositionally except to define a composition and the listening experience for that composition as being open. When you listen to Seastones, you have a choice of listening in whatever order you want to choose by random shuffle or by selection. A symphony is composed to be heard in movement one, movement two, movement three, and movement four.
I'm creating symphonic music or was creating symphonic music that you could move the order around, and juxtapose different components, pieces, of the total composition at different times to different circumstances or to show the beauty of juxtaposing pictures. It's one of the reasons that I got more deeply into photography later in life which was the new pieces of music as photographs. You can juxtapose them side by side or look at one and then the other or look at one and look back at the other. It also evolved in my mind through jazz and from free jazz which was the thing when I was growing up. You had freedom to interpret forms differently, but you also had freedom to create form or have form emerge as you were playing. Then, I even asked the question of my musician friends, "Can we ever do tunes where we start off jamming and the end of the tune is actually the beginning?" You don't state the melody of the song or sing the words of the song until the end. These all created very interesting playing environments for the musicians that I played with, my friends.
Darwin: That's cool. Now, let's talk about Seastones, in particular, because I find that those compositions are really amazing. Also, this idea now, this discussion of the mobile score and sort of the way that you built them to be almost kind of like you were thinking ahead of the someday the iPod shuffle will do its thing. It's really quite amazing because there are these small vignettes almost. When you say that ... When you tie it to your photography, I mean, it kind of makes sense because they feel like instances of a thing rather than a tune. I mean, there are some that are kind of tuneful, but they actually more often feel like ... I think back to Pierre Schaeffer when he talked about sound objects. There's something about the Seastones that are very object-like. I'm wondering is that something that you had specifically in your mind when you were creating them?
Ned: Yes. I can answer that directly. The title Seastones comes from my experience on the beach of picking up sea stones, filling my pockets with sea stones at the beach and looking at them individually. Then, each one coming from a different geological epoch and situation and seeing them juxtaposed on the beach, continuously juxtaposed on the beach. Each one is crafted. Each sea stone's musical form, I call them moment forms, are individually crafted, but they're, in a sense, all from the same beach even though they could stand, in terms of music or in terms of geological time, millions and millions of years in different epics. Different life forms existed.
One of the influences on me and on some of the musicians that I was working with for Seastones was James Joyce. Part of it was Ulysses, and part of it was trying to get through Finnegan's Wake. Finnegan's Wake just had everything that Joyce had under the sun cooked into it. Seastones aspires to that level of poetic, symbolic, encyclopedic content.
Darwin: One of the things I found was that it's really hard for me to sometimes recognize that ... Because I purchased the CD version, and so I have kind of this modern or semi-modern experience of putting a CD in. Then, listening to 40-odd tracks in a row or whatever. Then, if I want to shuffle them around or whatever, I can. It's hard for me to take my mind and realize that this actually was done in a period from 1970 to '75, correct?
Ned: Right. Yes.
Darwin: Yeah, because there are parts of that that sound like they could easily be pulled out of today's Berlin minimal techno tracks. There are other parts that sound like they could easily be part of an Eno-esque, ambient compilation album. There's other parts that sound, for all intents and purposes, like historical archival tape music studio experiments, right?
It's shocking to me that you had all of that stuff kind of cooking in your brain during that period of time which actually, I mean, it pre-dates techno by a long shot. It also kind of pre-dates our modern ambient music, Ligeti notwithstanding. I mean, it pre-dates what we think of as modern electronic ambient music by quite a bit. I'm just curious what were the things that spoke to you and kind of brought those things to the fore? The technoey things, was it because your interaction with the sequencers or with the way that you're using computers to do sequencing, that that was a natural outgrowth of that? In the ambient stuff, was it because of some of the affordances of either the studio technology or access to 16-track recorders or whatever? What are the things that drew those different sounds out of you?
Ned: I don't have a single answer to that. I'll give you a couple of answers, many answers.
Darwin: Good. Right. Yeah, because I asked for kind of many ... Yeah.
Ned: Some of it is my various jazz experiences. Some of it is my various classical experiences. There are fugues and canons in various contrapuntal pieces there. Why I mentioned Joyce a few minutes ago is Joyce was very worldly in his writing and consuming of all sorts of literature and poetry throughout the history of mankind. Part of it was what Jerry Garcia said to me. He called me the first case of information overload. Part of it is just having the curiosity and the hunger to absorb and process all of the different kinds of music that I loved and played.
Again, I became more a visual and so photographic artist later, but a lot of those pieces, not a lot of them, a good number of them, but not a lot of them, are paintings I experienced when I was growing up. Color field painting, Rothko and Neiman in New York. Some of the pictures ... I talked about metaphors a few minutes ago. There are a lot of visual metaphors in music which you might describe as ambient or Eno-like. These are things that the people who made those music and are making it today, those are things that were part of their environment whether they acknowledged it or were even aware of it, but they assimilated. There's cubism in Seastones. There's pointillism in Seastones. There's expressionism in Seastones.
As I said, there's many answers to this because they're just part of music and creating and feeling the meaning while you're creating that are sort of intrinsic. That's the biology part of it that I was trying to describe a few minutes ago. You reminded me of something else. We talked last time a little bit about instruments and synthesis and group improvisation, collective improvisation which is, again, in Seastones. One of the things that I realized was a group of four or five musicians is an analog synthesizer. An analog synthesizer is a group of four or five musicians. A lot can follow just from those two different aspects or different views or perspectives. Again, going back to Renaissance music, what was going on in the Renaissance, the evolution in painting of foreground and background due to the use of vanishing points. The whole idea of where an observer was and what was going on was also evolving at the same time the printing was evolving. Polyphony was evolving into more modern harmonic musical structures and forms. I hope I haven't gotten too obtuse.
Darwin: No, no. That's cool. Now, this is really fascinating. It's really interesting to think ... I hadn't really thought about the forms of ... These different artistic forms kind of all being in the era at the time and having sort of this visceral influence on you. Now, I'm sure another thing that was influential in the making of Seastones was the combination of people that you were working with. I mean, this ... Frankly, I think a lot of interviews that I've seen with you really focus on this part of it which is, "Oh, you worked with Jerry Garcia. You worked with Phil Lesh and David Crosby and Grace Slick and Mickey Hart. What was that like?" I imagine that their influences, both in people's reaction to their music making, but also the fact that they were very creative people themselves, probably also had an influence on you and the freedom that you felt when you were working with them on the creation of the Seastones material.
Ned: I was fortunate to meet and interact and play and share times with a group of great musicians and artists and people. I had written Jerry Garcia a letter when I was at MIT. When he came to MIT, he found me. We became friends. We shared interests in art. When he would visit on the East Coast or play on the East Coast outside of the Grateful Dead, we would visit. We played at his house, and at Mickey's barn studio. A lot just as duos. We shared a lot of music. He taught me a lot and recommended people like Doc Watson and Floyd Cramer who I should be listening to. I taught him a lot about jazz and reharmonization and new music. It was just a really nice relationship. He always had me set up next to him so that he could make sure we were closely playing to one another on stage. He was an artist, and that was publicized more late in his life and after he passed. We shared an interest in art and that he loved coming to Boston and to New York, in particular, for the art communities that were there.
I lived with Phil for a while before I found my own place when I moved to California. Phil was educated as a jazz and classical musician. Studied with Luciano Berio at Mills. We shared a lot of music together.
Mickey Hart, again, had a huge appetite for music. He had a barn studio here in Novato which he graciously gave me 16-track tape and allowed me to start recording Seastones. Through Mickey, I met a lot of people who were jamming out there. I met Barry Melton, John Cipollina, and David Freiberg who ended up on Seastones. Cipollina and Freiberg were, at that point, early on were still part of Quicksilver Messenger Service, another great San Francisco band that I had loved and heard of and listened to from the East Coast.
Spencer Dryden, I met through Jerry and Phil. He had played with the Jefferson Airplane in one of the great jam bands with Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen. They were just as profound as the Grateful Dead in their ability to jam and play. Jerry told me secretly that Spencer was the half-nephew of Charlie Chaplin. Spencer, who did percussion and drums on Seastones, was not only with the Jefferson Airplane, but he also was with the New Riders which was a band that toured, that Jerry played with and toured with the country western band that played with the Grateful Dead. As Spencer told me, he was born in New York, though he grew up elsewhere. I guess LA or someplace. He was very interested in asking me about the Berklee School of Music that I went to, the jazz school and about the avant-garde in New York. A tremendous and tasteful and powerful drummer.
Grace, I met, again, through Jerry and Phil. Jerry and Phil took me out when Grace and Paul Kantner were out in Stinson Beach. David Crosby was in his boat just offshore. Then, I visited them at the so-called Airplane Mansion off of Golden Gate Park a couple of times. Grace and I worked three times. Once with Barry Melton and Dan Healy and Mickey Hart and Phil and a bunch of other people around. Then, twice just Grace and I and Mickey or Grace and I alone.
Finally, last but not least, Phil introduced me to Dave Crosby when we were all jamming together at Mickey's and other places. I got the opportunity to visit David at his house several times and on his boat, the Mayan. He introduced me to Roger Payne's album of recorded whale songs. The first whale song recordings. We shared, not only a beautiful love of nature and whales, but of interspecies communication. David, who's all over Seastones, both with electronic guitar and with voice, was and is such a powerful creator of beautiful vocal and acoustic instrument sounds. He's magical. Jerry was magical in his way. Phil, magical in his way. Mickey, magical in his way. Grace, magical in her way. David Freiberg and Spencer, magical in their ways. I was very lucky to have such partners, friends, and contributors to my work.
Darwin: Sure. You do this work from '70 to '75. It's a pretty incredible body of work. It was released back at the time. Then, you re-released it. Then, where I kind of most recently ran across it was that Important Records is doing a vinyl release of some of it too. What is the release history of Seastones because it seems like it's a little ... I don't know what's the right word. Maybe it's a little strangled. Maybe it just didn't follow a path that it could have or should have. What's the situation that has led to where it sits now?
Ned: First of all, a general disclaimer. It was not my goal in life back then when I was in my 20s to be ahead of my time. I was accused of that even then. I said, "No, I'm living in my time." Grace lived in her times. Crosby lived in his times. Garcia lived in his times. Phil Lesh lived in his times. Mickey Hart lived in their times. It's just that the times included much more than what gets distilled down in the media and broadcast.
Seastones was released in '75, in April '75. It was the plan to be the first release of maybe more releases and live playing. A few weeks after that, the record label, Grateful Dead Records, Round Records, was sold to United Artists. Seastones which has gotten a review twice in Rolling Stone, and was climbing the FM airplay charts, it was at one point above Gladys Knight & the Pips, believe it or not. I was shocked. They had to pull all the stock in the stores to relabel it. Once it got back in the stores, all the momentum had been lost. Eventually, within a year of that, I just left music. There was no continuity towards a bright and rosy future. I mean, I just went into technology and worked at various jobs and careers after that for a long time.
In 1990, Ryko approached me. At that point in time, their major names were David Bowie and Frank Zappa. I think they were looking to an entry into the Grateful Dead world. I agreed to release some Seastones because I wanted to buy the house that I was living in with my cat and not for a reestablishment of a musical career.
Seastones, the LP, as you talked before, was created as a mobile form before there were mobile forms. Before there were CDs, before there were iPods. Before you could create an individual playlist. The LP has been mistaken for the definitive version, and it's not. It's just one version with seven overlayed mobile forms out of close to 100 pieces that could have been used. Reiko put it out and it was on CD, but somehow the mistake was made that the track markers didn't carry forward. You got two versions, two different Seastones sets. You couldn't shuffle them individually.
Darwin: It was like one big track?
Ned: Well, two big tracks because there were two versions. At that point, I really gave up because, as I said, I was doing this to buy a house for me and my cat. I wouldn't be able to give a down payment. Then, in 2000, I did an interview with David Ganz first on the radio. He said, "You can come on for 15 minutes and play some tapes." I ended up being there doing a benefit for KPSA for three hours. We did another eight hours of interviews and he included me in his book. I still didn't do anything. Then, five years later, I decided, because I still had some of the 16-tracks and four-tracks and two-tracks and quad mixes, that I would go to Fantasy Records and have them transferred to digital for future posterity.
Then, in 2008, 2009, 2010, I started playing again at home with friends. Barry Finnerty, Barry Sless, Dewayne Pate, Kevin Hayes, Salso Alberti, and others, where we would just record. I was the engineer as well as the lead performer. Recording on a laptop all on headphones with electronic drums for the most part. It was the supportive, good feeling of being able to play with people again and play live that led me to release Seastones after releasing Cat Dreams, the first music that I had done since Seastones.
Darwin: Got it. The work with Important Records then was just kind of an add-on to that game because I know John there likes helping ... Taking these historically rich things and bringing them out on vinyl and stuff. Is that how that relationship happened?
Ned: John is great. I have to say he's great because his catalog is just ... It's just super excellent. He approached me just two years ago to release a vinyl version of Seastones, either the original or however I wanted to do it. We were collectively on that, and I'm very happy. He took care of all of the mastering and all the sound issues for vinyl, and the packaging is really pretty. It does give Seastones a life. I had released in 2000, I guess it's 2018 now, I had released the mobile form of Seastones. Still only part of the composition. Still have the rest to release and perhaps there'll be more from Important Records in the future. It's interesting. The audience sort of partitions itself by experience into those who still like to get a sequential thing from the composer.
Darwin: Of course. Sure.
Ned: Vinyl is an interesting medium. It's not interesting really for me because I grew up on vinyl. I grew up on vinyl that went to eight-track that went to cassette that went to CD that went to digital.
We've been around the track before. John and others had even convinced me, because I'm not a vinyl person, and I haven't had a turntable for decades, that this is something to do. There's a whole audience of audiophiles and people who would like to get a set from Seastones that's created by the composer. I don't view it as so much locking the form of Seastones into one form or another as much as it is providing on a special media a high-quality set. It's like a Grateful Dead concert...
Darwin: Yeah. I was going to say it's like a group of musicians choosing what they're going to play in a night. They make a set list and that's the expression you're getting that evening. That's kind of what you've done with these physical manifestations.
Ned: Right. Being a scientist, I actually asked a bunch of people, including people who had written reviews of Seastones in the past, to recommend set lists. It wouldn't be necessarily ... It would be my choice, but it would be an educated choice.
Darwin: It would be informed. Yeah. Yeah.
Ned: Yeah. That was an interesting collective process as well.
Darwin: Now, as part of reading up on this, and I think this is on your Spiritcats website, some of the Seastones material was lost at one point, right?
Ned: Some of it has been lost permanently. Okay. I survived the flood of '82 here in northern California, but where my stuff was stored went under eight feet of water. I had lived as a kid growing up on the East Coast. We had hurricanes with no storms. We lived a little bit above even the sea level, so we never got flooded or anything. I'd seen the Mississippi River flooding and devastation. Living through a flood in '82 was just amazingly disgusting. That's all I can say. Disgusting. You end up with oils and sewage and everything. The water leaves everything. It's not that it got wet, and now you can dry it out. It's like it got wet and soiled.
Darwin: Yeah. Well, how were some of them still around? I mean, was it just there were only some of them that were stored on tapes in your storage area and others were stored elsewhere or I mean, I'm just surprised you didn't lose everything because I just think of the way I store stuff. It'd be like if I lose one document, I've lost my whole library because all my stuff is just in one spot.
Ned: This is just the 16-tracks. Well, let's just say six of the 16-tracks, and there were probably about 10 or 12 total, survived. It was a question of how they were up above sea level. What they were ... Without being too graphic, how they were positioned. You fill a storage closet and not ever thinking that it's going to be up to your waist in water.
Darwin: Partially under water.
Ned: With cardboard boxes. The cardboard when it gets wet, it collapses.
Darwin: Yeah. I get the picture now. Yeah. Combine that with oil and sewage and there's your answer, right?
Ned: One of my musician friends said, "The sea actually came to get Seastones."
Darwin: The sea came for its stones. That's hilarious. After the situation went down with the original release of Seastones, you talk about having gotten kind of disgusted and leaving music. I mean, was it literally kind of from the bad taste of that experience? Was it also related to your interaction with the Grateful Dead or was it just that you mentally and emotionally were ready to move into something else?
Ned: After we played at Winterland in October for the Grateful Dead movie and their retirement, we all continued playing and jamming in the studio and working on into the winter of '74, '75 and into the spring of '75, 1975, working on the new Grateful Dead album. Again, jamming mostly at Bob Weir's studio and joined often by David Crosby and sometimes by John Cipollina. Seastones was released in April 1975. I had already started because the record company, Grateful Dead Round Records owed me studio time. I was already using Bob Weir's studio after hours to record more stuff with David Crosby and more stuff as jams with most of the musicians. A few months later after Seastones was released, for various reasons, Grateful Dead Records, and the movie rights, were transferred to United Artists. Jerry, at that point, was interested in making movies. He was interested in playing a variety of different musics besides the Grateful Dead.
Darwin: Well, and I think that also people might now have forgotten that the Dead actually imagined themselves to be retiring at that point, right?
Ned: Yes. Everybody, Bob and Jerry and me and Phil and Mickey, we all had separate groups that we were playing in or multiple groups that we were playing. We were supposed to do a gig in June '75 which was Jerry Garcia and Friends which was the Grateful Dead plus me. We all planned that I would continue to be a separate entity. One of the things that was clearly apparent after '74 and through '75 was the musical world that I had happily and wonderfully entered in 1970 and all the musicians that we've talked about had really changed.
One of the major changes was the Vietnam War was over. The counterculture was evolving and changing. The musicians were all much better known and famous in their own right. That's why they were all going to their own separate groups. The openness that existed in '70, '71, '72, '73 with everybody jamming with everybody, was slowly dissolving, evaporating away. It wasn't the same community or it was a community that was evolving in a different direction. For new music, which is really what I represented as well as doing studio work, that left me in a financially, I should say, and socially vulnerable place. The only people that I knew were the Grateful Dead. When that dissolved into different places, I had to figure out what we were going to do. We continued doing Seastones gigs. That's me, Phil, Jerry, Mickey, and David Crosby, through November '75.
During the summer of '75, I was flown down to United Artists. They thought they were going to put me ... This sounds funny today. They thought they were going to put me in People Magazine as the first person who was performing with computers and because of the Grateful Dead. They had me photographed by the star photographer who had photographed all the famous United Artists stars from the 60s and 70s and maybe even earlier. It was just very prestigious. They actually came to one of our Seastones gigs some of them and put us in Billboard Magazine.
Because of the release of Seastones happening over the time that the United Artists transfer occurred, all the stock from the stores was pulled to relabel for United Artists. Once it was back in the stores, the momentum, the Rolling Stones interviews, the public relations money, had all be used. It was lost. The income and notoriety that would lead to more interesting gigs evaporated as well. Then, as I described a moment ago, everybody was doing other things. We had just gotten to the point of maybe becoming self-sufficient as an avant-garde electronic music jazz rock entity when everybody was drawn into different places.
Jerry, most notably, was the movie that he had to edit. All the other musicians in other directions. At the end of '75 into early '76, I just had to separate myself from that dream, and, in fact, from music that I had been doing since I was a kid and find a way to continue forward which makes-
Darwin: Yeah. To get a gig. Right. You, in fact, kind of when you left music though, you kind of ended up landing in the middle of technology. I mean, first of all, because of physically where you were. Also, because you're experienced with dealing with a lot of different kind of, whether it was computational issues or whatever, you found yourself in kind of the right spot, right?
Ned: Through a friend in 1976, I got a job with one of the first home computer companies. As we talked earlier, I had an Altair computer, the first home computer, which was on the cover of Popular Electronics in January 1975. I still have it, number 113. This was the computer that people like Jobs and Wozniak and Gates, all of those pioneers, first got as well. I got a job working as an application engineer for one of the first S100 companies. S100 was the bus that allowed you to expand the computer because the computer started with just 256 bytes of memory. I got the job because I had ... Prior to that, I had made an 8080, and Intel 8080 processor, work on a car that I had built myself. I answered questions on the phone and helped customers. I think I mentioned this to you. This was right next door ... The offices that I worked in, in my tie and jacket. A far cry from my Grateful Dead attire. This was right next to Buchla's facility which I passed every day without ever entering. It was just a few years earlier that I was using a Buchla box.
It was a reminder each day of the world that I had painfully had to abandon for real life, I guess is the way to say it. I went on from working in home computing to a career in science and engineering and research and development. I continued to do some work on early home computing technology. Then, I went on to image processing. I think I mentioned in one of our offline conversations how I was hired by Bill Etra, a New York video synthesist and entrepreneur. I managed a group of software and hardware people who developed a digital video synthesizer that was controlled by a Radio Shack TRS=80 computer. Then, I went on to biotechnology and immunology instrumentation for some well-known companies to a DNA and RNA and peptide synthesis and sequencing hardware. Early artificial intelligence - I was a seed developer. I received a Macintosh before release to develop early monoclonal antibody and immunology software. Monoclonal antibodies have come to renown 30 years later for the COVID virus treatments. Later than that because, again, I got tired of commuting long distances. I retired from engineering R&D, and science to do ecological and environmental planning and restoration work locally.
Darwin: Then, you went off on that. Normally, for most people that move away from music, that's the end of it. They wear their suit and tie until they get the gold wristwatch. Then, kind of fade away and tell stories to their grandkids. For you, for some reason, in 2008, you decided to start playing again. It ended up leading to this group of musicians that you work with and you're recording with. You end up coming out with a new release called Cat Dreams which is very different from Seastones, first of all. It's clear that it's people that love playing, first of all - it's a very played album. It's a very human album. It's got some really funny tweaks. I was talking to somebody about it, and I was, "I think it's the first time I ever heard post-modern country music." It was kind of interesting mixes of kind of artistic concept with kind of traditional musical forms. I just found it really clever and fun and interesting, but very different release from what Seastones was.
Ned: Well, first of all, Cat Dreams is just other aspects of my musical personality. Seastones is ... I'm not a one-trick pony as they used to say. Cat Dreams was basically recorded, as I said before, in my living room on headphones on a laptop where I was both on an Mbox Pro when I was the engineer and the player at the same time, which is a challenge. It's basically a work of love. I hope that comes through there. The structure of Cat Dreams is sort of in a sense ... Again, is like the structure of Seastones in it that they're the dreams of various cats that I've shared lives with. They could be listened in different orders. They all have different forms and different kinds of depth in playing. They were all visual in one sense or another as dreams are.
For example, there's a three-piece set called The Big Cat Dance. This is when all the cats go out and have a big party and dance. This first one of the three is called Cat Samba. Cat Samba, I play a Roland AX with polyphonic voices. For people who know me, it's a samba with allusions back to Renaissance polyphony and Renaissance scat singings. The cats are scat singing Renaissance. Then, there's an interlude where I use various samples for dobro and pedal steel guitar and acoustic guitar and the cello and everything where the cats get into some catnip and turn a little crazy.
That leads to Cat Licks which is the third movement of the big cat dance. That's the country western one that you're referring to. That one I always visualize is the cats wearing cowboy hats and dancing on the floor. There used to be these bands in the 40s, 30s and 40s, these big band jazz bands, but they were big bands. Country western bands, particularly in Texas. It's an allusion to that music and I call it Cat Licks because it's all the cats ... It's four different guitar players, four different cats playing guitars, all vying with one another like saxophone players in jazz used to do competing... It's an assemblage, pardon any humor and pun intended, but it's an assemblage of licks, Cat Licks.
Darwin: Well, that also explains ... Because it's kind of interesting and in a way a little weird the way that that different kind of phrases and different things kind of come in and out. That actually makes a lot of sense. It's got that kind of almost visual or it's almost like a ... It's like the soundtrack for a thing that happened. It's just that you don't get the visual with it, right?
Ned: Right. At one point, I had hoped to find somebody who would do cartoons of some of these. That has alluded me. The guy who does my website used to work for Disney, but we haven't found anybody, at least yet, who's interested. Also, in Cat Dreams, there are a couple of duos between me and Barry Finnerty who's a great guitarist and who played in one of the Miles Davis electric bands where he plays electric guitar and I play sample cello, keyboard. It's worth noting when we talk about electronic music, that everything I play here is all the sample which, there was no sampling or even digital technology at the time for Seastones. I love playing sample cello on keyboard. It's just so beautiful. I use Roland electronic drums. I used soft synths. I used Reason. I used Reaktor, Ableton Live, the Roland AX, various other customized keyboards. Customized meaning I got into the electronics and screwed around with it a little bit. Both Roland and Yamaha samplers. It's not completely separate from my ...
Darwin: Your previous exercises. Yeah. I was going to say, it's funny because a lot of what you're talking about here is all stuff that is in its own way kind of as tweakable as it was when you were working with E-mu modulars and Altair computers in a way.
Ned: Right. Some of this goes back to my experiences with the Grateful Dead. Even prior to the Grateful Dead listening to some country music, but not a lot. I was an East Coast elitist. For the most part, jazz. Playing with the Grateful Dead made it... I played on American Beauty, their second sort of country album. While I wasn't a skilled country player, they had much better people for that, I really enjoyed playing that kind of music. It's truly American music and it's truly in a lot of ways very deep music played by some very deep people if you know the history of country music or if you've seen the Ken Burns country music series. I'm proud to be able to have interacted with much better musicians than me as I mentioned before.
Darwin: Yeah. Well, it's quite a group of people you have. In listening to it, I have to admit that I'm a real sucker for bass players. I kind of mentioned this before offline. The bass player that you have on this, Dewayne Pate, just blew me away. It was so tasteful. I love tasteful bass playing like that. That was just the real touchstone for me. Listening to this great grooving bass player just really standing out. What it really spoke to was kind of the live nature of this recording. At a time when it's so easy to overdub things in excess, there was definitely a live orientation to the sound of this album.
Ned: Well, I should have mentioned this. If I had a public relations person, they would have told me to mention this. Every one of those is a first take. Okay. Even when I played long eight-minute solos, take one. I absorbed that to two people. Frank Sinatra, who hated to do things over again, and Miles Davis.
Darwin: Well, how did you set it up then? Did you just say, "Okay, imagine a bunch of cats wearing cowboy hats, go?"
Ned: No. I didn't do any of that. I played a couple of themes or I noodled around a little bit and then settled down. When I did the duos with Barry Finnerty, this is great. That's what I meant ... Way at the beginning when we started talking today, that's what I meant about chemistry. That's just chemistry.
Ned: I had the chemistry for a while with Jerry and Phil and David Crosby and those people and the musicians. I wish I could take more credit, but it's the sensitivity and experience and musicality of the people that I played with that I really want to point to and to your point. Dewayne Pate on bass and Barry Finnerty and Kevin Hayes and Salso Alberti. When we did Cat Samba, it was just ... I just started playing it, and they just played.
Darwin: That's wild. That's really cool.
Ned: They do studio work and they play with some of the greatest bands. Dewayne has played with everything from the Ray Charles type bands to salsa bands to, I believe though ... I hope if he ever hears this. I think he actually even played with Robert Goulet and Florence Henderson.
Darwin: Nice. You better groove if you're going to play with Robert Goulet.
Ned: Yeah, right. The point being is that these people even deeper than me are just music. Not musicians, they're music. That's what all musicians aspire to be.
Darwin: Now, in addition to this, it's amazing to hear these stories and kind of the duration of this. There's this other track of artistry that you got into which is photography. It was first noticeable to me when the cover of your Seastones album has this beautiful picture of seastones. Then, when I went on your website and looked, I saw you had a section on the photography, and it's really quite amazing. For me, what was actually kind of interesting about it too was the way that you kind of categorize things. You have what you call metaphysics which is like this combination of nature photos, but then also art pieces that you photographed. It was just ... There was something about it that caught me a little bit by surprise, but I actually really found compelling because there was clearly a relationship between them without it being, "Here's a picture of a sun. Here's a drawing of a sun." It was more like you introducing the shape of the world in different ways. I just found it really beautiful and interesting.
Ned: Thank you for your comments, your kind words about my photography. When I left music, a few years later after doing some digital video work, I started doing photography again. I had been doing photography as a kid for nature work, but also for recording my science projects and my museum specimens in my home lab. I started with a Bakelite plastic camera, a Bakelite Brownie. My first work was to photograph animals. My first work was to photograph animals in relatively bare cages at the time at the Bronx Zoo which my mother then made into an album for me, a book. My first photo book. I speak about that because it had a profound effect on what photography, the emotions and the responses and the thoughts that it could evoke even in someone as young as five years old.
From childhood onward, as I said, I was using it just basically for nature and for science. Beginning after digital video and then continuing now, I guess, for the next 40 years, I was ... Photography, and to some degree, painting have been my primary creative activities. I studied all of Ansel Adams three books and his work and the work of many other fine photographers. Eliot Porter and Walker Evans and Edward Weston and worked on all different size cameras including large format cameras and have done aerial photography.
Photography, for me, is ... Since I don't travel, and I'm not interested in doing documentary or news types of photography or historical photography, photography for me is about where I live and things that I see and interact with where I live. Mostly, that's the nature photography, the rocks. We talked about mobile forms. Pictures and photography are the ultimate mobile forms. Music evolves and is presented over a period of time even though it can become timeless. Photographs are often juxtaposed. A lot of my artist books, my collections of photographs have been with certain creative ideas or motifs juxtaposed photographs with drawings that I do in the sand at the beach. Again, you and I talk offline because it's interesting that on the one hand I do photography with digital cameras, state-of-the-art digital cameras, but on the other hand, I do artwork by drawing in the sand at the beach. There's a range of technology there that goes back to prior to homosapien to whatever the future holds for us.
The other thing about photography which is sort of different from music is that when you look at a picture, the picture looks at you. I know that sounds a little zen-like and cryptic. A photographer is recording, showing, making present a way of seeing. When somebody looks at a picture, they're looking at the way they see as well as the way the photographer or the painter who made the picture sees. Again, my paintings and my photographs are all about where I live. I think that's very important for an artist or even for a musician that the deep well of creativity is an affirmation and a presentation or a presensing of their life.
Darwin: Sure. Then, what's next on the horizon for you? I mean, in a way, it seems like with photography in the sand drawings, you've kind of mapped out an artistic direction. Are you going to stay focused on that or are you going to revisit more music? Are you going to take the Cat Dreams concept and expand it? What's the future look like for you?
Ned: First, the quick answer, more pictures, more writing, more painting, and more music. As you know, I have a large website - spiritcats.com. One of the wondrous things about technology today is the fact that for individuals, not for groups and not for production companies or record companies, but for individuals, you have direct access through technology now to the world and the world has direct access to you. That seems sort of obvious to say today, but it wasn't 50 years ago.
Spiritcats has had hits from 136 countries. Countries that I never even heard of. Isolated islands in the Pacific, all over Asia, all over Africa, I'm very proud to say, and all over South America. When we think in the past of small audiences, today the audiences for Seastones, they may be small locally or in a small area, but they're larger if you can now include people from all over the world and over 100 countries. It leads one, again, back to art coming from personal life and from life in general. It's an affirmation of life.
We talked about mobility in Seastones which was an artistic and compositional idea that I worked with in the early 70s. In a mathematical or even a movie sense, it would be called non-linear time. Today, with technology, everything is sort of mobile. You can go to my site and look at things in whatever order you want to look at them. You can juxtapose them in whatever order you want to look at them. That's also true for music. As I mentioned earlier, I have still been working with Ableton Live and Reaktor and Pro Tools, but I haven't decided yet to finish or release any new music. I'm still trying to complete Seastones and the rest of Cat Dreams. When you realize that you have people who are interested or appreciative of what you do, i.e., they become friends of your work, you realize that doing art, music for friends or for loved ones or for your dogs and cats if you so choose, is a way of life.
I'm glad that I had the opportunity to talk to you about what happened in my musical life. The idea of mobility means that there are many beginnings, many middles, many ends to things, not just one linear sequence. A lot of people see that in their lives. A lot of musicians do, a lot of artists do, and I'm proud to contribute to that. More pictures, more music, more writing, more art.
Darwin: Well, Ned, I want to thank you for taking time to have these discussions. I feel like I've learned, not only so much about you, but actually I've gotten insights into the world that you've been able to open up for me. I want to thank you for that. Thank you for having these fantastic and in-depth discussions.
Ned: Thank you. I will cherish this.
Darwin: Yeah. So will I. Well, with that then, we will say goodbye. Have a great one.
Ned: Same to you.
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