Bob Bralove
Second Sight

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Bob Bralove
Second Sight
By Toni A. Brown

Bob Bralove is soft spoken, but he carries a big technological sound. Bralove has surfaced in his own light after existing for several years behind the Grateful Dead's soundscape. The wizard behind the curtain, Bralove was integral to the Space and Drums segments of every Dead show and gave each band member the ability to reach far beyond their simple instrument's confines-adding elaborate labyrinths of sound in which the musicians could explore. Second Sight is Bralove's solo endeavor, featuring stellar guitarist Henry Kaiser, bassist Marc Van Wagenigen and drummer Paul Van Wagenigen. The group's album, Second Sight (Shanachie), is a multi-dimensional journey into a vast landscape of textural sounds. Bralove's gift for all things auditory shines on this solo release. We caught up with him on his latest tour. As is often the case when we spend time together, our conversations weave around the familiar topic of the Grateful Dead.

Bralove: It's always been my feeling that the Grateful Dead made it easy for us to be creative. So now, we just have to work at it harder. You have to practice to play that guitar. You have to take this chunk of time out of your life and say, "Okay. I'm gonna have some discipline. I can't just go to a show and get the music." For me, they just opened their arms and said, "Hey, let's write songs. Let's make records. Let's have fun and make sounds, a big party. Yeah, you can be creative in this context. And here's some money to do it with. We'll treat you good and give you some respect." Amazing spiritual generosity from those guys which I think came across to the audience and that audience was an integral part of that show, unlike a lot of other scenes. So the Grateful Dead set up that situation where they could come and play - play their form of music and do their audience thing and generate their vibe. And that was a creative, active experience. And now that that context is gone for all of us, we just have to work a little harder. It takes a little extra work, but all those vibes are still out there.

We just don't get together at the churches as often...

Bralove: Exactly. But we still need to be spiritual.

The shows were an important time to integrate. We're basically isolated from each other now. We have to seek out the spiritual contacts.

Bralove: It's a little different for me because those times of great release for most other people were times of huge, huge pressure for me. (Laughter) So, I'm aware of the community as its energy came across to the stage, but I'm not really aware of what that experience out there was.

Now that you're out performing, you can get a taste of that. Even though there's pressure on you, you can actually interact with the audience.

Bralove: It's a tremendous thing. When Second Sight reaches its white hot center, we are seducing the listener into a place in music that is unfamiliar and exciting. It's new territory, and you feel that newness. For me, I found some spiritual brothers in the Dead. They accepted my sonic idiosyncrasies as music and places to explore together. It was sort of like the Enterprise or something. Here we were traveling all over the place with the same crew and the same people experiencing all new things and trying, every night, to make some sort of thing happen. I feel lucky enough to have found these spiritual brothers in other places with both Second Sight and Dose Hermanos (with Tom Constanten).

When a band can share its focus and your natural thoughts are part of their musical world, you have the kind of dynamic that the Grateful Dead had musically, in terms of being able to change things, move things, to be able to be strong and "go out and seek new worlds and boldly go where no man has gone before." To feel that secure on stage requires that energy from the audience. You can find musical things to do over and over and over again and repeat them and get a good response if you have a certain kind of genius. I think you can make that thing magical. The sets did not vary that much when I worked with Stevie Wonder. There were places where he would explore new territory and go anywhere he wanted in a solo section, but with the band, the sets were locked. I did a tour with him that was seven months long. I was constantly hearing new things in levels of arrangement-he was somebody who had a genius for working in that way. The sense of harmony and counterpoint and surprise that he could write into a song was just amazing, and of course, his ability to deliver. And yet that was, sort of, one aspect of it. When Stevie had the moment of magic happening, the audience was in his hand. When the Dead had their moment happening, they were in the audience's hand.

A good example of that would be the New Year's Eve shows, which were not necessarily that much fun musically for the band 'cause it was very crazy. It wasn't that much fun for me. It was really crazy, but the audience created the whole show. The energy that came out of that audience on New Year's Eve was phenomenal!

How has the Second Sight tour been going?

Bralove: Great. It's been a lot of fun.

Is this configuration of the band one that you're comfortable touring with?

Bralove: Yeah. I'm aware that there's been some confusion about who is with this Second Sight tour. Vince [Welnick] is, and always has been, a part-time member of the band, and we love playing with him. He's working on Missing Man Formation, doing some very exciting stuff. He is playing and writing his butt off, and it's really exciting to see. I saw a show recently, and I saw some energy from Vince that I'd never seen before.

You did some work with Mickey Hart on last summer's Furthur Festival...

Bralove: Just a little. I did some work on the design of RAMU-I got called out for a little emergency surgery in a couple of towns (laughter)- some scalpel work to fix some problems that were happening. But after we do this tour, I'll be working on this summer's Furthur Festival with him. I'll be going out with him this summer. My goal is, I want to get to the place where Mickey's playing with the total abandon that he did with the Grateful Dead because I think that's brilliant. The best stuff he does is when he is completely out over the edge being Mickey, and I think I know who that guy is, but the truth is he's constantly changing. He's been doing tons of movie scores, and he's been working like crazy. He's got lots of new energy and new material, and I just want to make sure he can get abandoned inside there.

Compared to working on a project like that, and then coming out with your band where you really only have limited electronics to play with, do you find that you're restricted?

Bralove: Yes, in some ways there are things, but they're not part of what I'm trying to do because I have tremendous amounts of power in these small packages. I use a variety of samples and synthesizer sounds that are designed for the kinds of sounds that we've been working with.

When was the Shanachie album recorded?

Bralove: That was recorded over a span of about two years. Most of it was done in the very beginning. Somebody offered me a spot in a show. They'd heard Infrared Roses, came to a Grateful Dead show, heard me play between Drums and Space, was blown away and said, "I have a digital arts festival. I'd like to put you on for an hour. Do anything you want." [The album] was recorded live. We actually play much tighter now than we did then. All the tracks are really live. There's a couple of overdubs, but it's minimal.

I spoke with you when you got the offer to do that show. You were trying to come up with what to put together.

Bralove: And I came up with this band. And so in initial rehearsals for it, John Cutler just jumped in and said, "Look, if you're gonna put a band together, I want to record it." So how could I say no? (Laughter) He is a brilliant engineer. So he set up, and we spent three days writing and recording material for a one-hour slot in the show.

You still take a very improvisational approach to the music that you do...

Bralove: Yes. It took a long time for me to be happy with the mixes and the studio. I think what I'm beginning to realize is some sort of a Bralove sound and the pictures that it's painting-the movement of the sounds, the taking you into a space. Each song takes you to a new planet, a new direction and you're kind of discovering each tune. They sound so different from each other and yet have this similar aesthetic.

You take a lot of different directions with your pieces, but everything is going somewhere. Do you have a goal for where you want this material to end up?

Bralove: Sometimes. There's a tune on the album called "Blood And Mercury" and I do some vocal processes-screaming-it opens with a scream, a big chord. We were in rehearsals and I said, "I don't know what this tune is. All I know is it starts like this." And I played the chord, and I screamed into the processor. Henry looked up and said, "Quick. Give me some chords. Any chords." I then gave him, very quickly, like four or five chords. He said, "Now, be quiet." He sat down in front of those chords for three minutes, turned around and said, "I've modified them" - told us what the chords were and the song just happened in front of us. Just like that. Everybody changed something a little bit. Everybody made an adjustment.

I like drama. Stories and drama, to me, that's what the voyage is-the drama. I like to mix records so that it's easy to follow the story-that your attention is drawn to the next thing…it's like you're wandering on a trail that's just being lit just in front of you. Then all of a sudden, you find yourself someplace surrounded with sounds, and sometimes you're in a city and sometimes you're in the country and sometimes you're in the ocean. It's the drama leading you through that trail that appeals to me.

You've always worked very largely in an instrumental format, and you're starting to bring vocals into your performance. You paint a picture with your music, but when you add lyrics, you're more precisely defining that picture.

Bralove: Well, you're defining that picture when you're using music.

Instead of just listening to the music and letting it paint for you, now you have words to color that painting.

Bralove: Yes. It's another color to me. That's exactly my point. It defines it no more and no less than you want it to. Your stories are as specific, mundane or magical as you want them to be. I don't understand all of that process yet so I follow the energy. I want you to feel like there's something new in front of you in each lyric, and it gives meaning to everything else in a different way. And, of course, I'm vocally investigating color as an issue because I got into singing the first time at a Dose Hermanos show at the Wetlands. It's the first time I'd ever done any singing. Bravened by my partnership with Tom Constanten and psychedelics, I decided to grab a microphone and investigate some sounds that I had been turned on to and the actual history of it is kind of intriguing.

The Gyuto Monks came out with the Grateful Dead at Shoreline, whenever that was. I can't get these dates right, they all fall together. And I had done the monks with Mickey at St. John The Divine in New York, so I was familiar with their sound, and it was right up my alley. It paints pictures of profound depth. And Mickey said, "Okay. After the monks, you play some Space stuff and pull the monks off and bring the other guys out." So the gig happened and the monks came out, and it was the sound of God. Every religion has the sound of God and these guys spent many lifetimes perfecting this one, and it's a very moving sound and it was shaking the stage. There were about ten monks out there going through the greatest PA in the world to 20,000 people, and I sit there and think, "I gotta follow this with a Japanese synthesizer and a couple of chips?" (Laughter) But coming after them is a major scary event, musically.

I remember Jerry telling me that at Monterey Pops, The Who smashed up all their stuff-industrial rock defining new territories and what was possible in music, and then Jimi Hendrix goes out and he's playing amazing stuff, flaming his guitar and all this kind of stuff and Jerry says to me, "And then we had to go out there and play our stupid little songs." So even the Grateful Dead have gone through this. But I had enough awareness to realize that I was tensing up and that there was no value in tensing up. So, I said to myself, "Okay, breathe with their breath. With the monks. You'll find the place in the monks. The answer to what comes after the monks is in the monks. So breathe with the monks." And, of course, the stage is vibrating and the sound is huge and I say to myself, "Okay. You're starting to relax a little bit. Chant with the monks. Just make sounds with them. You want to get close to their sound." And lo and behold, three notes came out of my voice.

I thought this was kind of cute at the time 'cause it put me into the place and I came out of them fine and the other guys came out, and Space happened. And it worked out just fine. But I had made this resonant sound in my body, and I thought it was sort of cute. For about three days, I thought it was cute and then it dawned on me that the monks had given me a gift and that I don't have to know anything more than that. And if I pursue it, it will lead me somewhere.

So I would go out in the morning with my dogs, cup of coffee and chant in Golden Gate Park. And I began to see that it was a question of finding resonant frequencies in your body and just a feeling of vibration. Finding the resonancies and seeing if you could overlap them, and then I realized that all the beauty was in the cracks and the richest harmonic overtones were in the things you didn't condition your voice to do.

I have a very, very academically trained background in music. I have a masters degree in composition. I was writing chamber music and symphonic material before rock 'n' roll. I decided very consciously to chant and apply none of my academic psyche to what was happening. So, when we were playing and I had this pocket with TC, I decided to try chanting or vocalizing to whatever it was we were doing. That was the first time and it's on the Dose Hermanos Sonic Roar Shock CD. I just approached it and kept coming back to it. "Division Street" is a tune I'll be doing tonight, and that came out of the work with TC. I started doing that with Dose Hermanos, which is very, very different than when I'm doing it with Second Sight. And I'm starting to write a lot more lyrics.

You're taking vocalization to a new technical high.

Bralove: It's a strange thing. I had one lesson with a voice coach, and it was mostly about anatomy. I got scared at one point that I was gonna hurt my throat because I'd never experienced those things and you know, when you really sing, you know you've got to work. You've got to condition the muscles. You get a little tired, and these are very strange sounds for me. But it turned out I was fine. There is a sort of instinctual level at which you know you're stressing your vocal chords. She listened to some of my recordings and said, "There. That sound. That's bad for you." And when I heard the sound, I knew the feeling I had when I made it and I knew it at the time it was bad for me.

Is there anything else that you'd like to share with Relix readers-any future projects?

Bralove: I'm hoping to really get Second Sight going. I'd love to make another record. The response has been pretty good from people. It's been very interesting to be able to have direct feedback. I'm getting constant feedback from people who get the record. Somebody bothers to write and say they dig what you're doing and give you encouragement-it's really wonderful. A couple of people have said that they put the record on, and it has actually taken them from a bad place to a good place. Hey, that's great. Wow, thank you. So it's really wonderful to be part of this community.

This article originally appeared in Relix Magazine, Volume 24 #4 (August, 1997).

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