photo: Ebb Eskew
“It’s about being in that psychedelic moment,” Bob Bralove says of Dose Hermanos, the fully improvisational keyboard duo that he created with Tom Constanten in 1995. “We don’t look back. We don’t look forward. It’s pretty much, ‘How do I feel right now?’”
Some of that collective ethos draws on their (un)common experiences with the Grateful Dead.
Constanten met fellow music student Phil Lesh at UC Berkeley in 1961, and the two became roommates. Later in the decade, while stationed in Las Vegas serving as a computer programmer for the Air Force, Constanten spent some of his weekends on leave recording Anthem of the Sun. Following his discharge, he joined the group in the studio for Aoxomoxoa and on the road from late-1968 through early-1970 (with his apogee perhaps being the transcendent “Dark Star” on Live/Dead).
Bralove first worked with the Grateful Dead in 1985, while helping music director Merl Saunders capture and create keyboard sounds for The Twilight Zone reboot. This led to a similar role on the Dead’s In the Dark, after which Bralove began touring with the band, initially providing assistance with MIDI technology, and eventually contributing live sounds to the musical collages during both “Drums” and “Space.”
Bralove and Constanten began their creative partnership shortly after Jerry Garcia’s passing in 1995. The pair not only drew on their Dead connection but also on common reference points in the realms of classical music and the avant-garde.
Their latest album, Persistence of Memory, blends studio recordings and live cuts, all of which capture their efforts to remain entirely improvisational. The following conversation with Bralove focuses on his work through the onset of Dose Hermanos and a subsequent interview with Constanten will continue the narrative.
You have a master’s degree in composition and also worked behind the scenes for many years as a sound tech. Can you recall a transition point when you began to think about becoming a live performer?
It started when I was working in the Silicon Valley area doing computer stuff. The company I’d been working for had gone bankrupt, everybody was splitting off and I was at this party where I was being offered all of these computer jobs.
By this point, I’d had an interaction with Stevie Wonder over the computer stuff and it looked like there was a possibility of continuing a little more. It wasn’t a conscious decision that I was going to be a performer at that time. I just realized that I could see myself holding onto the rope of having straight-gig security and I had been shown something that was so much more commanding of my attention. It drew me in, and I realized I was letting go of that rope and just seeing where it would take me. That was a significant moment.
Then the other big moment, in terms of moving toward performance, was at the end of the Grateful Dead. I felt like I had achieved a level of success in working with the Grateful Dead that was not really going to be matchable in another support kind of position. They were so musically generous and welcomed me into their creative spheres as a creator, but still providing support for them. I realized, at that point, that I wanted to be writing and playing my own material and other people’s material instead of being behind the scenes. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be in front of the audience, but I wanted to connect to the fluid expression that provides— where I would have to take the risk to commit to playing and being in control of the musical environment in order to share it with other people.
I saw the vision while I was taking acid and realized, “This is one option and here’s another, but this is the one that’s calling to me.” I had all my own insecurities about it but Stevie and the Grateful Dead had believed in me enough to pull me in. So I had to accept that and take all the emotional and personal risks that are involved in performing.
Jumping back to Stevie for a moment, what were your initial responsibilities and expectations? How did they evolve?
I have never had many expectations. I feel that each step has been an individual, wonderful stroke of luck that I responded to but it wasn’t like they were goals.
Stevie originally invited me in to make his synthesizers talk to him so that he could program them. I was doing work with Ray Kurzweil and the Synclavier people. I could put a voice synthesizer that Stevie liked into Ray Kurzweil’s reading machine—you could basically put a newspaper or any document on that machine and it would scan the image, then speak it.
To do that, I had to learn how to use the synthesizers and some of them were very rare, expensive ones. I would do that in the studio, have it set up for me to learn a couple of synthesizers through a speaker system and be working when nobody else was in the studio. Then he’d come in, I’d move out of the way and let him do his sessions while I’d go to dinner.
But he would listen to me programming as he walked around the room. Then, one day, he said, “Hey, man, why don’t you stay for the session. I think I can use you.” So, of course, I said, “Yes.” Then I started programming synths for him and he began inviting me to all the sessions; then he invited me on the road. It kept growing from there but it was a support system. Everything in that organization is built around capturing Stevie’s expressions, as it should be. He is the source of all of that energy, unlike the Grateful Dead, where it’s spread out.
That’s a very important difference. Working with Stevie, I could see how bright the light could be. He is an amazing genius and can pull in energy out of anywhere and turn it into music. But with the Grateful Dead, I saw how bright the light could be when that burden is shared. I feel like they shared it in an absolutely grand way. That creative energy was shared with the audience, the crew and everything they did.
When you were touring with Stevie, did you perform any improvisational roles, akin to what you would later do with the Grateful Dead?
The setlists were more regular with Stevie. He’s playing to a pop audience so you’re looking, for the most part, to deliver the sounds you created on the record. A given sound might have a given volume, so I would be changing sounds and manipulating presets according to the setlist. If he wanted to do something different, I was watching for that and seeing where it could go.
The Synclavier we bought was a $250,000 instrument and the setup required you to turn on the disc drives in a certain order to make it work. We were doing a circular stage on the last tour that rotated, so all the lines had to be dropped into the center of the stage so that they weren’t twisting. The rotations had to be calculated so that none of the cables would twist up too much and pull down a $250,000 instrument.
Then, as the show moved on, it was similar to my beginning work with “Drums” and “Space” in that I was changing sounds, making sure that Stevie was comfortable and that the right sound came up on the right keyboard at the right time. I was also making sure that the house engineer was finding the sounds usable in the hall. But at that time, I was not altering the outcome of the performance.
What did Merl Saunders hear at the Grammys in 1985 [where Wonder appeared with Herbie Hancock, Thomas Dolby and Howard Jones] that led him to approach you about working on The Twilight Zone?
He wanted the sounds of these new synths. He initially asked me to set him up in that context. Then, at times, when things got stuck, I’d start to write cues and he’d go, “OK, that works.” But I also helped him integrate the Grateful Dead into the scores when they weren’t there because they were on the road a lot. I sampled members of the band who were interested in doing that.
I remember having a wonderful time with Bobby in an iso room that had him mic’d. He had headphones on, and I could talk to him, so we started sampling. At first, we created sections of scales so we could make a keyboard of Bobby Weir sounds. If you played a scale, it would have his muted sounds. But it didn’t feel like The Twilight Zone. So after I had those recorded, I asked him, “Can we try something else?” He agreed because he’s a totally open guy, and I said, “Bobby, play the sound of the first view of the coffin.” He played this totally Bob Weir out-there sound— one of these ambient things that just bends at the end—and it was perfect. So I started making up these little scenes for him to play and it seemed like that was way more useful. I figured that we could lay them in at some point, even if it might not be the first view of the coffin. That was where you could feel The Twilight Zone come into the score.
Do you think that experience helped pave the way for your later work with Bob on songs such as “Picasso Moon” or “Easy Answers?”
The seeds did get planted but Barlow also was a big supporter. We wrote together early on, while I was still working with Stevie—maybe we met through The Twilight Zone. The three of us wrote a song called “Photon Bop” that never saw the light of day. I don’t remember it very well, but Barlow said, “No, it was good.” [Laughs.] I was setting up drum grooves and creating little parts and doing stuff to make it easy for Bobby to write. So that was the initial phase that sort of led him to open the door for writing together, but that was long before I had started working with the Grateful Dead as a band.
At the end of The Twilight Zone, I went to Japan with Stevie, and we did a couple of other high-tech projects and a couple of studio things. But then, while we were taking a break and having had the experience with The Twilight Zone, the Grateful Dead called me to orchestrate sounds for In the Dark. They wanted me to bring all that sonic technology and these keyboard sounds to the record, which was fun. A lot of it was Brent overdubs and Mickey overdubs.
Mickey and I connected immediately with The Twilight Zone because he was the sound designer while Merl was the musical director. Mickey’s approach to sound design is completely musical, but it has that kind of avantgarde foundation that he did in “Drums”—The Beam, the Tibetan prayer bowls and that kind of sonic thing, which was certainly up my alley.
With the Brent keyboard sounds, it was a matter of coming up with the sounds that they asked me for. I remember a significant moment in our relationship was during “Touch of Grey.” Brent did these overdubs with a number of different sounds, then he’d look at Jerry and they’d both shake their head, “No, this isn’t happening.” Then when they had sort of exhausted their ideas, I told them that I’d like to try something. Jerry told me to go for it—it’s that kind of Calliope plucked-bell sound that is all over the track, but is pronounced in the very beginning. I think that was the first time they saw that I could not only give them what they were asking for, but I could also contribute a sound that fit the sonic landscape they were painting.
Can you talk about your work during “Drums” and the eventual transition to your participation during “Space?”
I was working with Mickey on The Twilight Zone. Mickey jumps all over technology; he loves it. But I also made sure Brent was happy.
Then, after we did In the Dark, they asked me to go and try to make those sounds happen onstage for this stadium tour they were doing with Bob Dylan. I said, “Great, I’d love to do that.” So they contracted me for those months. Then after the tour, I went to a meeting with the band on folding chairs in this little room in the back of the Victorian in San Rafael.
I said, “Hey guys, this is the end of my contract. I’d love to keep working with you. It’s been a lot of fun, I’ve learned a lot. What do you think?” Then the band went around the room and every single member said, “I want to work with you.” The last person was Billy. He said, “I want to work with you, so hang out as long as you’re having a good time.” That was the only job description that I ever had. [Laughs.]
Now that I was aware everyone wanted some of this technology, I kept presenting things to each of them. The first place they would explore it was “Drums” and “Space.” That was where they would figure out how to control the sound or give me critiques— “When I stop playing, it hangs on a little too long. Can you shorten it?” or “The attack is a little slow.” They would experiment with that stuff in the free-form section before they’d pull it into songs, like the flute on “Bird Song.”
Meanwhile, I was also programming drum sequences. It felt like Mickey was always ending “Drums” with the Beam, with this long drone that was kind of the same every night. So I started putting these ambient kind of drones behind him that would sustain the feel of the drone and Mickey could play on top of it. I did it very subtly at first, then Mickey asked me to turn it up, so I knew he was digging it and we could go on from there. I kept changing things and turning them into something else. There were all sorts of things in there, like bird calls. One day, I went out and sampled the Central Park Merry-Go-Round and then threw it into a show. So that started developing and Mickey could leave the stage whenever he wanted, while there was still something going on.
I was playing that stuff and then I would get out of the way of the frontline guys as soon as I saw them moving out. I didn’t want to interfere with them, so I faded myself out and let them start from zero, the way it had been happening before my time.
Then, one day, I had the Beam droning and I was doing some sort of rhythmic thing. I had a 48-input console just for electronic drums and there were some tones in there that I was playing. Phil would typically go back into Jerry’s tent and talk about what was to come, then walk behind me and head out. That day, Phil lifted up one ear of my headphones and yelled, “Keep playing!” [Laughs.]
So again, I had received permission. It was like, “OK, they’re finding this interesting and fun to play to.” They would get a chance to tune up and I could crossfade to their performance and not pull out to zero. Instead, I could fade out after they’d get going, and had figured out whatever it was they wanted to say.
That’s when things mushroomed for me creatively. I was doing drum sequences, I was programming other people’s sounds and now I was also playing this segue. It was really fun, and in a Grateful Dead show, when you do something that the crowd responds to, it’s a thrill.
When Vince Welnick joined the band, you became even more involved as a creative collaborator. What sparked that new role?
As great a keyboard player as he was, Vince was not really a technical guy. When the band was hosting auditions, I was hosting the keyboard rigs. I would set them up however they wanted. I told people that I could set them up with sounds the way that Brent had played. Vince asked me to set up for Brent’s rig and I made sure he was comfortable before each tune, and knew what his options were. He got the gig so I guess he believed in me to some extent. So that evolved because he had enough to worry about in terms of learning the material.
Sticking with the auditions for a moment, although you set up Vince’s rig so it was similar to Brent’s rig, there was no B3?
No, that was Jerry’s decision. Perhaps it was something that he couldn’t deal with in the sense that Brent was an amazing B3 player. He just got so much juice out of that box—it was amazing. So it may have been that Jerry just felt like he couldn’t go to that place or he wanted to update it. It’s a very difficult instrument with Leslies and all that, though we ended up using Leslies to put in the synthetic B3, and we ended up doing some stuff with draw bars.
Meanwhile, you were also programming one of Vince’s pedals. How did that function?
He had a couple of pedals that were standard, that never changed the whole show. Then there was a pedal where I was allowed to do anything I wanted to, and he would use it or not use it. So I could orchestrate it as the song went on. He could be playing piano, and I could add strings, bell tones, vocal choir samples or something like that so that each verse might be a little different. I could essentially know if he approved, if I could hear it in the mix.
Was he listening live on the fly to whatever you were putting in?
Yes, but he could always pull it out. He could put it at a very low level and hear it, and then pull it out if he didn’t like it. But there was a lot of trust. Vince and I got along great. We did a lot of work together after the Grateful Dead, and it was always fun. He used to come by here and hang out for three or four days and we’d just write nonstop.
During this era, you produced Infrared Roses, building on the sounds of “Drums” and “Space.” What sort of charge did you give yourself as you were creating it?
I initially went to every member of the band, and I asked them if I could make a record of “Drums” and “Space” because my material was being used there. Everyone told me to go for it.
I decided not to listen to anything before my time because it seemed presumptuous. So I set that cutoff date and I listened to all of that material. Dick Latvala was fantastic in giving me excerpts. I just listened to cassettes and made notes— “Three minutes in, Jerry does something that’s pretty interesting with a flute sound” or “Phil has got this great feel going on in this section.”
Then I would go back, and within 15 seconds I’d find that spot, which was reassuring because it meant that not only was I excited about it during the first listening, but it was also memorable enough that the next time it came by, I recognized it right away again.
I would grab things that I thought were cool and make them thematic. It opens with a crowd sculpture from the parking lots. There is also a deconstruction of “Uncle John’s Band,” where all you hear is that last seven, then it all falls apart into this wonderful direction. “Sparrow Hawk Row” is the sound of an audience member being sampled and played back by Dan [Healy]. “Silver Apples of the Moon” is Bruce and Vince from the inside of “Dark Star.” As I put it all together, there were three sections to each movement—I often do triptychs and I’m a big believer in three parts—so it had a very thematic quality.
There is a similar thematic quality to the music of Dose Hermanos, even if it arrives through improvisation. When did you first meet Tom and initially perform with him?
I saw him backstage a couple of times at Bay Area concerts and he seemed like a cheery fellow. He’s an unmistakable character. He looks like he’s right out of Yellow Submarine.
By this point, I was in the band Second Sight with my pal Henry [Kaiser] and he said, “You know who’d be great to sit in with us? Tom.” I didn’t really know him, but Henry had his number, so I gave Tom a call and he was up for it.
Then I invited him to Club Front to go over the songs that we were going to play. I set up two keyboards, and when we’d go over a tune, we couldn’t stop jamming. The jams were different than with anybody I’d ever played with before—full of these references we both knew. He’d go, “Oh, that sounds a little like Bartok,” and I’d go, “It sure does. I’m using one of his scales.” Then he’d play something and I’d say, “Wow, that’s kind of Stravinsky-like,” and he’d say, “Yeah, it’s from ‘The Firebird.’” So there was rock-and-roll and all this other stuff, too.
We played the gig together and it worked out great but I didn’t really see him again until Jerry’s funeral. We were all devastated and he leaned over to me and said, “You know how to get through this, Bob?” I said, “Tom, I have no idea.” And he said, “You play through this. That’s the only way. You have to play through this.” So a week or two later, I called him up and I said, “You want to play?” He came over and Dose Hermanos started.