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Plundering The Grateful Dead

Deadheads have always loved "Dark Star," one of the Grateful Dead's most out-there live jams. In the mid-90s, Canadian avant garde composer John Oswald mixed and layered together 100 live recordings of the band playing it, condensing 40 hours into a wild, 107-minute result known as Grayfolded. 20 years later, it's being released on vinyl for the first time as a three-LP set, but here's our original coverage on Grayfolded's creation, from the December, 1995 issue of Pro Sound News.

Long before the mashup became a cultural touchstone, there was Plunderphonics, the brainchild of John Oswald, a Canadian avant garde composer who would create dense musical works by stacking different musical works on top of each other—a process he called “folding.” One of his best-known efforts was the 1994-95 composition, Grayfolded, which mixed together 100 live recordings of the Grateful Dead jamming through “Dark Star” in concert.

Creating such a project today would be intimidating, but given the technical limitations of DAWs and computers at the time, the fact that he pulled it off is all the more amazing. Released in two parts between 1994 and 1995 on CD, the experimental work is now being released on vinyl for the first time as a three-LP set on Important Records. Digging back through the PSN archives, here’s my coverage of how the project was created, from the December, 1995 issue of Pro Sound News.

Although there have been numerous live releases by The Grateful Dead, most Deadheads insist that the “true essence” of a Dead show can’t be captured on tape. They speak in obscure terms, saying that “time and space stand still and you’re in a different place.” Whether it’s music or something else which magically takes them there is open to debate, but composer/“plunderer” John Oswald has attempted to make the same thing happen with his recent two-CD set, Grayfolded.

The pair of CDs contains The Grateful Dead performing a 107-minute version of one song, “Dark Star.” Part of the Dead’s repertoire since 1968, the tune has achieved legendary status among fans since it was only played occasionally and was a jumping-off point for many of the group’s most experimental jams, some lasting as long as 55 minutes. When bassist Phil Lesh learned about Oswald’s “Plunderphonics” technique of deconstructing and reconfiguring recorded music, he contacted the composer and set in motion the events that led to Grayfolded.

The Plunderphonics technique is based on a “folding” process, as Oswald refers to it, where recorded music is cut into pieces and then they are layered on top of each other, creating intricate, dense music. “The folding effect, the overall effect, is that the whole thing has been accordioned. I’ll most often take something like a 12-minute performance, edit it and overlap it into something that’s two- or three-minutes long. The information is more condensed,” said Oswald.

To begin the process, Oswald spent 21 days in the Grateful Dead’s tape vaults, listening to 25 years worth of “Dark Star” live recordings. “I gathered material on the fly. Anytime that I found something interesting, I would back up a bit and dub that. Dick Latvala, the Grateful Dead’s archivist, and I were more or less going chronologically from the earliest recordings up to ones that were coming in just as we were finishing up. We’d get a DAT tape from New York that had been performed just two days before as we were wrapping up collecting the things in the vaults, so it was anything from 1968 to 1993. It was sometimes a bit dismaying for Dick Latvala and John Cutler, the Grateful Dead’s producer, because they’d come in and I’d be sitting there, happily listening to performances at double-speed and they couldn’t figure out how I could be appreciating ‘the essence of the Dead,’ let’s say, given those listening conditions. I have a bit of practice at that,” Oswald noted dryly.

The band was away on tour while Oswald ventured through the tapes, so he only received input from Latvala and Cutler: “I found Dick’s opinion quite entertaining; we’d put on a tape, and he’d say, ‘Oh yeah! That’s killer Dead! That’s one of the classics!’ And that happened almost inevitably, whatever tape we put on.”

Leaving the vaults with 40 hours worth of “Dark Star” dubbed on to DAT tapes, Oswald retreated to his Mystery Lab in Toronto, where he created the first disc of Grayfolded, entitled Transitive Axis. Working on a modified ProTools platform with about 6 GB of hard disk space, Oswald and assistant Phil Strong worked with the material for three months during the winter of 1993-94. Using his Folding techniques, Oswald created guitar solos that began in the late ’60s and ended in 1993; ‘duets’ between band members and themselves, and massive choruses of young and old Jerry Garcias singing lyrics.

Oswald and Strong made their way through the tapes, including many early recordings made by road crew members who doubled as stage mixers. The crew hadn’t been attentive to the tapes, so many would be cut off mid-song by the end of a tape or were mixed poorly. Still, these were recyclable: “You’d have a particular recording that sounds like a cowbell concerto, because the cowbell is much louder than anything else. But something like that can be useful in this sort of orchestral, multi-layered approach that I’m using. For instance, I have a performance with really loud cowbell, and I have another performance with really loud guitar on it, and they both happen to be moving along at the same tempo. I can combine those two, and it sounds like, ‘Oh yeah, here’s the cowbell player playing with the guitar player’; that’s kind of interesting in that it’s an odd relationship that they seem to be having. So in some cases, I was building up bands from disparate parts. The cowbell could have been from 1969 and the guitar could have been from 1990. But all this was being taken from two-track tapes, rather than from multi-tracks where I would have a greater ability to access those particular voices.”

As the project progressed, it became apparent that a single CD would not hold the final version of the song, necessitating a second disc. The first half, then, became a musical cliffhanger, and was released on its own in the Summer of 1994. The second CD, Mirror Ashes, was completed in May 1995, and the two halves were then released as the completed Grayfolded.

Since then, the album has received a fair amount of praise, particularly from Deadheads, many of whom feel that the “time and space stand still”-factor has finally been preserved on a live Dead record. Oswald felt he accomplished this through using Folding to keep the band’s improvisations fresh: “I was attempting [to maintain] the sense that extraordinary things could happen because nobody really knew what was going to happen next. On a record, eventually you always know what’s going to happen next if you play it more than once. One of the reasons that Grayfolded is so dense, is that if you go through it many times, you start discovering other things that you’d miss on one listen. So the overall intent was just to make a great Grateful Dead record, and it seemed that the way to do that was by avoiding the traditional live record.”