Ned Lagin :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Ned Lagin is a little wary about discussing the Grateful Dead

Over the last handful of decades, the 72-year-old has talked a lot about the time he spent with the band. The synthesist estimates he spent about eight hours recounting his experiences contributing to the American Beauty and Blues For Allah sessions and playing keyboards during 1974’s summer tour to author David Gans for the the expanded edition of Conversations with the Dead. And there’s an entire section of his personal website that goes into detail about how he fell in with the Dead in 1970 and, for the next five years, fell into and out of their orbit.

As much as Lagin doesn’t want to dive deep into that time, he acknowledges that the Dead were key in the development and eventual release of his debut album Seastones, an third eye tickling lp of experimental electronic music, was originally issued by Round Records, a label co-run by Jerry Garcia, and is being reissued by Important Records for the first Record Store Day Drop on August 29th. 

Lagin began composing Seastones during his time at MIT, building off of his love of free jazz and his studies of Renaissance music. But it took firmer shape through jams and recording sessions with various members of the Dead (Garcia, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh) and other Bay Area luminaries like David Crosby and Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick. Lagin had further time to expand and hone his pieces on the Dead’s ’74 tour, as he and Lesh would occasionally play segments of it live during set breaks. 

Much of the material is built on the sounds of an impressive keyboard array that included a Fender Rhodes 88, Clavichord, and early analog synthesizers, and a pair of microcomputers. Lagin also folded in guitars, vocals, and some percussion—all fed into and processed by his elaborate recording setup. What came out of these various sessions sounds,  at various times, akin to Pierre Henry’s musique concrète work or the cosmic compositions of Tangerine Dream.

The original Seastones release and this new reissue has a touch of bittersweetness to it. While an expanded version of the album is available on CD through Lagin’s website, all of his other recorded work from the time was destroyed in the widespread flooding in the Bay Area in 1982. Too, the release of the original lp marked the end of his association with the Dead. Disillusioned with the growing influence of money and fame on the entire Bay Area scene, Lagin stopped playing music, spending the next few decades in the tech industry and working on his visual art.

Lagin isn’t done, however. He’s released new music recently and promises that more is on the way, including a batch of live and studio work from the Seastones years that he is still fine-tuning. “I hate to say something like it’s my mission in life,” he says, “but you’re supposed to complete the things that you do.”  | r ham

Aquarium Drunkard: Reading the bio on your website, you get into the details of how you became interested in electronics, through building a crystal radio. When did that evolve into realizing the potential of electronics for making music? 

Ned Lagin: It was a large amount of time, actually. I started when I was a kid—like five or six years old, doing science and music and electronics. I was building all sorts of imaginary and real circuits. I built my first oscilloscope when I was 11. I didn’t really find out about electronic music until I was probably a senior in high school. Then when I started studying music at MIT, I discovered mostly European electronic music. It was natural for me to get more interested in that. 

AD: This was running parallel to the time when you were playing jazz and writing more traditional classical music? 

Ned Lagin: Absolutely. Because I grew up on Long Island, when I was old enough I started going to they city by myself to museums and art galleries. Eventually I could stay into the evening and see the first set at jazz clubs. I saw the great players and met some of them. Jazz was natural for me because at the time I was learning show music and, at the point, jazz musicians were improvising on film music and pop music. So I naturally moved in that direction. 

AD: When did you start making electronic music of your own? 

Ned Lagin: The definitive course that I had at MIT was a course on 20th century music, which dealt with instrumental music and vocal music. By the time I was sophomore or junior, I had assimilated both jazz and [classical] music compositionally. That set the stage for using new tools. I grew up in a time when it was the atomic age and the television age and the transistor age. It was an explosion of new ideas, new tools, new technology. Given my background, it was one I was drawn to.

AD: Were there electronic instruments and equipment that you were able to use or were you mostly building and buying your own gear? 

Ned Lagin: There were circuits that I built myself. The first real compositions that I had performed at the MIT Chapel was eight-track, and the major compositions tool were tape recorders. I could play sounds that I had recorded or sounds that I took off records and play them at different speeds. It was a stratigraphic-layered assemblage, eventually having four two-track machines playing an eight-track piece with close but not accurate synchronization. 

AD: You also talk about some of the equipment that you used as you were developing Seastones—the Interdata computer and the Altair 8800. Were those easy to come by at the time or did that take some work to track those down or, at least, pay for them? 

Ned Lagin: These were easy to find computers. At the time, they cost a lot of money. The Grateful Dead actually paid for a good deal of it, but not all of it. To give you an idea: the Interdata had 16 kilobytes of magnetic core memory. This was prior to when I could afford a video terminal, which at that point was 80 characters, ASCII, amber screen. But I had a teletype, which was technology that went back to the late 1800s—mechanical keyboard, paper tape. You had to write your own code on paper and enter it in on a little hexadecimal keypad in machine code. It was just torturous. By today’s standards, you have more power in your refrigerator. 

The Altair came along in 1975. It was on the cover of Popular Electronics, which I had read avidly since I was a child. I ordered one—I had #116—that I had to add a surplus keyboard to. It started out with 256 kilobytes of RAM and got gradually enlarged. You could write machine code to sequence pulses and generate tones. Simple stuff. And you could use it to control analog hardware. One of things that it did was work as a drum machine. I created a project years earlier that did electronic bongos, which were analog circuits that were resonant filters, that if you hit them with a pulse or gain or trigger, they would make a sound. I could use the Altair create sounds but I could also use it to create a sequence of gates and triggers that could control other hardware that I had, including the interface for the E-mu [synthesizer]. 

AD: When it came to recording the material that was on Seastones, you had a number of guests contributing to it. Was this is a case where anyone was welcome to come in and jam with you or were you seeking out particular people and sounds? 

Ned Lagin: It was the latter. One of the things that was true in 1970 that was no longer true by ’74 or ’75 was that the musical world in California was sort of like the Mount Olympus of players and performers. And they were all open. So Garcia played on Crosby albums and on Airplane albums and vice versa. I met all these people from jamming with them in the studio or at Mickey Hart’s ranch. I entered that world when it was still a very open world. It wasn’t random. They were given, in some cases, very abstract scores or direction to which they added their own input. Then the final mixing and assembly was done by me, restoring or superimposing the compositional intent. Seastones was always a mobile form—being able to play these pieces in a different order—because of my interest in free jazz, but also because you had different personalities and musical identities. 

AD: Reading the history of this work, it seems that it took some convincing to get you to present this material live. Is that true or did you always have it mind to perform Seastones

Ned Lagin: It was always planned in some way or other. There’s a history of strategizing and re-strategizing how to get the music out there. How I could make a living doing that. Even though there was no expectation that it would be an economic success. Seastones and the group would have grown into other places. All of the musicians who played on it had very solid identities and liked to get out of their identities. That was true for Grace, for Crosby, for Garcia. 

AD: Something you’ve talked about regarding those live performances and recording this material was how much outside events, in particular the Vietnam War, affected the work. As you listen to this material today, do you still hear that? 

Ned Lagin: Oh absolutely. When we did the middle sets at Grateful Dead shows, only some of them were Seastones. Some were other music and some were free playing on a theme that I would establish with Phil or with Jerry. I would talk to Jerry about the fact that we were playing to these happy, ecstatic audiences at the same time that we were fighting a war. This is not to be critical of the audience but there was somewhat of a disconnect between the audience and what was going on in the world. So Seastones brought that back to earth. 

AD: You’ve talked about the mobile aspect of Seastones and how having the music on CD or in digital form allows listeners to get closer to your intent of letting the pieces play randomly through shuffle mode. That’s something you won’t get with this new vinyl release. It’s stuck in one order. Is that disappointing on some level?

Ned Lagin: Without claiming to be an inventor or an innovator to any high degree, I preceded the concept of shuffle and playlist by decades. The way I listened to music or played music on the piano was playing things in different order and different times depending on what you wanted to hear and how you felt. So it was natural to have music that was composed with many different beginnings and endings and middles. We were limited to doing LPs, so the version that came out in 1975 was just one possible sequence. People thought it was the definitive sequence but it wasn’t. 

AD: You walked away from music for some time. Were you making music all the while or was this something you had to work your way back into slowly? 

Ned Lagin: I had to work my way back in. When I walked away from the Grateful Dead in ’75 or ’76, I didn’t do or even listen to music for, I guess, 15 years. Around 1990, I ran into Phil and he said that Jerry wants to make things right and release Seastones and move forward. We talked and I decided to not go backwards. Rykodisc released it and I did one or two interviews and then continued to disappear. But I still wasn’t doing music or anything. I was doing photography and visual arts. 

I only returned to music in 2004 or 2005 that I would get the Seastones tapes transferred before they dissolved. I really didn’t start working on the re-release of Seastones until 2008 or 2009. Seastones was, personally, a tremendous achievement but it was also a tremendous heartbreak. Most people because of the protection of the Grateful Dead by their audience, they never report on the dark side of things. I had been in music since I was five or six years old, playing and practicing for hours every day. Walking away was a very hard thing to do. I left because I couldn’t survive. 

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