captain beefheart electricity


history - interview band memberflits


from e-zine usa 16 december 1997 HI-FI MUNDO vol.1 #2, 28 january 1998 #3 and 15 march 1998 #4
by alex duke & rob denunzio
is november 1997 interview BILL HARKLEROAD

note: adapted from the original published by a now defunct e-zine

THIS is part 1 - part 2 - part 3 - part 4 - part 5


bill harkleroad a.k.a. zoot horn rollo was a guitarist for captain beefheart in what many consider to be one of the greatest rock bands of all time. moreover he took part in beefheart's magnum opus, 'trout mask replica'. in his capacity of beefheart guitarist he opened for and played in front of many of rocks more well known legends, and in 1990 made it into 'spin' magazine's list of the top thirty-five guitar gods (beating out the likes of brian may, thurston moore, and eddie van halen).

now, after many years of a quiet life filled with guitar lessons, golf games, and a regular job he is at the forefront of a musical renaissance. we at hi-fi mundo recently sat down for what we thought would be a small dialogue about improvisation and related subjects. as you will quickly see the interview exploded into a fascinating cornucopia of musical fun.

i guess we should explain the topic, which is improvisation - regarding groups versus individuals...

you mean as a solo player?

yeah, versus working within a group.

interesting that you're choosing me.

is that not a good category?

the reason i'm asking is because all the captain beefheart stuff was not improvised, none of it was.

so how did that work, starting with ‘trout mask replica’.

eighty percent of it was done by him kind of beating the shit out of a piano, in a rhythmic sense, and having no idea what any of those black and white things were on the piano. and john french, the drummer, transcribed it, notated it all, and would dole out the parts to the players. so he had a concept of being away from tonality, but using rhythm as the main input, because that's what he had to offer, right - being a non-musician.

so john would transcribe it, and then in the process of us working with john to get the parts, you know, when there were seven notes, you'd scratch your head and say: 'well, how do i do seven notes with six strings?' so then we would invert things and mess around, and try to keep it as close to what he played - for what reason, to tell you the truth, i'm not sure, because he didn't know what he played after he played it.

so when you were working on the parts, was he there, or did he just sort of...

no, he would bang the parts out and go to bed and sleep.

so you would figure out how to do it, and then he would come back, and then you would all record it?

no, then we would practice it for nine months.

so would he come around and tell you if you were on the right track?

not as clean as that. again, we're dealing with a strange person, coming from a place of being a sculptor / painter, using music as this idiom. he was getting more into that part of who he was, as opposed to this blues singer, ok? so you're asking the right question, but it's not an easy answer, right? it's not a normal situation.

we would get these parts, and they would string together. usually the tempo would be consistent, because he would be writing parts to go together, so that the pulse at least, three against four, or whatever the rhythm was, would be similar. i don't know if you have listened to that album enough to know how the parts would go - like you would play your part four times, go to the next section, the next may be three, or whatever.

usually, we would figure that out, he was not a part of that process at all, he waited until there was a whole thing there, and then he would kind of sculpt it afterwards. but if my part took three times to repeat and your part took five times until we touched down again, that's how long you played the part, or you would cut it in half, if it came out cool, or whatever. but he was not a part of that process.

the whole band just kind of did whatever, to have it come out right. at that point, then you would go into the next section and work it out. any of the tunes that had repeats in them, he would go: 'oh, that's cool! let's do it here again'. he might whistle a line, he was an expert whistler. just awesome. he could sit there and blow smoke rings while he was whistling.


captain beefheart concert - early
                            december 1970 the bitter end west, west
                            hollywood, usa - bill harkleroad / zoot horn
live at the bitter end west, west hollywood, usa, early december 1970

it was like a magic show (everybody laughs). but i mean - be-be-du-be-de-du-be-de-ba-da-du-ba-da-du-ba-da-du, i mean he would just whistle like that. pretty cool. so we would work off the whistling lines for single line melodies and things like that, but the parts were all just chiseled out - again, about eighty percent of it, because there was a lot of other accidental things, like just a blues tune with a cassette deck like this, and he just started looking through poetry, creating songs.

so then when you went to play live, did you just try to play what you had worked on?

we did more than try, we did. exactly the same thing, every night. very much so, we were amazingly the same every time. the only thing that would change was, however nervous we were, the tempos would go up, of course. in that time of the band, it was rote.

did that change during the time you were with him?

it evolved through all the albums, yeah. each album it changed. so if we were to take 'trout mask replica', that's how it happened, other than the phone call, where he did 'the blimp'. i don't know if you're familiar with that.


ok, that ['backing music' - t.t.] was from roy estrada and art tripp, who were part of the mothers of invention, and what it was frank zappa in the studio, working on a track, and then don called up and had jeff cotton recite the poem, and frank was smart enough to go and record it. and that was similar to the song 'hair pie: bake one', where we're practicing in the living room, thinking that we're rehearsing, and they're out in the weeds playing the horn: 'oh! that's a take!'.

so, those tunes were accidents, but for twenty-one or twenty-two of them we went in and did all first takes, except maybe a couple of false starts, in the studio. on the second album, 'lick my decals off, baby', i was the guy who took all of the parts off the tape deck, wrangled them around, fixed them up a little, and fucked with them, and a couple of times played them backwards, just to see if anybody would pick up on it - nobody did (laughs).

so was it a situation where he just slowly gave up control?

no, changed. he had total control - of course, where he didn't know he had control or wasn't there to control it, it would be changed to make it playable. but each album, the process changed. if you listen to the total out-thereness of 'trout mask replica', like free form, but memorized free form, to reproduce that weird experiment every time. the next one was a little more coherent, 'the spotlight kid' was: 'ok, we want to make more money, we need better record deals, so now we're gonna do this blues stuff'.

that was the most horrible time in the band, by far. if you listen to it, the structure of the tunes were all good ideas, he stood out. but the tempos, he had gotten these things, these tunes going without ever playing with us. so when it came down to us playing with the vocal, he couldn't get it together, so the tempos got down to this zombie state.

i mean, i hate that album. it sucks. but, if you were away from it, maybe some of the tunes had some real creativity to them, i'm sure they did. if you listen to the laborious - do you remember 'the night of the living dead' [a horror movie]?: 'morgan, morgan! (in zombie-like tone)' - that's what it was like. if you listen to it, it was very zombie-like, we were just beat to shit.

so, before he came into the studio, all those songs were much more up-tempo?

no, no, in the process of doing that album, it was: 'slow down, i want to have time to do my lyrics'. if you listen to that album, the voice is here, and there's this little, tiny band behind it somewhere. his ego got even bigger at that point. which is fine, i mean, it was his show, i'm not putting him down for it. but it was excruciating to live with the day to day stuff. and the big concept, i understood that, but him trying to get us to do that, and still not letting us play more free-form things.

i was really saying: 'well, let me just play some stuff there', 'no, you'll play dee-nee-nee-nee', you know, the parts were really kind of cheesy in a lot of places. so, he controlled that and really - we're gonna play more coherent music, and the tempos are gonna be down. and he got what he wanted, to a drastic degree.

the concept of the tunes is pretty cool, you know - 'blabber 'n' smoke', and all these different things, 'grow fins' - i mean that's cool stuff. those are cool images, his poetry is strong. but as far as the questions you're asking me, the album sucked.


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