DON'T ARGUE WITH
history - interview band member
BEHIND THE TROUT MASK
from usa 1 january 1990
THIS is PART 1 - part 2
the compact disc explosion has led to periods of rediscovery and re-evaluation for artists great and not-so-great, usually orchestrated by some entertainment conglomerate with maximum returns in mind. not so with captain beefheart and the magic band. by some fortuitous twist of fate, spring of 1989 found three different labels releasing three of the group's early masterworks within weeks of each other.
'safe as milk' appeared coupled with most of 'mirror man' on the pair reissue label and enigma retro came out with 'lick my decals off, baby', while warner bros dusted off 'trout mask replica', the captain's most notorious, far-reaching offering.
of course these days don van vliet
captain beefheart) isn't promoting his music in
the least, preferring a
rural existence devoted to painting over the
creative end of the rock 'n'
in his musical heyday, of course, van vliet and his magic band were responsible for some of the most adventurous excursions into the nether regions of rock ever set down on vinyl. several former magic band members are still active, and none more so than drummer/guitarist/vocalist john 'drumbo' french, the captain's right-hand man, off-and-on, from 1966 to 1980.
like van vliet, french grew up in
california, in the desert north of los angeles. he
played with future magic
band members jeff cotton [in 'the exiles' - t.t.]
and mark boston [in 'blues in a bottle'] in local
ensembles, performing beatles / stones / yardbirds
/ animals material at high
school dances. but on the side, he was listening
to some jazz and experimenting
with rhythms that contrasted with the ubiquitous
two and four of rock 'n' roll.
the loan of a bass drum pedal provided an introduction to the captain, who was already aware of his talents; the invitation to move into a house where john coltrane, ornette coleman and howlin' wolf platters were regularly on the turntable wasn't long in coming.
after exiting the magic band for
time in '80, french laid low, concentrating
primarily on his own projects,
but he burst upon the scene again in '87 via a
pair of collaborations with
guitar pioneer henry kaiser: 'live, love, larf and
loaf' and 'crazy backwards
'live, love, larf and loaf' was a four-way feast for the ears, featuring noted british musicians richard thompson and fred frith, in addition to french and kaiser. after three-and-a-half days of intensive rehearsals and a couple of warm-up concerts, it was cut mostly live in the studio and contains an outrageous range of material, from blues and beach boys covers to a drum solo to several of thompson's folk-rock extensions.
french's contribution to the first
backwards alphabet project (with bassist andy west
and drummer / vocalist
michael maksymenko) was initially going to be
limited to one song, but
after he complained to kaiser about the planned
inclusion of some beefheart
material, another session's worth of tunes was
cut, including french's
first songwriting venture with kaiser cohort bob
french also penned a pair of instrumentals in the vein of 'trout mask replica'-era material, and was somewhat dismayed to find out that some people assumed he was borrowing heavily from his old boss.
in all his interviews don said that he wrote all the parts and taught everybody everything; he took total credit for it. at the time he was doing it, i knew it was a lie, but i didn't say anything about it because i didn't think it was important. now that i look back on it and see what the critics are saying, i see that it is that important, so i have to say something.
how did the material and arrangements come together for 'trout mask replica', and what was your role on the album besides your drumming?
at that point in time, don went to
zappa and said: 'help me, please, i want to do an
art statement: i'm sick
of doing commercial music'. i guess he thought
that's what 'mirror man'
i saw don developing the attitude of
not buying my albums, so i've gotta get weirder'.
when he decided to do
'trout mask replica', he ordered a beat-up old piano
with mirrors on it,
from the 1940s, and had it delivered to the house.
the way don used to write music was he would tell you to record something really quickly - the only problem was that don never bought any tapes. so you would know that maybe there was an empty spot on reel number five, but you couldn't get to it fast enough. i wound up erasing stuff he had already written, so i finally decided we had to do this another way.
one day, i just started writing the
down while he was playing, and that's how 'trout
mask replica' came together.
he would play the parts, i would write them down -
and it took a hell of
a lot longer than eight-and -a-half hours (laughing),
what he says.
it took me that long to play each part once. he had to play them for me; i had to write them down; then i had to check to make sure i had written them correctly. he would give me between twenty and thirty parts and say: 'now, that's one song'. when i would ask how he wanted me to put it together, he would say: 'well, you know how to do that'.
now, these parts were in different key
because don knows nothing technical about music,
nothing about sharps or
flats or what note he is playing. it was all
instinctive and by ear. so
i had to take this material and figure out which
had five note chords - you couldn't play something
like that on a four-string
bass, for instance. i had to put the parts in some
sort of order, arrange
them, teach them to the guys, and tell everybody how
many times to play
each part. that's what i did for almost a year.
how did don communicate drum parts to you?
we had three different ways of doing
he would sing parts to me - it sounded really funny,
but it worked. then
sometimes he would try to play. don was pretty
coordinated, and he could
communicate simple ideas that way.
also, i wrote a lot of my own drums
parts, a good seventy percent, i would say. i knew
they were going to be impossible
to play, so i just worked on them really hard.
sometimes i spent hours
working on one measure of a drum beat. of course it
would be repeated several
times, but to get the groove right, to get it so
that it was like second
nature, i had to do it over and over.
did the other members of the magic band read music or did you have to play it to them too?
bill harkleroad (aka zoot horn rollo) did. jeff cotton (aka antennae jimmy semens) and mark boston (aka rockette morton) didn't. i actually played all their parts to them because i wanted to make sure that it was right and i felt that one person should be responsible, rather than having everybody have access to the music. i sort of kept it to myself and said: 'let me do this or it will get all screwed up'.
we rehearsed the album by putting all
instruments through one silvertone amplifier, which
was set on a chair
behind me so i could hear it. we were poor. we all
lived together; we all
slept in the living room because the only other
bedroom in the house besides
the one don had, was taken up with musical cases and
boxes. i wondered
what kind of situation could exist so that you could
teach the band an
album's worth of material over a year.
basically, don's mother supported the band for that year: she paid the rent. then about halfway through that, frank started giving advances, but i can remember some hungry times. there's a lot of bad memories from that period of time because don would accuse people of trying to sabotage the music or not being into it or not being interested. he would go on and on about it.
we could have done that album in six
and done it better if don wouldn't have said
anything and just realized
we all wanted to do it, or we wouldn't have been
there. but at the same
time, he had a huge amount of creative energy: he
was just a powerhouse.
he did a lot of his creating during that time. he
was using that stuff
for years, even on his last album.
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW HOW THIS ENDS, CLICK CLACK TO PAGE TWO