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DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
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BEHIND THE TROUT MASK
the groovy beat happening of john 'drumbo' french

from usa 1 january 1990 OPTION #30
by michael davis
is late 1989 interview JOHN FRENCH

THIS is PART 1 - part 2

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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 (aka 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' roll wars.

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 lancaster, 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 the last 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 alphabet'.

'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 crazy 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 adams.

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 frank 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' was. (laughs)

i saw don developing the attitude of 'well, they're 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.

captain beefheart band member john french / drumbo 1989 - picture by richard thompson
  original transcription of steal softly thru snow

one day, i just started writing the music 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), no matter 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 signatures 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 parts worked.

some things 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 it. 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 the 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 months and done it better if don wouldn't have said anything and just realized that 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.

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IF YOU WANT TO KNOW HOW THIS ENDS, CLICK CLACK TO PAGE TWO

 
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