captain beefheart electricity


history - interview band memberflits

john french

from england 1(?) october 1997 RESONANCE vol.6 #1
is 26 may 1996 england workshop JOHN FRENCH
transcribed by mike barnes

* actually the 'trout mask replica' part of a drum clinic
* similar text published earlier as (untitled) workshop john french in usa 199? website HOME PAGE REPLICA
* text included in full transcription john french. drum clinic. 26 may 96.
in england 1 november 1998 fanzine APOCALYPSO * STEAL SOFTLY THRU SNOW #7

THIS is PART 1 - part 2


one of rock history's great drummers, john 'drumbo' french, details the compositional process involved in captain beefheart's seminal 'trout mask replica' and his key role in its realisation

don van vliet (captain beefheart) usually wrote on tape recorders and then coped things for listening; unfortunately he never bought any tape, so we were always recording over things that were very important to him. i was in charge of the tape recorder - and if i erased something that he wanted to save he would scream: 'you erased that????'

it was pretty intimidating because he was nineteen stone. so one day i said: 'don i'm sorry, but the tape recorder's broken.' i think i pulled the fuse or something. i had this idea. i had bought some music paper and i'd been practising writing out rhythms, so that i could think of a rhythm and write it out quickly.

he was playing the piano a few days later and i sat behind him and just wrote down what he was playing, just to see if i could do it. he came down a little later and said: 'this looks pretty good. can you tell what i was playing?'. i said: 'yeah' and he said: 'play it for me'. so i sat at the piano and fumbled my way through it.

so on 'trout mask replica', i'd say seventy five to eighty percent was transcribed by me and then taught to the other players. the exceptions were pieces like 'china pig', 'pena' and parts of 'my human gets me blues' which were vocally transmitted to the band.

i sat at the piano all day for hours every day figuring out the next part and it got to be a little marathon. the first thing he wrote was 'dali's car' and because the electricity had gone out on the street we did that by candlelight - so the music has all this wax on it. then we did 'steal softly through snow' and 'hair pie'. the drum parts on those songs were figured out partially during rehearsal and partially by me writing it out later. i wrote a lot of my own drum parts for the album. and what i did was take the music and take the main rhythmic thrust of each instrument and try to combine it into one part.

some people were playing [in] five [beats], some sevens, some in three or four. now i knew that i wasn't going to play in three different time signatures at the same time on all these songs, but what i wanted to do was grab the essence of what the part was and make a part that would suggest tying them together - even though it was going to be a counter rhythm, just like everything else.

i always felt that i should have got some arrangement credits, but it never happened. when i asked don, i'd say: 'ok i've got all this written down, who's playing what?', he'd say: 'oh, you know what to do'.


at this time the band lived in a small house and we basically had to rehearse in one room. there was another room that somebody could go down into. everybody but me was able to practise because we had we had this neurotic neighbour who couldn't stand any noise. every time we started to practise she called the police. we had several visits from the police before i finally put cardboard on my drums.

everybody would get a part, go off and stand in the corner of the room playing their parts. i'd be sitting in the middle of the room like writing stuff out, trying to arrange paperwork. i could hear everyone playing at the same time and i'd héar someone making a mistake - that's how nuts i was! i wasn't very much good socially. i'd go out on a date and i'd be sitting there catatonic. didn't have a lot of fun in those days. didn't have a car, didn't have a lot of money. so it was tough.

i think my first concept was: 'i'll take the bass rhythm and put it on bass drum, i'll take one guitar and use cymbals and snare. i'll take the other guitar and use just toms. i'll try to put it all together, see what happens.' boy, was i sorry that i decided to do that! we're used to playing certain kinds of things, but all of a sudden i was faced with this dilemma.

captain beefheart band member
                            john french / drumbo 1989 - picture by
                            richard thompson
picture from 1989 by richard thompson

i didn't have training reading music - i had to like really look at it a long time. i thought the way to do it is to write it down, make a draft and work your butt off until you can do it. but i wanted to make it nátural, so instead of trying to change it a lot to go with all the counter rhythms that were going on i thought: 'i'll stick to one thing and try and make it groove as much as i can, so everyone's got one thing that ties in - there's an anchor there.'

when i had learnt that first beat, it was like (whispers): 'i love this, this is it, this is the culmination of what i've been trying to do all my life.' that's when i really got nuts! that was the breakthrough. when i got that far i thought: 'i can do this, i can do this for alot of things.' now i didn't get to do this as much as i would have liked, because i spent so much time transcribing, teaching other people parts and trying to duck the neurotic lady who didn't want to hear the drums.

don van vliet would try to get the band together to watch teevee, because he was a real strong one for getting everyone to do everything that he wanted to do. if he wanted to write on piano, he wanted everyone to watch him writing on piano. if everyone wasn't paying attention, he'd say: 'will you stop it?' it was hard for me to get time away from watching teevee, or being there when he was composing to write it down. or listening to him play saxophone. instead of going off somewhere and practising, don would come out and do a concert for us and we'd have to sit and listen to him play.

and of course there were several recitations a day of the lyrics, usually done by jeff cotton (aka antennae jimmy semens - t.t). he would say: 'antennae, read this for me'. he would always have everybody writing lyrics down for him too. we'd spend hours doing that.

then we would have these what i used to call 'brainwashing sessions', where he would decide that someone in the band was 'public enemy number one'. he'd centre in on them for two or three days, feed them coffee and not let them sleep until their sense of deprivation was such that they'd say: 'i'll do anything you say!'. then they'd fall apart and cry or something. i'm trying to make light of it as much as i can, but it was very emotionally disturbing to all of us and it took us a long time to get past that.

don van vliet could actually, if he sat down and just applied himself for a while - which he seldom did for anything except his writing - have been a very good drummer. the reason i say that is that he had a great sense of rhythm and great ideas. and the beat on 'ant man bee' was just him sitting down at the kit one day. on 'trout mask replica', where at a later point we didn't have time for me to write all the drum parts, he just sat down and played an idea of what he wanted.

one of the reasons that i tried to write as many parts as i could, was that it is very unchallenging to play what a non-drummer plays on drums. it's boring to play stuff over and over so i wanted something that would be more challenging. that's why i wrote a lot of my own parts. something we called the 'baby beat' was employed a lot. don would sing a part and i'd play the part with my hands and play the 'baby beat' with my feet - that seemed to give a kind of syncopation that he liked. and it was quick to learn and could be employed in songs quickly.



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