DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
history - interview band member
BEHIND TROUT MASK
from england 1(?) october 1997 RESONANCE vol.6 #1
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.
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.
picture from 1989 by richard thompson
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.
after 'trout mask replica' i left the band for a while - i won't go into that, it's a whole other story. but eventually don called me back again. he had art tripp (ed marimba) playing drums but artie could not play the parts that i'd written. he was a trained musician and a great improviser, but he didn't have that kind of technique. so don switched him to marimba and asked me to come back.
he told me things were going to be different. his picture was on the cover of rolling stone (14 may 1970 - t.t.) and he felt that i should get some of the credit and be in the band and make the money, not that they were going to go big time. so i came back into the band and they had all these songs but no drum parts. so don said: 'use the drum parts that you used on 'trout mask replica', because people will relate to that'.
the difference between the 'trout mask replica' and 'lick my decals off, baby' drum parts was that artie had two bass drums. so i used a double bass pedal. on 'doctor dark' it's both artie and me playing. it's really good fun to play with another drummer. you can do intertwining parts and he was really good at fine buzz rolls and the intricate needlework. i was good at clubbing the drums to death over these weird rhythms that no-one else wanted to take the time to play.
artie spent most of his spare time playing pool. i spent most of my spare time practising, that's why i was able to do these and he wasn't. he could probably have played them better than i had if he would have taken the time. i think that's what it boils down to: how much are you willing to put into being yourself, or expressing yourself? how much are you willing to sacrifice dating, having money, a car, or having a nice place to live and being secure, in order to do that?
at that point i didn't care. i wanted to do this more than anything else on earth. i can't say i've reaped a lot of benefits. but playing at the london musicians collective festival [which organized this clinic] was a very strong payback because i felt very honoured to be there and to play to people who appreciate the odd style that developed out of all this.
questions from the audience:
when you were notating the musical parts to 'trout mask replica' and you were going crazy having this idea about how you could fix it all together so it would be playable, what were the other band members' reactions to being given this music to play - and trying to link all the parts together, which would obviously not have been something they had done before?
well, the reaction
was really positive because the way don always composed before was tedious,
slow. it would take hours because he would do everything vocally and verbally
and sing parts. sometimes he'd try them on drums, sometimes he'd try playing
them on guitar, but it was always sort of (from band): 'is this what you
mean?' 'no, that's not it.'
but with the piano and it being written down, there was usually a delay between the time it was written and the teaching to the band. in that length of time don would build the intensity level of the mode of creation and would be able to concentrate more on helping the person to understand what he was trying to do, so it actually made it a lot easier. everybody was very receptive to it as far as that goes. it wasn't: 'oh my god, this is térrible'.
it was actually more work, but we got a lot more accomplished and we wóuld have got a lot more accomplished if don wasn't the sort of paranoid personality that he was. he always thought that someone was trying to sabotage his music. we'd have these talks that would take days and everyone would be worn out and sleep for a day and then get back to work.
as far as the workings
of getting the actual music together and rehearsing, we had a great time
doing it because we could work on our own endeavour. everyone had a line
towards seeing this thing done - 'this is
exciting, no-one has ever done this before, we are cutting new ground here,
let's do it'. we had to roll up our sleeves and get working on it.
don wasn't a keyboard player as such, so you must have sifted out a high percentage of dross and picked out the melodic parts, would you say?well, don was very good. the fact that he wasn't a keyboard player meant he couldn't play long passages. so that's why all the phrases are short. but usually what i would do was have him play it and i would sit next to him on the piano and learn it. i'd say: 'ok, give me a minute.' and because i basically knew how he thought rhythmically i would learn from him.
would you say that what was in his head came out of his fingers, or did he just play randomly and pick stuff out that he thought as usable? could he play the same thing twice?
he could; it was difficult for him but he could do it. i would say that he mostly sat down and experimented with something. that's what it seemed like to me. but there were times that he didn't take it very seriously and he'd just play something once. i'd go: 'was that it?', and he'd say: 'yeah'. we'd need a part for a song. don would say: 'oh well' (mimics running hands over keyboard) and throw the stones where they would land.
but there were times when he had moments. one of the most brilliant things he ever did was on 'lick my decals off, baby', called 'peon'. he played it on the piano and we recorded it éxactly the way it was played, except for maybe two notes we changed. that shows his brilliance and his ability to grasp the concept of what a keyboard was and utilise it in compositional form without any training whatsoever. (points to head:) so the man definitely had some smarts up there.
short lines from the cyber version that didn't get printed:
there was a song called 'wild life' that's on 'trout mask replica'. that drum part was one of my favorites. it's in five.
by the way, that second 'bake' of 'hair pie' recorded in the studio was done with cardboard on the drums. we did one version at the house, recorded on a remote system - and one in the studio. they asked me to put cardboard on the drums for that. i used to put it underneath the hi hat, and on all the drums and underneath all the cymbals to deaden them - nothing really noisy for the neurotic lady. so the drum sound there is dedicated to the lady who lived across the street.
we were all totally
broke. there was no money. basically don's mother was supporting the band
and zoot horn rollo's (bill harkleroad's) mother would send down
cheques to pay the rent and buy food. i remember once going for a month
and all we had to eat every day was one little ratio about this big, a
four-ounce cup of soya beans. that was our food for the day.
find out more about john french aka drumbo