captain beefheart electricity

interview - band member

an interview with bill harkleroad

from usa 1 december 1988 DISCoveries vol.1 #7
by david gabrielsen
is ±august 1988 interview BILL HARKLEROAD


when did you start playing guitar?

1962 or '63, when i was thirteen. surfing and ventures music.

is that the music that got you interested in guitar?

well, actually, it was friends. one of my friends was a guitar player and he had a band. i thought maybe i could get a girlfriend if i had a guitar. i joined a band known as 'the nightbeats'. but the surfin' music was what was happening. vocal music wasn't happening. no beatles yet.

what about fifties music?

i had listened to that from the time i was five years old, because of my older sister. i totally identified with elvis presley, since my birthday is also january 8th. so, there's a big part of me that's in the '50s stuff. it was music that was alive.

did the british invasion - the new wave after surf music - influence you, musically?

oh, yeah. guitar-wise it did. but before that sound i got into blues, and beefheart was around the area in '65 as a local band doing heavy, hardcore blues. still, for me, that's one of the best sounding times of the beefheart band, through the twenty years of its existence. right after surf music, i was listening to them and getting interested in b.b. king and hubert sumlin. hubert sumlin became one of my favorites. to my knowledge, he's the first guitar player to play that out-of-phase stratocaster sound, which you can't get away from in almost any record now. so i listened to real hardcore blues, and the early bands i was in would do beatles and rolling stones [covers], because that was what got us gigs.

how did you meet don 'captain beefheart' van vliet?

i grew up in the same town. i used to see his group and zappa, when he was just starting out, in a group called 'the blackouts', playing dynamite blues guitar. they would rehearse in the junior high gymnasium, and i'd sneak in and listen to them. here were these old guys and a nineteen-year-old playing this blues music.

how did you get into the beefheart band?

with each new generation, there's more technique that's expected as the norm. so my group, as we grew into it, had chops that rivaled the older guys in his group - but not the soul. do you know what i mean? we started showing up at parties where beefheart was playing. one of the members of the group i was in was closer to their age. i'd sneak in being sixteen, being the kid, and i would jam with them and they'd notice: 'hey, the kid can play!'

one by one, a guitar player i played with and a drummer named john french (drumbo.), who's been around that scene forever and one of my favorite musicians, joined the band [in autumn 1966 - t.t.] as don was replacing the older members. trying to move on was his idea, and the older members were straight-ahead blues people, and he was starting to expand [his music].

'safe as milk' came out, and for me that was it. i couldn't believe the music! ry cooder replaced doug moon, and he ended up playing on that whole album. he went from taj mahal's band to beefheart's band. they were the two most influential blues bands to me at that time, and by far the strongest los angeles bands. 'buffalo springfield' was another real good one.

so, anyway, don knew who the local players were, and i think he wisely drew upon the people who watched his growth, and weren't involved in the city scene; so they weren't so affected by the pop stuff. they were homegrown musicians.

so you became a member of the magic band during the recording of 'strictly personal'?

we were in the process of re-recording some of it, and i was going to be on two or three tracks. while we were in the process of doing this, the album showed up on the market, via bob krasnow. he started blue thumb records with that elpee. i don't know whatever happened to those tapes we were working on, but they contained the first studio material i did with the beefheart band, with frank zappa as the engineer.

from there the band signed to zappa's label, and 'trout mask replica' was the first release. did don have total control over the recording of the elpee, or did frank zappa have some say in it?

as far as my perspective, don had almost exclusive control. i think frank gave him total free reign.

what do you think caused beefheart to drift from the traditional blues?

tough question. he's much too dynamic of a person to give a single reason for that.

was he into avant garde jazz?

definitely. when i first joined the band i was expecting this blues style of music and he was putting together 'strictly personal'. definitely different material. i liked it, because it was blues-based, with slide guitar and his vocals. anyway, he was always talking about [thelonious] monk or bird. bizarre tastes that opened my mind to a lot of music.

i used to fall asleep with john coltrane on the headphones. that was my transition from blues to jazz. and for me it had to be black or i didn't like it. i had an attitude that black music had more of a gut-level feel than the totally intellectual music. i mean, for me it was the artistic black stuff, as opposed to the mainstream, notey stuff. for me at the time, it was an easy way to corner it by saying i like black avant garde music, whether it's blues or jazz. it was a label for me.

we went to a harry partch concert when i first joined the band. zappa and don were fans of his, and we were signed to frank's label, so we got invited. he wrote all of his own music on a 44-tone scale. instead of twelve tones, he divided them into 44, so there's less than 1/4 tones in his music. he built all his own instruments. berkeley school of music had twelve to fifteen of his disciples who learned his music exactly, and performed it. very interesting stuff.

going back to the album and zappa's involvement, did he or any of the mothers play on it?

there was one little section on the elpee. it was jeff cotton, who was antennae jimmy semens, who had called frank on the phone from the studio and recited this poem. it's on the album, under the name 'the blimp'. frank was working on this particular piece with roy estrada [later to become 'oréjon' - t.t.] and art tripp [to be 'ed marimba' - t.t.], and that went onto the tape and ended up on the album. so they were actually on 'trout mask replica', over the phone.

did the group do any touring to promote the album?

overall, we didn't do much touring for 'trout mask replica' because it was hard to get us out on the road. the album was just out and we went to europe and we did one festival in belgium (in amougies on 28 october 1969 - t.t.), and then we went to england where don did a lot of interviews and promotional stuff. but we didn't play in england. then i think we did a show (on 31 march 1969 - t.t.) at the hollywood palladium, where there must have been eight bands, and the mothers were the final act. that was the first time i saw 'jethro tull' [band from england - t.t.] and met ian anderson. they had just released their first album.

did that lack of going out frustrate you as a musician?

to make a long, elaborate story short: because of the disparity in age - all of us were approximately nineteen years old, and don was about twenty-nine - there was a lot of hero-worship for him... as well as fear and weirdness towards him. a very uncomfortable situation. as i am older now, i look at it with a lot less animosity. but for a long time i thought he was a very vindictive person. now, i think he tried in a lot of ways to give what he had artistically to us, but took claim for everything. he took claim for every line that came out of my fingers, and i was bitter about that. there was a lot of weirdness in the band. we'd stay in a house and rehearse for sixteen hours straight, fall dead in our tracks, get up and do it again, day after day.

and not necessarily recording?

no, just rehearsing. so, because hero worship got me there, and it was hard to erase that, i couldn't leave - because it was the one thing i wanted to do. but it was a very intense time. it was my vietnam, as i look at it now.

after 'trout mask replica' came 'lick my decals off, baby'.

right, which i thought was the best of the batch. the whole band became more involved; we had more to say about the music. it got refined, and as members changed, the sound of the music changed. when elliot ingber (winged eel fingerling) joined the band, we went more bluesy, because he was a blues player. my hands were so into playing don's piano parts that my blues chops were waning. i almost couldn't play those parts anymore. so the music became controlled by the players a lot. don sang and played harp on the albums, and had the ideas in his head. the band had more of a say in the music as it was being created. i would say: 'no, i won't play that part; it's unplayable. i want to do it this way'. the music got refined.

you had more say about your part in each piece?

sure. even if i didn't speak up, sometimes i just did it, and because of the overall randomness of the music, his final opinion on hearing it was great. unless he whistled the part. he was a tremendous whistler. if he whistled a single line, he'd remember it forever and wanted the part played that way. in other ways, the tunes would come together without his total control in a clean, clear-cut way.

did don run down musical parts for you, as he wanted you to play them?

uh huh. and then i had to figure out a way to make it possible.

and in some cases you'd say: 'it won't work...'?

you've got ten fingers on the piano. you can't play ten notes on the guitar at the same time. at least i couldn't figure it out at that point. i mean, i was playing things with two hands, with my thumb on the face. i was trying to invent whatever i could. like i said, i was under the control of that whole ego structure of the band, where i would work that hard. i'm glad i did it. there's a real inventiveness in my playing, i think, because of those days.

did you tour in support of 'lick my decals off, baby'?

we did a few gigs, but not too many. right after that, when we did 'the spotlight kid' and 'clear spot', was when we did a lot of touring.

were you opening for somebody or was beefheart the headliner?

in europe we had our own gig.

did the band have a good following in europe?

much better in europe [than in the united states].

what do you remember most about touring?

it was always a relief to be out of that greenhouse live-in situation where we were supposed to be giving up our lives to be in this band and carry this tremendous artistic burden (laughs). there were positive moments, but it also had its excruciating times. i don't want to say anything bad about don. i learned a lot from the man, but he was very hard to work with. he wouldn't repeat the same lyrics to a tune from one show to the next. he seemed to have a difficult time performing in public. sometimes he could, and there would be magical moments.

because he was so intense, things could happen that were great. all of this is in retrospect, and it's clouded with my own opinion. so it's a hard thing for me to really have a clear perspective on. when he was at home the man was a tremendous singer, a tremendous talent. it never came out on record like what he could do.

what's your opinion of the material from the a&m sessions?

the early stuff? oh yeah, that was the band i first heard before joining them. he comes across a lot better there. but he could be even bétter than that.

for me, i think he did a beautiful blues-style vocal on 'white jam'.

yeah, that got close. i remember how happy and relaxed he was in the studio at that time. and that was the bottom edge of what the man was capable of doing every day of the week. when i joined that band he could do jimmy reed to the point it would be hard to tell the difference. he could do john lee hooker perfect. he could do muddy waters and howlin' wolf. i mean, this man could sing! it just never came out on record, and that was frustrating.

what made you decide to leave captain beefheart and form 'mallard'?

i needed to get on my own and get out of this form of existence. i was not taking care of my life. it took me six years to be able to say no to the man. there was so much hero worship, and i needed to breathe and have a life.

did it give you a bad taste toward the music business?

not necessarily. i wanted to get away from that situation. it was even the thought of whether i wanted to play music or not.

so you formed mallard immediately after leaving beefheart?

right. immediately.

was mallard supposed to be yóur band?

it was the magic band without don. we (is also: mark boston and art tripp - t.t.) figured we had a career, and it was the band that was a spin-off of beefheart. but here i was the person who's feeling that i'm going to be the leader because i'm the guitar player. now, i'm the one who has to write and come up with the music. so, i felt the pressure of that, and i kind of took over as the leader of that band.

so you were responsible for providing material for mallard?

yeah, but i used songs by john french (drumbo) and mark boston (rockette morton).

didn't you say that when you were with captain beefheart that you and the keyboard player worked on a lot of musical arrangements?

that was john french on the very first beefheart albums.

did french become a member of mallard?

john was in and out of the beefheart band, i don't know how many times. he came into mallard for a while. but then he didn't want to do it.

didn't ian anderson initially back the mallard project?

totally. he set up a situation where we got signed to virgin records. through being the opening act and making the connection early on, he got hold of bill shumow, our manager at the time, and said: 'hey, where are these guys and what are they doin'?' he got us into the studio and wrote a song for us. a bizarre song. i've got the tape of it (laughs). real ian anderson-sounding! anyway, he says: 'hey, here you go. i'll give you the money. here's a tune.'

so ian anderson wrote a song for mallard?

one song. it never showed up anywhere. he was in town and the way i thought of it is: here's this guy who works twenty hours a day and needs to be busy (laughs). he had a day off, so he wrote us a song. anyway, he was very nice and i appreciated what he did. we went to england and recorded the first album in his studio with his engineer.

the first album was basically a demo tape. i never really considered it an album. it was a demo tape to get a record deal. i thought it was pretty weak. there were some parts of it that were okay. but my intent was that this music was a demo. virgin bought it and it came out in the uk as an album, uh ooh!

did you tour to promote it?

let's see... - did we play any gigs with artie tripp? no, we didn't. the second elpee was the one we were going to tour for.

'in a different climate'?

yeah. virgin changed to cbs distribution, and there was some tour money happening. now i was starting to see a musical identity. i was starting to work on my playing as an individual. before, i was sort of clone-chasing these musical styles. anyway, we were supposed to tour. the album is on the billboard chart. i'm hearing it on khj radio, as their logo, one section of 'mama squeeze'. there are some parts on that album i liked. anyway, the tour money ended up in somebody's pocket. 'we got the band ready, where's the money? let's go (laughs).' nothing!

so the band fell apart?

when virgin switched distributorship in the states, the album was not picked up. they dropped it. out of print, just like that. i said: 'goodbye everybody, i'm gonna do a domestic scene', and moved up here (oregon) and studied classical guitar. thought i'd get into guitar playing as opposed to this business trip.

what are your plans concerning recording?

those are always plans that have always been around since i moved here. seems they get put by the wayside for life trips, you know, but that's really in the forefront right now. what i want to do is think of what i want; what kind of musical sound i can be. also, i became straight now almost two years ago november. i was drinking my life away. so i think it's taken me a while to be long enough away from that to get into a groove again. so now, with those attitude things out of the way, i think i'm ready.


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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo