captain beefheart electricity

the interviews - band members


the bill harkleroad interview

from DAMP #5 010190 usa
by scott colby
is late 09.89 interview BILL HARKLEROAD

note: part of the 'captain beefheart extravaganza' special which also included the interview phone calls to don

THIS is PART 1 - part 2 - part 3


standing 6' 5" (196 cm - t.t.), bill harkleroad was once given the questionable distinction of being named the tallest guitarist in rock 'n' roll. whether or not that's true, he secured his place in rock music history by playing a significant role in making the incredible music to be found on what are arguably the four best albums recorded by captain beefheart and the magic band: 'trout mask replica', 'lick my decals off, baby', 'the spotlight kid' and 'clear spot'.

during his tenure in studios and on stages with don van vliet, bill was known only as zoot horn rollo. don coined the colorful stage name for him, as he did with the other members of that amazing and dedicated group, whose real names did not appear in the credits. given this imposed anonymity, it's understandable that many people lost track of him once he parted company with beefheart. however, bill was not some shadowy supporting character who vanished into obscurity.

he put together a new group, mallard, with other magic band alumni, releasing two mid-70's albums which have never received the attention they deserve. the playing is crisp, lively, playful and inventive; the music is brimming with creative energy and warmth. both 'mallard' and 'in a different climate' are well worth searching for. while harkleroad has kept a relatively low profile since mallard disbanded, he has remained musically active and maintains a positive attitude towards his life, past and present. being a slide guitar player myself, i have long admired his playing on the recordings of both groups, so i was very happy when he agreed to the idea of my interviewing him by phone in late september [1989] for this issue. (little did we know it would take ninety minutes.)

to start off: where did you come from originally, and how did you get into music?

where did i come from? you mean the area? los angeles first, then the palmdale / lancaster area - the antelope valley - which was where john french (drumbo) was from, and jeff cotton (antennae jimmy semens) and mark boston (rockette morton): the 'trout mask replica' band. and actually the guys before that, too - the original band. and what got me into music? shit, i don't know! (laughing) i used to sneak into the garage when i was five or six years old to listen to elvis presley records, so i was already into it, probably because my mother played violin and piano. but it was "always in the soul". (laughing) listening to wolfman jack really helped, too, when i was young. i don't know if you remember any of that, but he covered like a third of the u.s. on station xerb with 250,000 watts. and he played howlin' wolf and stuff like that, 1962 through 1964, just as i was starting to play. so i went right from the ventures into 'da blooze'. and then the beefheart band had started, and i had been playing for a while, because i started when i was thirteen. so i had been playing for about six years when i hooked up with them.

how did you come to know them? had you known them socially, or met them in school?

no. john, jeff and mark and i were all approximately the same age and we were all in various bands around that area. and one by one, as the previous members of the magic band fell by the wayside, we were kind of like the new 'plug-in' guys. through jam sessions and, you know, being the fifteen-year-old kid playing blues licks, getting noticed.... i kind of had the feeling, once john and jeff had both ended up in the group, and since don kept coming back to the desert for musicians, i figured eventually i would be in there, too.

now, the bands you were in before joining them - had you been playing at dances, or in clubs, or was it just in someone's garage for your own enjoyment?

dances and stuff. from when i was 14, i played standards and i played bass on 'misty', and then i would play the surf leads on guitar. we made more money then than some bands make now, which is funny. but i was always gigging, right from the start.

when you first joined the magic band, what was that group like?

they were going through a big transition. i knew them as the 'safe as milk' band, which i was very much into. they had just finished a lot of tracks for 'strictly personal' and it was moving from this 'acidized blues' style to a very surrealistic sound that went with it. i don't know whether acid was the way it got there. it was for me, but it probably wasn't for them. it was essentially a drugless situation.

and the new tunes i was hearing, i really like them a lot: it felt real good. it always felt good to be the new member in that band at that time.... we went through a lot of members, and a lot of times i was the guy that fired them. while i was there, i was sort of dubbed 'band director' or whatever..., maybe 'henchman'! (laughing) but there was cool stuff going on, really creative combining of blues elements with new things, and i thought it was great.

and very quickly it started getting right into 'trout mask replica' within two or three months. at that time i was not seeing clearly enough to discern whether i liked it or not; i was just going with the flow. and i am sure you have heard or know all about this kind of situation, with a young kid and a very powerful, influential person. i mean. it was like if you were to pick the band you wanted to be in, as a 14 year-old kid listening to this band, and by the time you are eighteen or nineteen, this band asks you to be in it. what are you going to do?

it was like having your dream come true, but the dream was not a very cool reality. there were always positive aspects but, in retrospect, there was this difference in age (with don - t.t.}, and my lacking in maturity and understanding what it takes to earn a living.... i mean, we worked our butts off, but it felt like this concentration camp atmosphere, as opposed to a unified direction. and, of course, there was a great amount of learning, and great things came out of that, but the day-to-day life sucked.... still, i learned a lot from the guy, it's cool. no bad feelings. actually, i would like to see him.

you said that soon after you joined, things began moving rapidly towards the 'trout mask replica' period. was the group playing live, or did you go into the studio at that time?

there was no live performing at all. within a very short time, we went in and cut two tracks for 'strictly personal'. that was my first studio experience; frank zappa was the engineer. but then, a little while later, 'strictly personal' came out on blue thumb records, without me on it. those two tracks were never used. (that is: not for 'strictly personal' - t.t.)

i don't know whether you can speak for any of the others or only for yourself on this issue, but did you mind the fact that you were known only by your stage name, creative and catchy as it was, while don van vliet's name appeared on the albums so he got full credit?

yeah, i did mind. i can remember the point when it started to bother me, too. that's when john french was the only guy who had the guts not to sign a contract which literally said we couldn't even be those names unless it was in that context, which technically - you can't do that. but what did we know at 20 years old? so, yeah, that bothered me, and increasingly it bothered me that we got no credit for actually constructing tunes, having a big part in that. at the same time, parts of being there were really cool, but i didn't like the idea that we were these people who could just be 'plugged in', who had no identity of our own.... and that i supposedly didn't know how to play guitar, i didn't know how to do anything, i was just this zoot horn rollo guy who didn't know anything.

once the band started performing live, what was it like touring, and what was the audience reaction usually like?

(laughing:) there was no 'usually'. there were two types of audiences, i think: there were the 'a' audiences, where the front - or the biggest portion - would be fanatics, really into it; and then there were the 'b' audiences that left, looking horrified. and there would be varying amounts of each mixture; there was never hundred percent of either. largely male audiences - which was always disturbing! (laughing) it was like going to a heavy metal show now, right?

that seems ironic, because i remember reading an early 70's interview with don in which he had said something to the effect that you were a group of men who loved women and that your music spoke well to women - something like that....

well, if you look back to figure out why he said that, it was because of that situation. i mean, he is promoting and planning and moving things around. it didn't come from: 'we're speaking to women'. it was 'we don't have enough women out there, so now we're speaking to women'!

ah! that goes a step beyond just thinking positive.

yeah; well, that's what that was.... this would have been around the time of the 'clear spot' tour, which was definitely the best touring segment of that band, for me.

how so?

well, the members were always coming and going, but i remember when roy (estrada, a.k.a. orjon) was playing bass with us, and art (tripp, a.k.a. ed marimba) and john at the same time.... (strange...: as far as my archives go, there never was a line-up with these three guys together - t.t.) we were touring the most, the band had enough independence to where the shows could be enjoyed....

you mean: enjoyed by the band?

yeah, and by the audience as well, because the tunes had enough of a stable rhythmic sense that it got across. so i had some real fun during that time.

was it better playing in the united states or europe?

it varied in both places, but definitely in europe - and particularly england - it seemed that we had a higher 'ranking'. we did real well in their main venues. over here, we would be opening for jethro tull (from england! - t.t.) and playing college gigs.

you have already mentioned that drugs didn't have a lot to do with the songs and the way the band sounded. i think a lot of people always assumed the opposite. over the years, there have been a lot of rumors like that. for instance, there was one i heard around 1975, which claimed that you so wanted to constantly challenge yourself, that you would completely change your guitar tuning every few months and then force yourself to relearn the material in these new tunings.

no way! (laughing) there was one period of time where i was feeling especially full of testosterone or whatever, i guess this would have been around 'lick my decals off, baby' - which is one of my favorites. i was doing all the guitar work, and then elliot (ingber, a.k.a. winged eel fingerling) played a few bits here and there, but it was basically just me. so there was only one guitar now, instead of two. and what i had done to play some things live, was to make a single guitar part out of both original guitar parts. as if one of them wasn't ridiculous enough, try sticking two of them together! it was nuts. and at that point, i really had no idea of written music. so i came up with all these graphs, and then laid them on top of each other to figure out how to do it - like changing octaves for certain notes - and i tried to sort out some way to do it. a couple of them turned out really cool.

this was mostly for 'trout mask replica' material?

yeah. 'my human gets me blues' was one, and 'steal softly thru snow'. you know how the two guitar parts on those 'trout mask replica' tunes were just so rhythmically opposing, and nearly unplayable singularly? a couple of the ones i made composite parts of became more coherent when they came out of just one instrument.

well, putting aside the fact that fingering those combined guitar parts must have been ridiculously hard to master, how were you able to cope with the completely different rhythms going on at the same time?

that was just it. i made these graphs where i could follow the rhythms, like reading along a ruler. nw i can read music, but i would probably do it the same way today, because it was easier to read it graphically. i just dotted where every note was through each bar and, as i played, i would push them down together. i couldn't fit a free-form part against a set rhythmic part, and the most complicated parts were mostly three-against-four (one guitar playing a triplet feel against the other guitar playing more of a straight four rhythm - s.c.). so those parts were really difficult, but once you managed to stick it all together, it worked. you would just learn it as this one big dense - boy, i'll say that again - dense part. the unfortunate part about all of that - for me, because some people like to hear it that way - was the crappy right-hand technique, with those finger picks.

this is interesting to me, because certainly one of the signatures of the group's sound was the percussive use of the thumb and finger picks.


i have heard different reasons for why they were employed. one was that jerry mcgeehee, who had played in an earlier line-up of the group, used them and don decided he liked that sound, so he had all the succeeding guitarists learn to use them.

that could be.

the other theory held that, since don would literally bang out parts on the piano, you guys had to use the picks to try to achieve the same sort of sharp attack of the notes you played, by clawing or snapping the strings.

i would think it was probably the former. it was already in place when i joined the group: jeff cotton was there picking away with these metal clamp-on units on his hand. i had done a little bit of that before, because i had played slide in open tunings already. so i kind of went with that, and it seemed pretty cool. it was mainly for strength, to really rip into it. everything was very biceps-like: 'play as hard as you can; if you can tear the strings off. that's even better'.

so it felt like you were choking the sound right off the instrument, but it wasn't so much control. it was just the only way it could be played right sometimes, but with no choice in tone. and around the time of 'clear spot' it started to get to where there was more freedom to let the notes ring off; and some different things started happening, so i felt a lot better about the playing at that point. that's not to say that i didn't like the complexity and everything of the other stuff. it's just that it would have been nice to hear it played really 'on it', with heat as opposed to shrapnel.

that is a great analogy. another of those long-standing myths was that don actually taught the members of the group how to play their instruments, or at least how to play the songs, note by note.

neither is true.

would you say that he shaped the playing style of the musicians, or just the way that the arrangements would sound?

definitely the former. he definitely shaped the style and would shape other things. but a lot of it was how it was arranged and interpreted by the group after it was originally kind of 'pounded out' and then deciphered. there was a lot of individual exchange and growth from him in learning music: input, phrasing.... he would work on certain parts, and he did work with us that way. it was no joke - there was a great sense of some really hip stuff coming from the man, and we grew from that. but it wasn't so all encompassing with him controlling parts or teaching us how to play. he would try to play, he would illustrate certain things, but it was actually learned more from his whistling than anything else.



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