DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
the interviews - band members
ZOOT HORN ROLLO
a captain's tale
from england 1 april 1988 RECORD COLLECTOR
by mark paytress
is late 1997 usa interview BILL HARKLEROAD
note: came along a captain beefart special written by mark paytress, so he probably did this interview. strangely enough, zoot's real name isn't mentioned anywhere.
zoot horn rollo is back after an absence of twenty or so years. what have you been up to?
after being done with mallard (rollo's post-beefheart project), and again getting no money - typical rip-offs and stupidity on my part - i just quit and moved to oregon. i began teaching myself classical guitar and working on theory in music for seven or eight years. i continued to play but i wanted to get something more domestic, to pay the bills and do something more 'normal'. and i did that and it's been real comfortable. but in the last 18 months, i started getting flooded with calls, seemingly out of nowhere. i figured it was the internet: people who were fans when they were kids are now in reasonably successful bands. and 'bubblehead music' was one of those calls. at the time, i understood it was film music, not an album. (zoot horn rollo plays on three tracks of the bubblehead release 'vol. one: file under subconscious', credited to the institute of formal research.)
they were very professional, sent me all the contracts, paid me well for the work, but musically, there was no guidance. they said, just play what you feel. that's kind of odd when i feel musically kinda different to what i was meant to be playing to. i mean, if they'd sent something more 'miles davis-y', i might have felt a little more comfortable just playing freely to it. they were very nice in giving me a lot of freedom, but i would have appreciated a little more direction.
that's quite a contrast to being in the magic bond, when your freedom was rather more limited.
oh, absolutely. a complete contrast. but since mallard and the magic band, iíve been a free player for many years, so that's not unnatural to me. i'm used to being a studio musician: when somebody says we need this, we need that, and i plug in and play. and i've been teaching for the past twenty-odd years. i've learnt so many different styles, pop songs. iím used to being an actor and trying to fit in.
were you an actor trying to fit in when you joined the magic band in '68?
no. i was nineteen. i wasn't an actor. i was totally taken up with the situation and halfway between brainwashed and groomed into that whole 'trout mask replica' mentality. it took so long. it took us a year to work on parts and shit, we were practising ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day just trying to play those parts.
was your background in the blues?
definitely. just growing up in southern california, just north of los angeles. i was playing surf music before that, and in 1964, after i'd been playing a year, i heard wolfman jack [famous deejay - t.t.] on kxerb playing howlin' wolf, bb king, everything from slick city blues to some real rural country blues. those things started becoming a big deal to me. then [in 1965 - t.t.] the beefheart band started playing around town covering those songs. the beatles only lasted a few months for me: i was right into blues.
did you play on any records prior to the magic band?
no, nothing official.
i heard a rehearsal tape from the 'trout mask replica' session, and it was note-perfect.
were we yelling and screaming, or was it just music! pretty amazing, huh?
many who hear the album still only hear chaos, yet it's probably the most meticulously structured album in rock.
every note was in place, other than doug moon doing 'china pig', or accidents. the core twenty-one or so tunes on there we had worked out and played endlessly so that every note was in place.
drumbo (alias john french) was the interpreter for that record.
i guess that's what you'd call it. he was the one that worked with don, and created the process of don using piano to put the parts down. he taped them and would have don as best he could repeat what he was trying to play, which was difficult for somebody that wasn't a musician. so don was playing these parts, and john tried to figure out who does what with them.
i shouldn't speak for john but i guess there was don creating the big picture musical ideas, but john was the one that was musically notating them, and giving them out. i truly believe that had they been given out in any other order, don would not have known the difference. he was providing the big picture, but he did not know the nooks and crannies of the parts. he only dealt with them after we had worked them out and strung them together.
don't you believe don had the finished sound in his head when he was playing his piano noodlings?
no, i don't see how. i think he had a real good idea, a real good concept of how these things would be not in a key, not in an exact rhythm. i think he was very much aware of that. he was using chunks of sound in a real three-dimensional, sculpture-like way. so he had the big picture, he just didn't have the musical skills or knowledge to understand how to stick things together. i think his concept was loosely complete. but exactly complete? no way.
so you're still saying it couldn't have sounded anything like that without him.
absolutely. he wrote that music. he just relied heavily on the musicians. if you listen to the albums he's done, every one sounds like the musicians who were in the band.
they also sound like captain beefheart albums.
they all do, because he controls that after the fact. let's say you build a square box, and then someone comes along with a hammer and chisel and cuts parts out. he dealt with things after they were built.
while working under these conditions, did you feel as if you were collectively creating something important?
it's a perfectly legitimate question, but it's kinda hard to answer because it was more of an evolution of attitude. yes, i think at one point, when i first joined the band, i knew this was like a big deal, because the beefheart band and frank zappa's band were my two favourites. they were in a league of their own compared to the pop stuff.
but after a while, because of the environment and how hard we were working, you lose sight of that. you're not out in the world listening to other groups and things; it became more of a hothouse environment of exclusion. his attitude was that we were the only thing, that we were the artists of the world and everything else sucked. maybe a coltrane solo or a mingus tune would be acceptable, but other than that we were god's gift to planet earth.
some of us rather subscribe to that view, that 'trout mask replica' exists on a different plane to other music. it's way beyond very good, it's completely unique.
absolutely, i agree. if i was somebody on the outside, i would have such a different feeling about the album. i went through the pain of creating it - in my youth. i still marvel at it. but it was a brutal situation. i never listened to it in years, and then i played it a while back and i was laughing so hard i was on the floor. some of it was so fucking hilarious. but i was there and i remember what i was feeling like when i was recording a particular song. i remember the painful relationship of going through a painful divorce, instead of just enjoying the offspring, you know.
'trout mask replica' is unique for many reasons, not least for the pioneering use of two slide guitars.
'trout mask replica' was an equal partnership between the two guitars. jeff cotton [antennae jimmy semens] was a friend of mine before we were in the band. sometimes there were duelling slides, but a lot of the time there would be one slide and one straight.
on 'lick my decals off, baby' i was the only guitar player. i was the one who went through all the piano tapes and strung the parts together and did all the work, so i knew that album infinitely better. the process of 'trout mask replica' was the grooming of people hearing and thinking like that. the positive side of it was grooming, and the negative side was just this awful brainwashing, but we won't get into that.
winged eel fingerling (alias elliott ingber) joined for 'the spotlight kid'. how different was your relationship with him, compared to that with jeff cotton?
180 degrees. i loved elliot. he was the sweetest guy ever, and he could play magical things. but he had difficulty playing repeated rhythms and holding the parts together. he was a freer player than that. and we're coming from 'trout mask replica' and 'lick my decals off baby', and working into 'the spotlight kid', and elliot is a blues player, an encyclopedia of blues playing. i had to really hold his hand through learning those things.
personally, i had a great relationship with him. musically, it was a weight on my shoulders to get him to play the parts. here's this guy that comes in and plays all these free solos that i've not been allowed to do. i know i can play that shit, i was playing it at fourteen, you know. i was a little angry at that. i'd been working six months to play something, and he takes a couple of takes to play a solo. i felt a little cheated there. 'the spotlight kid' is by far my least favourite album, not because of the tunes, but the way they were performed.
in vintage footage, whether it be from 1968 or 1980, the band are always jerking around. was that something don told you to do, or was that an instinctive reaction to the music?
a combination of both. he would say: 'i don't like the way you look, the way you do that'. for the most part, i was stupid enough to listen to that crap and do something that was more pleasing to him. but at the same time i had a lot of respect for his artistic sense and would do that, but a lot of manhood was lost in the process.
i remember interviews with you in the mid-seventies when you said similar things.
i was portrayed as the disillusioned young guitarist. because i said the guy was an asshole, he didn't teach me how to play, he didn't write the album in eight hours, it's a bunch of shit, you know. people want this hero so much and i understand: 'trout mask replica' just kinda cracked time and space. but i knew him as a person and a large part of him was full of shit.
aren't most great artists?
yeah, of course. i'm not putting him down or saying he didn't have great talent. i'm just saying he was an asshole for a part of the time, and he had no people skills other than manipulation. so when people called me this disillusioned guy because i don't say he was a genius who made me see the ghosts of time - get a life!
what prompted the dramatic musical shift on 'the spotlight kid'? was there a feeling that you'd done what you could on the previous albums, that you were not making any money, and that you wanted a shot of the big time?
yup. you just said it.
was that beefheart's decision, or were you, the musicians, pressurising him?
no, that was him and management, and a combination of things. by then, he had the god's golfball corporation with an attorney and an accountant. they're in there for money and money only, and we were not making money. we were costing money and i think there was pressure there. you listen to the tempos on 'the spotlight kid' after the freneticness of the previous two albums where he had to go doublefastandgettheselyricsin: he wanted to become a blues singer again. and to his credit he did, i thought.
the album was played like the movie 'the night of the living dead'. we were zombies. it was the worst time of my life in that band, of any time, and the tempos were so slow there was no soul in the playing. so good tunes, but you listen to it and 50% is don's voice with a little, noisemaking band behind him. the production of it and everything else about it sucked.
tell me about your book. (which would be lunar notes - teejo.)
have you heard about the frank zappa book?
what? 'the negative dialectics of poodle-play' (ben watson's thrilling, infuriating, mad tome on uncle frank)?
haven't you heard of that?
haahaahaanotatallhaahaahaa! no, his autobiography. this is the same deal: i'm just talking into a microphone answering questions, and i've done that. those things are with the co-writer fight now, and he's transcribing that stuff, and that'll come back to me to rewrite. the co-writer is billy james, who's in a band called 'ant bee', and he's already written a book with an ex-alice cooper guy.
did you return to the records to jog your memory?
oh, absolutely. i had them in a box of old lps. you know, you can't get 'lick my decals off, baby' on ceedee now. itís out-of-print. that was my favourite.
it's often overshadowed by 'trout mask replica'.
i was comfortable in doing that album because i'd gone through 'trout mask replica'. i knew every note that everybody was playing, and was really in control of the parts. i was the only guitar player so i didn't have to fight through the shrapnel rhythmically. i was usually the rhythmic post; even the bass-player would be off away from the main pulse of the tune. i was playing the centre part a lot. the tunes had the same quality as on 'trout mask replica' but were even more defined. it was the sense of control on that album that i liked.
you mentioned lack of money earlier. i presume you get nothing from your work with the magic band.
i never made a cent on any of those albums.
were you on a wage?
no. we were begging for sustenance. (conspiratorially:) youíll get it in the book!
in the tv documentary the artist formerly known as captain beefheart, don talks about treating the band with his 'kind whip'. just how kind was it?
i recognise that phrase and that falls into the heading of bullshit. his kind whip meant he was trying to take control. but actually, it was more brutal brainwashing, and that was mostly conscious combined with his own paranoia ruling his life. i wouldn't call it kind, and i wouldn't call it a conscious 'kind whip' that he's trying to take credit for... that he had this great vision and he was cajoling us along with this knowledgeable progression and he know the progression. a lot of it was on the fly. he was just grabbing things and sculpting things as they happened and we were stupid enough to let him do that to us. i mean, the end result was great - but, boy, iíd never sign up to let that happen to me again.
he said something else in that documentary about having every note in place like stravinsky; he wouldn't have anything out of place. shit, we could have played the songs backward and he wouldn't have known it. that is total crap.
but he would have recognised the overall shape.
right. exactly. which was fine. but for some reason, he decided he had to take credit for everything.
despite the personal situation, 'trout mask replica' sounds like the most democratic record ever made. all the instruments have an equal say in the overall plot.
i like that about it. that has shaped the way i think about music. i might like a bass player to stay more in the pocket than that, but having the bass to be as melodic as the other parts, having the drums to be as equal and as melodic as the melody instruments, rather than be simply a timekeeper, that is really striking to me.
you're immortalised on 'big eyed beans from venus', you're in the top guitarist polls, you're a legend!
what hurts me is that people say to me they changed their life when i was just a nineteen-year-old guitar player. i'm forty-nine, and i've been playing all the time. are you going to allow zoot horn rollo to play who he is now? so when it becomes album time, maybe this summer, i need to keep in mind that there are people who expect certain things of me, but at the same time i've gotta be true to the fact that i've worked very hard over the last thirty years to learn how to play more musically and yet keeping the sense of freedom that i grew up with.
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo