DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
the interviews - band members
THE SIDEMAN'S SAGA
life with captain beefheart
from THE WIRE #154
by mike barnes
is summer 1996(?) usa interview ERIC DREW FELDMAN
note: slightly shortened version
eric drew feldman is the quintessential avant rock journeyman, abandoning his own music in favour of intense periods working with captain beefheart, snakefinger, pere ubu, frank black and pj harvey. hear his story.
eric drew feldman was always interested in some kind of career in music. but while working as an unpaid studio hand in california during the mid-70s, he would never have predicted that his future production work would be a sideline to six years in captain beefheart's magic band and spells with ex-residents guitarist snakefinger, pere ubu, frank black and pj harvey - the path of an avant rock journeyman, in fact.
by the time his break came, he was already a longtime captain beefheart fan. in 1968 the 12 year-old feldman lived in california's san fernando valley. on a couple of occasions he had ridden his bike over to the notorious house in cunoga park where the magic band were then living and rehearsing 'strictly personal' (and later where 'trout mask replica' was rehearsed and parts of it recorded), just to see what was going on. a few years later he introduced his school friend jeff morris tepper to beefheart's music, so he was admittedly "really envious" when tepper joined the reformed magic band as guitarist in 1975, after a chance meeting with beefheart in northern california.
after the double-whammy debacle of 'unconditionally guaranteed' and 'bluejeans and moonbeams' in 1974, beefheart was back on track again. after almost giving up music, he formed a new magic band which recorded the original (and still unreleased) 'bat chain puller'. but by 1976 beefheart was looking for a replacement for the departing keyboard player john thomas. tepper recommended his friend for the job. feldman takes up the story:
we met in a coffeeshop and don [van vliet, aka beefheart] said: 'do you want to blow?'. i thought there'll be some sort of audition or something, so i had been working really hard and trying to learn how to play some of these songs. he came over to my home a few days later, and i was trying to play him stuff and he was not even paying attention. he was like: 'yeah, fine' - he just kind of decides instinctively.
feldman was accomplished on keyboards, but bass wasn't an instrument that he had much experience of. with hindsight he reckons that was an advantage.
in one sense any lack of expertise you have is a benefit for playing with him. in as much as i appreciated what he did, it took a while to wash some of the technique or musician's ego out of my hair.
feldman learned the parts from the original 'bat chain puller' together with new material intended for a revamped version of the album, which was subsequently released in 1980 [in england, the american release dates from 1978 - t.t.] as 'shiny beast'. on the follow-up, 'doc at the radar station', feldman was more fully immersed in beefheart's idiosyncratic way of generating musical material: spontaneous composition at drums and keyboards, whistling lines or playing them on the harmonica. beefheart himself would have been hard pressed to repeat them, but once they came into existence, the parts were to be played exactly as composed - or until beefheart himself decided to change them.
he was the most strict person in that way. it would be an insult to him to do otherwise. i never had a problem with that. i felt like i was getting parts dictated to me from one of the best, especially when they were designed for me. you just feel like a model in a fashion show wearing a really nice dress, i guess.
knowing when they were going to be composed was another matter. group members had to be on standby with a note pad to document a sudden outpouring of beefheart poetry, or have a tape recorder at the ready to catch a fleeting musical cue. feldman recalls the time when beefheart was visiting him at his house and came up with some lines for 'sue egypt' (subsequently included on 'doc at the radar station'):
it was actually written on this organ in my living room. all the time around don, if he's doing something you put a little tape recorder on and record what he's doing. he started playing that music and the cat was just dancing wildly around the room, so for a long time we referred to it as 'the music that made the cat go crazy'. and as you tend to do with his music on things like that, i just transcribed what he played as exactly as i could.
feldman recalls that although beefheart could recite any of his lengthy poems or lyrics to order, he would get so distracted on stage that he needed cue cards to remember which lyrics he was supposed to be delivering. feldman speculates that it was due to some form of nervousness or the effect of his constant throughput of ideas. he gives one particularly nightmarish example:
one night i was playing this song on stage, one that was very difficult for me to play - i don't even remember what it was - and i'm in the middle of doing it and it's very loud up there. beefheart comes up to me and starts yelling this stuff in my ear, a title and the first couple of lines of some song he was thinking of, saying: 'you gotta remember this, it's going to be worth a lot of money to you and a lot of money to me'. two hours later when we were back in the dressing room, i didn't even remember it - much less what he said, but him even saying it. and he comes back to me with his book and says (sternly): 'ok....'. still to this day he will say: 'so, what was that?'. he is a really funny guy.
feldman agrees that the ego-sublimation needed to be the 'paint' in beefheart's palette wasn't easy. beefheart has irrevocably given up music now, but in common with the other, latter-day magic band members, he says that if the call came he would "be there for him". feldman effectively left just before the recording of the last magic band album 'ice cream for crow'. in a period of inactivity he had moved to san francisco and had been hanging out with 'the residents'. "i was starting to have ambitions by then. i wanted to produce things and had co-produced [and played on - t.t.] a record 'manual of errors' with their guitarist philip lithman, aka snakefinger, and agreed to do some live shows."
coincidentally, after numerous delays, beefheart was getting ready to record 'ice cream for crow' and gave feldman an ultimatum - the recording couldn't be delayed any more. but feldman, feeling "caught and stubborn" as he says, opted to do the tour with snakefinger. beefheart said: 'it's cool; do the next one', but was surprised - and none too happy - when feldman actually did jump the ship. he returned in time to play on one track, 'the thousandth and tenth day of the human totem pole', but there was no 'next one': 'ice cream for crow' was to be beefheart's last recording. the break from beefheartian dictates gave feldman the chance for greater self-expression. his new found freedom also came with a restlessness that is with him to this day.
"some things happen, things change and you move on and since then part of me has never ever wanted to be in one place for too long," he says tellingly. he continued playing bass and keyboards with snakefinger, producing the album 'night of desirable objects' in 1986. "that was when i was first interested in pushing my ego a little bit and trying to hear things that i wanted," he says. but the association ended tragically with lithman's death in 1987. "i was on a tour and then he died of a heart attack. i found him next day and i decided: this isn't on, i don't think i want to do this anymore."
in late 1988 a call came from pere ubu enquiring about feldman's availability for work, which coaxed him back into the fray. [...] feldman reckons the group didn't really know much about him and he was drafted in principally as a replacement for departing synth player allen ravenstine, but he wasn't asked to replicate ravenstine's action painting-style sonic scribbles. he spent three years with the group around the turn of the decade, playing on the 'worlds in collision' album and some b-sides.
"i went to cleveland, ohio where they originally come from," he recalls. "we started to jam and write songs in a room and i had never really worked with anybody quite like that and it was in a certain way a very democratic thing. all ideas were thrown together, mushed up, and it didn't feel compromised - it just felt like a wonderful kind of a mess. they were just very encouraging, especially david thomas: 'loosen up, do more, do more'.... it was great to do that for a while but at some point i was actually asked to join the group and was honoured and i liked being part of this sort of organisation again, but then really quickly found out once i was in yet another band i really shouldn't do that anymore. i've got to be careful about jumping into relationships, as you learn in various other parts of your life.... i felt a little restricted by it, because i had been in so many bands that try really hard and care about and like what they do, and it goes down in flames in a really slow way - i was not really up for that. once the honeymoon was up, i just felt a little funny in the middle of working one night. it was that feeling: 'hmm, it feels like an uphill battle'."
in 1991 pere ubu were on tour opening for the pixies. at one soundcheck, feldman explains, "this kid came up and introduced himself to me, his name was charlie." (charles thompson, aka black francis, now frank black.) feldman kept in touch and in the perennial way he seems to have fallen from one job into another, he ended up playing keyboards with both the pixies and pere ubu on the next tour. this precipitated a split with pere ubu.
"we did a tour together where i was playing in both bands. in the pixies i was truly by the books the side-person. i didn't really feel part of that; i had never done anything like that before, but i was really grateful for that experience. in one way the music i was doing had been getting more and more obtuse and complicated and there was something about the pixies that was so direct and primitive. once again, every ten years or so everything you think you know you throw out of the window and start over again. i have done that several times, you just kind of reinvent yourself."
drawn to black's elliptical songwriting he began collaborating on a solo project that would become the album 'frank black'. [...] "he's got a kind of detached way of writing songs that's very interesting - very third person, even from himself. it suited a state of mind that i was definitely interested in working with. he was just completely 'whatever you want to do' and he was still working with his band then. i ended up playing on their last album 'trompe le monde' and toured with them for a while."
the pixies split in 1992 and feldman carried on his association with frank black, making a vital contribution on bass, 'synthetics', keyboards and mellotron to the dazzling, at times barely fathomable 1994 'teenager of the year' album. "basically he didn't really understand or care about a lot of my references that i liked in the past. 'teenager of the year' seemed to baffle a lot of people. there's a whole lot of songs on it  - we recorded even more than that. we recorded it really fast again - most of the songs in about four or five days - and it really felt like 'trout mask replica' to me in that they all had the same kind of tone or a sound and lyrics about all these various different things. it didn't have that certain pop thing that was required by people, but thankfully it didn't end my career or his completely, so it was all right."
following feldman's introduction, (jeff) morris tepper played a few cameos on the first two frank black albums. in 1993 tepper had introduced feldman to pj harvey in a more indirect way. "one day, tepper said: 'oh, you should hear this' and put on this pj harvey record of 'four track demos'. we were just like sitting around and enjoying it and enjoying an occasional joint or something, and there were all these very overt beefheart type of references in her lyrics and stuff. it wasn't offensive. a lot of times i hear that stuff and it sounds like a rip-off. this didn't feel like a rip-off at all. it felt honest and out front and doing something different with it. i didn't really think twice about it, but i liked it. i thought it was interesting, but i had no burning ambition to do it."
at the end of a 1994 tour, black ended their working relationship, and although the split was amicable and left open for future possibilities, feldman was understandably smarting, wondering if he would play again. that same night he met guitarist joe gore who had himself played with pj harvey and tom waits. "he said: 'so, how'd that go?'. i said: 'oh great, i just got fired'. kind of a joke, but... - and he said something to the effect that pj harvey was putting a band together and i thought: 'mmm, that's interesting'."
a fax to the management company and a short audition later and feldman was part of the set-up. [...] the interview with feldman took place in london in between live shows and radio sessions with pj harvey. he is now part of the fabric of the group and although he has been purely a live player so far, he is set to play on the upcoming pj harvey album. in conversation, feldman's attitude towards his future seems - on the surface, at least - disarmingly casual.
"i just keep meeting people that i like what they are doing and it just feels as long as they're willing to have my assistance, i'm somewhat content to offer certain services as long as they are appreciated. going and playing with polly jean [harvey] is like a vacation from responsibility. it's like: 'oh good, i can throw a bass on, i can play this music and people seem to like it'."
some of pj harvey's music was sent to beefheart and he was impressed, even calling polly jean to tell her so. given his well documented lack of charity towards virtually all contemporary musicians, this was no small compliment. and it neatly rounds off the story, for the moment at least.
captain beefheart casts a long shadow across people who have worked with him. drummer john french, for example, left the magic band on numerous occasions - only to rejoin, because musically nothing else measured up to the experience. feldman admits that the shadow still falls across him, too.
it's been very difficult for me because i related to it so much that it probably had something to do with my reluctance - which i am breaking away from - to actually have my own project. i would hate to do anything i would think was second rate. i don't think i am ambitious in an entertainment way, to have to lead a show - that's not the part that really interests me that much. i wish it did, or that maybe i would change.
i think i was subconsciously looking at these guys in the magic band when i was younger that i thought were great players, really interesting and fun to watch, and i never heard more about them. i was more ambitious than that - i wanted to do things. i didn't want to just be an asterisk in a guinness book - i wanted to be several asterixes!
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