captain beefheart electricity

the interviews - band members


robert williams pants out

from usa early 1997 [PRIVATE SOURCE]
by scott mcfarland
is early months 1997 written interview ROBERT WILLIAMS

'wait for me' was his beefheart pseudonym.
the piece originally appeared without title at a now defunct website

THIS is PART 1 - part 2


where this interview came from: in november of 1996 i heard that the great robert williams was playing on a new release by zoogz rift. i sent zoogz an e-mail curious as to whether robert might be interested in doing an interview regarding his time in the magic band (from 1977 through early 1981, i believe, and including the two masterpiece albums 'shiny beast (bat chain puller)' and 'doc at the radar station'). i sent robert the twenty-six questions which follow, and received back a five page written response from him, which i could then put out onto the net [where he had a website - teejo].

robert's always been a musical hero of mine; his playing on those two aforementioned elpees is so detailed and 'inside' of the music as to be truly an awe-inspiring feat, in my humble opinion. i look forward to the future projects which robert mentions herein, and thank him for taking the time to do this.


were there any particular drummers who influenced your playing style when you were younger, or since then?

there were no particular drummers that influenced my playing style. on the other hand i would have to say that every drummer i've ever heard has had an influence on my playing, mostly on what nót to play. i never sat down behind a drum kit and tried to learn any fills or patterns with exception of a cream or hendrix song when i was a little kid. most influences come subliminally and manage to surface from time to time when i'm playing on my own.

the way i like to approach a song is to play it differently and still have it groove. artie tripp [ed marimba] was good at that. occasionally i'm required to learn a song from a record with another drummer playing on it. such was the case when having to learn parts off 'clear spot', 'safe as milk'... etc. for the tours. that can have an influence just from playing them every night.

how and when did you get involved with the magic band? how old were you? had you listened to any of the captain beefheart & the magic band music before then?

when i was in boarding school outside of philadelphia in the early 70's i managed to organize a field trip into town to see a jethro tull [band from england - t.t.] concert at the spectrum (on 31 october 1972 - t.t.). captain beefheart was touring 'clear spot' as their supporting act. it was a side show out of a five ring circus with musical chaos that had been organized, choreographed, polished up, and presented with a big crazy bow. i was elated to know that it was possible to perform music like that. it was like hearing music for the first time.

a few months later beefheart returned to play the tower theater (23 february 1973 - t.t). that night i stuffed my bed to give the appearance of someone sleeping in it, stole softly through my boarding school dormitory window and hitchhiked - which was very popular back then - into philadelphia. when i got there i had assumed the show to be sold out and bought a ticket from a stranger outside.

when i got in, i realized that not only was the place less than twenty-five percent full, but my seat was in the very last row of the upper balcony. i moved down to third row center and had a seat while a band named 'good god' was playing 'king kong'. one of the members of that band had asked don to come up with a name for them and that was how they got it.

halfway through their set a big security guy came over to me and asked to see my ticket and i responded by telling him in a british accent that i was '... with the band, man!'. obviously neither band was from england but the big dumb guy was putty in my hands. when good god had finished their set the security guy stood at the end of the isle staring at me suspiciously.

i walked over to him and in the same accent said: 'listen mate, it's been a long tour and i find myself a bit disoriented, do us a favor and show me how to return to the back stage area, would you?'. he proceeded to escort me past the other guards, telling them that i was with the band and led me directly back to captain beefheart's dressing room.


a few years later [no, dawning from the further text, it was just one - t.t.] i was back home in the boston area and read of beefheart coming to play at a new club in harvard square called the garage. i went down to the club in time for sound check in hopes of meeting with don again. his manager auggie dimartino was arguing with the owner of the club over who was going to move the equipment between shows. evidently they had only one stage hand and he didn't know how to assemble a drum kit. that was when i offered my services for the week long run.

at the end of that week, on the night of the last show, dr. john [a musician, not a doctor - t.t.] was in the audience with his manager and someone told me that he was in search of a new drummer. i convinced him to stick around to hear me play before i packed away the drums and although i didn't get the gig, don told me that if he ever needed a drummer that i was the one. auggie came up and gave me twenty bucks for a week's worth of work. an unforeseen preview of things to come. after all, i was only seventeen.

after migrating to the los angeles area a couple of years later i was visiting with george duke at a recording session for one of his post zappa solo records and during a break i thumbed through the front desk rolodex and found don's home phone number. i called him from time to time and the conversations usually lasted an average of four to five hours. the phone bills were high but i stayed in touch none the less.

one day (in summer '77 - t.t.) ed mann, zappa's former percussionist, told me that he had heard beefheart was looking for a new drummer so i called don to remind him of what he had told me back in boston. he gave me eric feldman and jeff tepper's phone numbers and told me to borrow the records that i didn't already have from them, and to pick up the keys to the garage in van nuys where they rehearsed.

i spent my nights there practicing the parts every waking moment. finally on the sunday morning before my afternoon audition don opened the garage door to find me just waking up on a piece of foam rubber on the floor. with morning sun behind him he stood there in silhouette with his gray fedora. 'good god, man! you've been sleeping here?'

soon after the rest of the band showed up. don interrupted the first song we ran through to say: 'you've got the job! let's go have some iced tea'. tepper and feldman asked to speak to don privately where they advised him to continue to audition more drummers but he asked them why bother when he had already found his man. i was twenty two years old.

do you feel that don is a genius (musically)?


how do you feel about the albums that you played on, 'shiny beast (bat chain puller)' and 'doc at the radar station'?

considering my conversations with john french (drumbo) and art tripp (ed marimba) and their candid recollections of how their parts were formulated for the beefheart records, i realized that i wasn't the only beefheart drummer who had made up some of the parts. beefheart claims to have written every note. that's about eighty five percent true. i think it was more like he approved every note before it appeared on his records.

john french was given a lot more freedom to improvise within the structure of each given song than i was and than don was willing to admit. the important thing is what ended up on tape. considering the limited studio time they had in those days, first takes were the only takes to be chosen from on some songs. there's no doubt that even though john french was and is an amazing and original drummer, his speeding up, slowing down, and flubbed notes are not made of things so easily learned and performed by the less experienced drummer.

art tripp had also injected some of his parts into the music that don would eventually call his own. go figure. don often said to me of my coming up with parts for his records: 'man! you knew exactly what i wanted you to play and you read my mind! you're amazing! how do you do that? i mean with your mind, man. how do you do it?'

it doesn't matter though. besides, you can't copyright a drum beat.

do you have any favorite tracks from those albums, or from the tours that you played on?

one of my favorite songs to play live was 'doctor dark' because i had to consolidate two drummers' parts into one [as both john and art play on it - teejo]. 'best batch yet', 'telephone', and 'brickbats' were songs that i had my 'fingerprints' on.

'making love to a vampire with a monkey on my knee', something that don played on my drums as i recorded it on my cassette player, was something i learned verbatim. i would have to say that 'suction prints' was truly my favorite song to play live. that song brought the audiences to their feet with deafening applause, especially when it was played well.

one of my favorite shows was the one we played in paris on november 19th, 1977 at the hippodrome. there were ten thousand kids under the big top that night.

how physically difficult was it to play some of those parts? watching the 1980 paris teevee footage, it looks pretty draining, especially 'best batch yet' and 'dirty blue gene'. were any songs especially difficult?

i never felt any stress during those performances. if you're referring to my facial expressions, don choreographed me to scowl like a cat because one of the drum parts on 'best batch yet' was described to me by don as 'a cat trying to get out of a cardboard box'. every song of every show was played with such conviction that the only pain felt was the pain of hearing a mistake within one of the compositions. at the same time it was exhilarating to hear ourselves play them correctly.

          for me / robert williams, captain beefheart / don van vliet -
          live 18 november 1978
robert and don live at 'my father's place', roslyn, new york on 18 november 1978
what are you and don saying to each other in the paris 1980 concert when he goes over and shakes your hand after playing 'best batch yet'?

something like...: 'oh man, if i were a woman i'd suck your dick for how well you played that!', or maybe it was : 'i think you may have some mayonnaise on your upper lip left over from lunch'.... it's hard to remember exactly what he said to me between one of the several songs among the several shows we performed. in all seriousness, i think it was: 'that was great, man!'.

during your time, were any members of the band especially active at 'translating' don's instructions or raw music out to members of the band? can you describe how the process worked?

don dictated each part to each musician on an individual basis. some drum beats were written by having me emulate the sound of windshield wipers recorded on his portable cassette recorder (the basic rhythm of the 'bat chain puller' song! - teejo). other beats were recordings that he had made of a set of keys hitting the floor or a five gallon water bottle with the bubbles rising...: 'bloop babloop buddella bloop', or him singing into his recorder: 'bum chicka a do bop dweep boing, diddelly doop, plop plop fizz fizz'.

and oh what a relief it was to see it all come together like pieces in a puzzle. the guitar parts were mostly written by him whistling. he usually played the keyboards himself as eric recorded it to learn later. 'sheriff of hong kong' was written on the piano by don. the left hand was doubled with bass guitar, the right doubled with the guitar.

i had recorded a drum part for that song which don showed me by playing the drums but ended up having john fench replace it. john did that by reading the bass part while he improvised on the drums. of course i had to learn that six minute and thirty three second improvisation for the tour. it took some time to memorize but it was actually a much better part than the one don had given me to play originally.



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captain beefheart electricity
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