DON'T ARGUE WITH THE CAPTAIN
is 7 august 1982 interview
from usa 011282 MUSICIAN #50
by kristine mckenna
edited version - left out are the intro and parts of the interview which where 'borrowed' from the extra terrestrial man
also with interviews with magic band members
THIS is PART 1 - part 2
don van vliet was born in glendale, california on january 15, 1941, the only child of glenn and sue van vliet. don began showing artistic talent at a very young age, but glenn and sue were none too keen on the prospect of having an artist in the family ('because you know, all artists are faggots', is how don explained their rationale), so they moved to the mojave desert, an isolated, harsh environment guaranteed to bleach the creative juice out of anybody.
but don van vliet just had too much to dry out. the drive to translate the world around him - and the one inside his head - into music intensified, his imagination blossomed and then..., voila! don van vliet introduced himself to the world as captain beefheart.
he recently signed with epic records (his eighth label) which will distribute his new elpee 'ice cream for crow' and although beefheart feels it's one of the best albums he's made, he remains skeptical about its commercial potential. 'well, here's hoping the album goes platinum,' i enthused. 'yeah, sure,' he laughed.
'ice cream for crow' signals no major stylistic changes for beefheart, but it does differ from his last elpee in a few ways worth noting. the music feels looser - there's more air and space to it - and somehow, sadder. beefheart has lost none of his bite and is still mad as hell about the horrors man has wrought, yet his anger seems a bit more forgiving and benign.
the album includes a gorgeous instrumental guitar composition entitled 'evening bell' (which is magnificently performed by gary lucas), a spoken word piece, and of course a handful of tunes so ferociously fired-up and complex, god only knows how the magic band mastered them.
beefheart is notorious for the dictatorial way in which he runs his band and he doesn't try to deny those rumors. it's hís music, it demands absolute precision and the band is to play each note exactly as he tells them. as might be expected, there are former magic band members with bitter tales to tell, yet difficult as it may have been to work with beefheart, none of them questions the genius of his music.
the incarnation of the magic band i've come to know - jeff tepper, gary lucas, richard snyder and cliff martinez - are a remarkable bunch indeed. in addition to being first-rate musicians, they're exceptional people, kind, humble and intelligent, and all feel a deep commitment to beefheart and his music.
having decided to retire from touring, beefheart intends to promote his new album with a video, so on august 7, he and the magic band gathered in the desert to perform one of their new songs [...]. plonked in the middle of the mojave, nothing but joshua trees and sand as far as the eye could see, they filmed from sundown to sunup. i spoke with don during the interminable waiting periods that are part of film making.
beefheart makes unexpected conversational segues that parallel his music; talking with him can be like struggling with a jigsaw puzzle. he'll make a baffling declaration, you'll give him a confused look and he'll add the clarifying link. example:
boy, those kids hooked on pac-man are like zombies.
yeah, i always want to check and see if they have navels.
to see if they're human!
he's a funny man with a remarkable memory, who's had to wage a fierce battle to preserve and protect his music, and he's rightfully, defiantly proud of the work he's done. a child in many ways. he's apt to find the task of ordering his lunch befuddling, yet he's incredibly wise when it comes to the big issues.
lip-synching for the video camera, he was constantly doing double-takes on himself. he'd perform a gesture, be struck by the absurdity of the situation, step back and mimic himself. as take after take was required, his behavior flip-flopped between that of a patient professional, and a restless child whose attention span had reached its limit.
hell, he exclaimed at one point, checking his watch, i've got to be on mars in fifteen minutes!
if anybody knows how to get there, i would bet even money that it's don van vliet.
picture by kate simon
what was the central idea that guided you through the making of 'ice cream for crow'?
probably the image of black crows and white ice cream, just the idea of black and white. god, you should see some of these birds! those ravens with those tuft things under their beaks like a double chin. pretty hip. i wanted to have some crows in a video i made a few weeks ago in the desert but they're too smart and they wouldn't come around when we were out there with the cameras. when people show up they start laughing, ha ha ha, then they split.
how do you compose? what comes first? a lyrical fragment? a sound that appeals to you which you'll build a song around?
usually the complete composition comes to me. flash! bang! it's just there. if i have an idea that i don't think is really living, i get rid of it.
do the songs ever take on lives of their own and evolve in a way that surprises you?
no, i'm always in control, disgustingly enough. wouldn't it be funny if all of a sudden they said: 'hey, i have a place for yóu to go!' that would be nice.
how do you convey to the band what you want them to play?
i’ll try anything. long tedious explanations, i'll paint it out - anything to get it to resemble the way i want it. i'm real stubborn. the band is actually pretty quick at picking up on what i want.
how collaboratively are the songs worked up in rehearsal? is the band allowed any creative input?
none, but they're not like slaves. if they have something they want to do, i let them go all the way out. i mean, hit the damn stuff to hell! that's what i require - somebody that really wants to beat it out.
what's the key to a great vocal performance? to let your senses take over and lose yourself in the moment? or discipline and intense rehearsal - to concentrate and sing with your mind?
to just completely let go, but i think if you do let go, your mind is in control. i think soul is a mathematical mistake.
have you ever had a productive relationship with a producer?
no, it was always something i had to fight.
is there anyone whose opinion you trust more than your own instincts?
yeah, my wife jan. she's always right, to the point that it scares me sometimes. she's a very good painter herself, although she hasn't painted in quite a long time because she's been trying to help me, which is a terrible burden on me, guilt wise.
which of your work functions as a central reference point for you, something you measure other work against?
i've never reflected in that way - i'm afraid to. i don't want to get caught by myself.
how do you see your music evolving over the years?
i don't know that it really has. the only difference between the new record and the last one is that the guys in my new band play better. they're real good. cliff martinez, my new drummer, is just incredible and jeff tepper's gotten awful good - but he was awful good to begin with.
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HOW THIS ENDS, CLICK CLACK TO PAGE TWO
as felt by teejo