DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
the interviews - band members
PLAYING THAT LONG LUNAR
NOTE WITH ZOOT HORN ROLLO
the bill harkleroad interview
from DAMP #5 010190
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
part 1 - THIS is PART 2 - part 3
john french stated recently that most of the music was written out in notation, in short phrases. it would be learned phrase by phrase and then strung together to be played in different rhythms, different time and key signatures simultaneously, solely by intuition and feel.
right, and there would be different points where it would come together. john did the first album, and he was the official transcriber. he would turn the parts into notes, work it out and play it to us from the keyboard, and then we would put it together. i would learn my five parts, and someone else might have six, and also the five and six parts were supposed to start and end at the same time. so they had to fit together, and it would be kind of random....
but how would the songs actually start? did don come in with demo tapes, did he play parts for you on a piano, or did he just sing or whistle it?
he would bang things out on piano, with a tape going. and after john was gone, it was my job to decipher these tapes. i had a couple of hundred tapes full of this piano stuff, and i would listen, learn it, come back and that was the tune. he would pound out these cool rhythms, sculpt away on the sound - and i would stick one part with another, this one with that one. which is why there would be four bars of this, four bars of that, four bars of something else, and so on, never to be repeated. or when it did repeat, it was this very musical thing. so he would throw out these chunks of music and rhythm, and we would string them together in the order that they came on the tapes.
did you decide: 'hey, this part would sound great with that earlier part' or -
no! if he played this part first, that part second, and another one third, we would play them 1-2-3. the parts he played on piano were learned and strung together by the band, and then it was arranged by him and the band in this process. it was largely rhythm input that we were chasing after; the notes would be secondary.
for the arrangements, how was it determined who would play what?
it would be definitely by our asking: 'is this a bass part or a guitar part? what the hell ís this?'. (laughing)
i'm not sure what the results will be after all these years, but let me throw out a few song titles chosen at random and see if you recall anything in particular about them. for instance: 'hair pie'.
that was one of the more fun tunes to play, because of the way the different rhythms flowed together with some nice harmonious parts coming in and out, and the tempo had this cool groove to it.
'hobo chang ba' is a personal favorite of mine.
that one was more of a nightmare, trying to learn it, and then in the studio. i'm remembering more of my feelings from being there than what the song sounded like. there were some cool rhythmic things happening: any of the sort of african-sounding bass stuff we got into, i liked a whole lot, like 'ant man bee'.... i liked 'abba zaba' - i didn't record it, but i got to play it a lot.
let's move forward to 'lick my decals off, baby', which you have already mentioned liking. 'bellerin' plain'?
i always enjoyed playing those doubled lines with artie tripp, like 'the clouds are full of wine', which resurfaced on 'golden birdies'.
it was great hearing that combination of the guitar and the marimba. do you recall anything about 'i love you, you dig dummy'?
oh yeah. i liked it because it had a strong blues feel. i was always a little disappointed though: like 'this is a great blues tune, let's finish it off'. i was starting to get anxious to play some licks, because i was playing the weird beefheart parts - and that's not a bad thing for the tune, it's just that this felt like the stuff i had been playing since i was 14.... 'let me play some shit here'.
were you able to work any in?
no. not until after elliot ingber played a few solos, and then when he wasn't in the band i finally got the opening to play.
one more from that album: 'peon', which you then brought back on the first mallard elpee.
yes, the 'old standby'. mark boston and i redid it later as something to reconnect; it was something which he and i had in common and we thought we would try it and see if it worked, and it ended up on the record.
i always thought that you had done it again - especially with the birds singing in the background - to try for a different feel on the piece, a more relaxed version where it's softer, not played as fast or as hard as the original.
yeah, that was part of it. it was also like laying to rest the old band, in a way. it was like saying: 'okay, that's what that was. now i want to play from the heart, as opposed to the attitude'. that was one that worked real well, and it was fun because it was a duet. i had fun doing the duets because, rhythmically, you could play free-form things - matching phrasing - and, if anything, that band was locked in on phrasing. i mean any group that doesn't count; they just say: 'and --!' and play, and know the tempo. we played them so much that that was a comforting thing, when there was something that was a little more relaxed, where we could hammer the phrasing out so it was solid.
moving ahead, there was 'i'm gonna booglarize you baby' from 'the spotlight kid'.
it was fun to play, because it was funky, and i have always liked that. i liked where it went, but again i would have liked us to finish it off. it kind of goes whimpering off on these two sections; we could have played a line.... i think i wanted something more out of it, but i enjoyed it for the power of the rhythmic thing.
speaking of tunes that were funky: one of my long-time favorites is 'crazy little thing' off 'clear spot'.
oh yeah! now that was a cool guitar part. it was like tying metal strings in bows. there was some real movement in that. it was melodic and, again, we were getting a little simpler there; some of the other elements were still happening, but it was a little easier to assimilate.
that whole album has a variety of rhythmic feels, and enough stability so a larger audience could get hold of it without suddenly feeling as if whatever they had been starting to get hold of had been yanked away from them. 'nowadays a woman's gotta hit a man', for example, has that new orleans 'second line' drum feel.
yeah, i liked that. it was like a cajun football game, or a parade! it's great. some of that stuff was a lot of fun on that album.... but i want to go back one album, now that you've got me going down memory lane. by far, the most uncomfortable time and album was 'the spotlight kid'. actually some great music, but the whole album should have been done at another time with a better feel. it was just so dead, such a lack of energy.
and there were really some good tunes on that, but i had just been beat up so bad emotionally during that time, internally, in that situation, that my thing sucked and everybody else's did, too. it was just a horrible time for that band, but actually don had done some of his better things within a more accessible, blues-based style. there was some good stuff on that album, but just the inner workings of all of it.... it was a bad time for the band, a transition. so i thought the album itself sucked, but there was this spark of some really cool material.
last song i will hit you with: 'big eyed beans from venus', with those great guitar lines.
it was fun in the studio, fun all the way around. it was always one of the highlights of the live shows. all the later stuff was. i was getting older, more established as a person, i wasn't pushed around by other attitudes as much. so as those songs went down, i was much more positive, because i was in a little more control of my life. that reflects in how i think of it now and when it was going down. then again, it was also easier to play! (laughing) you know what i mean, it was like: 'oh wow, shit, i can breathe now!'.
after having to perform all of the earlier material live, the later ones must have been like a vacation for you.
oh yeah. it was. on those tunes, you could look up and see who was in the audience.
instead of sweating out the next impossible hand-jump.
i would be remiss if i didn't ask how long the process was - from start to finish - to learn, arrange and rehearse the material to the point where it could be performed or recorded?
anything and everything. some of them just happened, and other ones went on for months.
the story on 'trout mask replica', in particular, was: 'well, of course the band sounds tight; they have been rehearsing and playing these tunes every day for a year!'.
yeah, and there was the transition of new members coming into the group, plus changing the whole style.... how do you put this shit together? how do you remember it all? god, i would never do that again, i would never work that hard again.
i'm serious. i would never work that hard again.
but at that time, did it really feel like it was such hard work?
yet it must have felt rewarding, i would think.
ahhhh..., yeah. i thought we were changing the world. (laughing)
so you did know, even then, that what you guys were doing was completely unique and amazing. because that's another of those myths that have been handed down: that you all just gradually evolved and developed this style, but you didn't realize how far you had gone until someone from outside the group told you so.
i would have to have been totally nuts to not know that, and play that kind of music in front of people. i mean, jesus, are you kidding? i had been playing old blues and stuff for five or six years before i got there. it was like: 'what the fuck is this shit on the guitar? what do you mean: five notes here and put my thumb on the face of the guitar? god, are you kidding? the bass player is playing all these fucking notes at the same time!?'.
of course i knew. the band was a strong thing to me before i got there, so for it to start doing that kind of stuff.... and one of my - at that time - idols, frank zappa was well involved. and his crazy stuff was pretty mild by comparison, but 'freak out' was right in there for me. yeah, i was well aware that it was - all we had to do was play one gig to know that! (mutual laughing)
was it the 'a' audience, screaming their heads off, because they had never seen anything so good, or the horrified 'b' crowd?
the first gig we did, was in los angeles - i think there were eight groups. jethro tull was one of them; they had just started. so here was this guy in leotards, with his package jammed down there, playing flute. i thought it was kind of funny. he later turned out to be a very nice person. and that was the first time i met art tripp, who had a green moustache and woman's underwear on his head. this was a pretty far out gig, pretty crazy. and we went on and played, and people just stiffened up, man; it was like everyone else had been real easy to assimilate. yeah, it was pretty obvious.
jumping forward in time: you were still there for the recording of 'unconditionally guaranteed'. the story i have heard was that right before the band was to go on tour in support of that album, there was some sort of falling out which resulted in the whole band deciding that they did not want to continue. was it because of musical or personal differences?
both. mostly personal. there was unity within the band because we were weakened people following this thing, and as one person got stronger, the others got stronger. so there was this situation with don giving too much power to his new producers, who were bringing in these schlocky musicians in a weak attempt at commerciality. these people had no clue to what we were about, no idea. the record sucked. there may have been some good elements - i don't remember: i have only listened to it once. we didn't want to do it anymore, to play [this new] shitty music for no money.
well, this brings up the question of money. did it ever reach a point where things had started to look good financially?
never, never. my mother put more money into that band than anybody. that was the money that would have paid for my college education; i borrowed from her constantly. there was no money coming in. we had received nothing for our efforts for so long, and we weren't getting recognized for our part in the whole thing. it was upsetting.
as far as the commercial aspect goes: i always thought, after i heard 'clear spot', that it was the point at which the essence of what captain beefheart and the magic band had been doing met just enough of an accessible quality so that people who liked what they had done before could still enjoy it, but now so could people who hadn't understood or liked the previous albums. it was more 'normal', but still....
that's why i was surprised that he tried to go further toward being commercial with 'unconditionally guaranteed', which did not meet the same criteria.
no, it didn't. i mean, there had to be elements, just because it was the same people, but i totally agree. it was a big mistake, and obviously it was a weak period for don. for him to give up control of it like that, he had to be in a weak period.
i remember his lyric from 'upon the my-o-my' on that record, where he sings: 'tell me, good captain, how does it feel: to be driven away from your own steering wheel?'. that seemed like it might be a revealing line, given the situation you describe.
yeah, that is a good line. i hadn't thought about that, but i remember him saying it.
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