DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
the interviews - band members
from PTOLEMAIC TERRASCOPE
#26 010299 england
by marc minsker
is ± spring 1997 written interview JOHN FRENCH
notes: edited version
part 1 - THIS is PART 2
what is the story behind the creation and production of 'trout mask replica'?
don used to say that 'trout mask replica' was written in eight and a half hours on the piano. total nonsense. although it wasn't really the writing that took that long. it was the sorting out of all the parts. i used to joke and say this, that eight and a half hours is about all the effort don put into the music in the eleven or twelve month we worked on the album.
the instrumental tracks were mostly recorded in óne four and a half hour session. don took weeks to add the vocals, because he never rehearsed his parts. i think this in itself shows that the band was dedicated and well rehearsed, and took the project very seriously. a project for which we were never paid.
for about 80 per cent of the music, i was transcribing the music as don sat at the piano and played. it was sort of like getting the box of lyrics, except at least i had a clue as to what song the parts went to. sometime, he would tell me who played what, like with 'dali's car'. most of the time, he was asleep in his room, and i was struggling at the keyboard - which i didn't play well - to teach mark [boston], bill [harkleroad] or jeff [cotton] a part.
i would knock on don's door and ask him about a part, and he would say: 'you know what to do' or something similar, or his girlfriend would answer the door and say he was asleep and she didn't want to bother him. i would go back and study parts and arrange them in some sensible order. most of the arrangement decisions were made by myself and the other members of the band. don was never aware of these decisions, because each one would have caused another 'talk'.
we always considered those arrangements just 'rehearsal arrangements' until don actually told us what went where and for how long. that rarely happened. to set the record straight, everything i taught to the band was written by van vliet. i have read articles where i was quoted as saying i wrote some of the music, and that is simply bad journalism and misunderstanding. however, i did write many of my own drum parts.
so you actually wrote the drum parts for 'trout mask replica'?
i didn't write all the drum parts to 'trout mask replica' myself, though i wrote a great deal of them in my spare time. i had almost no time to rehearse due to all the teaching and transcribing. also, the neighbours would complain about the drums. i finally put cardboard on my drums and set them up in a shed near the house which housed the washer and dryer, closing the door and both windows.
this was in the san fernando valley in the summer, and it was so hot i thought i was going to faint. i remember one of our 'talks' being based on the fact that a raven had landed on the roof while i was practising. don somehow perceived this as an omen from beyond that i 'wasn't into it', meaning my motives for being in the band were at best questionable.
at this point, i was rehearsing about fourteen hours a day. the raven probably landed on the roof because, being a scavenger, it thought i was about to die in that heat. if that kind of nonsensical suspicion had been eliminated, 'trout mask replica' wouldn't have taken a year to rehearse - at up to fourteen hours a day - and it would have sounded about ten times better, because we would have had more time to rehearse our parts instead of defending our imagined hidden motives and getting physically, mentally and emotionally abused.
on the other hand, don could be a very sensitive person, and at times a great friend. he also had a genius for writing almost non-stop lyrics. don told me once he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. another time, i was told by a former girlfriend that he was undergoing therapy for being a compulsive liar. he did tell some pretty tall tales.
how did all of this affect you?
i am a christian. i have been since i was nine, although i went through a period of 'doubt' from about 12 to 23. people ask me why i went back to work with don, after my bad experience. part of that is based in my faith that this world is only temporary, and that there is an eternal existence after this life on earth. it says in the bible to turn the other cheek. it says to treat your neighbour the way you wish to be treated.
i was trying to live these things in relationship to this man. i have been called a fool by many people, and discounted by others who worship the captain but know nothing of his personal behaviour. all i can say is that there is an old native american proverb which says: 'i will not judge a man until i have walked a mile in his mocassins'. i have only met three other people who have walked in mine, and we can look in each other's eyes with understanding of an experience no one else will ever understand.
you've played with several different configurations of the magic band over the years. what were the circumstances surrounding your joining and departing from the band?
i was originally asked by van vliet to join the band in 1966, i left in 1969, right after 'trout mask replica'. my first time to go back to the band was in 1970. don had gotten his picture on the cover of the  rolling stone. i was in college in lancaster, california and i got a visit from bill and mark late one night. they asked me to come down with them, that don wanted to see me.
i went down and don explained to me that the fighting was over, things had changed, and he wanted me in on the money because i had been in on a major part of the struggle. the monster was hidden for a while, but slowly oozed back in until it once again became unbearable. i left after one and a half years.
the second time was in late 1974 / early 1975. i was playing with mallard for a while in northern california and don came into a club where we were playing. he asked me to come a work with him, saying that zappa had offered him a deal [the 'bongo fury' tour - teejo]. at this point, don was totally broke living in trinidad, california. he had to move into his mother's trailer in the desert. i took a bus from the desert and 24 hours later was in don's living room sleeping on the floor.
the next day i rented a truck and loaded it with his and jan's personal belongings, boxes and boxes of clothing and shoes, and hundreds of paintings. while there, i met jeff [moris] tepper, who was don's neighbour and had been learning 'trout mask replica' parts in his living room before he knew that don was living next door. jeff didn't join until later [about february 1976].
zappa formed a deal with don and we did a 'best of' tour of europe - the only fun i ever had working with don - and an album, 'bat chain puller', which is soon to be re-released [yeah, everybody's saying that all the time, but it never happens - teejo]. however, the monster showed up again, and i left again. the third time was in [spring] 1977. don's drummer - i think his name was jerry jaye - quit the band just before a west coast tour. don called up and asked me to do the tour. i did the tour to help him out.
the fourth time was the only time í approached don. it was 1980, and i had been running into don here and there. we were on good friendly terms. i was really following my christian faith, going to church, reading the bible a lot, but i was having trouble finding a job. i was walking along praying, and i asked god what i should do. i was under the impression to go to see don about working in his band. this was completely against anything i wanted to do, so i figured it had to be god speaking.
so, i went to don's trailer. he motioned me inside from the kitchen counter. he was visibly upset and asking: 'why, man, why?'. after a few moments he got off the phone and said his guitarist had quit [he meant richard redus, but that was more than a year ago, in which don had done nothing - musically - teejo], and he was supposed to record 'doc at the radar station'. i knew instantly why i was there. 'why don't you hire me to play guitar?', i asked. 'that's a good idea!', don replied.
this last time was a fairly pleasant experience for me. don and i were friends. i felt as though i were in the band not for a career, but to explain to don that god loved him, and that he should accept jesus in his heart. he was basically very civil about the whole thing, but never really accepted jesus. i also realise that many people hearing this probably think this is ridiculous nonsense, nonetheless, i still believe the same way i did then, and i would not trade shoes with don for any amount of money even though i am struggling to survive. i feel that i am far better off than don in the spiritual or eternal sense, and nothing could convince me otherwise.
about eight month later, and for the final time, i left the band when i was given two weeks to learn a ridiculous number of songs while working full time at tippi hedron's exotic feline reserve in acton, california.
i've read little about your work with henry kaiser [...]. what are some of the other music projects you've been involved with?
well, i met henry kaiser in 1975 while rehearsing in zappa's studio for a knebworth, england concert in july. [....] after the 'doc at the radar station' session don was speaking to henry and talked him into hiring me for a concert he was playing with fred frith and chris cutler. i didn't enjoy playing with him much then, as his music was totally improvised, and i had come from a background of almost totally arranged music.
henry and i later teamed up to do 'crazy backwards alphabet'. i actually joined after he and andy west and michael maksimenko had been playing a west coast tour. they were doing magic band songs on the album, and i talked them into doing only original stuff. i wrote 'we are in control' and 'the welfare elite' especially for this band, which was beefheart oriented anyway. it was fun playing that style of music again.
two years ago, i was invited by the london musician's collective to play a drum solo at their concert in london. i had to turn it down because my mother was gravely ill. she recovered, however, and so a year later, i went. [on 260596] i played some beefheart stuff, some of my own that i had written when i was with him, and some stuff i wrote with for projects with henry. i was a little nervous about getting up on stage by myself 9,000 miles from home, and playing a rented set, but i actually wound up having a great time.
i sent a tape of the concert to henry, and he financed a drum solo album [...]. i did a concert in san francisco immediately after the third day in the studio and was even more relaxed than in london. the album will have drumbo - my stage name with captain beefheart - in the title. incidentally, i was told that don owns the copyright on all the band alias names, including 'drumbo', and when i tried to use the name for my publishing company i was told i couldn't because someone else owned it. however, titles of albums cannot be copywritten so i finally get to use the name, if only as a title (which eventually would be: o solo drumbo - teejo].
have you ever needed supplementary work to support you and your family?
i have found it very difficult to support myself in music. i was 'pigeon-holed' as a weird drummer from my work with don. i'm too unique for most people's tastes, so therefore there is little work. the small group that does appreciate my work is obscure and widely scattered. it is extremely frustrating.
i have done all kinds of work in my life. stock clerk, music teacher, furniture delivery, welding pipe corrals, making props for commercials, assistant to an insurance adjustor. about the only period of steady income was working in a small obscure club called mr. b's in lake los angeles, california, which neither has a lake nor is very near los angeles. i played jazz and standards every weekends and was part of the 'house band' for seven years.
i had a tiny studio in a borrowed garage and my wife and i lived in an even tinier house. i made $250 a week, but my rent, including utilities was only $175 a month. my wife and i drove old cars, wore old clothes, and about our only fun was a little vacation every year for our anniversary. that was when i did all the albums with kaiser and most of my own album 'waiting on the flame' on demon records. that was 12 years ago, up until about five years ago. then i became the father of a beautiful little blond girl, jesse, i became a 'house father' and my wife continued her job as a teacher's assistant.
any future projects lined up?
actually, this drum solo project may be my last. i am quickly running out of reasons to continue. i was recently offered a job with good benefits by a friend. i will always play, but it would be nice to just do it totally for enjoyment.
i am a little weary of beefheart fan's expectations. when my solo album 'waiting on the flame' was released, one reviewer said that i was merely trying to prove i was not like van vliet. can you imagine how i felt about putting out these little pieces of myself i had nurtured for years only to have some goon still compare me to don after sixteen years of not playing with him? what ignorance. what stupidity.
i have tried my album out on many people who don't know 'who i am' in the beefheart sense of identity. they liked it and bought copies. i am only happy with about six songs on the album myself, and i would have rather had everything a little more spontaneous, but i was completely limited in budget and time.
and in summary?
i am most fortunate in that i have a wonderful, caring wife, and beautiful and intelligent daughter who love me very much. i have a great love also for henry kaiser, who is more like a brother than a friend and has shown me extreme kindness and love through the years. i have remained in contact with some of the magic band members and enjoy be updated on their lives. i think that the only things that really count in this world are not the things we accomplish, but how we accomplish them.
re-cybered with permission
important note 03.06.99 the ptolemaic terrascope is an irregular magazine from england. the shit is that of each issue they only print just the amount of copies that have been pre-ordered! so you must keep an eye on the giftshop to make sure you'll get the future issues which will contain interviews with former members of the crew like bill harkleroad (zoot horn rollo), doug moon, and gary marker [part-time member], and maybe alex snouffer (alex st. claire), and... one from 1978 with captain beefheart himself!
important note 03.02.00 issue 28 is ready, and contains the interview the master must speak to you with don van vliet!
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo