DON'T ARGUE THE CAPTAIN
the interviews - band members
BEHIND THE TROUT MASK
the groovy beat happening of john 'drumbo' french
from OPTION #30
by michael davis
is late 1989 interview JOHN FRENCH
the compact disc explosion has led to periods of rediscovery and re-evaluation for artists great and not-so-great, usually orchestrated by some entertainment conglomerate with maximum returns in mind. not so with captain beefheart and the magic band. by some fortuitous twist of fate, spring of 1989 found three different labels releasing three of the group's early masterworks within weeks of each other. 'safe as milk' appeared coupled with most of 'mirror man' on the pair reissue label and enigma retro came out with 'lick my decals off, baby', while warner bros dusted off 'trout mask replica', the captain's most notorious, far-reaching offering.
of course these days don van vliet (aka captain beefheart) isn't promoting his music in the least, preferring a rural existence devoted to painting over the creative end of the rock 'n' roll wars. in his musical heyday, of course, van vliet and his magic band were responsible for some of the most adventurous excursions into the nether regions of rock ever set down on vinyl. several former magic band members are still active, and none more so than drummer/guitarist/vocalist john 'drumbo' french, the captain's right-hand man, off-and-on, from 1966 to 1980.
like van vliet, french grew up in lancaster, california, in the desert north of los angeles. he played with future magic band members jeff cotton [in 'the exiles' - t.t.] and mark boston in local ensembles, performing beatles/stones/yardbirds/animals material at high school dances. but on the side, he was listening to some jazz and experimenting with rhythms that contrasted with the ubiquitous 2 and 4 of rock 'n' roll. the loan of a bass drum pedal provided an introduction to the captain, who was already aware of his talents; the invitation to move into a house where john coltrane, ornette coleman and howlin' wolf platters were regularly on the turntable wasn't long in coming.
after exiting the magic band for the last time in 1980, french laid low, concentrating primarily on his own projects, but he burst upon the scene again in '87 via a pair of collaborations with guitar pioneer henry kaiser: 'live, love, larf and loaf' and 'crazy backwards alphabet'. 'live, love, larf and loaf' was a four-way feast for the ears, featuring noted british musicians richard thompson and fred frith, in addition to french and kaiser. after three-and-a-half days of intensive rehearsals and a couple of warm-up concerts, it was cut mostly live in the studio and contains an outrageous range of material, from blues and beach boys covers to a drum solo to several of thompson's folk-rock extensions.
french's contribution to the first crazy backwards alphabet project (with bassist andy west and drummer/vocalist michael maksymenko) was initially going to be limited to one song, but after he complained to kaiser about the planned inclusion of some beefheart material, another session's worth of tunes was cut, including french's first songwriting venture with kaiser cohort bob adams. french also penned a pair of instrumentals in the vein of 'trout mask replica'-era material, and was somewhat dismayed to find out that some people assumed he was borrowing heavily from his old boss.
in all his interviews don said that he wrote all the parts and taught everybody everything; he took total credit for it. at the time he was doing it, i knew it was a lie, but i didn't say anything about it because i didn't think it was important. now that i look back on it and see what the critics are saying, i see that it is that important, so i have to say something.
how did the material and arrangements come together for 'trout mask replica', and what was your role on the album besides your drumming?
at that point in time, don went to frank zappa and said: 'help me, please, i want to do an art statement: i'm sick of doing commercial music'. i guess he thought that's what 'mirror man' was. (laughs) i saw don developing the attitude of 'well, they're not buying my albums, so i've gotta get weirder'. when he decided to do 'trout mask replica', he ordered a beat-up old piano with mirrors on it, from the 1940s, and had it delivered to the house.
the way don used to write music was he would tell you to record something really quickly - the only problem was that don never bought any tapes. so you would know that maybe there was an empty spot on reel number 5, but you couldn't get to it fast enough. i wound up erasing stuff he had already written, so i finally decided we had to do this another way.
one day, i just started writing the music down while he was playing, and that's how 'trout mask replica' came together. he would play the parts, i would write them down - and it took a hell of a lot longer than eight-and -a-half hours (laughing), no matter what he says. it took me that long to play each part once. he had to play them for me; i had to write them down; then i had to check to make sure i had written them correctly. he would give me between 20 and 30 parts and say: 'now, that's one song'. when i would ask how he wanted me to put it together, he would say: 'well, you know how to do that'.
now, these parts were in different key signatures because don knows nothing technical about music, nothing about sharps or flats or what note he is playing. it was all instinctive and by ear. so i had to take this material and figure out which parts worked. some things had five note chords - you couldn't play something like that on a four-string bass, for instance. i had to put the parts in some sort of order, arrange them, teach them to the guys, and tell everybody how many times to play each part. that's what i did for almost a year.
how did don communicate drum parts to you?
we had three different ways of doing it. he would sing parts to me - it sounded really funny, but it worked. then sometimes he would try to play. don was pretty coordinated, and he could communicate simple ideas that way. also, i wrote a lot of my own drums parts, a good 70%, i would say. i knew they were going to be impossible to play, so i just worked on them really hard. sometimes i spent hours working on one measure of a drum beat. of course it would be repeated several times, but to get the groove right, to get it so that it was like second nature, i had to do it over and over.
did the other members of the magic band read music or did you have to play it to them too?
bill harkleroad (aka zoot horn rollo) did. jeff cotton (aka antennae jimmy semens) and mark boston (aka rockette morton) didn't. i actually played all their parts to them because i wanted to make sure that it was right and i felt that one person should be responsible, rather than having everybody have access to the music. i sort of kept it to myself and said: 'let me do this or it will get all screwed up'.
we rehearsed the album by putting all the instruments through one silvertone amplifier, which was set on a chair behind me so i could hear it. we were poor. we all lived together; we all slept in the living room because the only other bedroom in the house besides the one don had, was taken up with musical cases and boxes. i wondered what kind of situation could exist so that you could teach the band an album's worth of material over a year.
basically, don's mother supported the band for that year: she paid the rent. then about halfway through that, frank started giving advances, but i can remember some hungry times. there's a lot of bad memories from that period of time because don would accuse people of trying to sabotage the music or not being into it or not being interested. he would go on and on about it.
we could have done that album in six months and done it better if don wouldn't have said anything and just realized that we all wanted to do it, or we wouldn't have been there. but at the same time, he had a huge amount of creative energy: he was just a powerhouse. he did a lot of his creating during that time. he was using that stuff for years, even on his last album.
was the recording done mostly live?
we were given six hours to do the basic tracks and we did them in four-and-a-half. there's maybe half a dozen things that weren't recorded during those four-and-a-half hours, a capella songs like 'well', and so on. they were going to record the album at the house but don sort of threw a fit, saying: 'the band's not getting into it'. well, obviously, the band was - because if you listen to 'hair pie, bake 1', it sounds great. don and his cousin victor hayden (aka the mascara snake) were outside the house playing their horns, so we didn't hear a thing they were doing until after the song was done, but they could hear us.
'trout mask replica' is usually looked upon as the breakthrough, but 'safe as milk' is pretty amazing for its time.
yeah. that would have been about may of '67. i joined the band in around october of '66, and 'safe as milk' was recorded the following may.
'safe as milk' had ry cooder on it; he wasn't a member of the magic band, was he?
he was hired by the record company to get the music together, to make it recordable and get the final arrangements together. they came over and saw that we could play, but that we didn't have the music finished. so cooder would show up at nine in the morning while don would stay in bed until noon every day, yelling ideas to him from the bedroom.
ry was not only a great player, but he arranged a lot of those songs. he put them in order, adding parts where they were missing, bass parts, guitar parts. he was great with drum parts too, he could tell me exactly what to play. we were both eighteen on that album, and i really respected him: it got me inspired because here was someone tying all this mess together. i had been in the band for six months, and we didn't have one song we could play from beginning to end and know where we were at all points.
'safe as milk' was probably recorded in about a week instrumentally. when it came time to do the vocals, we realized that don had only a rough idea of how the words fit the music. i asked him where the lyrics were and he brought out this huge box full of napkins and bits of paper. i had to go through it and put them in piles; then he would put them in order. then i hand-wrote all of them because we didn't have a type-writer. i did it because he couldn't do stuff like that for himself - or he pretended like he couldn't.
we took a copy of the instrumental tape to buddah records' office, and producer richard perry sat with don for a full day putting together the words. some of them came together pretty easily, but 'abba zaba', for instance, took about three hours. richard was really a valuable asset. he wrote out a horn chart for 'i'm glad', he thought of drum ideas for 'autumn's child'. i would say between richard en ry, that album came into being.
on the albums after 'trout mask replica' you were off and on with the band....
i left the band after 'trout mask replica' because it was a very intense period of time and i just wasn't happy with the group, so i worked on a cattle ranch in wyoming. they had another drummer for a while who ended up kicking jeff cotton in the ribs, breaking them, so jeff left the band. around the time of the cover of rolling stone thing in '70 [140570 - t.t.] artie tripp took over drumming [text corrected by t.t.].
but they eventually called me up. don said: 'i need you back in the group: artie doesn't lend the right approach to the drums on this'. they could sit down and listen to what i had done, but they didn't know where i was coming from or how to make up new drum parts. even though don was great at writing drum parts, they didn't know what i had done and they wanted it to sound consistent with the album before. i said: 'fine'. i dropped out of college, rejoined the band and sat around for six months doing almost nothing for the album ('lick my decals off, baby') that was supposed to be recorded in three weeks.
was don essentially living from advance to advance then?
he was, to a degree. he wouldn't tour as much as he should have. he was very disorganized. he didn't know his lyrics, he couldn't go on stage and perform without somebody really prepping him and getting him built up for it.
that sounds pretty odd: when i saw you guys at some club down in orange county around the time 'lick my decals off, baby' came out, you blew me away.
okay, i remember the exact show. that was before we went out on tour. we had been rehearsing and that was our first performance. it got a lot better than that. like anybody else, once he has played something a few times, don starts improvising and improving upon his performance, and each one gets better. the band kept getting better and tighter. sometimes it would go off into a different plane, but it got very, very good.
[here the interview turned to the songwriting and playing activities of john french, especially during his time in the 'crazy backwards alphabet' band. so did he piece together a track entitled 'we are in control?' for their album 'crazy backwards alphabet' (which also contains a cover version of beefheart's 'mirror man', by the way), and wrote the leftover 'disposable thoughts' which eventually was used for the 'live, love, larf & loaf' record of the french-frith-kaiser-thompson project. john also mentioned the fact that he had completed a demo and was looking for a solo deal. (it would take some years, but in 1994 he made 'waiting on the flame', on which also plays a certain bill harkleroad.) - t.t.]
is this more accessible direction you are going in changing your drumming style much? the more i listen to you, the more i think that you just don't have the same relationship with the style that most drummers have.
people that really listen to music appreciate the kind of drumming that i do. most people get very confused by it. i am doing more straightforward drumming on this newer stuff: i'm keeping a back-beat with the snare, which i always thought was boring. but it seems to work with the new songs because the material is different enough, and i still use the tom toms in the same way.
what i thought i would do is reserve the style of drumming that i was known for, like with 'trout mask replica' or with 'disposable thoughts' for a crazy backwards alphabet project. i really hope that crazy backwards alphabet will get together at least one more time and do a very strong, very powerful statement, powerful in terms of like a 'trout mask replica'. i have always wanted to do something like that again, just for the sheer joy of playing that style. 'disposable thoughts' is sort of in that style, so is 'we are in control?'. people say they enjoy it, but usually musicians don't want to learn that type of material because it is difficult. you have to really think about it: it is mathematical. you have to analyze it before you play it, and then forget about it and just play it.
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