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 conversation with the extra terrestrial man as published in the 180982 english magazine 'new musical express'.
also with interviews with magic band members
since you feel so good about your current band, why have you decided not to tour?
to be perfectly truthful, i don't care if the public hears this music or not. i do it for mé! i have to. i mean, if i don't get it out - good god!
so how do you feel about your audience? do you feel any sense of kinship or respect?
no sense of kinship, really. i think if they want to come hear it they should, but if they don't want to, they shouldn't. i respect anybody who wants to hear something they have to go through so much hell to hear. i mean, i'm gonna holler at them! i'm hollering at myself, at the monster in me. it's not meant towards any humans.
in a very elegant way....
the artist is he who kids himself most gracefully.
can an adventurous ear for music be learned?
yeah, i think it can probably be refined, although i liked mozart the minute i heard him. i just wish i'd heard him perform his music. i don't want to hear somebody else's interpretation of it. the interpreters get so laid back. they always take the bite and power out of it. i heard stravinsky conduct himself once and god, what a difference!
do you have hopes that your music will be performed by other players in the future, or are you central to the music to the point that that would be impossible?
i expect it's impossible but i don't know if anybody's going to ant to tear themselves up as much as this music demands. my band plays hard. i hate to flex and all that macho silliness but my music does take a lot of muscle.
have you ever heard your music performed by any other group?
yeah, once. what's their name? the tubes, yeah, the tubes went down on one of my songs. [read the sputnik and the blimp for what happened next - t.t.] and this british group, magazine, did 'i love you, you big dummy', and they did a disgusting job. totally missed the point! sounded like attentive masturbation.
do you attempt to stay abreast of musical trends or listen to the radio?
no! yyyeee no! the very thought gives me an involuntary shake. you can get ear flu from pop music.
why do you think the general audience tends to find your music difficult and abrasive?
probably because they won't work hard enough to hear it.
exactly how does a musician go about mastering beefheart's unique repertoire? ask the man himself and he'll no doubt leave you with a poetic understanding of how he approaches his work, but the actual techniques he employs remain a mystery. in an attempt to shed some light on his working methods, and the dynamics of his relationship with the people who play his music, i spoke with the four members of the magic band.
GARY LUCAS guitarist
don teaches us our parts in a number of ways. he tends to mold and shape the music right there during our rehearsals and he often sings or whistles our parts to us. sometimes he'll draw a diagram or give us a tape of him playing the piece on the piano. he's able to compose at the piano very beautifully - 'trout mask replica' was in fact composed at the piano, by and large.
i learned one cut on the new album, a thing called 'evening bell', from a tape he gave me of himself at the piano. for six weeks i worked four hours a day trying to translate what he was playing onto the guitar, and i was lucky if i could learn ten seconds of the piece a day. don's music can be incredibly difficult to learn but for me it's worth the effort because it's great music and it's an honor to play it.
picture by kate simon
he also uses great analogies to communicate what he's after. for instance, in teaching a drum part to cliff, he told him to play as if he were juggling a pan of pencils - funny stuff. in a way, the songs are like frozen events. it's as if a deck of cards were thrown in the air, a snapshot was taken of it, and we learn to reproduce that snapshot. if we play it incorrectly, he keeps making adjustments until it's right, shaping it as if it's a sculpture rather than written music.
for us in the band it's sort of like seeing a photograph develop. he knows exactly where it's going but frequently the band won't have the overall picture until the end. don's music appears improvisatory to most people but, in fact, everything is meticulously worked out in advance.
everything is in perfect balance and it doesn't really lend itself to improvisation. it's like a mobile with all its elements spinning in space. the only spontaneous element is don. we provide a canvas on which he paints his stuff.
RICHARD SNYDER bassist
it doesn't bother me that we're not invited to offer ideas and opinions about the music because i really love don's music and feel a strong commitment to it. one of the hard things about playing with don is that being a musician, i tend to think in a musicianly way, but he's not dealing with any of that at all. occasionally the musician part of my mind gets in the way and i won't be able to play exactly what don's after, and when that happens i just have to drop my musician's armor and play it the way he asks.
and it's almost liberating to let that go - to let the teaching go. many musicians who have worked with him in the past have said: 'i was already a proficient musician before i joined the magic band', and although that might be true, that's not what beefheart's band is about. it's not that you are asked to play badly because obviously that's not happening at all. gary lucas does some really incredible things with the guitar on the new album. but to play don's music, you have to drop your preconceived ideas about playing. you don't drop your ábilities but you do drop your concepts.
JEFF TEPPER guitarist
in the seven years i've been playing with don, i've seen his music get less melodic and less musical. his ideas and the compositions he writes now are even more abstract and broken up. his singing is less melodic - there's more talking or yelling - and the music has become more rhythmically fragmented. a song on the new album called 'cardboard cutout sundown' is a good example of all this. i think the music feels less oriented.
CLIFF MARTINEZ drummer
don always tells us to 'hit it to hell in a bread-basket', to play every note like it's going to be your last note. and that's one thing i've always liked about his records - they've always been sincere and had a lot of energy. don has devised a completely unique approach to the drum kit and although not too many drummers are aware of beefheart or drumbo (former magic band drummer, aka john french - k.m.), i'd put him up there with tony williams or elvin jones.
the drum kit as we now know is a pretty new instrument and the way it has always been used in the recent past, in big band music, jazz, bebop and rock 'n' roll, is pretty much that the right hand plays some kind of ostinato pattern while the left hand and feet play accompanying patterns against it. what don does that's different, is he incorporates the entire drum kit - tom-toms, everything - into that time-keeping ostinato, so that the entire drum kit is playing this giant melodic pattern.
don's gone through various phases over the years and done a few albums - the two on mercury specifically - that were commercial attempts. but his unique approach to the drum kit has remained fairly consistent throughout all his music.
as felt by teejo