the MAGIC BAND reunion
BAND #4 -
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by grahame bent
is ±19.06.04 interview john french
* used by permission, but i permitted myself some editing by correcting typing errors and facts
* also shortened the text, and used other parts of it on different pages
* all additional pictures were taken at the 070704 john peel live show
part 1 - THIS is PART 2 - part 3
have you been surprised at just how positive the reaction to the reunion shows has been both in the united kingdom and the united states?
i was really surprised that they accepted the vocals because i didn't think they would. originally i wanted to just do instrumentals. we have a democratic process in the band which sometimes gets really tedious but we voted on the songs and the guys picked all these songs that really needed vocals. that's when we started talking about: 'well, are we going to get a singer or what?', and i said: 'no, i'll do the singing', because i knew the material well and i had sung it all before. when i was a kid i was kind of following in don's footsteps. when i was eighteen i was singing in a band and i really looked up to him. he was my hero. he was just the greatest singer around.
did you ever worry how your vocals might go down with the hardcore beefheart crowd?
i had to think of it like this: 'if they like it they like it - if they don't they don't'. because the thing is, they're never going to hear the original singer again. he can't sing any more as far as i know and he doesn't want to sing even if he could. so, this is the next best thing around and i don't think anybody could have been more faithful doing this.
you know, don had given me a lot of vocal coaching when i was in the band when he tried to get me to sing back up stuff and a lot of that came in handy when i started listening back to the material. this is how i felt about it - if the fans wanted to hear the music being recreated or whatever you would want to call it they would enjoy this and if they didn't: well, there's really nothing else except tribute bands.
what was the initial plan with the reunion - how many shows did you originally plan on doing?
the plan was just to do three shows. i wanted to do the two shows in the united kingdom, one in los angeles and possibly one in new york and that was it.
the nice thing about the reunion is the way it's kind of run away with itself and started to take on a life all of its own...
yes, i've created a monster and now i don't know what to do with it.
so what's the plan now - do you intend to continue with things as they are for the time being?
you just have to get in the boat and let the river take you where it will. i'm not really sure if i want to continue being what some people consider as a beefheart impersonator. i consider myself an emulator because somebody has to do it. it has to be done, but i'm not sure if i want to continue doing this for a long period of time. myself, i would like to form my own group locally and write original material in the magic band style and maybe do a few magic band shows a year rather than getting really serious about trying to promote the magic band. i haven't really discussed this with the guys so they may read your article and be shocked. i'm going to talk to them about this on the tour.
john french / drumbo on drums
that's what i'd like to do. i'd like to back off a little bit because the demand isn't really that high and frankly, even when captain beefheart and the magic band were going out on the road there wasn't ever enough of a fan base to really support the band to where they could make a decent living. and i'm just talking about a common labourer's living. i was in poverty the whole time i was in that band and later guys like eric, jeff [tepper] and gary all had jobs when they were in the band. gary lucas worked as a promotion man for cbs, i think jeff tepper worked as a male nurse and eric feldman was working in a recording studio if i remember right.
how does it work when you need to rehearse? does it mean you need to be wherever you're playing a couple of days in advance so you can get some rehearsals organised?
exactly. we rehearsed for six days in the studio before we recorded 'back to the front' and then four days in london when we did camber sands and the shepherds bush show and we did four days again when we did the royal festival hall and the liquid rooms in edinburgh. but even though i transcribed all of don's compositions don's got the transcriptions and even though i wrote a letter and requested them he never answered any of my mail.
so, we didn't have anything but the original recordings to work from and that makes it very difficult to learn the music because it wasn't recorded that well to begin with. especially 'trout mask replica', which is basically what i'm referring to. so, everybody just sort of listened to the record and learned their parts but there were a few things that were incorrect that i caught because that stuff is ingrained in my head. it was almost like being in a prisoner war camp for nine months.
do you think it was worth putting up with all the 'trout mask replica' madness when you listen back to the album today?
for years after it was recorded i couldn't stand to listen to the album, but now i feel a little bit differently when i listen to the music. finally i can hear what the fans can hear. when i used to listen to 'my human gets me blues' all i remember is being up all night looking into a mirror and see my face looking like i'd just been through a boxing match after one of these two day ordeals in the house. don wrote 'my human gets me blues' about me and the whole thing was poking fun at me and for years when i heard that song i would almost shake. i'd tremble when i heard it and it was like that with all the songs on the album. those were powerful musical statements and i couldn't stand to listen to 'trout mask replica' for years after it was recorded because i associated them with the awful situations i was in when i first heard them.
john french / drumbo on vocals
so when did all that start to change for you?
when i was writing the booklet for the 'grow fins' box set i started listening to the music again. and then when i started working on my book people kept asking if i would do track notes so i started listening to all the albums one track at a time and recalling everything about when they were written, how they were written, when the lyrics were written and if the music was written at the same time. that kind of thing. and that's when i really fell in love with the music and was able to shed all or most of the negative associations and just hear the music.
another reason i wanted to do the reunion - and this might be an interesting point to make - is that i wanted to be able to associate some good memories with that music and it really did help me when we played the music together in the studio and live on stage. it was a completely different thing without the oppressive atmosphere that don would create and that really helped me a lot and i'm not trying to attack don here but he was very oppressive.
i never walked off stage with the satisfaction of feeling like we were ever a band when we were on stage and when i walk on stage with these guys i feel like we're a band. we work together, everybody has an equal say and an equal input in everything we do and we try to respect each other. there are all the little quibbles you have in any group but there's none of: 'this guy's going to be in the barrel this day' or 'i'm going to work on this guy that day'.
so, would it be stretching things a little to say there's been a therapeutic side to the magic band reunion?
it was something that i really needed in my life. i feel it was my destiny to revisit all this.
which magic band material do you feel has worked best during the handful of reunion shows you've played so far?
truthfully, i like whatever our audience is reacting to and what i've seen them reacting to most of all is the 'trout mask replica' stuff and that's sort of like gymnastics to men now because i've played it so much. i know that stuff in my sleep but the stuff i enjoy playing most is probably the stuff from 'the spotlight kid' and 'clear spot' which seems to touch people the most. we did 'grow fins' during the last concerts in london and edinburgh and that seemed to get a really good reception. as soon as i started blowing that harmonica riff i could hear people cheering. it's a fun song, it's very humorous, it's lighthearted and it doesn't have a deep message or anything. it's just a fun piece and it's not that difficult to play. i think i enjoy playing the simple stuff most of all. odd isn't it....'
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captain beefheart electricity
as felt by teejo