Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band tour the UK : an interview
It’s Magic Band week on LTW!
The band are over in the UK to tour and we’re celebrating…
Captain Beefheart was one of the great rock mavericks.
He restructed rock music to his own ends and his imagination, stained by John Coltrane, free jazz and the primal blues of Howling Wolf was limitless.
His vision, though, would not have been possible without the great musicians he played with – the greatest of which was the Magic Band with its near enough mainstay drummer John ‘Drumbo’ French who reformed the group a decade ago to pay tribute to the Captain and the songs which he had a big part in. The last time I saw them play the gig was stunning, Drumbo did a great job of the Captain’s vocals and the band got a standing ovation from an audience who were in tears at the end of the set due to its brilliance.
The band are back over in the UK touring…
Tour dates and tickets are here.
I will be at the Manchester Band On The Wall show on March 7th…the perfect venue for the perfect band…ticket details for that gig are here.
LTW interviewed Drumbo as he readied himself to set off for the tour…
LTW : What can we expect from the Magic Band at these gigs?
“The best we can give” is the best answer I can give you on that. This group is a real team, and there’s a surprising lack of issues and ego involved, just 5 guys working hard to do the best we can to make the audience as happy as possible.
LTW : Which periods of the band’s history will you be playing?
Because we are scattered all over the US, the only time we actually get to rehearse together as a group is the two days before we begin touring. Because of this, I never mention titles, as we may find out when we play it live that it just doesn’t work. Usually, we try five or so new pieces and usually settle on 2 or 3 at most. If I mention a title and one happens not to work, then there will most certainly be a disappointed fan somewhere yelling out the title all evening to the one piece we didn’t play.
LTW : Any possibility of playing new stuff?
We usually attempt to bring new material to the mix each time out. Sometimes, “New” means I sing a piece that we’ve already done instrumentally. Sometimes new is completely new to all of us. There are favorites that I want to play over and over, and in a sense, if I had my way, I’d never play anything else. They’re like a nice pair of comfy shoes or that one favorite Tee-shirt – a perfect fit. That’s when the music flows and the band really “cooks.” Other times,with some pieces, it’s a bit more forced and awkward. Not so much that an audience would notices, but enough to take away that kind of “magic edge” which makes the music all the more fun for everyone.
LTW : What’s it like revisiting the old material? do you slot into it straight away?
Sometimes, but other times it’s kind of like “what the hell were we thinking?” Most of the earlier stuff we did when we started was stuff that had a kind of “reputation” and had been tested out years before and we democratically voted it in. Many of the pieces, I was able to sit down and play after a quick listen-through. Some of the others took hours of study.
LTW : I like the idea of getting the fans to vote for the songs in the set, explain why you did this!
To get them involved. After all, they’re going to be listening to this and they should have some way to make their requests known. I love having a bit more intimate contact with the audience and have made a few close friends also through this.
LTW : How did Eric Klerks get involved with the Magic Band on guitar?
Both guitarist Eric Klerks and drummer Craig Bunch were in my “Drumbo” group for a time in 2008. I met them through guitarist Scott Colby, who actually put the group together. Colby had been introduced to my by Grande Mothers drummer Chris Garcia, who was introduced to me by Artie Tripp – the former Magic Band drummer. When ATP promoter Barry Hogan invited The Magic Band to play in 2009, we had been disbanded for three years. Former MB drummer Michael Traylor had a knee injury, and guitarist Gary Lucas had gone his own way and was too busy. So, I adopted these two into the fold, as they already had a taste of the style from playing music on my “City of Refuge” CD ( Cheap promotional ploy ) which is written in The Magic Band / Beefheart style.
They both are quite dedicated to the music and have really developed the music and “made it their own” – so to speak.
LTW : 40 years later does the music make any more sense to you?
It made a lot of sense, it it’s own unstructured way, to me even when it was first born. I knew it wouldn’t make “sense” in the commercial realm – you know “Shake Arse City.” Did you know the ass moves comfortably along @ 120 bpm?
LTW : Do you find new things in the music all the time like the listener does?
I’m now starting to improvise a bit of sax to a couple of the pieces. So, I’m studying the music harmonically – because I actually want to play something that complements the music rather than just spraying it with a lot of paint. Don’s approach to sax usually left me cold, but I like the injection of the texture into the music, so I try and do it in a way I can support.
LTW : Do you change the songs a lot or try and stay faithful?
I would do a lot more of this if the band was able to rehearse together more. We have changed some things that made little sense to capture live – the odd-time signature guitar in “Circumstances” — I straightened it out, so to speak, so that it wasn’t such a mess to meet up with the entire group later.
My ideal dream group kind of approach would be to extend sections of Trout Mask material and improvise over them a bit more – with different people play in different sections. I think this is a “jazz” element of the music that Don didn’t explore – and it would have made the music different every night. I LOVE the structure of the material, but that structure, which makes for some amazing music, is often rigid and inflexible. Can you imagine a 10-minute version of “Steal Softly Through Snow” with everyone taking a solo section like a jazz piece? Or, perhaps playing it through several times with different people soloing through each time.
LTW : After Don died did the songs take on a different resonance?
A bit – especially our first show in London in 2010 at Scala. We opened with Steal Softly Through Snow ( my personal favorite ) and I sang the lyrics for the first time ( we’d always done it as an instrumental with me playing drums) and I was in tears when I spoke the last line. It’s a beautiful piece of work and completely timeless in its message. Don had a very unique perspective and philosophy, which was never more beautifully stated than in this remarkable piece.
LTW : Were you in touch with Don before he died?
No, sadly. He cut off all communication with me (and most other Magic Band Members) in the mid-eighties. I used to send a Christmas card to him each year with a little note, and then, one year, I just decided “communication is a two-way street” and stopped. That’s when I really said “Goodbye –“ Not when he died. So, I was past the grieving process when I received the news of his death. I did notice that I had a certain “don’t give a damn” confidence after that… perhaps I picked up a bit on the positive confidence he had, as I always thought that if I could have had half his confidence, I could have accomplished a lot more.