As a tribute to Captain Beefheart, an interview with The Magic Band from 2004 – by John Robb
In 1994 Captain Beefheart’s Magic band reformed for a series of gigs.
Instead of being the usual money grabbing cashing in on a legacy the gigs were fantastic celebrations of a reclusive genius whose strange alchemy and thrilling music sounded like nobody and influenced so many. Before their gig in Manchester John Robb grabbed an in-depth interview with the band which we have reprinted here…
Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band made some of the greatest and most mind boggling original records in the history of rock n roll. Challenging the form, they cross-pollinated Coltrane with Howling Wolf, they mashed a dark humour with a childlike glee, they mangled riffs, they turned music on its head and they made records that sounded fantastically catchy and stuffed full of kilter genius that are still the benchmark for all that’s weird and wonderful.
Their high water mark was ”Trout Mask Replica’ an album recorded under much duress and creative genius as band leader Captain Beefheart pushed the band to its creative extremes.
Beefheart himself bailed out in 1980 and the last of the various line-ups of the Magic Band went with him. It looked like end of story.
Until last year when Magic Band drummer John ”Drumbo’ French reformed the band.
Tonight we are sat backstage at Manchester Bridgewater Hall, a beautiful modern venue in the city centre that is about to be packed with Magic Band acolytes who will give the band a standing ovation after an amazing show.
Pre-gig the group are mooching around backstage, John French is sat with bass player ….. Mark/Rockette Morten discussing all things Magic Band.
Why did you put the Magic Band back together?
Drumbo ”I try to figure that out myself!’
Mark ”What possessed you ha! ha! ha!’
wasn’t the original idea to put the classic ”Trout Mask’ replica line up back together?
Drumbo..’Yeah, I was trying to get the Trout Mask line up because we grew up together and do instrumental versions of ‘Trout Mask’- that was my original interest.’
What was it like when you got back in the room after years
Drumbo ”we played steal softly straight through…’
Mark ”…and it was like 30 years hadn’t gone by’
Is the Magic Band and attempt to readdress the history of the Magic band, whose contribution was so overlooked.
Drumbo ”It was so disappointing- the Rolling Stone article in 1970 with Don saying he took untrained musicians and taught them how to play! We had been in bands. We knew how to play! We knew more about music than he did. Everybody in the Magic Band contributed to the style- even by being selfless and open minded- so it was disappointing to read this article and on top of that not even have my name on the original ”Trout Mask’ album.’
So this reformation is an attempt to redraw the balance?
Drumbo ”It was more to associate some good experiences with playing the music. Most of the experiences I already had were bad experiences because Don was such a tyrant. He was a poor leader- he didn’t know how to lead, how to motivate people- it was the wrong kind of motivation. Its a lot more fun now…it was kind of a healing thing for me because when I listened to the albums all I remember was the interrogations, I call them interrogations but he used to call them band talks. He was the instigator, everybody else stood back said nothing… he’d say really humiliating things, degrading things to you’
Mark…’ The minute you showed any frustration he would say that you were not into it and that you were trying to sabotageÃ the project year letting the others down! He left us alone to work on the music he would then come in with 5 more new ideas.’
Drumbo ”We had these terrible band talks..somebody taking turns to roll Bill down the hill! bass.’
Drumbo ”It was not a happy time. But we knew we were onto something good. Any time you do anything above the norm you have to strive to get higher and it takes sacrifices, we knew that. Don said he was diagnosed paranoid/schizophrenic and I really believe it and he would come up with the weirdest sub plots thatÃ he would suspect that we were planning amongst ourselves to sabotage the music…’why are you trying to make my music more commercial ” ”why are you doing that” he would say.’
Mark…’He would say ”whose thinking in C’ someone is thinking in C…’
Drumbo ”That was his way of saying that somebody wasn’t really into it..but you can’t be on 100 per cent all the time and thats what he expected…’
The Trout Mask sessions are legendary for the band’s spartan living conditions and a work ethic that would terrify modern groups and all this was supported Don Van Vliet’s mother, Sue.
Drumbo ”His mother was supporting him and he was supporting the band with funds she gave him. He didn’t want to go out to work. He never considered the practical side of things like we must make money to support ourselves. None of us had cars- he had a car and he would send someone out for groceries and the rest of us would sit around the house and work all the time,…and it was cold!’
Mark ”Don had created this whole cult atmosphere…’
Did you rehearse all day…what was typical day at the house…?
Drumbo ”It wasn’t rehearsed together. it was me sitting at the piano with the Captain and asking what the next part was. We had to have some kind of system because there were literally hundreds of little two measure parts..we had to put them all together in some kind of form. It was my system. He didn’t have a system for anything. Don was very disorganised. He was a constant creator- lyrics, words, stories.’
Mark ”…a never ending ending flow. I was the band typist. I had a degree in typing from high school and I would type everything down. Beefheart would say ”Hey man write this down…get a pen! get a paper! I got to get this man- while its here!’
Drumbo ”He’d say, ”wait wait I got to get this down! somebody get some paper!’
Mark ”I used to help Don do his paintings. He would do what he called action paintings …He would have the paint all ready and the easel would be set up and he would have all the paint on his brush and thwack and throw it down…I would get the paint ready for him while he threw it around and he would suddenly shout ”thats it- perfect- don’t move!’…he had that knack of just doing the right thing. It was just another outlet for him. He was always creating, painting, whistling, just letting the stuff out…’
Would he go away a few hours while you worked on the songs
Drumbo ”We’d get the bit and then rehearse and try and get it together.
Did you have an idea were it was all heading?
”No…when we moved into house Mark was not in the band we were still working on ”Vermont’, ….. ”Sugar And Spice’ more normal material- kind of a transition, a step up from ”Strictly Personnel’..
Mark ”I thought I was joining a blues band and they were working on ”Trout Mask Replica’! i though it was going to be like ”Safe As Milk’! I made it though the song and they said you were the first one to make it through the song- you’re hired!’
Drumbo ”When Don bought the piano things started changing. He started banging away on the piano and he wanted us to record it for hours and pick out the best parts. i said no I’ll write down the parts, it would be easier than tracking back through all that tape- which is what Bill ended up doing on the next album, ”Decals”
Was there an element of winding up the music biz with ”Trout Mask’?
Drumbo ”Don wanted to be the greatest, a big mark…they thought his voice would blow Mick Jagger off stage and in the early days they did lot of covers- they dressed like the Stones.’
Were you aware of what else was going on in the music scene?
Drumbo…’We were listening to Coltrane, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Eric Dolpy…’
Mark..’We purposely didn’t listen to the radio or anything current. We didn’t want the music to sound like anyone else!’
Drumbo ”Don did have copy of Led Zeppelin’s album and ”Her Satanic Majesties Request’ by The Stones…he was trying to look at those records from the side, to see what to avoid.’
What part did Zappa play in the album?
Drumbo ”He was originally going to record it in the house…Don thought he was getting his music on the cheap…he’d say ”look at the musicians Frank, they are trapped in their environment. They can’t get out of their environment! they cant play here…’
Drumbo, how come you left after Trout Mask…
Drumbo ”There was a lot of stress and pressure. There was also this underlyingÃ thing with this guy, Dons cousin, who aspired to be the drummer … and I could hear them talking ”when you going to play drums man’.IÃ kept hearing this going on and Jeff would come in and hear this when I was practising. One morning Don came over and said ”play a strawberry that what he told us to do’….i didn’t feel like playing a strawberry! but i tried!
Jeff…’I played one but I ate it!’
what does a strawberry sound like!
Drumbo ”Well apparently I didn’t know because he got very upset and stopped and stared at me…and he walked around behind me and grabbed meÃ by the shirt and coat and pitchedÃ me down these stairs and I fell about halfway down and he said ”why don’t you go and take a walk’Ã he was about 30 pounds bigger than me…he was 8 years older…’
He was 28 and you were all about 20
”He was the one that knew Frank and had all the connections. I didn’t feel that I could stay there any longer at that point. I thought I got to get out of here..so I just left.’
But you did go back!
Drumbo ”Yeah, but about a year later…thats when Don got his picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone, Mark and Bill called me up in the middle of the night and they said that its not like it used to be…When I got back I learned ”Lick my decals off’ album and we did a whole tour and it started to get back into that whole atmosphere again- so it was about aÃ year later that I left again and I stayed gone till about 75, 3 years later after those Mercury recordings and Don was really down because the critics had really bashed those recordings.’
The commercial stuff never worked as well did it?
Drumbo ”He really had a commercial voice but they over produced him …’
Do you like the later albums that you weren’t on?
Drumbo ”Can we go back to ”Bat Chain Puller’…’I think what he was doing was reaching back becauseÃ a lot of the stuff on the lastÃ three albums was stuff he recycled..I don’t care for the last album (ICE Cream FOR CROW’) too much..’Doc at Radar Station’ I thought was pretty strong material. Its funny ”dirty blue gene’ was the 3rd or 4th incarnation of that song..a lot of stuff on the last three albums was pulled from the late 60s early 70s…he had tapes of stuff- ..the ”floppy foot stomp’ isÃ ‘Electricity’ backwards!’
Are you still in touch with Beefheart?
Drumbo ”No, thats his choice…I had his phone number for a while and we did talk about 15 years ago and he was good company…he told me he spends a lot of time with his cats he told me his cats beat him up a lot…and I asked him what he did for exercise and he said I ride a bicycle..I was trying to imagine him riding a bike but he was stalking about a stationary bike! in his house (laughs) I could imagine him riding a bike with one of those little hats!’
What does Beefheart think about the reformed band?
”I heard third hand that he was grumpy about the project but then I didn’t figure it was with his blessing.’
Is he ill?
Drumbo ”I’m not sure either…I think he is definitely ill…when I talked to him he still sounded pretty strong, I heard some recording of his talking like thiiiiis sounded strange.’.
mark…’Don was never one to act weak, he didn’t go for that. I think he’s genuinely ill…he was always a powerhouse, He was one of the baddest guys I knew!’
Drumbo..’Thats why he was so determined- he had a lot of force.’
mark…’He would walk in a room…and want all the attention!’
There w as a lot of offbeat humour as well
Drumbo ”I think Don had this image of us being a rock n roll Marx brothersÃ dressing in outfits.’
Mark..’We enjoyed dressing up not making statement.’
who came up with names of band members..
Drumbo ”It was during the sessions for the first album, ‘Strictly Personal’,- Alex St Clair Snouffler the guitaristÃ came up with Zoot Horn Rollo which was originally my name…’
Mark ”We hadÃ a lot of names to pick from…I saw Rockette Morton space cadet and I said I’m Rockette!’
Drumbo ”Don came up and said Drumbo that would be a good name what do you think. I said ”yeah!’…love the name Drumbo.’
And Captain Beefheart?
Drumbo ”Frank Zappa came up with that. There is a whole joke about the head of a cock being the size of a Beefheart. Frank always coming up with stuff like this. Basically Don’s uncle would go the bathroom when he would come and visit and he would leave the door open so that Don’s girlfriend could see him urinating! and he would say ”its like a big fine Beefheart’ (laughs) all the sexual energy in rock n roll and Frank thought it would be funny to use the name…they had these superheroes in the morning shows and there was one called Captain Midnight…and Frank said- ”Captain Beefheart!!!!!’
Mark…’I remember when he came up with the name!’
Drumbo ”The band was originally called,Ã according to original drummer, Captain Beefheart and his Girlfriend Sue..Sue was actually Don’s mother. Frank was really interested in Don’s relationship with his mother because when she would come in Don would shout ”Sue get me a Pepsi!’…that was always going on.He talked to his mom like that all the time I was amazed when I went round to hear that.’
Mark.’he was sculpting his room when he was a kid. He would make everyone stay out when he was creating…at one point he plucked out all his eyebrows to put in his sculpture!’
Which is a perfect analogy for the genius music he came up with. A one-off, a genius, Beefheart in his paintings and his music created another planet and the magic Band carried the message. It’s a message they still carry now, their shows being a celebration of the man and his music.
This truly is a Magic Band.