Don Van Vliet or as he is better known Captain Beefheart was one of, if not, the worlds greatest artists of all time. With the help of those he graduated to his Magic Band, they made some of the most intriguing, engaging, compelling music ever to be produced, which influenced many well known artists from The Fall, Beck and The Kings of Leon. One of those Magic Band members is John ‘Drumbo’ French. In this exclusive interview for Louder Than War Matt Mead interviews Drumbo about his fascinating time working with Van.
LTW: Can I take you back in time and can you please give some details of where you grew up and some of your first childhood memories?
John: I was born in San Bernardino California. My memories go back to about 18 months old. We lived in a small house on 4004 Third Ave. in a place that was referred to as “over Little Mountain.” There is a small mountain north of the city, so we lived on the outskirts more like suburbs. I remember driving over this mountain a few times. At the top, there was a place to park, with pilasters and a chain draped between as a boundary. High School kids used to hang out there in their roadsters – it was like Archie and Jughead Land.
When we got our first TV, the first thing I watched was a B&W version of Alice In Wonderland. It was a Saturday mid-morning and my parents were at the grocery store. That night, I watched Ina Ray Hutton and her All-Girl Band. Two of my three brothers lived in the garage and slept on army cots. They would come in at night and everyone would sit around the table and play a card game called “Flinch.” I used to crawl under the table, fascinated with looking at all their feet, and the cross-members of the dining room table.
Soon, we moved over the mountain and lived on “E” Street near the corner of Marshall Blvd. I was basically alone a lot, as my brother was sort of baby-sitter, but didn’t really pay much attention. I had imaginary playmates and pretended I was rescuing beautiful women from burning houses. I guess I should have been a fireman!
I was always getting my head stuck — under the chair, under the dresser, even in the sliding garage door. I constantly worried about my middle brother Tom, because he was in the Korean war.
What are your first musical memories?
Around this time, I recall going to my John Bainter’s house. He sang and played violin and guitar. My father played rhythm guitar. They all plugged in through an old Fender amp. The songs were mostly depression-era songs they learned to entertain back in Ohio when they bootlegged homebrew and had house parties. “Shanty in Old Shanty Town” and “Alexander’s Rag Time Band” are two of the songs that I recall. My family all seemed to have a great time, and music seemed to bring them together in a very cool way. Sometimes, they would sing in four and five part harmony, and I think this developed my ear for harmony. My Uncle wound up in playing a lot of Classic Country.
Can you remember the first serious music you first heard?
Roger’s and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” I wore the record out, especially listened to the overture over and over. It was fascinating. I developed a bit of a romantic side by listening to “If I Loved You.” Ironically, a couple of years’ ago when my brother in law was dying of cancer, he would listen to this same album, with the original Broadway cast. I sat one night and listened to the whole thing with him in silence. It was very emotional to me, and a final bond in saying “goodbye.”
How did you take up playing the drums?
I went with Cyndee ( Anderson) Davenport to see Elvis Presley in “Kid Galahad.” He was sitting on the back end of a big truck singing “King of the whole Wide World” and slapping his thighs in time to the music. I started doing this. My late friend, John Paar, started playing drums around this time, and I saw him play at a Twist Contest where I won second place with Cheral Dee King – a girl I just met. I was fascinated with the drum kit and studied his playing. This transferred into my hand-slapping and foot-tapping, and soon, before even owning a set, I had learned a few of the basic patterns. I found an old set of drumsticks my youngest brother had left behind, and the next thing I knew, I was wearing out my school books by pounding on them. Geometry was the Snare, English was suspended tom, and Geography was floor Tom.
Who were your first drumming influences?
Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Louie Bellson, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Sandy Nelson, and Joe Morello were the first guys I really listened to closely. I used to baby-sit my neighbors kids, and he found out I liked drums and loaned me some albums that featured big band drummers. Sandy Nelson was a studio musician who did his own recordings with simple-patterned but infectious tom-heavy drum solo pieces accompanied only by a sort of Dwayne Eddie – style guitarist. Joe Morello was Dave Brubeck’s drummer. The back of the album cover “Time Out” was my first introduction to odd-time signatures, and they were clearly-explained. So, I started trying to play to this stuff, and after six months or so, could play along without getting too lost.
What was the first drum kit you bought?
My father bought a 4-piece Slingerland Black Diamond kit when I was just finishing my sophomore year in High School. The only thing I didn’t have was a decent ride cymbal, and I managed to buy one later from Rhoer’s Music Box, which was 2 ½ blocks down the street.
Where did you practice playing?
We had a finished room off the garage, which was a separate building from the house. I had a portable turntable with stereo fold-out speakers and I sat it right behind me. I would just put on records and play to them, figuring out the patterns as I went along. My formal training was limited to Concert and Marching band, so I never had any experience playing along to drum charts until I was in my mid-forties. Everything was memorized.
We obviously know you best from working with Captain Beefheart. Where did you first meeting Don?
Vic Mortensen – the original Beefheart drummer – had broken his foot pedal. It was a Ludwig Speed King, which didn’t have a replaceable strap. Magic Band guitarist Doug Moon was a co-worker in the local aircraft factory at Plant 42 with my dad. Doug called me and asked if they could borrow my pedal, and in return, I could come to the rehearsal. I was curious, as I had heard about this new local group, so I agreed. I remember walking in and Don saying, “Oh, you’re that guy who plays in the band with the Jerk that does the Jerk! – Referring to the Malteseman’s ( a surf band I was in at the time) lead singer, “Rod Devon,” who would occasionally do the jerk ( a popular dance) when he wasn’t singing. Vic broke the strap on my pedal on the first piece, which was “Heart of Stone” by the Rolling Stones. He and Jerry Handley repaired it using an old belt. Jerry used a bathrobe belt for a bass strap. Alex was the guy in charge of rehearsals.
Was he as intriguing in person as he was on record?
He had an air about him, but seemed nice enough. At the end of their rehearsal, he asked me to play drums. He played maracas and Jerry played a tambourine. I was a two-hour-a-day practice fiend back then. So, Don liked me and praised my drumming right off.
What was the first sessions with Don like? At the time of the first sessions was he still into the more traditional songs chords/sequences?
There is a misconception that Don understood more about the basics of music than he actually did. The first album, “Safe as Milk,” was mostly a collaboration with the band playing more traditionally and Ry Cooder cinching up all the loose ends – as he was hired to do. The band had basically came up with music to his and Herb Bermann’s lyrics, though he would occasionally sing a part, suggesting the band try his idea.
When did he start to introduce the more experimental side of his songs? Was it with Strictly Personal?
The Mirror Man Sessions is a more accurate depiction of how far he came from “Safe as Milk,” and probably the most control Van Vliet took over any album He really put time and thought into the double album – at least the arranged part. Half the album was blues Jams ( Mirror Man, Tarot Plane, etc.)
I love the track (Son of) Mirror Man on Strictly Personal. Do you remember playing drums on this? The looping drum sequence at the end is brilliant!
I do. The earlier Buddah album had a very long Mirror Man, but this one was edited and I liked it better. Bob Krasnow was responsible for all that clever editing. Don hated it, proclaiming that Krasnow had ruined his album with “Psychedelic Bromo Seltzer” — the use of a phase shifter.
There is footage of The Magic Band playing two songs on a beach at Bouton Rouge 1968. Do you remember this? Was only 2 songs played or did you play more songs? Were the stage stances by the band all pre-planned by Don?
I believe you’re referring to the Cannes footage. It was not staged by Don in any way. We were basically set up on plywood lying in the sand. It’s a shame that the show we played in an auditorium the day before was never saved, as they had a three-camera shoot for the whole show.
Did you get to know Don as a person or was he quite a private guy?
I lived with him and his girlfriend Laurie for nearly three years: First, in Laurel Canyon, then in Tarzana with Jeff Cotton, then Woodland Hills — where TMR was birthed. Later, I came back and lived in a compound with him, the entire band and his wife, Jan in Ben Lomond – near Santa Cruz. I got to know him quite well, and worked with him hard to get my drum parts as polished as possible.
He was a typical only-child, and so it was difficult for him when we all lived together in Laurel Canyon during the Safe as Milk sessions. He was suffering from anxiety attacks and felt every ounce of the pressure of being the lead-singer in an upcoming band. Our group opinion was that he was afraid of success. His attacks caused us to lose a spot at the Monterey Pop Festival.
Trout Mask Replica is one of my all-time favourite records. There is no other album like it anywhere and I doubt there will be anything to rival it, ever. I’ve read that the recording of the album was mentally torturing, especially having to record the songs as Don wanted them, what with his unconventional way of wanting the songs to sound, not using traditional chord sequences but choosing a breadth of different chord changes midway through the songs. Looking back on the album now, can you listen to the album and enjoy it?
It was indeed a torturous experience. I’ve never worked that hard and that intensely on anything since. It’s a bit difficult to keep a balanced mental state in that kind of suppressed environment. Don had usurped nearly total control and had replaced all the previous guys with younger musicians and we were all a bit naïve and easily-led. I was the first of the second string players, then Jeff Cotton, Bill, and Mark. The environment became extremely cult-like and we were living in next to poverty. Don would not go out and perform, so we never made a dime. We lived basically off money his mother and Bill’s mother sent us. I believe Bill’s college fund actually financed the project in part.
Don started doing what I referred to in my book ( Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic) as group “talks” which resembled the kind of group therapy that used to happen at a facility in Santa Monica called Synanon. The idea seemed to be to strip down everyone’s defence mechanisms through coercion, humiliation, and hostility; one person at a time. The only one who was never “in the barrel” so to speak, was Don. We were all targets of the “talks” that Don initiated, and he would focus on one individual at a time. It was embarrassing and humiliating, which was, I suppose, the point: to reduce us through fear to submission by convincing us that we weren’t worthy much.
Musically, I’ve never seen a more dedicated group. We threw ourselves into the music, sometimes working and practising individually and together 14 hours a day. This went on for approximately nine months, though Bill and Mark joined a bit later – maybe four to six weeks. We all knew that we were doing something that had never been done before, and hasn’t really been done since.
Throughout this time of recording with Don did you write and record any of your own material? Is this available to listen to?
No, I was totally focused on the band and the music. It left no time for anything else. Total Absorption was sort of the theme at the house. In fact, one time I had a musical idea and Don immediately forbid me from pursuing anything but his music. Or, my musical ideas were “absorbed” into the work in such a way as to make everything Don’s. I kept most of my ideas to myself after writing music which became the intro to “Trust Us”.
Did you know if Don had favourite songs that he liked to listen to at certain points throughout his career?
John Coltrane’s “Afro Blue” comes to mind, also “Africa Brass.” He loved Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch” album, and just about anything by Ornette Coleman. He also listened to Bob Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” album and seemed to really favor “All Along the Watchtower.” I remember him buying the first Led Zeppelin album, pointing to the cover and saying, “They stole that from me, man!” — referring to The Blimp, which hadn’t been released yet and had nothing to do with anything musically that Zep were doing. The only thing they had in common is that they were both big phallic symbols in the sky. What I thought was clever about “Zeppelin” is the play on the old joke, “Well, THAT went over like a Lead Balloon.”
Did you know if Don had favourite artists that inspired him to make the music that we all love?
John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Sun House, Archie Shepp, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, John Handy, “Howl” by Allan Ginsberg — which influence can most obviously be heard in “Big Poop Hatch” and, in general, inspired a lot of his free-form “Beat” approach to lyrics.
Tina Turner, Robert Pete Williams, Son House, Steve Reich ( Come Out to Show Them).
I want to fast forward now to the present day and your pending last tours that you are engaging in with the Magic Band. Why have you decided now to play these final gigs?
I’m phasing out the name “The Magic Band” because I am the only one who actually played with Don. It’s misleading at this point to use that name. I originally wanted only members who played with Don, but the conflicts were so great that was not possible, and I blame a lot of that on the issues each individual had with Don. When it was Denny, Mark and I, people still seemed happy. When Mark became too ill to tour, and Denny went on to pursue more Zappa tribute band activity, I decided to phase out the name “The Magic Band.” Although, I really think the Farewell Tour in the UK, November 2017 was one of the best musical experiences ever due to the great musicianship of the guys involved. Unfortunately, I became quite ill with a respiratory infection right in the middle of the tour and thought I wasn’t going to be able to finish. We had to trim down the show a bit.
Are you looking to play anywhere specifically for the final shows?
I’m focusing on mainland Europe right now, but it has been frustratingly difficult. I’ve never been able to get work in the States, with the exception of two shows.
Can you name your top 5 favourite shows playing with Don?
The first gig we did at Exposition Hall, right after I joined September 1966. The Santa Monica Civic Auditorium opening for the Yardbirds in 1967. The Middle Earth Theatre, January, 1968, with John Peel introduction. The Cannes Beach filming, 1968. Then, 1975 at the New Victoria Theatre in London.
The worst was Petula Clark’s birthday party at the Beverly Hill’s hotel, mid-1967. Second worst was the All Night Dance at Southampton University, May 1968. Those poor kids in their formal attire were horrified.
Can you name your top 5 favourite songs you have played on Dons records?
1. Steal Softly Thru Snow. 2. Hair Pie 3. My Human Gets Me Blues 4. Bellerin Plain 5. Doctor Dark.
What do you hope to do after playing the final shows?
I’m finishing up a solo project of my own – but I have no interest in touring with it, as no one wants anything from me but Beefheart material and so a tour would not be profitable at this point. One thing that is really interesting to me is an opportunity to get orchestral versions of some handpicked Beefheart material performed. If this comes to fruition, I’m hoping to perform with small ensembles and even perhaps a full orchestra in 2019 in commemoration for the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Trout Mask Replica. The orchestral timbres shed a whole new light on the beauty and intricacy of the music.
I hope to also do some “Evening with Drumbo” nights at Art Centres where I demonstrate how the music of Trout Mask Replica goes together. I will play MIDI file versions of some of the music one instrument at a time, and demonstrate why I wrote some of the drum parts and how the parts sometimes entangle with each other in very dizzying ways. I am told I may be able to do this after orchestral shows as well.
I really would like to spend more time in the future creating music at home and posting on a website. I’d like to do more instructional-style videos of the music and how the drums interact with all the various parts. I’ll never be able to retire because I have almost no retirement income. But, I’m hoping as touring gets harder to do, I’ll be able to do less of that and more online activity.
If you want to follow Drumbo he has his own Facebook group where he posts what he’s up to and further memories of his time working with Captain Beefheart.
All word by Matt Mead. Further work from Matt can be found at the Louder Than War author archive page.