Achieving cult status with Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, John French has, over twenty years since they disbanded, reformed The Magic Band, causing Simpson’s creator Matt Groening to weep for joy. After seeing them in action at The Junction in Cambridge, I caught up with French to discuss drums, life with the Captain, and why he’s put the Magic Band back together.
What got you started on the drums?
“I loved music, and my family was very musical. My father played guitar, and my uncle played guitar and violin, and was very good on both. During Prohibition my father was a bootlegger. They’d have weekend parties where they turned the house into a café, have people over and entertain them. When I was thirteen I saw an Elvis Presley movie called Kid Galahad, I was very impressed by this dude who kept time by slapping his knees! Simultaneously a school chum started playing drums. Watching him, I saw that the snare drum was played with the left hand, the ride cymbal with the right, and the kick drum with the right foot. I learned how to play by slapping my knees!
It was the Surf era: The Beach Boys were out, and there were lots of instrumental Surf bands, like Dick Dale and The Deltones, and The Surfaris. I listened to a lot of that, and most of it was the same beat. I got into it because by talking about music you could relate to girls. Then somebody gave me Time Out, by The Dave Brubeck Quartet. I started trying to play along and realised I couldn’t. So I learned how to play in 5/4, 7/8 and all these odd time signatures. This was all before I had a [drum] set. I was still slapping my knees! Then I got some drumsticks, and started playing on the bottom of a plastic trashcan, it was yellow, and really ugly! My parents bought me a second-hand kit for $75 at Ed & Mary’s Fix-It Shop. They didn’t know anything about drums, neither did |! It was three toms, a bass drum, and a hi-hat. No snare! I started listening to Sandy Nelson, because he used toms a lot! He’d do these solos loosely based around a Gene Krupa style. It was all tom-toms, and I really loved it! I’ve always liked incorporating the toms into patterns.
I got involved in school bands, and the drum and bugle corps. I had the same music teacher as Frank Zappa. My father worked with Doug Moon, one of the original guitarist’s with The Magic Band. Doug came to the house and he kept asking me “why don’t you come to this jam?” I’d say, “No, the guys’ll make fun of my kit”. Later on my father bought me a brand new set of Slingerlands. I’d heard of Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band by then, and I knew Doug. They needed a bass drum pedal once, so they borrowed mine. I didn’t want to join the Beefheart band at the time. I was dismayed by the heavy drug use; they were all older, and they seemed dysfunctional.
Despite his reservations, John did become the drummer for The Magic Band. He went on to tell me more about that experience.
Don [Beefheart’s real name] would be in bed ‘til noon, one o’ clock, when I’d come over to rehearse. His mother would be trying to get him out of bed; he lived with his mother and his grandmother. It seemed like everything at that point was a dead-end. I was facing Viet Nam. I figured I was gonna get drafted and probably die when I was 19! I was thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” Don was taking a lot of drugs. Several times he thought he was dying. We’d rush him to hospital, and it’d turn out it was an anxiety attack, but he thought he was having heart attacks! I was thinking, “What have I got myself into?” But I was determined to tough it out and see if it would go somewhere. I started feeling better when Safe As Milk was released, and we actually got a contract. I thought, “Maybe we have a chance, ‘cause we’re getting radio airplay”. Ry Cooder had joined, but at our first real performance Don walked off the stage, and Cooder quit the band. I realised this was a big mess, and was probably not going to get any better. But I was 18, and the prestige of being in the band [they’d already tasted regional success, scoring a local hit with ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’] overshadowed a lot of other things.”
So you persisted…
“Don was a very persuasive salesman! On the drums I did pretty much what I wanted. Don maybe wrote twenty percent of the drum parts. He’d vocalise, or sometimes sit down [at the kit] and attempt to play. I’d get the idea of what he was going for. He could have been a good drummer! When you see the big change [when Beefheart’s music morphed from slightly psychedelic blues rock into full on musical surrealism] is when Don started writing on piano. He would write sections and I would transcribe them. As I transcribed these parts I became very keen on the rhythms he was using. I’d been introduced to Salvador Dali’s work, and I loved how some of his paintings had a dual image, it’d be two nuns walking through a gate, but it’d also look like a skull. I thought that was a great idea, to have more than one thing going on, so why not do that with music?
I would notate parts, things that were impossible to just sit down and play, and I’d make myself go through them very slowly. Sometimes I’d spend 6 or 8 hours on one measure. I’d take the main gist of a guitar part, and use that for one part of the rhythm. And if the chord was ringing, I’d use the hi-hat to ring along with the chord, and then I’d combine that with the rhythm of another part. It’s a very unique style that nobody else has really attempted to do. It’s very hard, and it’s not a commercial commodity that’s gonna put money in your pocket!”
That was the Trout Mask Replica period. How about Lick My Decals Off, Baby, when you had two drummers in the band?
“I’d been kicked out of the band and replaced by a guy who didn’t even play the drums, who was given my name! Then he was replaced by Art Tripp, who’d left The Mothers. I came back into the band because Art refused to play my drum parts, and Don felt that they were integral to the music, so he asked me back. Art wasn’t the kind of guy to sit down and learn complex rhythms on the drums; he spent most of his time playing pool! He was a trained musician, so he could read anything. When he looked at my drum parts he realised it would take ages to develop the co-ordination, and it wasn’t something he wanted to do.
Bullied and brow-beaten, and, on one occasion ejected bodily from the band, French has been in and out of Beefheart's orbit numerous times. Here John recalls how this love-hate relationship worked.
Each time I rejoined the band there was this honeymoon period, but then the ugly demons would start to rise, and the control would start. For instance, Don insisted during rehearsals for Doc At The Radar Station that we spend several hours listening to Chinese opera! We only had six weeks to put this album together, and it was a very difficult album for me because I was playing guitar. I was just gritting my teeth. It was either that, or his tantrums and personal attacks. Rehearsals with Don were often talking sessions, like a cult situation. He’d turn on someone and put them in the barrel, humiliate them in front of the rest of the band.
He said, “You guys gotta realise, the public wants me, they don’t care about the rest of you”. This feeling was pervasive throughout the entire time I worked with Don. I didn’t mind so much that I wasn’t being interviewed, or getting any attention (I didn’t even get credited for being on Trout Mask Replica!). What did bother me was the internal relationship Don had with his players: he didn’t have enough respect for what they’d done.”
How was it, seeing Beefheart and the music being critically lauded, but, within the band, being bullied and financially insecure?
“I think the initial “I’m gonna control this music” thing had to be a sort of bully-ish approach. But once he had people like Bill Harkelroad, Jeff Cotton, Mark Boston and myself, that was no longer necessary. He should’ve realised he could’ve backed off with the dictatorial B.S. and dropped the macho attitude, and just been a normal human being. We were working all day long on his music; we were definitely on his side! At the time of Trout Mask I was saying to Don, “why don’t we do something more accessible, make some money, and take the audience with us”. But he was mooching off his mother, and wasn’t aware that we were all bankrupt! He realised too late. But because of what he’d already done, it was a disappointment [when Beefheart released the more accessible albums Blue Jeans & Moonbeams and Unconditionally Guaranteed] to the small fan-base he already had.
He was in competition with Frank Zappa, I think that’s one of the reasons he went so far out. Frank was actually playing accessible music. Another thing was that being in Frank’s band had a sort of prestige, the instrumentalists would go on and play in other groups, they were wanted. Who was going to want a Beefheart musician? Half the public didn’t even think we knew how to play!”
And post Beefheart?
“When I left the band the last time I felt I was totally useless to the world. There really wasn’t anywhere for me to go. Henry Kaiser liked my drumming, and was a big fan of the Beefheart band. I did a couple of things with him. But Henry didn’t have the discipline to sit down and learn difficult parts. He was doing something new every six weeks. It seemed like the focus was on quantity, not quality! He associated himself with people like myself, people considered to be critically acclaimed or whatever, and sorta used that to boost his own name. I like Henry, but after a while I became disillusioned with that. It was obvious that he didn’t have the same purpose or motivation that I did.”
And now, in a strange twist of fate you’re fronting the Magic Band, in Beefheart’s place, singing and playing harmonica, as well as drumming.
“That’s very fulfilling, that’s what I want to do. But what I’m most interested in now is doing something, sort of an extension of what the Magic Band did, trying to pick up the mantle, but at the same time making it more accessible.”
Why go back to this music now?
“There’s nothing out there like this going on. Nobody’s taken up the mantle. A lot of bands say they’re influenced by it, but I don’t hear it in their music. It’s a whole area of music that’s never been explored. So I’m gonna go back and explore it!”
John French recommends:
Let There Be Drums - Sandy Nelson: "Heavily influenced my playing because of the use of toms and melodic drums that played patterns rather than rat-a-tat solos to dazzle and impress".
Alone Together - Max Roach & Clifford Brown: "'Mildama' by Max Roach amazed me".
Cozy & Jack - Jack Sperling and Cozy Cole: "Sperling did it all, big band, Dixieland, staff drummer for NBC, and studio work. His set was in the studio when we recorded Safe As Milk, which I took as a good omen”.
Live at Carnegie Hall - The Dave Brubeck Quartet: "[They] looked like geeks, but played so well together, and experimented with odd time signatures, introducing me to completely new concepts".
Live At Birdland - John Coltrane: "My intro to Coltrane. Just about anything with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones in the rhythm section shows a one-ness seldom found in groups today".
For more on the Magic Band and John French visit the website: www.themagicband.com [Sadly it appears The Magic Band's website has become defunct!]
Footnote: the band I saw at The Junction, comprised mostly of Beefheeart alumni, was: French on vocals, harmonica and drums, with Michaell Traylor on kit most of the time (Traylor was the only band member at The Junction who hadn't been part of a Beefheart fronted Magic Band), the amazing Gary 'Mantis' Lucas on guitar (he played with Jeff Buckley on Grace), with Mark ‘Rockette Morton’ Boston on bass and Denny ‘Feelers Rebo’ Walley on second guitar. They played excellently, to a poor but enthusiastic house, but - due to the absence of the original power crazed maverick megalomaniac weirdo known as The Captain - it was a bit like admiring a vintage car that has had its engine removed... a bit odd!