Jesse Davidson

As a continuation of last week’s column, this part two of my interview with John “Drumbo” French.

For those unfamiliar, John, a Lancaster resident, was the drummer for Captain Beefheart during his time in the Magic Band. His signature sound can be heard on many of his classic recordings, including Beefheart’s crowning achievement, “Trout Mask Replica.”

John has also led the Magic Band without Beefheart and has released several/collaboration works with French Frith Kaiser Thompson.

Here’s Drumbo in his own words:

Jesse Davidson: How did the environment of the Antelope Valley in the ’60s influence the sound of the Magic Band, as well as yourself?

John French: There was little to distract us. We had one movie theatre in Lancaster and a couple of drive-ins.  A couple of the local bars had live entertainment. There were not a lot of local influences musically, so the isolation probably forced us to use our imagination more. Don was an absolute river of constant ideas. The hard part was getting him to stop long enough to finish anything. Slide guitarist Ry Cooder was called in as musical director to help whip the songs into shape. We had moved to Laurel Canyon by that time and rehearsals were usually about four hours long. Ry came into a mess and whipped it into an album in about three weeks.  

JD: With “Trout Mask Replica,” Matt Groening and others have said after repeated listens, it becomes one of the greatest albums they’ve ever heard. Was that the intent during the making of it? Or this a byproduct of being so ahead of its time?

JF: I think the intent, if there was one, had to do with Van Vliet being such a competitor with Frank Zappa, a former Lancaster resident who produced the album. He was trying to “out-freak the freak” and after watching Frank work on his own material on piano, Don immediately bought a used piano and started pounding out ideas.  He knew nothing about key signatures or time signatures, hence the polyrhythmic and polytonal quality of the album. He was strongly attracted to avant garde jazz and so mixed in bits of what he heard with the blues and sprinkled it with a garnish of beat poetry.

It’s an intensely compacted work, with huge demands on the players — especially the memorization. I calculate well over 200 short one and two-bar phrases were memorized by each player. Also, each of the players were often playing parts that had nothing whatsoever to do with what the others were playing. So, in essence, everyone was on his own. It was a remarkable achievement.  

JD: Recently, I published an interview with Chris Constable. He details a story about meeting you after a clinic at Antelope Valley College and offering him an opportunity to mix front of house for a Magic Band tour in the UK. This was Chris’s first major opportunity to record and mix a professional band. Do you think more musicians should pay opportunities forward to a younger generation like this?

JF: Mostly what Chris did was record into my laptop, while sitting at the board, while someone else engineered, but I’m sure he helped with FOH sound, also, as he knew the music quite well by the time we went on the road.  I saw that he was quite talented and intelligent and thought it would be a great opportunity for him. We paid his expenses and per diem to go with us to the UK. His efforts were brought to light on the album “Live in Oxford” on Sundazed Records .  

I do believe that this was something that would benefit Chris on an experiential level and also would look good on a resume. Yes, I do think more bands should do this and I’m sure they do. Chris seems to have done well and I’m glad the possibility exists that we had something to do with that.  

JD: Do you have any future projects to promote?

JF: I’m working on two projects — live shows — right now. One is from 2015 at “Under the Bridge” in London.  The other is from 2017 in the Liverpool Philharmonic. I hired four horns and three singers for the last set, so it is unique in sound, but also difficult to mix. These should be out by this fall or early 2020.  

Also, for more information, read my book, “Beefheart: Through the Eyes of Magic” available at Amazon.com 

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