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Interview - John 'Drumbo' French of The Magic Band

Posted on Monday, 4 March 2013 | No Comments

For NARC #82, available this March across the north-east of England, I got the chance to e-mail some questions over to a genuine musical innovator, John 'Drumbo' French of The Magic Band. As the drummer and arranger on the 1969 classic Trout Mask Replica, he helped to bring Captain Beefheart's remarkable, vivid musical vision to life - a form of modernist blues that rendered anything else in the idiom irrelevant overnight. Due to the issues of magazine space, this piece had to be edited down, but as a treat for you all I've got the full Q&A for your reading pleasure below. Make sure to catch The Magic Band on their current UK tour (which hits Cluny 2 in Newcastle on Monday 11th March) as well!

You must have been asked this question before, but for our readers, how did you first come to meet Captain Beefheart and join The Magic Band?

Oh, yes, many times, but it is an important question. My father worked with Doug Moon, one of the original guitarists. He heard that I was a drummer and tried to get me to go to jam sessions when I was fifteen and didn’t have a decent set. I wouldn’t go because my drums were so old and beat up.  Later, after I was given a new set by my father, Doug called me out of the blue and said that the drummer in his new group, “Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band” needed to borrow a foot pedal, and if he could borrow mine, I could go to the rehearsal. That’s how I got my foot in the door, pardon the pun.

As both drummer and transcriber on 'Trout Mask Replica', you had a large responsibility in pushing the band towards that record’s sound.  How did you manage to fulfill this?

I had my twentieth birthday during the birth of Trout Mask Replica. Though I was young, the only way I could see in getting this done was to be very consistent – something I had never really been up to this point with the exception of practicing drums religiously. However, I was fascinated with written music, which helped, and Frank Zappa was involved, who was also mastering music notation, so I was very inspired and motivated. The most important key aspect of this album for me was that I decided on a system of processing Don’s creative bursts and stuck with it all the way through. It took nearly nine months – the gestation period for TMR was nine months!

There’s many stories and legends of Don Van Vliet’s obsessive hold over the music and the band, and of his temperament. Does the public perception of the Captain seem fair to you?

The public’s perception of Don was based of reading, for years, his exaggerated claims.  Actually, I consider the whole thing a great lesson in PR. There’s no doubt that Van Vliet was very gifted, but the credit he took for things that he had little or no involvement in was completely accepted by a large majority of his fan base. It taught me to take everything I read with a grain of salt, to test the waters, and to remain a bit skeptical. Politicians are masters of deceiving the public. How else could they give themselves pay raises and simultaneously ruin the economy while somehow leading the flocks into re-electing them?

With the distance of time, what is your relationship with 'Trout Mask Replica' now?

Pretty much the same as it was then. It is a very unique piece of work, but it was much more of a team effort than the public was ever led to believe.  I think the thing that stands out in my memory the most is how hard everyone in the band worked to bring this work to fruition and what an extreme hardship it was on us all. I’ve been told more than once by medical professionals that we probably all suffered PTSD as a cause of this experience. Of course, Viet Nam vets had it much worse, so I count myself lucky. 

The one thing that time allowed me was the opportunity, in the late seventies, to actually hear the album with fresh ears.  I couldn’t actually hear it before that, as the music (a very strong associative medium) always recalled the misery and trauma.  Ignoring the demons didn’t make them go away.  Viewing them from a different perspective helped me to face them.  I was very dysfunctional for years, and now I’m better. It’s always better to face the enemy head-on than retreat. 

You also returned to the band to play guitar on 'Doc at the Radar Station'. What was that experience like?

At this point, I was no longer intimidated by Don, and he appreciated the fact that I was blunt and honest with him.  The younger players were all, in varying degrees, “yes men.”  I saw my younger self in them.  Don used to say to me, “Man, I am SO GLAD you are here.”  I think he needed people who were “their own man” to help him keep his perspective.  Still, he loved the power and abused it regularly with all these younger guys, and eventually tried to do that with me once again, but I refused to fall into the lock step and left.  My mission there was mostly to tell Don what I had learned about my former relationship with him.  The album was secondary, in my mind, to my real purpose in being around him.  

What was the initial spark for the revival of The Magic Band?

Elaine Shepherd, the BBC producer of 'The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart' (a documentary narrated by John Peel) encouraged me to re-visit the music and consider playing it.  I was a stay-at-home Dad at the time, and my esteem was bottomed-out.  She made me see that what I had accomplished was no small feat and ignited within me the desire to claim my legacy.  I will be eternally grateful to her for that.  Her role was quite philanthropic, as she never gained anything for her work.   Through her, word spread and we found our first investor, who eventually lost interest, but the flame had ignited and soon there was interest from All Tomorrow’s Parties founder Barry Hogan.  He was the key player in figuring out the logistics of us getting together to rehearse, and generously funded the rehearsal album Back to the Front – bringing the players together from Georgia, New York, South Carolina, and Los Angeles in a studio in the high desert where the band had originated.

When the Magic Band was first revived, how did you all decide on the membership of the band and what tracks to play – were there certain pieces certain players were especially keen to bring back?

My original vision was to bring the Trout Mask lineup together, sans Don, playing instrumental versions. These were my chums, the guys I grew up with.  I knew the later players (mainly Tepper and Feldman) would not be interested, as they were still in close communication with Don, and this would upset him. Jeff (Antennae Jimmy Semens) Cotton was the first to say no. He actually told me that he “didn’t care for the music” – which I found odd -- as during the time we were rehearsing TMR, he was the most enthusiastic and supportive of us all. Was he pretending? Denny Walley was my choice to replace Jeff, as he is a great slide player and we had kept in touch through the years. 

Bill (Zoot Horn Rollo) Harkleroad was in at first, but when the original promoter/investor couldn’t hold to the bargain, Bill immediately left and when Bill makes up his mind, NO ONE can change it.   I replaced him with Gary Lucas - reluctantly, I might add - as I didn’t know Gary personally, but felt from his public image that he was more supportive perpetuating the myth that Don had fabricated, while I was more interested in being myself and honest in my public views.  Gary’s relationship with Don had been long-distance for the most part, and I felt like a large part of him still was a fan-boy. 

The very reason I wanted the Trout Mask lineup was because we had bonded and reached an understanding through our experience that Lucas was completely clueless about, because he had not had that intense experience of the TMR era.  Although I do consider Lucas an outstanding player, I also think that he has exaggerated his role in the Beefheart experience publicly in much the same way Don made wild claims.  I wish him the best, however, and I think he’s done a great job of promoting himself.  He’s got a LOT of business savvy.

Is there any particular piece that you look forward to playing the most?

Steal Softly Through Snow, without a doubt. It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and the lyrics are incredibly sensitive and reveal the very thing I loved about Don. It kept me keen to help him with his art in spite of his abuse. I only wish I could play it twice in the performances, as I love playing drums on it equally with singing it.   

You’ve continued to release new material carrying on the Magic Band sound, such as the City of Refuge album. How challenging was it to try and compose new material faithful to The Magic Band’s legacy?

City of Refuge was kindly funded by Malcolm Mills of Proper Records, and I was given a comfortable budget to record it. The material was not really so much designed to be what it was, as strongly inspired by my recent Magic Band activity.  It was trashed by Steve Froy in his review on beefheart.com as not being up to par with Beefheart’s albums, and I think that played a large role in its lack of success. My hope that it would help us find a decent agent/manager who would be able to promote us as having our own new material, therefore taking us out of the category of Tribute Band. John Peel, actually, did more to help us out of that by inviting us to do a live radio broadcast on his show in July of 2004. That was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I wept bitterly a few months later when I received word of his death. I had thought we would have time to catch up.  Little did I know…

Are there any plans for more Drumbo material?

Yes, I found a private investor, Charles Platt, a British writer who lives in Arizona. I’ve been slowly plugging away at finishing this. Eight tracks are done and the others are written. It will definitely be my last attempt at such a project, however, unless it actually opens some doors. I poured my soul into City of Refuge and it did quite well in almost all reviews save the most important one. It really broke my heart that it did so poorly in sales. If the fan base doesn’t support it, then there is no use in pursuing future endeavors. I did have a lot of fun writing this material, and Eric Klerks (now in the Magic Band) is also involved in the project. Eric is also a bassist, and does fantastic Rockette Morton-style bass style – finger picks and all. 

When the current Magic Band tour reaches Newcastle in March, what can the audience expect? 

The Best Batch Yet.

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