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John "Drumbo" French played on Captain Beefheart's 'Trout Mask Replica', and also on various other Captain Beefheart records.

John Drumbo French

Who were you drum influences - musical influences?

Sandy Nelson, a sixties rock personae who did drum solo songs with one guitar playing simple Duane Eddy kind of lines. He used a lot of tom toms and it was the first time that the tonality of a drum solo appealed to me. I had no money as a kid and the neighbor for whom I used to baby-sit found out I was studying drums and gave me some jazz albums featuring both big bands and small combos. Through this, I was introduced to people like Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, and I used to 'play' along, pounding on schoolbooks with my only set of sticks.

Later, my cousin Fred gave me an album called 'Time Out' featuring Joe Morello on drums and I later bought 'The Dave Brubeck Quartet at Carnegie Hall' featuring more of Joe Morello. I loved the odd time signatures. I was learning all the latest 'surf' songs and developed jazz and rock styles simultaneously. I spent one summer vacation studying a piece Morello did called 'Castilian Drums' and could almost play it verbatim. I wore the record out.

A friend of mine was a big Jack Sperling fan. Jack was the drummer for Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain, and so I picked up some Dixieland influence in my playing for a time, but Sperling was also a wonderful big band drummer.

Don Van Vliet introduced me to the avante garde style of Elvin Jones and there were numerous Jazz albums he had that influenced me. I also listened to tablas on Ravi Shankar albums and so was influenced a bit by Eastern Rhythms.

I also liked the sound of Ginger Baker and eventually started using double kick. Now, I just use a double pedal on a single kick and like it better.

Musical influences were the groups these fellows played with but in cover groups I always wanted to do James Brown, Jr. Walker and the All Stars, Wilson Pickett – the Rhythm and Blues singers just knocked me out. Later, John Coltrane on the saxophone spoke to me in a way no one ever had before. I still am convinced no one has topped him for purity.

Jimmy Carl Black told me you that he had to learn the drums backwards to play your parts - can you tell us a bit about your unique drum style and technique?

We only worked together a short time in the seventies, when Don returned from the insanity of the Mercury Albums he had recorded to his more avante garde ( and thereby recognizable ) roots. We were doing a 'best of Beefheart' type of set for Knebworth – a large festival in England. I had to teach him bits and pieces of stuff that had taken me months to learn, so I broke it down, modified it, and we worked out a compromise style. He was very cooperative, but it never went to a very high level.

I developed my style technique first by playing on Safe as Milk and opening up my mind to new directions, even if on a rudimentary level. The next album, Strictly Personal, took us farther out, but I was still far more conventional than what was to come. On Trout Mask Replica, the compositions were written in such a way that sometimes everyone was playing in a different time-signature.

This led to me having a vision of myself playing a completely new way. I started writing out in standard notation several patterns that were combinations of what the guitarists and bassist were playing. This was a giant leap from where I had been, and it required a lot of discipline and practice to achieve. I was also musical director at the time, so I knew all the pieces forwards and backwards.

What is your drum set up?

5 toms, a floor on each side ( 13' and 14'), two front racks ( 10' and 12') and a Tom above the hi hat ( 8') One 22' Kick with double-kick pedal. Piccolo snare. Cymbals, 16' Crash and 20' ride on the right, 18' crash/ride and 10' Splash on the left, plus hi-hats.

How did you meet and eventually start playing with Don Van Vliet?

We were from the same home town. I had met guitarist Doug Moon who was a co-worker of my father's. Doug called and invited me to a rehearsal because the drummer needed to borrow my pedal, as he had broken his.

I went to a rehearsal at bassist's Jerry Handley's house. Don Van Vliet remembered seeing me play in a surf band at the local hall during a Battle of the Bands. We got our asses kicked by the Captain and his crew, so it was memorable in that he told me that night that a line from one of his songs was 'children hock in Pepsis.' He also told me that his vocal influence was Howlin' Wolf.

Later, when their drummer left, he called me and asked me 'would you like to blow drums with us?' I thought it was a funny term – more jazz than blues, but he'd been hanging out with Gary Marker, so it was later understandable. I said 'yes.'

What is your favorite Magic Band album and why?

Trout Mask Replica. Never have so many worked so hard for so little. I love it because it's living proof that an avante garde album can be at the same time a.) Popular enough to land the leader of the group a picture on the cover of Rolling Stone and b.) unpopular enough to leave the whole group in poverty. It's still selling. I've never received a dime for it.

Musically, the energy and time that went into that project in a short intense period of time ( which seemed like forever at the time) is something I don't think has ever been equalled in that sort of primitive naοve manner.

Zoot once told me that the Captain could be very intimidating to the band members - all except you who stood ground and was not easily intimidated by him. Can you explain your relation as opposed to the other band members relationships with Don?

I was intimidated, just less than the others. That was the extent of Don's leadership abilities; intimidation. Of course, he was highly amusing, charming, and ridiculously creative. But, he had no discipline, common sense, business sense, patience, or control over his often high-strung emotional outbursts. Top that off with extreme distrust and paranoia, add a group of much younger impressionable youths who are looking for leadership, and you have all the ingredients for a cultish disaster, which it was.

I often marvel that anything got done. However, the dedication to the music was probably our only way of escaping his demented focus upon a seemingly endless list of shortcomings he found in us all. The moment eye contact was made and a word was said which had the slightest chance of being misunderstood, it was onward to the gas chamber of horrors introduced in the form of endless 'encounter-group' forums in which one poor individual's soul was brutally dissected while the others observed on an apprentice-like level.

We only escaped being the target by targeting the others, and I seemed to be targeted most. Either I was 'sabotaging' his compositions, or 'secretly having dreams of being a composer,' or being 'incredibly selfish,' or… just about any possibility was considered. I was punched, thrown against the wall, burned with cigarettes, threatened with abdominal piercing with a broken broomstick, and once I was told that I was going to be thrown out the second story window down onto the cement stairs below.

However, there was a part of me that knew that Don was a big brutish blowhard with a lot of fears and that most of what he was doing was manipulation through fear and intimidation. It was illusory. I had been around him the longest, and been warned by the original band about him. So, I had some perspective that the others didn't have. Don once said he respected me because 'you were the one who stood up to me.' Well, I hate phoniness, and it just seemed stupid to kowtow to a bully.

Don was quoted once saying that Zappa made him look like a freak on the Trout Mask album and that he did a poor job of producing the CD etc. - this led to a long falling out. Do you recall Don not liking Frank's production?

Don was always complaining about someone doing something to it. If it wasn't Bob Krasnow putting 'psychedelic bromo seltzer' on his album, it was Frank Zappa falling asleep at the console and grouping him in with Alice Cooper and Wild Man Fisher.

I do recall Don being upset with Frank several times. I also strongly suspect that he was insanely jealous of Frank, who seemed to be a lot more realistic about the music business and prospered because of it. I hear stories about Frank, and the complaints are endless.

My theory is that anyone who really sets out to accomplish something is going to 1.) unknowingly step on a few people 2.) knowingly step on others and 3.) be the target of everyone who is jealous of their success.

I always felt Frank was a good friend to Don and eventually just got sick of bailing him out. Don was a terrible businessman, while Frank was a good one. Don didn't know how to appeal to a large fan base, Frank did. Don didn't know shit about music, Frank knew tons. However, intuitively, Don had more natural ability and feeling which comes through his music. He was a master of lyrics, whereas Franks' lyrics mostly seemed quite juvenile and vile at times. Don had a tremendous voice, and Frank had to hire singers.

So, there's no doubt that Frank was also threatened by Don and could have subconsciously held him back due to this. But I also felt that there was a bond between Frank and Don, that Frank loved Don, and that Don really used Frank and took advantage of his good nature and generosity.

Tell us about the new CD - what inspired you to record this very Magic Band-esque music? How did you get Zoot Horn and Rockette to play on it?

The idea was to write material for The Magic Band that was new and original so that we would no longer be called a 'Tribute Band' by the critics and press. That was my dream, but the human condition being what it is, there was a lot more resistance to this idea than I was willing to combat in order to fulfill the dream.

Therefore, I employed other Magic Band talents to actually record the CD as studio musicians. I just asked Zoot and Mark, sent them copies of the demos and they agreed. Bill played on the whole album, Mark only on one track. I was very fortunate to have Bill play, as he is not only a good friend, but a great player, and brought the best out of the music.

Greg 'Ella Guru' Davidson is the other guitarist. I played with him at the same time I played with Jimmy Carl Black, but I always remembered what a great player he was. We drifted apart for years. When the Magic Band reunion started, he contacted me.

Tell us about your new live band - who is in it?

Scott Collins – guitar, Eric Klerks – guitar, Daren Burns – Bass, Craig Bunch, drums. Scott is more of a rocker, while Eric is more blues/ jazz.

They really compliment each other well and both share many attributes, such as the ability to read music proficiently, making my job so much easier. There's a live version of 'Bogeyman' on the Drumbo MySpace site which says it all.

They are wonderful guys to work with, and also fantastic players. Daren has picked up on the double-stop Rockette Morton style of playing, and Craig is working with my style and making it his own.

You are shooting a video for City Of Refuge?

It's probably not going to happen, though I wish it could. There is no budget for a video.

You are an avant garde music legend - you have been in the business for over 40 years - what advise can you tell up and coming experiment music artists who look to you as inspiration?

I think the secret is to find a happy medium between business and art. You can't have one without the other and survive – unless of course you're independently wealthy and money doesn't matter.

If you're going to school, minor in business, so you have a clue as to legalities. You've got to be savvy about legalese – at least enough to keep you from signing your life away. I think it's important to stay true to yourself, not be too hard on yourself, and realize that what you're doing is going to suffer if you don't take the time to stop, breathe and appreciate life.

It's very easy to get self-absorbed to a point of becoming manic. Don't obsess, and discipline yourself to improve your craft on a daily basis. Being consistent can lead to more happiness and also a higher level of art than you ever dreamed you could achieve.


Interview © November 2008 Billy James.
All rights reserved.

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