The name of John French is rarely if ever seen among those polls naming “best” – aka most famous – rock drummers of all time. But to the musicians who have had their world upended by the music of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, French is one of the giants of the form, the developer of an entirely new rhythmic language that threw linear groove out the window. In its place, French introduced a spastic series of blurts stacked up like unevenly-shaped bricks, shifting the accents to mirror the convolutions of Beefheart’s equally unchained melodies. Beefheart often complained about rock and roll’s reliance on the mama heartbeat, and said his response had to be a “non-hypnotic music to break up the catatonic state.” It was French who tackled the functional problem of how to keep time without reverting to hypnosis behind the kit.
French wasn’t Beefheart’s only drummer, but he’s the one who translated Don Van Vliet’s surreal compositions into guitar, bass and drum parts for the other players, shaping the other-worldly ideas at the base of 1969’s Trout Mask Replica into its finished form. That album would become the totem pole for avant-garde rock, the farthest-out of far-out rock albums, way farther than its producer Frank Zappa would dare to venture. His is not always a beat you can tap your feet to, but Beefheart music possesses its own internal swing, not always hitting on the two and four, rarely holding steady for more than a few seconds at a time, but strong enough to physically yank the listener into its asymmetrical universe. But it’s no dry exercise in dissonance and odd meter; you can hear the hollering of the blues, the complex, loose-limbed rhythms of free jazz, the unrestrained joy of church choirs, even the occasional R&B flourish. The presentation is kind of smeared, but all the elements of good-time music are right there.
While his public profile has remained low in recent years, French remains active in music, having completed his first solo album, City Of Refuge, in 2008, and led the rejuvenated Magic Band through a series of European tour dates this spring. While the Van Vliet-free band’s American shows have thus far been limited to one – a jaw-dropping performance at the Queen Mary for All Tomorrow’s Parties in 2003 – French suggests there may be some more shows on the horizon, giving hope to Stateside Beefheart aficionados who haven’t had a chance to see them.
John French spoke to us by phone from his home in California about his early upbringing, the intensity of communal living during the Trout Mask era, and his post-Beefheart musical activity.
Let’s go back to the beginning. What’s the first music that you remember hearing?
That I remember hearing? Ina Ray Hutton & Her All-Girl Band. Does that make me old, or what? And we got our first television when I was about three years old. And I remember sitting at the television, my mother said, “Look, this is Ina Ray Hutton & Her All-Girl Band,” and I was watching this music on television with a big band with a really knockout lady conducting the band, and it was all women dressed in formal outfits.
So when you first started playing, what was your first band like?
My first band experience? Well, I’d done high school stuff. In junior high, I played French horn first. And then I quit French horn because I just didn’t get the whole thing with key signatures. The teacher wasn’t very clear when he was talking, and he’d get mad if you asked him a question.
So I quit that, and later I went into drums, thinking, “Hey, no key signatures with drums!” And a couple years later, I was playing in a surf band with a guy I met in gymnastics class, his name was Mike Melchione. We started out playing surf music — like “Pipeline, by the Chantays. No vocal music, all instrumental stuff. There were a lot of instrumental surf bands in the ’60s in Southern California. So this was kind of where I cut my teeth.
What was that band called?
The Maltesemen (laughs).
What was it that you heard in Don’s music that made you want to want to approach him?
Actually, he approached me, I didn’t approach him. But what I heard, really, that really impressed me was the singing style that he was using. I’d never heard a singer sing like that before.
I went up to him after I heard him play at this little local fairgrounds building called The Exposition Hall. I went up to him afterwards and asked, “Where did you get that style of singing? What prompted you to sing in that style?” And he said, “Howlin’ Wolf.” And I said, “Howlin’ Wolf? Is that a person’s name?” And he said, “Yeah.” So, you know… I’m asking a person named Captain Beefheart if Howlin’ Wolf is a strange name (laughs)… anyway, kind of ironic. Anyway, I looked up this Howlin’ Wolf guy. And he also told me about Ravi Shankar playing sitar, as I mentioned I liked the sound of the sitar.
And I thought, “Well, the guy’s got interesting ideas,” you know, and I didn’t know where he had gotten his musical background or what his influences were. But I found out later on, it was his grandmother, um, Warfield — Ann Warfield was her name, and she was the one who got him involved in listening to blues. And he and Frank Zappa, of course, used to hang out together and listen to the blues, so…it did sort of influence me. And at first I wasn’t really, you know, that convinced that I liked the blues that much. And the more I listened, the more I liked it. And then I formed my own group as a singer and playing harmonica, and started singing blues. We also did a lot of rhythm and blues. That was kind of what drew me to Don: the blues.
As the Trout Mask band started to come together and living in the house together, I was curious to know, did the communal living thing kind of start right away as those people came into the band, or did that develop after you had been playing for a while?
You haven’t read my book, have you?
No, it’s on my wish list. And I certainly don’t want to tread too much over territory that you’ve spent too much time talking about.
Oh, no no no, that’s fine. I wasn’t saying that as a matter of impatience, I was just asking because I can relate to the things in the book.
I’m sorry to say, I’ve not. I read Bill’s book, but I’ve not read yours.
Well, most of these guys that were in The Magic Band originally, I’m not talking about Bill and Jeff and those guys, but I’m talking about the original guys that were in the band – were guys who worked in the local factories, and they must have lived with their parents still, you know… sort of “failure to launch” kind of things (laughs), you know, they were all guys that lived at home. Jerry Handley, Doug Moon, Alex who started the band, and Vic Mortensen. Actually, Vic was the only guy that was living out on his own. He was going to college at the time, and he was the original drummer. And they all lived separately at that time, you know, with their parents. And they rehearsed in garages or in their parents’ homes, a lot of times at either Don’s mother’s house or in Jerry Handley, the bass player’s parent’s house.
And when we moved to Laurel Canyon just prior to recording Safe As Milk, we chipped in all our money, and rented a house for a few months and started living there together. It was terrible because two of the guys were married, so their wives were showing up. It was a small house, so we were sharing rooms with guys who were married, and it was just (laughs) — we’d wind up sleeping on the couch or something.
But that was the point where it started getting to where the band was living together. After Ry Cooder quit, Jeff Cotton joined the band, and so it evolved.
By the time of Trout Mask, everybody was living in the same house together. We were all single guys, younger guys than the original band members. And it became a very strange cult-like situation, which I talk about in detail in the book, and it’s hard to really encapsulate that in some kind of a soundbite. People just have to read the book to really understand how strange that got, and how slowly it sort of crept into the situation that was.
I’m only aware of that band having done two or three live shows, and I was wondering why, having gone to the effort of learning Trout Mask to be able to play it, why didn’t he take it in front of people more?
We actually only did one live show, and it was at the Aquarius Theatre sometime in the spring of 1969, just before I left. And it was some kind of a cancer benefit or The Heart Association — something like that —
some kind of benefit.
And I would say that in answer to your question, the simplicity of it was that by the time that that album was recorded, Don had created such an alien atmosphere, such a hostile environment to live in, that the band just couldn’t work together.
I was the first to go. And the way that I was fired from the band, actually, was that Don just walked up behind me, grabbed me by my belt and my collar, and ejected me down a flight of stairs and said, “Go take a walk.” And I didn’t know why he was upset with me, I never really understood why he was ever upset with any of us, but I just decided not to come back from the walk because I was extremely unhappy. It was just a very stressful nine months of working on that album, so I was happy to leave. So I went and worked on a cattle ranch in Wyoming for the summer.
So the band actually had only done one show before I left. Now, after I left, Jeff Bruschele joined — a friend of The Mascara Snake – who was Don’s cousin Victor Hayden. They did some things with Zappa, they went to Belgium and played at the show there, but it wasn’t the same line-up as the band that actually recorded Trout Mask.
Did you have any desire to go revisit the Trout Mask house when it was put up for sale a few months ago?
Oh yeah, I had actually revisited several times over the years and met the people who bought the house after… well, let’s see, after Mark had lived there for a time. Don had moved out of the house. He had married Jan, and he had moved out of the house. But Mark Boston was still living there, and we were rehearsing in that house. And when everybody moved up to Santa Cruz, which was probably in 1971 after I came back into the group, and it became the co-op environment again — where there was a communal living environment again. Anyway, I met the people who had moved into the house. They bought it, and they were still there up until four or five years ago.
There’s a film of The Magic Band that I think is from ’71 where you’re playing three or four songs in a TV studio, and then the band is filmed silently twirling your feet underneath a table…
Do you remember this?
He appears to be conducting you as you’re twirling your feet, and I was just curious, was that the idea that you were, like, playing the parts of one of your songs with your feet supposedly in time with each other, or…
No, actually, I really think that those kind of, sort of Dadaistic moments that Don created, were because he would do anything to keep us from being interviewed. He didn’t want the band to be interviewed. And I think mainly the reason was because he had created such an alien environment to work in that it would have become evident right away that there were a lot of problems in the band, that something wasn’t quite right. So he would invent these things to do as a diversion. I had no idea what that was supposed to mean one way or the other, but we all took off our shoes and they filmed our feet under the table. That’s all I remember about it. I think that was done in 1971 on a tour in January. If I recall, it was either outside of Detroit or outside of… let’s see… yeah, it was outside of Detroit, and we did it at night en route to the hotel.
Is that you that’s playing on the Bat Chain Puller album that’s just been released by the Zappa folks this year?
Yes. I was the musical director also. That was Don’s comeback after doing a couple of albums that were considered to be disasters by a lot of the critics, and he was trying to make a comeback as, you know, The “Avant-Garde Musician.” And so I worked with him on that project.
We did a tour with a slightly different line-up, and then two of the guys quit, and so we re-formed with the guys who did the album. So it was John Thomas on keyboards and keyboard bass, Denny Walley on slide guitar, and Don’s neighbor from Northern California, Jeff Tepper, playing the other guitar.
And is that release that’s just come out different from one that had been semi-bootlegged by Ozit Records a few years ago? I think it’s called Dust Sucker.
Yeah, those guys did a completely illegal release of that material which had been bootlegged, yeah. I think the original tape was a tape that Jeff Tepper brought. It was a four-track TEAC recorder he brought into the studio and asked them to make a copy of it. That’s probably the source of the bootlegs.
Eventually, after it didn’t get released for years and years and years, if I remember correctly, Henry Kaiser made a copy of it, because he knew that people were going to be making bootlegs of it anyway. And he sent some out to a few of his friends, and from that it just got more and more dispersed until finally somebody thought, “Well, we should just put this out.” Nobody’s minding the henhouse, so we’re gonna invade it. On the one hand, I’m glad that people got to hear it; on the other hand, what a terrible thing to do that.
What were the circumstances that led to you kind of coming back into the public eye with Crazy Backwards Alphabet in the mid-’80s?
Well, Henry had approached me. I had come to the conclusion that I didn’t want to do any more avant-garde music. And I wasn’t really that excited about working with Henry because he was very deeply involved in — and saturated himself with — Beefheart music for a while. I went over to his studio, and he asked me if I’d sit in on a song. And it was “La Grange” the ZZ Top song — but it was being sung in Russian by the Swedish drummer. And I thought, “Well, that’s (laughs), that’s easy enough to do, and it would be fun to hear.” So I sat in on it. And that sort of got Henry started on the idea of, well, I could be the American drummer for Crazy Backwards Alphabet, and Michael Maksymenko could be the European drummer.
So that was how that whole thing started. It was never something that I was very excited about, and it really wasn’t a money maker at all from a business point of view. And, you know, in order to… if you’re going to keep up your craft and keep playing, you got to make some money so you’ve got time to rehearse. There’s just a regular daily maintenance that you have to go through, just like a dancer does, where you rehearse and practice and keep your chops in shape, you know. There’s no way to do that with something that has so little public appeal.
But Henry and I became friends, and we have remained so until this day. We just kind of parted company musically.
After that were a couple of records with French Frith Kaiser Thompson. Was that any more copacetic of a situation for you?
Well, both of the projects were just temporary situations. The first one, we went in and they said, “Well, after we record this, we’re going to do a tour.” And I said, “Well, that would be great,” — because that’s really the only place you can make any money is on a tour. The record companies don’t pay. They just don’t pay, period. So I was really excited about the fact that, “Oh, we’re going to do a tour and all this…” Well, it turned out to be untrue, it wasn’t true, we didn’t tour.
I was very excited about working with Richard Thompson, even more so after I met him and experienced being just around him. He was a great guy. Fred Frith also. He’s a genius. I think he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever been around in my life. The guy speaks five languages fluently. He would be on the phone talking in French, and then he’d be calling Japan and talking in Japanese, and then he’d be calling and talking in German, and I’m going, “Oh my God, you know, this guy is amazing.” He also speaks King’s English and US English.
Anyway, it was fun on that respect. But, you know, we’d go up, we’d be there two weeks, we’d rehearse for a week, we’d do some gigs on the weekend, then we’d go in the studio for a week, and then we’d be out of there, and that would be it. So they weren’t really… I wouldn’t say that they were worth a lot of money. I mean, they weren’t… it wasn’t a project that was ever going to go anywhere because nobody was serious about making a group out of it. It was more like a joining together of forces for a temporary situation.
Okay. Let’s talk a little bit about your latest release. What kind of led to the resurgence after another long break in public activity?
You’re talking about City Of Refuge?
Yeah. Well, that was something that I was very excited about. I’d been writing material for a while after I re-formed The Magic Band and we did some shows. I wrote some material thinking that if we had original material, new original material, that the booking agents would quit calling us a “tribute band” and that we could get some better shows. And even though we were doing okay, there was still always this “Where’s the Beef?” thing going on in the background. And, you know, we had all returned to our roots, and we were… the original thing: all original members. It’s not so now. We have three original members, and then two sidemen.
But the original thing, you know, the idea to me was to go back and do the music and actually have a positive experience from it. Because unfortunately with Don, it was never really a positive experience, it was always fraught with problems and controversy and strife. So I thought having a positive experience out of this would be a really nice thing, to be able to associate the music with a good experience in playing.
Well, it didn’t turn out to be so, because everybody had issues from working with Don, and so (laughs), and we’d all taken on a different facet of those issues. Whatever our issue was, we were taking it out on everybody else, so (laughs), it was just a big mess. At least before, it had, you know, a strong leader that could pull it together. I didn’t want to be a leader. I didn’t want to try to pull it together, I wanted it to just happen and be a happy democratic thing. Didn’t work out. At all.
But during that time we played at Glastonbury, and a guy named Malcolm Mills, the owner of Proper Records, heard that we were going to be playing, and he was wondering if that’s the Magic Band that was formerly Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. And he really liked it, came out and met with me three times at my house, and was very interested in hearing if I had any original material. I gave him some stuff that I’d written in the Magic Band kind of style, and he got back and he said, “I’m very excited by this. Write more material, let’s do something.”
And the original idea was to have The Magic Band record it, but that didn’t work out. But by the time it got to, you know, to the point where the material was written, I had contacted other former Magic Band members to see if they were interested in doing it, ’cause there were over forty people in The Magic Band over the period of fourteen years it existed, or however many years, there were over forty people in it. So there were a lot of people to choose from (laughs). So, you know, getting Zoot Horn Rollo, Bill Harkleroad, who is my favorite guitarist, to play on the album was a lot of fun.
Everybody really thought the material was great. All the players thought it was great, the record company thought it was great. But then they dropped the ball. The record company kind of dropped the ball on me and said, “We’re going to put off releasing this for a year.” And a year turned into a year and a half, and by that time all the momentum I’d gained in The Magic Band was gone. All the interest in John French was sort of like, you know, “Whatever Happened To John French?” kind of thing. So it really went nowhere. I think it sold less than a thousand copies.
Well, that’s disappointing.
Oh, it was devastating to me because, that was a year of my life putting that together. I recorded everybody remotely. I had a lot to do with the mixing, I had to do a lot of editing and stuff to get all the work together. I flew to Chicago, I drove to Eugene, Oregon, I recorded the drums in London.
I mean, you know, that was a monumental task to get all that together. And plus I printed out all the music and gave it to the musicians ahead of time so that they’d know what was going on. I mean, just the amount of processing and the work involved in producing, it was an incredible effort. And to have it just completely sink like that was, you know, it broke my heart.
At that point, I think that was, let’s see, late 2008, I just kind of shined it on and decided that I was going to get a regular job and just forget about the music business. So now my regular job is I repair musical instruments for the school system. Which, you know, pays the bills, and actually I’m more peaceful when I’m doing that, ’cause I can kind of work on music on my own and not have to think of music as a business. I was thinking about that this morning. It’s a very left-brained world — the music business world- whereas music is a right-brained activity, and it’s really hard to just switch back and forth. You get used to using one or the other It’s just like using your hands, you know, you try writing with your left hand. If you’re forced to write with your left hand, you’d get used to it, you know. But the unfortunate thing is that with the business side of things, you’re constantly forced to use the side of your brain that is not creative but is logical, so you lose your creative aspects.
Yeah, it’s a rare balance. It seems like it’s one of the most difficult things to strike.
Yeah, I mean, I’ve never been able to do it, especially because of the fact that I have to work so hard to make so little money in the music business because Don chose to go down this path of the avant-garde, and there’s just no money in the avant-garde music industry. However, I love playing the music.
We just did a very successful tour last December, November, just seven dates, but they were great, you know, every one of them. And I came home just elated from doing all that, and just got hit in the face with a huge amount of problems and more business to contend with, and it just kind of takes all the joy out of it, you know. I mean, it would be nice just to be able to hire somebody to do all the business stuff but we’ve had to do it mostly ourselves, ’cause we can’t afford full-time managers to do that.
What kind of circumstances do you think would have to come into place for there to be some Magic Band shows in America?
Well, I’m working on that right now. But America is so different than Europe. It’s a real fast-food kind of mentality, you know. If you’ve been out of the limelight for a while, they forget you very quickly here, whereas in Europe they just seem to have a deeper respect for artists in Europe. I mean, I would move there in a heartbeat if I had the resources and just never even come back here (laughs), ’cause there’s just not really that much here that I like, except maybe cable television occasionally.
But I’m working on that US aspect right now. There are two agents interested in The Magic Band who book shows in the States.
That’s an exciting prospect.
I’d like to get into the House Of Blues. I don’t see why we couldn’t. I mean a lot of what we play is blues-based anyway.
I would think that would not be that difficult to make happen. I was at the show for All Tomorrow’s Parties at the Queen Mary, and it seemed I have to imagine you would have a big enough draw for a room like that, and I think it would be a good place to do it.
I was really surprised at the reaction at that show. I didn’t think we’d get as great a reaction as we got that night. I had just broken my back five weeks before that show. I fell off a ladder and broke my back and contused my lung really bad. Ripped loose all the intercostal muscles from my ribs.
So I was a mess, you know, I could barely sing that night. And I mean, up until about two weeks before that, I was coughing up blood every day.
So that was quite the deal, then, that I was able to even do that. It was a miracle that I was able to show up and do that show. But I’ll tell you what, I think it was the most fun of any singular show. It was the most enjoyable, and part of the reason was it was in the States. You know? This is our homeland. Besides that, I’ve never been on the Queen Mary before. I got to take my family on the tour and look at the boat.
Well, I was certainly very happy to be there.
Yeah, and it was during a full lunar eclipse, remember? Just as we went onstage, it started.
Yeah, it was perfect.
It was so exciting, man. Great night. I was very happy that night, even though they completely screwed up the sound system (laughs).
It wasn’t bad from where I was standing. There were points where the balance seemed to be a little off, but it was fine.
Well, I’m talking about what we hear onstage…the monitoring system. My system was a total disaster. And the guy who was the stage manager that night knew my set-up, because he had been our tour manager, so I just automatically assumed that he would know what to tell the guys at the mixing board. And he didn’t bother to do anything, and when we started playing, all I heard was distortion, I could not understand a note that I was hearing through my in-ear monitors. So I had about four songs where I was completely lost, and when I listen back to it, it sounds terrible – to me, anyway.
Are there plans for shows coming up?
Well. the funny thing is, you know, we did this little tour in November and December based upon doing this festival, the ATP Festival in Minehead, England, and right as we got the tour all set up, the festival postponed until March (laughs). So now we’re going back in March, and so we got some more shows together for then. And then we just got a invitation about two weeks ago, we’re going to be playing Tokyo, Japan.
So this is, you know, based on the fact that the promoter of ATP heard our latest show in London, which was a sold-out show, and he said, “This is the best I’ve ever heard.” He said it’s even better than the original band, you know, and I think it is too. I thought it was a great show, even though we didn’t get the kinks all out of it.
So I’m excited about that, plus I’m working on another Drumbo CD, and I’ve got a private investor, so I’ve been doing that in my spare time. Now, I’m worried the private investor is getting a little upset because of all this Magic Band activity, I haven’t been able to meet all the deadlines. But other than that, I’m kind of looking forward to the future. I think this band is the best band, so I’m kind of looking forward to doing at least a couple years of this.