This is a transcript from a workshop John French gave at Conway Hall, London, May 26th, 1997, sent to me by Henry Kaiser, and typed out by David Greenberger. (Thanks to both of them for this great transcript.)
An interesting fact that this reveals is why cardboard was placed on the drums for John French's playing - I had read something about it in an issue of Gerry Pratt's Steal Softly Thru Snow, and Frank Zappa alluded to it in a BBC interview (he seemed to imply that it was an irrational act) but until now, I knew of no real reason for it.
Steal Softly Through Snow was the first thing that Don Van Vliet wrote after he got his piano. Don usually wrote on tape recorders and then coped things for listening; but he never bought any tape, so unfortunately we were always recording over things that were very important to Don. And if I erased something - because I was the guy in charge of the tape recorder - I'd always erase something that he wanted to save so he was always screaming "YOU ERASED THAT????" After a while it was totally terrifying because he was 19 stone, it was pretty intimidating. Finally I said one day, "Don I'm sorry but the tape recorder's broken." I think I pulled the fuse or something. I had this idea. I'd bought some music paper and I'd been practising writing out rhythms, so I could think of a rhythm and write it out quickly.
He was playing the piano a few days later and I went up and just kind of wrote down what he was playing, sitting next to him on the piano, without any real though of anything, just to see if I could do it. And I set it down. He came down a little later and said "This looks pretty good. Can you tell me what I was playing?". I said "Yeah" and he said "Play it for me." So I sat at the piano and fumbled my way through it. On Trout Mask, that's me transcribing a lot of it - I won't say all of it. Pieces like China Pig and a couple of other song - Pena and parts of My Human Gets Me Blues I think were vocally transmitted to the band. I'd say 75 - 80% was transcribed by me and then taught to the other players.
I sat at the piano all day for hours every day figuring out the next part and it got to be a little marathon. The first thing he wrote was Dali's Car and because the electricity had gone out on the street, we did that by candlelight, so the music has all this candle was on it. Then we did Steal Softly Through Snow and Hair Pie. The drum parts on those songs were figured out partially during rehearsal and partially by me writing it out later. I wrote a lot of my own drum parts for the album. And what I did was take the music and take the main rhythmic thrust of each instrument and try to combine it into one part. Now I knew that I wasn't going to play in three different time signatures at the same time on all these songs, but what I wanted to do was grab the essence of what the part was and make a part that would suggest tying together - even though it was going to be a counter rhythm, just like everything else. Some people were playing 5, some in 7, some in 3 or 4, so somehow I had to tie this together and that was the only way I could think of. I would consider in terms of building a foundation with bricks of unequal lengths: one set of bricks is THAT long, another is THAT long, putting them all down then you're laying the next down, starting to figure that out - that's what I had to do a lot of. I always felt that I should have got some arrangement credits, but it never happened. When I asked Don, I'd say "OK I've got all this written down, who's playing what?" He'd say "Oh, you know what to do."
At this time we lived in a small house, basically had to rehearse in one room. There was another room that somebody could go down into. Everybody but me was able to practise. I wasn't able to cause we had this neurotic neighbour who couldn't stand any noise, so every time we started to practise she called the police. We had several visits from the police before I finally put cardboard on my drums. Everybody would get a part, go off and stand in the corner of the room playing parts, guitarist in one corner, bass player in another. And I'd be sitting in the middle of the room like writing stuff out, trying to arrange paperwork. And I'd HEAR someone making a mistake, that's how nuts I was!! I could hear everyone playing at the same time. I wasn't very much good socially. I'd go out on a date and I'd be sitting there catatonic. Didn't have a lot of fun in those days. Didn't have a car, didn't have a lot of money, it was tough.
I was starting to get these kind of visions: "Wow, if I could somehow grasp what everyone's doing" - like I was talking about before " and put these things together and write down parts" which I started to do. I think my first concept was 'I'll take the bass rhythm and put it on the bass drum, I'll take one guitar rhythm and use cymbals and snare, I'll take the other guitar and use just toms, I'll try and put it all together, see what happens." Boy, was I sorry that I decided to do that. We're used to playing certain kinds of things, but all of a sudden I was faced with this dilemma.
I didn't have training reading this stuff. I had to like really look at it a long time. I thought, this is the way to do it, go about it by writing it down, making a draft of it, working your butt off until you can do it, OK? But I wanted to make it natural, so instead of trying to change it a lot to go with all the counter rhythms that were going on, I thought "I'll stick to one thing and try and make it groove as much as I can, so everyone's got one thing that ties in - there's an anchor there, I'm not just going off somewhere." Because it was hard enough to keep this music together anyway without having me experimenting.
When I had learnt that first beat, it was like this (whispers) "I love this, this is it, this is the culmination of what i've been trying to do all my life!" That's when I really got nuts!
That was the breakthrough for me. When I got that far I thought, "I can do this, I can do it for a lot of things." Now I didn't get to do this as much as I would have liked, because I spent so much time transcribing, teaching other people parts, trying to duck the lady next door who was neurotic and who didn't want to hear the drums practising. By the way, that last take of Hair Pie done in the studio was done with cardboard on the drums. We did one version at the house, recorded on a remote system and one in the studio. They asked me to put cardboard on the drums for that. I used to put it underneath the hi hat, and on all the drums and underneath all the cymbals, to deaden them - nothing really noisy for the neurotic lady. So the drum sound there is dedicated to the neurotic lady who lived across the street.
Don would try to get the band together to watch TV, cause Don was a real strong one for getting everyone to do everything that he wanted to do. If he wanted to do something, everybody needed to spend attention on him. If he wanted to write on piano, he didn't want everyone to go outside, he wanted everyone to watch him writing on piano. If everyone wasn't paying exact attention, he'd go "Will you stop it?" to sort of get their attention. It was really hard for me to get time away from watching TV, and I had to be there when he was composing to write it down. Or listening to him play saxophone - cause instead of going off somewhere and practising, he would come out and do a concert for us and we'd have to sit and listen to him play. And of course there were several recitations a say of the lyrics, usually done by Jeff Cotton. He'd say "Jeff, read this for me", cause he'd always have people writing lyrics down for him too. He'd have Jeff read a lot. We'd spend hours doing that.
Then we'd used to have these, what I called "brainwashing sessions", where he would decided that someone in the band was Public Enemy no.1. He'd centre in on them for 2-3 days, feed them coffee and not let them sleep until their sense of deprivation was such that they'd say "I'll do anything you say!". Then they'd fall apart and cry or something. I'm trying to make light of it as much as I can, but it was very emotionally disturbing to all of us and it took us a long time to get past that.
There was a song called Wild Life that's on Trout Mask Replica. That drum part was one of my favourites. It's in five. After Trout Mask Replica I left the band for a while - I won't go into that, it's a whole other story - and Don called me back again. He had Art Tripp playing drums but Artie could not play these parts that I'd written. Artie was a trained musician but I guess that it was breaking too may rules or something. He just didn't have that style of playing, he played straight rock. And he was a great improviser, but he didn't have that kind of technique. So Don switched him to marimba, asked me to come back and told me that things were going to be different. His picture was on the cover of Rolling Stone and he felt that I should get some of the credit and be in the band and make the money, not that they were going to go big time. So I came back into the band and they had all these songs but no drum parts. So Don said, "Use the drum parts that you used on Trout Mask, because people will relate to that."
The difference between Trout Mask drum parts and Decals drum parts was that Artie had two bass drums - and I had to have two bass drums, cos Art had two bass drums. So I used a double bass pedal. On Doctor Dark, it's both Artie and I playing. It's really good fun to play with another drummer. You can do intertwining parts and he was really good at the fine buzz rolls and things like that, the intricate needlework. I was good at clubbing the drums to death over these weird rhythms that no-one else wanted to take the time to play. That's too much work. Artie spent most of his spare time playing pool, and I spent most of my spare time practising, that's why I was able to do these and he wasn't. He could probably have played them better than I had If he'd taken the time.
Don Van Vliet could actually, if he sat down and just applied himself for a while, (which he seldom did for anything except his writing) have been a very good drummer. The reason I say that is that he had a great sense of rhythm and great ideas. And the beat of Ant Man Bee was just him sitting down at the kit one day. On Trout Mask, where at a later point we didn't have time for me to write all the drum parts, he just sat down and played an idea of what he wanted.
One of the reasons that I tried to write as many parts as I could was that it is very unchallenging to play what a non-drummer plays on drums. It's boring to play stuff over and over so I wanted something that would be more challenging. Something we called the 'Baby Beat' was employed a lot, Don would sing a part and I'd play the part with my hands and play the 'Baby Beat' with my feet - that seemed to give a kind of syncopation that he liked. And it was quick to learn and could be employed in songs quickly.
Q. When you were notating the musical parts to Trout Mask Replica and you were going crazy about having this idea baout how you could fix it all together so it would be playable, what were the other band members; reactions to being given this music to play, and trying to link all the parts together, which would obviously not be something they'd done before?
JF: Well the reaction was really positive because the way Don alwasy composed before was tedious, really slow. It would take hours because he would alwasy do everything vocally and verbally and sing parts, somtimes he'd try them on drums, sometimes he'd try playing them on guitar, but it was always sort of (from band) "Is this what you mean": "No, that's not it" and finally they would do it. But with the piano, with it being written down, there was usually a delay between the time it was written and the teaching to the band. In that length of time Don would build the intensity level of the mode of creation and would be able to concentrate more on helping the person to understand what he was trying to do, so it actually made it a lot easier. Everybody was very receptive to it as far as that goes. It wasn't "Oh my God, that is terrible."
It was actually more work, but we got a lot more accomplished and we would have got even more accomplished if Don wasn't the sort of paranoid personality that he was. He always thought that someone was trying to sabotage the music. We'd have these talks that would take days and everyone would be worn out and sleep for a day and then get back to work. As far as the working of getting the actual music together and rehearsing, we had a great time doing it because we could work on our own endeavour. Because we'd just concentrate, everyone had a line towards seeing this thing done - "This is exciting, this is new, no-one has ever done this before, we are cutting new ground here, let's do it", you know. So we had to roll up our sleeves and get working on it.
We were all totally broke. There was no money. Basically Don's mother was supporting the band and Zoot Horn Rollo's mother would send down cheques to pay the rent and buy food. I remember once going for a month and all we had to eat every day was one little ratio about this big, a four ounce cup of soya beans. That was our food for the day.
Q. Don wasn't a keyboard player as such, so you must have sifted out a high percentage of dross and picked out the melodic parts, would you say?
JF: WEll, Don was very good because the fact that he wasn't a keyboard player meant he couldn't play long passages, so that's why all the phrases are short. But usually what I would do was have him play it and I would sit next to him on the piano and I would learn it. I'd say, OK, give me a minute. And because I basically knew how he thought rhythmically, so I would learn from him.
Q. Would you say that what was in his head came out of the fingers, or did he play randomly and pick stuff out that he thought as usable? Could he play the same thing twice?
JF: He could, it was difficult for him but he could do it. I would say that he mostly sat down and experimented with something, that's what it seemed like to me. But there were times that he didn't take it seriously and he'd just play something once. I'd go "Was that it?" and he'd say "Yeah." We'd need a part for a song. Don would say "Oh well", (mimics running hands over keyboard) and throw the stones where they would land.
But there were times when he had moments and I would say that one of the most brilliant things he ever did was on Lick My Decals Off, called Peon. He actually recorded that, played it on the piano and we recorded it EXACTLY, except for maybe two notes. It was exactly the way it was performed. That shows his brilliance and his ability to grasp the concept of what a keyboard was and utilise it in compositional form without any training whatsoever (points to head) so the man definitely had some smarts up there.