These are the notes to John French's CD, "O Solo Drumbo", on the Avan label.
All titles composed by John S. French and published by J. French Music (ASCAP) except # 4 composed by Don Van Vliet and published by Singing Ink Music (BMI)
Thanks to Derk Richardson for the title
Drums: John French aka Drumbo
I have heard many drummers quoted saying how much they hate drum solos. Based on the sole premise of finally discovering a group of people I could truly irritate, I have recorded this drum solo album.
Ed Baxter, of the London Musician's Collective is the true instigator. He left a message on my phone machine a couple of years ago and asked me to play some drum solos at their yearly festival. I took my wife, Donna, along and we made a little vacation of it.
BBC recorded the forty-five minute performance for radio airplay, and I sent a copy to my good friend, Mr. Henry Kaiser. His wonderful response was to arrange for this album to be recorded, which he produced. He is the man to thank or blame, depending entirely upon your position.
The solos were recorded November, 1996 in Mobius Studios with another welcome friend at his Neve board, Mr. Oliver DiCicco. It was voting day, and Oliver voted for Clinton, but he's still a good friend. ( I voted absentee, the moral: vote! ). This makes the fourth project I have done at this studio. The three of us (Hank, Ollie and I ) got to have dinner together twice. That was quite a treat for me. Enjoy your friends while they're still around.
The mixing occured at Henry's own studio in his home Feb. 1997. The drums are panned "player perspective" which means they sound in the same places to you the listener as they do to me ( as "the player").
The mastering was done by David Gans. I don't know David that well, and this was our first meeting, however, I'm sure he liked me very much.
I like to include a couple of anecdotes here just to tick the record company off in the amount of space all this is taking up.
There was an early influence in my playing that not too many people ever heard of. He was our exterminator when I got my first set of drums from Ed and Mary's Fix-It Shop on Beech Ave. in Lancaster CA, just 3 1/2 blocks down the street from where I lived. His name was Tope Minter (spelling may be wrong), and he played on Cal's Country Corral or perhaps Kal's Kountry Korral out of Bakersfield (a decidedly country music-influenced area 2 1/2 hrs. drive north of Los Angeles. Cal (Kal) was Cal Worthington, a car dealer who later moved to Los Angeles and dominated the airways exploiting various animals (whom he always called his dog " Spot") in order to sell cars. He got the idea from a less-insincere guy who used his German Shepherd in car commercials for Ralph Williams Ford (in the city of Encino). Anyway, back to Tope. Tope was spraying bugs around our house while I was playing and asked my mother if he could come in a moment. He introduced himself and asked to play my drums. I was impressed with the fact that he used the whole set, choosing not to just keep time and play fills. He also had a great kick drum foot and did a lot of syncopation at a time when that was fairly uncommon. "Use the whole set, kid." he told me.
Sandy Nelson was another of my big drum influences. A Los Angeles-based drummer, he did a lot of instrumental stuff in the early sixties featuring drums and drum solos. I memorized and copied many of his early solos and they became the roots of all I did afterwards. I loved the sound of his stuff, including Teen Beat, Let There Be Drums, and Birth of the Beat. Sandy lost a leg in a motorcycle accident in the mid-sixties and his popularity soon decreased, but I believe he still plays in a small club in Santa Monica. I saw a television interview featuring him, and he had a moat around his house and rowed out to meet the newscaster. I always thought he had a great style and hope that someday I can meet him.
Just for the record (pun intended), I certainly don't consider myself any kind of great drummer from the standpoint of technique. I think that I probably was very lucky to have had the chance to play to music that made me have to think differently about drumming than anyone else. It has been a pleasurable challenge.
Back to the CD. I tried to pick things that I thought people who know of my past work would like to hear. So, this is sort of a "retro" approach. Looking back, I realise now that everything here was created when I still had hair. The time I've gained in not having to do all that shampooing was spent perfecting these performances, so this album should be dedicated to "baldness".
However, I would like to dedicate this album to Don and Jan Van Vliet. I had many good laughs with them both at various times, and I think they make a great couple. Thank you, Don and Jan, for the pleasant times we have enjoyed especially 1975. ~ Also, a special thanks to Mr. Henry Kaiser who made this album possible by being a great friend in more ways than I can explain.
Many people to thank. Donna Blair French -- my wife and first drum student, who puts up with all my faults. Jesse Blair-French -- my six-year old daughter who opened up a whole new world of parenthood for me. Shonna Marie Jones -- My beloved stepdaughter, whose life I care about deeply. Huldah Pearl French -- My mother and friend. Don Van Vliet -- For writing The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole. Some of the great musicians I've worked with: Bob Adams, John Bainter, Richard Blalock, Mike Benedict, Mark Boston, Tom Bryden, Scott Colby, Ry Cooder, Chuck Costarella, Jeff Cotton, George Cremaschi Jack Daro, Eric Drew Feldman, Bruce Fowler, Ed Freeman, Fred Frith, Mike Glick, Jerry Handley, Bill Harkleroad, Dalton Hegler, Elliot Ingber, Wayne Jones, Lightnin' Hopkins, Henry Kaiser, Keith Kennedy, Tim Lyddon, Lee Matalon, Mike, Jeff and Steve Mattern, Jerry McGee, Danny McKinney, Doug Moon, Alex Snouffer, John Tanner, John Thomas, Richard Thompson, Jeff Tepper, Don Van Vliet, Denny Wally, Andy West, Robert Williams, Frank Zappa. Special thanks to Barry Martin for loaning me his Ludwig drum set.
Special Thanks From the Producer to: John Zorn, Jim O'Rourke, and John French for making this project possible.
1. Abba Zaba Drums -- Originally from Safe as Milk, I came up with this drum part one evening in Laurel Canyon, California as an answer to a request by Don for an "African" rhythm, at a time when I had not really heard any African rhythms. Later, I heard the same rhythm on a Library of Congress field recording done in Africa. I reasoned it could have been my "Psychic" ability. Most likely, I first heard the beat on the original King Kong soundtrack when I was 11, while watching the movie.
2. Disposable Thoughts -- I wrote this composition originally for a band called Crazy -Backwards Alphabet, but it was recorded on the first French Frith Kaiser Thompson CD Live, Love, Larf and Loaf. Here, I have just improvised around the original parts. The title has to do with the idea of being able to plug computer chips which contain the thoughts of the greatest thinkers into our brain via some implanted interface. I would be worrying about infection. I actually saw this on one of those Public Television things. Oh no, now they're going to be calling me again for a donation.
3. Weaned from the Earth-- While rehearsing for the London concert, this came into being during an improvisational warm-up. Although I don't consider myself an environmentalist, I always thought it would be nice if we would return what we take from the earth. Our population has the potential to increase infinitely, yet we live on a very finite planet, and act as though we don't realize that fact. This drum solo, however, is probably not the answer.
4. The Thousandth and Tenth Day of the Human Totem Pole -- One of my favorite Beefheart compositions is included here as an answer to a request from Mr. Kaiser to play the melody on drums. I decided then to play the melody and the drum parts at the same time in order to really impress people. Four hours a day and 2 1/2 half months later, I came up with this. I had to borrow a set of drums for the session because my set didn't have enough (eight) tom-toms. I transcribed the original sheet music from Don Van Vliet's original cassette in his trailer in the desert in 1975. It was the summer and it was hot. It was originally recorded in early 1976 on the original Bat Chain Puller album and is soon to be released. I think the original version is a little better than the Ice Cream for Crow version, probably because I play on the 1976 version.
5. We Are In Control? -- Written for and recorded by Crazy Backwards Alphabet in 1985. The parts -- (admittedly Trout Mask in inspiration) are attempted to be improvised on before they are actually played, so that they appear in an illusionary form after the fact. The title refers to the fact that man has dominion of the earth, and does such a great job taking care of it.
6. Bat Chain Puller: The Movie -- One rainy day in Hollywood, behind Frank Zappa's studio in early 1976, Don Van Vliet decided to write a song from the drums up (subconsciously, I guess I have always placed drums at the bottom of the musical spectrum). As we sat in his Volvo, he turned on the windshield wipers. I wrote the main drumbeat on a matchbook cover with the idea in mind to duplicate this wiper rhythm. Does this mean Volvo deserves royalties? Perhaps an endorsement will be enough.
7. Hair Pie Drums --For the Beefheart fans, only the parts have been slightly altered for copyright reasons. Hair Pie was the first song in which I tried actually writing out my drum beats before playing them. It was a different approach, and I tried to have at least two different things going on in each rhythm. The first part took forever to learn. One measure of Hell. After a while, Hell became much easier.
8. Three For 5 -- I transcribed the basic idea for this in 1969, during rehearsal for Trout Mask Replica as an attempt to play in 3 different time signatures at the same time. It is in 3/8, 4/4, and 5/4 and is not repetitive for 15 measures, at which time it begins the same cycle. I have tried to play it on several occasions through the years, but never had the patience (and still don't!) to master it . Actually I programmed each measure into a drum machine, to hear how it sounded, and learned them separately. Later, when I put them together, my brain didn't know which time signature to follow; and it was a very odd sensation, like trying to decide which presidential candidate to believe. What is here evolves into an improvisation based upon East Indian tabla rhythms.
9. P-K-Ro P -- Don played a rhythm quite similar to this on the drums one day. He asked me to transcribe the beat to music paper. It was very difficult for him to keep playing it, and though it took me about 30 seconds to write it down, I kept telling him I didn't have it yet, so he kept having to play it for 20-30 minutes. It was a little prank in retribution for having had to transcribe all those Trout Mask parts for bass and guitar. However, he was able through his simple technique to innovate one of the greatest beats on drums that I have ever heard. I approached it here with a Cab Calloway visits Flash Gordon feel, because it always reminds me of old soft shoe / shoeshine boy rhythms from the 30's and 40's and yet still has a timeless appeal.
10. Suzanne -- The results of my first attempt at playing a long string of difficult parts, I originally recorded this on Invisible Means, French Frith Kaiser Thompson. As a challenge, I played it to a click track which sped up approx. 1 1/4 beats per measure. I wanted to have this long reverb, like the Taj Mahal, on the slow parts which shortened in length in proportion to the speed, however, you'll just have to use your imagination.
11. Steal Softly Through Snow Drums -- It is not common knowledge that I wrote many of my own drum parts on Beefheart's legendary Trout Mask Replica. I have included two titles from that album here for the Beefheart fans. This is not improvisation, and I tried to capture the original intensity and abandon as much as possible.
12. What's a Cobble Box? -- Richard Thompson was talking about his love for the early Buddy Holly recordings. He mentioned to Frith (also British), Kaiser and me in his charming British accent that the drums always sounded like a "cobble box". Henry and I (The California boys) pretended to understand him for a moment, but finally asked, almost in unison, "What's a cobble box?". "Cardboard," answered Richard, "I said, 'Cardboard Box'." We all had a good laugh over the lack of translation. (I didn't have a title for this piece, and I always wanted to tell that story, "OK?")