This was a quick interview John French did with me by email - I asked him for a quick writeup for this website and tossed off some subject material as a list of 10 items. He went through each in turn and wrote a very personal and complete letter. My questions to him are in bold.
1: What were your early musical influences?
My family was my first musical influence. My father (Thomas O. French Sr.) played rhythm guitar with my maternal uncle John Franklin Bainter, who sang, played lead guitar and violin. They lived in Ohio as young men and went through the depression and prohibition together. My parents bootlegged home brew in their basement and threw parties out of their home, which they had fitted with tables like a nightclub. My father was the bouncer/ rhythm guitar player. My mother sang with them sometimes and waited tables. They did songs like "Old Shanty Town," and "You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby," and "Alexander's Ragtime Band." I wasn't born (in California) until my father was 40, by that time my father didn't play for anything but his own entertainment. My uncle played in a classic western band . He was a more advanced player than my father, but my father had a great sense of rhythm. I recall once as a child sick in bed, my father came into entertain me. I had a fever and was almost delerious. He picked up a ukelele and played all this fantastic rhythm, 3 against 4 and stuff and never lost where one was. That probably had a great influence on my young and very open mind.
2: How'd you end up in the Magic Band?
My father had worked with Doug Moon at North American Aircraft Co. I believe. Doug used to come by and try to get me to go to jam sessions with him. I don't even know who was playing, but I imagine it was guys from the old Omens band, a rhythm and blues group Alex Snouffer and Terry Wimberley had started. Jerry played guitar for them later before switching to bass. Doug had also once taken me to an early Beefheart Rehearsal, the drummer having broken his bass drum pedal and wishing to borrow mine. The deal was - I went with the pedal. I met 6'3" Vic Mortensen, the drummer, along with the rest of the guys. I played a solo later which caught Don's and Jerry's ear. I used to practice 3 hours a day. Eventually I had my own band, Blues in a Bottle, in which I sang and played harp. If you wanted to get gigs in the desert, you had to have a four piece band with a stand-up singer, and I persuaded the guys in my band to let me have a crack at it and was doing pretty well for a kid singing copy songs. We opened for Beefheart at a local concert and actually got a better reception from the crowd. We were doing all copy stuff and more current things that the kids liked, plus we had this big Yardbirds-like sound. Our band contained Mark Boston on bass, Jeff Cotton on guitar, Jeff Parker on other guitar (went off and joined MU as bassist years later, and Don Giesen on drums (now an upholsterer for Harrah's in Tahoe.) Don heard the band that night, but had forgotten I played drums. He actually first asked a friend of mine, John Parr, who was a much better drummer than I to join when he lost PG Blakely.
3: What was it like - some anecdotal stuff here.
It was "like wow" man!" I was, of course, 3 years younger than the youngest Beefheart member at 18 to Jerry's 21, and 8 years younger than Don (still am) so I was a bit intimidated by it all. Don immediately started "hipping me up" by playing recordings of all these avante-garde jazz artists. There was John Coltrane (my favorite, still is) Ornette Coleman, Charles Lloyd, Roland Kirk, Archie Shepp, and John Handy, at least of the names that come to mind. I also heard a recording of "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg (hope I have his name right) who I just saw on television talking about the "beat generation" and the writings of Jack Kerouac and others. "Howl" impressed me a great deal, because it's sensitivity pertaining to the simple pleasures, the daily accessible pleasures of life that we often miss because we are so wrapped up in pursuing the more "complex" pleasures.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of marijuana being smoked and Don was encouraging me to partake as often as possible. I suppose this was part of the "hipping-up of John." We - Don, his friend Gary Lambert, occasional and assorted band members, his cousin Victor (he lived 60 miles away, but came up for sleepovers) and various combinations of the above used to drive out in the Desert on dirt roads and smoke "grass" as Don called it then. I remember one night seeing giant hands of fog coming out of the ground among the desert vegetation. They were grasping and trying to pull me into the ground. It frightened the hell out of me. Victor thought I was being ridiculous.
We played a couple more concerts before leaving the desert. I was suddenly a very popular guy locally, because I was in the most popular band. Everywhere I went, someone stopped me on the street, or in a store, to inquire about the band. It got a bit annoying. I wasn't used to so much attention.
I got in my first automobile accident with Don, within two or three weeks of joining the band. I didn't drive at the time, and I was riding with his girlfriend Laurie and him down the mainstreet of Lancaster. It was dark, but people were Christmas shopping I suppose, because the streets seem full of pedestrians. Don's brakes went out, and he drove the car up over the curb and hit a bus stop bench to stop the car. We were only going fifteen or twenty mph, but the bench shot across the sidewalk and barely missed several pedestrians. We found out later that the line had been cut, probably by some one who disapproved of the "long-haired" hippy band. Lancaster was and still is a very conservative area.
4: What have you done since?
I have done a bit of work with Henry Kaiser, San Francisco experimental guitarist. I did an album with CBA (Crazy Backwards Alphabet) which consisted of Kaiser, Andy West on bass (Dixie Dregs) and Michael Maksemenko on drums. He was the original drummer, and I came it and did tracks after he went back to Sweden, so we didn't work together much, and never played a concert together. We started a second album, and several of the cuts wound up on my solo project, "Waiting on the Flame," which was just me trying to write more accessible "songs" to make some money. More on that in a minute.
Two albums with French, Frith, Kaiser Thompson (H Kaiser, Fred Frith (on bass) and Richard Thompson, Scottish Folk-Rock guitarist.) Both albums were two week projects and so there isn't that much depth to the musical content. My favorite cut off the first album, "Live Love Larf and Loaf," is "A Bird in God's Garden." Most of the rest of the album I don't care that much for. "Disposable Thoughts" maybe, because it is a Beefheart-like piece that was just fun to play. The second album "Invisible Means" is less a band than a bunch of individual projects, but I had two things on there I was proud of, "Invisible Means," (the best lyrics I have ever written) and "To the Rain."Richard Thompson's songs were always incredible, and I like them all as songs, but I wanted to just play them straight, because they were so good, and they wanted "Drumbo" drumming, which really sometimes didn't work that well. The ingredients didn't match, and it became musically meaningless at times. It was against my better judgement to to that, and later in a review I was criticized for doing what I didn't want to do in the first place. The reviewer wrote, "French drummed all over and practically ruined the best Richard Thompson song ever," (Drowned Dog Black Night.) I think Richard is a fantasic musician, as well as Fred, who came in and read his bass parts off sheet music for the second project. It was amazing. Unfortunately, it also never "grooved" like the first album, because Fred was used to playing with John Zorn's drummer, and so he and I were always slightly out of sync.
The problem is with any project like this, unless you're doing more "mainstream" music, it's very difficult to "gel" with people you barely know. To me, rock and roll, even "avante-garde" rock and roll is really a music that demands a kind of kinship and a "bonding" which doesn't mean you have to grow up together, but it helps.
5: Describe your relationship with Don (if you are comfortable talking about this)
I thought of Don as a friend. He spent a lot of time talking to me and that was enjoyable. He was a good listener and I learned a lot from his input about certain things. He also could be very intimidating in a group situation, so it was like working with two people. He was extremely open-minded, and I could speak with him on a variety of subjects. He had a certain dignity about him and an air that he maintined that was unusual. I also felt sorry for him in certain aspects. He was an only child, and was very demanding as far as attention. He was also very used to getting his own way and there were always conflicts and I usually seemed to lose the arguments and wound up doing a lot of things I really had no desire to do. He had a very limited understanding of music, and although he had great ideas, his ability to communicate was very limited due to his lack of schooling. He would become upset at people for not understanding him, accusing them of "playing mind games" with him. This put an uncomfortable slant on rehearsals and made everyone less free than they could have been.
Of course, I could only take so much of this at a shot, which was why I was in and out of the band so often. It was like coming up for air. I felt like I was suffocating around him.
6: Share some thoughts on musical technique
I presume you mean "my" musical technique. I always approach anything I play from the point of view that reading music is not performing music, and so I memorize everything. I learn it in slow motion and then speed it up. I feel most comfortable when I don't have to think at all about what I'm doing, so that I can concentrate completely on "feel" which is the most important aspect of music.
I do enjoy playing simple music also. Such as blues tunes, where just a standard beat is used with a few fills. I like to grasp the groove and just play with it a little until it feels just right and then start experimenting by adding just an extra kick here or there, or opening a high hat in a place you wouldn't expect. Then, I try to turn off my mind and just go along for the ride. Not thinking doesn't mean not concentrating. It just means becoming less "self-conscious" and more "music conscious." It's like trying to pick up something really heavy with a group of people. You have to become "one" with the people, and take into consideration all the different strengths and weaknesses of the team, and then you have to be aware of this all at once, or you're liable to wind up dropping the thing on your foot.
Technique should come naturally, and since everyone's body is slightly different, it will vary from individual to individual. There are some hard a fast rules that I have settle with myself, but I find that when I attempt to do something new and challenging, that my technique may alter unconsciously to adapt to the new demand.
7: Share your thoughts on how one could/should learn music
There are two aspects to music that are really important. Being able to read really well should be a priority. Bassist Beule Neidlinger (hope I spelled it right) came in to audition for the 1975 Knebworth band. Now Beule is reknown as a great studio bassist and has incredible sight-reading skills. I handed him the original transcription to "My Human Gets me Blues." I explained the form of the song. Everybody else had been rehearsing it for several days. I counted it of and he played in so incredibly well that I thought Mark Boston had walked into the room! Now take into consideration that there are so many "musical rules" broken in that song I can't count them all, and in the center section, everyone is playing in different time signatures. Beule was able to grasp that on his first try, partially because he was a great reader to begin with, so didn't have to "think" about what he was doing.
The other aspect is feel. I really think feel can be developed right along with reading, but in a separate session. Practice reading for the sake of learning to read, not playing music. Practice reading like one would practice typing. Don't worry about the feel when first learning to read.
Then, in a separate session, take something you already know. Anything that you can play from memory. Record yourself and listen back. How do you sound? How does it feel? What can you do to make it "feel" better? Analyze from a technical aspect, then jump in. Don't leave that piece until you are completely happy with the feel. It will translate to other similar pieces.
Then, when you have mastered both, they will meet at some point, and, like Beule, you will be able to interpret and sight read simultaneously.
8: Share your thoughts on forms of music (non-Beefheart)
Well, for the most part, I can't stand most of what I see in the Rock and Roll world. Same old crap with a brand new label. MTV turned the whole thing into a visual experience, which really takes all intellectualism out of perspective and makes it just another entertainment escapist rat trap. I don't listen much because there are only so many tatoos and wagging tongues one can take. Heavy Metal had it's moments, but then the whole satanism sensationalist mentality took over and they all became comedic clones exploiting blind youth for their money and their souls. Not in the literal sense, because most of these guys are just pretending to be Satanists, because Mom and Dad didn't like that, so it was cool with rebellious youth. It all seemed so corny.
Madonna is really the essence of trite midi commercialism. If she hadn't had a big bra size and a synthesizer genius behind her, she would have been just another mediocre dance student who sang out of key. Michael Jackson is a truly overrated star. Have you ever read his lyrics? For the most part junk. "Man in the Mirror" was pretty good, but I think he kept looking in that mirror far too long. He looks like Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera with all that surgery. But the man can dance. He could have really done a lot of good in this world (I won't say he hasn't done a lot, he just could have done more.). I think that he could have influenced African Americans in many more positive ways. Instead, he chose to play with little boys.
One thing that really bothers me is all the drugs these fools think they have to take. I would give anything to have made the amount of money of some of these rock stars, but I really believe I would not have invested in cocaine. I would have bought property. A house for my family, for my folks. I would have started businesses and created new jobs for people. All these fools can do is sit around and talk about how hard it is on the road and that they need drugs to get by. I've been out there, and it "ain't that tough guys." If they weren't so self-absorbed, they would find that there are great things to do on the road. A lot of it is the fault of greedy management who tries to cram so many concerts into a tour that the band never has a chance to breathe or enjoy what they are doing.
Another thing is the business side of rock is so corrupt. They love to sign young bands that don't know what they're signing. They encourage drugs, because it takes away common sense. That way they can exploit the musicians and squeeze every penny possible out of the act. Of course, the bands then write senseless songs that influence kids in the worst possible way. Then, when they are confronted with this, they state that they are not responsible for anything and take no accountability for the wretched state of society which they helped to produce. If they survive into their thirties and actually do acquire some common sense and wisdom, then they are already "yesterday's news," and the record companies have moved on to exploit the thousands of hopeful young and naive artists just waiting to be exploited.
Unlike Frank Zappa, who thought that no music should be classified with warning labels, I feel that music has been a really powerful negative influence in America, and parents need to be able to look at Cds and have a rating that tells them something about the material inside. I don't listen to much popular music, because most of it is written by the stupid to exploit the naive.
Rap music has soft-core porn overlaid with monotonous repetitive music and some valid lyrics but mostly non-artistic hate messages. I think it spreads bad will among the races, and we seem to have more racial tension now than pre-rap, so I may have a point. I do think it has brought some truth to the scene, but has done a lot of harm. I must say that I am impressed with the amount of lyrics a rap singer can memorize and verbalize so rhythmically. But, I am pretty bored and upset with the whole Gang-Banger mentality. It's tribalism, and that is a sign of decay in our civilization. We need each other more than ever, and yet now we are more divided than we have been in the past.
There's little discipline in the above mentioned music, but now to mention my favorites:
There are two high forms of music in my world: Classical and Jazz. Classical demands the reading / interpreting combination described above because it is a "composed" music with little repetition and no improvisation, and therefore needs to be read because of the lengthy phrases which would make memorization difficult.
Jazz demands less in the way of reading skills, because the music is less "composed" and usually consists of songs interpreted by the player. The serious demand in jazz is that it is highly improvised and therefore requires a high degree of understanding of musical theory. Each chord in a jazz piece must be spontaneously analyzed as to scale structure and improvised on with this understanding in mind. There are thousands of possible combinations and a great deal of "woodshedding" is needed to attain the high degree of ability required to improvise over the chords in the correct harmonic manner. Players who can play "outside" the normal rules have extended their abilities usually through hours and hours of study and practice.
A player like Wynton Marsalis, who can crossover from jazz to classical has not only mastered reading skills to a high level, but has has also been able to comprehend and digest advanced musical theory, and put this "theory into practice."
However, Wynton, in my opinion, lost the funky dirtyness of jazz and was far too clean a player. His brother, Branford, who did little in the classical field (to my knowledge) was a much more soulful jazz player.
In a sense, this is where most magic band members who had any knowledge of theory became frustrated with Don. Don had an amazing amount of raw musical talent, but never studied. Therefore, he could not read a note and he could not improvise within harmonic theory and understood nothing about it. His successful solos were "trial and error" and though some of his sax and bass clarinet solos were extremely innovative (such as "Wild Life"), he could never come close to reproducing anything he did, because he had no idea how he did it.
This caused live performances to become a "Shot in the Dark," where Don's mood totally dictated the quality of his horn solos, for he had no structure to base anything he did upon. I found this to be highly hypocritical, for in contrast, he demanded that the band be highly rehearsed and disciplined, while he himself had no discipline and never rehearsed. However, his singing, harmonica playing (harmonicas have only "right notes" on them and you can't really go wrong) and whistling showed his amazing skills and improvisational potential, being a more "direct line" to his thoughts.
9: Whatever I just missed.
That's a little too vague, or too much work, I don't know which. Perhaps both.
10: What do you want people to think of you, as a public person?
Hopefully that I am a moral person, non drug user, and am trying my best to treat people as well as I would like them to treat me. Actually, I don't want the public to think much of me often at all. I hope they think of the music I created and realize that I put huge amounts of hard work into what I did, because I didn't want to waste their precious time with something trivial. I would hope that people know that I am a Christian and feel that anything good I have contributed was with the help of God and anything I've done that was bad was covered by the Grace of God. I hope people would realize that I probably could have done a lot more in music than I did, but I turned down many offers because I felt they were representing something that would be a negative influence, or because the people themselves were so self-destructive that I didn't feel any good could come from it. I would hope also that people would realize that some of the choices that I've made were not so great, and because of that I face a tremendous financial struggle everyday and I hope that they would be careful about the choices they make when young, because they come back and haunt you for the rest of your life. Most of all, I hope that people understand that I need to put the Beefheart experience behind me and get on with my life, and that no one, including Beefheart, should be held in too high esteem. We are all human, and although Beefheart had tremendous gifts, he also had tremendous blind spots and shortsightedness. So, don't savor every word he said as being some "Gospel according to Don." Just take it, like everything else, with a giant grain of salt, and be true to yourself. You can't go too wrong (unless of course you like to eat human flesh and molest children, then I would suggest not living in my neighborhood and maybe seeking therapy.)