“Burundo Drumbi! – John French’s Series of Q&A’s, 00-01
In early / mid 2000 John French called on Radar Station visitors for some help writing his book, Beefheart: Through The Eyes Of Magic.
Questions by Steven Cerio
Sent: Monday, January 17, 2000 12:48 PM
Cerio; Hi John love your work, here are a few possible questions for your book. With Don being an untrained musician, I would imagine his piano parts would suffice for melodic guidelines but how did he impart his rhythmic ideas to you?
John French: By singing, or actually playing the drums. Sometimes he would stomp on the floor or pat his legs. His rhythmic parts on piano were written as played. I just wrote down the rhythms he played.
Cerio; Do you believe that the instinct of an untrained musician like Don can surpass the instinct of a studied musician?
John French: Absolutely, and Don is living proof. The problem is in the communication. Don had amazing musical ideas, but limited ways in which to communicate them. There are perceptions that had he been trained, he would have never been able to “break the rules.” I seriously doubt that he could have been trained, because he would have refused the training.
Cerio; I have witnessed Magic Band performances and as a percussionist and rabid fan I have noticed that each Magic Band drummer has exactly duplicated the
performances of each respective recording, is this something demanded by the
Captain? And if so how much improv and / or mistakes could you get away with,
John French: Don would insist upon players playing it exactly as recorded. However, I don’t believe he would have noticed any minor permutations as long as the structure on the whole did not collapse. I understand that later band members used to “tattle” on any one who did something different or self-expressive on stage. They policed themselves. I can never recall Don once coming up to me and saying, “You played that wrong tonight, it goes like this…” I didn’t improvise much, because the nature of the music made it more difficult for the other players. The arrangements were “houses of cards,” one part dependent on the other.
Cerio; In your work with the Magic Band you were subject to the entwining of multiple time signatures, were the difficulties of these parts (assuming they were of
difficulty to you!) a large object to overcome combined with the distractions of
performance night after night?
John French: By the time anything was performed on stage, it was ingrained within our memories so completely that it was very difficult to get lost. Initially it took a great deal of concentration to actually play a song from beginning to end. You couldn’t really listen to the other players in certain sections, or you would lose your place. Don’s unpredictable stage performances, as I mentioned in other answers, occasionally caused some train wrecks.