An in-depth interview with The Magic Band’s John ‘Drumbo’ French

The Magic Band’s John ‘Drumbo’ French spoke to Band on the Wall ahead of his farewell tour with the Magic Band later this year. This is a written transcript of the audio interview, which can be enjoyed here.

Few albums begin with sound as dazzling and imagery as evocative, as that which commences Safe as Milk, the 1967 debut album by Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band. It’s incredible to think that some of the rag-tag collective of Californian musicians, under the mercurial leadership of vocalist Don Van Vliet and a freshly appointed guitarist come musical director in the form of Ry Cooder, had hitherto stepped foot in a recording studio, other than to lay down some customary demos, but for drummer John “Drumbo” French, who today leads the band and is a torchbearer for all things Beefheart, that was the reality. Just nineteen at the time, he helped create what is considered today to be one of the most creative rock records ever made and one which kickstarted a truly impressive musical story. He’s collected many anecdotes, memories and musical factoids from the time of Safe as Milk into a book entitled Beefheart: Through the eyes of Magic and shares several of those with us in the following interview.

Fifty years on from the release of Safe as Milk, The Magic Band plan to bid us farewell, playing two shows at Band on the Wall, where they’ve electrified audiences several times in recent years, on Saturday 4thSaturday 11th November. John “Drumbo” French, while hopping behind the drum kit from time to time and recreating some of his most famous rhythms, also takes vocal responsibilities at centre stage. We began our interview with John by asking about the way in which he, Don, Ry and the fellas communicated their musical ideas before and during studio sessions for Safe as Milk and whether, with hindsight, he wishes they were able to work in a different, possibly more orthodox way to achieve the results they had in mind for the album…

JDF: First off; you have to remember that I came into the band after a lot of the material was written for Safe as Milk. Songs like Sure ‘nuff ‘n yes, I do were already written (although it was [later] changed) Electricity was written, (but it [too] was changed)… Autumn’s Child is one that was created while I was in the group.

Now, I liked the early days when I was first in the band because I actually helped Jerry with the bass part, I helped him write the bass part for it [Autumn’s Child]…just certain sections of it. So it came together in a cool way because we were sort of, collaborating on it. It wasn’t Don sitting and dictating all these parts all the time; it was everybody!

When we moved to Laurel Canyon, Doug Moon was having a struggle keeping up with the rest of the band because he’d only been playing guitar for about three years…so he was having trouble with the stuff and Don, not being a patient person, wanted to get Ry Cooder in the band and fire Doug. He arranged for Ry to become the musical arranger…so he came in because the record company, after listening to this, realised that Don didn’t know how to finish anything – he had good ideas but he didn’t know how to finish anything, so he needed somebody…as Mike Barnes in his book said ‘Don always seemed to need a musical foil to complete his ideas’, so in this case, Ry Cooder turned out to be the musical foil.

When Ry came in; Don had this nonsensical way of procrastinating and never getting anything done: he was never ready for rehearsal, sometimes he was still in bed and when he did get up he was giving Ry cigars and Brandy to try and butter him up so that he’d get on his good side or something, and Ry just thought it was kinda ridiculous and he kept saying ‘Ok, what’s the next song, what’s the next part, what are we doing here’ and he just kept things moving along, which was great!

Well, with anybody else Don would’ve probably gotten upset and said ‘What’re you doin’ talking to me like that?’, but with Ry, because it was Ry and he wanted Ry in the band, he went along with it. Alex [St. Clair], who was actually the guy who started the band and ran the rehearsals in the early days and called the shots, started working with Ry and saying ‘OK, well this is what we’ve got on this, man’…so Ry would listen to it and he’d go “Oh OK”…so that was the essence of how we got started.

Like, for instance, I was mentioning Zig Zag Wanderer: that was a song that was already done but Don decided to put that centre part in… [sings excerpt]…Don was saying ‘yeh, I got this part in here but I don’t know what I want to do there’ and Ry said ‘well wait, Jerry play this…’ [vocalises bassline]….so it was just drums and bass there and he left out the band and had the band come back in and the back-up vocals come in and it made it work!

So, that was really a refreshing thing because I’d been in the band for three months prior to this and I hadn’t seen us finish anything, except for… I do believe we finished Call on Me…or we were close to finishing and Ry added the little beginning… [vocalises guitar intro and drum fill]… and then Don decided at some point to put in that…[vocalises guitar breakdown]… so Ry picked that up and learned it and they worked it out and did it…things started flowing and I think it was because of the fact that Ry had a power over Don and an advantage over Don because Don wanted him in the group so badly, so that made it work!

We did actually work in a pretty orthodox fashion. Even at the early rehearsals there wasn’t that much imagery being used – that happen later on, y’know…[impersonating Don] ’Let me here a sound like Popcorn rolling in a frying pan’ or something like that, that happened later on. Or ‘let me hear bees’ [laughs] – not so much of that happened early on.

Aside from the band and Richard Perry, it seems that other individuals involved in the recording of the LP really ought not to have been in the studio at all! As an 18-year-old debutant, did the realities of recording and the business side of music come as a shock to you, or did you always expect to meet resistance to the Magic Band sound and Beefheart vision from execs, producers and inexperienced engineers?

Well, since it was my first album, I didn’t really have any perspective [laughs] so as far I was concerned…”oh this is the way it always is in the studio!” [laughs] and it isn’t that way, obviously, but it seemed like it was that way to me!

What I would say there is: I think there were too many people in the studio; it was like Richard Perry’s first album – it was his debut album along with me –  so I’m thinking…this guy, he moved us from an 8-track studio to a 4-track studio…that can’t be good! We went from Sunset sound which was like one of the premier studios; everybody was recording there: Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, everybody! So all of a sudden, we’re in RCA studios: ‘the lamest studio in town’ according to Gary Marker [laughs] who was supposed to originally produce the session…so I watched Gary sort of get screwed out of that session; he actually engineered the demo session that we did, that you can hear on the ‘Grow fins’ set…anyway – Richard Perry was sort of a novice; certain things he knew really well: he had good musical training, obviously, because he wrote horn arrangements for I’m Glad and when he came in and did those I was really shocked, I think there was about eight horns and he knew how to transpose all the instruments and how to voice them and it was beautiful, I thought he did a wonderful job on that – he conducted them and the whole bit! He seemed to have an air of confidence there, and he had good ideas, like for instance on the drums on Autumn’s Child, he came out and said ‘hey, try this John’ he went…[impersonates vocal instructions]…and I thought ‘hey that’s nice’ y’know, cause I was kinda playing a rock…[vocalises straight 4/4 rhythm]….and he said ‘let’s try this and see if it works’; I thought it was a great idea!

So, he definitely was creative, but the other guys, y’know….Bob Krasnow first of all – he was Richard’s friend and took Richard under his wing and said ‘this guy’s great’ blah, blah, blah ‘we’re gonna get you goin’ Richard’…and then Artie Ripp came in the studio, now; Artie Ripp was the president/owner of Kama Sutra/Buddah records – I didn’t know him from Adam, I’d never met him and he was in the session one day [laughs]…we’d been in there for like four or five hours and I came out and handed him a dollar and said ‘would you go and get me a coke? I can’t get out of here, they won’t let me leave’ [laughs]…he kinda looked at me as if to say ‘does he know who I am?’, and he got this uncomfortable look and said ‘Errr, yes I’ll have this taken care of’ and he gave the money to be delegated to his secretary [laughs]. He was in the studio that night and I think to get back at me…we were doing Dropout Boogie and the problem is with Dropout Boogie, I’d always played it with Don singing it, so I always cued off the vocal. Well, when the vocal wasn’t there y’know,  I’m trying to think of the vocal in my head and I couldn’t remember it, so I kept getting lost; well, Artie came out and thought he’d stand there waving his hands at me to cheer me on like a cheerleader, y’know like “Come on John, you can do this!” – and I’m going “Oh, s***”…so then that didn’t work and I said “look, you’re distracting me, I’m not doing it better, this is what I need: can somebody get me a set of lyrics?” – so I put the lyrics in front of me on a music stand and we did it in the next take.

So these kind of things, y’know – producers think they know what they’re doing and they don’t, but y’know at that time we had: Richard Perry, Bob Krasnow and Artie Ripp in there all trying to produce the album, so it got a little chaotic and I didn’t realise myself about that.

We also had some great guys whose names I can’t remember – Gordon Shyrock I think was the one guy and there was some other Guy named Tony… – and they were sort of the Memphis mafia or something, I don’t know, they were session players and they did a lot of work in Memphis and then they came out to California.

Well Gordon was a great guy, he stuttered a lot and I remember him coming up to me one night and saying ‘y’know, we should all get together some time….get some grass and get f***ed up and s***’ [laughs] and that was a big band joke after that…

Your distinctive drum part on Electricity is one of record’s many rhythmic highlights. While what you played was often a committee decision, who were the drummers influencing you as a musician at the time? Were guys like Ed Cassidy and Ginger Baker important or perhaps musicians from further afield?

Well, my influences are in my book: my early influences are Sandy Nelson – number one influence that I had, number two – Joe Morello, who played with Dave Brubeck obviously.

Sandy Nelson did a bunch: he was a studio musician, young kid who did a bunch of great stuff and then he started doing his own records with drum solo’s and just guitar – sort of a surf, Dwayne Eddy sort of guitar – going…[impersonates guitar style]…and he’d play drums and then the guitar would break out and he’d do a drum thing…anyway, then Joe Morello – that’s where I got my time signature ideas – Jack Sperling, just because he was a great all-round drummer! Those were the guys that I really listened to. Oh, and then Hal Blaine, also. I had an album of Hal Blaine playing a bunch of instrumental surf hits and hot rod kind of stuff…

That was sort of my only influence set at the time – I hadn’t heard Ginger Baker yet and I didn’t know who Ed Cassidy was at all! Although, Alex [St. Clair] taught me this sort of Delta beat – he called it a Delta beat although, have you ever heard a Delta drummer from the ‘30s? I never have! – but anyway, he played this beat for me on the drums and he said this was a Delta beat, and I remember that Ed Cassidy had been playing it when I heard the Rising Sons while I was at the teenage fair, sittin’ in the booth next door – we were alternating songs; they’d play and then we’d play…this was when I was in this stupid band that did Louis, Louis and Gloria and stuff, y’know – anyway, I was still in high school at the time, I think I was sixteen….

So anyway, that beat [in Electricity] was actually given to me by Don, he said ‘try doin’ this’….[vocalises drum beat along with guitar]…he came up to me in the demo session and sprang this on me, because before then I’d been playing like a …[vocalises softer drum beat]…and he said “try this man! I want you to follow that!”

I played it and he goes “yeh that’s it”, so that was the first time I played it and then he said “OK, now on the bridge, go like this”…[vocalises tom and hi hat pattern]…which was sorta like the vocal, ‘Seek electricity’. I thought they were great drum parts; they were really easy to do because they fit right in and so that’s just how I learned those, influenced by Don really.

It’s fantastic to hear of instances where other era-defining artists influenced your musical decisions, for example the possible influence of Good Vibrations on the theremin usage and the studying of a Ravi Shankar passage for the development of the Abba Zaba mid-section guitar part. Were the band soaking up lots of music during the making of Safe as Milk and do you have any personal favourites from ’67 that, like SAM, are turning 50 this year?

No, I wasn’t listening to a lot of stuff… Sgt. Pepper had just come out so I was listening to that almost every day because I was a big Beatles fan and I loved that album…yeh, the Ravi Shankar… I was listening to a lot of jazz really, I was listening to a lot of stuff that Don had albums of: Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd, John Coltrane of course…

I listened to a lot of jazz back when we went to Shelly’s Manne-Hole a couple of times, but there weren’t a lot of outside influences actually, that I was aware of. Yeh, I had my Ravi Shankar album and I used to put it on and Don says “man, I really like this one lick”…I kept putting the needle down on the record and he was going “no that’s not it, no tha..that’s it! Backup a little” so I backed up and all of a sudden he heard…[vocalises sitar line]…and he said “that man! I wanna put that in Abba Zabba!”. Well it was in a different key but, I said “OK”, and I learned the notes on guitar…

And then he wanted to put this bass solo in, so he sings it to Jerry…[vocalises bass solo]…ok, so Jerry puts the bass part in, but this was like, last minute! So Jerry’s playing that and I’m goin’, “I don’t know what to do on the drums here, what do you want me to do?”, so Don taught me, he wrote exact drum beats that I play…[vocalises drums]…and he used to teach me drum parts just like that! When he had an idea on the drums, he would sing it to me just like that.

Don’s distaste for guitar soloing is interesting, given that Frank Zappa’s music seemed to progress in that direction with the disbandment of the Mothers and that Willie the Pimp, upon which Don famously features, is such a guitar workout! Where do you stand on the subject of musical soloing and do you feel that The Magic Band would’ve been better or worse off with a bit more musical freedom in that sense?

Definitely better off! But [pauses and chuckles] Alex was no soloist, he was a dated soloist – his solos…he liked to play shuffle and he liked to play Rhythm & Blues. He could do that Memphis, Tennessee kinda…[hums guitar solo style]…but his soloing was dated and Don was worried about it.

For instance, there’s a song called I’m Glad on that album and if you listen to the demo, which is on the Grow Fins set, it’s way better because you can…first of all, Don, his voice wasn’t so rough, he was singing it better and he sounded better on it. On the version he did on Safe as Milk, he had to sing Autumn’s Child which is like…[sings loud passage]…y’know and he got done doing this shout song, he did about four takes of it and then he’s trying to sing…[soft passage from I’m Glad]…and that didn’t work y’know…he sounds stiff…but the other thing about it was; at that time we had a guy named Rich Hepner in the band and Rich was this great…I mean Don called him ‘B.B. King’s freak’ but he was really a great, great blues player…when the band was a local band still, he was like a big big influence on the guitar players, they all worshiped this guy, and he wasn’t around long but he really influenced a lot of players…so anyway, Don had two reasons for that: first of all, when there was a guitar solo going on that was really good it sort of upstaged him [laughs] now you’d think that he’d like that, to have a break, but y’know, I really do believe he was a little bit jealous of anybody else getting too much attention, in the early days.

The second thing is, Alex trying to play that [on I’m Glad] it just would’ve been really corny, so Don put in that…[sings guitar riff]…over and over. He could’ve had Ry play something, Ry would’ve done something great in there, but the song was already sort of arranged so Ry just left it alone. Can you imagine it with a really rippin’ slide solo? It would’ve been really interesting!

Where there’s Woman is a stunning track and my personal favourite from the record, do you have a favourite track from the record or failing that, one that you cannot leave out of the live set today?

Yes, Electricity, basically because it has the theremin, which is a very interesting instrument but mostly because I think that was a song that…anybody can relate to that song and shake their ass to it! Y’know it’s like…[hums the groove]…it doesn’t confuse people, doesn’t go into 3/4 time, it doesn’t change the feel – all the way through it just the same thing after the intro.

I always do that in the set, I love the song and Denny Walley actually learned how to play a very good simulation of theremin on his guitar!

I love Where There’s Woman though – the funny thing about that is that Jerry really didn’t know the song and we went in the studio and started recording it and I told Don afterwards, what Jerry played is OK, but he really didn’t know the song ‘cause he hadn’t rehearsed it with us and one of the reasons was because Jerry was gone during the creation of that song. What happened was, we called Alex up, because Jerry was up visiting his wife in the desert and we were down in Laurel Canyon, so we had him come over and Don says “I wanna change the bass part, can you play bass?” and Alex said OK – so Alex actually plays bass on Where There’s Woman. It worked well, Don just sang the part to him and created it write on the spot at the house, then we went to the studio the next day, he overdubbed the track and that was that!

Today, we’re blessed with several editions of Safe as Milk, mono and stereo mixes and various audio formats. What do you feel is the best way for the audience to listen to Safe as Milk and fully appreciate what it is offering?

That’s really something I can’t answer, because I only have one version of it and it’s a stereo version. I’ve heard the mono version is actually really better, and I think the reason probably the mono version is better is because Richard Perry was just starting out and so was stereo; “stereophonic sound” hadn’t been out that long, so he mixed the mono version and then he had to go mix a stereo version. I think he was just better at hearing what came through one speaker than what came through two speakers, so the mono version, from what I understand, is better in terms of the overall balance, but I kinda like the stereo [laughs] it’s sort of funny when April’s Child pans me from left to right and then he pans me back from right to left, it’s kind of funny y’know, like somebody’s carrying the drums across the room or something [laughs] I sort of get a humerous kick out those things!

Listen to the full audio interview below and get your tickets for The Magic Band’s farewell tour here.