At last, I’m pleased to present an interview with Art Tripp that I thought several times might never get finished.
When I originally asked Art if he’d be willing to do this he was happy to do so – he said he ‘an open book’ and I could ask what I wanted. Then, before I could begin asking any questions Art and his partner Kitty were forced to evacuate their home in Gulfport when Hurricane Katrina hit. Luckily, they were safe and unharmed but their home and business premises suffered wind damage although it did escape any flooding. I, of course, put the interview on hold until they were back home and beginning to return to some semblance of normality. At which point Art told me he was going to be interviewed for the Under Review DVD. So, now I thought there wouldn’t be much point in me doing the interview and anyway Art would be suffering ‘interview overload’ and I didn’t want to impose on his good nature.
As it turned out the film crew didn’t turn up because they couldn’t find anywhere to stay and so, unfortunately, Art’s reminiscences are missing from the DVD. But, it did mean I could now get on with my interview.
There was, however, one further delay but it one I was quite happy to have … on 10th February 2006 Art and Kitty were married. So, best wishes to them both … and also thanks to both for all their help.
So, here is the interview compiled from numerous emails exchanged with Art between October 2005 and March 2006….
How did you end up in the Magic Band?
In short, I was fed up with Frank. I had met Don at Frank’s log cabin in Laurel Canyon. He invited me over to hear the band, but I shined it on. Later I met him and the Magic Band guys when they and the Mothers played a benefit together at the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood. (Don Ellis and Canned Heat were among the other acts). I went out front to hear their music, and it knocked me out. After the show he again invited me out to Ensenada Drive. Soon after, Frank disbanded the Mothers at the end of ’69 to form a “power quartet” consisting of him, me, Ian Underwood, and a singer/bass player named –I think– Jeff Simmons. I couldn’t stand the guy, and since Frank wasn’t making the rehearsals, I started backing away. We did play one gig together. Probably the only time –outside of the earlier benefit– a Zappa band ever played with a Beefheart band. It was at a club called “Thee Experience” (yeah, I know) on the east Sunset Strip owned by Marshall Brevitz, who’d had a similar club in Miami. I played drums for both bands at that show.
My gal and I stopped by Don’s one night on the way back from Malibu. The guys from the Mothers occasionally used to eat and drink at a Polynesian joint there called the Tonga Lei. Sometimes we’d go up into Topanga Canyon and sit in at a rock club called the Corral. I usually stopped by Don’s on the way back home through Woodland Hills, so we got pretty friendly. He started trying to talk me into throwing in with them.
Meanwhile rehearsals were going on for a big gig the Mothers were scheduled to have with Zubin Mehta and the L.A. Philharmonic out at UCLA. However I had been spending a lot of time with Don and the guys, so I wasn’t making rehearsals. Herbie Cohen called and wondered where I’d been. I told him if Frank wanted to talk with me, he could call me. I was being a prick. Frank finally called. I told him I couldn’t be in both bands, so I was going to start playing with Beefheart. Believe it or not, what appealed to me was the notion that we could really have something solid. I was weary of having little control over the direction of my career. Don effusively agreed. We believed that with our talent and ideas, we could make the big bucks. We started working on a number of “commercial” projects, including a rock opera called “The Bread Eaters”. The first album to come out of that group was “Lick My Decals Off, Baby”. That shows you how nuts we were in those days: thinking that the “Decals” music would have any commercial potential whatever!
What was ‘The Bread Eaters’ rock opera going to be about? That’s one thing I’ve not heard mentioned before.
I assume it was going to be about human beings. You know– bread eaters. We never did a complete story line for it; just mostly yakked about it. I don’t know if Don or we were capable of putting together something that lengthy with any meaningful continuity. Around that time, I’d been hired to play on the Smothers Brothers Summer Special TV show, so when I got the chance I asked Dick Smothers if he’d be interested in backing the production. He seemed open to it, but we never had a second meeting, and nothing ever came of it. Some of the music we were starting to work on at that time was loosely intended for the opera, but frankly we really weren’t that organized. However some of the songs, and also many of the ideas for songs found their way onto “Decals” and much later albums. Songs such as “Woe Is Uh Me Bop”, “Alice in Blunderland”, “Dirty Blue Gene”, and several others come to mind.
What was your relationship with Don like. I’m presuming it was different from the rest of the band as you were closer to Don’s age than they were.
It was a difficult friendship to describe. I think Don and the others were impressed with my past: John Cage, Cincinnati Symphony, Mothers, etc. In fact I was sort of held in awe. However, I just wanted to be a member of the group. Don had little contact with anyone his age for the previous year or two, and really no one who had any experience in the avant garde with whom to share weird concepts. We’d talk for hours — sometimes days. I think what provided the glue for our kinship were the facts that we were both spoiled only-children, and we both had the notion that nothing was actually real — that everything was ridiculous.
How did Don see you fitting into the band when you first joined? Was it for marimba or drums or what?
Don wanted me in the band in any capacity. Since John had left after TMR, they needed a good drummer, so I was to play drums. However when I didn’t show much interest in playing in John’s style, they eventually got John back, then moved me to marimba. The music was mostly set up for a second guitar anyway, so we simply substituted marimba instead.
Can you explain a bit more about how your drumming differs from John’s?
Most everyone has a different approach. John is a fantastic drummer. I never heard what he was playing prior to the Beefheart bands, but I assume his style gradually emerged from the types of music they had been doing. My guess is that he really came into his own stylistically from the Trout Mask material. In hindsight, when I came along Don and the others may have expected me to continue on where John left off. However I wasn’t interested in that project, nor would it have been very easy for me to simply start playing in a new style. I think basically there had been a lack of communication on the subject. Ironically, when I returned to drums exclusively after John left, I learned many of his parts from TMR and Decals.
How come to get to have two Magic Band names?
I never had two stage names. When I first threw in with the band I was going to keep my real name, since Art Tripp was reasonably nuts enough; especially during the hippy-trippy 60’s. However it soon became something of a project to come up with a name for me. At that time in L.A. there were several car salesman on TV vying for the top spot: such names as Ralph Williams, Cal Worthington, Chic Lambert, and my personal favorite, Al Piano. Consequently we had several goofy pun sessions on that theme. An “in” joke was born when Don suggested I call myself Ted Cactus, and tell people that I was going to stick to that one. I never used the name, however it was credited on an album as a joke. Ed Marimba became my permanent stage name, even after I switched back to drums exclusively when John left following “Spotlight Kid”.
Apparently Ian Underwood was going to join the band on guitar at some point but it gave him a headache. Have you heard this story?
Well, yes. I was there the whole time Ian was trying to learn guitar. I don’t think Ian ever considered joining the band. Don always believed that Zappa suggested that Ian come out to Ensenada Drive simply to spy on us, and to steal ideas. I think Ian had a tremendous curiosity about anything musical. I believe him to be one of the best musicians who ever lived. However he wasn’t going to learn guitar with us. Bill worked with him tirelessly, but to simultaneously try to learn the instrument PLUS try to learn that music at the same time, would be impossible. Yes, Ian did get headaches. Whether it was from the concentration, the erratic rehearsals, or the cigarette smoke, I couldn’t say…
How did Roy Estrada get involved with the band?
I don’t really recall the particulars, nor does Roy. We played a gig with Little Feat, and had a great reunion with Roy. He liked the stuff we were doing. I believe later on, when we realized Roy had left that band, Don contacted him to ask him to come up to Humboldt County and see about joining us. It was great to have him come along with us.
Was recording Clear Spot much different having someone like Ted Templeman as producer?
We were all excited and upbeat about working with Ted. Since he had a proven track record, we hoped that he could put enough of a commercial edge on the music to actually make us some money. Ted was a breeze to work with: very knowledgeable, but yet glib and low key. He was a real pro. We were also happy to see that Warner Brothers had evidently decided to give us a good push.
Did that include Don, as he’d ‘produced’ the previous two albums. Did he feel he might lose control?
Don was happy to give up control. We all wanted to make some decent dough, and we all felt that Ted would help us appeal to more fans. I still don’t know how we got him. I suspect Don’s gift of gab caused Warner’s to assign him to us. Either that or Warner’s wanted to ensure that we didn’t come up with another far-out album, so they could make more money…
Did Templeman have much input into the arrangements of the songs on Clear Spot? Having heard some of the earlier versions of a couple of things it struck me that they were very slow and ponderous, but the versions that turned up on Clear Spot were really dynamic.
We’d already started doing simpler, less dense music. Ted definitely smoothed us out stylistically. More fast ‘n bulbous, if you will. He was also responsible for some of the background parts: back-up vocals, extra percussion, stax sax, etc.
Around the time of Spotlight Kid and before Clear Spot there seems to have been a lot of studio time available. There are recordings circulating of instrumental and backing tracks as well as some unreleased songs and early versions of ones that appear on later albums. Are you aware of these and were you involved? There was talk of an album to be called ‘Brown Star’ – does that mean anything to you?
I’m sure we recorded some music in the studio which was either not released at the time, or was used later. As I recall, “Brown Star” was to be the album title that eventually became “Clear Spot”. There may also have been a song of that name. Oftentimes Don would make references to completed “songs” that may have actually been only a title or a clip-size musical line.
[I had sent Art some CDs of live shows.] Has hearing the shows brought back any interesting experiences you could tell me about?
I recall us not getting on stage at Bickershaw until around 6am At any rate, it had just turned light; but yet everybody was waiting for us. We always heard that there were 450,000 at the festival. But of course that would have made it larger than the Woodstock event. The show was just fair; however I do remember having some fun with the audience (the Mascara Snake guiro, etc.). That particular version of “Spitball Scalped A Baby” (with me on drums and Don on soprano sax) was one of our best. I always enjoyed playing that free-form duet.
By the time of the Town Hall gig in Feb., ’73 the band had become very tight. We had near-perfect time, which I attribute to my playing on the back of the beat in order to offset the natural tendency to rush. Roy Estrada (“Orejon” – big ears?) and I had played together for two years in the Mothers. I think the two of us made a very solid floor on which to set everything else.
On some of the live recordings of the band, at the beginning of the show someone comes out and says ‘This is the Mascara Snake’ (but as far as I know Victor Hayden wasn’t there), and then someone says ‘this is the Mascara Fake’ and then ‘this is the mascara for god’s sake’. Any idea what this was about?
Occasionally I would walk up to the microphone holding a guiro, which was a 2-foot long gourd with ridges on it, used for scraping to make a ratchet-type sound. It was predominantly black, and looked pretty much like an eyebrow. I’d do a little routine about it, and we took to calling it the Mascara Snake – after Victor Hayden.
On the 1973 tour, Alex had rejoined the band and the overall live sound was more ‘bluesy’ (for want of a better word). Do you think this was because of Alex?
Yes, Alex’s presence had a good effect on all of us. I believe Don felt he could get back into more blues, and of course we were trying to reach out to more fans. I liked the band with Roy and Alex in it. We had just about everything covered.
How did Alex feel about playing some of the Trout Mask and Decals material? I don’t know for certain but I get the impression he wasn’t interested too much in that part of Don’s repertoire.
I don’t recall ever discussing that with Alex. His strong suits were bottleneck, blues, and rock ‘n roll; but he held is own on the more complicated stuff too.
What memories do you have of Alex?
All of them were of good times. I don’t think there were any bad memories — even of the break up. Alex was lots of fun to be around, and we were known to “hoist a few” on many occasions.
One time we were touring over in England. Leicester, I think. Several of us had been up all night drinking and playing blackjack in the room. We’d drunk up a bottle, so we just continued ordering by the drink from room service. At about 7am, the waiter said something about having to make so many trips up to the room. Alex had a pretty short fuse, and I could see that look coming into his eyes. The waiter left, and Alex jumped up to follow him. After I realized what he was going to do, I ran after him. He chased the waiter all the way downstairs, and had followed him into the indoor swimming pool room. He was just about to grab the terrified waiter when I snatched him from behind and held him up in the air with his legs kicking. The waiter escaped, and I got Alex back upstairs. All I could think about was the headline that would have been in the next morning’s paper: “Rock Star Drowns Waiter In Hotel Pool!”
Do you have any favourite Beefheart songs? (Do you enjoy the music even?)
I liked most all of “Trout Mask Replica”, even though it was played too frenetically. Later on, I wrote out some of the pieces from Trout Mask and Decals in score form– similar to a string quartet or chamber orchestra. Once the music was organized and rehearsed that way, it made much more sense, and also allowed for better performing. Don predictably told us that was the way he intended it all along… I liked most of the pieces on which I played marimba. “Bellerin’ Plain” was one of my favorites. There were lots of songs on “Spotlight” and “Clear Spot” I liked. You might be surprised to know that I liked several of the tracks on “Unconditionally”. More on that album later. I thought “Shiny Beast” was pretty damn good too.
The charts you drew up for the music – were these just for your use. How were they used?
They were primarily used for copyright purposes. Don became paranoid that other groups would steal our material, so he asked me to commit many of the pieces to score form, which was then sent off to be registered. Looking back, it seems pretty silly. Lots of musicians stole from Beefheart. Everyone from Zappa to Jethro Tull; but it wasn’t anything that could have run afoul of copyright law. I recall a funny circumstance when we were still in Woodland Hills. We’d written a song called “Alice In Blunderland” for use in “The Bread Eaters” (later used on “Spotlight”). Soon after, I noticed in the TV listings an episode of the show “Room 222” had a scheduled a segment entitled “Alice in Blunderland”. I brought this to Don’s attention, and he went nuts. Everyone got all hot and bothered. We were gonna sue, they couldn’t get away with that, etc., etc. I suppose our attorney told us to forget about it. I’m sure it was coincidental, but in any case it was certainly a tempest in a teapot.
You were the first band member to have musical training. So I’m interested to know what you think Don was doing musically?
Don was totally disorganized. Musically, I’m not sure he could think spatially. His musical ideas were predominantly snippets or fragments of a line or rhythm, which were then left to others to interpret and organize.
In 1974 before the band quit you were rehearsing for a new tour. Can you remember what a songs were being rehearsed? I’m intrigued whether Don was going to incorporate any of the ‘new’ stuff from the Unconditionally Guaranteed album?
As I recall the time line, there wasn’t much being rehearsed following our return from the UG sessions. We were all very familiar with the music — especially “Unconditionally” — since we had just recorded it. The band may have been rehearsing somewhat, but Don had been extremely long in getting back to Humboldt County. In hindsight, he was probably a little sheepish. We chose that time to make our demands for the upcoming tour. It wasn’t so much as the band “quit”, but rather that our demands were not met. My guess is that the new manager, Andy DiMartino, decided they could instead make more money by doing the tour with a fill-in band. I suppose Don didn’t know what to do. Several years later he told me that it was a god-awful tour — what with guys that didn’t know the music, and everyone asking where Rockette Morton, Zoot Horn Rollo, and Ed Marimba were.
What were your thoughts on that Unconditionally Guaranteed album?
We truly had fun working up the songs on that album. Alex St. Clair had joined us since the recent tour, and he was delightful to work with. Because most of the cuts were pretty simple, I doubt whether the fans would have really got behind us doing more commercial music. However, we’ll never know. The voice was pumped up to the point of obliterating the band. When we left the Hollywood studio after laying down the tracks, I recall thinking that those tracks were just about the best thing we’d ever done– in terms of both time and feel. I especially enjoyed a song called “Peaches”. However, when the band finally got our album copies, we were horrified. As we listened, it was as though each song was worse than the one which preceded it. The mixing was terrible, and all you could hear was the voice. We were speechless. I think at that point we started realizing that we’d either have to get a lot more dough to continue on, or get ourselves another singer. Soon after, we started work on what would become “Mallard”.
What recollections do you have of the Mallard recordings? I don’t think you played a live shows with them did you?
We had a ball recording “Mallard”. I was familiar with about half of the music, since we’d been composing it back in Humboldt County, CA before I left the band. The locale for the sessions was graciously provided us by Martin Barre of Jethro Tull. He had a large estate in the West of England in Devon, near Exeter, outside of Lustleigh. Chrysalis Records let us use their portable recording control room, called I believe the “Moulin Rouge”. It was a pleasure working with Sam Galpin, since he was able to both rehearse, and also to sing the same thing twice… It only took about 10 days to record the album, but we still managed to frequently fraternize with the locals at the pub. Bill was really working on me trying to get me to go out on the road with Mallard, but I had already decided to stay out of the music biz. My hunch is that it would have turned into a nice thing had I stayed with the group. However, that’s water over the dam.
You said “We had a ball recording Mallard. I was familiar with about half of the music, since we’d been composing it back in Humboldt County, CA before I left the band.” Does that mean you were composing Mallard stuff before the Magic Band broke up? What happened after the split with Don in 1974?
The Magic Band didn’t break up. We just moved away from Don. The Mallard band was just the Magic Band with a new singer. There was some worry at the time that Don may have owned the name, even though I recall that we had contracts which permitted us ownership of that name (The Magic Band). After the split from Don/DiMartinos, we took a little time off, then immediately started working on new material. Unfortunately, after a few months with no bread coming in, I had to blast off. I really regretted having to do so, because we were doing some really nice stuff. As it happened though, most of it found its way on to “Mallard”. As I mentioned earlier, if I hadn’t declined to continue on with Mallard (TMB) after the first album, we probably could have gone on for several successful years. Who the hell knows?
How did you come to be involved with the Shiny Beast album?
I went back out to L.A. in ’78 after a 2-3 year layoff from the biz. I was staying with Ruth and Ian Underwood until I could get going in the studios. One night the three of us went down to the Roxy on Sunset Strip to hear Beefheart. After the show we went back stage to congratulate Don and the guys. Don and I had a very warm reunion. The offshoot was that he wanted me to come out to the Valley and attend some rehearsals, so I did. Later we drove up to his place in the Mojave so I could see Jan, and also do a little partying. He wanted me to play on the new album, “Shiny Beast”. I said I’d do it, but I wanted to be hired at union scale– not as a band member. He readily agreed. What they didn’t realize was that since I mostly did overdubbing, I would be the only musician recording at the time, so the union scale paid the same as a leader: double session fees. Management didn’t figure that out until later. I made more dough on that album than any of the others, and I played the least for it! We had a good laugh about that in later years. Since the album was recorded in San Francisco, I rehearsed my parts in L.A., then travelled up to S.F. on vacation to record the tracks.
A non-Beefheart question. How did you get involved playing with Tim Buckley? Did you do many shows – I know one has been released on CD.
Zappa’s manager, Herbie Cohen, also managed Tim Buckley. When Frank broke up the Mothers, Herbie asked me if I’d play with Tim for a week’s gig at the Troubador in Hollywood. Tim was a real nice guy, and he had some other good musicians playing with him. Turns out he was a big modern jazz devotee, so we got along real well. New jazz is what he really wanted to get into, but of course he still had to play all that folk crap for the fans. However we did manage to stretch out a little at the gig. Incidentally, I don’t know if I’ve never heard that recording. Perhaps you could send me a copy. I think he wanted me to do some other stuff with him after that, but I got interested in Beefheart. His early demise was a real shame.
One last question. Would you play again if you were offered the chance?
No, Steve , it’s highly unlikely that I would ever play again — certainly not in performance. Since I quit the biz, I was offered gigs with Zappa (prior to his demise), Mallard, Jethro Tull, The Grande Mothers, and The Magic Band. At first I wouldn’t put my chiropractic career in jeopardy in favor of re-entering the music business. But over the years I’ve simply lost the desire to play. There is a practical side as well. It would take me months of practice to regain anything like respectable chops; and the logistics of rehearsing and gigging with a band would be prohibitive. I still play very nicely in my head however…
Thank you, Art for your patience and good humour over the past few months. It’s much appreciated.
© Steve Froy 2006