Don Van Vliet interview by David Hepworth, 1980

This interview was recently aired on Marc Riley’s Mint radio show on BBC 6Music (broadcast on Don’s 65th birthday!) and is a recording from 1980. Many thanks indeed to Michael Alderson for painstakingly transcribing it.

DH: Don, it’s been five years since you last came to England and played. What have you been doing since?

DVV: Trying to get the right group to play my music.

DH: Aha – you had a lot of trouble?

DVV: It wasn’t that much trouble, it was just a lot of childish nonsense, you know, like, uh, with the other group – I mean it takes a long time to get to play what I do. Now I have the perfect thing. Wait till they hear this group.

DH: You reckon this band is better than any band you had before?

DVV: Best, oh definitely, oh definitely.

DH: Legend has it that the Magic Band who recorded Trout Mask Replica with you…

DVV: Yeah…

DH: ..that you actually taught them everything…

DVV: Well, of course I did – I mean how could they play? I mean they – I mean really, of course I taught them, I taught every one of them – I mean everything they play I have to teach.

DH: You mean they weren’t experienced musicians before they came to you, or that they just hadn’t played anything like your music before?

DVV: Well they hadn’t played anything like my music and they weren’t that experienced musicians before they came with me, I’ll tell you. No, no…

DH: Is it very difficult to get people to think along on your lines? What are the demands of your..

DVV: It’s really easy, I mean just anybody can think along my lines. I mean, honest, of course it’s difficult for them to think along my lines, of course it is, you know that. You can imagine, right, you just played me something that wasn’t proper, that …uh… of course it’s hard to think along my lines, it’s hard to think along anybody’s lines.

DH: You don’t play a guitar yourself though?

DVV: Of course I play a guitar.

DH: Ah – I see, but you don’t play it on records?

DVV: No, I don’t – that would be usurping and defeating my purpose, to play guitar when I’m trying to sing and play a harmonica, saxophone, bass clarinet…

DH: About five years ago you made two albums, one called “Unconditionally Guaranteed”…

DVV: Yeah…

DH: …and one called “Bluejeans and Moonbeams“, which came in for rather a critical pasting of one kind or another – people, er…

DVV: I wished they’d try to do those things – I mean when they’re pasting me critically I wish they’d try to play those things.

DH: But were you pleased with those albums in retrospect?

DVV: In a way yeah, in a way not. I was up in the redwoods painting and writing, finishing some novels, and those things went out without my approval.

DH: You were working with a producer called Andy DiMartino, I believe?

DVV: Hmm…

DH: So the initiative was taken out of your hands, was it?

DVV: Well, you see there’s no way they could take it out of my hands until I was gone, you see, but I couldn’t get there – the thing went out without my approval.

DH: You seem to have, at one time or another, disowned or disassociated yourself from various records you’d made, you’d not been pleased with the production or one thing or another. Which ones, looking back now, do you still like – you still play…

DVV: I don’t ever play any of my music again after I do it. I mean it’s boring to listen to something you’ve done, I don’t want to hear it, I mean I went on to new things you see.

DH: Yeah…

DVV: But – they’re all my babies – you see, I mean I’ve got to hear all of them anyway, whether there’s mud all over their faces or not.

DH: Uh-uh…

DVV: See – but I don’t usually hear them unless I’m going to perform again, you see, then I’ll listen to them because I have to learn the words again.

DH: Yeah…

DVV: And the music.

DH: Do you get fed up with being treated as an eccentric – in inverted commas – , or do you prefer it that way?

DVV: I don’t even think about it, you know I don’t even think about that, I mean I don’t have time – my baby won’t let me have time – my baby, my baby and me the artist – doesn’t give me a moment off.

DH: You don’t get some sort of pleasure out of being a legend in any way?

DVV: No..

DH: You really don’t?

DVV: Of course not, I mean who would? Somebody that was asleep would – I mean I don’t have time to even think about that.

DH: There seem to have been, sort of, various myths of, er..

DVV: Myths! (Don pronounced the “y“ as “eye“)

DH: …out of your persona and your career – you don’t encourage those at all, you don’t find them amusing?

DVV: No, I don’t have enough time. I mean I just hope that I get to paint big paintings, that’s what I want to do, and I don’t have enough time to think about things like that.

DH: Am I correct in saying that you live out in the southern Californian desert in a trailer?

DVV: It’s two and a half hours when I hit the pavement to Los Angeles. When I hit the pavement. I live in a trailer out in the desert – up in the Mojave desert, the high desert, and my neighbours are coyotes, rattlesnakes, uh, ravens…I should have brought some ravens over to the tower of London, I mean those are crows, those are not ravens, these ravens are at least two and a half feet tall. Probably, two feet tall, and they imitate all of the animals – I mean they’re actually able to imitate other animals’ noises.

DH: Which animals?

DVV: Coyotes, uh, turtles. That’s when they – they imitate them real slow.


DH: Is it important for you to live out there for your music and your work?

DVV: It’s more important for me to live up in Trinidad, California. I love fog. I love changing all the time. The desert is so subtle. If – no, I mean if you really delve into how subtle it is, it’s subtle. Too subtle to – I don’t know, it’s hard to pay that much attention.

DH: Do you not like – do you not like Los Angeles?

DVV: No, I can’t stand it. I was born in Los Angeles and it’s deteriorated so badly. I mean, the smog is disgusting.

DH: Are you surprised that the record business , which seems to have such a totally different purpose to your purpose, still kind of sustains you in one way or another, that you still have a record deal?

DVV: Well, Virgin Records, I think they’ve been very nice. Steve Lewis is instrumental is setting up this tour. Yeah, it’s good. Good tour.

DH: Yeah – are you pleased with this album, “Doc At The Radar Station”?

DVV: Totally.

DH: Totally?

DVV: Every note. I did the whole thing, and it’s one of the first times I’ve been able to do the whole thing. It’s exactly the way I want it to be.

DH: What – so does this indicate that you weren’t totally pleased with “Shiny Beast”, the album that came before this?

DVV: Well, I was pretty pleased with it, uh, it just uh, it kind of uh, it took too long . This I did for $40,000, this album I just did, “Doc At The Radar Station”, I mean quick (clicks fingers). I like to move quick, and I knew exactly what I wanted done, and I done it, and that was it. The band played good.

DH: You’ve got a track on here called “A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond”, which is..

DVV: No money! I mean that’s all you get, is a carrot, you don’t get the diamond.

DH: How do you come up with a title like that?

DVV: It’s hard to get a carrot, you know, when you do – when you’re a rabbit. You know, I don’t want to claw anybody’s eyes out, I just – all I want is enough money to be able to do my art.

DH: How do you apply a title like that to an instrumental track?

DVV: Because of the fact that, you see, “A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond”, meaning that I don’t get any money. You see, it’s just an art piece and all I will get is a carrot at the end, you know like in front of you…a carrot that leads you on, as long as I get something to eat, I can do the art.

DH: Do you think that all your songs add up to one big song, or are they complete entities in themselves?

DVV: No, they’re entities in themselves, my friends that I create, my friends that I have in my mind, I don’t think there’s anything adding up to any big song, no.

DH: Does it bother you that the majority of the rock audience would probably find you very, very difficult to listen to?

DVV: It pleases me, because of that momma heartbeat, that bom, bom, bom, it’s so boring, it’s so banal. I mean it’s so hypnotic, I don’t want to hypnotise anybody, I just want to play. I mean I want things to change like the patterns and shadows that fall from the sun.

DH: So you want to confront people with your music, rather than try and seduce them with it?

DVV: Sure, I’m not a vamp – I don’t want to beat you over the head with this momma heartbeat, remind you of your mother… Who wants to be reminded of that life support system – you know, when they support it like that? I do my own music, I don’t need that bom, bom, bom. Who wants to be – that’s so stupid!

DH: So you’re talking about disco, really..

DVV: All of it! Rock and roll, disco – anything where they think the drummer is an imbecile who sits there and goes bom, bom, bom. I mean who needs that, why do they need that?

DH: So you like your music to be irregular, do you?

DVV: Uh – artistic. I mean I’ve done a lot for drum – I mean I’ve written on every drum bit I’ve ever done – every note. I play the drums – I play the guitar – I play the piano. I want it exactly the way I want it – exactly. Any composer, I would think, would want it that way.

DH: So is it frustrating for you to have to work with other musicians at all?

DVV: I don’t. I won’t.

DH: So… these gentlemen on the back of the sleeve here are just figments of the Virgin art department’s imagination, are they? They’re…you’re saying that you do it yourself?

DVV: Of course – I mean they play it, because I’m a composer, and they play my compositions. They play ‘em very good.

DH: Yeah – so would you prefer it if you actually did all the bits yourself?

DVV: I think I do. I mean, other than the fact that they’re excellent players, they’re great players. I’m doing the music, I want it exactly the way I want it – and I don’t deviate at all. Don’t you think that somebody like Stravinsky, for instance, don’t you think that it would annoy him if somebody bent a note the wrong way? Or used a purple bow on a violin, when you want a red bow, or a green bow? Being simplistic, I mean there’s a lot of other colours..

DH: So you would prefer to be compared to Stravinsky, rather than Bob Dylan, lets say?

DVV: Bob Dylan? Trash poet!

DH: Who’s your favourite poet?

DVV: Me? (spoken slowly, with a rising, slightly interrogative tone)

DH: Apart from you?

DVV: Oh, uh, favourite poet, let me think…I think Dylan Thomas was a good poet. I think that Kafka wrote some good poetry. I think that a Russian poetess, uh, named m-a-r-a-t-n-o-v-a…she was the, uh, the model for a painter named, uh…I’m hearing all these periphery noises – where from? Where?

DH: What, are you getting noise in here?

DVV: Oh, it’s tremendous noise. Don’t you hear them?

DH: No…

DVV: They’re playing rock and roll around here somewhere.

DH: Probably.

DVV: How far away?

DH: Dunno, exactly.

DVV: Dah-duh – you don’t hear that?

DH: No – must be numb. You probably hear the…

DVV: Don’t you hear that? Muzak or something, or do they do that here?

DH: No, it’s probably the traffic. Well, I can hear the traffic, not much more than that.

DVV: Let me just find out something, real quick.

DH: Yeah?

DVV: Yeah…uh…one second…(exits, end of interview)

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