In early / mid 2000 John French called on Radar Station visitors for some help writing his book, Beefheart: Through The Eyes Of Magic…
From: Hans Van Hulst
Sent: Friday, January 14, 2000 8:36 PM
The fact that you are writing a book is great news. If I could have my way, the book would concentrate heavily on the making of Trout Mask Replica. TMR is the real mystery in the career of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. I mean, given TMR, most of the subsequent albums make sense; but none of the music before TMR even hinted at Trout Mask Replica.
The secret is the piano was used almost exclusively in composition, by someone who actually knew nothing of how to “play” piano.
It is as if the Beatles followed up Help! with Sergeant Pepper, with no Rubber Soul and Revolver in between. To my ears, there are no proto-TMR songs on disk 1 and 2 of the Grow Fins box set.
So I would like to know as much as you are willing to say about the eight months at the Woodland Hills house.
Absolutely, I will be glad to accommodate you, Hans.
General questions, like: To what extent TMR was premeditated and to what extent did it just evolve?
It was actually put together bit by bit. Don would play, I would transcribe, we would learn. In the track notes, I cover as much as I can remember of this activity.
Was there a conscious plan to stay there for months and months and create something really extraordinary, or did it just work out that way?
Don never really seemed to have a “plan.” Interestingly enough, Jeff, Mark, and I had talked earlier in a previous plan of becoming “musical hermits” for six months or a year and writing material that would be completely unique.
How many songs did you start out with?
It was a process of song by song. We didn’t really even consider them “songs.”
When and how did the musical concept of TMR emerge?
After the first piano composition, “Steal Softly through Snow”. (Note: I go back and forth between this and “Dali’s Car”, which I am now certain was the second song created on piano during Trout House creation. Of course, pre-dating these were “Sugar and Spikes”, “Moonlight on Vermont”, and (after Harkleroad joined ) “Veteran’s Day Poppy”.
And also ‘lateral’ questions, like: Who rented the house, and when?
Don did, in early 1968 to early 1971.
What were the alternatives to living in the house?
Quitting the band.
Did you ever turn down an invitation, then, to join another band?
I never really communicated with anyone out side of the band for the most part. I had nothing at all to do with the LA Music Scene in general.
Were there any offers to play gigs?
None during Trout Mask.
Who visited the house?
Occasionally friends and relatives. We had local high school kids who would come up and observe us as if we were snakes in a terrarium.
Did you ever perform songs for visitors?
Yes, Don would say, “Play ______________ for Jim here.”
Did you get any encouragement from visitors?
The kids thought we were the only “real people” they had ever known.
What time did you get up?
From nine to eleven on a normal day. If any day could actually be “normal.”
Who did the shopping?
Band members, often Jeff and I.
Who did the laundry?
We all did our own.
What television shows did you watch?
Old black and white monster movies.
What books did you read?
Diary of a Genius by Salvador Dali. The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris.
What music did you listen to (besides your own)?
Coltrane, Dolphy, Coleman, Delta Blues, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan.
Were there any contacts with people from the music industry?
Not that I recall.
What kind of drugs did you use?
Pre TMR, LSD and pot. During TMR, mostly hashish.
How many people knew what you were up to?
Mostly relatives, close friends, and neighbours who were forced to hear our loud rehearsals.
Silly and irrelevant as these questions may seem, they sometimes elicit fresh memories. Reading a certain book may have influenced a certain song. Forgetting about these questions themselves, I would be interested in the memories they might provoke.
Do you still have Don’s tapes and your elaborations of the various parts?
Don was careful to collect almost all materials. I do have a few moments on tape that I have found, but nothing from Trout Mask.
Thank you for the miracle you have worked. It must feel good to see that TMR means so much to so many people and is generally being considered a classic album.
It really does and is a reward in itself.
– John French