If you have been lucky enough to catch any of the Magic Band reunion shows since 2009 you will have seen two new faces in the band – drummer Craig Bunch and guitarist Eric Klerks. These guys have taken on the daunting task of stepping into some big shoes and playing this complex music live to audiences of committed Beefheart fans.
And if you have seen them, then like me you will know they have both acquitted themselves extraordinarily well, playing with passion, precision and commitment. I thought it was about time we found out what it was like for them being a part of the Magic Band. So here are Eric’s full and frank replies to a number of questions I put to him.
What’s your background? Where did you grow up and how did you get to where you are?
I was born in Van Nuys, a northern suburb of Los Angeles. We moved several times, living in various cities in Colorado and California. I usually tell people I’m from a city in the San Francisco Bay Area called Fremont, which is where I went to high school. In 1998, when I was 15, my mother died of complications from ovarian cancer. This was, as you can imagine, a life-altering experience; seeing first hand how quickly someone can go from healthy to gone really drove home the impermanence of our life on this planet. As such, I decided to concentrate my energy on the one thing that made me and the people around me truly happy: making music.
After high school, I moved to New Orleans to study music, specifically jazz, at Loyola University. I was going into my last year in 2005, when hurricane Katrina happened. The house where I lived was totally wrecked and school was closed, so I got in my car with a couple of suitcases and guitars and went to California, where I studied at the California Institute of the Arts. I moved back to New Orleans at the beginning of 2006, got my bachelor’s degree and stayed until the end of 2007, when I went back to Cal Arts to pursue my master’s degree. It was the best decision I ever made.
What’s your musical background? What are you influences?
I started seriously studying the guitar at age 12, before that I would just mess around. I was self taught until college, though I learned the basics of reading music in high school while playing guitar in jazz band and double bass in orchestra.
Both my parents played a lot of music in the house while I was growing up and they had really good taste for the most part; lots of blues, classic rock, R&B and classical. Their first date was a John Lee Hooker concert at UCLA, so you know they were hip… I got a little allowance each week and the first thing I’d do was go down to Rasputin Records or Amoeba Music and buy 2-3 used CDs. By the time I was 17 I had a pretty massive collection.
I listened to a LOT of different music, so it’s always tough for me to pick my biggest influences, but here goes: Ornette, Coltrane, Miles, Chet Baker, Mingus, Jim Hall, Hubert Sumlin, Duane Allman, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, David Torn, Fred Frith, Brad Mehldau, Richard Thompson, Frank Reckard, Robert Wyatt, Joni Mitchell, John Martyn, Charlie Haden, my teachers Larry Koonse and Brian Seeger… I could go on for days. Perhaps it’s worth noting that quite a few of these people are not guitarists…
How did you meet John French (I’m presuming it was John you met first)?
I met him while I was at Cal Arts, 2008 I think. He was looking to put together a band to perform the music from his last Drumbo album, City of Refuge. As I understand it, he had talked with Miroslav Tadic but he was unavailable. Miro recommended an amazing guitarist named Scott Collins, who was and is a great friend and fellow Cal Arts alum. John and Scott got together and Scott arranged for me to audition, along with Daren Burns on bass and Craig Bunch on drums.
I first met John at Scott’s apartment in Pasadena. I was a little nervous because John was one of my musical heroes. I liked his work with Beefheart a lot, though at the time I was totally enamoured with the French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson records, and told him so. I had learned a few songs off of City Of Refuge and we drove over to Craig’s house in Sierra Madre to try out the music as a band. Things went pretty smoothly, and John seemed excited about the possibilities of the band. Thus began several months of rehearsal to get the songs tight. It was pure joy for me.
What did you think when he asked you to be part of the Magic Band?
I was blown away. I never thought it would happen, especially since I never played with Don (my age makes it impossible anyway, as he retired from music around the time I was born). I met Denny at Jimmy Carl Black’s memorial in Acton, CA, where I was playing with the Drumbo band. I believe he was playing with Don Preston on that gig. We got to talk a little and he heard me play; not long after that John called me about joining the Magic Band. I was really touched that they had so much faith in me and my capabilities.
Denny and Mark flew to LA for a week and we rehearsed at John’s home studio. It all came together quickly and we got along great as people. I was very upfront with the guys about how much I respected them and loved the stuff they did with Don, but I’ve never, from day one, ever felt like I was a sideman or a ‘junior member’.
What was your experience of Beefheart’s music before then?
During the youthful record store excursions I mentioned earlier, I picked up a copy of Trout Mask. I saw it on one of those ‘100 greatest albums of all time’ lists and thought it was worth checking out. I was listening to Ornette’s records and John Coltrane’s Ascension a lot, so the density and angularity of Trout Mask really excited me, plus it had that blues influence that I grew up with. I picked up Decals after that, and eventually got my hands on all the Beefheart albums, even the Tragic Band stuff.
What particular challenges were there with learning this music?
The biggest challenge was just sifting through the songs and trying to hear the guitar parts correctly. Sometimes the parts were low in the mix, other times things would get covered up by Don’s sax. It’s funny, the way the parts fit together there are sometimes these difference tones where you’ll hear a note that no one is actually playing- it’s a product of the way the sounds are interacting in the room.
John was a huge help, I went over to his house several times before I auditioned for the Magic Band to play the parts for him. I was adding extra notes or playing things in different areas of the fingerboard and he’d correct those mistakes. I remember working out the descending section on My Human Gets Me Blues; it sounded right to me, but John had me move a couple of notes around- after I fumbled around for a few minutes, I played it and his eyes lit up… “That’s it! That’s the way Bill played it!” Needless to say, I was elated.
Most of the parts I work out by ear, though I’ll notate things as I go along just to keep track of the correct notes and fingerings.
Did you have to change the way you play the guitar?
Yes and no. I did have to adapt my technique to accommodate the use of those metal fingerpicks which are so essential to the Magic Band guitar sound, though I’d been using hybrid picking (pick + fingers) for years before that. They tore up my fingers at first, especially during the 6 months or so that I was first learning the core Magic Band repertoire. I’ve gotten used to them, and now it feels funny to play without them. A lot of the harmonic vocabulary of the music comes from things that appear to be various permutations of ‘jazz chords’: lots of minor or major 7ths, diminished, whole tone, altered dominant 7ths, etc. As a lifelong student of jazz harmony, finding names for what was happening was pretty straightforward. The challenge was learning those harmonies in a new context and playing the parts with the proper energy and attitude. The same applies for the odd-meter and multi-metric (everyone playing in different time signatures) parts. It’s a real fun challenge learning how to be comfortable and move around when you’re playing in 5 and the rest of the band is in 12 and 7…
Do you have to keep practising? If so what sort of hours do you need to put in?
I practice every day, sometimes Magic Band music and sometimes just things I’m working on for myself. When we have a tour coming up, I’ll run the full set every morning after I have my coffee. Knowing all the parts cold really helps with relaxing and enjoying myself on stage. If we’re talking about adding new material, as we’ve been for this upcoming tour, I’ll work on those pieces separately to really isolate any technical issues. Then I’ll play them through with my eyes closed and/or dancing around the house. Seriously.
Do you have particular favourite songs you enjoy playing and why?
I love doing On Tomorrow – I start up with the percussive part after John’s drum solo and it feels great to lock in with him before the band comes in. He plays with such intensity. He’s one of the greatest singers/frontmen I’ve ever worked with, but when he gets behind the drums for the instrumental part of the set, and that Drumbo/Rockette Morton rhythm section is really swinging and stomping along, it’s just pure bliss.
Electricity is another favorite; it’s evolved into something closer to what the old band did live rather than what’s on the record. It just breathes now, and the audiences really seem to vibe off of it. John, Denny and Mark are like shamen, letting the song grow but staying aware of what’s happening and guiding us to all these unexpected, beautiful places.
That said, every song we play has something about it that’s special to me for one reason or another.
Have you listened to all of the Beefheart albums? Do you have a favourite?
Yes, my old favorites are Decals and Clear Spot, though my new favorite is the official Bat Chain Puller that Gail released. The sound of the mix is fantastic and the compositions and poetry are some of Don’s best.
Are there any songs you’d like to be able to play live?
I’d love to do some of the stuff from Bat Chain Puller. We already do Floppy Boot Stomp live, and we tried Owed t’Alex in 2009. The problem is you really need a keyboard player to pull it off properly. Someday, in one context or another, I’d love to perform the whole album all the way through.
What were your expectations of fans when you were on tour? Did the age range surprise you?
At first I was expecting older, male fans, the die-hards who have been listening to the stuff since it was first released. That said, I knew there were younger fans out there since I’m one of them. Nothing sounds like Beefheart’s music, before or since, and I think that’s a big deal. We have 15-16 year old kids in the audience at most of our shows; the age range is huge and we’re getting a good mix of men, women and even families coming to see us. I think the younger fans have the benefit of hearing the music in a different context- there are a lot of bands, past and present, out there who have been influenced by those Beefheart records and I think the music sounds less alien in our current musical climate.
This music may never be popular, but more and more people are getting turned on to it and it’s great that we can go out and show them, “Yes, this can be played live and with tons of energy.”
Do you have any particular good and bad experiences of touring you’d like to share with us?
The best experiences for me are playing the shows and getting to meet and talk with people from the audience on a personal level. John, Mark and Denny are usually pretty mobbed when they go out and sign cds, but I’m lucky in the sense that I can pop outside after the concert for a smoke and maybe a couple of people will recognize me. We’ll talk about the music, guitars or whatever and it’s usually a really pleasant experience for everyone. I always say that I travel to make music and make friends, and to me that’s what it’s all about. I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to do that.
The negative stuff isn’t anything too serious, just the usual perils of touring; getting sick, bad stage sound, problems with the van or the gear, dealing with bullshit at the airport, etc. All the guys, including our great road manager Micky, are incredibly professional and we really don’t have a lot of problems. I learn a lot from the other guys since they’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have. If a problem comes up, I try to watch and see how they handle it. We’re all friends and keep in touch between tours. This is a band where we have each other’s backs, onstage and off.
What are you working on at the moment musically besides the Magic Band?
I’m slowly working on music for my first solo record, which should be done in the next year or so. I play quite a bit around Los Angeles and occasionally tour with a few different groups, mostly as a bassist. The Magic Band and my own music keeps me engaged as a guitarist, and working as a bassist is really satisfying in its own way. I’m currently working with an incredible vocalist named Rafe Pearlman, who moved from Seattle to LA recently. We’ll be releasing a couple of records later this year; one is acoustic and will be released under his name and the other is with a blues/rock/soul band called The Chelsea Royal.
My other main collaboration is with a Persian artist named Hamed Nikpay. His music is a lot of fun; he’s heavily influenced by jazz and flamenco music as well as traditional Persian music. We played a sold-out show in London and did a BBC session a few months ago. Beyond that, I occasionally get called for commercial and pop sessions since I’m a pretty good reader. I love all the bands I work with and sessions I play, but the Magic Band is my primary focus right now.
When I’m not travelling I teach a lot of private lessons around LA. I love to teach; helping other musicians to improve their playing and further their theoretical knowledge is a real joy. Most of my students don’t know anything about Beefheart, and I don’t push the music on them. I told the mother of one of my younger students about the tour today, and she seemed genuinely surprised, “I had no idea you do that kind of thing!” I guess I feel a certain obligation to pass on some of the knowledge I’ve been given over the years. I’m still growing as a player myself, and I hope it never stops.
One quick example: a couple of months ago I was listening to a lot of Messiaen’s organ music. I learned that he had written a great book on his musical language which I was able to track down and now I’m really focused on absorbing his harmonic and modal concepts. They’re incredibly beautiful in a sort of angular, jagged way. I don’t know how or if I’ll apply them to my own music, but that’s not really the point. I guess it’s like going out on the ocean in a boat; the further out you get, the bigger and deeper you realize the whole thing is and the more there is to explore. There’s so much more out there then you could possibly discover and learn in a lifetime, but it sure is fun to see how far you get.