Paul Lewis – John French’s Q&As 2000/1

In early / mid 2000 John French called on Radar Station visitors for some help writing his book, Beefheart: Through The Eyes Of Magic…

From: Paul Lewis
Sent: Tuesday, April 11, 2000 4:55 PM

Thank you for taking the time to field questions from readers of the Radar Station. I’m a big fan of your work and am hoping that you can shed some light on a few questions that I have.

You have mentioned previously that you expected to be part of a blues band when you joined the Magic Band in the mid 60’s. What kept you going when the band started finding it’s own “avant garde” path as it approached Trout Mask Replica?

This is not entirely accurate on my part. Many times in interviews you have to sum up a big image with a few words. Before I was asked into the band, I knew that the band was experimenting with time signatures and doing music that was more “out.” That appealed to me and to my friends. We were Yardbird fans (Jeff Cotton, Mark Boston, Bill Harkleroad) before we got into the band and the idea of doing something strange and new appealed to me, at least, to an extent. I can’t speak for Bill or Mark, but I know Jeff and I were both drawn to more experimental music.

Were you genuinely interested in this progression?

It was farther than I personally cared to go at the time, as I knew it was a financial mistake to go that far out and I wanted to make money and help my family.

At any time did it become more of a job than a “mission”?

Don’s writing left a lot of unanswered questions when putting together the arrangements. At a certain point during the creation of Trout Mask it became clear to me that I was going to be sitting at the piano more than playing drums. Actually, my drum playing was technically better when I was in high school than it was during the recording of TMR because I was able to practice more often. Add to this the cult-like atmosphere and the sheer volume of work. These factors contributed to making my role seem rather “job-like” at times.

What kept your interest when dealing with the difficult living in the Trout Mask house

My interest was basically maintained by the fact that this idea of putting together music that was breaking so many conventional rules posed an interesting challenge. In spite of all Don’s interviews claiming the total creation was his, I also enjoyed writing many of my own drum parts. Having been exposed to Frank Zappa, I was very inspired by the fact that he literally “wrote” music.

…and the avant garde leanings of the music?

Of course, I knew right away that performing and recording this music was not going to be financially rewarding. I loved the idea of going on-stage (which this band only did once) and playing this strange music for the general public, just to see their reaction.

What do you think should have been done with the Trout Mask recording sessions? Should they have been done in a professional studio over a period of weeks, are they fine as they are, or should the “field recording” style have been completely maintained?

I would have liked to see us have a week in the studio because there are guitars that are out of tune and endings that weren’t played correctly. However, the first concept you have of something is generally the one that sticks with you. The album is a rough sketch of what it could have been. If memory serves, Don had a week to do vocals (4 or 5 days) and I think we should have also had that long, just to sort out the technical problems. I would have loved to have had a decent drum sound and proper headphones, rather than a wedge monitor stuck in the booth and a drum sound that basically lacked any fidelity at all. There’s a lot of work that was lost because of bad equalisation coupled with sometimes very dense overdubs, like on Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish.

I’m torn myself… As much as I’d love to have perfectly mixed versions of the songs (I doubt they could have been performed much better since you dedicated so much time to practice), but I cannot imagine songs such as “Frownland”, “Moonlight on Vermont”, “Veteran’s Day Poppy”, etc. sounding as polished and clean as the “Decals” recordings do. There’s an edge to the sound that I love.

I agree, but consider also that Veterans’ Day Poppy and Moonlight on Vermont ( two out of the three you mention) were done at a separate session that took almost as much time as the rest of the tracks. I think Trout Mask would have been taken more seriously right at the start had the recording quality been higher. We were rushed through the session. It would still have had its “edge,” but it also would have sounded more “professional.” There was a certain satisfaction of seeing Zappa’s face when we walked in the control room after having completed all the remaining tracks in 4 ½ hours. I think that Frank had set us up with what he considered to be an impossible time constraint. A double album of instrumental tracks in 6 hours (the time he originally allotted us) was unheard of. I think we did it in 4 ½ just to say, “Okay Frank, you wanna play hardball? How’s this for efficiency?”

Thanks for your time, it is much appreciated by Magic Band fans! Best of luck, Paul Lewis.

– John French

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