Robert Williams, page 1
Robert Williams, page 2
The following is an interview that Scott McFarland wrote up some time ago, and I am now reposting. I have another interview with Robert Williams on the way.
Where this interview came from : In November of 1996 I heard via the Beefheart newsgroup that the great Robert Williams was playing on the new Zoogz Rift release. I sent Zoogz an e-mail curious as to whether Robert might be interested in doing an interview regarding his time in The Magic Band (from 1977 through early 1981, I believe, and including the two masterpiece albums "Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)" and "Doc at the Radar Station"). Zoogz informed me that Robert in fact was up to a written interview, which I could then put out onto the net. I sent Robert the 26 questions which follow, and received back a five page response from him which also follows. Robert's always been a musical hero of mine; his playing on those two aforementioned LPs is so detailed and "inside" of the music as to be truly an awe-inspiring feat, IMHO. I look forward to the future projects which Robert mentions herein, and thank him for taking the time to do this.
1. Were there any particular drummers who influenced your playing style when you were younger, or since then?
There were no particular drummers that influenced my playing style. On the other hand I would have to say that every drummer I've ever heard has had an influence on my playing, mostly on what not to play. I never sat down behind a drum kit and tried to learn any fills or patterns with exception of a Cream or Hendrix song when I was a little kid. Most influences come subliminally and manage to surface from time to time when I'm playing on my own. the way I like to approach a song is to play it differently and still have it groove. Artie Tripp was good at that. Occasionally I'm required to learn a song from a record with another drummer playing on it. Such was the case when having to learn parts off Clear Spot, Safe As Milk...etc. for the tours. That can have an influence just from playing them every night.
2. How and when did you get involved with the Magic Band? How old were you? Had you listened to any of the CB & TMB music before then?
When I was in boarding school outside of Philadelphia in the early 70's I managed to organize a field trip into town to see a Jethro Tull concert at The Spectrum. Captain Beefheart was touring Clear Spot as their supporting act. It was a side show out of a five ring circus with musical chaos that had been organized, choreographed, polished up, and presented with a big crazy bow. I was elated to know that it was possible to perform music like that. It was like hearing music for the first time. A few months later Beefheart returned to play the Tower Theater. That night I stuffed my bed to give the appearance of someone sleeping in it, stole softly through my boarding school dormitory window and hitch hiked (which was very popular back then) into Philadelphia. When I got there I had assumed the show to be sold out and bought a ticket from a stranger outside. When I got in I realized that not only was the place less than twenty-five percent full, but my seat was in the very last row of the upper balcony. I moved down to third row center and had a seat while a band named "Good God" was playing King Kong. One of the members of that band had asked Don to come up with a name for them and that was how they got it. Halfway through their set a big security guy came over to me and asked to see my ticket and I responded by telling him in a British accent that I was "...with the band, Man!" Obviously neither band was from England but the big dumb guy was putty in my hands. When Good God had finished their set the security guy stood at the end of the isle staring at me suspiciously. I walked over to him and in the same accent said "Listen mate, it's been a long tour and I find myself a bit disoriented, do us a favor and show me how to return to the back stage area would you?" He proceeded to escort me past the other guards, telling them that I was with the band and led me directly back to Captain Beefheart's dressing room. A few years later I was back home in the Boston area and read of Beefheart coming to play at a new club in Harvard Square called the Garage. I went down to the club in time for sound check in hopes of meeting with Don again. His manager Augie DiMartino was arguing with the owner of the club over who was going to move the equipment between shows. Evidently they had only one stage hand and he didn't know how to assemble a drum kit. That was when I offered my services for the week long run. At the end of that week on the night of the last show Dr. John was in the audience with his manager and someone told me that he was in search of a new drummer. I convinced him to stick around to hear me play before I packed away the drums and although I didn't get the gig, Don told me that if he ever needed a drummer that I was the one. Augie came up and gave me twenty bucks for a week's worth of work. An unforeseen preview of things to come. After all, I was only seventeen. After migrating to the LA area a couple of years later I was visiting with George Duke at a recording session for one of his post Zappa solo records and during a break I thumbed through the front desk rolodex and found Don's home phone number. I called him from time to time and the conversations usually lasted an average of four to five hours. The phone bills were high but I stayed in touch none the less. One day Ed Mann (Zappa's former percussionist) told me that he had heard Beefheart was looking for a new drummer so I called Don to remind him of what he had told me back in Boston. He gave me Eric Feldman and Jeff Tepper's phone numbers and told me to borrow the records that I didn't already have from them and to pick up the keys to the garage in Van Nuys where they rehearsed. I spent my nights there practicing the parts every waking moment. Finally on the Sunday morning before my afternoon audition Don opened the garage door to find me just waking up on a piece of foam rubber on the floor. With morning sun behind him he stood there in silhouette with his gray Fedora,"Good God, man! You've been sleeping here?" he said, soon after the rest of the band showed up. Don interrupted the first song we ran through to say, "You've got the job! Let's go have some iced tea." Tepper and Feldman asked to speak to Don privately where they advised him to continue to audition more drummers but he asked them why bother when he'd already found his man. I was twenty two years old.
3. Do you feel that Don is a genius (musically)?
4. How do you feel about the CB & TMB albums that you played on, "Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller" and "Doc at the Radar Station"?
Considering my conversations with John French and Art Tripp and their candid recollections of how their parts were formulated for the Beefheart records, I realized that I wasn't the only Beefheart drummer who had made up some of the parts. Beefheart claims to have written every note. That's about eighty five percent true. I think it was more like he approved every note before it appeared on his records. French was given a lot more freedom to improvise within the structure of each given song than I was and than Don was willing to admit. The important thing is what ended up on tape. Considering the limited studio time they had in those days, first takes were the only takes to be chosen from on some songs. There's no doubt that even though John French was and is an amazing and original drummer, his speeding up, slowing down, and flubbed notes are not made of things so easily learned and performed by the less experienced drummer. Art Tripp had also injected some of his parts into the music that Don would eventually call his own. Go figure. Don often said to me of my coming up with parts for his records "Man! You knew exactly what I wanted you to play and you read my mind! You're amazing! How do you do that? I mean with your mind, man. How do you do it?" It doesn't matter though. Besides, you can't copyright a drum beat.
5. Do you have any favorite tracks from those albums, or from the tours that you played on?
One of my favorite songs to play live was Doctor Dark because I had to consolidate two drummers' parts into one. Best Batch Yet, Telephone, and Brickbats were songs that I had my 'fingerprints' on. Making Love To A Vampire With A Monkey On My Knee, something that Don played on my drums as I recorded it on my cassette player was something I learned verbatim. I would have to say that Suction Prints was truly my favorite song to play live. That song brought the audiences to their feet with deafening applause, especially when it was played well. One of my favorite shows was the one we played in Paris on November 11th, 1977 at the Hippodrome. There were ten thousand kids under the big top that night.
6. How physically difficult was it to play some of those parts? (Watching the 1980 Paris TV footage, it looks pretty draining, especially "Best Batch Yet" and "Dirty Blue Gene"). Were any songs especially difficult?
I never felt any stress during those performances. If you're referring to my facial expressions, Don choreographed me to scowl like a cat because one of the drum parts on Best Batch Yet was described to me by Don as "... a cat trying to get out of a cardboard box." Every song of every show was played with such conviction that the only pain felt was the pain of hearing a mistake within one of the compositions. At the same time it was exhilarating to hear ourselves play them correctly.
7. What drum tracks that you've done are you proudest of?
See answer # 5.
8. What are you and Don saying to each other in the Paris 1980 concert when he goes over and shakes your hand after playing "Best Batch Yet"?
Something like ... "Oh man, if I were a woman I'd suck your dick for how well you played that!" or maybe it was "I think you may have some mayonnaise on your upper lip left over from lunch ..." It's hard to remember exactly what he said to me between one of the several songs among the several shows we performed. In all seriousness, I think it was, "That was great, man!"
9. During your time, were any members of the band especially active at "translating" Don's instructions or raw music out to members of the band? Can you describe how the process worked?
Don dictated each part to each musician on an individual basis. Some drum beats were written by having me emulate the sound of windshield wipers recorded on his portable cassette recorder. Other beats were recordings that he had made of a set of keys hitting the floor or a five gallon water bottle with the bubbles rising ... "bloop babloop buddella bloop", or him singing into his recorder ... "Bum chicka a do bop dweep boing, diddelly doop, plop plop fizz fizz." and oh what a relief it was to see it all come together like pieces in a puzzle. The guitar parts were mostly written by him whistling. The keyboards he usually played himself as Eric recorded it to learn later. The Sheriff of Hong Kong was written on the piano by Don. The left hand was doubled with bass guitar, the right doubled with the guitar. I had recorded a drum part for that song which Don showed me by playing the drums but ended up having John replace it. John did that by reading the bass part while he improvised on the drums. Of course I had to learn that six minute and thirty three second improvisation for the tour. It took some time to memorize but it was actually a much better part than the one Don had given me to play originally.
10. Is this an accurate representation of the "Shiny Beast" band's getting that album together? New songs developed for/by that band : Tropical Hot Dog Night, You Know You're A Man, When I See Mommy, Love Lies. Songs redone from Bat Chain Puller Sessions : Floppy Boot Stomp, Owed T'Alex, Candle Mambo, Bat Chain Puller. Songs existing from past : Ice Rose, Suction Prints, Harry Irene. Did he play you all tapes from "Bat Chain Puller"? Did he play you tapes of the older stuff?
Candle Mambo was not one of the tracks on the pre existing recording of Bat Chain Puller however, Harry Irene was one of the tracks from those sessions. Eric Feldman had gained access to some songs from old sessions that had never made it to vinyl and some of those songs were resurrected and reconstructed by Don (some with our finger prints on them) one of them being Suction Prints.
11. How long did that band have to develop & rehearse the songs, and how long to do the recording sessions?
Our rehearsals lasated months upon months. Most of the time we rehearsed without pay just because we all wanted it to sound as tight as possible. Jeff Tepper and I used to get together and I'd repeat a verse or chorus over and over so he could really zero in on his part. When I first joined the band Eric (not really a drummer) showed me the basic mechanics of a beat we referred to as "Picaro Pete" which appeared in many of Don's earlier compositions. It sounds just like the name. Try to spot it next time you listen to Trout Mask. The recording sessions usually took a week of live tracking, a week of over dubs and vocals, and a week of mixing.
12. Was Don difficult to work with?
He was a big pain in the window. All he wanted to do was blabber and smoke. If I were to accidentally closed my high hat while reaching for something in the middle of his endless bullshitting he;d scream at me accusing me of putting tin foil in his radar. On other occasions he'd be thinking of a part for the keyboards or something and accuse someone in the room of having too much to think so he'd point at each guy and say, "It's not you, it's not you, it's not you, and it's not you, but he knows who he is!" Of course the person he didn't point at would be the scapegoat of the day. Most of the time he'd pick on me. One day I pulled him aside and told him that I perform much better when he's nice to me and he said, "Hey man, I just do it to you because you can take it. These other guys would fall apart and shrivel away if I did it to them. Do you know what I mean, man? I mean, do you? I mean, I need that tension man! Besides I was only teasing." Don was a genius when it came to getting us to do what he wanted and what he wanted was often very demanding. On the other hand when it came to paying us he automatically turned into an idiot who couldn't count to three. It makes me laugh to think of it now.
13. Is all of "Doc at the Radar Station" new stuff except for "Brickbats" and "A Carrot is as Close"? Did "Run Paint Run Run" evolve out of "Drink Paint Run Run" (in 1980)?
They were all works in progress until they made it to vinyl. Run Paint Run Run was new music. The words may have been another story. I don't know. Dirty Blue Gene was born out of an out take from Clear Spot.
14. How much time did that band have to develop and tighten up the music on "Doc"? And how long to record it (I'm guessing that it was recorded pretty quickly)?
See answer # 11.
15. Do you have any contact with the other guys from The Magic Band these days?
Jeff Tepper and I still talk on the phone from time to time. We've tried to work together but we both have strong personalities and that prevents us from continuing ... like two fat cooks in a tiny kitchen. Bruce Fowler and I are currently working on a project with ex Zappa members Arthur Barrow, Tommy Mars, Kurt McKennick, and Manhattan Transfer saxophonist Larry Klimas on music that was basically improvised although it sounds composed. It was recorded at Arthur's studio in Culver City and has been edited with Protools by he and I over the past several weeks. We're hoping to find a record label interested in releasing it.
16. Why did you leave? Was there much friction between you and Don?
Back then I was under contract with A&M Records and the two schedules were conflicting. It was a difficult choice to make between playing with Beefheart or doing my own record but the money to be made playing with Don was nothing compared to what I'd make with A&M so I indulged myself in my own music. Most of the friction between Don and I had to do with money. I know he hadn't made much money playing his music through the years and he deserved much more however, his musicians worked their butts off for him and we were always being short changed. It was easy for him to do that because we were all fans of his and I think he took advantage of that. For instance, he promised each of us (verbally) a half point on Shiny Beast and paid us seventy five dollars a week to rehearse for six weeks before the tour. As it turned out, that money was an advance against our half point. In other words, our paycheck for rehearsing his music was money that was already ours. I believe he owes us money from that record. It had been re released by Virgin in '86 on CD. I'm sure it has more than broken even. I tell you this because it's the way it is but I have no interest in pursuing it at this time. In fact, it makes me laugh to think of it now.
17. Can you describe any examples of how Don would mold the drum parts or the music? Was he generally happy with your ideas, or was it a difficult exercise to find a part that he liked?
See answer # 9.
18. If you have any opinion: Can you shed any light on the relationship between Don & Frank Zappa? It seems like an interesting relationship.
From what I hear, Don was very upset at the news of Frank's death. They were High School buddies from Palmdale. It was a love-hate relationship. I know that Frank highly regarded Don for his original ideas but Don never admitted to being interested in Frank's music. I think Don resented the kind of success that Zappa acheived and he didn't. One night he took me up to Frank's house soon after I joined the band. We got there around midnight and left the next morning around nine. Frank played us some of his old 45's and showed us some of the footage from Baby Snakes while at his editing bay, complaining about Bozzio and Mars improvising on his music. I remember Frank telling me, "The world is basically made up of two kinds of people: assholes and ass kickers, you gotta bend over or lift your foot."
19. As your drumming on "Doc" is so astounding, and John French's playing in the late '60's is also so astounding, I was wondering : Did you and John ever compare notes on drumming and so forth? Have you ever met any other members of the old Magic Bands?
John and I got along pretty well. He seemed like a nice enough guy but we never sat down and compared notes on syncopated paradiddles and such, if that's what you mean. Actually, Artie Tripp and I became pretty good friends before he moved up to Northern California to open his chiropractic office. He was a bartender at Love's restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard working his way through chiropractic school. I used to go there and hang out with him while he slid me a few drinks on the house and told some great jokes.
20. Was it frustrating for the band when Don & Frank's legal problems were preventing actual records from going out? What were you guys doing, for example in 1979 (you didn't tour or record that year, did you? Were you guys working full time or just part time in TMB?)
Don's legal problems with Frank were mainly to do with releasing the pre existing recording of Bat Chain Puller which was tied up in a lawsuit Frank had with Warner Brothers. It worked out in The Magic Band's favor because we got to record those songs which was the first record any of us had ever played on. Not bad for our first record, don't you agree?
21. Any favorite gigs that you remember?
1978, The Bottom Line in NYC with Woody Allen, Dianne Keaton, David Byrne, Meatloaf, Willie DeVille, Chrissie Hynde, John Belushi, as well as some famous people were in the audience. We opened with Eric playing the bass line to Hair Pry and directly into Suction Prints (that was back before Don decided to blow soprano sax all over it). It was a powerful show. Denny Walley was on guitar and slide guitar for that tour. He was the real shit. He'd been with Don for three years and was let go about a week before Don got his deal with Warner Brothers. It was easier to manipulate the other guys with Denny, the seasoned pro out of the picture. Don's loss... is how I feel about it.
22. As the Beefheart music I regard as a manifestation of brilliance and detail that I really admire - I wondered what music or musicians you really admire these days.
I only listen to the news on the radio and I rarely buy CDs of artists I'm unfamiliar with. After I did the drums for Zoogs Rift's new record he sent me a couple of compilation cassettes of his work and I thought it was hilarious. The lyrics are very entertaining. My Zoogs Rift secret is that he's actually a really nice guy. (Sorry Zoogs, didn't mean to blow your cover).
23. It must have been a very intense experience playing in TMB. Any final thoughts on the matter?
I have fond memories of those days and I'm proud to have been a part of that. The music was fun to play and really enjoyed touring back then. Now it's time to take what I've learned to the next level.
24. Optional question if you have anything to say about him : Keith Levine seems like an interesting (and quite enigmatic) figure. Did you work with him outside of that "I'm Searching For Something" (sic - not sure of title - don't have my copy around right now) track? How did you become involved with that?
Keith Levine never paid me for the session I did with Flea and Bob Forest and he didn't even reimburse me for the cartage of my drums. That song was released without my permission. He's nothing but a no talent loser with delusions of grandeur. It makes me laugh to think of it now. Ho hum.
25. Can you describe your current musical (and/or other) activities?
I'm currently working on a new solo record for AVT Records and expect to have a release in the spring of '97. I've got my drums and a midi studio at my house in North Hollywood where I work out the songs before going into a multi track studio to commit to tape. I'm very excited about this project. Working on music can be fun when you're allowed to do any damned thing you want.
26. Which of your musical endeavors are you happiest with?
The live shows I did with The Magic Band. Those records never accurately represented the essence of the band compared to our live performances. One example of that is the concert for Chorus TV in Paris. The quality of my copy is pretty dodgy so if you know anyone with a decent dub of that please let me know. For that matter it would be interesting to find out what happened to the footage of the songs that didn't make the final cut.
(Ed. note - I sent Robert a copy of the Paris TV footage which I would describe as pretty good. I've seen copies of it ranging in quality from terrible to pretty good. If anyone has a copy which would be decribed as pristine or excellent - by all means please let me or Zoogz Rift or someone know and help circulate it. And does anyone actually know whether the unused footage is actually in storage anywhere?)
You know, I guess deep down inside I wish that it weren't over. Those were some of the happiest times of my life. I wish Don was still well enough to give another go of it. It makes me sad to think of it now. I miss him.