Mother People, 91-5
Interview conducted by Axel Wünsch and Aad Hoogesteger at the Moers Jazz Festival after the first night of Don and Jimmy playing with Eugene Chadbourne's latest combo. Transcribed and edited by Effty.
Thank you very much for talking to us. We think it's really great to do this after all these years. Before you joined The Mothers, what was your musical background?
DP: I was playing a lot of free-form jazz, in different groups, some of it not so free. I had a band that improvised to film of microscopic life and trains and things like that. I toured with some big bands, like Nat 'King' Cole, and played with a whole bunch of people, mostly on the West Coast. Another band I was in played in odd times – that was almost all we did; times like 9/8, 12/8, 19/8 ... It was an adventurous time, the early Sixties. Things were blossoming; an amazing time.
And then I met Frank. Actually, I met Frank a number of years before the Mothers. We played a little bit together in different circumstances. During the time he was forming the Mothers, he used to come over to my house and say 'I'm doing this and I'm doing that'; it sounded interesting. The first time I auditioned for the Mothers, I was rejected because I didn't know how to play rock and roll. Then afterwards, about a year had gone by, and I had been playing with a bunch of rock bands, and then I auditioned again and got in the band.
And then at a certain point, you left the Mothers. We know you did some film scores, like Apocalypse Now'.
DP: Oh I orchestrated that. I've done seventeen films now and I've been playing in different groups: John Carter – he died about a month ago – and Pete Erskine, the drummer from Weather Report, and a whole bunch of people like that on the West Coast, performing a lot and recording. I'm still doing film scores. I'm doing one right now. It's called Believe in Eve and it's actually a very small film. It was done by a Spanish production company. They're all from Spain, but went to the UCLA Film School, and then they made a film.
You also played with Michael Mantler. How did you get involved with him?
DP: I met Carla Bley back in LA when she was married to Paul Bley. I stayed friends with her, so when she married Michael, it was natural I should meet him. I was on 'Escalator Over the Hill' and Michael produced that. (If anyone has a spare copy of that, please write to Fred at TD!) Later on, he called because he had a score that he wanted to put on record, and it was an orchestral score but he couldn't afford the orchestra, so he thought I could help. It turned out pretty good.
You mentioned earlier that you'd been playing with Ed Mann.
DP: I've just played two concerts with him in places in LA. That was very good. I'd never played with him before, never met him before. A drummer friend of mine knows Ed real well, and asked him to play with us. That was about three weeks ago. I may form a band with Ed. We're trying to get some work in Japan right now. We'd love to come over here, but it's not easy (laughs). There are a lot of festivals here, but it's hard to get on, especially if you don't have an album out. The shows with Ed were mostly my own material. We do some Zappa material, but not very much, 'Uncle Meat', 'The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue'.
Are there any plans for a record with this band with Ed Mann?
DP: Well, I'm calling people. If I can get somebody interested, then sure. (Enter stage left Jimmy Carl Black)
You know there's another guy called Don Preston?
DP: Yeah I know. Now there's three. I heard somebody just recently, who was in UCLA Film School, and he changed his name to Don Preston. I don't have enough problems with the other Don Preston. Now I've got a third one who's changed his name to mine.
JCB: Who is the other one?
DP: He plays guitar. He's like a country and western guitar player. I met him.
You should do a record with him, Don & Don. And get the film guy to film it.
DP: No, he's into film scoring. He changed his name to my name. God, I could kill him. So I had to change my name, to Don W Preston.
JCB: Watch it, he'll change his name to W.
DP: But he doesn't know what the W stands for. And I'm not telling. It's a secret.
Mr. Black, we know your career from 1963-73; you were a Mother from the beginning to the end. We know about Geronimo Black. What did you do inbetween and before you joined the Mothers?
JCB: I put out a single with a band called the Keys from Kansas in 1962. That was my first recording. And then the Mothers, then Geronimo Black and a million bands in between, then The Grandmothers in the early '80s with Don and Bunk.
DP: I just got a tape of the TV show where Frank just kept saying 'Motherfucker, motherfucker'.
JCB: That's the Bitter End from New York. We did 'Suzy Creamcheese', but we sang 'motherfucker' to all of it. I watched it at Woodstock and they bleeped it. There are bootleg copies – I've seen it before myself. It's only one song.
DP: No, there's more than that. You're playing trumpet...
JCB: Like in the old days. You know what I'd like to see is the TV show from Bremen, from the first German tour in 1968. The Nice were opening for us. We also played Essen with them. I don't know anyone who has a video of that. (There then follows a discussion about ulcer problems.)
Mr. Black, you were on 'You Are What You Is'. How did you get involved in that?
JCB: He called me up and hired me. He paid me for that one, good too. He put me up at the Sunset Marquee Hotel, picked me up in the Rolls every morning to go to the studio. He can't sing country and western like I can. I guess that's the reason he did it, I don't know. He wanted a Texas sound on it, and me being from Texas, I can supply that. But once again, I was only supposed to do the one song and wound up doing four or five, just like '200 Motels', but for the same money. The money didn't get any bigger.
Is this a regular event, you playing at jazz festivals, or just a one-off?
DP: It happens. Last year I played one of the festivals, but that time, I did my own music and had my own group.
JCB: He does it more than I do. I'd like to, I'm available to do it. It just so happened to come up. I'll do it any chance I get the time to. Any time I can get out of Austin, I'll go, especially to Europe. I love playing over here. Eugene Chadbourne just called me and Don up and asked if we wanted to go. I wasn't doing anything in May ... We just jammed. When all of us play together, it'll sound different to what we did today. We broke it up today, but it was kinda neat, I thought. The first hour we played, I enjoyed it. I got a chance to play all kinds of different time-things, and the bassoon-player and sitar-player got really out there. Eugene's been a fan of the Mothers for many years. I've never met him before. I didn't meet him till last night. First time I'd ever seen him! He'd sent me a couple of his records and so at least I had an idea of what he did, but I didn't realise all these guys were such good players.
Do you like Captain Beefheart?
JCB: I do. Don van Vliet's a very good friend of mine. I don't think he's doing anything musically any more, not right now. I'm not saying that he won't.
DP: I keep hearing rumours that he might. He's been sick a lot lately is what I've been hearing.
You left the Mothers several times and then you came back. Was this for some special reason?
DP: Other than plain stupidity, I don't know what the reason was. There were some things about Zappa's music that I enjoy and it's certainly more fun playing in front of a large audience than it is sitting at home. So there was that aspect, although some guys wouldn't have gone back to Zappa. A lot of guys were hurt very badly when the first group broke up.
JCB: Very bitter. Don and I were the only ones that weren't, and Roy, he went back one time after that in 1975. I was hurt when it happened; I didn't understand why at the time it had happened, why he broke the band up. I really and truly don't believe that he wanted to play with us; he didn't feel that we could play his music the way he wanted it played. However I don't really believe that he's ever had a band that had as much feeling for the music as the original Mothers of Invention. He's always had good players, but there was something about the band itself. There was a special thing. It wasn't just the music, it was the whole ... We had fun together; whether Frank had fun with us or not, that was his problem. We had fun as members of the band. I made a life long friend right here that'll always be one of my best friends in the whole wide world. I have an enormous amount of respect for him as a musician and as a person. And I feel that way about all the guys in that band.
Are you still in touch with the other guys?
JCB: Bunk, Don and I have stayed in touch more than anybody. I just talked to Roy Estrada last week after fifteen years. I talked to him for over an hour; we made noises at one another. It was great.
DP: I talk to Ray a lot. Nobody's ever been able to find Billy Mundi. BILLY MUNDI, WHERE ARE YOU?
JCB: And Motorhead. Nobody knows where Motorhead's at. Frank's looking for Roy and Motorhead. I found this out just after I talked to Roy. I don't know why he's looking for them – he wants to pay them something for the 'Mystery Discs'. And Frank may want to settle with the rest of these guys, just to get it completely off his back.
We heard rumours about the law-suit.
JCB: There is. There's nothing, that's all we can say.
DP: It's settled. Amicably, between both parties. That's the sentence we were told to say.
JCB: Everybody's happy. Relatively. (Don grunts in disagreement) I said 'Relatively'.
DP: I'm not relatively happy. I'm just amicable (laughs). Definitely not happy, but I'm very amicable.
JCB: I'm happy about the band I have right now; the Grandmothers are happening. For me they are. There's a guy in LA who says that he'll have a deal for me, a major record company deal, by the end of June. When that happens, Bunk will he back in the band, and Don will at least play on the record. He is welcome to go on the road with us any time he wants to. If the money is right and he wants to go, he is more than welcome to come on the tour. We'd love to have him do it. It would be real wild, because our keyboard player now plays guitar. If I could just figure out a way to grow two more arms and hands on him, he could play guitar and keyboards at the same time. But I haven't figured out a way to make that happen yet. If Don was to play with us, than he could just play guitar.
What about the Grandmothers' new music?
JCB: There's only one song on this tape that isn't an original song. We did a re-make of 'I Am The Walrus' because we play it live as a five-piece and we can sound just like the Beatles. We have a female violinist, and we all sing so we can get the harmonies. We drop jaws when we go into that song from 'King Kong' which is a neat place to put it. The rest of the songs are all original material.
Many people think that the original Mothers were the real Mothers. Do you think this is so?
DP: It's funny but it's always the first group that leaves the impression. The think about the first group was that everybody was a character. Everybody had such a strong personality, and in subsequent bands, they may have been better musicians...
JCB: Technically, maybe. I don't even consider them better musicians than any of us, just different.
DP: But technically, they were better.
JCB: I disagree. What is 'better'?
DP: They could play faster notes and sight-read better...
JCB: Who gives a shit man? A bunch of fast notes mean nothing to me.
DP: That's what the definition of 'better' is.
JCB: Better is in the ear of the beholder. I don't think anyone plays better than you. You think Tommy Mars plays the synth better than you? I don't. He plays it different. Reading isn't everything. If the sound doesn't come from the heart, then what is it? A robot can do that.
DP: Zappa obviously likes perfection more than he likes feeling.
JCB: 'Ain't Got No Heart', he wrote that song. That's all I can say. He hasn't got much feeling; doesn't care about people that much. I guess he cares about his family. I would hope he did. I don't know if I'd want to be his son though. I love my family. The three boys are musicians. My oldest son play trumpet, congas and timbales; the next one plays drums; and the youngest plays guitar. My oldest son is going to college right now, getting ready to graduate this semester, in Computer Management. He wants to make money. The other two are professional musicians. The youngest one is a wild guitar-player. I'd love to put him up with Dweezil any day. He'd blow Weasel's socks right off him; I know he would. He's like Steve Vai, that sort of player. Real fast stuff.
In the Mothers, there was a lot of improvising going on. Were they really improvisations or was that rehearsed?
JCB: Signals were rehearsed. There was improvisation; it happened in solos, but most everything we did was rehearsed. There was a signal for Freak Out, and that meant do anything, but there was always a signal for it. He was in control of everything, of the horizontal and the vertical. (laughs)
Did you feel there was enough space to put your own ideas into the improvisations?
JCB: For myself, I can't speak because I'm a drummer. I didn't but Art did and Don did and all the soloists got a chance to at least play whatever they wanted.
DP: During certain sections, I explored a lot of electronic sounds.
JCB: Before there was really all that much electronics. Can you imagine what the Mothers of Invention would have sounded like had the equipment been the same as it is today but back then? It would have been a wild band.
DP: Well, maybe. But the thing is that the restrictions created a lot of freedom and interesting possibilities. You had to explore the limits of every single thing.
JCB: That's very true. The recording techniques were nothing compared to what they are today.
What do you think about Frank's treatment of some of the old albums?
JCB: I didn't like it. I thought it was not the thing to do, not with the old albums. He can do anything he wants with the other stuff, but I'd as soon they didn't come out than to do what he did. It would have been better had he asked the old players to play their parts again as opposed to hiring a couple of guys that ... hell, they were in diapers when we were doing that stuff to begin with, man! They certainly had no feeling for that particular stuff that was being done. Either that or just do it again with a whole new band, just redo the stuff. But I think he cheated the Mothers' fans by doing that when he released 'Money' and 'Ruben' – he changed a lot of that stuff on those albums. I don't care if it was deteriorated; then don't put it out. I would have played on it, all he had to do was ask. And I know the songs because my band has been playing all those songs, and doing them just like on the record.
I think a lot of the fans were not happy with those albums.
JCB: I don't blame them. I think they were ripped off. And he charged a hell of a lot for those 'Old Masters', a hundred and some dollars for the boxed sets, of which I never received a copy. He should give them to at least the guys in the band. Hell, I remember he used to give us about two records every time a new one would come out. And then we broke into his house and stole the box of 'Freak Out!'s and got them all bent out of shape. I don't know who broke into your house, Frank. It wasn't us ... Well fuck, he gave us two records, man! I've got a brother and a sister and a mother – there's three that I could give away right there, and not even keep one for myself. But that's the way he is ...
I would like to know what your most favourite moments were working with the Mothers.
JCB: There's so damn many of them. I had a good time the whole time. It was the most wonderful time of my life, I think; at the time it was. I'm not saying it would be right now. I just enjoyed playing with the people that I was with. It was a fun experience for me. There were a lot of good times.
DP: I was just thinking. It's hard to pinpoint. There were so many very funny times. When things are happening, it's very hard to evaluate them. In retrospect, you can think back and see that one of the most important things was the Royal Festival Hall and this is on tape. That's spontaneous.
JCB: And Berlin too. It was very memorable, one I'll never forget.
DP: I don't know if it was pleasurable.
JCB: No, it wasn't pleasurable, but it was memorable.
Do you have any idea how that happened?
DP: I do. There was a guy in the audience that was from a faction called the Student Democratic Society. They wanted Frank to tell the audience to go over and burn down the Allied Supply Building. And of course, Frank wouldn't do that. Then they started rioting. A small group started causing trouble.
JCB: And in Berlin it wasn't a hard thing to do at the time, because of the Wall, and being trapped. It was like being in jail.
DP: One of the moments I remember that was kind of hilarious was when we were trying to get off stage, and there was one guy defending us from the whole of the rest of the audience, and that was Herb Cohen. There were people throwing bricks. There was a big fight, and they kicked in about four rows of chairs and people were underneath it.
JCB: Frank had the leaders up on stage and we couldn't even see him. No signals were being passed in the second show.
DP: And they had a debate on stage. We played to it, something like that. We played for the debate.
JCB: We couldn't even get into our dressing-room, because that's where the cops were. Hiding.
DP: There were like five hundred police, all behind the stage. He should have used a lot of that in the 'Uncle Meat' video, but he didn't.
What do you think of 'Uncle Meat'?
JCB: I think it's a very boring movie, except for the Royal Festival Hall footage and the stuff that the Mothers did I thought was pretty good; it was very good in fact. The art of packing was pretty funny, but after that, it got very boring. I guess Frank thought it was great, but I don't know how he thinks. If he thought that was great, then god knows. I just didn't really get off on it. Is that our bus to the hotel? Maybe we can continue this next issue.
Thank you for your time.