This interview with Beefheart drummer Art Tripp is taken from my book on Beefheart, featuring reviews and interviews. Some people seem to think it's a load of balls but I still like it. It isn't meant to be an in depoth biography, it's mainly recollections from people who were there.
Going from Zappa to Beefheart, how did you adapt your musical style to fit Don's music?
More musical styles were required with Zappa, from doo-wop to free-form and everything in between. There was a chamber music feel in some of the pieces. Playing music scores was what I was accustomed to from my conservatory training and symphonic work. Apart from the charted music, it was a great opportunity for me to play anything that I liked - and I usually did. There was plenty of time for improvisation. In those days we never used a set list, so the concerts were always of indeterminate lengths. There were always plenty of stage shenanigans.
There was more intensity required for performing the Beefheart music. With the exception of rock ‘n roll sections in songs like “Alice in Blunderland”, or when Don and I would end the shows with “Spitball Scalped a Baby”, there was no musical improvisation. All the songs were played each time with the same parts.
When I first started playing with Don and the guys, it was on drums. But they wanted me to play in the style of John French’s drumming (Drumbo, who had left the band)on Trout Mask Replica. It was not a style I could easily adapt to, nor did I want to, so John came back in, and I switched to playing marimba. On Decals I played marimba and some drums. Later when John left following The Spotlight Kid, I switched back to drums. Starting with that smaller group I feel that I became a much better performer on drums, in contrast to simply being a good player. I recall one British reviewer who wrote that I was like a caveman, and he believed that my arms were anatomically longer than normal. That’s the image that you want to portray for audience appeal.
How did you get on with Don? How can you describe him to work with?
Don and I got on famously well. We were both only-children, had a strong sense of the absurd, and were closer in age than the other guys. Composing/arranging music with Don was another matter. I had been used to working with trained musicians. Since Don had no understanding of meter, pitch, harmony, phrasing or time, putting together the music was painstaking, circuitous, mysterious and haphazard. It was often surprising but relieving that we all actually got anything completed.
When rehearsing with the full group Don tended to deflect attention from his own anxieties or apprehensions by finding fault with, or blaming others. This not only resulted in a lot of time wasted, but it tended to put everyone on edge. He rarely rehearsed his vocal parts with the band, most often because he had no idea what he was going to sing, or how it was going to be sung with the music. I’m sure this put additional pressure on him as it got closer to recording time. There must have been some serious wood-shedding sessions with certain producers.
Any memories from recording Lick My Decals Off? How was it to record that album?
It was a lot of fun recording Decals. UCR was a first rate studio, and had lots of history behind it. I was used to working with the engineer, Dick Kunc, who had been Zappa’s engineer when we recorded at Apostolic in New York. Dick was rightfully accustomed to working efficiently and economically. He took exception with Don’s tendency to swerve off into psycho-babble interruptions, so there was eventually a big clash, and Dick was fired. Phil Schier came in, who did an admirable job. Phil also engineered Spotlight Kid at the Record Plant.
It still tickles me when I look back, though, that at the time we believed some of that music could become popular. That’ll give you an idea of where we were.
You did a few Beefheart records. Which is your personal favourite? Which was most fun to record?
I enjoyed doing all the albums: Decals, Spotlight Kid, Clear Spot, Unconditionally Guaranteed, and Shiny Beast. It was always nice to come back to L.A. to the studios, and to spend some time at my old haunts (although Shiny Beast was done in San Francisco). L.A. was still fun in the 70’s. It hadn’t yet turned into the totalitarian nightmare that it is today, with the intense overcrowding and the crushing P.C. atmosphere.
Clear Spot was the most professionally produced, with Guaranteed coming in second. Ted Templeman was a pleasure to work with. He was a friendly low key guy who kept Don out of the way so we could get things done. Same with the Andy Dimartino and Guaranteed, although Andy was much more animated.
Decals is probably my favorite in terms of artistry of content and performance. Clear Spot had the most commercial appeal. Guaranteed had the best feel, and had some of the most naturally catchy songs on it. Unfortunately the album was ruined by the mix, which buried the tracks in order to bring out Don’s voice. I actually thought we might chart with that one. But when I first heard the completed package, I was shocked and disgusted.
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