This is a transcript of a telephone interview made by Morgan Ågren
on August 7, 1999.
M: Zoot, as you know this interview is for a Swedish guitar magazine, and many of the readers might not (unfortunately) know to much about either you or Don Van Vliet. So, for all Swedish beginners, please tell us who you are, and how you became Zoot Horn Rollo !
Z: I was Bill Harkleroad, and still am half the time. I grew up listening to Frank Zappa and Don Van Vliet. We were all living in the same town north of LA, and as I was a fan of the Beefheart band. Zappa's band was down in LA doing the Mothers of Invention. I started playing in jam sessions with them when I still was in school and gradually one by one we ended up joining the band. Within the first few months of being in that band we all took on names. Those were all names that Don had written in his poetry and various things like that, so that is how I became Zoot!
M: Did Don give you the name after spending time with you, or had he already made the name up before he met you?
Z: Actually no, that name I think was in existence already before even joining the band. He did from there on with various members after the fact, create them, but I think Zoot Horn Rollo was in existence before I joined the band, maybe even John French (Drumbo) was Zoot Horn before he became Drumbo ! (laughs)
M: Really !?
Z: Yeah, I think that´s what John had told me, so. The rest of the names were given on the spot.
M: I thought the names were "designed" to fit each persons character in the band, like; you are just like a Mascara Snake, and you feel just like a Winged Eel Fingerling or something !
Z: Right, and I think that´s why he pulled Zoot Horn Rollo out, which was in existence, and laid it on me, and at that point we all became all these people.
M: When did you meet Don, and how did you get into the band ?
Z: I met him in 1964 when I was playing surf music and also playing bass in a jazz standards band - playing surf guitar and jazz bass! Then I started playing around town when the Beefheart band was pretty much starting up. It was a very small town and most of the people that were playing music knew each other, so I met him through jam sessions and things like that. Don had a group with people that were his age, which was approximately
8 to 10 years older than the various members that joined right after that.
I think he had an idea that he wanted younger, fresher people. The first group of guys were good blues players, but played with that economy of ability, but rhythmically solid, and recreated blues standards, but the next level needed to be. I mean, younger and fresher sounds, and I think Don was really aware of that, so he picked from all the bands around. The more accomplished players I guess...
M: When I read your book LUNAR NOTES, one can only wonder
how you guys were able to stand Don´s brainwashing psycho terror
sessions, the 20 hours lectures, the starvation, the fights etc.
Did you feel that you were about to make music history, and that
it would be worthwhile to stick around?
Z: Yes and no. I don't know about musical history. I knew that, because of my opinion of the band even before I joined it, I thought it was an extremely talented strong thing that was going on. But the evolution of the band, and Don literally going through his brainwashing sessions and controlling the situation so much, you loose contact with a lot of reality, and normal conscious thinking doesn't happen. So it was just an evolution of not even 'this is going to be something'. it just was. and that's what I did, and that was all I could really even think about. You got to remember that, at that time in 1968 for us young American men, it was go to Vietnam and die. and that was an incredible weight on my shoulders, so going through something gruesome on a day to day thing was a better alternative than what I would have been doing anyway, and musically I thought it was really great, I was mesmerized. and it was my favorite band. I felt extremely lucky and horrified at the same time, all the time.
Zoot Horn to the left.
M: Can you explain how the music was put together, who did what, and what did Don do? Some of the readers might already know about Don´s piano tapes, but...
Z: Are we pretty much talking about Trout Mask?
M: Yeah, I guess.
Z: Because it changed in 6-7 years.
M: Well, I want to hear it all.
Z: It was changing, first of all the band was going from Safe As Milk which was kind of a nice mix of psychedelic blues, ahead of its time stuff, that had other influences (thinking of Abba Zabba) a tune that had an African feel to it, which was pretty progressive in 1965. The next one, Strictly Personal, was an album that was recorded before I got there, and when I joined the band we were going to rerecord the whole album, so I was learning those tunes. They moved the bar up a little bit more into psycho African blues based, but a lot more creative, little more environmental mental issues in the lyrics, and so forth. In the process of learning that and having that album be released as we were going to redo it, the gear shifted really quickly to Trout Mask type material, and at that point the bringing of a piano into the house and having a reel to reel tape recorder recording Don´s parts that he would play on it, changed how the music was done.
The bulk (not all) of Trout Mask and later Lick My Decals Off Baby, were written on piano that were later sculpted and pushed into shape.
Contrary to what most people think, Don did NOT have specific intentions for tunes, he had an over all view of what he liked and disliked and maybe a feel, or texture that he liked, thinking more like a sculptor or painter, that he would push parts around, but day to day putting together the parts that were made on the piano were. YOU know, because you know the music, that they were just sections, and a lot of times the sections wouldn't be repeated, so they were strung together in a linear fashion, and the time signatures would all be different, 3 against 4, and sometimes even tempos differed, so it was just free form, but we tried to reproduce it all the time. They were all sculpted after the fact and between John French and whoever the players were, being Jeff Cotton, Mark Boston and me, (Drumbo, Antennea Jimmy Semens, Rockette Morton, and me) we would work the parts out, change things cause you can´t play 7 notes on the guitar.
Changing stretches and intervals of notes, changing octaves to get it more playable but trying to stay as strict to what he had done. After that certain parts, and you can usually pick them out, were whistled parts, simple major scale type almost nurse rime type melodies would be whistle parts by him, or simple blues lines, like the tune you redid; Lick My Decals Off Baby. The melody (Zoot sings) that staggered line, was a whistle part, because he wouldn´t play piano like that, he would play very cordial, slam the fingers down, so between whistling, chiseling, robbing his old tunes, he would constantly be regurgitating little parts from other tunes and putting them together in a new way, so he had like a cashier, or a box full of old licks and things that he loved and he pulled them out and stuck them to a different tune.
M: So if he played something on the piano, that you then would change, how much would he notice this?
Z: He wouldn't have. He would know whether he liked it or not
M: Only that?
Z: I won't say that, I mean this guy is a pretty sensitive intelligent guy, or at least he was then. if it happened on the spot, if we were playing a tune and he ran over to the piano and started banging something out, definitively from a rhythmic place, I mean he did not know pitches. right! He would work from a rhythmic sense, now if it was done on the spot like that, obviously he could hear what he had just done and retain that, and wait until we got it pretty close to what we were doing.
M: But did he later remember the notes?
Z: No, no, no, no. God no! Shit, he could never remember the lyrics to the melody lines to any of his songs, unless they were the simple ones from the early days. The tunes that he had learned later, especially in bands after me, I'm sure he had a really hard time because they expected him to know the lyrics. We expected him to never to know the lyrics or the melodies or anything, so when we were on stage, it was usually total chaos! (laughs) But again, in the way that especially Trout Mask was done, when he recorded vocals without headphones. pretty easy to reproduce it, at least in sentiment or feeling what was going on, because it just was into such a free form way and for me in a way it actually works, because what we were doing was so structured, to have him loosely growling over the top kind of loosened it up.
M: So what about something like Doctor Dark, how could
the opening on that song possible come from a piano?
Z: Oh, wait. I have to think what it is. I can´t remember right now, all I know is the entire songs E-flat minor. which is black keys.
M: Yeah, Mats Öberg (who has perfect pitch) told me that a lot of Don´s stuff is playable on black keys...
Z: Yes, that whole album, Petrified Forest, etc, I cant remember, there must have been four of the tunes on Decals that were written on all black keys, since Don finally realized that the pentatonic scale worked that way. E-flat minor. So, he is pounding away on the black keys, and I am memorizing each little rhythmic phrase and straining them together, because he was very much not wanting me to improvise (laughs). Which was fine. But I can't remember the opening lick right now, but I'm sure it was E-flat minor.
M: Have you ever gone back to the Trout Mask house ?
M: So you spent a couple of months there, experienced all that you did, and then just left?
Z: We were there probably a little more than a year.
M: Where is the house located?
Z: It's in Woodland Hills, which is LA.
M: Is it still there?
Z: It is, there is people trying to turn it into a land mark, historical land mark and stuff.
M: So nobody lives there?
Z: I don't know, see I haven't been down into LA in quite a while. It's not my favorite place. If I was down there I probably would drive by just to see what it looks like, but I haven't been even at that part of the country in so long, I am 1500 miles from there so. But, people are always e-mailing and mailing things, I've got a lot of photographs people have taken of the house you know.
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