intervjuar Zoot Horn Rollo
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
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!
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)
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
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
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.
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?
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
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 ?
:: Part 2
My time with Frank Zappa
:: Back to interviews