The Zoot Horn Rollo interview
Our Day With Zoot Horn Rollo
by Alex Duke & Rob DeNunzio
November 1997 interview with Bill Harkleroad
Bill Harkleroad a.k.a. Zoot Horn Rollo was a guitarist for Captain Beefheart in what many consider to be one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Moreover, he took part in Beefheart’s magnum opus, Trout Mask Replica. In his capacity as the Captain’s guitarist, he co-hosted bills with and performed for many of rock’s most well known legends, and in 1990 made it into ‘Spin’ magazine’s list of the top 35 guitar gods (beating out the likes of Brian May, Thurston Moore, and Eddie Van Halen). Now, after many years of a quiet life filled with guitar lessons, golf games, and a regular job, he is at the forefront of a musical renaissance. We at Hi Fi Mundo recently sat down for what we thought would be a small dialogue about improvisation and related subjects. But, as you will quickly see, the interview exploded into a fascinating cornucopia of musical fun.
I guess we should explain the topic, which is improvisation – regarding groups versus individuals…
You mean as a solo player?
Yeah, versus working within a group.
Interesting that you’re choosing me.
Is that not a good category?
The reason I’m asking is because all the Captain Beefheart stuff was not improvised, none of it was.
So how did that work, starting with ‘trout mask replica’.
80% of it was done by him kind of beating the shit out of a piano, in a rhythmic sense, and having no idea what any of those black and white things were on the piano. And John French, the drummer, transcribed it, notated it all, and would dole out the parts to the players. So he had a concept of being away from tonality, but using rhythm as the main input, because that’s what he had to offer, right, being a non-musician. So John would transcribe it, and then in the process of us working with John to get the parts – you know, when there were seven notes, you’d scratch your head and say, ‘Well, how do I do seven notes with six strings?’ – so then we would invert things and mess around, and try to keep it as close to what he played. For what reason, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure, because he didn’t know what he played after he played it.
So when you were working on the parts, was he there, or did he just sort of…
No, he would bang the parts out and go to bed and sleep.
So you would figure out how to do it, and then he would come back, and then you would all record it?
No, then we would practice it for nine months.
So would he come around and tell you if you were on the right track?
Not as clean as that. Again, we’re dealing with a strange person, coming from a place of being a sculptor/painter, using music as this idiom. He was getting more into that part of who he was, as opposed to this blues singer, okay? So you’re asking the right question, but it’s not an easy answer, right? It’s not a normal situation. We would get these parts, and they would string together. Usually the tempo would be consistent, because he would be writing parts to go together, so that the pulse at least, three against four, or whatever the rhythm was, would be similar. I don’t know if you’ve listened to that album enough to know how the parts would go. Like, you would play your part four times, go to the next section, the next may be three, or whatever. Usually, we would figure that out. He was not a part of that process at all; he waited until there was a whole thing there, and then he would kind of sculpt it afterwards. But if my part took three times to repeat and your part took five times until we touched down again, that’s how long you played the part, or you would cut it in half, if it came out cool, or whatever – but he was not a part of that process. The whole band just kind of did whatever, to have it come out right. At that point, then you would go into the next section and work it out. Any of the tunes that had repeats in them, he would go, ‘Oh, that’s cool! Let’s do it here again.’ He might whistle a line – he was an expert whistler. Just awesome. He could sit there and blow smoke rings while he was whistling.
It was like a magic show (laughs). But Imean – be-be-du-be-de-du-be-de-ba-da-du-ba-da-du-ba-da-du, I mean he would just whistle like that. Pretty cool. So we would work off the whistling lines for single-line melodies and things like that, but the parts were all just chiseled out. Again, about 80% of it, because there were a lot of other accidental things, like just a blues tune with a cassette deck like this, and he just started looking through poetry, creating songs.
So then when you went to play live, did you just try to play what you had worked on?
We did more than try, we did. Exactly the same thing, every night. Very much so, we were amazingly the same every time. The only thing that would change was, however nervous we were, the tempos would go up, of course. In that time of the band, it was rote.
Did that change during the time you were with him?
It evolved through all the albums, yeah. Each album it changed. So if we were to take Trout Mask Replica, that’s how it happened, other than the phone call, where he did ‘The Blimp’. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that.
Okay, that was from Roy Estrada and Art Tripp, who were part of the Mothers of Invention. And what it was was Frank Zappa in the studio, working on a track, and then Don called up and had Jeff Cotton recite the poem, and Frank was smart enough to go and record it. And that was [similar to] the song ‘Hair Pie: Bake One’, where we’re practicing in the living room, thinking that we’re rehearsing, and they’re out in the weeds playing the horn. ‘Oh! That’s a take!.’ So, those tunes were accidents, but for twenty-one or twenty-two of them we went in and did all first takes, except maybe a couple of false starts, in the studio. On the second album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, I was the guy who took all of the parts off the tape deck, wrangled them around, fixed them up a little, and fucked with them, and a couple of times played them backwards, just to see if anybody would pick up on it. Nobody did (laughs).
So was it a situation where he just slowly gave up control?
No, changed. He had total control. Of course, where he didn’t know he had control or wasn’t there to control it, it would be changed to make it playable. But each album, the process changed. If you listen to the total out there-ness of Trout Mask Replica, like free-form, but memorized free-form, to reproduce that weird experiment every time… The next one was a little more coherent, The Spotlight Kid was, ‘Okay, we want to make more money, we need better record deals, so now we’re gonna do this blues stuff.’ That was the most horrible time in the band, by far. If you listen to it, the structure of the tunes were all good ideas; he stood out. But the tempos – he had gotten these things, these tunes going without ever playing with us. So when it came down to us playing with the vocal, he couldn’t get it together, so the tempos got down to this zombie state. I mean, I hate that album. It sucks. But, if you were away from it, maybe some of the tunes had some real creativity to them. I’m sure they did. If you listen to the laborious – do you remember the Night of the Living Dead? ‘Morgan, Morgan!’ (in zombie-like tone) – that’s what it was like. If you listen to it, it was very zombie-like, we were just beat to shit.
So, before he came into the studio, all those songs were much more up-tempo?
No, no. In the process of doing that album, it was, ‘Slow down, I want to have time to do my lyrics.’ If you listen to that album, the voice is here, and there’s this little, tiny band behind it somewhere. His ego got even bigger at that point, which is fine. I mean, it was his show. I’m not putting him down for it, but it was excruciating to live with the day-to-day stuff. And the big concept, I understood that, but him trying to get us to do that, and still not letting us play more free-form things. I was really saying, ‘Well, let me just play some stuff there’, ‘No, you’ll play dee-nee-nee-nee’. You know, the parts were really kind of cheesy in a lot of places. So, he controlled that, and really… We’re gonna play more coherent music, and the tempos are gonna be down. And he got what he wanted, to a drastic degree. The concept of the tunes is pretty cool, you know – ‘Blabber ‘N’ Smoke’, and all these different things, ‘Grow Fins’. I mean, that’s cool stuff. Those are cool images, his poetry is strong. But as far as the questions you’re asking me, the album sucked.
When you broke up to do Mallard, how did that change? Did you sort of become the anti-Beefheart band?
No, no, no. If you listen to Clear Spot, which I think is by far a better album… It’s actually a good album – I just recently listened to it, and thought, ‘All right!’ – that had a lot. You jumped there, we missed a part, if you don’t mind me staying, okay? On that one, a lot of the parts from those tunes came from me. Not all of them. I’m not saying I wrote the tunes, but the thrust of what was happening were licks that I was playing, and he would build a song, or parts, around it, and then I’d still be sculpting it around, after the fact, to do the tunes and give out the parts to everybody. I mean, from Lick My Decals Off, Baby on, that was my job, to control the thing. Then there was Ted Templeman’s influence, who was the first producer we ran into who said, ‘No, Don, shut up, we’re going to do it this way’. You notice, there are repeats, there are kind of A and B sections, and those simple things. But still, it kept some of the feel of that. So, there wasn’t improvisation, but the parts came from that kind of mentality. And then they got memorized again, no control, he would not give up any control for any solos, but it was built from that: our playing, as opposed to him saying, ‘You play this now, you do this.’ So, that album, if you listen to it, is a little more common, normal, musically, but the structure of it got changed around, to be real Beefheart-y, and especially with ‘Big-Eyed Beans From Venus’, and ‘Golden Birdies’, you know, that unison thing was our idea. Then, when you go from there to Mallard, then I’m stuck. Now I’m the guy, right? Oh, fuck, now I’ve got this band I have to come up with music for, and go, how do I get a paycheck because we have this sort of thing, rather than just going up to Oregon and hiding in the woods. which is really what i wanted to do. so, Iwas listening to more fusion type things – a lot of weather report, herbie hancock, miles davis, and those things that were happening. I was always listening to thelonious monk, and John Coltrane, and things like that. So as those things were influencing me, the tunes – I actually wrote tunes – and there were solos, and I played free.
Would you consider that your first big chance to do improvisations as a performer?
No, live, excuse me, live with the Beefheart stuff as we evolved and started falling into things, like just doing blues things, on the spot, and him pointing and saying, ‘Play a solo’. Whoa! seven years, and now I get to play a solo! And there’s like, thirty seconds of me going, ‘Really? do you really mean that?’ and then playing. No, that evolved on stage. We were doing stage stuff towards, probably ”72, ”73, there was a lot more of that. Still, not a lot with me, very little with me. Partly because of what my musical part in the band was, I was the guy that was there (pounds fist into palm in tempo) and my parts held it together even more than the bass player. If you listen to a lot of the bass parts you can hear it.
So a real role reversal.
In a way, yeah. so we would have Elliot Ingber and these other guys who would do solos, and again I’m going, ‘Let me do it, goddamn it’. So that evolved, in the context that you’re talking about, that was where I started improvising. I mean, I was playing blues and shit at thirteen, fourteen years old, but in this big time – or, mediocre time – experience, yeah. And then the Mallard thing just was because I was writing tunes that didn’t come from ‘We have to be art dudes’, right?
So it was a little more standard stuff.
When I joined the band?
No, I had no idea. when I joined the band, what I had known was Safe As Milk, and I had played with the band, a little fifteen, sixteen year old kid, that’s why I ended up in the band. I could rip B.B. King off. I expected it to be the next level past Safe As Milk – have you listened to Safe As Milk at all?
When you keep the date in mind, it’s a pretty cool album, I think. I expected just that logical extension of what actually became Strictly Personal – without all the phasing and the weirdness – it was like blues meets Africa meets LSD meets…. So when I joined the band, I expected that next step, just to create and lay down a blues line into, I guess, what I would call psychedelic rock, something like that. Because, I knew he had an association with Zappa at that point, I expected somewhere in between.
So, in retrospect, being in both situations, do you think it’s better off letting one sort of control the whole show, or to have a group that makes equal contributions?
I think both are totally valid, in that what are you trying to come up with, what are you doing? You’re looking at it after the fact, which way would be better by a choice of if you like the music. But in the process, if something comes out cool, however you got there, as long as there wasn’t bloodshed, who gives a shit? If it’s creative, I think… Trout Mask Replica wouldn’t have happened if he wasn’t that way. and, being there as it was built, I don’t hold it in the esteem that somebody who would come out and listen to it, but I probably would have if I weren’t a part of it, because of how different it is compared to, ‘I know the pain it took to do it’. I knew the bullshit and the holes in it, I saw the swiss cheese there. When you’re looking at it afterwards, and were a total person controlling it, it creates a pretty unique thing, it’s like daydreaming or something. But, at the same time, the bad side of it is, you lose the energy of that, and it gets really… It doesn’t breathe. So I think there’s valid things to both things. I mean, if it’s just a bunch of really ripping players, and you go, ‘Go!’ That’s pretty cool. But what if you got a bunch of weak links? Either way is valid. A long-winded explanation, but…
From your experience of meeting musicians as you go along, have you met any musicians who you thoroughly respect as musicians, and know they have a lot of technique and talent, yet still like to play in a way that might sound haphazard?
Yeah, Ornette Coleman is a great example, meeting him was like, perfect. Absolutely, absolutely. But his thing is really brainy, cerebral. He’s got harmolodic stuff, lydian-chromatic, all these things that he has worked his way through. He is a musician that worked there logically, and filled in the blanks. He didn’t just jump off a cliff and go, ‘I’m a cool art jazz player.’ And it’s not just because he has paid his dues that I’ll listen to him. It’s probably because when I met him he was such a really nice guy, and sitting down and I’m playing and he starts playing some old blues licks on the horn, he knows all that shit. And it sounded good to me, too. I like those free sounds.
When did you play with him?
Just when he was coming, and hanging around us, when we played in New York a lot, ’70, ’71, ’72. He and Don became big-time friends. Yeah, it were interesting gigs we had with all these, you know, Pharoah Sanders, Charles Mingus, and all these guys standing there watching these young white weirdos. I’ll never forget asking Mingus if he liked the – did Itell you this story?
He’s standing there with his wife, and she had blondish hair, and he’s looking like he’s wearing the bass under his shirt. I knew exactly who he was, I got off the stage, and little Billy walks over and goes, ‘Did you like the show?’ and he wouldn’t even look at me, he just kept looking at the stage, and his wife leans around his belly and said, ‘He liked it a lot’. That was it. That was about my whole time with Charlie Mingus. It was pretty funny.
When you were around doing the Trout Mask Replica stuff, or when you first started playing, who was out there that you really thought weren’t just show-off, arty types of people?
Zappa’s band. He controlled things. But he also, by his directing thing, he was controlling, but they were playing shapes and whatever came out of them. They weren’t memorizing parts. So, in a way, they had that, and he always had players that could do that. Definitely Frank.
Did he make any musical contributions when he produced Trout Mask Replica?
He didn’t produce it per se… He produced it by sitting there.
Oh, okay. So was he just sort of a name on the sleeve?
Well, no. He was the effort that helped Don connect and sign with his record company. He paid our rent a couple of times, bailed us out of jail once. No, he was around, but at the exact time of the recording, it was a done deal. We were going to record Trout Mask Replica at home. That’s why there are a couple of tunes with the rustling leaves and stuff, and Don got the idea of ‘No, you’re trying to do a cheap job’. And as Frank says in his book, which I just read, he was thinking of it as some anthropological deal, right? A little bit condescending, huh? (laughs)
Doing spot recordings.
Right, doing field recordings of the beasts that live in this house. But anyway, it was his idea, and I think it was a valid thing. However condescending or whatever he was thinking of at the time, I think it was a valid way to approach what we were doing, because who lives in a house for nine months, playing twelve, fourteen hours a day these same tunes?
But, by the time we did the studio thing of ripping through these tunes, I mean, what did he have to do? Dick Kunc was engineering, so he would go, ‘Okay’, and we would go (makes gargling sound to represent entire album being recorded in a few seconds), ‘Done’. ‘Okay’, and twenty-one tunes later, we were done. Frank was just sitting there. He didn’t really produce the album. There was no musical input, nothing.
Okay. So he didn’t help to iron things out.
Nothing. He gave don the freedom, which is the way to look at that. He was really cool about that.
So when you were doing Trout Mask Replica, was the focus the product or the process? Was the focus what came out or what you were doing to make this album?
During the recording, I mean, you have to remember this is an evolution over a nine month period of putting this stuff together. And one day of recording. So are you asking, during the recording, what was my mindset, or…
During that nine month span.
Most of it was like, ‘What the hell are we doing?’ at first. The first half of it was, ‘Well, this is pretty weird’. Then you go down the same road every time, it becomes pretty familiar to you, and it’s comfortable, even with these big holes in it. And so I got very comfortable with that sound. It groomed me after playing it that much, and trying to play such difficult things, that was how I thought. Pentatonic solos just weren’t in my mindset anymore.
So, we were groomed by him to see the big picture of ‘We are the important art dudes, and everybody else sucks’. Couple of Thelonius Monk’s and maybe a Coltrane solo here or there, maybe. Or Stockhausen, or Harry Partch – anything that we could find on the outskirts, and us. We were the heroes. So there was a conditioning going along that kind of did that. I was a kid, Alex.
So, was it difficult? Did you have problems in the beginning going from classical training –
– blues guitar player, into what Trout Mask Replica was? Which, by all accounts, is pretty non-classical.
Mentally, no. I just went for it, because here I am, some guy without a job, didn’t go to college, just some drug jerk. Then all of a sudden, I’m in my favorite band. It was like being plucked up by the golden hand and dropped into the perfect situation.
So you were aware of Beefheart before he asked you to –
Like I said, when I was fourteen, fifteen I was playing with him and jamming, and they knew. That’s why they asked me into the band, because they knew I could play. He just waited until we were all old enough. The whole band, all four of us that were on Trout Mask Replica were all guys that were in bands together, and he gradually got rid of the old guys, that were like old school. So we all got in there.
And the conditioning really pulled us along, the evolution of his control at eight years older than us, and doing this, being famous, and ‘Wow, we’re in a band and got records out!’ you know, and all that crap. Because at that time, that was powerful. Everybody has released a CD now, but not then. So it was like, ‘Wow, I don’t have to go to college and get a job, bitchin’! The babes will dig me and maybe they won’t be playing this shit.’
So that’s the mindset. It was like, well, ‘Wait, wait’, and then – I mean after doing two weeks of doing this drudgery – there was no more mindset about what it used to be, and what was going to happen. I gradually grew to that what was happening, and that was great.
So, when you were sitting in with the band, and not really a part of the band, were you still playing blues stuff?
That’s what they were doing, too. This is pre-Safe As Milk, right? So they were a blues band. They were doing a lot of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters covers and stuff, and well, you know – it’s real hard to sit in on a twelve-bar blues.
When you got brought in for Trout Mask Replica, did you have to learn these complicated parts or did somebody show you? Was there somebody teaching you a little bit more about how to play, or did someone just hand you some sheet music and say, ‘Go sit in a closet for nine months’?
Good question. When I first joined the band, we were doing the transition group of tunes, we were going to do Strictly Personal, which is much more open-tuning, slide, and more traditionally played parts. But the way the parts went together wasn’t so traditional. So, it was real creative stuff. In the process of learning these older tunes – which came from guitar players, not from Don, being sculptor dude – the album came out, Bob Krasnow came out and stole the album, so we all went, ‘What?’.
So, it hadn’t come out.
It hadn’t come out yet.
And you were going to redo it.
I did redo it, and I just found this on the internet the other day – a guy named Gary Marker, who was the bass player in the original Taj Mahal band, with Ry Cooder. Marker played bass, Jeff Cotton, me, and John French – the Trout Mask Replica guys – we went in and recorded three tunes that were going to be on Strictly Personal. It was “Veteran’s Day Poppy” and “Moonlight On Vermont”, which actually ended up on Trout Mask Replica, and “Kandy Korn”, which was on Strictly Personal, and that was Zappa as an engineer. So we redid that one recording session.
So, real normal, normal-ish stuff, and then the album had come out, so ‘oh, no!’ shit hits the wall, horrible things had happened and he put all this shit on it. So now, the reaction to that was to the next level past that, which was Trout Mask Replica. And the piano parts, and John French doing the parts, and showing them to me, and playing them and going, ‘No, wait, that doesn’t work, let’s move that note there’. Does that answer the question?
At some point, John French just came in with this big pile of music?
He didn’t hand me a piece of paper.
So he told you what he wanted you to play?
He would play what Don played. And then, I would try to find out how to play it, and I would go, ‘Well, this doesn’t work’. And we would go, ‘Well, let’s try this, let’s move this note in here, we have to get rid of that note, that’s the one that doesn’t hurt the most’, or whatever.
So, going in, you had this big body of knowledge about scales, and –
No. I knew an A from a G, I didn’t know what a pentatonic scale was, I could play note-for-note blues.
You had a good enough ear then, if he would play something on the piano, you could do it, without really knowing what you were doing?
I guess, in some sense then, it was good that you didn’t have all that other information.
Absolutely. It would have hurt, that would have hurt me, definitely. He was smart, he knew to get young guys.
Who had good ears, but not a lot of preconceptions.
Good ears, and the talent, but not a lot of previous knowledge to do this, because the older guys he probably had tried to push in that way, said, ‘I can’t play that, fuck you, I’m not going to work that hard’. I don’t know why I worked that hard now. I mean Jesus, that shit was hard to play.
I can imagine.
And to remember it? Remember thirty tunes, with these weird parts that are so different and so… They’re almost all the same, because of that. Thumb on front, tapping, you know, doing everything you can to play. So, that just became my way of life after that. But John French had a big thing to do with how those parts came from Don, and ended up in the band. He doled out the parts. How they lined up, the band kind of evolved that. Don, with an overview, would come in and push things around afterward.
Obviously now you have much broader knowledge of the actual technical aspect of playing.
Hopefully so, i have been working on it for a while.
I feel comfortable saying you know a lot about scales.
I have a good, blue-collar knowledge of music theory.
Right, is that something you picked up during Beefheart, or afterwards?
Afterwards. Mallard was a product of that.
Sure, do you think you were more freed up by knowing the more technical side of the playing, as opposed to somebody who just knew a pentatonic scale?
That’s a great question. You’re asking me which one was freer, which mindset, not knowing the technical things I was playing
and/or just playing?
As opposed to just being able to build something.
Good question, the thing is, I don’t think there’s an exact answer for that, because for one thing, I was a younger kid, and had the mindset of a younger kid, which, maybe makes you freer whether you have the knowledge or not. So, timing of these things is more important then whether I knew music or not. So, when I was younger, I was too insecure to be real free, when I didn’t have knowledge. As I got the knowledge, this is – in other words, it’s person applicable to person, rather than an idea that knowledge hurts freedom, know what I mean? I mean, one person is going to be one way, one person is going to be the other way. As a young person, I wasn’t free enough. I was too insecure, being a tall skinny guy, I was trying to hide. As I learned the knowledge of music, I got more secure in my musicality. And, I was freer because I was more secure. The knowledge didn’t mean either thing, it wasn’t the knowledge, it was more the internal mindset, or the feeling I had was – are you a bodacious person, or are you an introvert? I think that has more to do with it than the knowledge part. But, I do see knowledge – the way it happens with a person, and the way it might be taught, and this is the way I like teaching, (to Alex), which you have firsthand knowledge of, I don’t teach like the schools, because I think it can wring all that out, that there is a way to do it, or that this is this, and this is this, this is a perfect fourth, and that’s an augmented that – what’s it sound like? What is it? I think that way of learning things, and building that attitude does suck the juice out of music. But when you’ve got more facility, hey! You got more ability – music is nature. The scale is right out of physics – throw a rock down a culvert and it’s got every tone going through there, in the harmonic cycle. So, you know what I mean, I think that’s pretty natural stuff, I like knowing music, and I think it gives you a better ability to be free, if the person inside is capable.
Back to that throwing a rock down a culvert bit.
What are you referring to?
If you listen to it, it’s just like going harmonics up a string, sounds just like a guitar, you know what I mean? One, octave, fifth, third, flat seventh, and you start really getting to them when you’re about two frets from the nut, and I’ve seen it, but I don’t know the stuff, so I’m winging it right now. Don’t hold me to it, but, all the notes will appear in that harmonic cycle, the twelve tones, right? But they happen in that natural progression; one, five, three – and it comes out real major-y…
Until it gets way up there.
Right, up in the upper partials, which is exactly – whoever figured this shit out, that genius, you know what I mean, that decided music was this division, dividing an octave into a major scale, or into a chromatic scale, and all that shit.
It was Pythagorus.
Yeah, he figured it out with a string, actually.
Right, doing the same thing. It is natural, it is physics which creates the music. It’s not that it was randomly chosen, and we should change it, right?
Agreed. And the way he figured it out was by doing the ratios of where the harmonics showed in with the distance of the string.
Isn’t it the logarithm thing, dividing it in half, dividing it in half…
Yeah, you divide it in half, and then you divide it into thirds, and then you divide it into fourths, fifths, so on and so forth – the only problem is when you get up into the higher partials, you can’t drop those down perfectly in octaves, or you get a screwed-up sound. So we have to do a bit of pushing and pulling to get the sound we want.
Well, it’s just like tuning a piano for our ears, because our ears aren’t perfect.
I know you don’t really play live, I know you don’t really go out and get gigs much anymore.
Not anymore, yeah. Not for ten years, I haven’t.
Are you just kind of soured on it, just not interested in doing it anymore?
The real truth of all of it, it’s a long answer.
Because it’s a real personal thing. Because, Ithink these questions, one goes from just these ideals, and when it gets personalized by a person – and I really think of the psychology, or the feeling of people, and what happens to them…
You would be surprised at how much people don’t think.
Yeah, I know, I might not be surprised. But, I moved here to clean up my act, because of a real down period of my life. And I was playing and performing. So when I moved to Eugene, it was to get my shit together, be sober, and just get on to an approach to be more domestically secure, whether music had a part of that or not. I wanted a job. I’d never had a job in my life. I had been a musician, so I came here to Eugene to do that. Because of that, playing live got thrown out of the case. But it was not a choice, it was save my life from being a drug addict.
I came here, got a job, started rolling, getting healthier, and all of a sudden, this MIDI thing started happening, right? And so I started doing that, started getting really seriously into teaching. I had been teaching for years before that, but the last ten or so years, I really – I read some books about it, learned how to really get into people and understand students, and I really got into teaching. which was a good thing for me. It kept me in music, it kept me healthy, and I felt like I was doing something real positive.
If something would have happened, anything along the road which would have pushed me back into playing live, it would have been fine. But it didn’t. It just didn’t turn out that way, and I finally paid my rent, was clean, started getting happy, know what I mean? So, music had nothing to do with that. You know, it has always been secondary to this, sitting here and hanging out with people. I would much rather hang out and have a good conversation with a person than play music.
Just to follow up, with sort of this Rollo-Renaissance that’s taking place –
If the opportunity comes around for you to actually perform live, or a mini-tour, would you take that?
Good question, but I’m going to get long-winded again. I was offered a thing to go over to Germany to play, it was back when I was living at the other house –
They have great sausage.
This was a go-to-play situation in Bremen, Germany, and they were going to pay me $3000 for a one-hour show, and per diem for the week. Well, after cleaning out my underwear three times from the paranoia of playing live, after not playing live all of this time, which I’ve never been that comfortable with at any time – but when you’re in a group, in a secure situation, I get really comfortable. I’m not an extrovert, so, playing live always has that tension about it.
I was ready to kill myself, writing tunes to do it. I was only going to do it because I couldn’t turn down that opportunity, the money, and to do it again, but it was killing me, the fear of having to front a show, talk to an audience – after never doing that – so I was happy when it got canceled. Which is a real sad case, but that’s where I was, and that’s the truth of it.
It will probably kill me, when I go and play live the first time, because I haven’t done it for so long. I did it for so long, from the time I was thirteen until I was thirty-nine. But now as an adult, where I’ve sensitized myself – i’m not drunk when i’m up there, or ripped on whatever – now it’s just me, and I’m a lot more naked sort of a person now. So, it will be difficult, but I probably will have to do that. I’m trying to steer Zoot Horn Rollo into the studio [with amazing results – ed.], not on the stage, that’s what I’m trying to say.
So would you feel more comfortable if you were a part of a band, and it wasn’t like, ‘Here’s Zoot Horn Rollo!’?
Yeah, yeah! That was the part of my life. It was like, ‘You do the backflips, you’ve got the tits’, whatever is going on up front. I teach everybody the parts, rehearse them, and actually get a band that knows how to play. Because I think there’s a lot of great musicians, but they don’t know how to create a band sound; thinking of shapes, loud-soft, short-long, spacing, clearing out, you know, all those things that make a band sound. I like bands. That’s why again, free jazz stuff will bore me, because there’s no idea of presenting something. It’s like, ‘Hey, man, I do this’, you know. And that’s cool, but if you’re going to go out in front of an audience, you have to think about them, too.
All right, what was the last recording that you did that you were really happy with?
You’ve never been happy with anything that you’ve ever done?
That’s another sad case of the attitude I have towards myself.
Is it just because you’re a perfectionist, or do you think you’re not a good guitar player?
Kind of both. I’m a perfectionist. I think it’s a natural tendency for anyone who is progressing, because you’re walking forward, and once you have recorded it, you are ten steps past it by the time you get to hear it – and that’s old shit, every time. I think that’s natural for anybody. You go back, and you can go, ‘Oh, that’s a nice part’, but my particular illness is I think I suck, and I don’t know why anybody likes anything I do. And it’s from low self-esteem, and I’ll go back and listen and go, ‘Those four notes were cool, but god – why did I go and play that after that?’
So in the total thing, no, I don’t think I have liked anything I’ve played in its totality. There’s been nice moments. But I do appreciate the fact that I have tried to do something different, and that I have a unique feel in my play, that is uniquely me, and that’s something that is sadly missing out there in the world of musicians. and so, i respect myself for chiseling out something that is true to me, and also, unique enough that it’s like that. at times, when you take that risk to be unique, you really miserably fail, because it sucks. but then you have to say it’s ok because you’re not doing the Lee Ritenour-proven perfect arpeggio, you know what I mean?
God, I love hearing people say that. It actually spawns a new question – do you think that there’s anybody out there right now, who is really doing different things, pushing the envelope?
I’m uneducated to listening to a lot of different people right now, I’m not familiar enough. You two guys, you come back with Sonny Sharrock and Derek Bailey – I know the names, I haven’t listened. I am sure there is. My experience so far is kind of bad, because I get a real snooty thing. Like when people tell me how great Philip Glass is. I don’t get it. I don’t get it at all, this guy plays nothing for twenty minutes, and finally we get to listen to a different riff, and that was minimalist creativity. To me, it sucks.
I haven’t heard anything that I liked. the people out there that I hear, that get pushed on me, this John Zorn thing and whatever is supposed to be so great about that. It just sounds like slightly – not played as good – jazz. Meeting John McLaughlin, that was kind of cool.
When did you meet him?
Didn’t I tell you that?
The last days we were coming in here, we were staying at the same hotel. I’m sitting there reading this book, and my wife is sleeping, and I hear this ripping Indian flute. and I’m going, ‘What the hell?’, and I look out, and there is this guy in the full Indian garb, out in the garden, and they’re taking a photo session. I figured he must be somebody important, and then I go down into the lobby and I see him standing there with some other people, and this guy walks up, and it’s John McLaughlin. The whole group was there.
Later that night I went up and put a note on his door that said he was, you know, one of the five people who I would go out of my way to go talk to, and three of them are golfers. Anyway, I get to talk to him, which was really cool, because he really changed my life. Playing with him when we were opening up for him at Winterland, with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and we’re playing our stuff, and there was a point to where I would go, ‘Captain Beefheart, you suck. You’re telling me this guy sucks, and these guys are ripping. They’re doing new stuff with a rock attitude’. It was kind of like the beginning of fusion, it really was, so he really changed my life.
I said, ‘That’s cool, you’re back with a major label’, and he says, ‘It doesn’t matter to me, I just play until I drop’.
So, who are the five guys you would go out of your way to talk to?
That was a bullshit statement, you weren’t supposed to ask that.
Well, we need the three golfers.
The three golfers, um, well… It would probably be – we are talking about musicians? i would say it would be him [John McLaughlin], Joe Zawinul, Ben Crenshaw, Davis Love, and Curtis Strange.
What is your second favorite instrument? Assuming that the guitar is your first.
Oh, it isn’t… Okay, what’s your first favorite?
I would have been – of the three – a horn player, reed horn, or piano. The guitar was an accident, totally. I’ve only fallen in love with it recently, in the last few years, as I’ve gotten enough ability to sing, that it doesn’t matter what instrument it is, that the connection between a note or an idea comes out, pretty much like talking. Within my cliché-ed group of twenty words I know on the guitar, I have that connection, and it feels really comfortable. So, it doesn’t matter now that I play guitar or any other instrument. if I was to pick it by the sound of the instrument: tenor, alto, soprano [sax] or piano, probably.
So what kept you from those other instruments?
Well, I played guitar. Like I was going to go back and start over again.
So when you first started playing guitar, you enjoyed it?
When I first started, no. When I first started playing guitar, I wanted to get laid, it didn’t have anything to do with music at all.
One of the most common answers… What was your favorite gig that you ever played? assuming that you enjoyed it.
There were a few: Albert Hall in London. Do you want a reason, or is that…
A reason would be nice.
Obviously it’s a huge gig, I guess there were about seven, eight thousand people, we packed it and we were the headliners. How in the fuck did that happen? Captain Beefheart filling Albert Hall? Something was up, and I don’t know why. There was the Beatles in the audience, so we knew that, and I opened the show. I run out, start whamming on some power chord, E chord – I didn’t know it was a power chord then, but I played it – and, my amps off. You run out in Albert Hall, the biggest gig in your life, balconies, people hanging out, you know, and I’m opening the show, heart beating clear through your chest, run out there and your amp is off. Mommy, I wanna go home!
I mean, it really was that, my life passed before me. So, I hold up my finger a moment, ‘One minute’, and then I go back, flip the switch, get back and go behind the curtain, run out again, and pause a second, and start whamming the chord again, which, of course, brought down the house. I don’t know where that came from. that’s not my style of being this introverted little jerk. but, I pulled it off somehow.
And then, the bass player comes out, and his cord is wrapped around the amp, so he gets out there, and, boom!, the amp falls and slides down the stage. the crowd thought that it was totally choreographed, it was awesome. So, it was a large gig, that we played good, and the band felt good about how we played. And the opening, with me being able to pull my foot from my anatomy, get back out and retrieve my dignity, from letting that happen.
And thus set the tone that if anyone else made a mistake it looked liked it was supposed to happen.
Exactly, but normally I wouldn’t have thought that fast, but really, my life passed before my eyes.
Okay, this is the last one, it’s kind of bizarre, what’s your favorite word starting with ‘z’?