Photo by Hilary Bell                                    

An interview with
Gary Lucas and Phillip Johnston
(Fast 'n' Bulbous)

By Beppe Colli
March 29, 2005

As I recently argued in my review, the CD titled Pork Chop Blue Around The Rind released under the collective name Fast 'n' Bulbous is an album featuring faithful yet personal renditions of compositions by Captain Beefheart - performed as instrumentals! An album well worth a listen.

The project has two leaders: guitarist Gary Lucas, a Beefheart sideman in 1980-82; and saxophone player Phillip Johnston, who wholly arranged and conducted the music, with the obvious exception of the guitar parts, arranged by Gary Lucas. I asked them to answer a few questions, and fortunately they agreed. The interview was conducted by e-mail, last week.

(The conversation deals only with the issues raised by the aforementioned CD, but of course both Lucas and Johnston have very long résumé. Interested readers are invited to check their websites, and

In the liner notes that appear in the Pork Chop Blue Around The Rind CD booklet both of you write of having attended your first Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band concert at Ungano's, New York. Was it the same concert?

: Not sure, as I believe the band was there over three nights, 2 sets a night. I seem to recall I attended the second set of the opening night. Phillip?

Phillip: I'm not sure about that. I'm not sure but I believe there were two Ungano's gigs. The one I went to was at Ungano's Ritz Theater in Staten Island in either 1971 or 1972. I'm not sure if Gary and I were at the same one, but in the years since I've met many people who were at that concert, in one situation or another. Sometimes I think I've met about half of that audience in the intervening years. But isn't it a better story if Gary and I were at the same one?

What was your impression? What, in your opinion, made that music stand apart from the other music that you were familiar with at the time?

: The overall aura was like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with Don Van Vliet the impresario displaying his incredible living miracles. I had never ever heard music turned upside down like that, played with such intensity and precision. I had never heard guitars approached in that way ("Guitar is merely a stand-up piano" - DVV).

Phillip: The music had an extraordinary purity. It seemed very much devoid of ego and it seemed to present a fully formed alternate universe. One of the moments that impressed me most was when (as I remember it), at one point during a duet between Ed Marimba and Don van Vliet, at the very back of the stage, Rockette Morton did this kind of silent film angular leaping run across the back of the stage, just once. It was never referred to, repeated or explained. There was also a very deadpan discussion of shoes between Ed Marimba and Don van Vliet. This was not the sort of thing I was accustomed to seeing at a rock concert.

The music just seemed very stark and beautiful and singular. Very disciplined, yet with a quality of wild abandon and intensity.

I'm curious to know if your perception of that night has revealed any hidden truths with the passing of time.

: Just the fact that he was way ahead of his time, and still is, in his approach.

Phillip: Well, I found out that night that my best friend at high school was homosexual because he put his hand on my thigh during the concert...

During my early years as a fan, I totally bought into the Captain Beefheart mythology, hook, line and sinker, in a very romantic fan-boy kind of way. When years later I found out that not all of these things were strictly speaking true (for example, that Trout Mask Replica was composed in 8 _ hours and taught to the band over the next year, etc.) it didn't lessen my love for the music or even the whole theatrical gestalt of the band. By that time I was experienced enough in "show business" to be able to distinguish between the art and the press release. In a way it makes the whole thing even more remarkable, more tragic and more human. (It does raise other questions, for example, why 8 _ hours? Why not 8 hours or 9 hours? Or 7 hours and 53 minutes?)

If anything has been revealed, it is about my own self, which is the only thing that may be revealed. Yet it doesn't lessen the spirit that draws me to work that is beautiful, funny, mysterious, frightening. In a sense, what I saw that night was Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, more than the real people, or any subsequent history. I think sometimes in music history, certain people come together and create a moment that could only happen at that point in time with those people. In another sense, the record Trout Mask Replica is Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.

Gary, you played on 1980's Doc At The Radar Station, and you were a full time band member by the time of the 1982 Ice Cream For Crow album. I'd like to know about the source for your performance of the track Flavor Bud Living - I mean, was it a tape, a transcription, or...?

: I had a tape of John French playing it from the unreleased Bat Chain Puller album. I learned it from that and then Don corrected me out in the desert and instructed me to speed it up and use his "exploding note theory" in performing it, so that each note was like fireworks bursting in the air.

Gary, I'd like to know about your experience with the last Magic Band line-up, both in the studio and live. And I'm particularly curious about the way Beefheart's music was regarded in the new wave-period New York.

: The last lineup was a pleasure to play with. We were all tremendous fans of the entire Beefheart oeuvre (well most of it...), and Jeff Tepper and I bonded instantly (2 Jews blues). Cliff Martinez was one of the nicest guys I've ever met, so soft-spoken and funny and sensitive. Richard Snyder was a real dyed in the wool fan, total gonzo on the bass and enthusiastic about every aspect of the group. Don was pulling rabbits out of his hat, still... maybe not singing with the same vocal fire as earlier era bands but still nailing a vibe in the studio, definitely. And his poetry was just exquisite, the lyrics to something like Ink Mathematics still crack me up in wonderment, I still get multiple meanings I missed the first time around upon re-listening.

In new-wave New York, Beefheart was viewed as a seminal influence on the scene... but until we came East to tour when Don came up to show them how to do it properly, pretty much viewed as a sidelined force in the avant-rock world. We cleared that misapprehension up pretty quick, I remember rocking the Beacon Theater in 1980, Blood Ulmer opened and David Byrne was in the audience. John Lurie followed us around Europe on that tour, I remember seeing him backstage in Paris. So the main guys on that scene knew where to look for sheer inspiration and energy.

What about the selection process that made you choose those thirteen tracks? Were there any other tracks rehearsed and played, but not included in the CD?

: Nope, we did everything we'd developed to date.

Phillip: In writing the arrangements, I tried to find different ways of dealing with the lack of a vocalist, an idea (using a different vocalist) we discarded very early on. The tunes were mostly chosen based on my having ideas about different ways of re-orchestrating the vocal (including that of leaving it out entirely). Also, I wanted to cover a broad cross section of his career, from the early records to the last ones, because I love all of it, or much of it anyway. But the main reason for the choice of each tune, was to have an idea of an approach that would be a) different and b) interesting for this particular instrumentation.

At the same recording session we also recorded The Blimp and a medley of Click Clack and Ice Cream For Crow (this second being performed just by the trio of Gary, Jesse and Richard). These were left off the CD merely for reasons of space. Early on I also wrote an arrangement of Too Much Time from Clear Spot, but everyone in the band ragged on it, and one thing I have learned over the years is that if everyone in the band rags on a tune, it's better to just drop it than try to change their minds.

I see that the album was recorded in two days, so I imagine there must have been a good amount of preparation, rehearsal, etc. Would you mind talking about this? (By the way, how much is overdubbed?)

: Very very few overdubs. We didn't even rehearse that much to tell the truth. After 2 years or so with the same lineup, this music was definitely in our blood.

Phillip: We had been performing the material, on and off for about 3 years before the recording, having toured both in the U.S. and in Europe, and performed a number of times in New York. During that time we have been close to a recording deal a couple of times, but it dropped out from under us, so we had been long prepared to make the record by the time we actually did it. In fact, we only had one 3 hour rehearsal, the day before we went in the studio.

The album was basically performed live, with only a few minor punches and edits, and one section where we overdubbed a short guitar solo of Gary's, did two takes, and decided to keep both of them, just for a kick. This is as far as I can remember, I'd have to double check this to be sure...

On the cover it says "Produced by Phillip Johnston & Gary Lucas" and "Arranged and Conducted by Phillip Johnston". So I'd like to know about the process by which the players were chosen.

: Phillip's call, really, I trusted his instinct on this, and he used a lot of his Microscopic alumni.

Phillip: Dave Sewelson and Richard Dworkin played with me in the Microscopic Septet. Rob Henke I first met in the Walter Thompson Orchestra, and he has played on a number of projects before with me. Joe Fiedler I met recently through Chris Washburne, and has turned out to be an amazing discovery. Jesse Krakow who is on average about 20 years younger than most of the rest of the band, also an amazing find, I met through one of my students at NYU, the guitarist Will Redmond.

They are all amazing musicians, capable of doing just about anything.

Phillip, on most Captain Beefheart records the vocals are quite outfront, with the instrumental parts pretty much in the background. I'm very curious about the way you made the individual parts surface while at the same time avoiding knots.

: I guess I've never heard the instrumental parts as being in the background. As a composer I always listen to all the parts of any music equally to some extent. There is something about the presence of words which make all other elements fade into the background, and, removing those, everything else immediately rises to the surface. The rest of it is just a matter of orchestration and arrangement, which has been a preoccupation of mine through all the music I've written for the past 30 years or so. I also had a very good orchestration teacher, Edgar Grana, who taught me to be audacious in translating freely from one instrumental palette to another.

Phillip, compared to the versions that appear on Pork Chop Blue Around The Rind, Beefheart's originals are a lot more - is "aggressive" the right word? In my opinion, most of your arrangements have a lighter, breezier feel that differs quite a bit from the versions we all know. Would you mind talking about this?

: I think it has to do with the fact that the originals are mostly performed on electric instruments, and the horns, while usually played through microphones are essentially acoustic instruments, driven by the breath. The twangy, trebly, edgy sound of the electric guitar is one of it's greatest strengths, and is part of what gives the originals their wonderful angularity. For example the tune Peon from Lick My Decals Off, Baby would sound completely different if the same notes were played by a string quartet, and it would lose a lot. But the horns bring a whole different history, a different physics and a different chemistry to the music. Also my own music is very melodic and very contrapuntal, and I emphasized these aspects of the music because a) I appreciate them, and b) I feel they are under-recognized.

I think one of the strengths of Fast 'n' Bulbous as a group is that it is balanced by many opposites. Gary retains the edgy guitar sound for us, which is often pitted directly against the horns. Often a guitar line is doubled by another instrument, such as a saxophone or trumpet, an effect that Frank Zappa also often used very effectively in a lot of his early orchestrations. As a generalization I would say that the rhythm section brings more of a rock flavor to the music and the horn section brings more of a jazz flavor, and the interaction of these two as they rub up against each other provides an exquisite tension that is felt in many of the tunes. But none of these musicians can really be put in one single bag - that's what van Vliet was talking about when he wrote Lick My Decals Off, Baby. "There ain't no label for this bottle."

Are there any groups/artists whose music you consider to be influenced by Captain Beefheart? I read of groups that call themselves "Beefheart-influenced" all the time, but when I hear their music I wonder what they mean...

: Devo, Talking Heads, Pere Ubu, Blurt, Gang of Four, PIL etc. etc., etc., in the early 80's, pretty obviously. A million bands or so have taken a few stylistic elements over many many years, I hear it all the time but don't even bother to check too deeply what their names are anymore or what they're about, Beefheart has become such a part of the predominant avant-rock vocabulary.

Phillip: From my experience, the place where I've always heard the greatest influence of Captain Beefheart is in a group of musicians who were very active in New York in the '70s and '80s, and some of whom remain active today. I am thinking of a bunch of cross-pollinated groups that started with the bands Information, Blinding Headache and Mofungo, and later led to V Effect, The Avant Squares, The Scene Is Now, Fish and Roses, and the wonderful but short-lived Eyeball 9000. [Oddly enough as I was checking some facts for this online, I found a history of the band Mofungo by Robert Sietsema; he mentions many influences (mostly bands I know nothing about, such as The Fall), but never mentions Beefheart]

There was also a wonderful band I knew in the early 70s that played music astonishingly akin to the Trout Mask Replica-era Magic Band, called Kerneldack, which unfortunately never recorded. It featured, among others, film and electronic music composer Ed Tomney.

Other than these two somewhat obscure citations, I'm not sure about that. I'm sure there are others, but honestly I can't think off the top of my head who they would be. I'm probably not conversant enough with the last 30 years of rock music to say. There is one school of thought that says an artist's greatness is measured by the breadth of his influence, thereby making, say, John Coltrane near the top, and, say, Herbie Nichols near the bottom. But many of the greatest artists (and most of those who appeal most to me personally) are made great by their individuality, by the way in which they reveal to us their unique world-view and inner life, and heretofore-unexpected universes. These are much harder to copy, and therefore by definition, less "influential." More often they are admired, rather than duplicated, by other unique artists, who are then inspired by them to honor their own uniqueness, and often artists in other but parallel disciplines. Some who immediately come to mind: Charles Ives, Captain Beefheart, Harry Partch, Thelonious Monk*, Conlon Nancarrow, and Steve Lacy.

*Monk may possibly be seen as an exception to this, but I would maintain that it is only certain of his musical mannerisms that have been widely aped, but his essential historical direction has mostly been left undeveloped by anyone except the aforementioned Steve Lacy.

A perfect example of the above point is Gary Lucas. Although he was actually in the Magic Band (and still is), his own music is truly unique and original, and shows very little direct footprint of Beefheart's.

In closing, I'd like to know if in your opinion Captain Beefheart's music is any nearer to being accepted/understood than it was at the time of your first concert at Ungano's.

: Yes, I think it is, but it still shocks people when played correctly... which a good thing!!

Phillip: My answer is of course: yes and no. Yes, in that many people who were at Ungano's, or wish they had been, have gone on to do great things in music and elsewhere, and both musicians and fans see a love of Beefheart as a kind of secret handshake of knowledge about, and love for, unconventional music. No, in that the world has become, if anything, more inhospitable a place to that kind of unique vision. It took Fast 'n' Bulbous 3 years to get a record out, and I venture to say that if Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band were performing today, it is unthinkable to suggest that they would be able to get a record deal with the equivalent of the kind of record companies that they did in the 60s, 70s and 80s. And record labels like Cuneiform have become very rare indeed.

© Beppe Colli 2005 | March 29, 2005