Pacific Trim - A Preview of 2003's ATP Pacific
All Tomorrow's Parties, the festival that celebrates a modern generation of interesting underground rock acts, and that recovers long-retired bands whence they lay scattered or inert, will happen in Los Angeles this year on November 8-9. Beginning with today's preview, which includes interviews with John "Drumbo" French of Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band and Daniel Smith, lead singer and coordinator of The Danielson Famile, Dusted will report on ATP Pacific 2003. Throughout the next few weeks, updates, interviews, and images will appear on the site.
This installment of the ongoing festival series is curated by Simpson's creator Matt Groening, who has put together a lineup of boldface names from the charts of college radio (Sonic Youth, Cat Power, !!!, Deerhoof, Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, the Shins, the Danielson Famile), the pages of The Wire (Jackie-O Motherfucker, Bardo Pond, Carla Bozulich, Terry Riley), and the enthusiastically remembered histories of punk, post-punk, and whatever the Magic Band are (Iggy and the Stooges, Mission of Burma, James Chance, the Minutemen, the Magic Band).
The above names could be the playlist of a great freeform radio show, but all things being practical, make for a unicorn lineup. Is it a reverie to suggest they could all perform in one weekend? Will James Chance, the Minutemen, and the Magic Band – each of whom are patchwork reproductions of the incarnations that brought them acclaim – breathe life into old material, or trudge through their sets as though embarking on an ill-advised Monsters of Rock tour?
John "Drumbo" French and the revival of the Magic Band
John French, the post-Captain Beefheart (aka Don Van Vliet) lead singer of the Magic Band, is contemptuous of the idea that time might affect his art, specifically he rejects that his music could become stagnant after decades unperformed. When asked about playing with Mission of Burma, Iggy and the Stooges, and James Chance, who until reforming hadn't played together in years, he balked.
"Extinct? I think I would have to be dead, fossilized, and re-discovered, placed in a museum and tagged. As far as the bands, this may strike you as odd, but I don't know any of the people you mentioned. I don't listen to music. Never did after about 1975. They seemed more interested in how they looked than whether or not their music was anything more than the same crap re-cycled. So, it doesn't strike me at all. I ducked."
Nor does he feel that the Magic Band fits into any musical lineage, let alone one summarized by Groening's ATP. "Never heard a band like the Magic Band. I've listened briefly and occasionally to bands who claim Beefheart as an influence. I can't hear it. Also, I don't enjoy being summarized, or winterized, or any otherised. The Magic Band is still playing music that in my opinion no one who claims to be in the same genre has really touched. I'm not bragging. Actually, I sometimes think they were the smart ones. They made money because they kept the snare on two and four. I'm still broke, but not broken. I work just fine. Starving for art wasn't my choice, it was the leader's, who then went out and made a fortune painting two and four."
French, confident in the value of continuing to explore the band's existing songs, described his specific motivations for the reunion.
"The Magic Band reunion was not put together to do new material. It was a vision of mine to re-visit the music and see if it held up in the 21st Century. I also wanted the experience of singing and leading the band, as I am writing a book about The Magic Band in general and Don in particular, I wanted to 'walk in his shoes' so to speak. It has given me a valuable new perspective on what made him tick and why he was like he was. I appreciate him much more than ever."
But French also mentioned the possibility of new Magic Band-related output, eventually.
"I have written some material that is in a "Magic Band" type of vein, and may put it out some day under the stage name 'Drumbo.' It will basically be a series of songs that I thought should have been finished – ideas that never went anywhere that I always thought were prematurely clipped and left on the cutting floor. For instance, one thing is called "Maybe That'll Teach Ya" and it's basically taking the title line that Don sang to a riff Doug Moon (former and original MB member) made up. I've got another thing that I wrote years ago that was always MB oriented – precisely why I didn't do it – called The Wicked Witch of War. It's short and powerful and could have been slipped into the time slot between Strictly Personal and Trout Mask Replica."
In terms of the Magic Band, however, Beefheart leaves tremendous shoes to fill, and French's decision to sing exactly like the Captain is a bizarre and fascinating way of filling them. His doing so on the new album and at ATP was a late addition to the reunion plan.
"I was 'following in Don's footsteps' in 1966. I thought he was the greatest vocalist I'd ever heard, and I was strongly trying to emulate him back then. In October, when I joined the Magic Band, that ended. While writing my book, I was doing track notes on all the recordings and sort of re-discovered how much I enjoyed Don's singing, and, while singing along, discovered a few of his techniques. However, I wasn't planning on singing more than one song originally and envisioned the reunion as a mostly instrumental repertoire. Since we are a 'democratic' band, we voted on the choice of material, and songs that were in need of vocals were chosen. I decided to give it a try and...voila."
French has not spoken to Van Vliet since the band reformed.
"I heard that Don was 'grumpy' about the reunion. However, he's actually being given a high compliment by all of us – and by me, the highest form of flattery. I may not have been too happy with Don's rather bizarre approach to leading a band, but artistically speaking, I'm still his biggest fan."
Daniel Smith and the Danielson Famile
Matt Groening's selection of newer acts includes one of the more ambitious groups to grace today’s college radio airwaves. The Danielson Famile, presumably New Jersey's most pious eight-piece indie-rock band, draws comparisons to Captain Beefheart because of their peculiar song structures and eccentric lyrics. But Daniel Smith's high pitched yelping bears little resemblance to Beefheart, even when the latter was showing off the uppermost limits of his extraordinary vocal range. And while the Magic Band's sound was the result of a life of psychedelic isolation, the Danielson Famile privileges a fervently Christian communality. Their music, however, is not pedagogical.
"My dream is always to stay out of the way as much as possible," says Smith. "For the Holy Spirit to work through the songs and voices and instruments and visuals and personalities and relationships, planting seeds into people’s minds and hearts and bodies with joy and confusion being the initial reaction and good fruit being what grows from there."
The Famile will play with its "official lineup" at ATP, meaning that all eight members – Rachel, Megan, David, Andrew, Chris, Melissa, Daniel and Elin – will be present. Smith has been touring recently as Brother Danielson, a solo project for whom Secretly Canadian will release a 7" in December and a full length in the spring, but live shows with the Famile have been much rarer.
All Tomorrow's Parties happens this Saturday and Sunday, November 8th and 9th. See the festival site for details, and check Dusted in the coming weeks for coverage. Use the forum for suggestions, etc..
By Ben Tausig