Eric Drew Feldman On Captain Beefheart, Pixies And PJ Harvey

He's worked with some of the most diverse and respected names in the music industry, but what can we expect from his new kNIFE & fORK project...?
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Few have such a remarkable musical pedigree as Eric Drew Feldman. Working alongside such legends and innovators as Captain Beefheart, Snakefinger, The Pixies, PJ Harvey and Pere Ubu, his playing and producing skills have made him much in demand to generations of musicians. Alongside Laurie Hall, Eric is now composing and creating his own music as kNIFE & fORK. The project’s second release The Higher You Get The Rarer The Vegetation is a mesh of Feldman’s history and influences coupled with Hall’s songwriting prowess. Eric talked to us about working with the Captain, The Pixies and the art of collaboration.

You've played with such a diverse group of musicians over the years, what attracts you to collaborators?

I’m attracted to artists that have specific, unique talents and perspectives that challenge and stimulate. I suppose, for me, it is all about songwriting. If I can have the opportunity to collaborate, or somehow be part of, bringing a great song into the world, I feel this is a legitimate achievement that helps me sleep at night. When one is fortunate enough to be part of the worlds of the likes of, let’s say, Don VanVliet, Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, or Polly Jean Harvey, one is brushing with, or against, the sublime, and immortality. It also doesn’t hurt that these three all have strong voices and know what to do with them.

Has technology completely changed the collaboration experience, or do you prefer 'old school' methods?

I most definitely prefer the old ways of being in a room and interacting with other humans. Though, some of my best, most composed and unhinged ideas occur when I have the luxury of hearing the music, taking it home, sit in my studio alone and explore on my own, without others being there to suffer through all of the wrong turns I make to get to an end. Often I am inclined to find something quick that works when there are a lot of people in a room together, because if you take awhile to come up with ideas, boredom can set in. There is nothing worse than a room full of players flailing around for a long time, trying out too many ideas at once, to induce migraines, blurred vision, and crankiness.

In this ‘ProTools™ era, humans send me files to add to, and/or mix. It works, can be practical and successful, save money, etc. It just is not as much fun.

How did you hook up with Captain Beefheart, was that a daunting experience?

In 1968, at the age of thirteen, I was introduced to the existence of Captain Beefheart and his band at the local music shop, where I took guitar lessons. They would show up to buy strings, drumsticks, etc. I was intrigued and somehow was invited a couple of times to hang out at the house where they all lived together. I had no idea what they sounded like and bought their current album, which was called ‘Strictly Personal’. It puzzled me, but I kept listening. I became quite addicted to it. This also almost caused me to lose a friendship before it even had started. One day at school I was approached by classmate Jeff Moris Tepper and asked (because I was such a self-appointed authority on such things) what new record should he buy. Without pause, I answered ‘Strictly Personal’. A few days later he phoned me and was upset that I had taken the piss out of him and had wasted his precious $3 on this record. I was dumbfounded and assured him that I was sincere in my recommendation. Several days later he put his chin on my shoulder from behind and said, ‘I get it!’ A friendship ensued.

Fast forward five or so years, Moris had gone off to college at Humboldt State in northern California, and had managed to move in next door to Don, where they became close friends. Eventually Moris started playing guitar for Don, told Don about me when Don was in need of a new musician. We met (again), talked for hours in an all night coffee shop, went back to my house where I was going to audition. I had been carefully learning to play several of his songs. I played part of one song, he seemed appreciative, yet somewhat distracted, and asked if I wanted to play with him. The rest is music history trivia.

I was intimidated at first, being so keen on what he did. But for survival’s sake, I quickly accepted that I did, in fact, belong there.

There have been many stories of Beefheart's extreme behavior and extreme perfectionism, did you encounter that?

Yes, of course. He could drive the musicians bonkers trying to achieve something that none of us could hear. We would try harder and harder to please him, all the while getting more stressed out because he wasn’t getting what he wanted. Just before a breaking point, when someone would be ready to throw a guitar through the window and storm off in a hissy fit, he would exclaim something to the effect of, yes, bravo, we had achieved what he was looking for. I think he would just wind us up to play more intensely, less ‘musically’. I suppose Don found musicians a necessary evil, though tedious and boring, when it came to us having to figure out how to play and count his damn stuff.

Versions of The Magic Band still perform today, how do you feel about that?

I understand that people need to survive and pay for luxuries like rent and food, but I don’t approve, mostly because Don wouldn’t like it. And, for as difficult as he could be, he more than earned my respect and friendship. These musicians feel a sense of entitlement to this music, and in some regard I suppose they deserve some. But it just seems much too disrespectful for my taste.

I do keep in loose contact with John French, who is one of the most gifted players in the known universe, and has always been most courteous to me. I’ve often wanted to play with him since those days. I just don’t want to play Don’s music.

You moved from Beefheart to Snakefinger, again was it daunting playing with someone with such musically renowned reputation?

For whatever reason, Snakefinger (Philip Lithman) wasn’t intimidating at all. Back in 1981, I relocated myself from Los Angeles to San Francisco. There I stumbled upon Ralph Records, and, of course, The Residents. I was quite impressed by their little dynasty at 444 Grove Street. They had a recording studio, film making capabilities, and graphics facility for making album art. It was all founded upon the freedom to make art and music without compromise. And it seemed quite successful for a while. But I digress…there I was introduced to Philip, as he had been collaborating with the Residents for years. He asked me to join his band. I was unconvinced, but said I would if I could co-produce his records with him. I seem to remember he was dubious, but decided we would give that a go and see how it went. For me, that was the invaluable positive of that period of my life. I could now think of myself as a ‘producer’. For instance, he loved Bulgarian folk music like I did. So the two of us figured out this one piece on a Nonesuch record compilation and recorded it. At that time, I knew no one else that would indulge that sort of ridiculousness with me. He was also a hilarious to be around and to play with.

You also played with another tempestuous band, Pixies, were you ever dragged into inter-band tensions, or was that something you strenuously avoided?

I honestly think I must have been a somnambulist at the time. I had become acquainted with Charles at a Pixies show in London, at which I was playing in the support band, Pere Ubu. Just another one of those chance meetings when you are an egg rolling through time, open to whatever may happen. We hit it off, and kept in touch. I was not an immediate Pixies fan (I’m a bit slow sometimes, like when I first heard Captain Beefheart), but what they were doing was decidedly different from what I was hearing at the time, and I was fascinated at how much energy the audience was giving back to them.

Anyway, fast forward several months and Charles approached me about producing, with him, his first solo album. I happily accepted, and he started feeding me songs and bits of songs on cassettes to consider. But he was busy with the Pixies and kept apologizing for not being available to start the project, and mentioned, rather offhandedly, that his band was about to make another record and tour, and if I felt like it, I was welcome to participate. So they start to record in Los Angeles, I fill up my car with gear in San Francisco, drive down Highway 5 and show up at the studio. Charles seemed happy to see me, but a bit flustered at why I was there. He eventually says to me, hours later, ‘So are you here just to record with us?’ Inside I’m thinking ‘uh-oh’, but I answered ‘yes’. He seemed to take it in, and the next day approached me with a financial arrangement for the sessions. This part of it I had never even considered. I accepted the terms, and we were off. I did notice that there wasn’t a lot of intercommunication between the band members, which did seem odd. People, in my previous experience, seemed very emotionally involved in the record-making process. But these Pixies were always coming in to the studio at separate times to do their bits, without other member’s presence, or involvement, as though it was a chore to be avoided.

Move ahead a few more months, and these Pixies were about to embark on a tour, and when a few preferred acts were not available, Pere Ubu were invited to support. This gave me the opportunity to play live with them, which I did for a lot of the next year, which led up to their disbandment. I was mainly driving to the shows with Charles and his longtime girlfriend in his car, almost never on a tour bus with the other members. Often we would arrive for shows just before showtime, and Charles and band would barely speak to each other before or after the shows. No anger. They just seemed burnt out on the whole thing. But I was treated well, and with respect by the band and crew. Their playing together is magical. Perhaps that is why they have such loyal and rabid fans.

Does playing with many other artists and seeing the way they work inform your own songwriting in kNIFE & fORK?

As far as I can tell, everyone works differently. Some write most everything on their own and want very little from anyone else that will block the essence of what they have done. Some write a song, as in chords, melody, and lyrics. They are not precious in what accompanies that. They seem to follow formulas, and are not interested in reinventing the wheel on every song. Neither Laurie Hall, nor myself, have done much songwriting with a partner before. We present each other with ideas we’ve come up with, and we try to help the other move it farther along to where we’re both satisfied. We mostly like what the other brings to the table, which is good, because neither of us enjoys confrontation.

Why was there such a gap between kNIFE and fORK projects?

We are both complicated people with complicated lives. Laurie has many priorities in her life that don’t involve music, at least making it with me. She is the member of a band with her husband and sister that is called ‘Ruby Howl’. Sometimes I help them make records and perform with them, sometimes not. I have a hard time deciding what is ‘best’ to do next. It all seems pretty random, and this is the main reason it takes us so long. We just fall in and out of the habit of doing this together. When we get around to it, it usually feels right. When we get back in the swing of it, I think we both realize that we’ve missed it.

How do you approach your production work, do you have a vision for each project or do you see yourself as more of a facilitator?

It really depends on the project. But whatever I agree to do, I must really already like it, and then I can help lead it in a direction that I think makes it better. Bands have their vision. They just don’t always know how to get there, or get stuck somewhere. I’m good at getting them unstuck.

Is there anyone, past or present, you would love to work with?

Many years ago, I made a record with a Belgian band called dEUS. Over the years I have spoken with one of the main writers and singers, whose name is Tom Barman. I think we still have a great record together in us. And the same goes with an Australian songwriter named David McCormack, who fronted a band called Custard, with whom I made a couple of albums. I never like to think that we are through with each other. As for someone out of the past, well, the idea of playing and recording with Howlin’ Wolf, or Nina Simone, gives me goose bumps, or chicken skin as they say in Belgium. Ah, but what they did was perfect. I don’t know that my involvement could improve their spells one iota.

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