Q&A With Eric Drew Feldman

For someone with so many famous heads stuck on poles outside his jungle hut, you’d expect he’d put a little more “brag” into it. But the soft-spoken Eric Drew Feldman lets his keyboard playing do the talking for him. When you’ve recorded and played live with a twisted array of musical talent that includes Captain Beefheart, the Residents, Snakefinger, Pere Ubu, the Pixies, PJ Harvey and Polyphonic Spree, you don’t have to blow any hot air into your own balloon. Speaking from his San Francisco home, Feldman touched on the high points of a marvelous career like a flat stone skipping over the surface of a mountain lake. His latest project, kNIFE & fORK’s The Higher You Get The Rarer The Vegetation, is out now via Frank Black’s The Bureau label. Feldman will be also guest editing all week.

“I Count The Days” (download):

Captain Beefheart is one of the true geniuses I missed, along with the Beatles, to my eternal regret.
I always wanted to see the Beatles, too, and I feel I could have if I’d pestered my parents a little more. I actually was in a ticket office to buy a ticket for what turned out to be their last live show, in 1966 at Candlestick Park. Tickets were going for $5.50, and it was just too much money. I remember going to one of Don’s (Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart) shows promoted by a radio station whose FM frequency was 95, so it cost, maybe, 95 cents to get in.

So, how did you get hooked up with the Captain?
I was living in Tarzana in the San Fernando Valley and Don was living in Canoga Park on Golondrina Drive, I think. He and the band all lived in a house together, and they frequented a music store called Ernie Ball Guitars with little rooms in the back where you could take guitar lessons. They also sold records. They didn’t have a lot, but it was the first place where I would see (the Mothers of Invention’s) Absolutely Free and Fresh Cream. A friend of mine’s older brother worked in the store. He was going over to Don’s house, and he said to us, “Why don’t you come with me?” They were just sitting around, and Don was always extremely friendly, happy to hold court.

How did Don pronounce his last name, Van Vliet? I’ve heard varying interpretations.
I think the one I heard him say was “Van Fleet,” like with an “F.” It’s Dutch.

Did you ever get to meet Frank Zappa back then?
They always had a very tempestuous relationship. Jumping ahead in the story, there were times when I was playing with Don when he and I and Morris Tepper would go to a coffee shop after practice, and Don would draw. And he’d say, “I’ve got to go over to Frank’s. Do you want to go?” Frank was fairly dismissive of these little kids coming into the house. He wasn’t like, “Welcome, would you like a cup of coffee?” I understand it now, but at the time I thought he was rude. I can think how he’d be suspicious that we were gonna go tell everybody where he lived.

Sounds like he was just being Frank. So where did he live?
Well, I guess I can say now. He was in Laurel Canyon, near Mulholland.

So you played with Don from the late ’70s to the early ’80s? Ice Cream For Crow and Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller). Those were great albums.
Oh, thanks. I’m especially fond of Doc At The Radar Station. It might be little less listenable for people, but it was a pure project.

Let’s move on to the Residents. I was in a Berkeley record shop when one of the guys in the band brought in copies of their debut LP, Meet The Residents. I don’t remember what he looked like, though. How did you wind up with them?
I saw them, too, but I shan’t divulge anything. What I’ve told people over the years is, you wouldn’t go, “Oh, it’s that guy.” I moved to San Francisco in 1981 from Los Angeles. I’d heard a couple of Residents songs, and my name had a certain cachet. I was interested in just seeing Ralph Records, their label. It was a warehouse on Grove, near Franklin and Gough Streets. It was eye-opening to me. They had a little film studio, a recording studio. They did their own silk-screening, made their own covers. I didn’t play live with them until much later, 2002-03. Their keyboard player decided he wanted to do art design and lighting for the sets, this time, so he asked me to do it. I never wore a giant eyeball. One had been stolen before. We were doing swamp-creature masks

Were they uncomfortable onstage? Hot, I’ll bet.
Extremely. Difficult for me with my bad eyes and glasses. I believed in the show, but that was suffering for your art. What did happen was I wound up working with their cohort, a guitarist named Snakefinger. He was more available as somebody to collaborate with. I made this proposal to him: I’ll play in your band if I can produce your record. That was my motivation to do it. He thought about it and agreed we would co-produce it.

Tell me about playing with Pere Ubu, one of my favorite punk-plus outfits.
Well, that was the only kind of band I could fit in with. I’d worked with Philip Lithman (Snakefinger) for a while, and he died. He had a heart attack, and we were on tour. At the ripe old age of 32, I thought maybe this was an omen to get out of this touring business. I started doing music and sound design for theater, learning to use computers. And I got a call from Pere Ubu management that their longtime keyboard player, Allen Ravenstine, was leaving to become an airline pilot. I’d met David Thomas at some festival while I was playing with Snakefinger. While I was thinking about it, I saw Pere Ubu on the cover of Option magazine. I looked at it and thought, “OK, I could stand next to those people and not look out of place.” I tried it out and it was really fun. I did it with them for about three years in the late ’80s, did a couple records. Big-budget record-company times, an interesting but failed attempt at commercial success.

From there you jumped to working with the Pixies.
Same kind of thing. I was thinking maybe I’m done with touring. I’d been on some long European tour with Pere Ubu in 1988-89 and we were gonna support the Pixies in London. I’d heard stories in those economically depressed times the Pixies were actually making money. At the soundcheck, this young fellow came up to me and introduced himself as Charlie. I thought he’d come in off the street. I recognized his Los Angeles accent, and we talked about burritos. Move ahead eight hours and there was “Charlie” fronting the Pixies. It was Black Francis, a.k.a. Charles Thompson. The producer for the current Pere Ubu album, Gil Norton, had also produced the last few Pixies records. A few months later, the Pixies were playing the Warfield in San Francisco, and I got a call from Charles who was driving his own car to the gigs, asking if I wanted to come to the show. And he goes, “What time do you want me to pick you up?” I couldn’t believe his generosity and friendliness. He wanted to make a solo record and Gil had recommended me to do it. So I told him of course I’d do it. And I also wound up playing on about half the songs on the next Pixies record.

OK, tell me about playing with Polly Jean Harvey.
After Charles went in a new direction, I was sitting around with old friend Morris Tepper in his home in Reseda, Calif. He said, “Check this out” and he played me PJ Harvey’s four-track demos. It sounded great with this one song with lyrics that were direct “Don” lyrics from a song called “Dirty Blue Jeans.” She did it in a way that seemed respectful. I had a friend who was working with her, and he mentioned me to them. I was gigless at the moment and took the plunge. I wrote and introduced myself to her management, because I’d heard she was putting together a new band. I was very surprised to get a call back, asking if I’d be willing to fly to London to audition.

Time to roll the dice, I’d say.
About five days later, I flew over there, played for about 10 minutes and we had a cup of tea. She said, “I don’t know why you’d want to do this, but we’d be honored to have you.” I toured and recorded with her pretty solidly from 1995 to 2001. We wound up sharing a flat in New York in the summer of 1999. We were both writing music, and she was very encouraging. It was the beginnings of my project called kNIFE And fORK. I’m actually on the cover of her 2004 Uh Huh Her album. It’s here taking a picture of herself with a Polaroid and I’m driving her car. As Don would say, she’s “one of the near greats.”

—Jud Cost

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