The Be-Bop Bass Notes: Tom Fowler Interview
By Evil Prince
T'Mershi Duween, #64, March 2000
(Recorded in LA 24.4.96, in Tom's restaurant it appears, by the Evil Prince)
TF: I started out in Salt Lake City with all my brothers at six years old. Then when I was in sixth grade – I guess that made me about twelve – I started playing upright bass. I played that for a while. Then I heard Hendrix and Zappa, believe it or not, and I decided to play electric bass. I started on that when I was about sixteen. I'm forty-four now. When I was seventeen, I ran away and joined a rock band called It's a Beautiful Day. I did two records with them. I spent a year at the University of Utah; then I moved to New York and played with a trumpet player who died right after that. I played with [trombonist Bill] Watrous (?) there and a guy named Enrico Rava and various goofy jazz things. After that, I went to San Francisco and played with a bunch of bands out there, nothing too spectacular. I went back to playing violin. I had a kid and I was twenty years old, felt like a lost soul.
Then Bruce called me up and I auditioned for Frank and somehow I got the gig. I hadn't even been playing bass, but I guess he got sick of looking for a bass player. This was in 1973. The audition was very simple. He had me play a couple of odd muted things and groove for a while, and then he said 'OK, you're it'. That was a really good band. I then just did Frank's stuff for a few years until I broke my hand in the middle of a tour which was my downfall. We were playing football and I broke this bone right in the middle of the tour in Dayton, Ohio. I stayed with the band and directed. I had all the notes on the keyboard and I would point at them with a chemical wand that glowed in the dark. We had one horrible bass player after another and tried to do it and there was no way it was working, me trying, to count them into D flat and all this odd metered stuff was going by. There was no way these guys could have done it; they would have to have known the music. I tried to get Abe [Laboriel] to do it; he was in Boston, but he passed on it. I don't know why. He was a good enough player to have done it, I think, but it was just too much too fast.
With Frank, we were on a salaried rehearsal schedule of about a month before every tour. He would change all the music around. Like, 'Village of the Sun', he turned it into a Country and Western tune and he would do that with all the stuff. When we first tried playing 'Inca Roads', that was an instrumental, real slow, then it changed into what it is today.
Q: Arthur Barrow says you were his idol because you could play all that difficult stuff, like on 'Echidna's Arf'. So how was that?
TF: Arthur can play all that stuff. When I started doing it, not many other guys were doing it too. Frank was experimenting. We did a tour with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and we took turns headlining. I remember we were playing at the Spectrum in Philadelphia which is a basketball arena with the dressing rooms upstairs. I was down there listening to the Mahavishnu and I go upstairs and there's Frank writing odd metered tunes on the spot that were heavily influenced by McLaughlin's stuff. Immediately he saw all these opportunities to do new stuff and we started doing it.
When I was in It's a Beautiful Day, we recorded a live album at Carnegie Hall and Mahavishnu opened up for us. Nobody had ever heard of them. It was the band with Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer and all those guys. So we go into the backstage area and suddenly we hear all this shit and nobody could believe it. The rest of the guys in the band had no idea what they were doing. I was a good enough musician to hear all this odd stuff, but nobody was doing it at that time. It was a total freak out. They blew us away and we were the headliners. They destroyed us. I recall there was this one gigantic black guy who slept through our whole set and draped over three rows of seats right in the middle of the auditorium, so you couldn't help but see him. It was unbelievably nerve-wracking. I already knew about McLaughlin from the Tony Williams Lifetime stuff.
But Frank was heavily influenced by that stuff. We thought we were two of the best bands around at that time. We matched up OK. I was matched with Rick Laird, and Hammer and Duke matched up pretty well. Frank didn't really match up with McLaughlin because they're totally different players, but he was totally unique in his own guitaristic way. He told me he would close his eyes and see his guitar solo written out in his mind, as he plays it in space. When you're on stage with all the floodlights, it's black. There's the lights and then there's space. It's kinda like being in outer space. So Frank would look up into this space and see his solo while he was playing. I don't know if that's true, but that's what he told me.
I had a couple of bass solos, a couple on violin too, believe it or not. The last gig of a tour, I think. we were in Boston or somewhere, he made me sit in the lotus position and play a violin solo. I was a yoga freak in those days. Ralph Humphrey and I used to play lotus soccer. I invented this game and you had to stay in the lotus position to move. Those times were fun as hell.
Q: How much freedom did Frank give you when you were constructing the songs?
TF: One thing that people don't realise about the bands is that Frank didn't write everything by any means, but he remembered everything. When we were having those long rehearsals, we were all jiving around and having fun; not at first, but as we got looser. The 1974 band was really loose – we could anything we goddamn wanted. It was really unfortunate that I broke my hand because that was like the beginning of the end. Frank was really impatient. I could play three weeks after the accident; that's when we did 'One Size Fits All'. Right at the end of the tour, he had booked a studio in Colorado and ended up with virtually nothing. Then we came back to LA and did that album which is a good one. They did 'Sofa' in Colorado, I know that. They did one other song and I had to overdub the bass part which was really awkward and the feel wasn't right. I think this was 'Can't Afford No Shoes'.
But parts of that record are really good. Some of the songs had parts and at other times, you could make up your own stuff. I made up a lot of my own stuff. But if it was a unison part, then I played the part. A lot of the charts just had chords on them, but some of the stuff didn't even have charts. He'd just come in, play a song and we'd start doodling around until we figured it out. The point I was trying to make about rehearsals is that we'd be coming up with all this goofy stuff, like jokes and so on, and Frank would remember them all, the bits where we played stuff he liked and we'd remember the good stuff too. Then it would all gel into this band thing. But Frank had the amazing ability to remember all the stuff he liked and throw out all the stuff he didn't like, and keep it all at a high quality.
Q: What were the hardest things to play?
TF: Probably the stuff on 'Greggary Peccary'. I didn't really know that when he handed me the charts before we started recording. Some of it was really hard and I hadn't even seen it before. It's good to rehearse shit that's that hard. But I was on a pretty high level at that time, and a lot of the musicians who were on that session were the really good guys from around town. Compositionally I think that's some of the best stuff I ever did with him and that he wrote while I was in the band. But he wrote a lot of stuff. After that, I barely ever saw him again, just a couple of times.
Q: So it really helped that you could sightread?
TF: Yeah, but I couldn't sightread bass clef so well. I was better on treble clef. Bruce helped me a lot. If we had something that was really hard, it wasn't so difficult to learn how to do it. If you had the methodology down, then you could do any of the variations of the odd meters. When we didn't know how to do it, we would reward ourselves with a joint if we could play a certain passage. We would practise it for a few hours and then when we'd nailed it, we'd relax and have a nice joint. It was quite funny because he was completely against drugs. I had a little note under my door one time 'No more drugs on the road or you will be unemployed'. Everyone in the band received that note. One of the equipment guys was caught and I guess he spilled a few beans. I never drank or took anything before a gig. I would practice for a couple of hours before a gig, focussing in on what was coming up.
Q: I think Bruce told me you tried to learn pieces faster than he did, and you couldn't keep it to schedule so you wouldn't talk to each other.
TF: (laughs) I don't remember that. What an idiot. That shows you how competitive he is. It's probably true, but it's subliminal; I don't know ... He had to play about fifty times as many notes as I did. I was playing bass; he was on trombone. If you check things like 'The Be-Bop Tango' – I had to learn that on violin when we played it with the Banned from Utopia because we had Arthur Barrow on bass. I didn't play it too great, but I learned how to play it. I hadn't been playing violin for years and all of a sudden I have to try to remember how to play violin and Zappa's hard shit which I never had to play on bass. I had some pretty difficult bass parts, but the bass is never really expected to play really hard stuff. He gave me some parts that were almost as difficult as anything else out there at that time. Once he got his computer shit going, he didn't need anybody. Of course by then it got sterile and pathetic and I never listened to any of it at all. I didn't like it.
Q: When Zappa was taking his weird solos, did he give any instructions to the rhythm section?
TF: One thing that happened that drove George Duke and me nuts was that Bozzio, during my last tour, would play that elastic shit with Frank while Duke and I were supposed to keep time, and it was really confusing. We'd be there watching each other's feet to see where the beat was, literally because it was so confusing and irritating too. It was no fun. Bozzio's a great player though; I'm not putting him down. He was following instructions, but it just didn't work for some reason. Maybe it was my fault, I don't know.
But before that, from a bass player's point of view, I just tried to give his stuff body so it worked, it had contrast and a nest for it to hatch in. So Frank could do anything he wanted and there would still be music going on. Whereas if it was just him doing that all by himself, if you stripped all the other stuff away, you wouldn't be able to sit and groove. They weren't the greatest feels of all time, what we did. We never played any jazz when I was in the band, but we could have. The whole band was basically a bunch of jazzers not playing jazz.
Q: Which tour was the most fun with Frank?
TF: The one where we played in Helsinki, for the 'Stage' CD. The funniest gig I ever played with Frank was in Copenhagen on that tour. We reached the end of this song, I don't remember which one, and nobody felt like ending it, so we just made up shit. We were so tight that it must have sounded like something he composed. We played for a while and jammed, and we were laughing our asses off. That was a great tour, that last European tour.
Q: Did you know that you were rated one of the best bass players in Frank's band by the fans?
TF: One of the best? Who are the others? I'll kill 'em! (laughs) I went with Jean-Luc Ponty (after 'Bongo Fury') which was a big mistake. His music was pretty fun, but it was unbelievably loud, way too loud. After a gig, I'd go back to my hotel room and it would still be loud. My ears would ring all night. It was painful and it was a drag and he paid us nothing and politically it sucked. It was a real drag. But some of the guys in the band were OK. Allan Zavod was in the band. He was hysterical. He'd play a chord, then twirl round and try to hit the same chord again. He never did. He always missed it, but it was pure comedy. It wasn't totally bad but it ended bad and I have a bad feeling about it.
Q: How did you find playing with the Banned from Utopia after all those years?
TF: The last tour we did was a lot of fun. I'd never played with Chad before; he's a real good player. It hasn't reached its peak. I'd like to see it get to the level of that European tour in 1974, and it could. It's got the same quality of musicians. The guitar player in there, Mike Miller, is really terrific. We've known each other forever. I think we'd be better off playing our own stuff. In a way, we'd be sort of playing his stuff. He was a big influence on all of us and we're together because of him, and we can all write. We're not untalented people. Frank isn't the only guy with talent. We offer some stuff that's kind of along those lines, and I think he was influenced by us too. What I'm driving at is he gets too much credit for the things that the guys around him contributed. He gets more than he deserves on a lot of the stuff. I don't think anybody seems to know that or give anybody any credit other than him, because I'm telling you, he was great but a lot of the stuff he did was organised things that were in the air from everybody else and he couldn't have done that stuff in a vacuum. If you take out all the other guys' contributions to a song like 'Inca Roads', it's not going to be 'Inca Roads' any more. Or on half of that stuff; it's just not going to be there because he didn't think of it. He remembered it and he organised it. So in fairness to the other guys, we at least deserve to be listened to in the organisation which is similar to what he put together. We're his legacy, that's what I think. We're the only real legacy apart from the recordings that are worth listening to and there's a million of them. But if the bands want to have something new, that's related cosmically or otherwise, we're it. Maybe not just this band. There were a lot of guys who played with him who were good musicians and who can write. Those guys deserve to be heard by his fans and that's the way to keep him alive.
Q: What did you do after playing with Zappa and Ponty?
TF: I played with a bunch of goofy guys in Japan, then Ray Charles. It was maddening, no money. It was interesting to play with him, but he's not a very nice dude. At least, he wasn't to me. His organisation is cruel, in a way. They do things to hurt people on purpose. He seems kind of aloof. I couldn't even communicate with him. I got the gig the day before the tour started and the equipment manager had copied the charts and some of the charts started on bar two and there was no bar one. I'd never seen them before. There was a big blank space then there was bar six. I couldn't play the first note because I didn't know what the hell the note was. I didn't know the time signature, the key. So he starts screaming at me for not knowing the note. I said 'Man, I wish you could see these charts' so he could realise it was impossible to start with.
He started to use me as a fall guy for his humour. The critics nailed the shit out of him for doing it, said he was cheap and an asshole basically, so he stopped doing it. I had the stuff down at the end. I got what I needed to get out of it musically but it was tedious. Long bus rides; rules like you had to wear a shirt with a collar in the bus; no blue jeans in the bus. We had to pay for our own hotel rooms. He was making huge dough and he wasn't giving us any of it. And that's basically the story of it. I could have made more money doing three barmitzvahs in LA, after the expenses. But musically, he's got a lot of good points.
The other thing about that band – do I sound negative? – is that he's in the stone age of monitors. He won't allow monitors on stage or allow you to mike the backline through the PA. We were playing outdoor festivals and all you could hear was him if you weren't right on top of the stage. I couldn't hear him or the solos. He's right in the vortex of the sound, so he hears everything and nobody else hears anything. It was ridiculous. We played a gig in Stuttgart and there was a riot when people wanted their money back because they couldn't hear anything. He's got a bigband and you can't hear it. Why not just have him do a solo act? But there were some good musical things that happened occasionally. One thing about him is how slow he plays some songs. He starts slow and gets slower. And it's hard to play really really slow; and that's the only band I've played in where somebody did that. It was real effective. If I compare any of those gigs to even those with Jean-Luc, the latter were way funnier.
Q: Can you tell us something about the Fowler Brothers band and your solo album 'Heartscapes'?
TF: That's all my own stuff. Ralph Humphrey had a band with Mike Miller and a bass player who died and I dedicated the record to him, performing it at his wake. The album doesn't have great continuity. It's got a bunch of different stylistic stuff. It's a pretty good album.
The Fowler Brothers stuff was at least as hard as any of Zappa's stuff, at least from my viewpoint. It was like Zappa in many ways. We had dance contests. There was some pretty out instrumental music that Bruce and my youngest brother Ed wrote. That band still exists but we're not doing very much at the minute. We played the Monterey Festival a couple of years ago. We've never really pursued it. No-one's ever shown interest in managing us, but people liked it. None of us can organise worth a damn, so we just basically go our own way and don't do shit.
But the Banned from Utopia forces us to organise things a bit. The only two guys who haven't been in the Fowler Brothers are Tommy Mars and Chad.
Q: Can you tell us something about rehearsing 'Echidna's Arf? That's one of the reasons why you're idolised.
TF: (laughs) It was a bunch of different tunes stuck together, wasn't it? It was actually pretty simple. I don't really remember how we did that. Some of it was written out. I think we just started playing it pretty slow and it just became faster and faster. You just had to go and learn it; I think I was pretty much doubling his guitar line, wasn't I? He composed it on guitar and taught it to us that way; I don't think it was ever written out. It's a pretty well constructed piece and it's long. It has a good effect on an audience because it sort of loosens them up, makes them more receptive to the other stuff that happens at various times. A live situation has to have lots of peaks and valleys and it's a good show, then you can have slow stuff. Ray Charles doing super slow. Frank Zappa and Ray Charles in concert together for the first time, with special guest appearances from Jean-Luc Ponty and It's a Beautiful Day. And there's my life in a one concert nutshell. Fowler Brothers as the opening act. Then we all go to my restaurant and eat something.
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