of Free Meat Money and Weasels: the Bunk Gardner interview

By Phil McMullen

Ptolemaic Terrascope, Spring, 1993

Last issue, we commenced a mini-series of interviews with former members of the Mothers of Invention with a fascinating insight into the life and times of drummer Jimmy Carl Black. Regular readers will have been looking forward to the sequel with some anticipation; for those of you new to the magazine though, what we've set out to do in this series of fireside chats is not build up a' complete picture of the Mothers, which has been documented ad infinitum in innumerable other specialised publications, but rather profile the careers of various individuals concerned – right up indeed to the present day, where several of these GrandMothers can be found playing with the remarkable Ant Bee (a.k.a. Billy James), which is how we managed to track them down in the first place. Thanks, Billy.

So, with the commercial break over, let's dive in without further ado and talk to woodwind player John Leon 'Bunk' Gardner, a man who blew his way through such accepted late 60s works of art as 'Absolutely Free', 'We're Only In It For The Money', 'Uncle Meat', 'Weasels Ripped My Flesh' and went on to work with the likes of Tim' Buckley, Little Richard, Van Morrison and dozens more besides.

A charming and fascinating man as you'll see, and we are indebted to him for taking the time to talk to us.

Bunk, how did it all start for you? We're always intrigued about how people first came to be involved in music, and since your story is almost bound to be different from the usual "I discovered Elvis and then the Beatles happened", I'd really like to take you right back...

Let's see, now. I started piano lessons when I was five or six years old. The lessons were right down the same block, West 95th Street in Cleveland, Ohio and my piano teacher's name was Elmira Snodgrass [savours the name for a few moments ... ] – she was cute.

She used to give me little stickers when I played a good lesson. I took lessons from Elmira for at least two or three years, and then went on and took lessons from a couple more teachers – I guess in all I had five or six years of piano lessons, right up until I started junior high school. Incidentally, I still play the piano here at home, and I'm currently giving both my daughters lessons. As for my earliest musical influences, well I guess having an older brother certainly helped, for at a very early age I was listening to Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Miles Davis and all the young jazz greats.

At the same time I loved classical music so I was hearing Stravinsky, Bartok, Beethoven and a lot of contemporary classical music. It all had a slight influence on me. Rock and Roll didn't have too much appeal at all.

When I was in elementary school, at the age of around seven or eight, they came round the class and asked what instrument you wanted to play. My brother [Charles 'Buzz' Gardner) was already playing trumpet so I said I'd play clarinet – I remember taking lessons while I was still learning piano. At that time, everyone who played clarinet eventually played saxophone, and later on when I went to high school I too started playing tenor saxophone. I had my own band in high school, my brother was on trumpet – we played Stan Kenton arrangements as I remember. I started playing bassoon as well, whilst still in high school I played professionally in the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra. Right after school the Korean war was on and I went straight into Army service by taking an audition on bassoon and going down to Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Did you meet Don Preston in the Army?

No, Don and my brother were in the Army together in Trieste, Italy in 1950. When I got out in 1955 or '56 my brother and I went to music school and in the late 1950s we decided to move to Los Angeles and start our own careers there. We met Don again in 1960 or so and we started to do some musical things together.

Had you done any recordings prior to this time?

Yeah, sometime in the late 1950's – a thing called 'Themes From The Hip' on the Roulette label, it was kind of jazzy versions of TV themes of the day; 'the theme from 'Gunsmoke', 'Wagon Train', 'Lone Ranger', 'Colt 45' – that kind of thing. I was featured on quite a few numbers, playing flute and tenor saxophone.

How did you come to meet Frank Zappa?

Don Preston had a projector set up in his garage and we would improvise on our instruments to the various collages he flashed up there. Frank made an appearance at one of those sessions. He brought his own music of course – it was a no-holds-barred, do whatever you want to kind of set up, and from those sessions quite a few things evolved. I remember Don showing Frank how you could get quite a lot of different tones out of a bicycle wheel by putting differing tensions on the spokes and playing it with drumsticks. And I can vividly remember going down to one of the TV stations to audition for a talent contest – my brother and myself, Don, Frank and a couple of other guys, we auditioned down there doing all these weird things for the people.

They couldn't believe our band, I can remember seeing them calling everyone in to watch and hear us. Certainly we were dressed a little bizarre...

Frank was blowing through bicycle handlebars, getting all these weird harmonies and banging on bicycle spokes ... that was one of our first encounters with the public. We did quite a few other things together, but then Frank moved to Cucamonga and started his own little band with Ray Collins and Jimmy Carl Black and Roy Estrada – it wasn't long after that that he started The Mothers and recorded 'Freak Out'.

So you and Don weren't in the band for that first album?

No, right after that I can remember going to Frank's house and spending just about the whole day taking an audition for him. He kept hauling out music for me to play..."play this", "how fast can you play this?" – I played my saxophone and soprano, I played my clarinet, I played my flute, my alto flute, my bass clarinet and I played piano, it was just one thing after another. At one point he said "well, we've got some dates coming up and might be touring, do you want to join the band?" This would be late 1965, early 1966. We started right away by recording 'Absolutely Free'.

And it was soon afterwards that 'Lumpy Gravy' was recorded – what was the idea behind that? I've read somewhere that it was a collection of outtakes from 'Freak Out', which I assume is wrong?

It certainly wasn't that. I think Frank wanted something classical, almost a ballet or something because it was very difficult music to play. All the great studio jazz players were on that date, along with a lot of the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and believe me, they were on the edge of their chairs trying to play the stuff that Frank had written. It was in the Capitol Records studio right on Vine Street.

Soon afterwards we all moved to New York, because it was easier to work out of New York than Los Angeles. As for 'Cruisin With Ruben And The Jets' – I remember that while we were recording that we were putting together some parts of 'Uncle Meat' at the same time, and just finishing 'We're Only In It For The Money'. 'Uncle Meat' took at least 6 months, whereas 'Ruben' only took 2 to 3 weeks.

That original band broke up completely in 1970 – what happened?

I believe Frank decided that he wanted to go in another direction.

I think he was just tired of the band, certainly we were criticized many, many times about how badly we played his music. He was very unhappy with certain members of the band. He probably thought it would be less of a drain financially as well, because at that point we were making a salary of $250 a week and I think that was just too much of a drain on him. But, it was his doing and there wasn't much we could do about it. Everybody went their own way – I certainly played with a lot of different bands  around that time.

Soon afterwards though, you joined Jimmy Carl Black in his band Geronimo Black

That's right, we had got a recording contract with Universal to make our first album, but they wouldn't subsidise us to go out on the road – so we had to do it ourselves, and it was very difficult. It only lasted a couple of years, and we all went in different directions again. Jimmy moved back to Texas.

Who was Domenic Troiano, who came into the story around this point?

Ah, Domenic. Domenic was a very, very fine guitar player from Canada who I met while I was recording the Geronimo Black album here in Los Angeles. He was at that time recording his own album. We played together quite a bit, and he asked me to get a horn section together and write the arrangements for his album.

Which I did. I got my brother on trumpet, I got Tjay Cantrelli [of Love] and a few other friends and we recorded his album, which I liked very much. Domenic later went on to become the lead guitarist of the James Gang, but I think he liked having his own group most of the time. He certainly was a great guitar player.

How did you come to meet up with Tim Buckley?

I had a friend, John Balkin, who had been playing bass with Tim Buckley. We had our own band, Menage A Trois, that Tim had heard tapes of and he liked what we were doing – so we started playing with Tim. It lasted a couple of years and was really enjoyable.

Tim had a tremendous voice I thought. He'd always loved jazz, admired Miles Davis, and he wanted to get a little more jazz into his folksy approach but at the same time remain contemporary and maybe even a little avant garde. I thought we filled that very well, and it was a great shame that Tim died at such an early age.

A completely different character to Frank Zappa ...

Working with Frank and working with Tim was like night and day. I could relate on a personal level with Tim Buckley, I have a very warm spot in my heart for Tim, but with Frank it was a completely different story. He was never interested in you personally, everything focused on him. He was a difficult taskmaster – nobody's perfect, so it was difficult for some people to meet his demands. Since I was musically trained I had an easier time than some of the other members. He could never find it in himself to say 'good job' or express some warmth, because his normal reaction would be to criticise something first and if there was anything left he might just admit that we had played well. So it was difficult to like Frank.

You've continued working with Don Preston and other members of the former Mothers though, right up to the present day. Well, on and off anyway.

That's right, for a couple of years Don and I did a lot of private parties as 'Bunk & Don' – when we weren't doing that we played contemporary avant garde jazz at local theatres and art galleries as well as a bit of recording for movie soundtracks. Right now I'm still playing jazz with my brother in The Hollywood Allstars at a club called 'Legends Of Hollywood' – Don was also part of that for a while. There was also a kids' TV series that Flo & Eddie wrote called 'Strawberry Shortcake', I did most of the woodwinds for that. Then there was the Grandmothers band: Don Preston on keyboards, myself on woodwinds, Tom Fowler on bass, Jim Black on drums, Walt Fowler on trumpet and keyboards, Tony Duran and later Denny Walley on guitar. A natural progression of Mothers of Invention to Grandmothers was brought about by Don and myself and Jim deciding to play some of Frank Zappa's music and mostly recording and playing our own music in 1980. We toured California and Europe playing contemporary and avant-garde, plus satire and humour that was very offensive to Frank Zappa, but we didn't care if he liked what we were doing or not ...

You've also worked with some very, very famous rock musicians along the way ...

I played with Little Richard, did the Dick Clark show with him at a 20th Anniversary show. And Del Shannon, and Van Morrison in New York ...

And now you're recording with Billy James in Ant Bee, which is about as contemporary as you can get – how do you feel about that?

I've really enjoyed working with Billy James, I'm not that familiar with his music but I'm certainly excited about it, and I'd love to tour Europe again. We'll just have to wait and see what happens.

We will indeed. With thanks again to Bunk & Billy –

Written, produced & directed by Phil, August 1992.

[Next issue: Don Preston]

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