Monday, June 11, 2012

Don Preston: A Grandfather of Invention

A few weeks ago I got the pleasure of finishing up an interview with Don Preston over the phone, in between the American and European legs of the Grandmothers of Invention's current tour. My first interview, in person at their Infinity Hall show, had crashed and burned due to technical difficulties with a digital recorder, ironically enough considering that Don's career has always been strongly centered in the technology of the times. What follows is a rundown of the personal history he recounted to me, as well as some individual snapshots of his crazy stories and specific experiences in the past 40 some-odd years.

Technological advances, all around us, are increasing in pace and scope; we've got amazing devices in our pockets and bedrooms and workplaces. Google's research lab is current testing their prototypes for Project Glass, taking us one step closer to becoming Robocops. Technology seems to be the Biggest Business of all in the US now, new innovations are immediately snapped up and bought out. It's easy to lose sight of the days, not so long gone, when the innovations in electronics were taking place in the workshops of a few good men, patiently soldering and working through trial and error. This is the tale of one of those forefathers, Don Preston, whose strides in avant-garde electronica and music production helped pave the way for the way we listen to and record music in the present day.


Don's father was a resident composer with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and he introduced his son to the influences of classical and jazz music at an early age. Don recalls being particularly fascinated with the '78 record of The Rite of Spring, especially its use in the film Fantasia, which he watched about 25 times before he turned 15. Later, when Don was in the Army, he was stationed in Trieste, Italy, working with heavy equipment. One day in 1950 Herbie Mann heard him playing piano, and suggested that he try out for the band. At the audition, he played Slow Boat to China in G flat; he was young, and faked an ability to sight read music. The ward officer running the band called him out on it in private, and then welcomed him aboard anyhow-- he clearly had talent. 

It was a great circumstance-- he met and roomed with Buzz Gardner "behind a gorgeous white castle on the Adriatic Sea." The place they lived and played had once been a whorehouse, and it was the perfect layout for the band-- a huge dancing room with bars, and 30-40 additional smaller rooms, existing for obvious reasons. About 75 guys in the military band stayed in these quarters, two guys to a room. Don got the bulk of his musical training in this time, honing his previous skills and learning new instruments through observation. The guys worked together in chamber groups in addition to big band format; Don liked learning music theory through practice, "it wasn't complicated or cryptic like in a book." 

In 1953, out of the Army, he headed back to Detroit; at that time there was "a jam session going every single day." He played with Elvin Jones and Tommy Flanagan, mostly bass and piano. He got into another luxurious living situation, renting a fancy mansion in Grosse Pointe with 7 or 8 other musicians. Were it the 1990's the place would be on MTV Cribs-- indoor fountains, fireplaces galore, elevators to the upper floors. It was a great scene to follow up his time in the Army band. In 1957 he moved on to Southern California. He established a music-centric home in LA, with an eclectic percussion setup in the practice space. It was a mashup of recovered bits of machinery and metal, "a pile of junk" producing zany sounds. 

Zappa started coming over to play music in 1961; Frank still looked like his "straight" high school photo, and Don jokes that "if anyone could be called a nerd, he could." Don showed Frank how to play the bicycle, which Zappa later performed on the Steve Allen Show. Don first auditioned for the Mothers of Invention in 1965, but hadn't played much rock and roll before; for a year after he played with a few different rock bands, learning the standards of the time, and in '65 Zappa was impressed and Don was in. 

The group rehearsed for about six months, round the clock, every day of the week. It slowed them down a bit that Frank had to coach some of the members by rote, because they weren't used to reading sheet music. The Mothers of Invention got their routine tightened up, though, and started touring six weeks on, six weeks off after that. On the band's first tour through Europe, Don was blown away by the venues they were able to perform in, especially in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and the Royal Albert Hall, where he played their legendary pipe organ. In the Concertgebouw, he played the Rite of Spring, that piece he was drawn to since childhood. 


Don listened to a lot of early avant-garde electronic composers when they were still relegated to the fringe of the orchestral world. Inspired, he wanted to make electronic music with the Mothers and on his own, and so he built his own equipment, ordering cheap parts through mail order catalogues. The resulting invention was one of the first prototypes of what would become the modern synthesizer, including qualities of the Echoplex and a built-in theremin. A year and a half later, Moog tapped into a widespread commercial market with a synthesizer model that featured an onboard keyboard. 

Don used the equipment he developed for numerous projects following the Mothers, especially in his work with Meredith Monk. He recalls fondly the close personal and creative relationship he shared with Meredith, collaborating for two years on a sound collage piece. He called her one of the most creative and inspirational people he's ever met, driven with rare passion and intensity, and living her life in the moment. His time spent working with her was important and memorable. 


When I asked Don about his smartphone magic from the Infinity Hall concert, he confirmed that he had employed an Ipod Touch, performing with the synth app Bebot, which he praised extensively for its wide array of parameters and flexibility. He asserted that he "could play a concert with that thing!" He went on to detail his first experiences with modern computers; he got his first computer in 1976, a huge Commodore PET with an astounding 8k memory. All the information was stored on large cassettes, and he worked with a binary interface and began to teach himself programming. 

Later, he got a job designing music for video arcade games for one or two years; "It was one of the few day jobs I had in my whole life, and I'd go to work and play games all day!" He had to program the music in hexidecimal, and the resulting limitations were so absurd that the higher you went in pitch the less notes you had available; upon reaching two octaves above middle C, you could only utilize every other note, and it continued to break down the higher you went. He was commissioned to write a melody for a circus game, based on the classic little circus jingle, all in half tones, which was impossible working within that compositional system. In 1983, soon after he began, the video game industry took a severe hit; Don lost his job because the musical composer was one of the most expendable roles in the gaming world. 


When I spoke to Don previously, he had just gotten home from the Grandmothers of Invention's American tour dates and was trying to figure out how to streamline his equipment to ship along with them to Europe. When I asked him about this, he let me know that he'd decided to simplify the process by using the equipment he could get his hands on once they flew over, rather than bringing his own gear over on the plane. He pointed out that this would mean "much less wear and tear on my stuff, but much more wear and tear on my brain," now having to improvise to some degree with whatever ended up being available to him on arrival.

I need to correct a mistake from my previous writing on the Grandmothers; I had heard, and reported, that the concert at Infinity Hall last month was the first date Robbie Mangano had played with the group, but it was merely his first show with them on this tour. He's collaborated with the Grandmothers for more than five years, and throughout the current tour he and Miroslav Tadic are alternating as guitarists in the band's lineup.


I asked Don about the degree of improvisation in 200 Motels, which was a favorite film of mine in college; he described the painstaking method in which Zappa prepared a script of sorts for the project. Frank would record and take note of the band's previous dialogue in day to day life, then write it all out, then write it up verbatim for them to re-read in the movie. He would also write down what he thought we would say in a certain situation; just like the music he wrote for the Mothers, it was tailored to the players' personalities. He referenced, in particular, a sample of super-meta dialogue: "he's recording us right now and he's gonna put it in the movie." Art imitated life imitated art.

The same technique was used in the making of Uncle Meat, which largely centered on Don as the titular character; he wryly warned "I don't recommend seeing it... there is a nude shower scene in it, which I took all of my clothes off, and the girl didn't." Apparently, his comfort with this was tied into one of the only other day jobs he had besides working on video games: he was a nude model for art classes long ago. Again in jest, he quipped "I don't have the body I used to have." Well, in a technical sense, none of us do.


When Don worked on the Apocalypse Now score, it was hard to imagine, in the space of the recording studio, how huge the movie would get. He worked with Spike Jones' daughter as his sound engineer, and Spike would drop in sometimes; Don says there were a lot of similarities between Jones and Zappa. When Don was scoring the death scene of Laurence Fishburne's character, Coppola came into the studio and said to him "I really want you to make this big, Don, it's gotta be big." But he slashed the music in the final take, stripping the sound down to the dialogue track. When Don approached him afterward about it, Coppola lamented "We couldn't use it-- it was TOO BIG."


I asked Don about his collaboration with the Residents on the Eskimo recordings, hoping to illuminate the myths behind the band's official cover story. When he was in San Francisco doing the music for Apocalypse Now, he had already been hanging out with the members of the band, and they asked him to lay down some tracks for them, electronic effects, synth, strange and subtle noises. His work on the album only took a few days, so he didn't see too much of the extended and apparently complex process of the Recordings' overall production. He expressed a lot of respect for the Residents: "They're great guys, they're great artists, and they're great minds." He went into detail describing the strange and innovative procedures, for example, that the band used to produce their album The Third Reich & Roll.

Asked for any final messages to the fine citizens of Connecticut, Don gave us this warm sentiment: "Having been around the United States... enjoy your state, it's a beautiful state, it's really really really really beautiful." Don't worry, guys-- I took the liberty to thank him on, well, everyone's behalf. There are a lot of genres and developments in modern music that owe their inception to the innovations of guys like Don, and he ain't through yet.

Hear the entire interview below:

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