Jeff Cotton | Interview | New Album, ‘The Fantasy of Reality’ | Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band guitarist releases his first ever solo album
After playing guitar, lap steel and vocals with the legendary Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, appearing on the ground breaking album ‘Trout Mask Replica’, as well as playing on ‘Strictly Personal’ and ‘Mirror Man’, Cotton withdrew from the commercial music business for nearly 50 years.
Using the island state of Hawaii as a home base, he emerged from his seclusion in 2022 with his first ever solo album; ‘The Fantasy of Reality’.
Whimsical, playful and tongue-in-cheek – Cotton delivers a psychedelic journey that will delight Beefheart devotees while bringing plenty of new ideas to the table across the sprawling 22 track, 66 minute runtime. ‘Trout Mask Replica’ cover designer Cal Schenkel collaborates once again as he returns to contribute to the internal artwork of the album to continue the Captain Beefheart canon into the 2020s.
Across the decades, the Magic Band’s power and influence has only grown in might, and the cult following of 1969’s ‘Trout Mask Replica’ still excites fans to this day, in part due to the mystery and enigma of members such as Antennae Jimmy Semens (aka Jeff Cotton). In 1967, Cotton was scoped by Don Van Vliet – Captain Beefheart himself, replacing Ry Cooder on guitar. He then went on to help craft some of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s most vibrant recordings and later contributed to the cult band MU.
Now blending together musical strands such as jazz, delta blues, Hawaiian and the avant-garde to create a melting pot of ideas, Cotton will astonish fans with his comeback.
“I spent years in searching and experimentation, finding the most cutting edge technology, to clear the emotional and mental debris”
It’s really nice to have you. Tell us, what’s the story behind making ‘The Fantasy of Reality’? How did you transcend your past with the music you’re creating today?
Jeff Cotton: Some of the music on ‘The Fantasy of Reality’ had their beginnings in the year 1970, just after MU was founded. The tracks range from that year, through 2020. The title and concept (the message) was penned by Randy Wimer, my longtime friend, and fellow player. Randy played drums for a brief period in our group, Blues in a Bottle. As you may recall, the lineup for Blues in a Bottle, at one time, was the four musicians that helped to create ‘Trout Mask Replica’. John French, Bill Harkleroad, Mark Boston and myself.
Transcending the past; if you’re referring to past experiences, such as the fallout from my time in Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, then here it is… After the trying and emotional damage of the ‘Trout Mask Replica’ era, I spent a few month’s back in the Mojave Desert, which by the way, is where we had all lived. The original lineup of the Magic Band, as well as the ‘Trout Mask Replica’ incarnation, including Don Van Vliet, and of course Frank Zappa, too. So for me, just being in a natural and relaxed environment, with the freedom to write and create new music, to let out the pent up creative energies, was an exhilarating experience, to say the least. So, from just a musical standpoint the personal expression alone was a healing balm. However, when one has been so steeped in a world system that is a construct, the fantasy of reality, then layer upon layer, must be cleansed. I spent years in searching and experimentation, finding the most cutting edge technology, to clear the emotional and mental debris.
You’ve been in the music business for many years. This is kind of like a new chapter in your life… releasing your first solo album. What is your creative process like when it comes to solo work?
When the song is being birthed, I frequently compose on the guitar. However, sometimes I begin with the melody line first and I find the accompanying chords. The song basically writes itself. In other words, it tells me what it needs, and I build It accordingly. Here is one example.
4. lead vocal
5. additional sweetening, horns, bottleneck guitar, keyboards, and harmony vocals
Where was the album recorded and what can you tell us about the recording process?
The basic tracks, and most of the instrumental recording was done in Bellingham, Washington, and the remaining work, including finishing of the vocal tracks, mixing and mastering was completed back in Hawaii.
Was there a particular mood you were trying to capture? A story you were trying to tell?
Moods: I’d say encouragement, hope, empowerment, exhilaration and divine love. In some of the material; such as ‘Hear the Word’, ‘On the Thread’, although mostly instrumentals, will hopefully bring the listener through their own life experiences from a fresh perspective.
What are some of the most important players that influenced your own style and what in particular did they employ in their playing that you liked?
Son House could embody the depth of soul and his yearning for liberation, through his crying slide guitar. Chet Atkins guitar playing was so precise, rhythmic and full, that it could take two, maybe even three musicians to accomplish what he could, by himself. Wes Montgomery’s famous style of playing octaves with that lightning thumb and crisp, clean jazz licks, was a big influence. We can’t forget the creative genius of Les Paul, and his futuristic recording techniques are without parallel, in my estimation!
How do you usually approach music making?
Reverently … I consider the creative process, as my connection to “the one who is love”, the one who holds all life in form and from whom all life flows.
I hope you don’t mind if we talk about the early days. Was there a special moment in your life when you knew you wanted to become a guitarist?
For my thirteenth birthday my parents gave me an old Kay Archtop guitar. From that day forward, I was all in. Taking four guitar lessons and learning the rhythm and lead on the famous Ventures tune, ‘Walk, Don’t Run’, I had the epiphany that I could do this on my own.
How did you join Merrell and the Exiles?
One day, my dad and Merrell’s dad, both being pilots at the local airport in Lancaster, Caifornia in the Mojave Desert, got to talking about their son’s guitar playing. So he comes over to my house with his guitar and little amp, and that first night. We decided to start a band and we decided on “The Exiles”. Within 6 months we had our first single record release.
Would you like to talk about Fapardokly and the classic psych album from 1967?
I had nothing to do with Fapardokly whatsoever. However Merrell may have added a track or two with me playing on it.
What about Blues in a Bottle? How did that come about?
All of us guys back then, were playing in some sort of a band most of the time. It was a life of “very little” responsibility, MUCH sometimes brief, but intense, progressive musical communion with others… After playing with Merrell in the Exiles, my first group was the Allusions, the second group, the Intruders… And next for me, came Blues in a Bottle, from time to time featuring such players as Larry Willey (MU), Randy Wimer (MU), and Don Giesen.
“Stoned nights, driving with Don in the X3 Jaguar”
Blues in a Bottle also featured future Magic Band members Mark Boston, Bill Harkleroad and John French. You were recruited into the Magic Band in 1967 as a replacement for Ry Cooder. What do you recall from being part of one of the most eccentric groups?
Early on I recall, late stoned nights, driving with Don in the X3 Jaguar, while he enjoyed a private audience of one, while looking for night-action. Then the exhilaration of being right in the middle of the creative process of the tracks on ‘Mirror Man’ and ‘Strictly Personal’.
Was working with Don Van Vliet really such a struggle? What was it like to work on records like ‘Strictly Personal’, ‘Mirror Man’ and ‘Trout Mask Replica’? What runs through your mind hearing those records again these days?
The struggle began only after Alex St. Clair and Jerry Handley left the band. Alex was close to Don’s age and actually both he and Jerry, had a stabilizing effect on Don’s influence… So really, “the roots met the soil” when work began on ‘Trout Mask Replica’.
“‘Trout Mask Replica’, was filled with much fear on our part”
You left the band in 1970. The session for ‘Trout Mask Replica’ must have been a nightmare?
The approximate nine months of work on ‘Trout Mask Replica’, was filled with much fear on our part. The four of us musicians, had been close friends and bandmates for years, and had NEVER even so much as had an argument or misunderstanding. So you can imagine what it was like to no longer trust one another, because of the fear of being interrogated. I want to make this point very clear… The many many hours spent by me, as scribe for the lyrics; performing them for Don while in the creative mode of the moment, was a welcomed respite from the emotional trauma. And although, so much of my time was devoted to “scribing”, and attending many of a rehearsal without much, if any sleep, the music was the one place where I could experience the joy, because the four of us, Mark, Bill, John and myself, were absolutely free to connect with one another in the music. You hear the results of one pointed commitment to something that we believed in, and that we had dedicated our lives to, at that particular time.
It must have felt wonderful to get back together with Merrell Fankhauser in a band called MU. Tell us about those MU records?
The first MU album was written by myself and Merrell. The creative process was really fun and explosive, and quite synchronistic. This was a healing for my soul, because in the Magic Band no other writers were allowed to contribute, and now for the first time in over two years, I could open the flood gates! I think that the avant-garde influence from my recent tenure in Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, together with the fact that I had been writing music for a number of other songwriting talents, and with Randy Wimer’s open ended, precise drumming and Larry Willey’s bouncing bass and awesome voice, MU was a force to be reckoned with. The four forces of MU. The final album we recorded on Maui in 1974, and was relatively “safe”. It was engineered by Barry Mayo, who a few years before, had recorded the album entitled, ‘Hawaii 1970’. The lineup was Merrell Fankhauser (rhythm guitar, vocals), Randy Wimer (drums & percussion), Jeff Parker (bass), Mary Fiddle (violin), Erna Woo (zill) and myself, (lead guitar, bass, bass clarinet, vocals).
Were you inspired by psychoactive substances like LSD when it came to music making?
Inspired yes. There was some experimentation in the MU years, and in the Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band time, but the majority of my “searching”, predated my time in these two groups.
What followed in your career after MU?
I raised a wonderful family, was married for forty-two years, and although retiring from the music business, I continued writing and my partner and I played occasional gigs, both in Hawaii and on the mainland US.
Looking back, what was the highlight of your time? Which songs are you most proud of? Where and when was your most memorable gig?
I think about my time in Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band when we toured Europe, in I believe, 68’ and in early 69.’ There are so many songs, between ‘Mirror Man’, ‘Strictly Personal’ and ‘Trout Mask Replica’ that I really liked. I’d say, I would have to choose ‘Trout Mask Replica’ as my favorite album. With ‘Strictly Personal’, a shameless second. Songs that come to mind on ‘Strictly Personal’ would be ‘Trust Us’ and ‘Beatle Bones N’ Smokin Stones’. Songs on ‘Trout Mask Replica’, ‘The Blimp (Mousetrap Replica)’, as I performed the vocals, also on ‘Pena’ and shared vocals with Don Van Vliet on ‘Ella Guru’. And ‘My Human Gets Me Blues’.
So my friends, when you get your hands on my new release, ‘The Fantasy of Reality’, the first solo album of my career spanning 60 years, (btw, I am playing all instruments, all guitars, including bottleneck, bass, digital drums, keyboards, bass clarinet, soprano sax, harmonica, all vocals including harmonies) there are seven genres and hopefully something for everyone. Please enjoy, and know this, there is still a lot more to come!