Interview with Don Preston: 2002
Donald Ward "Don" Preston was born in Flint, Michigan on September 21, 1932.
He joined Frank Zappa's "Mothers of Invention" on their second album, Absolutely Free. I first met Don at the University of Maryland during Zappa's 1973 tour. We've remained friends ever since. This interview was done in 2002.
Steve: You just finished touring the US with the Grandmothers this summer. Was the tour a success?
Don: Well, I don't know if it was a success because we played a lot of small towns, like in Iowa and Oklahoma, and people from there don't know who the Mothers are today. So we had poor audiences in places like that. But in New York and LA we had great audiences. Yeah, I enjoyed it. The last time I toured (with the Grandmothers) was in '94.
Steve: What was the worst thing that happened?
Don: We threw an axle on the tour bus.
Steve: What is your rig these days? What instruments and amps are you using?
Don: I don't use an amp. I prefer to just take the output from the mixer. I wear earphones to monitor the output. As for singing I use a monitor, but actually on this last tour I was running the mic through the mixer as well. For keyboards, I play a Roland JV-1080 and then I used a Roland EM-10. The Roland EM-10 is like a real amateur keyboard - like the kind with speakers on each side. I bought this in New York because it just had this incredible sound. I couldn't believe it. It has a great piano (sound) and has incredible, great percussion sounds, and pianist sounds like celeste, marimba. It was a good second instrument to have (on the tour) to switch back and forth. Plus it's real light, which is always a consideration.
Steve: Since you grew up with a father who was the composer-in-residence for the Detroit Symphony , did you always know you would be a professional musician?
Don: Oh, I *never* knew it. My parents gave me piano lessons, but they said 'Dont ever become a musician.' Even though my dad was a very successful musician in terms of nice house, nice cars, and all that stuff. But I guess he had higher hopes for me like becoming a manager for a big department store.
Steve: So what did he think when you went off into Jazz and Zappa?
Don: Well, It was unexpected for him. I went into the army, and when I went into the army I really didn't know very much about music at all, other than the fact that I could play the piano. But I didn't know 'about music.' Like in a song, I didn't know what the 'bridge' was. I hadn't got to that part of being a musician. Up to that point I had just played classical music. So I think it was kind of surprising to him that when I got out of the service and came back to Detroit, and I started playing with people. He had a recording studio, and I remember that I brought these two black guys over with me to make a demo. And he recorded it, and he was impressed with what we were doing. I don't remember exactly who it was right now, but they were the best in Detroit at that time.
Steve: Did your family ever see you perform with Zappa?
Don: Yes, separately. My parents divorced when I was 12. I remember that my dad came to a concert we did in Detroit - in this cheesy club, though. I was sort of disapointed in that but he was very impressed with the band and with Frank. The complexity of the music. Because he could dig it. Yes, he could understand what we were doing (musically), as opposed to people who just thought what we were doing was weird because they didn't know what the complexity was. And my mother came to see the Mothers at the Pauly Pavillion when we played with the L.A. Philharmonic. So here I am playing with the L.A. Philharmonic, and the Mothers of Invention, of course, and afterwards I had to drive her home. On the drive she began telling me about this bar she had visited with 'these really cute guys' that were playing this pop music and she asked me 'why can't you do something like that?'
Steve: Oh man! That's amazing.
Don: That's mothers for you.
Steve: You once said that you were kicked out of school for *hypnotizing a nun*. What were you trying to make her do?
Don: I wasn't really trying to make her do anything. I was just showing people that I could hypnotize her.
Steve: Some fans of the original Mothers of Invention may not be aware of your extensive musical experiences both before joining Zappa -- and after. For example, you toured with Nat "King" Cole in 1958 playing piano. Was he still interested in his early jazz that he apparently gave up when his career took off? Where did you play? What memories stand out?
Don: I was playing piano on the tour with Nat "King" Cole. I also played bass alot in Detroit but I was on piano with the Cole tour. He played on a couple of selections to show he could play piano. You see, I was in a band at that time called the Hal McIntire band, which was a collection of musicians from New York and L.A. It was kind of like a white Count Basie band. A lot of musicians would know who the McIntire band was. It was kind of a nice band, and the music was fabulous. So what happened was that Nat "King" Cole had to go on a tour and he was playing all of the Nelson Riddle arrangements so (Cole) had to have a band. So he took us because we were a complete band with a good reputation because the musicians were good.
Steve: What was Cole like at that time? What were your impressions of him?
Don: To tell you the truth, I thought of him as royalty. He had this 'air' about him that was so regal. It was amazing. He didn't really associate with the band though, at all.
Steve: Prior to his later career, wasn't he doing some really cool jazz?
Don: Yeah, lovely.
Steve: Was he playing jazz when you were with him?
Don: Yeah. He would throw that in when he played piano. There would be one song during the evening when he would sit down at the piano and play a jazz tune. And he could still do it well.
Steve: What kind of places did you play?
Don: We started in Vancouver and we went totally across Canada and ended up in Montreal. We played every place including Calgary. A whole bunch of places that I had never even heard of.
Steve: Then you played bass with Herbie Mann and Yousef Lateef?
I played with Herbie Mann. He was in the army band that I was in, over in Trieste, Italy. His real name is Herbie Soloman. We were in the army together. There were a lot of really good musicians in the army band. And we get together in various groups to jam at night. It was a very good experience for me.
Steve: So you were learning scoring and orchestration then?
Don: Yes, especially scoring. I wrote a lot of arrangements and compositions, both classical and jazz. We had the big, concert band, and then smaller ensembles.
Steve: So I would assume that you had some real chops, and orchestration experience when you joined the Mothers, that Zappa may have still been developing.
Don: Yeah, I had written quite a bit of music for orchestra and smaller groups before I met Zappa.
Steve: Did Frank ever ask you for pointers on orchestrating stuff?
Don: No. He wasn't really aware of what I knew when I joined the Mothers, but we both kind of learned the same way, by experience. Neither one of us went to school.
Steve: You have cited Toru Takemitsu, the Japanese composer of film music , as a major influence on your own work. Takemitsu first experimented with electronic techniques and "sound designs" in the fifties and sixties. When did you first discover his work? What thoughts come to mind about his compositions?
Don: I only learned about him in the 70's. I am not sure how to describe the thoughts that come to mind. I loved Stravinsky and Ravel, and Toru carried (their music) a step further. The tonality. Takemitzu seemed to take all of those things and put them together in his own way. And he added the Japanese influence. Just as Bartok added the Hungarian influence, Takemitzu added the Japanese influence. I just love the way he writes. He doesn't really get into rhythms a lot.
Steve: I bet that many people reading this have never heard of him before. I'd never knew about him until I read something about your influences. What would be a good example of his work?
Don: I would say "November Steps" or "Eclipse" is good.
Steve: You first joined the Mothers of Invention to record "Absolutely Free." Had you seen the Mothers perform before you joined the band? What was your first impressions of both the group, and of Frank?
Don: Yes, I saw them a couple of times. My first impression was 'I don't know if I want to do this.' Because i was a jazz musician and they were playing, to me, this corny rock and roll - especially the R&B stuff, which I thought was redundant. It was mostly due to my lack of exposure and not particularly disliking that sort of stuff.
Steve: Jimmy Carl Black recently told me that "Cruisin with Ruben and the Jets" was his personal favorite Mothers record. I am guessing that it would be your *least* favorite. Am I right?
Don: No, no, it's not my least favorite. After being in the Mothers for a year or two, I grew to like that kind of music. I grew to see what Zappa liked about it. It had certain weird qualities. There's a lot of humor in it. I think that's what I liked about it. But I wouldn't say that "Ruben and the Jets" is my favorite album.
Steve: So what would be be your favorite?
Don: I knew you were gonna say that. (laughs) Probably, "We're only in it for the money."
Steve: That's my favorite, but another favorite, and I don't want to sound like I'm kissing up here, is "Waka Jawaka." I read that you have said that your favorite recorded solo is on that song, as well. Why is that one your best?
Don: Because it's the best.(laughs). It is just executed better than any of my other solos.
Steve: When you are doing a solo like on "Waka Jawaka" how much of that is just you improvising and how much was written or directed by Frank?
Don: I would say 100% (is me improvising) because when you are playing solos you are going on the chords that have been written but still improvising every note. I don't want this to be a slam on Frank, but if you take stuff that Miles Davis did with others, like a song where John McLaughlin justs riffs, Davis would copyright it "Davis/McLaughlin."
Steve: So Zappa never did that with you or any of the other musicians he played with?
Don: No. Around in the late 80s or 90s somewhere, Zappa made some revisions on some of those things. But the "Lonesome Electric Turkey" solo I did on "Filmore East" -- the only thing on the track is my solo - is copyrighted Frank Zappa.
Steve: Much has been said and written about the 1967 Mothers shows at NYC's Garrick Theatre. It seemed like everything came together for the band during those shows. Cal Schenkel hooked up with the Mothers. FZ came up with the idea to parody "Sgt. Peppers." The group found a new following. What did you think of what was happening at that time? What was it like for you? Did you sense that "The Mothers" were just going to 'take off?'
Don: Oh, God no! We never thought about that aspect. At least I didn't. I thought 'oh! this is so interesting.' 'Hey, we're doing this.' 'Hey, we're doing that.' I actually just kind of watched it. I didn't really think about what was going to happen.I was thrilled to be where I was. I just felt extremely grateful to be in that position.
Steve: In "The Real Frank Zappa" bio, Zappa writes that he decided to disband the Mothers when he saw Duke Ellington "begging for a ten-dollar advance." I have a hard time believing that story. Did you see that happen?
Don: I think I read that, too, but that's not what happened. A lot of stuff in that book is bull shit. It was just his imagination. There were a number of reasons why the Mothers disbanded. One of them was that Zappa was paying us all a salary. Now this kinda sounds stupid to me. He couldn't afford the (Mother's) salary, but he kept hiring more and more musicians. So anyhow, when he had to pay nine people in the band, it's gonna cost a lot of money. So, don't hire that many. He didn't have to hire nine people. That's what he was doing at that time. So his reasoning was that he couldn't afford to pay all the musicians with all his money. Sure, so don't hire that many. The other thing was that he used to get very angry when people would respond to the solos more than his compositions. So that was one of the things that was making him angry at the time. The other thing was that we sometimes during a concert would only play 3 or 4 songs. The rest would all be improvisation. That's the way the band was working. And working real well that way. We could handle that reponsibility and people loved it. It wasn't just jazz but like all kinds of weird time changes, experimental types of music. So I think he wanted more kinds of control on the music. Lastly, a lot of people were geting laid and he wasn't. That was probably a cause of friction.
Steve: Everyone in the band appears to have taken the break-up pretty hard, but you went ahead and continued a musical relationship with Frank through '75. So you were really the only one of the "Mothers" who continued with him.
Don: Actually, Ian Underwood also kept close. In fact, Ian was still close and stayed in touch with Zappa even *after* the class-action law suit on behalf of the ex-Mothers.
Steve: You've played and recorded with so many famous musicians. Could I just mention some and can you give me your thoughts about them?
Steve: Robbie Krieger (of the Doors).
Don: Robbie is a sweet guy. He put a band together in the L.A. area and we recorded. I always liked Robbie a lot. He was very kind, generous.
Steve: Jimi Hendrix.
Don: Jimi was friends with the band. He was always interested in what we were doing.
Steve: His picture is on the cover of "Money."
Don: Right. He came to the shoot. Uh huh. He liked the band. And we used to hang out with the other guys, Noel and Mitch.
Steve: John and Yoko. You were there at the Filmore when John and Yoko played with the band. What was that like?
Don: That was very interesting. Although I really didn't get a chance to meet them well, we did play together. At one point in the concert, one of the things that was very striking was that John started imitating Zappa by conducting the band with hand signals. I thought that was hilarious. And he was doing a really good job of it. And Yoko, in her inimitable self...(pauses, laughs/). I always liked Yoko a lot. She was stretching boundaries. I played an electronic solo. It was really a great evening.
Steve: When John died, I wrote Yoko the most thoughfull condolence letter that I could come up with. She responded, but she also sent my family Christmas cards for a couple of years after. I have them framed.
Don: Really? Wow.
Steve: How about Michael Mantler. What drew you to his music?
Don: I don't think anything drew me to his music. First of all, you have to realize that I met Carla Bley in L.A. when she was married to Paul Bley, and the three of us used to jam together. I also played bass with Carla and Paul for a year or so. In the late sixties Carla married Michael Mantler. They asked me if I would perform on her first album, "Escalator Over The Hill" , which was a huge project. A three-record set of an opera, with words by Paul Haines. It had a 20-page book the size of the album with pictures. Linda Ronstadt and Jack Bruce were on that album. So, it was an incredible project. They asked if I would be on it -*just singing* - which /(laughs)/ I found very strange. I said, 'sure, I'll do it, Why not?'
Steve: Was that the beginning of Mantler's The School of Understanding ?
Don: No, this first project, 'Escalator' was Carla's. They were living together but separate projects, except that my character, the Doctor, was the same on both. I played the same character. 38 years passed between Carla's "Escalator" and Mantler's "School."
Steve: What was your involvement with the score of "Apocolypse, Now?"
Don: Basically, I orchestrated about a fourth of the movie and played all the parts. Francis Ford Coppola's father, Carmine, wrote the score. The score had already been written by Peter Shire, and it was recorded by some synthesizer players. But Peter Shire started to have some altercations with his wife, Tallia Shire - who was Francis Ford Coppola's sister, and they got divorced. So Francis just cancelled the score. I don't know what that must have cost. So Francis said we'll do the score in San Francisco, and he got a few people like Pat Gleason and Bernie Krause, and I had just bought my own synthesizer from Pat Gleason, so they called me up because they wanted to rent my synthesizer. They knew I had one. So when I was talking to the producer, he said 'By the way, what's your name?' and I told him. He replied "Don Preston? Why don't *you* do the score? What do we need these other guys for? (He was thinking) This way we can get the synth for free. /(laughs)/. So I went there and did my portion.
Steve: When you were recording the score, how much did you know -- or could you see-- of the actual film?
Don: Oh, we had it right there. We were playing as the movie was running. Absolutely. Not every time, but the only way you can know if the cues are working is to check the film.
Steve: From your career, which is obviously amazing, you are really a pioneer in the synthesizer. Is that fair to say?
Don: Well, since I was the first person to ever use one in a band, yeah, you could say that.
Steve: The picture of the one you were playing with the Mothers says it was flat-out home made.
Don: It was home made, but it was assembled from parts. It was a modular Moog synthesizer, but square, not like the later rectangular ones. It had a casing made of plexiglass. It was assembeld differently.
Steve: How did you first discover the synthesizer? Paint that picture for us.
Don: The first one, I made.
Steve: What year was this?
Don: 1965. You couldn't buy one then. The Moog synth came out in 1967. The thing I made was a collection of oscilators, filters, and other bells and whistles. And it synthesized sounds. I thought you were referring to the pic on my home page of the Moog. If you are talking about the photo of my 1st 'homemade synth,' then that was my *own design* and was built before any other commercial synthesizer. It had about 50 oscillators, 3 filters, 2 Ring Modulators, a tape delay, a theremin and a mixer. Along with that I used several metal sculptures and a truck spring to create 'electronic' sounds.'
Steve: Absolutely fascinating. Thanks so much for talking with me.