Only Roy Estrada performed on stage with Zappa more times than Don Preston, with their last appearance together coming at the Notre Dame University in Indiana on The Mothers’ 10th Anniversary Tour in May 1974.
While Preston was keyboard player for the original Mothers from 1967, he was also the musical director for American avant-garde vocalist Meredith Monk and started performing electronic music.
Preston has recorded numerous experimental albums, scored more than twenty feature films (including parts of the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now), played with the likes of legendary clarinet player and composer John Carter and is recognised for his pioneering use of synthesizers.
He co-founded the Grandmothers in 1980, with whom he still performed with until a few years ago, and periodically performs in a duo with Bunk Gardner as The Don & Bunk Show.
In 2001, Billy James told me that Preston had a new album coming out and suggested I might like to contact him for an interview. I wasted no time...
Tell me about Transformation, the new album from your jazz trio.
The trio consists of myself on piano, Joel Hamilton on bass and Alex Cline on drums. The material is: two songs by Carla Bley; two songs by John Carter; one song by Zappa[i]; one song by Cole Porter; and three songs by me – one of which is in the sonata form and is actually six songs.
The other musicians are fantastic and there is a harmonious blend to the entire CD.
You mentioned you were also working on an album of archival material: any plans for a CD release of Eye Of Agamoto or I Can’t Breathe?[ii]
No plans, but not out of the question.
After the break-up of the original Mothers, how did you personally feel about being selected to go back and join the Flo & Eddie line-up?
I was living in New York and working with Gil Evans. I got a call from Zappa saying the band would be in New York and would I like to come down and sit in. I did and after the concert Mark and Howard told me that they were having trouble with the keyboard player and would I consider joining the group.
I had a tour in Europe with Gil, but after that I was free. My feeling was that I knew this band would never replace the original band. To me I was just joining a different band with no comparison. The fact that the band had the same name and same leader didn’t occur to me.
Tell me a little about the Montreux Casino fire.
That incident was very strange to me. First of all, the tour schedule was printed on a box of matches! Second, on the day before the fire in the middle of my solo on King Kong, someone ran out on the stage and issued a fire warning.
On the next night, in the middle of my solo on King Kong, someone threw a firecracker up to the ceiling – which was covered with dry palm leaves and started the fire.
While that was happening, Zappa’s sewer backed up in his LA home and the entire basement studio was flooded with piss and shit.
Do you remember Nigey Lennon? In her book Being Frank she says you played an improvised synthesizer section on a song of hers called Moto Guzzi; do you recall this, or her presence on the tour?
I don’t remember.
You mean you don’t remember recording, or touring with Nigey? I thought she was you and your wife Tina's rent paying roommate in Echo Park for several months in 1972 – and remained friends with you right up until she left for Europe.
Of course I remember Nigey very well. Especially the night she was fucking herself with Frank's shoe in Berkeley with Frank, Flo & Eddie and some other girls. But I didn't want that to be in the interview as I respect her very much. I wasn't there but was in the next room and heard about it the next morning.
Okay, thanks for clearing that up. What were the subsequent Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo recording sessions like?
Nothing unusual. I was in the studio by myself with Zappa and the engineers in the control room. I laid down my tracks and went home.
And your recollections of the 10th Anniversary tour?
I mostly remember how great the band was and getting to know George Duke, who was an exceptional musician.
Who was the best: the Roxy, Vaudeville, or original Mothers?
My heart says the original band, but my mind says the 1988 band.
‘The Best Band You Were Never In’, then! I have just been reading Greg Russo's excellent book, Cosmik Debris: The Collected History & Improvisations Of Frank Zappa, which implies that you hooked up with Frank in 1981 to record a track called On The Throne Of Saturn for the Music From The 21st Century compilation.
Completely wrong. The Mothers were recording Burnt Weeny Sandwich and I had all my gongs set up. I arrived at the studio first and Zappa suggested that we record some free improvisation with the gongs. So he engineered and I played. That is all Zappa had to do with that piece.
Another error to do with that piece is the name. I originally called it The Thrones Of Saturn, based on the book The Inner Realities Of Evolution by Rudolf Steiner. In the book he describes beings that live on Saturn called Thrones. That track is available on the CD Io Landscapes which is mostly electronic – or ‘music concrete’ – in style.
Most of the material on Thrones was done with a large modular Moog.
Thanks for clearing that up, too! So when and why did you finally fall out with Frank?
You know, I really don’t know. Probably when I formed the first Grandmothers. I got a call from Frank saying, "Get rid of the doll."[iii]
Can you tell me how the pseudonyms 'Dom DeWild' and 'Biff Debris' came about?
My ex-wife’s name was DeWild before we married and I used it on occasion.
Biff Debris was a product of Frank, used in the movie Uncle Meat, which was supposed to be loosely based on the movie John And Mary with Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow.
When did you last cry and why?
Day before yesterday, when I watched Galaxy Quest.
What’s that sample at the start of the track Moon Unit on your album Vile Foamy Ectoplasm?
It’s not a sample; it’s a modular Moog where three voices are tracking one keypress. Sawtooth waveforms going through a low-pass filter.
Right. What have you got in your pockets right now?
I don’t have any pockets.
What magic tricks did you perform with the Muffin Men in the summer of 1993?
I made two cans become magnetic and I made my leg disappear.
And your pockets too, presumably!
Are the Grandmothers going to tour again?We will do some limited touring this summer. Roy Estrada and Billy Mundi will be joining the band.
Jimmy talked to me about how the Grandmothers were recording a new studio album of all original material – will it include New Age Mumbo Jumbo and The Great Generic Side Show?[iv] Tell me more.
No plans as of now.[v]
Shame. What about a re-recording of I’ve Fallen And I Can’t Get Up?
Thought not. How’s The Don & Bunk Show album coming along?
It’s coming along great. Right now we’re working on The Little House I Used To Live In.
What are your plans for the future?
I am starting a musical series here in Los Angeles at The Downtown Playhouse to promote new music and avant-garde jazz with artists like Bobby Bradford and Vinny Golia.
I want to do a recording with a group I formed last year called The Akashic Ensemble, with Alex Cline and Nels Cline.
I also want to tour with The Don And Bunk Show – possibly doing our lecture The Evolution Of Frank Zappa’s Music.
Okay. So what was Zappa really like?
Interview conducted on Sunday 18th February 2001. The complete interview can be found in my book Frank Talk: The Inside Stories Of Zappa's Other People (Wymer UK, 2017). Photo of Don reading T'Mershi Duween outside the Subterania, Ladbroke Grove on 9th August 1993 taken by the Idiot Bastard.
[i] The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbeque, which first appeared on the Mothers' album Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970).
[ii] Both are pieces composed by Preston. The former was played a few times by The Mothers circa. 1968-69, and both were regularly performed by the original Grandmothers in 1981. The songs were included on Grandmothers, an anthology of previously unreleased recordings by ex-members of the Mothers in 1981, but mysteriously excluded when a revised and expanded version of the album was issued on CD in 1993. They subsequently re-appeared on the Preston album Retrospective in 2009.
[iii] For the early Grandmothers shows in Europe, Preston made a huge doll bearing Zappa's face. This would be used in a “skit where it looked like we were giving birth to this doll head”...up until that phone call.
[iv] To the best of my knowledge, this track has still to appear anywhere. When I asked Preston about it in 2017, he said “I'm lucky if I can remember my name. I have no idea what that was.”
[v] It is now evident that, following a lengthy tour of the US by The Grandmothers in 2000, Black and Preston had become estranged at this point: Black was excluded from the next line-up of the Grandmothers and, as noted in my interviews with him, felt sidelined by Preston at their last ever appearance together at Zappanale in 2002.
[vi] This is a track by Roland St. Germain from the 'Austin' Grandmothers album Dreams On Long Play (1993). When Preston returned to the band from ‘temporary retirement’, the two did not get along and St. Germain ended up getting fired by fax.
I have continued to correspond with Don on and off over the years since our interview. Here’s a couple of exchanges that may be of interest – including one question that Dr. Dot put to him regarding the alumni that I just had to transcribe!
I was wondering if you were aware of FZ's brief tenure as a beat poet? In April 1959, he submitted a poem (entitled LA Night Piece) to Grover Haynes of the Three Penny Press, using the pseudonym Vincent Beldon. More than this, I do not know. Does any of this mean anything to you? I don't think you'd met Frank then, so possibly not.
I remember about 1967 Zappa recited a poem very much like Beefheart. It was very good, but I never heard it again.
The Zappa Trust released an expanded 50th anniversary edition of the 200 Motels soundtrack album. This includes two short Synth tracks and I wondered if they might be performed by your good self – and if so, can you recall when and where they were recorded?
I don't believe either of those tracks are my work. Just not my sensibility. Thanks for asking.
Is there anyone out of the alumni that you hate?
I don't hate him but there was this one guy that was very angry that I wouldn't come to see the Joe's Garage musical here in LA. He was so mad at me, he sent me a picture of his dick. Then later on I heard that he had a hit on me – for $500! That's all I'm worth? Come on, jeez!
Caricature by Antero Valério. Dr. Dot's full unexpurgated interview with Don can be found here – check it out!