Discussion With A Neglected Orphan

Roland St. Germain interview by Paul Remington

T'Mershi Duween, #51-52, May-July 1996

When Roland St. Germain left the Grandmothers in October 1993 he felt like a Neglected Orphan. Leaving behind frustration and betrayal, he took with him a musical direction ignored by his former band members. As a result, much of the music created for the Neglected Orphans' first release, 'Dances With Weasels', was created during his tenure with the members of Frank Zappa's former band.

Why a Neglected Orphan? Roland says, 'When I left the Grandmothers, I couldn't help feeling betrayed by the ex-Mothers of Invention'. These negative emotions became a catalyst for positive change. Today, Roland is enjoying his musical creativity. The Neglected Orphans, signed with MRP (Muffin) Records, are looking forward to touring, and have enough material planned for at least an additional two releases.

Roland's talents are not limited to music performance. For nearly three years (1990-1992), he was the Grandmothers' music director, producer, keyboard player, guitarist, and songwriter. He knows what it takes to bring together a select group of musicians for the sole purpose of creating music. 'Assembling a group starts out gradually. Each band member has to make the transition from their previous routine to a new one. The ideal method is to work one-on-one with each musician, then bring them all together to fine-tune the performance.'

Roland became interested in music performance at a young age after being influenced by the music of Frank Zappa, the Beatles, and other rock notables. He began playing the guitar by the age of ten, the keyboard by the age of twelve, and composing rock operas in his early teens. By his late teens he discovered he had the rare gift of perfect pitch, and shortly afterwards 'everything sort of clicked into place'.

At 42 he harbours the experience to realize the creative momentum he was unable to achieve with the Grandmothers. Along with Roland, former Grandmother Linda Valdmets (violin), Scott McGregor (guitar), Dave Ellis (bass), and Steve Dalback (drums) complete the ensemble. Each member brings their own musical influences to the group. These influences are as widespread as Alice Cooper, Béla Bartók, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, the Tubes, and Frank Zappa.

In an exclusive interview, Roland speaks out for the first time about his musical influences, his years with the Grandmothers, touring, life on the road, recording, Frank Zappa, and his views on today's music scene.

PR: You chose to compose rock operas early in your musical development. What intrigue did the rock opera concept have for you?

RSG: What I liked about the rock opera concept was that it allowed me to tell a story, and it made me think about continuity within an album.

PR: Have you considered returning to the rock opera concept?

RSG: Today, I don't write to fit that concept. I listen to material targeted for a particular album, then arrange it into a looser concept. As with most trends, the rock opera has seen its time in the limelight. After 'Tommy', 'Jesus Christ Superstar', and 'Evita', they're a tough act to follow. Although 'Joe's Garage' has done quite well in its own right.

PR: How did your association with the Grandmothers begin?

RSG: I first found out about the Grandmothers from a friend of mine, George Rasmussen, in May of 1989. He persuaded me to go to one of the shows in Austin. I was expecting to be exposed to the squeaks-and-noises phase of what I remember from the older Mothers of Invention live recordings. I was surprised by what I heard, and remember noticing they didn't have a keyboard player. I thought this might be the way to go, but blew it off, thinking they're not going to be interested in anything I have to offer. Two weeks later, I received another call from George. He told me they were playing at a restaurant called Trudy's in Oak Hill. I went with George, and he introduced me to Jimmy Carl Black who mentioned if I brought my keyboard next week, I could jam. The following Wednesday I went back to Trudy's and set up my little Casio CZ-101. Jimmy was jamming with a guitar and bass player that night. The first set was uneventful. Between sets, as Jimmy walked over to his drums, I started to play the theme from 'King Kong'. He stopped and said 'Sounds like you've played that somewhere before'. I said, 'Yeah, for the last twenty-two years'. He then said, 'That sounds good, but can you play 'Peaches en Regalia'?' I played it, and he asked, 'How would you like to come to rehearsal on Monday?' I went there the following Monday, uncertain as to how much of Frank's music these guys knew. By the end of the night, I discovered I knew tunes that they didn't, and became known as the 'Mothers' juke-box'. Our first gig took place three days later, on the third Thursday in June 1989.

PR: When did your role in the Grandmothers expand beyond a keyboard player?

RSG: I took over the duties of producer and musical director in November 1990. Had I not done so, the group would have died right then and there. The previous musical director taught me the amount of discipline required to gather material for a group like this. It made it much easier for me to take over when my time came.

PR: Was any of this material recorded?

RSG: Yes, we recorded five tunes at Bee Creek Studio in Austin, Texas that same month, with the assistance of Spencer Starnes. He was fun to work with, understood what I was trying to do, and wasted no time getting it for us. Nothing happened with these tunes right away. I assimilated some of these performances with other tracks I created. This became the cassette demo for 'Dreams on Long Play' which I completed in March and April of 1991. This gave the group an idea of the material that would be included in this collection. In July 1992, Jimmy and I went to Twisted Barn studio in Austin and met with its owner and engineer, Scott McGregor, who listened to these tracks. He agreed to record 'Dreams on Long Play' on the spot. We recorded whenever I could get the players in the studio to record their individual parts.

PR: What are your impressions of the original Mothers in the band?

RSG: My impression of Jimmy Carl Black ... he calls himself 'Sweet Sweet Steady Beat' but since he never met a beer he didn't like, even this sometimes becomes a problem. Also, he doesn't do solos. Don Preston took over while I was back in the United States. In my opinion, he was instrumental in running the group straight into the ground. He's in his sixties, and couldn't understand rock if his life depended on it. Bunk Gardner always seemed to take Don's side. He was responsible for these long meetings where he would read from notes that spanned for eight pages. He told me during the tour that no one was trying to take my responsibilities away from me. Yeah, right!

PR: Can you give examples of what formed these impressions?

RSG: Well, Preston has very little respect for what other people do. When I was in the studio working on some of his tracks, I had to play traffic cop. This was required to keep everyone coordinated with the time changes because he couldn't do it. During his tracks, I worked hard to comply with his wishes. More than once he asked me 'How do you DO that?' Answer: Because I have to. These efforts were never reciprocated. He decided to take over as leader of the band while I was back in the States. Jimmy relied on 'Where's the beer and when do we get paid?', frequently adding 'and can you lend me a couple of bucks until the end of the week?' He'd say this enough times to make you sick. He never complained about being paid though. By 1991, we played very few gigs just for fun. Considering what most people in Austin were making, we did pretty well most of the time. Through my experience working with these guys, I've come to the opinion that when Frank broke up the Mothers of Invention, they were barely able to grasp what it was Frank had in mind. Fortunately, Frank was able to find and utilise better players to record and perform his music. As for their abilities, Arthur Barrow once told me that Frank could make the band sound better than they actually were. I believe this!

PR: Do you feel the contempt some of the band members had for you stemmed from their lack of technical ability?

RSG: Technical ability may not have been as much of a factor as the feeling that they might have been threatened by me. I never understood why they would be threatened by me. What I do know is, I was told by Bunk that Frank was always in control of everything, and he didn't want to be in that situation again. Bunk wrote a piece he called 'Waltzing Z' that he immediately gave to Preston to learn. There was a bar in the piece that showed four quarter notes crammed into 3/4 time. He had no idea how it was supposed to sound! It appeared to me that Bunk was writing notes to make them look a certain way on paper. If it was playable, so be it. I crank out an average of 30 songs a year. He worked on this little piece for the two and a half months we were in Europe, and it was only one page long. To this day, I don't know what it sounds like. Yeah, Frank expected quite a bit out of these guys and didn't get it. Who was I to think it would be any different?

PR: I have an interview with Frank, I believe it's from 1974, where he talks favorably about the Grandmothers. Do you feel the group has lost their chemistry for making good music?

RSG: I'm not familiar with that review, but around 1974 Frank had a group with Don Preston. This may explain his favorable view of them at that time. There is one interview, I think it's in Guitar Player's Zappa tribute issue, where he calls them 'pathetic'. They didn't release anything further until 1979 with two releases. I've heard both of them, and still think 'Dreams on Long Play' is the best thing the group has going for then.

PR: Tell me about the 1993 tour with the Grandmothers.

RSG: The 1993 tour consisted of gigs in Italy, Switzerland, the UK, and Germany. There are probably a few other locations that don't come to mind, but that pretty much covers the countries. The Rostock show was the only show we performed in what used to be East Germany. There were no Diet Cokes available there. I remember this because they're my personal breakfast of champions. The shows ranged from an attendance of eight hundred to three thousand, depending on whether we played inside or outside. We traveled in a nine passenger VW diesel van, larger than what's available in the States. We also did a bit of travel by train, which was excellent!

PR: Do you see a difference between European fans and American fans?

RSG: European fans, if they like you, will remember you the next time you release an album. In the States, you have to constantly combat the short attention span. Times have changed, and if you decide that you want to take a year off, the odds are pretty good that your career is finished. The other difference has to do with the size of the venues. There are many different sizes of clubs in Europe. While over here, you either play in very small clubs or amphitheaters. No one seems to want to bridge the gap, and a lot of promising artists lose valuable exposure because of this.

PR: Do you prefer smaller venues over larger ones?

RSG: I like them packed, regardless of size, packed and interested. If you have to establish yourself in a club, you're going to waste a lot of energy getting your audience to come over to your side. If they're already on your side, you get to toss that energy back at them, they throw it right back at you, and that's what makes the best shows; you play catch all night long.

PR: You mentioned you have to combat the short attention span in the United States. Do you feel the media in the States propagates the short attention span, or do you see it a function of the record companies that produce the popular music we see on the charts?

RSG: I think both the media and record companies share a certain degree of the blame in shortening our attention span. Our news comes to us not in stories but in sound bites, and record companies can make you disappear as quickly as you arrived. The flip side of the coin is that these same record companies can prop you up almost forever, if they choose. This explains some of the records we see coming out by the same people year after year, although they usually end up in the cut-out bin shortly after their release. It takes a lot of determination to remember the past. Unfortunately, those who have overcome the short attention span in the United States are in the minority.

PR: While touring with the Grandmothers, did you practice any pre-gig preparation?

RSG: There were times while heading for a gig, various members of the group would ask about certain cues for the coming show. If there were sections a player thought needed improvement, such as vocal harmonies, we would work on this on our way to the gig. We would discuss the entire show. I would suggest certain musical ideas for the players to remember, and the cue associated with the idea. It was possible to talk through the show, then play the show exactly as we discussed it. It was wonderful! Moments like that make you want to believe in magic.

PR: So, not all your experiences with the Grandmothers were negative. Can you share a memorable moment while on the tour?

RSG: During the 1993 European tour, we had a few days off in Dettingen, Germany, which we spent in a hotel. We were waiting for the van to show up so we could load our bags. Everything was packed and ready to go. The girls who cleaned the rooms told us we had to leave. We told them we were waiting for the van, and since we were already packed, they could do their jobs without any problems from us. They ran across the street to the restaurant and bitched at the chef, who must have been their Dad. He ran over to the hotel and started screaming at the top of his lungs, 'RAUS! RAUS! RAUS!' ('OUT! OUT! OUT!') In no time, both the band and our stuff were out in the parking lot. Since we spent a pretty good amount of money for rooms, and at the hotel's restaurant, this was not exactly acceptable customer service. This experience gave birth to the legend of the Raus Haus, which first appeared in our show in nearby Kirchheim, and also rated a mention on our rendition of Frank Zappa's 'Road Ladies'. Needless to say, when we returned to Dettingen, we didn't stay there again.

PR: What initiated your departure from the Grandmothers?

RSG: I left the Grandmothers in October 1993, after receiving a fax from Don Preston informing me that I would no longer have any say in how my songs would be performed, or which of them would be played. I worked for three out of four years with the group trying to develop a sound that would work for us, and it did. Don came in during the '93 European tour against my wishes. He rejected everything we had been doing, refused to learn the material on the album, and proceeded to waste time during the sound checks. Don and Bunk would also take turns sabotaging my material on stage.

PR: So, mounting frustration played a part in the departure?

RSG: Yes, frustration was part of the slow replacement process, along with depression. Imagine walking into a club and seeing your equipment not set up, or even out of the bus. Then seeing Don Preston, who didn't have a grasp of the material we were already doing, running the group through the 'Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue'. I was on the war path in the dressing room after this little event! The tune turned into a duet between Don and Bunk, and was a very shitty rendition. Don had a thing he did for a few shows where he would make noises over a sequencer thing he developed. In Karlsruhe the audience laughed at him. I loved it! 'Dances with Weasels' was my therapy, and I'm better for it. However, there will always be that feeling of betrayal by the ex-Mother's of Invention, and the bass player who agreed with them. As I've said before, even the new incarnation is dead. Jimmy Carl Black, himself having some differences with Preston now, is currently playing with anyone who will put up with him.

PR: What have you learned as a result of your experience with the Grandmothers?

RSG: There are many different levels that must be understood to get band members in sync. For example, when I would write a new tune, I knew that Linda Valdmets could read and play anything I put on paper, even if I wrote it wrong. Gerald 'Eli' Smith (woodwinds) could read, but I had to work a little harder to get it to work. Ener Bladezipper (bass) usually had to know what chords were involved, unless there were specific notes that had to be played. Jimmy pretty much played whatever the hell he wanted to, and if I did my homework, it usually worked.

PR: Will there ever be a reunion of the 1989-1993 Grandmothers?

RSG: I can assure you, there will never be a reunion of those members. Three out of five of us (I'm one of them) did not appreciate the way we were screwed in 1993. No amount of money will bring us back. The fans who remember the band will have only the 'Dreams on Long Play' CD, and their memories to fall back on. I know I will wash dishes for a living before I set foot on the same stage with them again. Those days are over!

PR: You are currently signed with MRP (Muffin) records. How did that association begin?

RSG: Reinhard Preuss (Mr. Muffin) first heard a cassette demo of 'Dreams on Long Play' in early 1993, while the final album was being completed. He liked the demo and wanted the album, so we worked feverishly to mix it down in time for its June 1993 European release. After I left the Grandmothers, I sent him a demo of 'Dances With Weasels' in December 1993. He gave me the green light to begin digital recording in March 1994. Since he moved to Austin, two things have happened: we stay in touch constantly, and my phone bills are a lot lower.

PR: You've performed some of the same responsibilities as Frank Zappa, eg song writing, producing, directing, performing. Considering your experience, have you noticed any problems Frank may not have been able to fully resolve?

RSG: While touring, Frank had the burden of setting up the equivalent of a digital recording studio for each gig, and getting all of the bugs worked out of it in about five hours. This didn't always happen. If you checked out the 'Does Humor Belong in Music?' video, Ike's vocal mike was out during the entire show. I believe Frank didn't tour only when it was not possible. This can be seen during his 1971 injury. After the way the 1988 group turned on Scott Thunes, that finished it once and for all. The only other gaps seem to occur between personnel changes.

PR: Mike Keneally mentioned when he called Frank to inquire whether he could try out for the band, Frank indicated his chance of touring again was slight, at best. Yet, not long after, in 1988, we found Frank on the road again.

RSG: I think Frank was torn between the Synclavier and the problems associated with live performance. The Synclavier could be manipulated to provide an accurate playback of the music he composed. Live performance is not that predictable, and you have far less control over the final results. Although, during live performances Ike Willis would occasionally say something that would crack Frank up. Moments like that make touring an enjoyable experience.

PR: Do you have any observations about Frank's ability to create such diverse material, find successfully market it?

RSG: Frank had an uncanny ability of knowing his market. My feeling is that Frank knew when he could please a certain market by releasing an album, such as 'Over-Nite Sensation', and 'One Size Fits All', and when he could please himself by releasing others, like 'Man from Utopia' and 'Jazz From Hell'.

PR: How has Frank's music influenced what you write?

RSG: Frank's music can be broken down into two categories: serious music, and tunes that crack people up. As much as I love his serious music, my writing tends to lean toward material that cracks people up. He showed me that I could write funny lyrics and set them to music. Most of the time it works. The Beatles influence weaves its way in more subtly. I have been told many times that my material is a cross between Frank and the Beatles. Bits and pieces of other influences creep in also, just to keep it interesting. What you get in a Neglected Orphans production is a Beatles feel with a slight touch of what you might call 'Frank-isms' that are used only when necessary.

PR: Do you find your song writing attempts to make a social statement, or are you more interested in the art of organizing notes and sound?

RSG: The lyrical portions of my songs have to do with observations of human behavior. I believe we all have brains and we should use them. Many folks don't, and whether the result is funny or tragic, it gives me an endless stream of new material. As for social statements, I think that concept has been overdone. I call it the 'We Are the World' syndrome. After that tune came out, a slew of similar anthems were released. It's a trend that I avoid like the plague.

PR: If the lyrical content is not intended to communicate a social message, what motivates what you communicate in your music?

RSG: My approach is similar to Frank's in that I look at behavior and attitudes that annoy me. For example, 'Who Dicked Who Over' on 'Dreams on Long Play' is a response to women who would approach me after shows trying to get me involved in relationships at a time when I was quite happy on my own. 'Head Up the Yin-Yang Blues' on 'Dances with Weasels' describes what happens when a relationship goes bad.

PR: Many artists use the studio as a creative tool. In what ways do you utilize the studio as a creative tool?

RSG: I look at the studio more as a canvas, at least for now. 'Dances with Weasels' was recorded around everyone's schedule. Sometimes each band member had to learn the material at the drop of a hat. 'Dreams on Long Play' was recorded the same way. I'm very much aware of the equipment at our disposal, and will use it if there's a use for it. For instance, the use of a Vocoder guitar at the beginning of' 'I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up 95'. I work more toward getting a product that reflects what the group can do on stage. This is important when the album is released, since we won't have all of these studio tricks available to us on stage.

PR: You appear much more comfortable with the Neglected Orphans. Do you feel the chemistry between each of you helps in the creative development of a piece? If so, can you describe this process?

RSG: Both the chemistry and personal experience of each band member plays a part. An example of this can be heard in 'I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up'. At the time I began that tune, I wrote two verses and a bridge. There was no resolution to the song. On the cassette demo of 'Dreams on Long Play', I recorded it that way, ended it with a brief commentary, and attached it to the next track. After one of our shows, Linda came to me and suggested a verse that said, 'Hey, I like it down here on the ground'. I took that idea home, worked on the last verse, and it's been that way ever since. So far, Linda and I have collaborated on the greatest number of tunes, incorporating our different points of view into a given track, and it's worked very well. Musically, the ideas come from each member's cumulative exposure to different types of music. If it works, and I can't identify a particular source of the idea, it becomes a part of the performance.

PR: Regarding future releases, what can your fans look forward to?

RSG: The next Neglected Orphan's album scheduled is 'Y.u.i. Oughta'. A tune entitled 'Breakfast At Stephen King's House' will be included, which will probably be recorded during our next tour. That piece works so much better on stage than in the studio. A live album is planned, tentatively set as album number three.

PR: As a closing question, you have been in the music scene long enough to have formed opinions about the music business. What are those opinions?

RSG: Hmmmm ... where do I start? First, get everything in writing. When you do, be sure you have a good lawyer to insure that what you're promised is really in print, free of disclaimers. Second, when people compliment you, it's usually because that's their job, or they're trying to get on your good side in order to take advantage of you. Or, they want to provide assurance that everything is okay, while behind the scenes steps are being taken to bring about your demise. Third, the only people that really count are your fans. Piss them off, and you may as well find a desk job. Fourth, if you think going on the road is one long party, go for it! When you're on day three of a thirty day tour and feel like the walking dead, don't blame me. Fifth, regardless of how much you may love it, playing music is one of the most insecure careers, second only to working on the Bomb Squad. If you have the desire to do it, give it a try, if for no other reason than to avoid wasting time later wondering how things might have turned out. Six, if and when you do achieve any degree of success, you'll find the people you thought were your friends don't want anything to do with you. This ostracism exists because you dared to live your dream. If you can adjust to this, you can handle just about anything. Finally, after the Grandmothers experience, I've learned that no matter how hard you work at something, there's always some weasel waiting to take it all away from you.

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