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Knife and Fork Cut Blues

Beefheart, Pixies keyboardist takes turn in spotlight

June 22, 2004 12:00 AM ET

Eric Drew Feldman was a teenager sitting on his bicycle in 1968 when Captain Beefheart stepped from a phone booth and spoke to him for the first time. "I just remember this very large man with a goatee," Feldman says. "And in a voice about four octaves lower than any I've ever heard, he said, 'That phone just ripped me off for ten cents.'"

Feldman believes it was the following summer that Trout Mask Replica became a musical bible for him. And a decade later he would be the keyboardist in a new Beefheart band that helped the good Captain return to classic form -- following the release of a pair of disastrous records in 1974 -- with three amazing albums starting with 1978's Shiny Beast, 1980's Doc at the Radar Station and 1982's Ice Cream for Crow, after which the Captain retired and returned to life as Don Glen Vliet. When that gig wrapped, Feldman continued to work just outside the spotlight, contributing to a series of albums by bands including the Pixies, PJ Harvey, Pere Ubu, Snakefinger and the Polyphonic Spree.

After more than a quarter-century in the music business -- much of which has been spent in the company of some acute Type A's -- the soft-spoken Feldman has finally gotten around to recording a project of his own. For liner-note hounds familiar with Feldman's name, Miserycord, the set of songs he's recorded as Knife and Fork is a predictable album. After all, the artists he's worked with over the years have in common a decidedly unorthodox working definition of rock & roll, and similarly, Knife and Fork take fundamental rock constructs and turn them inside out. If the group name suggests another piece of cutlery on the table, it's found in Laurie Hall of San Francisco band Ovarian Trolley.

Feldman and Hall were introduced by a mutual friend at a PJ Harvey concert. "I was intrigued," he says. "If nothing else, her band's name [taken from Henry Miller's description of New York City's subway system] has gotta get to you. But I like finding things I haven't heard, musical things that are well done. I thought her voice might sound good and operatic against a droning backdrop."

Over the years, Feldman has developed a keen ear for production touches that benefit the songs of others. But he fesses that he's sometimes struggled to be able to see his own songs in a similar light. "I've always had a problem finishing compositions," he says. "I could never get them to how I wanted to hear them. I was never really attracted to vocals, but I presented Laurie with a few tracks to see what she could do with them and they came out quite well. Sometimes I'd intentionally try to stump her. I gave her '7 Hands,' an odd track. And what she sang was even more odd. It reminded me of my favorite stuff from the early era of Captain Beefheart. She could always handle it."

Taking into account Beefheart's role as mentor, Feldman's odd musical footsteps do have some semblance of sense to them. He logged time with guitar whiz Phil "Snakefinger" Lithman from 1982 until a heart attack claimed Lithman's life in 1987. It was during that tenure that Feldman bluffed his way into a more pronounced role in album construction. "I was in my early thirties," Feldman says, "I was starting to have those thoughts: 'I'm too old to play rock & roll.' Production felt like a more interesting way to grow up in music." Feldman co-produced the final Snakefinger record, Night of Desirable Objects, in 1986. In the early Nineties, he manned the keys for the Pixies on tour and on Trompe le Monde, and he continued to work with Frank Black, as keyboardist and producer, after the Pixies ran out of musical magic dust.

Feldman would work on some of the finest albums from the Nineties that failed to find their listeners. He played on PJ Harvey's Is This Desire?, and as a producer helped Tripping Daisy better realize their grandiose psychedelic aspirations on Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb. With Belgian indie rock ensemble dEUS, he produced the fantastic In a Bar Under the Sea, which included a bit of a Beefheartian homage in its vintage-blues-sounding opening cut.

More recently, Feldman worked with the Polyphonic Spree on their much-anticipated second album, Together We're Heavy, due next month. "He's got a great ear for stripping everything down," Spree ringleader Tim DeLaughter says. "He gets into the guts of the song, which was kind of nice for us, because we hadn't been doing that -- we'd really been playing songs how we'd been playing them live. In recording this album, he really dissected it."

That approach carries over to Feldman's own recording. His music shares with that of Harvey (with whom Knife and Fork will tour later this year), Beefheart and Frank Black a desire to put new skin on the bones of the blues. Miserycord, which Feldman plans to release later this year, sounds something like classic blues filtered through avant garde composer Tony Conrad, an atmospheric alchemy with Feldman's keys providing a droning sense of menace (as on the spooky "Fire" and "Last Rites") and Hall's wraithlike vocals, particularly on "Wild," exuding a modern take on a distorted Delta moan that echoes bluesman Charley Patton. "I know it doesn't sound like Howlin' Wolf," Feldman says. "But to me this music is the blues. When I sit down to play, that's what I'm shooting for."

Feldman is currently involved with several other projects that require his production touch, but he seems to relish the opportunity to direct Knife and Fork after years of quietly contributing on the periphery. "I dunno, maybe I just have an under-achieving ego," he says, laughing. "It does seem that I'm often involved with intense leader figures. This project is so much more work in a way, but I like to shake up what I do. I like working with a mix of musicians who know what they're doing and others who are inspired, but don't have a clue as to what to do."

Regardless of his role, Feldman's quick to credit the large man with the goatee and the booming voice. "I learned from him how and how not to do things," he says. "I was in the presence of someone who was the master of what he did. It ruined me for fame and fortune. And it was the best education I could have gotten."

More information about Knife and Fork can be found at knifeandforkmusic.com.

 

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