On Wednesday, March 17th, Preston joins Mothers’ sax icon Bunk Gardner for, what else?, the Don and Bunk show, at the Hollywood Studio Bar and Grill in historic Gower Gulch in Hollywood. The Sunset Blvd. location is just a few miles east of the original Mothers of Invention habitué of 45 yrs prior, the Whiskey a Go Go. The St. Patrick’s Day show launches the venerable duo on an East Coast tour that hopes to hop the Atlantic to Europe.
Armed with a bumper crop of first generation Mothers’ classics, the duo hopes to duplicate the sound of a full band through the miracle of electronics, and given the pioneering status each holds in the world of electronic music, their performance may inspire true Mothermania.
“We started the Don and Bunk Show around 2002,” Preston recalls. “Of course, Bunk and have been playing together since 1960. We knew each other quite a long time before the Mothers. In fact, we had a band that was very experimental and Frank played in that band. He was actually in my band first. I didn’t even remember that till about ten years ago. I went to a bass player’s house and he reminded me that he was in that band, too. We actually went to CBS to audition for something, I don’t even know what. The studio musicians who worked there couldn’t believe it, because we had brake drums and drive shafts and all kinds of junk like that, we were playing with all this stuff. I don’t know if we ever played a job, but we just used to play all the time.”
I’d caught Don and Bunk in rehearsal, and couldn’t help but ask, after 50 years of playing together, why rehearse?
“Good question,” Preston said. “The only thing is, Frank’s music is so difficult, and not only that, we’re playing stuff all the way from Freak Out! to Zoot Allures. And since Bunk never in that band, and neither was I, we have to learn all this stuff. We’re playing Zoot Allures, and we’re playing Mammy Anthem, and a few things like that. He wrote so many songs that you could go a long time without repeating yourself.
“We’re going on tour and we’ve really put together a dynamite show. We’re using a lot of electronic stuff that’s going to make it way bigger than it looks. Since we’re just a duo we have to utilize a lot of other technology in order to make it sound like a band. We’re using a drum machine, bass and drums playing in the background. I put a lot of that in my iPod and play it, and we play along with it. Bunk has an electronic saxophone that he can play some really huge sounds with, electronically.”
Preston’s recorded eight Grandmothers collections with varying line ups. Along with his participation in various Zappa related projects, he has composed over 20 film sound tracks and 14 scores for plays. He has 8 solo albums, and 2 with the Don and Bunk Show. Unfortunately, those last two are hard to find.
“Actually, we discussed that today,” he said. “As soon as I get back from the Yukon, if I ever get back, we’re going to get those printed up again and have them for sale. We own both of those. At least we do now, there might be a guy in Norway who’s going to put them out, or at least put some of the material out.”
Prior to his pivotal recordings with the Mothers of Invention, Preston played with the likes of Nat Cole, Herbie Mann, Paul Bley, Charlie Haden, Yusef Lateef, and Elvin Jones. His father held the post of Composer in Residence with the Detroit Symphony. A term of service in the army spent scoring and arranging the Army Band provided him with the early tools of his trade.
His post Mothers work includes a longtime association with LA jazz Lords Bobby Bradford and the late John Carter. “Oh yeah, I played with John till his death, and I still play with Bobby Bradford. Played with him last week at this little place in Pasadena called the 322. It’s kind of a big restaurant, it’s got a stage and lighting, sound system and everything. They have a grand piano there, so it’s a real nice place to play. Especially with Bobby, he has a following there, people like [legendary sculptor] George Herms comes there. Years ago, he and I lived in the same loft building together. I got to know him back then, so when I started seeing him showing up at Bobby’s gig, that was amazing.”
Preston also recorded a memorable collection for acclaimed local label Cryptogrammophone. “I did a great trio album, Transformation,” he said, “and I only say that because it got picked album of the year by National Public radio, and it got five stars in Downbeat, and it’s one of the best sounding albums, if not the best sounding album I’ve ever done. It’s remarkable how the recording’s so good. It’s with Alex Cline and Joel Hamilton. Joel is great and Alex is amazing so it was a wonderful day we spent recording it. All of us were in good shape, we all knew all the music, and we just went through it. I don’t think we took more than two takes of anything, and mostly everything was one take. It was really a treat, we did it at Chick Corea’s studio.”
In addition to his many musical commitments, Preston finds time to hit the University lecture circuit, making stops at Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Sarah Lawrence, and “a lot of schools back east, a few out here, a couple schools in Europe. I had about four different lectures I would do,” he said. “One was the creative force that we deal with when we try to create something, write something, or improvise, and that we have to get in touch with that part of ourselves that helps us. That’s what I do. So I try to convey that in words, and it’s not easy. That’s one lecture I was giving, another is on the history of synthesis, mostly analog synthesis. Some early digital which disappeared.
“One of those things had the biggest advertising campaign, gorgeous brochures and everything, and this guy who created it, there’s this big picture of him with his glasses held together with a safety pin, and underneath it says, “genius.” I thought that was hilarious. I found out where this guy was, it was outside of Vegas. I was going through there at one point, so I got the guy’s address and called him and asked if I could come over because I would be interested in buying one. “Oh yeah, come right over.” So, I went over there, and the picture of the synthesizer was this sleek modern design like a Porsche with keys. When I got there, it was like the inside of five computers and they’re all bread boarded together. Then, there was like the inside of some keyboard he’d gotten hold of, and I will say it was impressive, although it only had about three or four sounds that you could get out of it. But, they were digital sounds, and at the time there wasn’t anything digital out there, except maybe the DX 7.
“But first you see the brochure, then you go to this hotel room, or motel room, and what it was, one of the big hotel chains was getting rid of all their old computers, you know, the ones they use at the front desk. He was turning them into synthesizers, but he hadn’t even gotten to that point yet. He was still trying to figure out how to make it work. It was just all this stuff that didn’t look like anything, that could work. And he did have quite a few problems just getting a sound out of it. And it never went anywhere, it just kind of disappeared after awhile. That was kind of a strange experience.”
History may well show Preston to be the first to play a synthesizer on a rock record, 1967’s “Absolutely Free,” a synthesizer he’d built himself, as none were commercially available at that time. Looking at the changes in technology, Preston said, “There’s a great movie, Our Man Flint, and the first 15 minutes of that movie shows state of the art computers for that time, and they take up part of a building, with huge spools of rolling tape. Huge room full of computers, and all they come up with is one little card with holes punched in it that says, “Yeah, Flint is our man.”
“I had a Pet computer made by Commodore. It was quite large, but it only had 8k memory. It had a cassette interface. If you wrote a program, because you couldn’t buy one, you could store it on a cassette. It was amazing what you could do with just 8k. I mean 8k, I’ve got more memory in my watch. It’s ridiculous.
“It’s kind of ruined the record industry. But, there’s plus and minuses with that. I have a fairly sophisticated studio, although it’s outmoded by at least 5 yrs. My board is getting old and starting to make it’s own sound. But I have produced some pretty good stuff in here, and then you can burn your own discs. Io Landscapes has never been pressed, I just burn them when I need them. Having them go through CD Baby, people can just buy a track, or just $9 if they want to buy the whole cd.”
Don’s set list for the show sounds like Zappaphile’s dream come true: “555, Trouble Everyday, You Didn’t Try to Call Me, a song I wrote called Free Energy, which is in 7, so it kinda goes with A Pound for the Brown on the Bus, Idiot Bastard Son, and I’m doing this piece called Modern Man, the George Carlin poem. We’re trying to do songs nobody does: Flower Punk, Holiday in Berlin (full blown), Little House I Used to Live In, 20 Little Cigars, Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder, Uncle Meat, Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue, Oh No, I’m the Slime, Help I’m a Rock, It Can’t Happen Here, Brain Police. I do Beefheart’s Neon Meat Dream of an Octofish, too. Evelyn the Dog. I wrote a song about what was Zappa really like, we call it the Eternal Question, because everybody asks us that. Absolutely Free as an encore. Mom and Dad, and maybe, Memories of El Monte.”
While looking forward to the LA show and the East Coast tour, Preston has his eye on Europe. “I’ve said it before, people are more intelligent in Europe,” he maintains. “I don’t know if that’s true. There’s a much bigger Zappa following there than there is here. Way bigger. I mean, it’s never big anywhere. But if you play here you get 100 people, you can play there and get 500 in the same type of venue. It’s just a little easier there than here. And people put you up in class A hotels, they treat you like kings. Here, you’re just another musician/slave.
“Not only that, artists are supported there, by the government. Here in America we have to do other things to make a living. At one point I had a couple of other jobs, but I said, no I’m not going to do that anymore.”
And why should he? At the dawn of his eighth decade, Preston maintains the hectic schedule of an in-demand creative artist. “I am 77,” he boasts, “I’m still here, and I feel great.”