Iron Butterfly - interview with bassist Lee Dorman

 

at left : Iron Butterfly in 1969, from left, Erik Brann, Ron Bushy, Lee Dorman and Doug Ingle

Interviewed August 12, 2001, before the band’s performance at the Gathering on the Mountain Festival, held at the Big Boulder/ Jack Frost ski resort, near the town of Blakeslee, Pennsylvania, in the Poconos mountains.

tinted photo : promo shot used in the festival program, with Ron Bushy front center, and Lee Dorman on the right

Craig Morrison : You came in after the first album [Heavy] and you’re on the In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida album, right ?

Lee Dorman : Yes, the first album had not yet been released when I joined the band. There was some technical difficulty between the producers and the record company.

CM : The foundation of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” is the bass riff. Was that your creation ?

LD : Pretty much. It was pulled out of a keyboard part. I heard it from keyboard notes and decided, “If I do this, with this kind of a rhythm, it might tie it all together.”

CM : Which it did, of course.

LD : I just heard that and it seemed to fit in with the whole spectrum of everything, and it left me the opportunity to not have to play a lot of notes, because the keyboards are all over the place.

CM : Did you have any particular inspiration for the riff itself ? I mean, we’re used to hearing one-bar and two-bar riffs in blues and rock music, and to create a good riff is like a science, like writing a haiku or something.

LD : It just happened ; that whole song just happened. It was jam song. The first time we ever played it, it didn’t have a drum solo and it was 12 minutes long. But we kept adding different things, and the song just started to take on a life of itself. We would take it a certain way and then we would have to rearrange it now because we had all these solos : well let’s put this over here and over there. And then finally, at 17 minutes we had to say, let’s get out of this.

CM : Yeah, we’ve done it ! But back to the riff question, I was curious if you’d been inspired in particular by any other riff, ’cause I hear a similarity with one.

LD : You know if I did, I can’t remember, but I don’t think so.

CM : Well I’ll tell you what makes me think so, it’s that [sings the 5, b5, to 4 part of the riff], that little chromatic thing. That’s quite similar to the “Sunshine of Your Love” riff.

LD : [sings the Cream riff]. I don’t know, and they’re one of my favorite bands. However, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was before “Sunshine of Your Love.”

CM : Oh, is that true ? [It isn’t : Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” was recorded May 1967 and released January 1968 ; Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was recorded May 1968 and released on LP June 1968 and as an edited single July 1968]. Well then it’s the other way around, ha ha !

LD : Well, no, no. Come on, everybody plays everybody’s notes in some fashion.

CM : I know, and there’s only 12 of them, aren’t there.

LD : Right !

CM : So the 17 minute version that got released, had it already been through the process of rehearsing and probably playing live until it got to the shape that it got to ?

LD : Yes. It was highly formed, the final form, yeah.

CM : Once it was on the record, did you keep evolving it, or did you say okay now, that’s the version we’ve cooked and that’s the one we’ll do ?

LD : That’s it. I can’t say that maybe the drum solo didn’t vary every night, or the guitar thing, but no, it was religious.

CM : So you found your way to it through jamming until you got to the point where you felt that that’s the arrangement that works.

LD : Yes.

CM : Did you have other songs that began with that kind of improvisation ?

LD : “Butterfly Bleu” from the Metamorphosis album. That song is 14 minutes long. It does a little bit of the same thing as “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in a different format. There are acapella guitar things and there’s no real drum solo in it, but there’s a lot of tom tom work to create another feel that we took off on another thing on. But that’s really the only other one that was put together like “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

CM : I read that Doug Ingle had said that he wrote mostly ballads, and would bring them in, and the band would, like any band does…

LD : Transform them. Yes, that’s true.

CM : So who actually composed “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” ?

LD : Well, it’s unfortunate that we were all too naïve, but the music should have been split four ways. Doug wrote the lyrics : there are two verses and the last one is a repeat. In all reality, the band wrote that song, but in our naiveté we just shined it on [him] and so he gets all the loot. But everybody knows the truth, except him.

CM : He doesn’t acknowledge that ?

LD : Well no, but you see we made…that’s what we said so we stand by it. How can you turn around and go “oh I changed my mind, you owe me all this money ?” A business deal is a business deal, even if we weren’t aware.

CM : For sure. The lyrics of that song, as I’ve read, derive from the biblical Garden of Eden.

LD : Yes.

CM : And “take my hand, walk through this land,” and so forth. Did the lyrics direct any of the musical choices ?

LD : From the premise of in the Garden of Eden, what we did with the music was to chronologically go through a bit of history : the birth of Christ and all the tribal things. Some of that first screeching part is supposed to be dinosaurs, and then the next part is a keyboard part, then we get into another guitar part, it’s more rhythmical now, and that goes into the birth of Christ—“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”—you hear that keyboard part, just a couple of bars, and you go “I know that !” and it’s gone.

CM : Was that consciously done ?

LD : Yes, and then there was some more guitar stuff, and then it would fade out and then the drum solo would start. What we used to do : everybody got off stage and Ron would play, and at a certain point we would all come back up. Doug had woodblocks on his keyboard, and somebody played tambourine, and I played cowbells or something or other, but we all added to the finality of his thing, and then the rest, it just goes off to it and then we get into that bass thing where I go [sings one note : do-do-do-do] and then the tribal thing, and then the last verse. It’s just kind of a chronology of man up to a certain point.

CM : Was the drum solo supposed to represent something ?

LD : Just a tribal thing, which is usually designated by drums, and that was the first telegraph, based upon the premise that man first came from Africa. When we first did that song, as I said, there was no drum solo, but we said, “Ron, play it, everybody’s soloing here. Why don’t you play something ?” “No I can’t do that.” “Just play something.”

LD : That seems to have been the first extended drum solo, at least in rock. In jazz, we heard drummers like Buddy Rich…

< photo : Cozy Cole

LD : And Cozy Cole in “Topsy, part 2” – that’s a phenomenal solo. Nobody even knows it. Well, you and I know who that is.

CM : Had that inspired the thinking ?

LD : I don’t think so, because Ron doesn’t know about that kind of music.

CM : But rock drummers were not doing that. The riff is a big part of it, and the lyrics of course too, but certainly the drum solo is one of the reasons why that song had such an astonishing impact. And there’s another quality. I listened to the album a couple of night ago on good old vinyl, and it has an organic unity : when there’s a shift in the arrangement, it feels like it happens at the right moment. It works, in other words. But following that, a lot of drummers in a lot of bands copied, or maybe came up with solos on their own, but that drum solo…

LD : I think it did open a window for a lot of people to go : hey drums aren’t just holding up the band here. If you can play, go ahead. Enjoy yourself.

CM : It was another vocabulary addition to rock : oh there’s a new word over here, it’s called drum solo. A little contribution that got widespread currency. And after that the band had three or four other hits, but that was the big one.

LD : That was the primary, yeah.

CM : A few minutes ago I was talking with Dave Getz, drummer of Big Brother and the Holding Company, who are actually on stage right now, and he was saying that he felt all of the bands had a message, whether stated or unstated. He was comparing the Beatles to the Rolling Stones. If you think this is a valid way of looking at things, what was the message that Iron Butterfly was offering ?

LD : What we were about was having people be able to deal with what was going on at the time in the proper manner. We were not drug band. We never advocated any war. We weren’t anti-anything. Most of our songs were about dealing with people in their life situation, à la sixties. There’s a song called “You Can’t Win” and it’s about being arrested by the police, but it doesn’t say any negative things. The opening line is : “what the man says is always right,” and even now you don’t argue with the police or you go to jail, you know ! Even if they’re wrong, you don’t argue with them.

CM : So you had no overt political sense there.

LD : No.

CM : But you do have a lot of love songs. It comes from the ballads, like “Flowers and Beads.”

LD : “Lonely Boy” [on Ball]. But “Slower Than Guns” [on Metamorphosis] is about smog.

CM : I have a question that relates to the geography of California. Today we’re getting to see five legendary acts : two are from the Los Angeles or the southern California region and three are from the San Francisco region. Was there a big difference musically in the approach of those two areas ?

LD : I really can’t tell you that. I don’t have a clue. We were a strong band. We took ballads and put them in your face. Some of Starship’s music I could hear as [starting as] an acoustic song. I don’t know if that’s how they wrote it or whatever, but they put it in your face and maybe moved the tempo up a little bit. Quicksilver, they were a little heavier band. But Janis Joplin, even when she went out on her own with that horn band—we worked with her several times—her whole thing was very, very interesting. I’m just guessing here.

autographed photo source

CM : Was there a sense of rivalry that our teams are better than yours because you are from up there ?

LD : There’s always that, until you get it. Until you figure out we’re here for the people in front of us. They like whoever they hell they want, it doesn’t make any difference. What are we doing back here fighting over all this stuff, forget it, just play.

CM : Nowadays Iron Butterfly is back on the road. Tell me about how Iron Butterfly connects to current audiences, or how you see yourself in the current climate ? We come to these festivals and love them, but how is it from your side ?

LD : Well, of course most of the people we play for now were there then. They’re our peers. But as most people do, we grew up in homes where our parents had music playing, so we got attuned to it. Whether we liked it or not, we know it because it’s there. I’m looking down in the audience and seeing 12-, 13-, 14-year olds singing the songs, even a song that was not a hit, because they like it. Like all bands, when you have an interview you get asked who were your mentors or inspirations, and sometimes other bands say Iron Butterfly, and kids go, “oh well, I never heard of them.” So they go buy an album or they go to a show, same with all these bands : it’s not their era but they hear it and they like it. We get emails all the time. I’d say that 15% of our emails are from people under 16 years old, which to me is a large margin. We get 15,000 hits a month. click to visit Iron Butterfly’s official website A lot of people just click on, they don’t say anything, but a lot hit our message board : “Hi, I’m Darla, I’m 15 and I love your music. My mom and dad play it, or my teacher played it in music class.”

CM : It must be great for you to read those.

picture credit

LD : If I wasn’t playing anymore, I’d have to look back and say : you’ve had one hell of a lifetime. The sixties were spectacular because a cultural revolution happened there. To have done the sixties as one of the many premiere pop bands, oh ! who would’ve thunk ? I certainly, in my dreams ! But once again : people. If they don’t like what you’re doing, you can be the best band in the world but you’re still in your garage. How many people even get a chance to do a record ? There are so many bands. To have been in the position that I found myself in, and here it is, 32 years later and people are going “yeah, we want to hire Iron Butterfly !” Same with all of these bands. It’s just amazing to me. I love to travel, and I’m a big foodie now so when I get a chance I go to a really nice restaurant. My girlfriend is a cookbook writer and chef herself, so I’m learning so much.

CM : You know the difference.

LD : Yeah, there are cooks and there are chefs. I thought I could cook, but no way ! But we digress ! [laughter] But no, it was just a special moment in time and I don’t think it will ever happen again like that. There are generations of people who get on a certain scope…

CM : But this was massive. Everybody was on the same wavelength for a while.

LD : Yeah, and that was magic.

CM : Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians ?

LD : Like anything in your life that you do, take the time to do it right, don’t just do it half-assed. If you’re going to be a musician, whatever instrument you play, learn it to the fullest that you can learn it, ’cause then you will be in the bands that you hear about, because people hire the best people. So instead of being a drum owner or a guitar owner, be a drum player, be a guitar player. Nothing comes easy, it’s hard work, but it’s supposed to be. You’re not supposed to just get it, here : handed to you.

CM : You’ve got to put yourself in it.

photo source

LD : Yes, but enjoy what you’re doing and find out the kind of music you like to play, because it would be awful to be in a band, it goes for everybody, it’s terrible to be working in a job you don’t like. If you don’t like to go to work, it will sound like it, as a musician. If your attitude is not there, there goes your creativity because you’re not hearing. That lid is closed. So, just practice and do what you want. It’s a hard road. There are a million bands, but maybe in each there’s one person that’s a star.

CM : Who was it for your band ?

LD : Well, I think Doug. He’s such a prolific writer. His voice was special. Just a combination of things. It was fate, for me. And it’s a team, no matter who gets paid more than the other, it takes all of us to do this, otherwise it never would have happened.

CM : Exactly. Well, I’d like to thank you for your time.

LD : It was my pleasure, thank-you.

Lee Dorman died in 2012 of natural causes - LA Times obituary here. RIP and thank-you for the spirit and the music !


I have posted interviews with members of the Doors, Electric Prunes, Iron Butterfly, Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Music Machine, Quickislver Messenger Service, and Strawbery Alarm Clock. To go to the index page, click here.

you may be interested to read Psychedelic Music in San Francisco : Style, Context, and Evolution by Craig Morrison, available as a download from lulu.com for less than $5

CRAIG MORRISON
is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, © 2006