Frank Zappa, 82/06
He has released dozens of albums in the U.S. and yet Frank Zappa claims to be an "unknown band" here. He is probably correct. His music has never been mainstream, borrowing as it does from the classics, jazz, and rock and roll. He is as honest in his speaking as he is with his music and in a recent talk at his home he made known his feelings about the current situation in the music industry as well as touching on highlights of a long and changing career.
RECORD REVIEW: How long have you had a studio at your house?
Frank Zappa: About a year-and-a-half. I'd rather not talk about what I have here but in general I have a studio at my house, it's a private studio, it's not for rent to anyone else, it has a lot of top secret equipment in it, and that's that. I do all my recording here including mixing and I also have a remote 24-track truck and that stuff is processed here. I only got this a year-and-a-half ago because I had to save my money; I had to save my money just to get a facility where I could work.
Before when I came off the road and I would need to make an album and all the famous groups would have all the time booked at all the good studios in town. Fleetwood Mac would be at a place for eleven months and you couldn't get in there and somebody else would be at the Record Plant and you couldn't get time at a first class studio unless you wanted to wait around. So I said. 'I'll build my own.'
Are you interested in any outside productions?
No, nor do I wish to be. I had it, all done.
Could you talk briefly about your production of the GTO's album?
I'll tell you what, why don't we save that aspect of it 'til later because the first part of the lawsuit between Warner Brothers and Herb Cohen and myself has been settled and as part of that I'm going to be getting all those masters and I'm going to re-release the GTO's and Wild Man Fischer albums. And I'd rather talk about that when the albums come out. But I will mention that the GTO's album was pretty far ahead of its time in terms of what was going on in it and it has some interesting sidemen on it like Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck. I knew Jeff's work and he just happened to be in Los Angeles and that's when Rod Stewart was the lead singer of his band. And they came over to the house and I asked them if they'd do something on the GTO's record.
What prompted the guitar albums (Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar; Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar Some More; Return Of The Son of Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar)?
There has been a demand for them for some time where people would say you don't play enough guitar, you don't play enough guitar in the show or on the albums so I figured to accomodate those people who didn't get enough I'd just put out a whole lot of guitar solos. And they sold real well. In fact they sold better than the last two commercial releases I had. I like it, I think it's great that people like that kind of music. I'm as happy playing instrumental music as I am doing the other things. I've been doing some work on some cuts which seem suitable for another package of that type.
These three albums aren't even chronological; they were sequenced so that there's enough variety on each side in terms of different styles, tempos, and key signatures, so that there was continuity per each 18 minute unit. There was quite a bit of stuff to choose from and I tried to pick the things I thought had the most interest and also the best recording quality.
There is mention of the guitars you used on the albums but which amplifiers were used?
Depending on the year it was either a Marshall or a Boogie. The only overt effects you can hear in there are on "Ship Ahoy" there's a voltage control filter and on "Pink Napkins" I'm using a Mutron bi-phase and a harmonizer. Some of the other tracks were processed through dynaflangers.
Can you sense a maturity in your playing?
I doubt that but I was listening to some tapes from Helsinki in 1973 and 1974 and I was amazed at the types of things I was playing. It also seemed I was playing about twice as fast then as I am now. But I wasn't using as much feedback and stuff. I get to play whatever the band will let me play. If you have a rhythm section that will support you in doing certain types of things you can go in that direction but you can't force it. Different rhythm sections make me play differently. If you're playing with Vinnie Colaiuta (Tinsel Town Rebellion) there's no problem in playing the weirdest poly-rhythms that you want because he's not going to get lost. Whereas if you're playing with Chester Thompson you don't want to do that too much; not that Chester can't follow polyrhythms but he doesn't have the same kind of radar that Vinnie does. And he gives you a different kind of support. And he makes you want to play a different way. And if you're playing within a rhythm section format you have to have some respect for the guys you're playing with. And work with them to make them sound good, too. It has to be a cooperative effort; you just don't want to play any old thing. Because then there's no groove to it.
What about playing with someone like Terry Bozzio (Zoot Allures)?
Bozzio is really a good drummer but the main problem I had playing with him was the amount of fills per cubic centimeter. You had to be constantly leaving spaces for him to do things that weren't necessarily germane to what you were doing. In the end I suppose it comes out all right because the kids would be very stimulated by massive torn toms and cymbals. It wasn't as easy for me to play with Terry as it was to play with Vinnie or Chester. Or Chad Wackerman who is the drummer in the band now.
What do you think of Bozzio's new band, Missing Persons?
I like "Mental Hopskotch." And I like Dale's voice (female singer in band).
Right now there's ten sides of new material that hasn't been mixed yet and we've been overdubbing on. And I don't know what I'm going to do with it because there's so much stuff. There's vocal and instrumental stuff. I have everything from really complicated orchestral-type things to a mongoloid rock and roll song called "No Not Now." It's Roy Estrada singing three-part falsetto harmony with himself. And all stops in-between.
The basic band which has played on all this material is Chad Wackerman on drums, Scott Thunes on bass. Tommy Mars on keyboards, Steve Vai on Stratocaster. Ray White on guitar and vocals, Bobby Martin on tenor sax, keyboards, and vocals, and Ed Mann on percussion.
I think eight pieces is about the max that I can afford to work with. That's already pretty big. When you start carrying eight people around on the road generally it costs as much if not more for their transportation, hotels, and food as for their salaries. It's very expensive. And the kind of record sales we have and the kind of concert attendance we have doesn't necessarily warrant immense expenditures.
Can you say when an album might arise from this material?
We're beginning to mix and there will be something by mid-May. We're doing overdubs now and we have to start rehearsing for a world tour. Minus the United States.
Do you listen at all to the music around you?
No, because I normally wake up around three o'clock in the afternoon and go to bed at six o'clock in the morning and I wake up at three o'clock in the afternoon and do it over again. And literally all I do is go in the bedroom and sleep and go in the studio and work. I can smell the flowers when I open the door and say good night to the guys at six o'clock in the morning and that's about it. I love it but I don't feel there's some big void in my life because I don't listen to the radio.
Do you use anyone else in the studio as a sounding board for ideas?
I usually discuss if I'm going to do a special electronic effect with the engineers prior to executing it because what you do on the tape has some bearing of what you get on the disc. And certain things which sound fantastic on tape are lethal to put on a disc. There are phasing situations which occur and a lot of those things have to be scrutinized in advance before they're executed. There are some things which you just can't get on record because it makes the needle jump out of the groove. We cut it pretty close to the margin because I want to get as many interesting sounds as I can on the record. Some of them create mechanical problems so those are the kinds of discussions that I will have. But I'm totally the boss when it comes to what notes are going to be played. And how they're going to be phrased and all that stuff.
What if somebody says they have a better way?
I tell them to stop, shut up, and do it exactly the way I'm telling you. I've always done it that way but remember: I do it in a nice and friendly way. There's only one guy in the band who would offer ideas and sometimes he comes up with great ideas and that's Tommy Mars but usually it's just a waste of time because I already know exactly what I want and if they'll just do it this way we can move on. It's a slow process, overdubbing stuff, and if you stop and consider a hundred different options every time you're pushing a button, you'll be in the studio until you have a long, white beard. There's no other way to do it.
You write out all the parts for the instruments?
Some things have to be written out because they're so complicated. And some things I just say goes like this and hum them a note or notes and they figure it out and then we play it. So it's a great help if you can read if you're going to be in my band. But also it's important to have a good ear for the simple-minded stuff so I don't have to go through the process of writing it down on a piece of paper. It just slows things down. The only reason I use written music is because the part is so complicated I couldn't hum it to you. I much prefer to give someone the written part and work with him and it's done. Written music doesn't necessarily guarantee the quality of the music is spectacular. There's a lot of stuff written on paper which is dog----.
When you record do you try and get as many guys playing at once as possible or ...?
As few. Because when you cut with as few guys as possible you can pay attention to the sound of every individual instrument, you can optimize the phrasing of each part, and you can make the guy sound as good as he can sound at that particular time. If you're recording an entire rhythm section you have a bunch of guys on the clock and it's a party time atmosphere. It's very difficult to optimize the individual sounds so it's the guitar sound or the bass sound that you always wanted. You don't get that with a bunch of guys sitting in there. In fact, one of the things we did recently was to overdub a set of drums on some tapes which were originally done with the Linn rhythm box. Most people don't like to overdub drums because they think it won't sound good, but, let me tell you, they are wrong! We got a torn torn sound which is God. It took a lot of science and a lot of knick knacks but we got a torn torn sound which is surrealistically large. It just takes your breath away.
It's hard to say if this particular track will be on the next album because all the stuff is in different styles. I haven't decided what stuff will be on the next disc which will only be a single record. I know that one side of it is going to contain a song called "Drowning Witch," "Envelopes" and "Teenage Prostitute" but what the other side is going to be I haven't figured out yet. And the title of the album is going to be Drowning Witch. A long time ago there was this guy called Roger Price who did this cartoon called "Droodles" and one of the pictures in the book was called "Drowning Witch." Right now we're in the process of trying to locate this guy to get permission to use the picture because this book came out in the '50s. I want to use the original picture. [This album became Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch, May 1982].
So you would go in with a drummer and bassist and lay down the tracks?
It would be more minimalist than that. I would program the drum box and I've got at least twenty hours of very complicated drum tracks on reels of tape. So I would make up the drum parts and bring in a bass player and have him play on top of that and add some chord changes to it, write a melody to that, write some words to that, and add the drums last. And then maybe redo the bass and we have a synthesizer which can take care of all keyboard and horn parts.
How do you feel about Tinsel Town Rebellion?
I like the album but I wasn't happy with the amount of units it sold. Nor was I happy with the amount of units You Are What You Is sold. I think radio has a lot to do with it now that radio is back where it was twenty years ago in terms of a strict playlist and real conservative taste. But it's probably just a fact of business life right now that what I have to offer will not get out to the widest spectrum of the American public because of what they are allowed to hear on the radio. But that doesn't necessarily mean what I'm doing is not relevant or good; it just means the five guys who program all the radio stations in the U.S. aren't gonna let you hear it, that's all.
That's not a new situation for you.
It's worse today than it's ever been before.
The title track of Tinsel Town Rebellion was a bit cynical.
There's nothing wrong with being cynical. I think that's the best way that you can be. If you're not cynical, what are you? You're bent over. Nobody in his right mind should be expected to accept the 20th Century as a whole without asking a few questions. And I think the more questions you ask the more you have to laugh about what the answers are. And the song "Tinsel Town Rebellion" is probably one of the more accurate descriptions of what goes in in L.A. or Southern California punk merchandising. That's what it's all about.
Did you go through that when you first started?
No, because business wasn't like that. It wasn't saturated, there was still room to breathe and still room for experimentation. And you could step out in your own direction and take chances but today nobody really steps out. They pretend to step out but they step only in the footsteps of the guy right in front of them. 'Ooh, he got away with something that was this weird, if I do it just like this but put a phaser on it then I'll be commercial.' That's all it is, copy-cat music over and over again.
Nobody is doing anything that excites you?
Not that I've heard; there may be somebody out there but I haven't heard him. From time to time I might hear one good song but the general run-of-the-mill of what gets signed and what gets released and what gets promoted is the most tepid, puny, useless stuff. Today it's all remakes of songs from the '60s; it's real cowardice music. I think that cowardly approach which is exemplified by the actions of the record industry guys who sign these groups and insist they record those types of songs, is a great barometer of the times. This is the music of chicken – America, the America that is worried only about its bottom line. It's the music of an America which really doesn't believe it has anything to offer. It just wants to stand still; it wants the rest of the world to go away and stop bothering it. In that respect the whole situation on American radio is a pretty true psychological profile of ourselves at this point in history. If you look at it in that perspective; it's all second rate, too. If you came from outer space and listened to American radio and watched what was going on in American music, you could only come to the assumption that these people are scared. What are they afraid of? They're afraid of the Moral Majority, they're afraid of losing money, they're afraid of getting blown up, they're afraid of standing up for anything they believe in, and on top of that they don't believe in nothin' to begin with. We're in bad, bad shape. And I think radio tells us this. And so do consumer sales patterns. Do you think radio will get worse? Yeah. It's the same way the economy will get worse. I mean an accident could happen and everything could turn out all right, but I don't see it. Because people who are that afraid and refuse to take responsibility for their actions and refuse to look the future square in the face and say 'OK, let's get on with it and straighten things out,' unless you have that kind of courage you deserve to be a mediocrity, you deserve to be a second rate, no content, totally intimidated chickenshit kind of country. You want to have the bold pioneering spirit that you used to read about in the books? Well, it's got to come from inside of your guts; nobody inflicts it on you by saying a few nice words on television with a flag in the background. That's all bull.
You didn't vote for Reagan?
No, I didn't (laughs). Nor would I have voted for Carter. It's the choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Ronald Reagan is the perfect president for this day and age because he's a non-content president; he's got no substance.
You're a Saturday Night Live fan?
Yeah, up to a point. Up to the point where they stopped doing funny stuff. The last time I did their show, the only thing they cared about was the ratings and not offending people. I actually sat there and heard a conversation in one of the planning rooms where they said 'We can't put this skit on because it's going to offend women's groups.' I mean if you have to worry about who you're going to offend when you're doing something funny, then ... see what I mean? It's that same America.
Did you know John Belushi well?
No, I didn't know him very well, but I am sad that he's gone because the guy was a comedy genius. He was great, he had it, he was a funny guy. They don't build them like that too often. Style-wise there was a big difference between Ackroyd and Belushi; I would rate them as equals. Ackroyd was more intelligent and Belushi was more fall-down-and-hurt-yourself.
Did you like the Blues Brothers?
I didn't care for them as a musical act but I did admire the fact that they recorded "Rubber Biscuit." Any person who records "Rubber Biscuit" can't be all bad.
How is the underpants quilt coming (during Zappa's last tour he collected female undergarments from the cities on the tour and is in the process of sewing them together to make a blanket)?
The last time I saw it it was three-fourths done. The girl who volunteered to make it when she first started looked like a girl who lived in Boulder, Colorado, one of those types of girls (conservative). The last time I saw her she had blue streaks in her hair and was wearing punk clothes. She was at the concert and the quilt had not only underclothes but dildos and things sewn to it.
Were those days amazing?
All days are amazing. These days are amazing. By contrast to what was going on around town back then it was interesting but you have to remember the collective musical expertise of that (first) band was nowhere near what the contemporary musician is capable of doing. Those weren't skilled guys. We were doing things apart from the rest of what was going on. But L.A. was a real sick place then. The only thing that was going on in L.A. at that time ... you didn't exist unless you played folk-rock. That was it. Period! If you didn't look or act like the Byrds, then, good luck. Things were so weird that Paul Butterfield Blues Band came to town which was a good band, they could really stomp, and they couldn't draw flies, people hated them. They wanted them to play 'turn, turn' stuff. People are so one-dimensional here. And Donovan was big, real big. The (Buffalo) Springfield did okay but the two most successful and popular groups then were the Byrds and Love. You had to be nice folkrock, 12-string guitar. The Doors were somewhat later than the Byrds. When they first came on the scene, they weren't too hot either, they were too abstract for the locals. They gradually gained popularity here but I don't think they really hit until they started going out on the road and playing in other parts of the country. Canned Heat was also much later.
Did you ever play with the Byrds?
No, but we played with Love. They opened for us in some other cities but not in L.A. It wasn't the original group then, it was probably the third or fourth generation.
When you played at the clubs like The Whisky, would there be a lot of people there?
If you played The Whisky there would be people there no matter what. We got into the Whisky A Go-Go only because Johnny Rivers wanted to take a vacation and go on a tour. He had been working there for over a year. And they left his sign outside. We worked there for five weeks and they didn't have our name on the front of the building until maybe the last couple of days. And people kept coming in, and that's how it happened. We were doing material from the Freak Out! album, which was the first concept album.
What was it like playing with John Lennon and Yoko Ono on their album?
That's not the way it happened. What happened was: we were working at the Fillmore East and they came in and sat in with us and it just happened to be the same night we recorded the Live at the Fillmore album. So the whole event got on tape. And a deal was made in the dressing room afterwards where they said they wanted to be able to release the tapes and I said I wanted to be able to release the tapes and we mutually released each other. In other words I'll give you a copy of the tapes and you can do what you want with them and I'll do what I want with them. I've never released it but what they did with it was really the pits. They turned off some of the words that Howard (Kaylan) and Mark (Volman) were singing in a song called "Scum Bag" and they left some of the best stuff out of it. And what they did was they took a song called "King Kong" that we were playing and retitled it "Jam Rag" and claimed the publishing on it. So I'm not too thrilled about the results of that particular collaboration and one of these days I'm going to mix the stuff from that particular performance so you can hear everything that went on. Because Mark and Howard were talking about "sticking Yoko in a scumbag." I never had any further conversation with them because at that point it was one of those things where you'd have to go to a lawyer. I think there were some questions asked by Capitol Records as to why that had been done but in order to straighten it out, you'd have to go in with an accountant and see the sales of that particular album and start a lawsuit over the fact that they took the publishing and this and that. I Just thought it was a real cheap shot thing to do.
Any feelings about Lennon's death?
I think it's absurd that anybody can walk up to somebody and shoot him like that and get such a menial sentence. That's obvious murder. It's sickening. It shouldn't happen to anybody; it shouldn't happen to John Lennon or anybody.
Did you talk to any of the Beatles about using the Sgt. Pepper's cover as a take-off for We're Only In It For The Money?
I talked to Paul McCartney on the phone and his response was "What? You talk business? Talk to my lawyers." So I had my lawyer talk to his lawyer and as a result the cover was held up for thirteen months. Nice people, these Beatles.
What about Hot Rats?
It's a nice little album but I don't think it's my best album. The thing that sets it apart is when it was first released in the U.S. it went to number 90 on the charts for one week and then disappeared. Everyone hated it, they said you can't put out an instrumental album because they won't have anything to play on the radio. All the reviews in the paper were totally negative. The only place where it was accepted well was England where it became a Top 10 album and Holland where it did real well. Strangely enough it continued to sell about 1,500 units a month for all those years after that. It Just continued to sell as a catalog item. But when it came out nobody liked it. They thought it was a waste of time.
What is your best selling record?
The best selling record is Sheik Yerbouti, It doesn't surprise me, because it was all through CBS' promotion. It was released through Phonogram in the U.S. and it was released by CBS outside of the U.S. and the bulk of the sales was outside of the U.S. Generally speaking we sell more records outside the U.S. We're pretty much an unknown group in the U.S. but in Europe it's a different story. I think the discrepancy is even more distressing if you look at the population of the U.S. versus the population of Europe. If I sell more records in Europe than I do in the U.S., if you average it out it means I'm selling 10 to 20 times more in Europe than I am here. And I don't see how that's possible because most of the places where it's selling they don't even speak English. We don't do very well in Japan. We've been there once. In Australia we had gold albums with Live at the Fillmore and Just Another Band From L.A., Overnight Sensation, Apostrophe ('), and Joe's Garage were all gold in the U.S. We have two or three from Canada and a few from other countries.
Moving to your guitar, because you play so much on stage does it tend to go out of tune?
What I've started doing on recent tours is as soon as I'm done I take it off and give it to the guitar roadie who sits over at the side and strobes it and I walk around with a hand held microphone until it's time for me to play again and when I get it back it better be in tune and I play. For the first ten years or so on the road, I didn't even have a strobe tuner; they were very rare items. And as soon as strobe tuners came out everything was a little bit easier to deal with. Now I think I've got the best system where I don't have to stop and tune myself on stage; I can hand it to somebody else who can do it and the show can keep going on.
Was there a particular guitar you used for the first years of the Mothers?
Yeah, it was an ES-5 Switchmaster. I used that on the Freak Out! album, Absolutely Free, We're Only In It For The Money, and up through Reuben & The Jets. I liked it. I had a gold-top Les Paul but my first guitar was a Telecaster and then I switched to a Jazzmaster and after the Jazzmaster got repossessed I bought this hollow body (ES-5). I got the Les Paul because the hollow body was feeding back too much — we started working bigger and bigger places. The more the volume goes up the more feedback you get and I didn't want to stuff it full of styrofoam in order to keep it from feeding back and so I switched to a Les Paul and somebody stole that. Then I got a real nice second-hand SG and played that from Apostrophe (') through Bongo Fury. About the time of Bongo Fury I switched over to an SG that this guy in Phoenix made. It was an SG copy and it had an extra fret on it and it went up to an E-flat. I started playing that for a few years and then I got another Les Paul and I've played Stratocasters on and off. Over the years I've switched between a Strat and those other instruments. On this last tour I started playing the Strat and ended up playing the Les Paul.
Do you find one guitar harder to play than the other?
They require totally different playing techniques. Not only the way the fingerboard is but the way the body of the guitar sits. In other words, when you hang a Strat around your neck, the 12th fret will hit your body at a certain point, but if you put the Les Paul on it will be in a different position. Any time you have to move any part of your body a few inches it changes the whole balance of what you play and it affects the speed and accuracy of what you can do. But then there are sounds which come out of my Stratocaster which don't come out of anything else on the face of the earth.
Do you use the vibrato arm on the Strat?
Yeah. It stays in tune to a degree and what you have to do if it doesn't come back right and usually it comes back sharp is to give it another yank and let it settle and if it comes back flat you have to press harder and intonate with your (left) hand. What you do is you don't start your solo off with a big wham. That would be dumb. Steve Vai, the other guitar player in the band, is a total whiz on the Strat and plays all those harmonic noises and some of them are just never in tune. I mean he tries and tries. The other day he came in to do some overdubs and he had clamps on and that's great but if you ever go out of tune in the middle of your solo you can't reach over and tweak it.
Did you ever do any shows with Hendrix?
Yeah, he sat in with us at the Garrick Theater. In fact, he played my hollowbody through a Fender Twin and got feedback out of that. All I know is he was working downstairs at this place. The Cafe Au Go Go, and we invited him to sit in and he came upstairs and I let him use my guitar and he got feedback and went ape. I saw him at the Cafe Au Go Go when he played with us and at a pop festival in Miami where we worked with him. That's when he burned his guitar and I got it about a year-and-a-half later from the guy who used to be one of his roadies, a guy called Howard Parker. We also jammed with him at this little club called The Castaways or something like that in Miami because all the groups who were playing at the festival were staying at this same hotel. And there was a bar and we had a jam session there. Yeah, I think he was good. I enjoyed playing with him. He also came over to the house one time with Buddy Miles and he said, "Hi, this is my friend Buddy" and I said "Great, pleased to meet you Buddy" and Buddy says "Hi, Frank" and sits down on the sofa and nods out. His head went back, his mouth fell open and he was snoring for two hours while I continued to talk with Jimi. You don't play much acoustic guitar? Seldom. I only practice on it. I mean, I like the way it sounds on record but I don't consider myself an acoustic player. I used it on We're Only In It For The Money and there's one cut called "Sleep Dirt" on Studio Tan. There's a solo on "Stink-foot" where I use an acoustic guitar with a Barcus-Berry on it and that's going to one side and the electric output of the acoustic is going to a Mutron on the right side. A hybrid kind of thing.
You tend to use DiMarzio pickups on your guitars.
What you have to do is match resonances of the instrument to the type of pickup that's on there and it takes some experimenting around to get the sound you want to hear. For instance, on my Hendrix Strat I have a Dan Armstrong in the front position, I have a Seymour Duncan Strat pickup in the middle position, and a Carvin in the rear position. On another blond Strat there's an EMG, a Carvin, and a Dan Armstrong, and on my Les Paul I have a Carvin and a Dan Armstrong. And on my SG I have a DiMarzio and an EMG. The EMG is wired up in a way they were never intended to be used; normally they're a real clean, clear pickup but if you hook them up the wrong way ...
Are you involved in any video projects?
I'm doing some stuff now that I can't talk about.
What other projects are you into?
Finally this year I'm going to get some orchestra performances and it's going to be in Berlin. That will happen in July, and for two weeks after that we'll be recording in Czechoslovakia. I'm taking my recording truck over there to do it. This truck has 100 inputs. The concert will be Golden Age by Shostakovitch and three movements from The Planets and that will be the first half of the show and the second half will be my stuff plus my band.