A Mars A Day
Tommy Mars in conversation
By Axel Wünsch and Aad Hoogesteger
T'Mershi Duween, #20-21, July-September 1991
Can you tell us something about your musical career before Zappa?
Certainly. Before I went to Frank, I was a long time into my career. I had played music since I was three years old. I began piano study at the age of eight and when I was six, I was in the boy's choir of the Catholic Church. They allowed me early because I was good, but normally you had to wait until third grade. So my first real musical experiences were in church singing in the choir. I wanted to take piano lessons, and I was allowed to do so at eight and promptly hated it. I couldn't take it from the teacher. I wanted to play piano but I hated taking lessons.
So I was on and off with teachers until I got into high school when I joined a rock band. That was the first group I was in and they were called The Minutemen. We dressed like Paul Revere and the Raiders and I played Hammond organ. That's when I realised the value for myself of music. I was able to get into it professionally and enjoy it. However my musical study was completely terminated at that point. I didn't study piano again until I was a senior in high-school. At that time, I only wanted to be a lawyer or a pharmacist. My father is a doctor and I thought I might pursue some sort of career in that area.
However, I started getting serious about music in twelfth grade, and I learnt four pieces to get into a conservatoire. From then on, I learnt how to read music. I was a music education major, although I thought of myself as a performance major. I graduated summa cum laude from Julius Hart College in 1972 or 1973.
I met Ed Mann in my senior year at College. Ed was a freshman and I was a senior. He came up to my room one night. It was towards the end of school and I was going to be a music teacher. I was going to get a degree in that. I had my life set right there, teaching chorus and you know, a regular shithead of a musician. And Ed came up, I'll never forget it, and said as he knelt in front of my bed 'Tommy, would you please join this band I'm putting together for the Summer?' and I said 'You've got to be kidding me. I've got to play with you?' He played drums at the time. He was a percussion major but played drums when I first met him. And I thought about it. He was very persuasive and we formed this band called World Consort and we played in the Berkshires, these little mountains in New England. We had a quintet consisting of drums, organ and Rhodes piano, bass, flute and bassoon. We played music that was not originals, but original arrangements of things like Hindemith, Bartok, Charles Ives, ancient music, Renaissance music, jazz, Coltrane; that kind of stuff. And the band promptly broke up in the Fall and we didn't have a band any more.
I let my teaching job go to the wind and decided to become a performer. I played in clubs solo, piano and singing. One night a week, I would have my own group that was strictly straight ahead-type jazz. Then I was a choirmaster and organist as well, and I taught privately. So that was really my career up to Frank. I worked in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts for a number of years, then I decided to move to California. My first gig in California was a solo gig in a place called Kodiak Alaska. It was an island with a revolving organ bar. I lived in Alaska for about four months. It was so strange. I was truly a jazz-head from the East Coast and I was going to this place and I thought they liked any kind of organ music. It turned out to be a cowboy bar and there were fights there every night and cops would come round. One guy asked me to play the Marine Corps anthem for him. He gets down on his knees and he said 'This is beautiful, I can't believe it', and he gives me a $100 as a tip. And I said, 'Wow, this is fantastic man.' The next set the guy comes up to me again and he said 'Would you please play the Marine Corps anthem again, sir?' And I said 'Jesus, I'll do it better this time, pal'. I figure he will give me $200 the next time. I'm in the middle of it and all of a sudden I turn to the right and I see this fist coming right into my face. That guy was totally loaded. That's the kind of people I was playing for, just crazy fishermen up there. They know how to drink.
So anyway, after that gig, I lived in Stellas for three or four months. Then I moved to Santa Barbara to pursue a solo career. I worked there for about four, five months. Then I got a call from Ed who I hadn't seen in a long time. He was living in Southern California and said that Frank Zappa was auditioning for a new band and would I be interested in taking the job. The only Zappa song I knew was 'King Kong' because me and Ed used to play it in World Consort. I said 'Wow yeah, I'm going for it', so I went down to LA. And I probably did for me the worst possible audition. Frank had a toothache and it was solo. I went to his house and everything was going terribly. He would play certain measures for me and then play it and then do another section; and doing strange rhythmic things that I hadn't done since college. But I was kind of making it. I just felt I was on a sinking ship but just holding on to everything.
He finally said after about half an hour 'Can you sing at all?' And I said 'Well, I probably know about a thousand songs, Frank, but I'm so fucked up now with this audition.' He said 'Yeah me too.' I said 'Would you mind if I just improvise? I mean I can't remember a whole song all the way through; could I just sing and improvise?' He looked up at the sky like that and said 'That's the first good thing you've done today. Let's go for it'. And from then on, we were together. He just loved it; he even brought his wife down. And I'll never forget that moment. I remember there's a piece ... I think it's 'Sinister Footwear' that I always used to sing. That part was wet; the ink was wet on that part. And that's what I was having an audition on. It was really interesting to see how his music evolved into different pieces. I'll never forget when he called Gail down and said 'Do that exactly again.' And I said 'All right; no problem.' I was feeling good. So, that sort of answers that question ...
Do you prefer the instrumentals or the vocal songs?
I prefer it when Frank makes a social statement. Sometimes his instrumental stuff is kind of politically orientated and it has a statement about society, but I love the way he welds the music to the lyrics, so I really can't answer that question. To me, instrumental and vocal is kind of the same. He uses the voice as an instrument. I don't think anyone does it better to be honest. That's why his music is very complicated because we speak complicated. We don't speak in re-gu-lar patt-erns. We speak up and down in fluid. And that's why it's so interesting to me. And he's a genius; he's the only genius I've ever worked with in that area.
Very often we hear that FZ is a bit of a difficult person to work with, expecting a lot from the people he works with.
He expects quite a lot from everyone and he is very mercurial. He changes his mind a lot. It is quite difficult to work with someone like him, but it's a great honour as well. But then again, we must remember he's just a human being too. And everyone has their pitfalls and high-points, but he's probably one of the hardest people I ever worked with. But I loved it ... maybe I'm an S&M junkie. But he makes you wanna play; he really makes you wanna play. I always loved it.
Can you tell us why you suddenly showed up on this tour?
I've been out of touch with Ed for a while, but I knew he was recording with the Fowlers. I saw him play at the At My Place club in Santa Monica in November I think. It was great: we had a nice chat and stuff. He said that possibly in January or so, he might call me to do a record with him and Denny Walley. This was a real strange combination, you know, so I said 'Jeez, terrific. Let me know.' I didn't hear from him in January, but he called me up a little while ago and asked if I wanted to join the band. Things were a little slow. I said 'What's going on?' And he said 'Well, the Fowlers can't make it, Chad isn't doing it...' I'd heard that Vida [Vierra] who I love – I've heard her sing a lot – was doing it, so I said 'No problem, man, I'm on for the gig.' So that's why. We have hardly done any rehearsals. We're really rehearsing now, to be honest with you. It's cool, and it's forming as it goes along.
Have you thought about releasing some solo stuff yourself?
I'm in the process of it right now. My ideas are to communicate my perceptions of my thirty-nine years. I have lyrics and I have serious classical-type music. It doesn't encompass all parameters as Frank's music does. It's unlike Frank in certain ways. I'm not into how Frank has a lot of reiterated notes; that's why he loves percussion so much. I think that's a nervous habit personally. If I want to state a note, I say the note. I don't have to say it twice. That'll be the difference in our styles. But harmonically, Frank's style brought my own style out of me. I'm very close to Frank harmonically. I'm very happy it developed that way. He's one of a kind. But my material is me, you know. If you heard me on stage, when I played with Zappa, that's kind of the way in my solo stuff, that's who I am. That's definitely who I am. Some pieces are more accessible to audiences than others. However there are some that maybe sound like movie scores.
What about the songs you wrote with FZ or Steve Vai? That's your style?
Yes, that's my style. 'Yo Cats' is my style, definitely a Mars style. I have to admit Frank's music is autobiographical but many times the band is really composing the stuff, you know what I mean? He'll say 'Yeah, that was good; do that.' You know that he is going to use it, but you don't care because you love to do it. At least I did. My project is a lot more vocal than you would think of me. I never had a chance to use my vocal arranging that much with Frank. But when I do it all myself, it's kind of like the group Take Six. It's a more sophisticated vocal harmony. But eventually, I would really like to write an opera, something theatrical. That's really my dream. Or do music for a good movie; but I do what I can.
What are your favourite recollections of Frank?
Some of my most favourite times are when Frank and I are in a hotel-room. I would always seem to be able to find a piano in a hotel. And a few times each tour, I would say 'Pops, I got the piano, are you ready to jam?' And he would, with his Ovation guitar; we just blew man. Just the two of us. Those are some of my absolute fondest memories of Frank, just the two of us. I can remember one time in Denver. It was snowing outside, and he was playing ... It wasn't just that we were going over some of the material or jamming on those changes. It was the time that I could like dictate the changes to him, and have him blow just on acoustic guitar, real blues style.
Do you remember the time you did something for television with Frank? You played 'Bobby Brown' and then you went into 'Envelopes'.
Yes I remember. It was in Vienna. This big Bösendorfer piano was on these industrial things. That was incredible, man. And they had a string quartet there. That is a very fond memory.
Another one is when we were at the studio one day and Dweezil was playing baseball at the time, quite a good little pitcher. He pitched a no-hitter that day. He came in and said 'Hey Frank, I just pitched a no-hitter.' And Frank didn't even notice it. I was saying 'Hey man, you fucking prick. Your son is your son and you didn't even notice that he did something spectacular like that.' And so we were continuing to record. About two hours later, Dweezil was back in the studio, eating something. And for no reason at all, Frank says 'Come here slugger, I want to congratulate you.' And he remembered it, you know. He just put it out for a second. And I said 'Man, you are a beautiful guy.' It really made me feel good that he didn't just ignore his son in deference to recording.
A lot of times Frank would get inspiration, and it would seem that we were in tune. We would be working on new material, it would click. That to me was magic, because we were on the same wavelength. He wasn't saying 'Do this' and I wasn't saying 'Hey can we try this?' That was always a sort of sore thumb, as we say, with Frank. I would not second guess him, but I knew his music and I wanted to give, but a lot of times, he didn't want that style. However, when we came together just simultaneously, those were real magical moments.
I remember a rehearsal in 1980 when you were playing 'My [Sharona]' and even 'Heart of Glass'.
Yeah, then you know how the songs actually develop from the germ of it. I'll never forget when 'I Don't Wanna Get Drafted' started. We were having a dinner break and it was just around the time when there might have been the draft in America. Frank was talking about World War Two. It was like history class. I remember Ike Willis' eyes were wide open and he said 'You really mean that, Frank? This shit really happened?' 'Yeah, asshole, read a history book once in a while.' And it was really cool. Then all of a sudden, he was working on this (sings 'I don't wanna get drafted'); that was like a guitar-solo at the time. So he said 'Put down the burritos, I think we got a new tune boys. Do that thing; I got this lyric idea.' And he started writing the lyrics right out. And that was part of something that meant something to me.
Another example is 'We're Turning Again'. I heard some rehearsals of that.
Yeah, that song had some big changes, real big.
Why did songs like 'My [Sharona]' not appear on stage? .
They did. We did the whole set 'My [Sharona]' one time. It's just like Do it all reggae. One time, we were going on a European tour and two nights of the tour, Frank says 'I want the whole set reggae.' We had to do it just every single song. That takes a lot in your head, to feel the beats, because his music is weird anyway. I remember we threw 'My [Sharona]' in tons of times. It came into a couple of songs as a definite thing. I forget what the cue was for it, but it was a weird one too; it always fucked me up. But I remember it came up invariably in the sets.
Can you tell us why you did many more solos in 1980 than on some other tours?
It all really depended on the instrumentation we had. I always enjoyed working with another keyboard-player. But in my heart, I always wanted the solo in 'Wild Love', that samba solo. But I was always envious of Peter (Wolf) who got that one and I would have 'Pound For A Brown'. Then it turned round on the next tour when Peter had the solo on 'Pound For A Brown' and I got the solo in 'Little House I Used To Live In'. Peter was begging Frank to have the solo in 'Pound for a Brown'. Then it would turn again when Peter wanted the rhapsodic type of solos. He would let me be by myself. I didn't get a regular solo that first part of the tour. It was only like eight bars here or a small area. I was vamping a lot at the time too. So, it all depended on the instrumentation.
I really liked vamping for Frank when it was working. When you vamp for somebody, you have a situation where you are really soloing with the person, and when you know where his style is, you can challenge him and pit him against certain musical situations. Sometimes Frank would be cool to that, and sometimes he wouldn't enjoy it. I enjoyed it when it was loose.
What happened with you in 1984 and especially in 1988?
Well, '84 ... I really don't know what happened. I was having a problem with Scott Thunes to be perfectly honest. Nothing against Scott, but I just didn't want to go on the road. It was around the time that I started to become a painter, a fine artist. I started getting really very disenchanted with the music biznis. I was getting a desire to paint a lot more. I was tired of going on the road and decided not to do it.
For the second tour in 1988, I was really into painting and I just couldn't see myself going out on the road for that period of time; and I knew it was going to be a really difficult tour that year. I did a week of rehearsals.
You know it went wrong on the '88 tour?
It went way wrong. I was sorry it did, but baby, I was glad I didn't do that tour. I heard from many people it went real wrong. You know, I love Frank, but sometimes, he takes on more than he can chew, and it was a rough tour. It hurts you know, after his brilliant career ...
Would you play together with Frank if he came and asked you?
I would certainly consider it. There are a couple of things I remember from the early days of rehearsals in 1988. I said 'Hey Frank, why don't we do a Beatles' cover?' We started doing Xmas Carols and I thought it was rather blasphemous. I was saying 'Just change the lyrics. Hell, I don't want to be involved if you are going to talk about Jesus. I don't want the repercussions of that'. When I heard that they did 'I Am The Walrus', I was ahhhh. I really wanted to do that song for years. They did my favourite Beatles' song of all time.
Another thing, I was talking to Steve Vai a little while ago too and he mentioned an interest in doing some work together finally. I don't know if you guys ever heard some tapes of the shows we did with Steve Vai and the Classifieds. There's a song called 'Money Hungry Scavenger Refugees'. We did this duel stuff. Some of the stuff hasn't been released yet. I just said to Steve 'Why don't we get together and do that shit?'. He said 'That's what I'm calling you for, Mars. I really want to put some of that shit out now.'
And Stuart Hamm. I just did a little thing with him. His album sounds real good. He's going for a more rock sound right now. I sang backgrounds on a couple of songs. But I have to say that I'm coming back to music again. I really got out of it in terms of my aesthetic of music. Music has always been so sensitive and personal to me. I just figured that if I'm not going to be that way, I don't want to be part of it. I found out something about myself in terms of art that I never knew I had. I couldn't draw a stick figure. But now I have vast volumes of artwork at the moment, a whole garageful of canvas. I've done a lot of different things in that area, but I've spent myself now. I'm ready to come back to music.
Is there a chance we can see some of your work?
It's a possibility. I haven't thought about it yet. I've sold a few, but I haven't thought about how I should market them. But you might, certainly.
Back to Steve Vai. I remember a song called 'Frank Is In Town'. Have you worked on that song?
Yes, but I'm not on the recording of it. We worked on it as part of our thing. It's very very good, very much like Zappa.
Have you been in contact with Bob Harris?
I talked to Bob a little while ago. I think he's in Las Vegas now. Boy, you guys keep up on shit, I like that.
Are you still in contact with Frank? There is no conflict between you and Frank? Many fans think that you didn't tour in 1988 because there were some problems before.
No, I think it was a mutual thing. I just foresaw that it wasn't going to be a good tour. But Frank knows that I love him. And I know that he cares, as much as he can care about anybody. He is sometimes cold like that but I understand that part of him. I would say there are no hard feelings between Frank and myself at all.
Were you at the rehearsals with Flo & Eddie and Ray White?
Let me explain something about that tour, one of the reasons I didn't do it. That tour with Flo & Eddie was the situation. We were gonna do a TV show in New York for a whole month. We'd stay in New York, get a set together and Frank was gonna have a TV show called Art World or Art Class. And when he called, I said 'Fantastic, you mean we're not going on the road?' He said, 'No, maybe after the month we might do something.' He already knew up front that they couldn't do the tour. They were just going to sit in, not be regulars. But then it turned into a whole tour which they couldn't do. But it sounded great, huh? Mark and Howard back. And I was grooving to work with them, because the harmonies were incredible. It was real loose; then the rehearsal situation got real tight all of a sudden. I told Frank I didn't want to use a lot of synthesizer, I just wanted to play piano and organ. Then the second day we were using a lot of synths and the music was getting really technical again. I just wanted to go back and do my artwork.
During your period with Frank, you had to learn a lot of songs. Did you make a lot of mistakes?
With me, absolutely and frequently. I have to honestly admit that. My consistency was, you know ... because he records every single night, and a lot of the guys would hold back. With me, when I play wrong, I play strong wrong. And Frank always respected that about me. Very rarely do I play the wrong note consistently. I was always on. It was the other people's parts that have to be cleaned up on the recordings. It's strange but that's the truth. That's one thing I very highly prided myself on with him was being consistently on. And I always wanted the level of the band to be that way too. Sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn't.
Very often when Frank was tuning his guitar, he'd say 'Tommy, play something.'
He knew he could depend on me because I was a solo player and I could just do it myself. I loved those moments when he gave me a piece of meat as we call it. And then he did shit like started conducting the band around it. But it's his band. He can do shit like that; it's not my show.
You are very famous for putting all the TV tunes and film tunes into the music. How come you know so many of those tunes?
There are a lot of reruns in the US, and my ear. I've always picked up on those type of tunes. To me, they are great songs. 'I Love Lucy' is a great tune. But I just like the comedic element of throwing in bits of songs. To me that is humour in music. Sometimes it gets deeper than that. It's almost like a Wagnerian type of thing where it gives you a motif because you know what the song means. I used to love quoting Frank's songs in my solos. I was the only guy that ever used to do that. He got a kick out of it too. It's kind of incestuous ... But, I just like TV music and it fits with his stuff.
Frank takes a lot of time before he brings out a record and he keeps changing it. What do you think of that?
Well, that's the nature of the beast we're dealing with. You never know what he's gonna be turned on by. And I'm just glad that he's revamping some of that stuff. It's timeless music and he takes it at his own pace. I had no idea that certain songs that we were going to do weren't gonna be on an album. A pet piece of mine is the 'Rollo' out-chorus. That was the hardest part I ever had to sing in my life. 'Envelopes' was a snap compared to 'Rollo', from 'St Alphonso' from way down here, in one breath. I had one breath to get that and I'm a heavy smoker. I really want to hear that. He played it a million times to me. I haven't been released yet, right?
No. (In fact, 'Rollo' is the end of 'St Alphonso' on Stage Vol 1 -Ed)
I want everybody to hear that. It was strictly instrumental at one time. We did that on 'Saturday Nite Live' and it came off cool. But that programme's been up to one hour. We also did 'The Meek ...' That made me happy. I used to love to play the vocoder on that song, you know, the voices. A lot of Frank's spiritual stuff (!) like 'Heavenly Bank Account', 'The Meek ...', stuff that has to do with the Church, I feel very close to it in my own heart just because I am a Catholic. I just loved playing the church type of things. You remember when Patrick O'Hearn used to preach a little in his solo and I used to play the organ behind it.
I'll never forget one time in Boston. Patrick started to get a little out on his preaching and people starting throwing hot dogs onto the stage. I was playing choirmaster type music in the background and all of a sudden I got winged by a hot dog. And then he never got his solo back, not even a bass-solo. Frank took the whole thing away from him. I thought it was real cute in the beginning, doing a little preaching.
Could you tell us some more about the song 'Easy Meat'?
I created that, those were my harmonies. Frank let me go for it totally. I actually had that worked out. A lot of the classical songs, I wrote out, like the solo on 'Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?', the melody there. The reason I wrote it out is because that was one of the little instrumental eight bar solos that I would get. But one night, I had a mental block. That had never happened to me before one of my solos. I tried to make it interesting all the time. So I stayed up all that night and wrote the part out for myself so in case that ever happened again, I would always have at least a cool solo. And shit like that I actually wrote you know. It was part of the arrangement and we wrote it out.
Did Peter Wolf play with the same sound that you did, that brass sound?
No, not really. It's not like these instruments that I played tonight where it's just one sound. There is still so little expressivity to synths, surprising from what you hear about touch sensitivity. I'm in a quandary right now because I'm getting back into music. I really want to be able to get more expressiveness from a synth but it's up to me to delve into the business again. See, I really only wanted to play piano and organ for so long because I worked very hard just with knobs. I started when it was just a wave-form, a filter, and modulation you painted. Now today there are so many instruments that are like that. I must try to find one that fits the bill. But it's a nice feeling to know that myself and Frank pioneered a lot of those types of sounds. I'm not into sequencing that much. I like to be live. And I don't like to overdub that much. I like to just take it in one and blow, man.
Did you create your sound, the brass sound, yourself?
Yes. Frank at first put me on retainer for a week. He said 'I want you to learn this music, that whole 'Sheik Yerbouti' shit.' Next time, I brought down my Electron synth. The guys from Emu were there at the time and he had two big Emu modules. And when he heard the Electron, he said 'I want that sound.' The Emu was very like my synth but on a larger scale. But I'll never forget it when Frank said 'Hardwire that thing just like his is, right now,' I felt like I was on the vanguard of the business. It was my distinctive sound. Now you hear it all over the place. I was the first person to use it, because there's no synth that made that sound before me. And it's a very warm sound.
What's your opinion of hardcore fans?
I love them. I think they should have fan of the year awards for different musical idioms. Warren Cuccurullo was one, before he got in the band. Like in 'Baby Snakes'. He was a hundred times what you see in the movie. He was the best fan I ever saw in my life. I think the hardcore fans make it magic. I'm not a hardcore fan myself, but I respect and appreciate them.
How do you think Frank sees hardcore fans?
They buy his records, they want to know about him. I don't think he minds them, as long as they don't try to make a great profit at his expense. That's understandable. He loves his fans.
What do you think of the way Frank's albums are mixed?
The last few albums I don't care for it. My favourite was Mark Pinske. He was a genius. For sonority, for fidelity, for resonance. Mark's in Florida now and he has his own studio. We used to live together so I was really very close to Mark. And whenever he did mixing for Frank, it sounded great. I don't understand where his mixing with the thrust on it is lately, on the more recent albums. Things don't seem to have the fidelity. Even when you talk about an album like 'One Size Fits All', that seems to have more fidelity than the newer stuff. And it's not just because it's digital. Another thing. A lot of times the show tapes right off the board sounded better than what he released from those tapes. I don't know, maybe my ears are fucked up. Maybe he just wants to have a laugh at people, to have them buy the shit that doesn't sound good. Frank's got a very good ear. He always said that he was deaf in one ear, but I don't believe it. He hears shit when he wants to hear it. But it's just a style. I wish it would go back to more fidelity.
When you got to Frank in the '70s, did he tell you about some classical composers like Varèse and Stockhausen?
Yeah, and Webern. I really admired him in that area, because when I was in college, I did music like that. I was used to doing stuff like that.
But not a lot of people know this stuff.
No, truly not. And it's not appreciated like 'Bobby Brown'. I have to actually give myself credit for the bridge in that song. I wrote 'Oh god I am the American dream'. Before that, it was doo-wop. And 'Baby Snakes' ... four songs. We came home from the American tour and that's where all of those songs came from. Just he and I were up at the house, just piano and Frank. Anyway, I really loved that classical element with Frank.
When I was playing solo piano, my career was getting slimmer and slimmer because I was getting to the point when I couldn't stand people to get drunk. I'd see a guy get totally sloshed and make a jerk out of himself with a chick. So I started singing 'You know, maybe you better grow up babe, Your life's a shambles and she's no maid'. I would start scat-singing. How long can you hold a job when you're chasing the customers out? So I was saying 'What am I gonna do with my musical career? Why is it fucking up?'
And then I got the job with Frank, the perfect job. He just loved it when I could do shit like that. I felt like 'Wow, I'm fitting in. I'm making a contribution.' I always felt very fulfilled working for him. I could do practically anything that was possible on the planet. You have to keep to certain rules that he applies. One major rule is if he hears you play it once, if you have the balls to play that, you know you're going to have to play it three hundred times. He demands perfection and I love that.
Sometimes it was very difficult though with the number of guitar solos. It was like 'When is the guitar gonna stop? When are we gonna do some songs?' I don't know why he did so many guitar solos. They were just sort of the same.
Thank you very much for your time.