Frank Zappa Interview By Barry Miles
Barry Miles, International Times, 29 August 1969
© Miles, 1969
Frank Zappa: There are some things I'd like to clarify about my editing technique. The editing technique is an extension of the composition because, as I have so much to do with the actual production of the records, as a composer it gives me a chance to exert even more control on the musical material from start to finish.
Like ... I've already written a piece and had it performed, I get a chance to mix it, you know, I get a chance to enhance it or even alter it radically by the volume balances of the different instruments. Then, after I've got that onto a piece of quarter-inch tape, I can examine it, chop it up, integrate it with non-musical material or material not produced with musical instruments, and include that material which would otherwise be considered as noise or environmental bullshit into the musical structure, and use that as rhythmic counterpoint or as actual musical material as was done in 'Lumpy Gravy'. To call that 'editing technique' sounds like somebody sat there and cut out all the mistakes.
I just wanted to make that point about editing being an extension of the composition, because it took me a long time to get used to handling a razor-blade like that. I just recently purchased my own machine that will enable me to do that work at home, and now I spend sometimes ten or eleven hours in a row just sitting in front of that machine chopping tape up. 'Cause I really like to do it.
I think the mixing and juxtaposition of different time levels seems very important to you.
I think of the art of composition as time-painting you know. You're being employed by your audience to decorate a piece of time for them. In the same way a painter uses a piece of canvas and he's got to slap it on that, I have the opportunity of taking a piece of time and sticking little things on it. In a live performance I get to do it with visual and audio material, on a record I can do it with pieces of time from all over. In some albums I've condensed as much as ten years into one little piece of plastic.
This is presumably why you don't use electronically generated sound — because it has no time-reference.
One of the reasons that I don't use electronically generated material is that I can't afford the equipment to do it. The other reason is that after you have enough money to buy a synthesizer and get all the rest of the gizmos that goes with it ... I think that before you make some kind of statement with an instrument of that complexity you'd better get your shit together before you do it. I wouldn't want to just get a hold of a synthesizer and immediately make an album. I'd want to find my own way in that.
At the moment every note you play has a time reference, like a year. One line will be a 1956 reference, another line a 1962 reference.
Yes, but they're not just references. No, it's not just 'Now here is one from 1950! they don't work out that way.
I've often wondered how much the IDEA of your music was important. Because you'll create an evocative musical condition and then break it up before it's had a chance to fully mature or condense. Particularly on the numbers which refer to Schoenberg or Stravinsky as influences ...
Well, for one thing, the problem with The Mothers up until now, has been sort of, a limited musicianship, compared with what I wanted them to do. You know? Although they're excellent players, some of the things that I ask them to do just turn out to be impossible. So over a period of time we've been teaching each other how to play different hard things. Some of the things we can get into rhythmically now, would be difficult for even the most polished orchestras and we toss 'em off like they were nothin', because we started playing at 5/8 and 7/8 about three years ago. Now we can have everybody in the band playing at a different time signature, maintain a constant tempo or I can conduct the relative speed of each instrument and make those tempos fluctuate against each other. We've just developed a lot of weird techniques which probably wouldn't have much commercial potential elsewhere but in one conglomerate batch labelled 'The Mothers Of Invention', it has a sort of identity so we're able to earn a living from doing that.
What we're into now is electric chamber music. It just takes a long time before you can make that sound convincing so I'm trying to keep the evolution of the group going. But, much as I would have liked to have continued some of those things which you say were cut off too soon on the albums I just couldn't do it because ... Some of them actually were longer and I had to remove the extended section because it wasn't played well enough for the record. And then I have to rely on connecting it to something else to provide continuity.
Do ideas play a part? Do you ever refer to things rather than always have the music as an entity unto itself?
Well, Uncle Meat is sort of the missing link between the early albums which were basically song-type things, stuff like 'Monster-Magnet', into what we're doing now which is a lot more like serious music, if you want to use that expression, and very little of it is vocal music, you see. A lot depends on how well Uncle Meat sells as to whether or not we're going to be able to even survive continuing in that direction. Because if you stop singing, the audience stops listening. You have to either talk to them or sing to them but they're not prepared to listen to music at all, they just don't want to sit through it. They have a bad interest span for instrumental music unless it happens to be glandular music, you know those loud blues. They can dig it because they can tap their feet to it. But you whip a bunch of atonal 5 and 7/8ths on 'em and THAT they can't uh ... groove with and that they have to think about. Then you're in dangerous territory when you consider that next week you're going to have to pay your rent.
Things like the Ruben & The Jets tracks, are they essentially recreations rather than ...?
Oh they're more than recreations, they're careful conglomerates of archetypal cliches. For instance one song on the Ruben & The Jets album simultaneously has quotes from background chants sung by The Moonglows, the opening theme of The Rites of Spring, in fact the tune of 'Fountain Of Love', it's on the fade-out but nobody ever heard that as The Rites Of Spring because there's like five different levels of musical accompaniment going on, not counting the band. There's all these different vocal parts and they're all clichés and they're all carefully chosen for nostalgia value and then built into this song with the most imbecile words in the world.
Not all the tracks are like that, some use the same old themes you keep playing with all the time ...
Note themes or word themes?
Old Mothers themes. It seems you're working in two directions. In using these old 1956 sounds, even little snatches of them, you're working with other people's material whereas old Mothers' themes are original material.
I don't understand that. That must be happening on some unconscious level.
It seems to be the two poles of your music. One side the nostalgic music which you didn't write yourselves, and attacking it, changing it, trying to work something out of your system with it and on the other side is the new music which comes straight from your head. The difference between these approaches is gigantic.
I like that kind of music, I'm very fond of close harmony group vocal Oo-Wah Rock & Roll, I really like it. But the scientific side of Ruben & The Jets is that it was an experiment in cliché collages because that music was just riddled with stereotyped motifs that made it sound the way it did. Not only did it give it its characteristic sound but it gave it its emotional value. Like there's a real science to playing Rock & Roll triplets, not everybody who can play three notes at once on the piano can play Rock & Roll triplets, and make it sound convincing. There's little weird things in their so there was a lot of exploration done at the time were putting Ruben & The Jets together.
That's apparent from the production, the way you've restrained the drums for instance.
Well, we scaled down the instrumentation of the group, and I tried to make it sound reasonably modern and also reasonably stereo so we toyed with the idea of doing a really crappy production on it and making it sound old but I didn't think I would enjoy listening to it over and over again at all ... I like a little stereo now and then, I can dig that! We discussed different kinds of background chants and the emotional implications of them. Because I think that they have emotional implications the same as morning ragas and evening ragas and things like that. It's a different level, that's where those tracks were at. Also the falsettist, the type of lyric that you would associate with a song that has a low bass voice prominent is different from the type of lyric you would associate for a song that's sung in two or three part harmony with a falsetto over it. So we were tinkering around with all these things.
Ruben & The Jets is a difficult album to assess in Britain because of the different musical background. This makes for an unusual degree of objectivity, however I've been playing the nine volumes of Oldies But Goodies for the last few months.
But that's not even a good example because the Oldies but Goodies albums are presenting to you just the songs that were big bits. I'm getting ready to put out an 'Oldie But Goodie' type album. I've made a list of the songs I want to include on it and they're all obscure but they're the weirdest of weird things that were released during the fifties. Songs like Rubber Biscuit by The Chips which was like a hundred years ahead of its time man! There's no words to it, it's all chanting. They guys are sort of making it up with rhythm accompaniment and the only thing that you can really hear when they're singing is the words one guy says: 'Woody woody, pecker pecker' and the rest of it is all just this bizarre mumbling and grumbling but all major and minor chords and it's easy to listen to. It's happy and it's very surrealistic. Then there's another song called The Girl Around The Corner which is the other-side of Teardrops by Lee Andress And The Hearts and the lyrics to that are just incomprehensible, it's something like: 'Butchy Stover makes love like Casenova, she fucked him five times in the eye, three times in the knee, Buddha McCrey, She's crazy that way'. And then there's a sax solo in the middle of it and he's honking away sort of inanely and then this one guy starts to sing too soon and then he stops and then it's time to come back in. It's a great record. Really far out!
You are going to release this?
Yes, I'm trying to acquire all the masters right now. It's going to take a little checking around to see who owns them. You see a lot of those companies went out of business and others are just very obscure. There's one called 'The Drunkard' by The Thrillers on Old Town, which is a recitation record where this guy tells of the evils of drink and the corruption of a young lad at the hands of a fast crowd and a bottle. Oh man! It's horrible!
'Project X' doesn't sound very Schoenbergian at all and doesn't sound serial (referring to my review of Uncle Meat). When you say serial are you talking about actual mathematical balances of notes and rests and ...
No, it's a misapplied term.
Well now, if you're going to review serious music you've got to get that shit together because serial music means something very specific.
I mean, the way you refer back to previous themes, sometimes with a very short reference of only one or two notes. The rotation and arrangement of themes and musical ideas.
Well, that's done on purpose. I can see that as being serial. There's also a type of serial rotation that I use with chords which accompany the melodies. Oh here's an interesting thing about this album: A lot of it was written in the studio while they were recording one section of a song I'd be in the control room writing the next score and then copy the parts. The album was put together basically by me, Bunk, Ian and Art Trip. Because we did most of the overdubbing, 'cause they're the ones that read best in the group.
How much of the music is improvised?
On Uncle Meat?
Generally, it's difficult to separate your albums, I almost see them as one long album.
I think you'd better listen to Hot Rats all the way through first because that is going to be the big departure. On stage 50% of what we do is improvised.
When I saw you in New York last, you sounded improvised but then you would make a signal and they would suddenly switch over to a new theme as if every note was rehearsed.
If that amazed you, well, it was really crude then, we were just trying to get that together. The signals that they catch now and the number of different signals that they have to have memorized and the amount of concentration they have to apply to catch those signals on stage in the performance situation, you know we really have to work hard to get it together. Besides the arrangements, which are all supposed to be memorized. A lot of the things we're going to do at the Albert Hall, they'll still be reading off the charts because they're getting more complicated and it takes longer to memorize them. Rather than play an old repertoire I'd rather do the new stuff, even if they do have to read it. They have to memorize all the horn parts and everything else like that and they have to be ready at any time in the middle of any song, that I can give a signal to either insert a noise, cut to another song or completely alter the time signature which supports the notes that they have already memorized for the melody. Like, say, if I give them a woodwind piece in 3/4 and I think that it might be weird this particular evening to see what would happen if they stayed in 3/4 and the drums suddenly went to 5/8 against it. You know, I'll just go 'Bang! Like that, and it will happen. And they'll play it. It's going to sound a little raggedy because nobody really knows what is going to happen when they do that. But I'm willing to take the chance and mess around with it and an orchestra can't do that.
How much of the music is you directing a group of musicians or is it really a group thing?
Well, I give all the signals. But that's based partly on some crazed whim that takes place at the time, partly on the desire to create a musical composition instantly on stage and partly because I know that the personalities of each member of the group will...well, let's say, I know that when Motorhead does a certain thing at a certain time and I gesture to another player that he has complete freedom to play whatever he wants, just have to point to him and he'll play whatever comes into his head right then. I've got a pretty good idea what's going to happen see. So I can play the personalities against each other to make different flavours of madness. It's pretty, it looks real simple but it's very complicated and the reasons for the choices, when they occur, are pretty complex. Some of it has to do with the way the audience is behaving and a lot of it has to do with how you feel that day.
Does the way audiences react disturb you? I imagine a lot of them are expecting something different.
I don't think we've ever had an audience that really expected what they saw, never, and generally speaking, unless the audience is noisy or they're really aggressive like the New York Fillmore audience is usually that way, I don't pay any attention to them at all. Except when I'm addressing them between songs or something like that. Because once we start the music it's just me and the boys. We get into it and forget about that there's anybody else out there and it's sort of irrelevant you know. Because they perform a useful function for us, they're radiating a certain amount of energy which we can lean against or bounce off or do weird things with. If they weren't there we could still play and get just as much into it but the results would be different.
Do you think that this will result in you becoming a studio group when you make enough money?
Studio group? Hell No! I love live performances. I like to go on the road. The worst thing about going on the road is the travelling around but once you get there it's really nice to play in different places. I can't imagine being a studio group and playing live in the studio and importing an English audience or a Danish audience or a Dutch audience, because judging from the tapes which have been made over the last two years on our European tours, we've played different kinds of shows for those audiences. Especially the Danish audiences because we've done our farthest out weirdness there.
They're much attuned to the latest developments in jazz as well.
And also. Because we can really get away and I know we're not going to leave our audience in the dust because at the Concertgebouw which is where we played both times we were in Holland, that's where they gave the premier of Penderecki's Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima, and any audience that forces the orchestra to play it again because they liked it so much has got to be ready for some paltry shit that we're going to do. Like they're ready for it, so we look forward to going there.
How about British audiences?
I think they're extremely sophisticated and generally would rather hear a blues band.
I can believe that.
But we think it's cute that they come to see us.
You've never made an attempt to reach the modern classical audience?
That's not very easy to do. First of all modern classical promoters, if there are such, couldn't possibly afford Rock & Roll prices. Like the amount of money we get for a night, and we're not anywhere near being a top group, is about as much as a symphony orchestra would get. A guy that's been presenting that kind of material, orchestral concerts, to his audience, I'm sure he knows that a lot better than he knows the Rock & Roll market. And if anyone says the words 'pop music' or 'Rock & Roll' to him he'll think about The Beatles first and then he'll think, 'Well, if there's anyone else actually in Rock & Roll, they'll have to be just bad imitations of the Beatles because they're the best, and they're not anything like a symphony orchestra so I think I'll take my symphony orchestra.' They pay no attention whatsoever to developments in pop as an art form, they don't think of it that way, they just think it teenage dance music because they never listen to it.
Don't you think it would be good for a modern classical audience to hear you?
We're going to do something about that.
Do you listen to much modern classical?
I listen to it most of the time. I hardly ever listen to Rock & Roll. Statistically I listen to more Stravinsky than anything else, but I don't listen to that many records because when I'm there, most of what I hear coming out of the speakers is the tape that I'm working on at that time. If I ever take a break I have certain records I listen to over and over again. I don't listen to much new stuff.
When you use 50's Rock, what are you trying to do with it?
You have a reference to the guitar solo in that one article you wrote which says, 'Duane Eddy influence and not a trace of blues'. I take blues oriented material, and in that classification I also include the Oo-Wah triplet style stuff, and make certain intellectual uses of it which makes it sound non-bluesy and non-Rock & Roll.
For instance I take the idea of the blues first of all as a particular kind of scale which functions against a certain kind of a chord giving a certain kind of emotional thing as a by-product of that acoustical phenomenon happening. That is to say, a chord with a major third in it that's got flat thirds, sevenths and flat fives bent up against a regular major totality, and that makes the blues effect happen. Of course to this phenomenon today we have the fuzz-tone and the wah-wah pedal which tends to make just about anything played on it sound bluesy. Hawaiian music played on the fuzz-tone guitar won't sound like Hawaiian music, and neither would your favourite fox-trot, it's just that it has a certain emotional thing attached to it.
Anyway, I take the elements that this music is made out of, and I look at it, and I say, 'Well now triplets, now let's think, basically a triplet is three notes in the space of two or in the space of four, depending on how you're using it, or if you're Stockhausen, in the space of seven or five! It's three with a colon and then the number of other notes it's supposed to replace.' So I look at that and I say, 'Well, in the olden days they used to go ding ding ding like that and it made you want to take this girl and squeeze her tits and dance real slow. But suppose that the chord the guy is playing with his right hand on the piano isn't CEG and it doesn't chance to be an A-Minor after two beats. Suppose it's some weird cluster and something else happens afterwards, it's still based on Rock & Roll triplets but if you do... It's a question of what happens if?...you use that material, that basic structure, and inject something else into it, how much of the original emotional twang of the triplet piano figure is still left?
I write music because I want to find out what it sounds like. Sometimes when I write it down on paper I haven't the faintest idea what it's going to be like when it's played, I just don't know. I don't want to know till I hear it, because I want to get it down there as fast as I can before I forget what I'm doing, so I'm just as surprised as anybody else when it's done, sometimes. There are other times when I know exactly what these two notes together are going to sound like.
The best example, my most recent cliché stolen from somebody else, is a combination of flute and flugelhorn or flute and clarinet playing a half step apart with trumpet voiced on top. Say for instance a B and a C, those two notes which would ordinarily sound like a discord on the piano, if you play them like that in the right setting, will give you a definite impression of A-Minor 9th chord. So some things you just know, if you write those dots and write the correct instructions over the dots, that a certain sound event is going to happen, but other things you just don't know, and the only way to find out is to write it, get somebody to play it, listen to it and see whether you like it. If you like it you use it in the album, if you don't like it you throw it away and don' tell anyone that you tried it or they'll think you're crazy!
What's your motivation to use early 50's stuff?
I think it's very powerful music, it's got dynamite built into it, it's glandular dynamite!
How much of it is trying to bring out anything about your own upbringing in the West Coast?
Not a hell of a lot.
When you attack that aspect of America are you using 50's Rock in any way as a symbol?
One of the reasons why the images in a lot of the songs are so West Coast orientated is that I write songs sometimes to entertain the other members of the band and about three of four friends that I have in the world who know about the really obtruse arcane references in those songs. Captain Beefheart is one of the guys who knows what all of the songs are about and, like, you know, he's just seen a few weird things happen. I get kind of a laugh out of the fact that other people are going to try and interpret that stuff and come up with some grotesque, I mean really grotesque, interpretations of it. It gives me a certain amount of satisfaction.
You can imagine how insane that must get on a song like 'Electric Aunt Jemima' which was written about an amplifier. Yes, it's a Standall amplifier, about this big, that I used on a couple of sessions. But there are some other references in the song to a meeting held in the Denny's Coffee Shop in Lancaster California about six or seven years ago at about four o'clock in the morning. Don Vliet, who is otherwise known to the world as Captain Beefheart, and I were sitting in this coffee shop discussing what we were going to do to the music business, and it's the line about 'Monza' because we were discussing the problems of lyrics in the music we were being fed on the radio. I always felt that the music I grew up with, except for the rhythm & blues, was just horrible and I didn't want to be subjected to it and I wished that I'd had something better to choose from. But I couldn't get anything better to so we were talking about this and I said, 'Well I'm going to do this', and Don says, 'Well I'm going to do that', and I said, 'OK, well let's go do that'.
What's your music going to be like in say five year's time? Do you ever consider this?
Well I can't worry too much about that. Something will happen. Probably get more obscure.
You haven't any long term aims or projects?
I'm interested in getting into films and I'm also interested in being able to write more and more complex music for larger ensembles and actually getting it played as soon as possible. That's the main problem of being a composer, it's a lonely dismal job because while you're sitting down and making the dots and you think you know what some of it sounds like, you never can be sure until you hear it realised as a vibration hanging in the air. And the grisly means you have to go through to make that happen are so complicated and almost impossible under certain conditions, especially if you're writing for an orchestra.
Man, the chances of me getting stuff played by an orchestra now are fair, you know, not excellent but fair. The chances improve if I rent the orchestra myself. But when I first started writing I had no chance whatsoever of hearing any of the things that I'd written. Material on the Mothers' albums for the past five years, a lot of it was written before there was even the Mothers. Because I'm still digging it out of these trunks and saying, 'I wonder what this sucker sounds like?'
This is why I wondered why you weren't interested in getting involved with the modern classical scene, being published by one of the houses ...
But what does a modern classical publisher do? He's not going to get you any performances. The performance of works is chosen by little old ladies and people on the board of directors of symphony orchestras and all their faggot friends and all the rest of that stuff. In that world they rely very heavily on who you studied with, where you were trained and what school are you into, are you a serialist or are you aliatory or what the fuck are you? They want you in the union and they want to stick a tuxedo on you and they might put you into a concert hall every once in a while. But mainly why don't you just sit there and listen to Beethoven because you know that's got to be the best thing that could ever happen to you. I can't stand that shit! That's the most sick end of the business. Serious music is hurtin'!
Do you see yourselves as educating your audience as you go along?
Let me tell you, there's something that we're going to try to do to correct the missing link between pop music and the so-called serious world, and also the record industry executives who need to find out what it is they're selling because they don't know how important pop music is today. All they know is that that's what's making money this month. They don't really know what a revolution it is in terms of musical history.
Because there are a lot of people working in pop today who are doing things that are artistic and actually mean 'em that way! There are also people who pretend to be artistic who are doing just complete bullshit. But this is today's serious music. I think it's living serious music. So-called serious composers are kind of living in a vacuum because who is their audience? 40 year-old faggots that go to a concert because that's the place to go not because they like the music?
How concerned are you with putting over a really precise musical image? Does it finish up as accurate as you'd like it?
Not very often. No. I don't thinkany composer gets the consistent version of what he imagines. Because it's so hard. Now a painter, he's got it easy, he just takes the paint and goes Blat! And he did it. If you write music it goes to a copyist and you hope he doesn't make any mistakes when he copies the parts, then it goes to a conductor who conducts it for you. Then you've got these musicians and every one of them has got a family problem or an ego problem or they're just bored or there's some fuckin' thing and especially with an orchestra I'm sure they'd never get it right. You can't man, there's just too many problems. That's one of the reasons why I devote so much time to developing specialised skills with the Mothers. Because I know that there are things that we can do that an orchestra would never be able to do. Not the way they're run now and not with the attitude of the players that are in them. So this gives me a lot of latitude in what I can write because the things that I imagine, the sounds that I want to hear, uh, a mere orchestra could not produce them.