Interview: Frank Zappa
Interview by Charlene Keel
Genesis, April 1979
Frank Zappa has been described as a bizarre cult hero who is stuck in a time warp, a performer who is extremely hostile to the press. In reality, he is open, responsive, funny, and down-to-earth (we sat on the floor of his suite at New York's St. Regis Hotel, supervised by his gigantic bodyguard, for most of the interview). He has worked with Zubin Mehta, Ringo Starr, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, to name a few, and his work as a composer and musician is described by his peers in the profession as brilliant.
If he is presently inhabiting a time warp (which is doubtful), it is one of his own making – and not a bad place to be. He has a very clear picture of what the sixties were really all about, and as far as his own image is concerned, he is pretty unimpressed by it. What impresses one about Zappa is his belief in his work, his sheer delight in sharing it with us, and his overall integrity as an artist.
Genesis: How long have you been in the music business?
Zappa: The first time I got paid was when I was fifteen.
Genesis: How did that happen?
Zappa: A friend of mine has rhythm-and-blues band called the Ramblers, and he needed a drummer. I'd been playing drums in the high-school orchestra, so I talked my parents into buying me a set of used drums for fifty dollars. But I couldn't get delivery on the drums until the day of the show. The band rehearsed at the piano player's house. We borrowed all the pots and pans from the kitchen, and I put them between my legs like bongos and played a shuffle beat on them.
Genesis: Baby Ray and the Ferns – was that Ray Collins, too?
Zappa: Yeah. I had a recording studio then, and Ray and I used to make and release all these singles.
Genesis: When was that?
Zappa: In 1964.
Genesis: And when did you really hit big?
Zappa: Well, I never really got big.
Genesis: How big did you get? How big would you say you are?
Zappa: I'd say that I have a lot of friends in New York and probably a lot of friends outside the United States. The popularity of the stuff we do varies drastically from city to city, because different parts of the country have different sociological needs.
Genesis: What sociological need does your music fulfill?
Zappa: If you have a place where there's a lot of tension in the air, you know, industrial areas –
Genesis: Like Detroit?
Zappa: Yeah, we're functional in Detroit. We're functional in the Northeastern part of the United States, places where people need to have some escape.
Genesis: Your work has been described as both random weirdness and organized weirdness. What's the difference?
Zappa: Random weirdness is unstructured. Once you impose a structure on anything, you're getting into the realm of composition. Organized weirdness is structured.
The act of composition is similar to architecture. If you want to build a. structure to live in, you can make it out of any kind of material you want. It just depends on the quality of your craftsmanship in making those materials stay together so it doesn't fall down on your head.
People have built structures out of all kinds of things. Have you ever seen the Watts Towers in Los Angeles? There was this eccentric individual named Simon Rodia who decided he was going to build some towers –
Genesis: For housing?
Zappa: No, he just wanted to look at some towers. They're made out of concrete and broken glass, and they defy all the normal rules of how and why things are supposed to stand up in the air. There are three of them, and they're hundreds of feet tall. The city wanted to tear them down, but they're still standing. They were done in the thirties. I think Rodia has since died, and the towers have become a landmark.
Genesis: So, are you saying your compositions are like the Watts Towers?
Zappa: No, it's just an example that if you want to build something, you don't have to follow the normal rules and regulations of structural design, or the proper way to brace things, or where to put the toilets, or how many windows you have to have.
Genesis: So your material is not necessarily musical in the way that we usually think of music?
Zappa: It doesn't always deal with notes and noises made by instruments.
Genesis: What happens to you, inside you, when you write a song?
Zappa: It depends on what I write. If I write a rock-'n'-roll song with some funny words to it and just a couple of chords, I'll start with the funny words. And that'll usually be triggered by something I'll hear somebody say – a line that sounds like it would be something to hang a song on, or an incident that needs to be recounted in a story. It's like taking pieces of contemporary history and saving them. We have a lot of songs like that – "Blue Slut" and "Jumbo Go Away" are some of the ones I've worked on. They haven't been recorded yet.
Genesis: You have always disdained the use of drugs, but some people associate your early music with the acid world and think your lyrics were LSD-induced.
Zappa: I don't use drugs, and I don't advise other people to use them. Unfortunately, Americans have this attitude that it's impossible to do anything creative unless you're chemically altered.
Genesis: And you're not chemically altered when you create?
Zappa: Well, my body chemistry may change, may become different or quicker when I create, but it's not as a result of going out and procuring illegal substances and sticking them in my body.
Genesis: How do you feel about some of the other labels that have been attached to you? Like the Leonard Bernstein of rock, adolescent rubbish, bizarre cult hero?
Zappa: Well, those labels are irrelevant to what I do. I think labels probably have more to do with the stupidity and the ego of the people who write them than they have to do with me.
Sometimes the people hired on rock-'n'-roll publications are not qualified to operate a typewriter or any other tool of the trade. They write things that tell more about who and what they are than the people they interview. Most rock-'n'-roll journalists are either jealous of musicians or hate them. Or both. So that underlying attitude comes out in the labels and some of the other stuff they write.
Most of the reporters I've talked to don't know anything about music, politics, philosophy, mathematics, or anything. I don't know what they do know about, but you can't talk to them. You can't even answer the questions they ask. A lot of times, in order to make an answer I give accurate and complete, I have to draw on other sources that may be outside their understanding. And if they don't understand what I'm saying, they narrow it down, paraphrase it, change it. The net result is something that's not what I said, and doesn't make any sense. Or, later, if they can't decipher the tape they made or if I use an unfamiliar word they can't spell, rather than go look it up, they leave it out. It's less work for them.
Genesis: How do you feel about being called a "cult hero?" With all this madness in Guyana, the word "cult" has taken on nightmare connotations.
Zappa: It had nightmare connotations during the Manson days. What's in a word? There is no organized religious significance to what I do.
Genesis: Are you really a cult hero?
Zappa: To some people I am.
Genesis: You've been known to invite fans to come onstage and sing along or whatever. How did that start?
Zappa: Oh, I started doing that in 1967 at the Garrick [a club in Greenwich Village, now demolished].
Genesis: Those were the days when fans ran after musicians, screaming and tearing their arms and legs off. Weren't you afraid to let them get that close?
Zappa: No. They only did that for English groups. We weren't really "cute." Nobody was gonna run after us.
Genesis: You never had any of that? Groupies following you around?
Zappa: Oh, one or two times, I had people clutching at my clothes in the traditional groupie sense.
Genesis: How does that feel?
Zappa: It's preposterous. We were working in Chicago in 1970, and I actually had some girl pulling at my pants at the front of the stage, squealing and squeaking and stuff like that.
Genesis: What did you do?
Zappa: I looked down and laughed. The other time was the first time we played Helsinki. We started playing "Son. of Mr. Green Jeans," which is an instrumental. You would have thought it was "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." These teenage girls started going crazy. I'd never heard that kind of noise before for one of our concerts.
Genesis: You've said in the past that you don't think it's the artist's responsibility to educate those who know less. What is the artist's responsibility?
Zappa: To amuse himself.
Genesis: How do you amuse yourself?
Zappa: By putting together the stuff that I want to hear. If somebody else is similarly disposed to my taste, they can enjoy it, too. If not, there are many other groups they can listen to.
Genesis: You've also stated that you think love songs are the ultimate form of 'absurdist comedy. Do you still feel that way?
Zappa: Well, it's preposterous. To publicly display hurt –
Genesis: What about happy love songs, like "You Light Up My Life"?
Zappa: That's even more preposterous. And cynical. Sensitivity for bucks.
Genesis: Can you see yourself ever singing a love song on stage?
Zappa: Well, not seriously. We have a few songs, like "I Have Been in You," that deal with the subject, but with a comic overtone.
Genesis: You're pretty amused by life.
Zappa: You gotta be.
Genesis: Does your absurdist viewpoint extend from music in other aspects of your lifestyle – in business, for instance?
Zappa: Absolutely. But it's not a case where you defensively adopt an absurdist viewpoint when something happens to you. You just have to deal with business as an absurdist pursuit.
Genesis: You once tangled with the British courts: What happened?
Zappa: I sued The Queen. She owns the Royal Albert Hall, and I had a breach-of-contract suit against the Albert Hall, which is the same as suing the Queen. It went on for several years. I spent about fifty thousand dollars keeping it going.
Genesis: How did it come out?
Zappa: We lost, We were right. At the end of the trial, the judge's decision was that yes, they did breach the contract, and no, the material we were to perform there was not obscene. However, it is the Queen. And that's the bottom line.
Genesis: How did you like hosting Saturday Night Live?
Zappa: I like the idea of doing live TV. Spontaneity counts for a lot. It's put up or shut up. It's more like performing live onstage, which is what I'm used to.
Genesis: What is Gilda Radner really like?
Zappa: She's extremely thin and very funny.
Genesis: Are the Saturday Night Live people really as zany as they seem to be on the tube?
Zappa: Some are actually zanier. Daniel Aykroyd is a lot zanier than most people suspect. He's really off the wall.
Genesis: Do you think they intentionally hold him in?
Zappa: Probably. They intentionally hold a lot in on that show. They're very concerned about their image. I couldn't believe my ears when I heard them worrying about offending women and various other themes that could be considered offensive.
Genesis: I didn't think they worried about offending anybody.
Zappa: Oh, yeah. They're real worried about it now that they have their ratings.
Genesis: Do you think the sexual mores of this country have changed in the last decade?
Zappa: Certain procedures for people getting together and jumping up and down have changed, but the attitude toward the event itself hasn't changed that much. People are probably more casual about getting together and jumping up and down.
Genesis: Do you think there's still room for improvement in our attitudes toward sex?
Zappa: Absolutely. American sexual attitudes are controlled as a necessary tool of business and government in order to perpetuate themselves. Unless people begin to see through that, to see past it to what sex is really all about, they're always going to have the same neurotic attitudes. It's very neatly packaged. It all works hand-in-hand with the churches and political leaders at the point where elections are coming up. They always promise to clean up smut in the neighborhood. In order for them to promise to clean up smut, smut must exist. Through schools and religion, the concept of smut is manufactured, and dirty fucking –
Genesis: As opposed to clean fucking?
Zappa: Right. You have to go by the formula. Deviate from that, and boy, damnation is imminent, and you are going down and the whole country with you. From a business standpoint, as long as these attitudes have been built into the American mind, they can pose a girl in an evening gown next to a transistor radio, and somehow that makes the radio more interesting, makes it work better, makes it fun. Or they'll use red cars. Or designs that include triangles.
Genesis: You became successful in an age when interest in politics was allconsuming. Now, with everyone boogie-oogie-oogieing to the disco beat, it hardly seems to matter who's in power. How do you feel about that?
Zappa: Well, I don't think politics – or the personality game of politics – really does matter. They're all working for the same company. It's hard to tell one from the other. That's just a charade.
Genesis: But in the sixties, wasn't everyone trying to get rid of the charade?
Zappa: I don't think so. Anybody who thought he had an ideal was used by the people who were supposed to be removed. Peace marches and things like that were social events more than they were real idealistic, "Hey, let's go do something" situations. You could get laid at a peace march, too. After the march, you grabbed a girl with a stinking blanket, and it was something to do. That's what it was all about. Now, you can go to a disco and do the same thing – and you don't have to smell that blanket.
Genesis: Do you think interest in politics and the world situation will revive?
Genesis: What's going to happen to us?
Zappa: People will probably go hustling into oblivion.
Genesis: Do you think you'd like a world like that?
Zappa: I don't think I have much choice. indications are that things are not going ': get much better. I think you might as well just learn to like it the way it is.
Genesis: You have three kids. Do your kids think you're weird?
Zappa: No. Well, weird is not a bad word at our house. They know I do something different than the other parents, but they don't think I'm weird.
Genesis: Do they travel with you when you're on the road?
Zappa: Very seldom.
Genesis: Are they into music? Do you think they'll go into music or some form of entertainment?
Zappa: I think my daughter, Moon, will probably be an actress. Dweezil, the older boy, will probably be a baseball player, and the younger one will either be a composer or an accountant.
Genesis: What will be the deciding factor in his life?
Zappa: With Ahmet, I believe it's going to be where he gets the most pussy.
Genesis: What about new projects? What's happening?
Zappa: Well, every time I tell people about what I'm working on, they want to know where it is. They don't realize how long it takes to do these things. Like one thing that I've been working on for a couple of years is another orchestra album. But it takes a long time to prepare the music and an even longer time to save up the money to do it. It's an expensive project. It takes about a quarter of a million to three hundred thousand dollars.
Genesis: How do you put an orchestra together for that kind of album?
Zappa: You can go to Hollywood and call a contractor and order forty-five strings and twelve brass and so on, and he gets out the list and calls all the guys who are available. They've never really played together, but they're good musicians and they all know each other. You put them together and rehearse them, and you come up with a performance. Or you can go to Europe and find an existing orchestra and try to find a hole in their schedule when they can take a two- or three-week period of time to rehearse, then tape it over there. I think this time I'll do it in Europe.
Genesis: Will you supervise the whole project yourself?
Genesis: How long does it take to do an album like that?
Zappa: Well, two or three weeks of rehearsal and a week or ten days of recording, plus the mix time. It's a couple of months.
Genesis: You also have a movie in the works.
Zappa: I have one that is near completion. I'm trying to raise the money to finish it. It's stuff that was shot at the Palladium last Halloween, plus animation,
Genesis: What's it about?
Zappa: Well, there's not what you would call a story line. It has linear continuity; it goes from one place to another on a line, but that doesn't necessarily make it a story line. Stories work with good guys and bad guys with something triumphing later. It'll be called Gas Masks, Martian Love Secrets, or Baby Snakes.
Genesis: When will it be finished?
Zappa: As soon as my manager can raise half a million bucks.
Genesis: What are the love secrets of the Martians?
Zappa: The title derives from some graffiti in a recording studio where we were working. There's a toilet-paper dispenser in the upstairs bathroom, and a little white porcelain box where somebody had written the words, "Martian Love Secrets," with twinkle lines around the words, as if that's where it's all at.
Genesis: The new group is called ZAPPA. How many of the old Mothers are in the new group?
Zappa: None. We have Vince Colaiuta on drums, Peter Wolf on keyboards, Tommy Mars on keyboards, Denny Walley on slide and vocals, Ed Mann on percussion, Patrick O'Hearn on bass, and Art Barrow on bass.
Genesis: Are you trying to change your image in any way?
Zappa: Not particularly.
Genesis: Do you think you'll ever allow yourself to grow up completely?
Zappa: Allow myself to what?
Genesis: Allow yourself to grow up, be an "adult."
Zappa: I've been an adult since the age of eleven.
Genesis: What happened at the age of eleven that made you an adult?
Zappa: I grew a mustache, of course.
Genesis: What's the best thing about your life right now?
Zappa: That it continues.
Genesis: And the worst?
Zappa: That it continues.
Genesis: Have you ever been aging rock star?
Genesis: Face to face?
Genesis: How would you feel about it?
Zappa: I don't mind being called aging, but being called a rock star is repugnant. I'm not a rock star. I'm a legend.
Genesis: In your own time?
Zappa: In anybody's time.