Interview with the Composer

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Photography by Mitch Kearney

Interview with the Composer
Trouser Press #47 February, 1980
by Michael Bloom


Frank Zappa, approaching 40 years of age and 30 albums, is one of rock's most valuable institutions, a treasure trove of musical lore and sociological oddities. He's also one of the most terrifying figures in the industry. He's the ultimate mad scientist, the skeleton at the cultural feast, the vulture poised to pounce on the slightest pretension. He wields sarcasm like a straight razor in a gang fight, and his rhetorical weaponry is almost as sharp.

Moreover, he's never made any secret of his distaste for the critical profession. Joe's Garage Acts II & III includes the following categorical denunciation: "All them rock'n'roll writers is the worst kind of sleaze / Selling punk like some new kind of English disease / Is that the wave of the future? Aw, spare me please!" He's sure got Trouser Press's number, as well as several other factions. Even when he's trying to make himself more accessible to the press – this Joe's Garage is his third release for his Zappa label and he wants to give it every chance of succeeding – he promises to be a formidable interview.

But I suspected that if I ignored the adversary relationship and treated him like a human being, Zappa might respond as one. And it worked! Zappa metamorphosed into a bona fide nice guy. He talked at length about issues he feels are important, from spicy food ('When it starts sweating right through under your eyes then you know they did it right") to contemporary serious music ("I think 'November Steps' (by Tōru Takemitsu) kicks the shit out of 'Turangalila'"). And I think he had a good time. I certainly did.

Of course, Zappa has a reputation for parboiling journalists. But then they have a propensity for pigeonholing: either making him out to be a spokesman for some vaguely defined weirdo caste, or (worse) digging for hippie dirt in the name of good copy. Consequently, Zappa keeps his guard up, and his guard varies from jargon to abrasion.

When I arrived, for example, a pair of reporters (from pop magazines in Italy and Japan, no less) were trying to guess Zappa's sexual preferences from his song lyrics. Apparently it's too naive to assume he has a happy, normal marriage, even if he and wife Gail have four children, from age 12 down to newborn. But here's this geezer Carlo asking, "What do you think is a sexy woman? Since your songs are filled with ..."

"References to women?" interrupts an already testy Zappa. "Or women-type objects? The songs that I write have to do with the behavior patterns of different types of people, male and female specimens, OK? A lot of the examples I choose are unusual types of behavior, the pictures of the various specimens are not too cute. Everybody else writes songs about beautiful girls who make you fall in love, and groovy guys that are so wonderful, and heartbreak and all that shit – that's everybody else's department. I'm alternative information on specimen behavior." Not simply put, but an elegant, withering put-down. Carlo dropped the subject and will probably tell all his colleagues for the rest of his life what a bastard Zappa is to interview.

Zappa deals more kindly but just as firmly with the other popular misconception: that he speaks for a subculture. Carlo asked if he'd ever felt an affinity with popular culture. Zappa quickly quashed the idea: "Meaning will I endorse the behavior of hippies and so forth? No. I don't think there is any one mass behavior spectrum I could put my stamp of approval on." So much for a so-called founding father of psychedelia. But the typewriter cadre won't take no for an answer, so they come back with a query about punk – much of which, to be sure, claims his aesthetic influence. Growing pedantic, he amplified:

"There's always unknown bands, there's always garage bands, and there's always upsurges. Some of it is wonderful and some of it is not. It's only because everybody is looking at it. Somebody writes in the newspaper, 'Punk is really happening,' bingo bango bongo, a thousand punk groups. The same guy who was singing like the Eagles the other day has just slashed his face with razor blades, stuck pins all over his nose, dyed his hair blue, got a mohawk haircut, ripped all his clothes, forgotten everything he ever learned on his instrument, bangs the fuck out of it and gets a contract for a hundred thousand dollars-because that's the way record companies think."

However much Zappa's been touted as an acute sociological observer – and he willingly cops to the title – most of his schtick consists of sensitivity to, and abhorrence of, trends. The same methodology that trashed the figureheads of peace and love in We're Only In It For The Money back in 1968 is still functioning. In Joe's Garage, besides the lyric already quoted (from "Packard Goose"), there's the title track, as heavy-handed a piss-take of the three-chord cult as you'll find anywhere. It's not that he hates the genre, he just hates the conformity. "Usually, when a trend starts, once you've assessed from photographs what the clothing style is supposed to be, you're in. That's what constitutes the bulk of the participants in any movement: this army of people wearing the uniform." By contrast, he paid his audience a great compliment: "The profile of a Zappa record buyer is not very uniform."

The culprit? Restrictive mass media, especially radio. "Such a narrow spectrum is broadcast that a person doesn't have much to choose from. Your options are being narrowed down. Your taste is being manufactured for you by a program director."

"Radio as a medium can be very exciting, you know. I just spent four days being a disc jockey on WPIX, and I had a wonderful time. They picked the hits, and I played everything else. I think that out of a two hour show we played maybe five songs from their playlist, and all the rest of the stuff I picked. I put some records on the air that you never would have heard: 'Gidget Goes to Hell' by the Suburban Lawns, Jerry and the Holograms, 'Irene Does It Matter' by The Moth Men, One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist by Hampton B. Coles under the news. I also played some things from my old albums that never got played, like 'Debra Cadabra'; when was the last time you heard that on radio? I got away with a total of eight glorious hours during Thanksgiving week, and I think that what I did was good. I'm getting tapes of all the shows so I can play them in Los Angeles when I get back. Radio's a business, like everything else. It does stupid things that it has to do in order to support itself."

If you have to hang a tag on Zappa, call him an individualist. "I think that's the way you were born. If you want to dump it along the way, submerge yourself to become part of some larger stupidity, that's your business. But I think you'd probably have more fun if you stay true to yourself."

At heart, though, Zappa just grits his teeth and expects the worst. "When things are really stupid, when they're really stupid, I'm not surprised. What surprises me is if things turn out good – anything that rises above the general level of mediocrity. Wonderful is something else, you know. I just think the norm of the universe is stupidity. Stupidity is like hydrogen; it's everywhere, it's the basic building block of the universe."

Jeepers, that's pessimistic. It's even depressing. By now I'm beginning to feel genuinely sorry for perhaps the most vitriolic artist of our generation. So, since it's now my turn to conduct the interview, I change the subject: Let's talk about composition.

"That's a novel question," he offers. But he's getting interested. The label he most readily applies to himself is composer. Whenever he's branded weird, Zappa admits that, yeah, a guy who likes to sit around at a piano all day scrawling little notes on paper is certainly out of step with the times. If you can get across to him that you find composing not weird, but admirable, he'll open right up. When and how did he decide to be a composer?

"I just said I was gonna do it, when I was 14. See, I was always interested in art. I used to practice, when I was a kid, drawing dollar bills. A lot of kids do that, I'm sure. Cal Schenkel, who used to do the covers of our early albums, was so good at it, he drew a five dollar bill one time and passed it; he bought his high school lunch with it.

"I'd never seen music on paper. What I had seen had been orchestra parts they give you in high school, beginner stuff. Then I saw a score. It just looked so wonderful – the very idea that this graphic representation, when translated into sound waves through the efforts of skilled craftsmen, would result in music. I said hey, I've gotta do this! So I got a ruler, I went out and bought some music paper, and I just started drawing. I didn't know what the fuck I was doing, but I could look at it. Then I went around looking for people who could play it, to find out what it would sound like. That's how I started out."

You'll note his style of expression has turned right around: no pseudoscience, a lot less distance, a lot more animation. Plainly, this is how Zappa gets off. He works out harmony and counterpoint problems like other people do crossword puzzles, and he always carries manuscript paper with him. I even spotted, in his hotel room, some of the manuscript pages for 200 Motels – huge pages that, just as he said, looked wonderful. I was awed to see how tightly written it was: even recitatives, like "Man, this stuff is great!" were exactly notated in rhythm

"What I'd like to do most right now is get my orchestral music performed. That's number one on my list of priorities. It also happens to be the singularly hardest thing to do; it's guaranteed deficit. It's easier for me to invest a lot of money in a film, because I know I'm gonna get some money back so I can do another. The minute I spend whatever it'll cost to perform that orchestral music, it's gone."

Couldn't you record it?

"Who cares about those kind of records?" You don't think if it had your name on it, people would buy it?

"This is a popular fantasy. Most of the people who listen to my music don't give a fuck about orchestral music, by me or anybody else. If it's to survive at all, there has to be a concerted effort to save it, the same way they spend bucks to save the snail dart or any of those other little woodside knickknacks. It always looks good in a news story that we're saving some poor fish, but the cause of contemporary music is a little different; there's such a stigma on it. Contemporary music is probably the most useless thing in America today. The frisbee is more vital and useful to America's lifestyle than contemporary music."

Hmm, maybe we shouldn't pursue this line of discussion. What else does Zappa do? He makes movies – and recently an opportunity dropped into his lap. "A German television crew was here two days ago – they came to do an interview – and they asked me what I was doing on Thanksgiving. I told them I was going out to Canarsie to have dinner with the parents of my guitarist, Warren Cuccurullo. Since I was there once before and it turned into this neighborhood extravaganza you wouldn't believe, I said chances are it's going to be another one of those, and you should film it. They did, and boy, it was incredible. You've never seen a Thanksgiving like this; the behavior was so new wave."

Zappa then describes an all-American scene staged for the benefit of German TV: the single-earringed prodigal son – gagged with panties and beaten with a whisk broom wielded by his girlfriend – plunking two-string acoustic guitar on a bed in front of his family (father from the old country) ignoring the whole thing. Zappa's audiences may not realize how few of his lyric grotesqueries derive from imagination.

Then there's Baby Snakes, which opened in New York on December 21st. It's billed as "A movie about people who do stuff that is not normal"; that sounds like Zappa's field of expertise, all right. He showed me some photos of the animation, the work of maniacally precise artist Bruce Bickford; to produce a sequence of someone shrinking Bickford constructed well over 50 clay figures in finely graduated sizes. "So far it's just playing New York, because I'm paying for everything and don't have a distribution deal yet. If the lines form around the block I'll have a deal, and then go out to the world at large."

There's also a program or promotional pamphlet being planned. Among other things, it explains the spurious looking albums Warner Bros. have issued in the last few years. Has Zappa ever considered writing a book?

"I've thought about it, but that's real time consuming and not as much fun as writing a movie. Of course, it would probably make a hundred times as much money." Zappa fans are relatively literate.

"There's probably other people who would pick it up if the cover was cute. But I did a couple of quick research studies. I could make more money if I didn't have a band and just went out lecturing. I get lecturing offers all the time, Considering touring costs versus my net from performing, I could retire from music completely just by talking. But what a horrible way to live."

Still, you wonder why he doesn't; it's a little different from conducting interviews, which he submits to as part of his job. There's an undercurrent of rare professional ethics, a stubbornness in the face of a universal cheesiness that's as germane to his work as the derision.

"No matter what you do, when you work in a medium where other people have to assist in the production of the artifact itself, there's always the chance of problems. Any hope of unalloyed pleasure is out the window, right away. There are so many people involved that there's no way to control it. But if you don't try, it could be a lot worse."

"If something goes wrong, I get the blame for it, which I'm willing to take. I refer to my band as employees. There's a good reason for that: they refer to me as the boss. As long as you keep it on that level you get the job done. You know who the boss really is? The audience. I work for them."

What's in it for him? This is getting too tragic. Let's talk about composition.

"Composition is a process whereby elements are organized into structure determined by the composer. This is the broadest, most general outline I can give you. If I make a film, that is a composition; it's a matter of organizing visual elements, behavioral elements, textural elements and space and time elements, the same way as I would organize notes on a piece of paper. I think of overall structure the same way. If I'm giving a performance with a band, the show itself is a composition involving sections which are smaller compositions. An interview is also a composition."

Now this is great – I'm getting an unparalleled music lesson here. What sort of structure, do you look for when you compose?

"You don't look for 'em, but I think every composer's got some idea of ideal proportions that suits personal taste. You take your raw material, your notes, your visual elements or whatever it's gonna be, and you strike up balances between loud and soft, fast and slow, many and few, thick and thin. It's like cooking, or building a mobile. The contrasts help define the structure, and at the same time they're part of the elements that are being structured. Know what I mean?"

I guess I've got that much. After all, here I'm turning a bunch of quotes – dialogue elements, you might say – into a composition called an article. Tell me more!

"Well, then, try to imagine it happening in a macrostructural sense between fifteen years of albums."

Ulp. Suddenly he's the mad scientist again. A vision that unites his whole body of work, and projects it into the future, is truly scary.

Now that I'm considering it, Joe's Garage bothers me. I'm convinced anew that Frank Zappa is a genius, one of the most intelligent people in rock, but his records can be appallingly stupid – especially these last few. The theme of the Joe's Garage set (two albums, containing three one-act discs between them) fits in with his abhorrence of senseless conformity. However, the scenario, which he admits right off is dumb, is that the government uses music as a scapegoat for social ills. The plot is even drearier, a concatenation of progressively less savory sexual encounters that ultimately render Joe a mental vegetable, suited only for work as a muffin man. (Get the reference?)

Zappa exercises his unique compositional chops, but you have to look pretty hard. Bizarre synthetic rumbles, tape effects, uneven rhythms, etc., tend to be buried deep in dense mixes: under a fog of disco, reggae, ersatz '50s, ersatz heavy metal and genuine skating rink music. There are half a dozen commendable guitar solos and one characteristically enjoyable blues jam, entitled "Crew Slut" (which is what happens to Joe's girlfriend to send him on the path to destruction). For any long-term fans still listening, there are liberal cross-references to earlier albums (is that how he defines the big structure?), as well as allusions to cultural phenomenon like the Who, Al DiMeola and the Seeds.

I get this picture of Zappa as an immense oyster. He has the capacity to take a social irritant and spew all over it until it becomes a pearl. But the gems are increasingly rare, and most of the time he simply huddles inside his shell. But then, he makes his home in LA – perhaps the trendiest locale in the country, and hence a horrible environment for him.

"For my job I'd have to live there or in New York, and Hollywood's better for the kids. I brought the family east once, last Christmas. We were living in this tiny little apartment, staring out the window at all the big tall buildings, and all Dweezil [aged 9] could think of was when was Spiderman gonna come crawling up the walls?"

Do the kids get shot from their peers for those names?

"No – another myth exploded. They're pretty much accepted for who they are, rather than who I am. Moon Unit's getting into disco music now."

One last question. That beard, the little button with framing walrus mustache that's become a Zappa symbol: Has its story ever been told?

"Nobody's ever asked me. I thought it looked good on bluesman Johnny Otis, so I grew it."