Just Another Band From Umeå: Zappsteetoot

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By Matt Galaher
T'Mershi Duween, #18-19, April-May 1991


I'm sure those of us aware of the more intimate details of Zappa's career are well aware of the difficulties he has faced in maintaining the large number of musicians he has employed. Zappa has made no reservations about explaining that these highly skilled musicians command large salaries ('You have to pay them a lot of money, and you have to be very patient. And then you have to pay them more money, and then you have to be more patient' (Rhythm, 7/89)), and they often require 'playground psychology'; and he continues that 'most everybody gets to the point where they go 'shit, what do we need that old guy for? Look how fabulous I am (Total Percussion Mag 7/89).

Zappa has had a number of talented women in his bands (Alice Stuart, Norma Bell, Bianca Odin were all performing members), none of whom, with the exception of Ruth Underwood, lasted long. And then there is the Mystery Roach, trendy chemical amusement aid, and the question 'Will it be an aisle or a window?' that rears its ugly head.

So what are the odds of a small town in Northern Sweden producing an eight piece band with two women and six guys (the four of whom I met being exceedingly nice and exceptionally talented) dedicated to reproducing the music of Frank Zappa? What are the chances that such a band would tour, make national radio broadcasts, and have members good enough to not only sit in with Zappa's band during their Stockholm performance in 1988, but elicit praise from Zappa himself such as 'They played unbelievable, just unbelievable' (VARA Dutch TV, 1988). Not very good, I should think.

But if there is a law of averages, Zappsteetoot has lived outside the law. Zappsteetoot has had in its ranks Morgan Ågren (drums); Ingrid Nyström (vcls, pcsn); Göran Teljebäck (kybds, tuned and untuned pcsn); Agneta Cronholm (vcls, pcsn); Allan Eriksson (gtr, vcls); Stefan Eriksson (vcls); Mats Öberg (kybds); Peter Öberg (bs); and filling in for Peter Öberg at times Michael Berglund (bs) and during earlier incarnations Hans Lindgren (pcsn).

On first hearing the group, I had become interested in finding out more about them, and looked for an interview in English only to learn there were none. While I was in Sweden in June 1990 (see Soc Pages 3), I was able to meet half the members of the group; and inbetween jamming, swimming and hanging out, I was able to let the tape roll. And so it is I present a TD exclusive and, for the first time in English, a chat with some of Zappsteetoot. The members I talked to all stressed that though the band had been playing together for six years, it was very likely they have played their last performance, but then hesitantly add that not unlike Zappa, they've felt that way before ...

Morgan Ågren: I am twenty-two and I play drums. I have played since I was five. As I got older, I spent a year each in three different music highschools.

Who are some of your influences?

MÅ: FZ, Terry Bozzio, Vinnie, Tony Williams, Narada Michael Walden, and I like Allan Holdsworth.

Has Holdsworth influenced the way you compose?

MÅ: I don't think so, because if you are going to do anything like Allan Holdsworth, it's going to be so obvious you're trying to copy some of that. But I mean, it could happen. If I sat down at the keyboard and did something that came out sounding like Holdsworth, I can buy that, but I don't do it on purpose.

Göran, how old are you and what do you play?

GT: I am thirty-three and I play percussion. Lots of percussion! (laughs) Mallets; vibes, marimba, xylophone, chimes and tympani.

Do you have any MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) stuff?

GT: I have a synth but no MIDI percussion.

What is your musical background and who are some of your bigger influences besides Zappa?

GT: I like fusion. I like Mike Mainieri and some Chicago. In fusion, you have Jaco Pastorius and Chick Corea and all that stuff, and I listened to it and thought 'ja, it's great and all that' but when I heard Zappa, I thought 'WOW, they can play everything; they are really good AND they have a SENSE OF HUMOUR.'

And of course my instrument is percussion and in Zappa's music, I get to hear it ALL OVER THE PLACE.

MÖ: I'm Mats and I'm nineteen. I play keyboards and sing lead and background vocals. I started playing when I was about two or three years old, playing at home on a toy piano and things like that. The first band I played with was when I was about ten.

What was it called?

MÖ: (laughter) We didn't have a name.

PÖ: Hot Rats?

MÖ: No, not that band. This was before I played with Morgan. The second band I started was, when I met Morgan in '81. We had a band called Hot Rats.

Did you play any Zappa music in that?

MÖ: Ja, we played Zappa music and some old originals that I had written. We played some Beatles tunes, some Weather Report and whatever (no, not Danny Thompson's band -Ed).

PÖ: I think I heard you twice and I didn't know you guys, and I thought, 'Jesus these guys are playing Zappa music.'

MÖ: I had terrible equipment. I used Hohner clavinet as a Fender Rhodes and I had a very bad Korg MS20 monophonic synthesiser that was very hard to work with because it went out of tune all the time. Eventually I sold it and got a Micro Moog that I still use. I now have five synthesisers and a sampler.

What Zappa tunes did you play in Hot Rats?

MÖ: We played 'Bobby Brown', 'King Kong', 'Dog Breath', 'You Are What You Is' and 'Jumbo Go Away'.

With the interlude?

MÖ: (laughter) No.

PÖ: I'm Peter and I'm twenty-seven and I play electric bass. I started to play piano when I was twelve years old, but that didn't lead anywhere so I stopped after a few years. But I did start to listen to music, Zappa among others in about '79, I think. And then in about 1980, I picked up the electric bass and started playing with friends. My first real gig wasn't until '84 with Zappsteetoot.

Who are some of your other influences?

PÖ: I like King Crimson, all the eras, but I really dig the records released in '73 and '74.

'Red' is my favourite. Mats, who are some of your big influences besides Zappa?

MÖ: George Duke and Tommy Mars. Joe Zawinul and Stevie Wonder. Allan Holdsworth is one of my favourites. Jaco Pastorius ...

How did Zappsteetoot start out?

PÖ: A few of us, Göran, Allan, Morgan and I, we had this group called Zober and went round to schools in the town and played quite straight rock. But nobody liked that and we didn't like anything we were doing, and between the concerts and the rehearsals we talked about our idols, and Frank Zappa was it. So we thought we might get a few other musicians and try playing some of his music. So I guess we called Mats.

GT: I played keyboards in Zober, but when we play Zappa, I play percussion; that's my instrument, and Mats plays keyboards. Then after that we thought 'Oh someone has to sing ...'

How long has the group been together?

MÖ: We started in September of 1984.

Did you always have so many players?

MÖ: More! (laughter)

PÖ: Nine. There was one more guy who played percussion (Hans Lindgren).

Where does everyone live and how did you schedule rehearsals? Did everyone originally live in Umeå and gradually move away?

All: Ja.

Did you go through any stylistic changes?

PÖ: We started out playing mostly songs from the so-called DiscReet era, like 'Cosmik Debris' and all that. That was the first song we ever rehearsed.

'Montana' was also an early one. That's pretty hard stuff to start out with. In my band, we started out with 'Muffin Man' and 'Chunga's Revenge' and the super easy things ...

GT: We were bored playing easy things. We wanted to play more difficult things.

Where does the name Zappsteetoot come from?

GT: I think it was Stefan ...

PÖ: (to Göran) I think it was you. It's a pun. It's a joke about the word 'substitute', but it's spelt in a weird way like Frank often spells lyrics.

So you are kind of a substitute for Zappa.

All: Yes.

PÖ: Ja, but it's a joke. It's not serious.

Right, but when Zappa's not touring, you're the substitute. OK that's cool (come on Matt ... -Ed). Is it true that you guys once ate shit on stage?

All: (laughter)

Wasn't that a gross-out contest with Bleeding Romeo?

GT: No! (laughter again)

MÖ: But to be honest on one gig, when we played 'Cosmik Debris', during the part about 'the can of foam and goo', I farted into the microphone! (laughter from all) I didn't have a sampler at that time so ...

Are you finding that as you go along you are learning harder and harder stuff?

PÖ: When we go out for a tour, we choose a couple of easy songs to rehearse and then some difficult stuff. We just can't choose a bunch of instrumental stuff because the singers wouldn't have anything to do.

Have you ever picked a tune that was pretty much impossible to play?

PÖ: For myself, I think that 'Moggio' is pretty much impossible. That is the hardest.

Do you have a tune-Meister or do you all go home and learn your own parts?

PÖ: We learn our own parts and then in rehearsal work out the problems. It often is between Göran and Mats who have the harmony and the difficult melody parts.

How many people in the group read music?

PÖ: Everyone except Mats (Mats is blind from birth but is currently studying the limited system of braille for music).

Have you ever used any of the Barfko-Swill sheet music available to learn some of the music?

MÖ: Wasn't it the middle part of 'Jumbo' that we used some of the sheet music?

GT and PÖ: Yes.

But for the most part everybody learns everything by ear?

All: Yes.

We already heard about the 'can of foam and goo', but what are some of the weirder things to have transpired on stage?

PÖ: The lead singer, Stefan, around the start of the second set, when we play 'Bobby Brown', he always puts on this really ugly shirt that he used to wear in 1977 (laughter from all) with these horrible patterns ... And tight green pants which are bell bottoms sand sunglasses. And then once he started walking out on the tables where the audience was sitting. That was pretty wild. Then there was the time some drumsticks got thrown out into the audience and this one guy almost got it in the eye. But that wasn't the purpose; it just got too wild. We had some dance contests ...

Really? People came on stage?

MÖ: No, nobody came on stage so we had to do it ourselves (laughter).

PÖ: Before the show, we told the percussionist 'If nobody comes up on stage, please come up'. Nobody knew he used to be in the band.

So he was a plant.

MÖ: But he also had a partner. We played the 'Be-Bop Tango'.

PÖ: The pedestrian beat. (to Mats) You made those short 'bop bop bop's. This guy had a piece of bread for a prize! (laughter)

Well, Zappa never even gives a prize, I don't think, so you're one ahead of him on that. Was it from Sir Richard Pump-a-Loaf perhaps? What's the weirdest gig you guys have done?

MÅ: Well, I guess that would be a gig where we had to travel over a hundred Swedish miles, carrying chimes and timpani, and got paid almost nothing. Almost everyone in the band says 'We're not going to do these kind of gigs any more, but it continues to be like that. It happened only one month ago. We did one gig and there was hardly any money involved. It was a strange situation because I was out on tour with another band, the Flesh Quartet (really good band -Ed), touring Denmark, Norway and Finland. I talked with Göran on the phone, and it was a little stressful but we worked it out. It was just two gigs and after the second, there was no hotel involved in the deal, so after the show at about 2:00am, we had to drive for hours.

MÖ: The worst one was when we played in a very small village. It was a very big hall and there were thirteen people in the audience. We were all lacking in concentration and really flipped out. We started to change all the words to the songs.

GT: And all the notes. Nobody in the audience was listening and we were very uninterested. The best gig was in Stockholm in a jazz club called Fashing. This was on the same tour.

Do you have any side projects?

MÖ: Morgan and I have our band Two of a Kind and we will probably record a demo soon. It's all original material, just keyboards and drums. (I believe they have since added a guitarist -MG.)

Have you guys ever thought about releasing a recording of Zappsteetoot?

MÖ: We've thought about it, and will probably record a demo in the studio.

PÖ: There is a difference between us on that. Some of us would like to make a record. But some of us, like Göran, just want to make a very good demo tape, but not a record. He finds it pointless. Stefan and I had talked about a single maybe with 'Dog Breath'.

In Zappsteetoot, you have the rare event of two women who actually want to be in a band that plays only Zappa's music.

MÖ: I think Allan knew Agneta and Agneta knew Ingrid because they were in the same choir.

GT: Allan asked them to be in a rock n roll band.

PÖ: And they always had wanted to and said 'Oh great!' We made this appointment that they were going to come to one of our rehearsals. We were playing and these two girls showed up in the doorway and we just looked at them and began to play again. Afterwards they told us they thought that these guys are weird!

In the United States, if you go into a club and play Zappa, it's boy/girl relationship suicide ...

GT: We don't understand the lyrics so well, so we listen to the music. The two girls thought the music was great, but to begin with they didn't understand what we were doing. But we taught them to like Zappa more and more, and now they are sold.

Tell me a little bit about how the radio broadcast came about.

PÖ: In 1985, we were broadcast nationwide on a thirty minute programme. Umeå is a small town. In Sweden there are ten cities that make national broadcasts and there aren't too many musicians here in Umeå, and we were pretty new at the time so they came to us.

GT: We have been on national radio twice and locally four times. After Mats and Morgan sat in with Zappa's band on the '88 tour, I rang up the programme director and said 'Hey we have these guys who've played with Zappa; you must do something' and he said 'yes of course we'll pay you anything. Please come and play'.

Mats, how did you manage to play with Zappa's band?

MÖ: Morgan and I got in touch with the road manager. My uncle produced the 1973 Stockholm TV special that Zappa did, so he knew this guy. We got in touch with him and he said Frank will probably want to stay in his hotel room and compose and he doesn't want to talk to his fans very much but I'll do my best. Later he sent us into the soundcheck and said 'just sit and wait and I'll come back later and tell you what's going to happen'. And then after the soundcheck, he said 'Well, it's okay, Frank wants to meet you'.

(jokingly) What happened then? Did you start shaking?

MÖ: (laughter) Ja, of course. I thought it was a dream actually. We were lead to his dressing-room and we started talking. We told Frank that we played 'T'Mershi Duween' , which was not released at that time, just on bootleg, and then he got really interested and he just said they were going to play 'Big Swifty' where everything could happen, and that they were going to have some audience participation, and that he thought it was a good idea to send us up on stage during the jam.

Did he hear you play before?

MÖ: No. We gave him a cassette but he didn't listen to it. He just felt that ...

PÖ: If these guys are crazy enough ...

So it was like 'If you wanna do it, you can do it'?

MÖ: Yes.

Wow, that's wild. I can just imagine me telling Frank 'Come on, man, let me sit in, I know how to play 'Muffin Man'.'(loud laughter)

MÖ: But the thing was that we didn't actually ask if we could play with him.

Did you ever have dreams of playing with him?

MÖ: Ja, of course. At first when he asked us, I thought he was joking. Before the concert, I was so nervous my hands were shaking badly. But when the concert started, I felt this was cool and it was gonna go well. I knew what keyboards Bobby Martin used, so for me it was just a matter of telling Frank what sounds I wanted to play. So Bobby just said (impersonating Robert Martin) 'There is French horn on the DX5 and there is an acoustic piano sound on the Roland digital piano, and good luck'. And then he patted me on the shoulder. Before the show Morgan and I discussed what we would do and so we just decided to play the jam that they were doing, sneak into 'T'Mershi Duween' and then get off the stage.

Can you remember some of the things you talked to Frank about before and after the show?

MÖ: Well, we talked for a long time actually. There were really so many things that we wanted to ask him about, but in fact it ended up being the other way around. He wanted to know about Zappsteetoot, and he asked us if we could play 'The Be-Bop Tango', 'Mo 'n Herb's Vacation' and 'Night School'. He asked how long we had played together and stuff like that. He said it would be fun to do the same thing again.

He didn't say when though?

MÖ: No. (laughter)

I have since been told that Morgan, while on a trip to LA, met Frank who in turn put Morgan up for a few days in one of the guest rooms, and that, as a gift, Frank gave Mats Oberg a piece of equipment formerly employed by Tommy Mars. Good luck guys and all the best!

For those interested in such things, when Morgan sat in with Zappa in 1988, Chad left the drum chair in such a way that Morgan was able to continue the drum beat without interruption. When I asked him about this, he told me that the first stroke on the bass drum pedal was considerably louder than the volume Chad had been using. Upon checking this out, I've found it quite easy to discern where comes in, continuing with Chad's reggae beat before going off with Mats.

A partial list of Zappsteetoot on cassette
29.10.88 – Oslo FZ Society Halloween party
18. 5.88 – Umeå Idunteatern
11. 2.90 – Umeå
1. 5.90 – Stockholm Isstadion (with FZ; also exists on video)

A partial list of known Zappa cover bands
Cucamonga Trio, Bleeding Romeo, Rocking Teenage Combo (RTC) – Holland Ace 9 – Germany
Yamaha Hurricane – Dutch pianist
Nazo Nazo Shokai – Japan (see Mother People #10, sez Matt)
Zappsteetoot – Sweden
The Muffin Men, the Gants Hill Enema Bandits (defunct) – UK

And of course, not forgetting Matt himself, though he'd hate me for mentioning it...