The Frank Zappa Interview Picture Disk, pt.1
This text is transcribed from an imported CD called "The Frank Zappa Interview Picture Disk". According to closest estimation based on the interview's context, it must have been conducted sometime in the summer of 1984. It was recorded after Frank Zappa had performed a set of concerts at the Odeon Hammersmith in London and some of the content of this interview refers to that set of concerts.
How did you enjoy yesterday?
Yesterday's show? I didn't like it.
No, because we were requested to, uh, keep it, uh … See, ordinarily when we do a show we change the words to the songs based on what happened that day. My favorite show of the bunch here was the second show on the first night, where we changed everything. And that's when I enjoy the show. If I can laugh when I'm onstage because something creative is happening in that regard, that's when I really enjoy the show.
Yet last night's show was competent and it was tight and it was done because we are making a CD – Live At The Odeon Hammersmith. So, people from the company said, well, "You know, you can't just go around and change all these lyrics, the people wanna hear the real lyrics," and so I said "Ok, play it straight." So we went out there and played it straight and also it was being videotaped by French television, and you can't be too far out when you're doing that because how are they gonna subtitle it?
I thought that playing "In France" for them was a … treat.
They wanted that. That's the reason they came to do it because "In France" is being released as a single on the continent.
A Single? (incredulously)
Are you surprised actually by it? Because it's a direct insult to the French if uh, you …
No, it's not. It was fair commentary on what Frenchness means to a person who is not French and has to be subjected to Frenchness. It is not a put-down of the French. It is the facts.
Now, I was able to ascertain from some interviews I did in France that the toilet that we're speaking of in the song is referred to in France as The Turkish Toilet. So, if it's a Turkish Toilet, then what's it doing in France? Cause that's all I know from French toilets is the thing with the bombsight and the two footprints where you pull the chain and if you're lucky it doesn't climb up to your ankles when the stuff comes up out of the hole.
But all the stuff in that song is true including The Mystery BlowJob that happened to one of the guys in the band. You know, it started with this Green Fudge coming out of his wheeny, and he didn't realize that you could get this disease from sticking it in somebody's mouth. That was 'cause he was a chump. But it did happen in France so it belongs in the song.
Yes. From "The Man From Utopia" there is quite a lot of laughter and humor which, you have said before, when you laugh at something spontaneous you enjoy the show. For instance, "The Radio Is Broken" …
I love that song. Most people hate that song but I love it.
That's my ten-year-old kiddie's favorite.
Yes, he loves the parts, uh…
If he could only understand the lyrics though because it's talking about things from Science Fiction Movies that really exist and if he hasn't seen those things ... if he had, the idea of what the Bottchino is is Very Special Stuff you know. It's very, very … inside.
You've been making references to, uh… What do you call them? Fiction movies …
Science Fiction Movies for years, and, um
I like them.
Goes back a long time, really. What is it mostly that attracts you to them? Is it the Cheapness in them?
Yes. Absolutely the cheapness. That anybody would think for a minute that something made out of a rubber is gonna scare you in a black and white movie is so stupid.
Did you find it perhaps sad in a way that we don't, on this side of the continent, experience the same films that you do, so there's more rapport as such.
Well, the other side of that is outside the United States, people seem to pay more attention to the instrumental side rather than the lyrical side, 'cause they don't know what to make of the lyrics; they don't understand anything about the lyrics. Even the words they think they understand are being used in ways that they don't understand so maybe it balances out. In the United States they're more oriented toward the words and less toward the music.
So when you come here do you actually have to prepare a special show?
Usually what I do is, in places where they don't speak English well or at all, we stick to songs that have already been released on an album because the albums have lyrics in them and so somebody has a chance to hear something familiar. You can't, for example, in France do a show that has a lot of new material in it, it's just totally senseless. Or Spain too. Or Italy. In Germany you can because the English comprehension is a little bit better there, but in France … no.
Is it a headache for you to choose from the repertoire of songs that you've got? It must be.
Well, the repertoire that we choose from for this particular band is 65 songs that they can play without worrying. That's three shows worth of material and every show is different. Each night before the show I make up a list of what they're gonna play that night and that way we don't get bored. And each day during the sound check we rehearse new songs that we are going to put into the show.
Does that happen with every band that you normally have?
65 or approximately.
Well, the band in 82 knew 85.
But they had been together a little bit longer.
Because I quite like the selection that you did yesterday. Obviously for nostalgic reasons doing things from the Roxy album and some of them even going way way back, and also the interest that you've always had in doo-wop.
This band can do doo-wop. The other bands I've had couldn't really get to it but we have the voices to cover the doo-wop stuff pretty good.
Four vocals on it, which is quite good I thought.
Real doo-wop is with a quintet.
The one thing which people ask me all the time, when they make reference to you is, like, they find it very difficult to put their finger and say "Where is Frank Zappa at these days?"
Well, the question is Who Cares? Why should I be anywhere? The fact is that I'm still making music of all different kinds and why should I be anywhere you want me to be? It's like, I shouldn't live in a box.
What they're perhaps referring to is mostly the material that you choose to use. For instance, the last album, the Utopia album was very uncommercial, not that your music IS commercial …
That one was VERY uncommercial.
Compared to this one. The new album is hinting more on the easier side of listening.
That's right. But I do both things.
How do you make the choice? Do you wake up one morning and say "I'm going to do that this week."?
Yeah, that's right. It's the same way I make up the choice for what we're gonna play in the show that night. The choices are based on some scientific reasons like "What are the acoustics like in the hall?" "Can we get away with this kind of material here?" "Do they speak English here?" "Does anybody have a sore throat that day?" Little things like that. You can change the show to accomodate what your circumstances are. Same thing with an album. You decide how many songs you have recorded, which ones fit together – there are always songs that are left out of an album.
'Cause your shows are very well rehearsed.
You've said that so many times and, hence the feedback that you get in the press from some ex-musicians about being strict.
Let me say this right now: Any ex-musician is an ex-musician for one of two reasons. One, he's not good enough to be in the band anymore; or Two, he had a career opportunity that led him to resign his post, for which there are probably 30 people waiting for his job.
I have no problem getting people to volunteer to subject themselves to the discipline that's in the band, and if you knew anything about the band and the crew ... There is a spirit of accomplishment that surrounds this touring unit that is really quite remarkable. Second only to being in the Marines because this band can go out there and do anything. And they know it. And they're thankful that they were rehearsed to the point where, even under the most adverse circumstances, they can go out and do a 2-hour show that'll kick yer ass. And the crew will have the thing up and down in record time and everybody gets along and they're happy to be doing it, and that's what the discpline is all about.
A guy who leaves the band and then complains about the discipline ... he's maybe regretting the fact that he's not in the band anymore and so how else is he gonna get his name in the paper than to say that I'm a dictator? Well, fact of the matter is, I AM the dictator – I'm the guy who signs the checks. I'm also the guy who has to take the responsibility for everything that goes wrong and along with that I have the responsibility for making sure that the band delivers a good performance to an audience thats bought a ticket. So it's not really being a dictator, it's being the referee between the audience and the band.
If the audience buys a ticket I say "Ok band, you have to do this – and these people want it good so give it to them good." And if they don't do it well they either have to improve themselves or they go. The word in the band is "Will that be an aisle or a window?", which means that your ticket back to Los Angeles is right over here, and everybody knows that. I've sent two guys home already from this tour.
I think that really what you're saying is very fair, obviously. 'Cause what you're requesting out of the musicians is, uh…
That they do their job.
Quite easy really. You buy some goods and you want the delivery of the goods.
Right. But see, the people that find that baffling would be people who have like a Union Mentality. The Union Mentality means that too many people do too little work for too much money and then go on strike in order to get more days off. And there are a lot of people like this in the world who think that that's the way things ought to be.
My attitude is this: I pay money to have a service performed for me on behalf of an audience that pays money for a service performed for them and I'm there to make sure that if somebody buys a ticket to my show they're not going to be disappointed in it. They're going to see a band that knows what they're doing, that does it well and delivers entertainment for the money that's spent.
Same thing on a record. Whether you like the style of the music is irrelevant. The quality of what's put into the show is definitely there and that quality is the result of a huge cash investment that I have to put out before the tour even starts. It costs a quarter of a million dollars to make a band sound like that. That's talking about 2 months of rehearsal, six days a week, eight hours a day; everybody's on salary, crew is on salary. I have the cost of all those salaries plus the rental of the hall that we rehearse in, the equipment and all that stuff – I pay for it before I get a nickel from anybody buying a ticket. There's not too many groups that will take that kind of a risk and not too many groups that have one man in the group who takes that financial risk himself. And that's the way I do my business. So, if there's something wrong with that then lemme know. The results speak for themselves.
One of my questions is: You hear the band play live and whether it was a good night or a bad night, ther's no doubt about it there's tight playing – very tight, very good. Musicians leave your band or get fired and they go play somewhere else and they sound like they've never been in your band, ever.
And you wouldn't say "Has this person actually been in Frank's band?" It's unbelieveable.
But you know, but they all like to say they've been in the band. Like that gives them a seal of approval. You'd be surprised how many people have, in the ads for their album "Formerly with Frank Zappa", or something like that, it's like they've been to school. But if you listen to what they do you'd know they didn't really go to school. Some people come into the band as a stepping stone for something else in their career and they don't usually last very long. I don't mind them having their own career, but if you're in my band you're playing my music for the audience that wants to hear my music – that's why they came here. They didn't come here to hear your next album being rehearsed. They came here to hear reproductions of songs that I wrote because that's what they want. And that's what the job is. So anybody who is not satisfied doing that is welcome to leave and usually encouraged to leave. But the guys that are in the band right now have a dedication to putting on a good show. It's really a good bunch of guys.
There must be a sort of looseness as well between … they don't see you as a teacher – this teacher-like figure.
No. For example, Chad, the drummer, has been in the band since 81 and he's grown immensely since he's been in the band. This is the first tour that he's done with electric drums and prior to that he was totally sold on acoustic drums and everything. But he made the change, I requested that he change over to electric drums and now he's totally into it, and you see from his solo last night that he's using it in a musical way; which is something that he probably wouldn't have done left to his own devices. When George Duke was in the band I wanted him to play a synthesizer – he didn't want to do it. He didn't think that was ...
He didn't want to sing either.
And he didn't want to sing. That's right. But, I'm not saying "I told you so," but I think that it was good for George to be in there and have that kind of encouragement. The way the guys in the band view me, I believe, is not so much as their pal because we usually don't hang out together in our time off. Everybody is, if you have any time off I'm usually doing this and they're out doing whatever they do. But they know that I'm going to treat them fairly and if I write them a check, it doesn't bounce. What more can you want?
You went through a few hard times there didn't you? A few years ago, I think on building your own home studio.
Yeah. But it's all done and it's operational and all the new product has been done there.
The Utility Muffin Research Kitchen?
Right. It's now a completely digital studio.
You've had that in mind since "Bongo Fury"?
Well I've been wanting to have a studio since 1962.
The first one was in Cucamonga.
Goes a long way back. Last year you had a riot on your hands in Italy – or Sicily?
You went there for a visit of the old roots.
That's right. I wanted to see the town that my father was born in and I went there and I saw it and then we played the concert and the next thing you know, you have the army and the police; each with their own general telling them what to do; an audience that had brought their own guns; and they're shooting tear gas and tearing up this stadium that we were playing in. We played for an hour and a half in this riot with tear gas in our face and everything else, and when it was all over we went off the stage and we were trapped inside this place. The audience was circling around outside shooting at the police and the police were shooting back.
It wasn't a very nostalgic view of your roots, was it?
Well, I got a pretty good idea of what my Sicilian roots are like after seeing the town of Partinico – it was pretty bleak.
After that you were very … pissed off really about coming back to Europe..
And you swore that you wouldn't come back but …
I changed my mind.
How long do you want to keep doing this? You keep changing your mind but is there ever going to be a time when you're actually not going to change your mind?
Probably. I don't know when. I try and accommodate my body, what my body feels like it wants to do. I think that's the only way you can live as a True Pagan. You know, if it feels right, then that's what you do and it felt right to go on the road so here I am. And if it gets to the point where it doesn't feel right then I'm not gonna do it.
Has there been any times where your guitar solos during the concert on one specific song been actually transferred onto another song?
What do you mean?
Like you're playing this particular tune live, and you nearly always record your live shows.
And that particular solo found its place in a totally different song.
Absolutely. The whole "Joe's Garage" album is that way. All the guitar solos on "Joe's Garage" came from the European tour in 1980. They were recorded on a 2-track Nagra, just 2 microphones in front of my guitar amplifier and every time I played a solo the guy turned it on and recorded just the guitar. And when we did the "Joe's Garage" album I found the solos I liked and put them on top of the studio tracks and that's what's in there.
What you were playing yesterday, and I think you've done it many times before, but yesterday was very very obvious, you're playing very much what I could describe as Contrary Notes; not going according to the melody – guitar notes that you were playing, uh, is like a totally different song altogether. Do you ever shut the rest of the rhythm section from your ears and actually concentrate on actually ...
Well I always concentrate on what I'm playing but I can hear the rhythm section and I have the type of discipline where I can either play their rhythm ... Actually, what was happening last night on some of the solos I was using a digital delay that had a single chord stored in it, and it was on a loop, and every time that loop would come around it would have a certain rhythm which was totally irrelevant to what the rhythm of the bass and drums were doing. So I have a choice of two different established rhythms that I could play, plus the option of choosing a third one that was completely between those.
There's no reason why the human mind shouldn't be able to compute that kind of math when they hear it and it leads you into some interesting harmonic and melodic directions.
For example, a melody functions in a harmonic climate. The chord that is being played is the harmonic climate – if it's an augmented chord it's a mysterious climate; if it's a diminished chord it's a little tenser; if it's minor it's serious; if it's major it's happy; if it's major seventh you're falling in love; if it's augmented 11th it's bebop. You know these are all established harmonic aromas that people recognize whether they do it consciously or not, that's what's built into you. So a melody functions against a harmonic climate in terms of what is the fractional delay between the time that you hit a note that is tension to that chord, to the the time that you hit a note which is inside the chord which creates the resolution – that's how melodies work. How many notes are you playing in your line that rub against the chord versus how many notes are inside the chord that takes the tension to rest. Your ear is computing that, ok?
Now, if you're playing a straight disco number where everybody is marching along to the same beat, well, your options for the amount of intrigue you can create with a melody improvised against a chord are pretty limited. Because the minute you stray from an exact 16th note fluctuation, the disco consumer loses interest because he wants everything to sound like it came out of a Casio rhythm machine. But with the type of stuff that I do, once the solo begins, unless it's a fixed 12-bar thing like I did two choruses on "Penguin In Bondage" in the key of D – that's that. But if it's an open-ended solo that starts with a single tonality, I can do amazing things in that context if you understand what is happening musically – what's going on.
Some people listen to it and say "That's awfully weird," or "That scale is strange," or "Those notes are weird," but there's a reason for doing it and there's a lot of skill involved in choosing those notes and there's also a lot of skill involved in the rhythm section being able to accompany me in what I'm doing. That bass player [Scott Thunes] is great at following me. He's one of my favorite bass players to work with because his harmonic concept, um – he understands what I'm doing when I do those things.
And one of the techniques I was using last night was: the chord that was stored in the loop has no third in it. That means that the pitch of the chord which determines whether it's major, minor, augmented or diminished, is missing. All you have is the root, the second and the fifth. When you have those three intervals in there you still hear it as a chord, but the notes that you can play against it enable you to encompass all the different variations of the nature of the chord. You can play Major Thirds, Minor Thirds, and everything in between against that chord. It's more like a neutral piece of canvas that you can paint on, and consequently, the bass notes that support that chord ... a lot of different bass notes can be used and each one that goes against the chord creates another set of mathematical possibilities for the melody notes that are happening on top of it. And, when you combine that with the mathematical possibilities of what the harmonic rhythm of the melody notes will be, how many rub – how many relax and all of that stuff – that's a world of opportunities during each song and I love doing that during the show. That's my favorite thing to do in the show.
There's always like a key that you've got that you like a lot, I think, is it the key of D?
On "Zoot Allures?"
No, "Zoot Allures" was played in kind of an A7th tonality.
The napkins.. uh
"Black Napkins" is not, uh, that's actually two chords. That goes between C#minor and D Major 7th. But there's a lot of different keys you can play in there. I play in F# Major on top of that.
I'm not going to ask technical questions because, uh ...
You don't know.
Because I don't know, BUT – what I wanted to ask was how often do you hit Bum Notes?
Lots. Because especially if you're playing really fast – and all you have to do – at the rate I'm going on some of those runs – if one fret is sticky you're gonna miss.
I thought that was evident at the beginning yesterday.
That was what?
Evident at the beginning of the, uh, show ... did you do two shows last night or one?
Like you weren't happy with the way your guitar playing was going or were you happy.
Uh, it was okay – I mean I think that I played better solos the night before in the second show and there was a couple of solos that I played last night that I thought were really good but, uh, I'm the kind of guy who would prefer to go out there and take his chances rather than learn a solo that goes in the song and play it exactly the same way every night. I mean, what kind of a life is that, y'know? I'd rather have the ups and downs than the assuredness that I was going to go out there and amaze everybody with technique – I wanna hear some music. And the challenge for me is writing an instant composition while I'm playing and that's what I do.
Do you personally think that you're under-rated as a guitarist?
I think that I shouldn't be rated as a guitarist. I think that rating guitarists is the kind of a thing that, uh, that's a stupid hobby is rating guitar players.
Q; You're a composer.
I'm a composer and my instrument is the guitar. If you like the composition, fine – I mean, my technique as a guitar player is ... fair. There are plenty of people who play faster than I do, never hit a wrong note, and have a lovely sound, okay? If you want to rate guitar players – go for them. But there isn't anybody else who will take the chances that I will take with a composition, live onstage in front of an audience – and just go out there and have the nerve, the ultimate audacity to say "Okay, I don't know what I'm gonna play, and you don't know what I'm gonna play, and that makes us equal so let's go, we'll have an adventure here." And, that's what I do. There's no way to rate that. You either like that kind of stuff or you don't.
You traveled quite lightly this time it seems. You used only the Strat yesterday.
Is there a specific reason for that?
I like that guitar. I have another Strat in the back in case that one goes off, but that particular neck ... the whole guitar is customized. The only thing that is stock on there was the original Strat body which has been stripped and repainted in that old Telecaster color. But the neck is custom, all the electronics are custom, all the pickups are custom and I like the way it sounds.
What you were talking about limitations before as people want to compare you as a good guitarist, bad guitarist against other guitarists like some sort of match. Are you disappointed that there are so many schmucks probably about who go on and just perform just for the sake of the guitar, and ignoring all of the other concepts of the music?
There's always somebody who wants to consume that and they're entitled to consume it and they're entitled to love it and they're entitled to worship as a way of life and so on and so forth. That's for them. What I'm dealing with is something entirely different and I must say, in all fairness, without being rated I know that there are people out there who love what I do on the guitar.
One final question, Frank: As always, there's quite a lot of product in the can, as they say. You always have. So, what's up now?
You know that there's four albums that are coming out right now.
You got the Boulez album, which is out. You got "Them Or Us", which is just about to come out, which is going to be followed very closely by "Thing-Fish" which is three-record box with a book in it, and you got Francesco which comes out right after that. Also, the concerts here at the Odeon Hammersmith were recorded for a CD which was going to be just a CD, now a vinyl album, and that'll be coming out sometime next year.
Are you going to have a breather between each product?
No. These first four are going to come out very close together because they won't conflict with each other – they're totally different things. They're in a way all for the same audience, but maybe there are some people who might like the Boulez album who wouldn't like "Thing-Fish" and vice-versa. So, you have your options. And for the person who is a hardcore fan, there's lots of stuff coming out this season.
Thanks a lot.
The Interviewer is not credited on the disc, but just so you'll know, from his accent he appears to have been an Anonymous British Person.
This text was transcribed by Robert Moore on Friday, Dec.10 at 4:33 AM EDT – just 6 short days since FZ died at the much-too-early age of 52. My universe is significantly diminished by his passing.