The Mother Of All Interviews (Part 2)
The Mother Of All Interviews (Part 2)
by Don Menn, 1992
This is the second part of the rather excellent interview conducted by Don Menn in 1992. It was also called "Belgian Waffles in Plastic". During this second part of the final conversation, cartoonist Matt Groening (Life in Hell, The Simpsons) joined in.
DM = Don Menn
MG = Matt Groening
DM: Nicolas Slonimsky describes you as the pioneer of the future millennium of music. Do you have a concept of what he means?
No, but he's very kind to make up something like that. When you start using words like millennium, that's pushing the boundaries of good taste.
DM: He explained that the technology you have mastered opens up compositional possibilities, possibilities never available to any composer before.
Well, the sad thing is that the technologies that I've developed are probably not going to be available to any composer afterwards either, because the technologies are all so expensive. Unless something happens to bring down the cost of the tools that I'm using then most of the other people who are writing music will never be able to deal with it.
DM: So you don't think there will be a drop in price as the technology changes?
If there's another whole machine invented that does what the Synclavier does and sells for a reasonable amount of money, yes, but I don't see any chance in the world that the Synclavier's price is going to come down. As a matter of fact, at New England Digital they're trying to phase out their relationship with musicians and design the machine purely as a post-production tool for video and motion pictures for doing sound effects. This thing was originally designed as a digital instrument for the musician, but that part of their consumer base is the least significant now, so all their research and improvements are going in the direction of making a useful tool for grinding out commercials and soundtracks. [Ed. Note:Since this interview New England Digital has gone out of business.]
DM: That makes you one of the only inhabitants of the little island in what happened in music in the '80s and '90s
DM: That's kind of sad.
Well, I don't think it's going to be any great loss. Nobody knows what I did anyway, so how are they going to miss it?
DM: You have a sense that no one knows what you're doing?
I don't think that anybody has any idea what gets on in my room over there, because very little of it has been released on record – they have no idea.
DM: You've had trouble with distribution, but is it also part of the problem that the refinement of your music creates a smaller and smaller audience?
I think that the shrinkage of the audience is inevitable, but the distribution problem is not inevitable. That's an unfortunate situation that I can't really do anything about, hut I don't believe the access to distribution or the lack of it is an accidental occurrence.
DM: You say you can't do anything about it. Is it curable by anyone?
Not in the United States. I mean, I think that I still have a potential market worldwide outside the United States, but as long as we have the current type of political and supposedly moral machinery of the United States, the way it is now, it's not likely that the music has much of a future in this country.
MG: What's gratifying to me is that some of your stuff is available now on CD. I go into very conventional record stores, and l see this huge row of your CDs.
But not in every state. California or the Los Angeles area may be neat in terms of the amount of stuff that's in stores, but there are other places where major chains won't carry it. There was an article in Billboard last year about some chain based in Washington State that has over 100 outlets that didn't want to carry this stuff. One of the things that they were trying to do is say that the lyrics on these albums were too nasty but one of the things that they didn't want to sell was Jazz From Hell, which is an instrumental record. When Billboard questioned the guy about it, he said' "Well, if it's not the lyrics, then it must be the cover." The cover was just a picture of my face.
MG: I saw you perform, I think it was in 1981 at the Santa Monica Civic, and l was startled to see this nice, portly old man come out and perform with you. It was Nicolas Slonimsky. How did you get him to join you onstage?
I'd been asked to be the host of a concert in New York for the celebration of Louise Varese's 90th birthday, and my function in the concert was to be the MC. What they were trying to do was get a younger audience to come and hear the music of Varese, and I thought that to do a good job, maybe I should talk to some people who knew something about Varese's background and get some anecdotes that I could pass along to the audience. It turned out that this was completely unnecessary, because when the concert occurred, the audience was so unruly, it was just like a Palladium Halloween audience. The concert was at the Palladium. They were behaving like a rock and roll audience. They sat completely still when the music was being played, but as soon as the music stopped there was pandemonium, so there was no way to tell them anything. But I did make the attempt to get some information from Slonimsky about Varèse, and that's how I met him. At the end of the '81 tour, I think it was the last day, we invited him to come onstage and participate in some improvisation. He was a good sport and went out and did it.
DM: He said it was one of the great experiences of his musical life, partly because the crowd was a rock and roll crowd that lumped up and shouted. He was used to small crowds of polite music-listeners.
I've been to a few of those, too. Every once in a while they do a little Nicolas Slonimsky birthday celebration here in Los Angeles. Composers contribute little compositions as birthday gifts. I've done two of those. I went to one of these things; it was held at the art gallery in downtown Los Angeles. It was pretty mild. There's no substitute for a rock and roll audience.
DM: He said to me that he wanted some time soon to sit down with you and talk about "the basics." Are there "basics" you'd like to talk to him about?
We've had some little discussions about technique in music. I'm reasonably familiar with his books, and on one occasion, when he came over here, we videotaped him, and I asked him to explain the theory behind the chords in that book of scales that most people are familiar with. It was really quite interesting, because it's based on the simple idea that if you take an octave or groups of octaves, and divide them into proportions other than the way in which normal music is divided, then you wind up with different types of harmony. It never occurred to me that that was the simple logic that was generating all those scales. But that was basically me listening to him talk. Maybe on some occasion we should sit down and talk about the way in which I put my stuff together, but there hasn't been a convenient time to do it.
DM: He described you as being what he would call a classical constructionist, meaning that you use 12 tones and 11 Intervals – as is tradition in Western music – with not a whole lot of reliance on quarter tones or other modalities, and that in the samples that you do for the Synclavier, you're constructing new sounds with these 12 tones and 11 intervals. Would you agree with this description?
It's true that I haven't written very much music on the Synclavier that involves pitches that are not on the tempered scale, but in live music performances we'll deal with any kind of musical material that happens to be at hand. The closest I can get to quarter-tone music is when I sing.
DM: Is that Intentional?
No, I just don't have any control over it.
DM: Do you have a feeling that you'll ever go into other tunings, or is dissonance just something to be resolved?
Well, I don't always resolve it. Most of the time I just leave it squatting there. I did a lot of early experimentation with quarter-tone stuff and found it not to be that interesting for my ear. To me, the net result of a whole composition based on quarter tones sounds like a badly tuned piano. I've heard recordings of Ives quarter-tone piano music which just sounds like the piano tuner was an amateur. You would imagine, if you were a music student and you were interested in dissonance, that you could be even more dissonant by writing quarter-tone music and stacking clusters of that. But to my ear, it doesn't really work.
DM: When you construct music, are you thinking vertically – thinking of chords?
Any stack of notes you can call a chord or any stack of sounds, whether they're musical pitches or just textures. I mean, I like chords of percussion instruments where you get a chordal result if you have a bass drum, a castanet, a jingle bell, and a guiro at the same time – if they're all hit at the same time, you will get some sort of a chordal sensation out of it, partly because there is a pitch content to all those instruments. It doesn't hit you in the face like a trumpet, but there is pitch content. You can prove that by taking a sample of the bass drum or any of these instruments and playing up and down the keyboard – you'll hear the pitch move.
DM: But when you're sitting down and thinking, "Today I'm writing music," are you thinking, "This is in the key of C# minor"?
No, I never did that.
DM: How do you resolve things in your music? How do you build and resolve? Is there a plan?
It depends on what kind of piece it is. And there are a number of ways you can enter the data into the Synclavier. One is to play it on the key-board, another is to play it on the Octapad. You can type it in in this obscure language called Script – which I don't know how to do – or you can type it in on the "G Page," which is just a stack of numbers, kind of like a phone book, or you can type it in in music notation, which allows you to see staves on a screen. So there's a lot of different ways to enter it. Depending on how you enter it, that makes a difference in how you develop whatever was there to begin with. Since I have only minimal keyboard technique, anything that I play in on the keyboard, I have to do it with the speed knob turned way down. Then do a lot of editing to it after it's been entered in. But all those piano parts on N-Lite – you know, those cadenzas and stuff? I played them.
MG: Did you know where you were going with that piece?
No. Because the most boring part of composing is when you finally understand what the object is that you're working on, and you know what the boundaries are, you know where it's beginning and where it's ending, and then you're down to the drudgery of cleaning it up. That's the most tedious part to me, but it's something that has to be done before you put it onto tape or transfer it into music printing so that somebody can play it. The fun part is getting a new batch of samples and figuring out how you can manipulate them. You'll be starting to generate the material. One of the reasons why the stuff takes so long to do is that the preparation work to do a composition is so lengthy and involved that just gathering up the material to make your piece could take two or three months. Then, on a couple of days, you'll sit there and do some stuff to it and come up with the beginning of the piece, and then it just stays on the hard disk in storage for however long until you get interested in it again.
MG: Do you work on a lot of things at once?
Yeah, right now there's probably about five hundred different titles.
MG: Do you know what they are?
No, once they're in hard-disk storage, when I go back to them, all you're doing is looking at a computer number. You call it up, and you have only the vaguest recollection of what the thing was or how it started out. First of all, when it's stored, it's stored with the software of the age in which it was done, and there could have been two software updates a year so things can be outmoded fairly rapidly. Also, it's stored with the older samples that were available at the time, so the first thing I do with an old piece that I want to listen to again is call it up and look at what sample patches are already on there and check to see whether I have newer, better samples for any of those sounds to replace all those things. I piddle around with it for a while, then re-save it in its somewhat updated edition. I might not even do any work on it – just haul it out, and listen to it, and see where it's going to go. But for the past year, I've been so involved with this Ensemble Modern project that most of the composition work has just been that drudgery part – just cleaning it up, getting ready for this thing.
MG: Do you rank your music in any kind of hierarchy? Do you consider the rock and roll stuff inferior to the classical stuff?
MG: It's all the same?
It's a different aspect of the same thing. I've got an imagination. So I earn a living by producing merchandisable manifestations of portions of my imagination.
MG: So you don't do one type of music in order to pay for another?
No, I would probably do "Baby Take Your Teeth Out" if nobody paid me. I mean, nobody did pay me. That particular song was concocted at a soundcheck at the place where this concert was taking place in Frankfurt. We played at the Alte Opera in 1982, and that song came from that soundcheck.
DM: I'm still stuck on something you brought up about not ranking your compositions. If something like "N-Lite" took ten years to do –
– and "Baby Take Your Teeth Out" took 20 minutes, why should they be the same?
DM: It seams to me you've put more into one than the other, and therefore you might have an opinion of that effort yielding more than the 20-minute one.
Well, the function of both things is to entertain. The one that took ten years is probably way over budget in terms of how much bang for the buck you're going to get. The end of any piece is basically: you're decorating time. "Baby Take Your Teeth Out" is a minute and ten seconds. Okay, so it shouldn't have taken ten years. It should have taken much less, and it did, but if that minute and ten seconds amuses you, okay, fine. And then there are people who will never be able to sit through "N-Lite" – it's 23 minutes long. They would rather have a minute and ten seconds of something that'll make them laugh. The point is that each piece, for what it is supposed to do, achieves a certain level of entertainment success.
DM: If you don't rank your pieces, what differentiation do you make between live work, Synclavier work, and some of the work being done to fund this so called "more serious"music?
Well, if I had never done any rock and roll, I wouldn't have a Synclavier. It's as simple as that. I mean, learn my living by making rock and roll records. But I didn't set out to do rock and roll just so I could spend my sunset years frying my room with a high radiation source.
MG: Did you anticipate the development of this technology?
Not to the point that I see it being available now. All along, from the point that I could afford to buy new audio tools, I would seek out those designers – and there are plenty of guys in Los Angeles who'll build you any kind of a box you'd care to describe, so long as you can afford to do it, and in the '70s I used to do certain experimentation with electronic devices for making music, but it's always better to have something off the shelf with a company behind it that will repair it when it explodes.
MG: In other Interviews, you've said you were exasperated by your music not being played correctly.
MG: And it seems that this technology is the answer to Frank Zappa's problem. Here it is exactly the way you want it to be performed.
Well, even with the most perfect Synclavier performance, you still don't get 100%, because there are certain nuances that are going to be absent just because the music is being played by samples, which means every note will always be the same sound.
MG: You can't alter that?
You can put vibrato on it and change its amplitude and change its duration, but basically it is a digital recording of some event. What you lose is – for example, you have a patch of clarinet notes, and every clarinet note is perfect, and they're lovely clarinet notes, and then you tell the Synclavier to play this ungodly fast clarinet riff that no human being could play. That's nice. You could never get it another way. But on the other hind, if you have a really fine clarinet player, every one of the notes that he played would be different, and your ear detects that variety. I think that the ear prefers variety, unless you happen to be one of those Mongoloids who thinks that the drum machine is the greatest device known to mankind. I can't stand to listen to them. Even in the case of kick drums and snare drums, you hear exactly the same pulse at 100% amplitude each time.
MG: So contemporary pop music doesn't do much for you.
Yeah, that's true. On the Synclavier, when we do repeated patterns with percussion samples, what we want to try and do is have multiple samples of the snare drum and the kick drum, so that every time the pulse comes along, it's actually a different recording and gives it more texture and variety.
DM: When you were talking about the Synclavier being an endangered species, what does that mean for the future of music? Will composers revert back to guitars and live groups and small synthesizers?
I don't think there are going to be that many composers in the future. I think that in today's world, if a person decides to be a composer, that person should probably seek medical help, because there's no way for you to earn a living. You can't. You have to have another job. You can't just write music.
DM: That's sort of sad.
I don't think it was ever really that much better, but things are getting especially tough now because there are no budgets for the performances, no budgets for rehearsal. If a chamber group or an orchestra does a performance of something, it's probably something that's already been written for a hundred years, and the orchestra already knows it, which means that they don't have to spend money for rehearsal. They play only the hits. And some guy who decides he wants to write music in the United States, what does he do? He may be able to write it down, but he's never going to get it played. And it takes so long to do it, and the mechanics of preparing just the paperwork to hand it to an orchestra are quite expensive, so its an exercise in futility.
MG: But that's what you do.
Well, I don't think there's even an opportunity to do that anymore. If I were to go out and try to get a record contract today, as a new artist, I couldn't get one.
MG: It seems that the culture is so fragmented that people who would be Interested in composing serious orchestral music don't know anything about pop music. You're one of the few people that has jumped from category to category. Who else has orchestral music in the rock bin at Tower?
Yeah, but basically that's neither here nor there. Just because I managed to get away with it doesn't have any real impact on what the real problem is. If you expect to have a future history of music, somebody's got to write it, and they can't write it unless they can survive while they're writing it. That's what's being endangered. I mean, spotted owls are nice, but nobody gives a fuck about composers. They have no meaning they have no lobby, they have no power to control the payment of royalties due them for performances of their material. Those industrial entities that consume the compositions – like the commercial business, the movie business – all have contracts which are basically designed to deprive the composer of all of his rights. For example, if you do a film score, it is not likely you'll be able to maintain your own publishing royalties. The motion picture companies are going to take all that away. So what do you do?
DM: In Germany they're funding these performances with lots of money, and you've mentioned other regional groups or territories coming up with similar festivals. Why does it work there and not here? Or will it start failing?
It's difficult there, because the German economy has the major burden of bringing the East into the 20th Century, and that's eating up a lot of the cash that might be spent on culture, but they still maintain cultural events. The thing is, in the United States there is an anti-cultural bias. You can't even use that word. There are two words you don't use in connection with the U.S. government: You don't use the "C" word, which is "culture," and you don't use the "I" word, which is "intellectual."
When [Czech president playwright] Václav Havel gave a speech to the congress, he did something really unbelievable. He got the entire Congress to cheer for intellectuals by using this spurious jujitsu method, claiming the Founding Fathers were intellectuals, thereby forcing the American legislators to go "Yeah!" for intellectuals. But that word has never been used effectively in conjunction with any form of U.S. government before. Just as it's very easy for candidates to say things like,"We will solve the deficit by slashing waste, fraud, and abuse," it's also easy to take aim at the National Endowment for the Arts or any other kind of cultural funding and give the public the impression that the world would be a better place if you never spent any more money keeping artists alive because who needs that? It's interesting that that kind of logic is so successful to the American electorate. They are willing to buy into this theory that any support for artistic activity is somehow unhealthy, when in fact if you look at the economic numbers there are ways to show that investment in things of an artistic nature creates jobs for other people that had nothing to do with art.
The best example would be if you have a decaying inner-city area like SoHo in New York. Before the artists moved into SoHo, it was just warehouses – it was a run-down area. So a few artists moved in, and they did some painting and then they opened a gallery, then they opened a coffee shop, and the next thing you know the whole thing was gentrified and you've got apartments in the area that are going for $3,000 to $5,000 a month. That same type of scenario has repeated itself in other cities in the United States, but nobody ever looks at that. The result of just a few dollars spent to make life easier for artists eventually turns out to make profits for people who are not connected with art.
These arguments against the National Endowment for the Arts really piss me off. On the one hand, I hate the idea that government should be involved in any way with the arts, because it means that somebody with a government title who knows nothing about art has to pass out money. But on the other hand, the bulk of the cash of the NEA yearly budget – which is a mere 175 million dollars, a pittance compared to other government projects – the bulk of it does not go for financing things like the Mapplethorpe exhibition. Mapplethorpe [a photographer whose exhibition included male nudes] got $45,000. The bulk of the money goes to support regional ballet companies, regional orchestras, or things where there's some community involvement. That's the reason why it was set up, and that's the way the bulk of the money is spent. And if you throw that away, then what have you got? Do you really want to see a country like the United States converted into nothing more than a nation of drones, getting up, going to their miserable little jobs, producing odd products that nobody wants to buy and then coming home and watching television? Is that – I mean, there has to be more to life than just going to work and then wallowing in the garbage that you created while you were at work.
MG: There also seems to be sort of a backlash against the arts because of a correct perception that most people who are involved in creative selfexpression have contempt for that, or at least they're opposed to the more conservative ideas. And people can't accept that.
I think the whole idea of a conservative bent in the United States is a media fiction. There are two important media fictions that you have to see through in order to comprehend life in the United States. One of them is the constant drone of these guys, who are basically right-wing operatives, who go on television and complain about the liberal media bias. This simply doesn't exist, because all the media are owned by right-wing guys. There's no liberal media bias there. That's a straw man that has been constructed. When they constructed it, the idea was that, "Oh! If there's a liberal media bias, we must balance it by having more right-wing content in our programming"' thereby giving them the license to saturate and spin-doctor all the news that comes to you. I don't think that the sentiment of the population really is the way that television would convince you things are. The whole goal – especially in news broadcasting – is to convince anybody watching that all things connected with the Republican Party are good and all things not connected with the Republican Party are bad. That's the subtext of all of this. No matter what it is, if it's not of the Republican species, then it is bad.
DM: How do things like The Simpsons slip onto television?
Well, that's a good question.
MG: I'm mystified myself I don't know.
I just hope they don't cut you.
MG: I think that – as you know – you make people laugh, and sometimes you fool them.
Yeah, but you didn't fool the nuclear industry or the lumber guys.
MG: No, the fact that a little radioactive rod falls in the back of Homer's neck in every episode, they caught on to that one. No, you can say anything on television as long as you say it once, but if you start repeating it, then they start catching on. That's why – you can't imagine the kind of stuff we get taken apart for on The Simpsons. It's everything. Promoting homosexuality, and disrespect ...
DM: Is humor the preferable way to tell the truth, or a safe way?
It beats the hell out of turning to somebody and saying, "Boy, you've got bad breath." Or whatever horrible truth you have to do. I mean, why make life even more difficult for the person who has the problem?
MG: So how do you oppose these guys?
You want to know what they hate more than anything else in life? They can't stand for people not to take them seriously. If you laugh at them for an instant, it's just like – the devil walks in the room, right? And he goes, "I'm the Devil," and you take a fork and poke him in the belly, and the gas comes out, and he'll go twirling around the room like an unleashed balloon. That's the way these guys are. You can't laugh at them. They hate it, because they're so full of shit, they're so full of themselves that they just can't believe that people don't appreciate them for the grand, highly evolved creatures that they imagine themselves to be. They hate to be laughed at. If they weren't so fucking dangerous, it would be fun to laugh at them all the time, but sometimes you have to take into account how much damage they can do.
DM: When you were at the Senate in '85, were you serious or funny?
I thought I was funny.
DM: Did they?
Well, the audience did. They kept telling the audience to shut up. The atmosphere there was really very strange, because the hearing itself was such a mongrelization. It took place in the Science, Commerce, and Transportation Committee – the least likely place in all of the U.S. government you'd think that the matter of rock lyrics should be brought up. The reason it was there was that five of the members of the committee had wives who had signed the original PMRC letter, and they were using it as a photo op, and it was wildly attended. There were 50 still photographers and something like 30 video teams. It was a big media event. And one of the senators said, "I've been on committees dealing with the MX, the budget, this thing that thing and I have never seen anything like this in my life." It was the hot ticket of 1985.
DM: What do you mean, he'd never seen anything like it?
The media zoo that sprang up around the issue. One of the stars of the hearing was Paula Hawkins, the Nancy Reagan lookalike from Florida – she had the reputation of being the least effective senator; she was really a disaster. Another one of her outstanding features was that all the Watergate burglars had found employment in her office in Florida. She was just this miserable thing. She wasn't a member of the committee, but she was having trouble getting re-elected, so Danforth, who was the chairman of the committee, did her a favor – one Republican to another – and allowed her to participate in the media circus, make some comments, and, you know, to grill me. She was the one who wanted to know what kind of toys my children had.
DM: How come you quit going directly before political groups? Was it because the bad guys were getting too much publicity out of it? Or are you lust tired of the chore?
No, no – it's not being tired. I mean, I'll still make comments about it, but to go on these debate shows, to be commoditized as yet another talking head anytime somebody wants ... The topic of censorship comes up, my phone starts ringing you know? Some rap group gets its record banned someplace and my phone rings. And they think that the next day, they're going to have their special sound bite where I'll go on and debate with Tipper Gore. I mean that's the mentality the level of the debate. And I just refuse to do that.
DM: So it's a stupid use of your time?
Well, it's for a worthy cause, but I think you could be more effective just talking generally about the idea of why this type of censorship is occurring and who's behind it than to do the talk show circuit every time one of these things hits the news wheel, and go on and you be a character who is against censorship and you will be debating somebody from some Christian organization. It's just hokey.
DM: Why is it that some of the rap groups are getting a better deal than you are? What has changed? You were a bad guy back in the '60s and '70s, and your records are now banned for distribution in certain states or places, yet most of these groups are going out there to the record bins. How come you're so honored?
I don't think any of those records pose much of a political threat to the people who'd like to see it stopped.
DM: What's your political threat?
I can talk. And there's always the possibility that someone will ask me a question, and I'll tell them what I think. They don't want to have anybody make fun of them. Besides, the situation with the lyrics of most of the rap records is, you've got basically two topics. You have sex and racism.
DM: Do you think there's more racism in music now?
Yeah. But it's a reflection of the times. I think there's more racism in government.
MG: Can we talk about some of your pre-Mothers Of Invention composing? I'm remembering one of the mystery disks from the early '60s, something you had done at Mount St. Mary's College. What was that?
Mount St. Mary's was the first time I had a concert of my music. As with most of the other concerts of my music, I had to pay for it.
MG: What year was that?
That was 1962. That was a bargain, though, because it was only $300. It was a student orchestra. There were probably about fifty people in the audience, and – for some strange reason – KPFK taped it, and I got a copy.
MG: What were the compositions?
There was one thing called "Opus 5," and there were aleatoric compositions that involved a certain amount of improvisation, and there were some written sections that you actually had to play. Some of the things were graphic, and there was a tape of some electronic music that was being played in the background with orchestra, and I had some 8mm films that were being projected.
MG: This obviously didn't pay the rent. How did you pay the rent at the time?
My only source of income was working this barbecue joint up in Sun Village. I'd work there on weekends.
Yeah. in the band, I wasn't making barbecue.
MG: What was the band?
It was just a pickup band. Some guys that I knew from high school who lived up there. I would come up, plug in my guitar, play with them.
MG: You didn't record any of that stuff?
Yes, we did. Some of that's on the Mystery Disc, too. There was no rehearsal. You'd just go up there and play bar band music, and if somebody was in the audience, and they wanted to sing a take of "Cora" – they were singing "Steal Away".
MG: Did anybody ever ask for "Caravan, with the drum solo?
That actually happened when we worked at a gig in El Monte. Some drunken buffoon in the audience requested it. [Slurs like a drunk:] "I wanna hear 'Caravan' with a drum sola!" [sic] There are certain things you remember from your career, like that line. When we worked at this music fair out in Long Island, we were the opening act for The Vanilla Fudge. 1968, I think it was. I remember this one guy out in the audience – it was the Weatbury Music Fair- and the quote was [loud and belligerent] "Youse guys stink! Bring on the Fudge!"
MG: You were Captain Beefheart's road manager for a short time.
MG: And you went to Europe?
I was supposed to be MC for the first big rock festival in France, at a time when the French government was very right-wing, and they didn't want to have large-scale rock and roll in the country. And so at the last minute, this festival was moved from France to Belgium, right across the border, into a turnip field. They constructed a tent, which was held up by these enormous girders. They had 15,000 people in a big circus tent. This was in November, I think. The weather was really not very nice. It's cold, and it's damp, and it was in the middle of a turnip field. I mean mondo turnips. And all the acts, and all the people who wished to see these acts, were urged to find this location in the turnip field, and show up for this festival. And they'd hired me to be the MC and also to bring over Captain Beefheart. It was has first appearance over there. And it was a night-mare, because nobody could speak English, and I couldn't speak French, or anything else for that matter. So my function was really rather limited. I felt a little bit like Linda McCartney. I'd stand there and go wave, wave, wave.
I sat in with a few of the groups during the three days of the festival. But it was so miserable because all these European hippies had brought their sleeping bags, and they had the bags laid out on the ground in this tent, and they basically froze and slept through the entire festival, which went on 24 hours a day, around the clock. One of the highlights of the event was the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, which went on at 5:00 A.M. to an audience of slumbering Euro-hippies.
DM: In turnips ...
And to alert them to the fact that they were performing, one of the guys lit a flare and threw it right out into the middle of the audience, which made some of them jump up and dance around wildly and try and put the fire out.
MG: Tell about the hot dogs.
Oh, yeah. Because it was located in a turnip area, and far away from anything that you would call necessary supports for civilization, the menu was limited. The people who were attending this festival, including all the talent, had access to these foodstuffs: Belgian waffles in plastic – these puffy little waffles in plastic, you could have that – or you could have a hot dog. Now the hot dogs were kept in this tank. When I was a kid, they used to have these big tanks for Nehi beverages, you know, a rectangular tank full of water, and there would be drink bottles in it. Well, in this case, there was a tank full of these Belgian weenies. Now, some of them would float to the surface, and the tips that would stick out were green, and we don't know what color the material under the water was, but it was a tank of green weenies poking out, and you could either eat that or the Belgian waffles. And you couldn't send out for a pizza. You were in the middle of nowhere.
MG: Did you ever play with Beefheart's Magic Band?
DM: What year was that?
'69 or '70.
MG: How did you meet them?
I went to high school with him [Don Van Vliet/Captain Beefheart].
MG: Did you go to class together?
No, not exactly. At the time that I knew him, his father had had a heart attack. His father drove a bread truck, and so Don had dropped out of school to take over the father's bread truck route, which was between Lancaster and Mojave. So I used to go over to his house, and we had all the used pineapple buns that we could ever wish for out of the truck. We'd sit around and listen to rhythm and blues records and eat what was left over from the bread truck route.
MG: Did you have any idea what your futures held?
Did we know we were going into show business? No.
MG: Did you scheme, did you plan, did you fantasize?
At that time, not. I don't have any recollection of sitting around with Don and going, "Yeah, now we'll ..." No, we were just listening to R&B records and eating pineapple buns.
DM: You both have a graphics background. Were you artists then, or being musicians, or both?
He had been doing painting and sculpting for a long time. My graphics background was I'd had some art classes in school. I didn't really want to go into that. I did earn my living as a commercial artist for a little while during that period, but ...
MG: What kind of stuff did you do?
I did greeting cards, I wrote advertising copy for the First National Bank in Ontario, California, and I did some little illustrations.
DM: Anything that was often out there?
Some of the greeting cards were often out there. I convinced the guy that I was working for – this place in Claremont, California, called the Nile Running Greeting Card studio, that specialized in silk-screen, that cards of a floral nature would likely be considered entertaining by elderly Midwestern women.
MG: Very focused on the graphics!
Yeah, it was niche marketing. You knew what they liked, and you serviced the need. And I was in the silk-screen department with the big rubber gloves, you know, going [makes squeaky, tugging noise] and pulling the Mylar off of these smelly things. And so I talked him into letting me do my own line of greeting cards on an experimental basis, designed some of these cards, and designed a little rack to dispose of them.
DM: Do you have them anymore?
There's some around, yeah. They're truly awful.
DM: Give us the wording and the image.
Well, one of them was – it was painted on chrome-coat stock, you know, a nice glossy stock. The front of the card says, "Captured Russian Photo Shows Evidence of American Presence on Moon First." And you open it up, and there's a picture of a lunar crater with "Jesus Saves" inscribed on it.
DM: You were a bad boy as a baby, huh? What else?
Let's see, there was another one that just said, "Goodbye" on the front, and inside: a black hand. And – this is fairly abstract – one where the front of the card said, "Farky." You open it up, and there's a picture of a pirate. Think about it for a while. You have to look at this guy and imagine him saying that word, and then you derive the meaning that was intended.
DM: You've always been good at naming things. All these words, you have a great sense of ...
I think it's because of this old book that I found.
DM: Which was?
I don't even remember the name of it. It's probably around here someplace. It's an old, decrepit, leather-backed book about the ancient Egyptian religion. One of the little-known facts about this religion is: When you're on your way to heaven, you can't go anywhere unless you know the name of everything. So the Egyptian rulers, in their preparation for going to heaven, spent a lot of time memorizing the name of the doorsill, the name of the door frame, the name of the paving stones, the name of everything. Because nothing would let you by unless you could name it.
DM: You were worried.
MG: How did you get on The Steve Allen Show in '62?
Just called them up, and said I play the bicycle and you know, they were booking all kinds of goofy things on there. The tape was given to me as a birthday gift a few years ago. Someone found a copy of it and sent it over.
MG: What was it like?
Well, first of all, I'm clean-shaven, and I'm wearing a suit and a tie, and my speech patterns resemble the way Dweezil talks now, which I thought was very odd.
MG: So, when did you grow your mustache and – whatever you called this [indicating hair beneath Frank's lip?]
Actually, I grew it when I was in high school, but I shaved it off after I got out of high school. I had a little skinny mustache and a "Genghis" down here.
MG: You could get away with that?
What were they going to do, throw me out of school? They did.
DM: Did you get thrown out, really?
Yeah. I got in some trouble, and they told me that I could either write a 2,000-word essay or be suspended for two weeks, so I took a two week vacation, and I showed up back in school with a list of all my R&B records by artist and label, and a list of all the ones that I thought I was going to buy for the next three or four months, and that was my 2,000-word essay. I laughed at them.
DM: What did they say?
What could they say? They didn't like me, and I knew they didn't like me, and I didn't like them. And I graduated with 12 or 20 units less than what you needed to graduate with, but they couldn't think of keeping me there for another year. It was unthinkable.
MG: You were in a band at that time, too, right? So you were just a degenerate.
Absolutely. The scum of the earth, as far as the people in Lancaster were concerned. See, I didn't know when I moved to Lancaster that, prior to my arrival, there had been an unfortunate experience with "Negroes" in the area. A group of black entertainers had come up from what they call "down below," the evil area below the high desert. They had come up. It was Big Jay McNeeley and a bunch of other entertainers that had come to do a rock show at the fairgrounds, and along with them came people who were selling reefers and pills, and the founding fathers of the city decided never again shall this music enter our fair cowboy area. I didn't know any of this had happened. I moved there from San Diego, and put a rhythm and blues band together, and decided to throw my own dance, and put up little posters just like in the 1950 movies with the help of this lady who ran the local record store. Her name was Elsie. We rented the women's club, and we were going to have our little dance there. And the day before the dance, walking down Lancaster Boulevard at 6:00 o'clock in the evening, I was arrested for vagrancy. They kept me in jail overnight, trying to make sure this dance wasn't going to come off.
DM: How old were you?
MG: So what happened?
I got out, and we had the dance.
MG: And civilization didn't fall.
It didn't fall. And furthermore, the dance – see, all of the black people in the area lived out in Sun Village, like 20 or 30 miles away from the school. They were in their own little turkey-infested ghetto, and they came to this dance, because I had a mixed band. There was a couple of blacks, a couple of Mexicans. You know, there weren't that many white-bread people who could play anything that resembled rock and roll in the area, so we just had this hodgepodge band. The whole attitude of that area up there was very strange. After the dance there was what could have turned into a really unfortunate confrontation with the lettermen from the school, the varsity white-bread boys, who wanted to beat me and the band up after the show as we were loading our equipment. It was so unbelievably hokey. The Sun Village residents came to our rescue. When they saw what was happening, trunks started opening up and chains started coming out and things like that, and the lettermen walked away.
MG: So, you weren't popular in school?
MG: Were you distinctly unpopular?
MG: With the kids?
With everybody. What I wore to school was – you know those – they're wearing them now, those blue-hooded parkas. I would go to school with a blue-hooded parka up, with sunglasses on, my mustache, my little goatee, and I'd take my guitar to school.
MG: Did you play in the school orchestra?
DM: Education is losing all funding for music programs. Is this another black hole in the future?
Well, it seems to me that the subtext for stamping out the arts ... In the realm of arts, you always have the possibility for creative thinking, which means deviation from the norm, the prescribed political norm that everybody is trying to cram down your throat. If they can stop creative thinking, then they've got a better chance of maintaining the stranglehold of stupidity on the entire population. And creative thinking can, and often does, start at an early age. So if they can nip it in the bud, while the little beggars are in school, then it's good for them. I think they would like to replace every single art program with some sort of sport or ROTC thing just to keep people from thinking.
MG: What made you switch from drums to guitar?
I just liked the way the guitar sounded, and I lacked the proper hand-to-foot coordination to play a drum set. When I was in high school orchestras, all you had to do was be able to roll and go boom and ding and stuff like that, but it's a different story to play syncopation. I was never really good enough to be a drummer in a band, and the first rock-and-roll gig that I had – it's been stated before that on my way to the gig as a drummer, I had forgotten my drumsticks, and had to drive back to the other side of town to get them.
MG: So you were listening to Varese at the time and other classical weirdos. Was there anybody else who was digging that besides you?
When I was a senior, my brother Bobby was a freshman. And I didn't have any friends, but he had three or four, and they used to come over to the house, and I would make them listen to these records.
DM: You talked about one time being in New York and walking by Varese's place on Sullivan Street and thinking of him being in that room or house or apartment for 25 years, unable to compose music.
He stopped. He stopped writing for 25 years.
Because nobody would play it.
DM: What happened to him in the last 25 years of his life?
Well, in the last few years of his life, he was "rehabilitated." Columbia decided to do some recordings of his music.
DM: Slominsky's recordings?
No. Slonimsky's was the first recording of "Ionisation." The second recording of the Varese stuff, as far as l know, was that EMS 401 disc that dates from 1950.
MG: Was that the famous one you bought?
Yeah. In the late '60s, Columbia decided to do some recordings of his music. They did two or three albums with, I think, Robert Craft, the guy who recorded most of the Stravinsky stuff, and there were some concerts in New York City at Town Hall, and so he got a little bit of recognition.
[The talk turns to other "bad boy" composers, including George Antheil and his "Ballet Mecanique"]
There's another album by him, on a Dutch label. I have it. There are a group of pieces for piano and violin. It has "Ballet Mecanique" on one side, and it has these obscure pieces – the thing that's odd about these pieces is the rhythm. I put the needle in the groove and started listening, and I went, "Son-of-a-bitch. I could have written that." It really sounded like "The Black Page." There were a couple of people who were vying for the title of "Bad Boy of Music" during that period. The other guy was Leo Ornstein, who was a composer who wrote piano music, some of which was to be played with a two-by-four. One of his pieces was called "Wild Men's Dance." You couldn't play the chords with your fingers, you needed a 2-by-4. You can imagine a guy in a tuxedo in Carnegie Hall going DUN DUN DUN DUN DUN – "This is 'Wild Men's Dance'! I'm the Bad Boy of Music! DUN DUN!"
DM: What is Conlon Nancarrow doing these days?
I think he had a heart attack recently. He still lives in Mexico City. He's another example of a guy who couldn't earn a living in the United States. He was being ignored, so he moved to Mexico, and punched his [player Piano] rolls down there. It was cheaper for him to live in Mexico City.
DM: He comes from a little town in Arkansas. He must have had an unhappy youth.
Yeah. Bad boy in Arkansas. Well, how about Harry Partch?
MG: His music is still being played.
All his instruments went to this foundation which is located in Escondido, and they maintain all this stuff and give performances of his music.
MG: What do you think of Harry Partch?
I like the sound of the instruments, and I like parts of the compositions, but I think that the stuff goes on and on and on and on and on too long. There's too many repetitions. But the idea of it appeals to me a lot. But it's so personalized. He went all the way. He built his own instruments, developed his own tuning system, developed his own compositional machinery, and just went out there and did it, and he was a pretty good hobo at the same time. That's essentially an American composer kind of a thing to do.
DM: Did you run into lots of interesting composers in Eastern Europe?
I've run into a lot of composers. How interesting they are is hard for me to tell, because, you know, when you run into them, you don't always get to hear what they write. But a few of them gave me cassettes of their music. I didn't find them interesting. Some of it just sounded like graduation-from-the-Conservatory exercises, and things like that.
I heard one guy in Moscow who had made a tape. We went to a gallery, Mars, and there was some electronic music playing in the background I thought it was really very good. It sounded like the work of a guy who should have been writing for orchestra but because he wasn't an official Soviet composer had no access to an orchestra, so he was doing all of his stuff with MIDI gear. And it was good. I think there are plenty of people around the world who have the imagination to create new compositions. One thing that you have to remember: musicians play music. They don't write it. Composers write music. So if you don't have something for a musician to do, you will be treated to noodling. You will have "The World o' Scales," "The World o' Licks," but you won't have compositions. It's a special knack to invent structures, to invent new harmony, and to invent reasons for doing things. I mean, it's a different skill than being a musician.
MG: Do you think that there's a progression, that music should make progress? That you should do things that haven't been done before?
I think that all music should be personalized. If you decide that you want to be the bad boy of music and play with a two-by-four, then that's your message. Go do it, and the audience that wants to buy records of piano played by two-by-four should have it. But I think that if you're going to do music, it should be something relevant to the person who writes the music. It has more to do with the composer than to do with the style of the times or the school that might have generated the composer. Only in that way is the product valuable: if there's an artifact of an imagination, rather than an artifact of a movement.
MG: What do you think about the traditional composers? Do you care for the old guys?
Well, name me an old guy.
I have an appreciation for the skill of putting it together, but the sound of it is not something that I enjoy, so ...
I just like the way it sounds. The same reason I like Varese. I like the way it sounds. But I wouldn't go out of my way to attend a Bach concert or buy an album of that kind of music. To me, of that period, that is the most tolerable of the material to listen to. I don't start getting interested in so-called classical music until the early 20th Century.
No. I actually like Wagner. I think Wagner was interesting. It's too long, but it's interesting. I have very few Wagner albums, but the things that I've heard, if you look at the time at which it was written, and what he's doing with the material, it's challenging. That's the thing that depresses me about most of the music of that period. It's just not challenging, because it was written to spec. There was a king or a duke or a church or somebody who said, "Hey. You need to write something. We have a festival coming up, and it must be something I will like." So everything was written to suit the taste buds of some joker with a towel on his head.
DM: So the theory that the church or the nobility helped make the Renaissance happen, or the classical period, is not true in your mind?
I think it probably held back some of the greatest composers, because you had no choice. If you wanted to write, you had to write at the behest of somebody who had more money than you. It's like dealing with radio-station programmers and the guy who puts your video on MTV. It has to be exactly this, or it goes nowhere. So, here's a guy with 11 kids to feed, what's he going to do? Give the Prince what he wants [sings "Hallelujah Chorus"]: "Hallelujah. Hallelujah." [imitates a prince:] "Oh, yeah, I like that. I can understand that."
DM: So you're not a fan of Handel either?
I've only heard four or five pieces by Schoenberg that I can enjoy listening to. There's the Septet, and then there's the suite of pieces for orchestra, the one that has "Summer Morning by the Lake" as one of the movements. I think that's really nice. And Begleitungsmusik: is a parody of motion picture music. I like that. But there's very little else by Schoenberg that I appreciate. And Berg – I like the "Lyric Suite," I like the – there's a piano solo piece, I think it's called Piano Sonata – it's an early piece. I like that. But, I tried to listen to Lulu. I couldn't do it. I had the album of Wozzeck. I could not get through it.
I like Messiaen. Took me a while, but I like that music. He's colorful. But I must admit that the first Messiaen album that I ever got was an Angel recording of Chronochromie, and it baffled the snot out of me. I didn't know what to do with it. I could stay interested for about the first three minutes. I was going, "Whoa, a lot of percussion; that's interesting, but what is this?" It took me years before I could listen to that whole side of the album straight through.
DM: What finally clicked? Just repetition?
No. It's just that the more I learned, the more interesting it became, because at the time that I was first exposed to this kind of music, I didn't have a musical education. I was just a guy buying records. Everything that I liked was based on my gut reaction to what was on the record. For some reason I liked Varese right away. I liked Stravinsky right away, but these other things not. I didn't like Charlie Parker. I didn't like some other modern jazz things. Listening to these things, I would go, "Why do people like this? I don't understand it."
DM: What became different in the way you listened? What do you start hearing?
Well, when you start learning about structure, when you start learning about how things work, then you can appreciate how other people deal with the material. Look, if you're writing diatonic music, you've got 12 note names over seven or eight octaves. That's a pretty limited universe. What can you do to take these components, shake them up, reassemble them, and make something that you would call a composition? That's a pretty interesting challenge. I think that other art forms have a much more open – not an open format, but more material to work with. If you're a poet, let's say there are 300,000 or 400,000 words in the English language. There's your universe. But the possibilities are a little bit more restricted in terms of the structure when you're dealing with diatonics. So the more I learned about what the rules of the game were, the more I could appreciate how other people might solve this problem. How do you maintain somebody's interest over any period of time with what you've concocted? Today I have such a limited amount of recreational listening time that if I decide that I'm going to listen to something – I have a very big collection of records and CDs – I'll pull something out, and I'll put it on so I can really focus on it and go, "Boy, that's interesting."
DM: When you're listening to music, then, are you responding intellectually more than emotionally? Are you getting swept away by some great cadence or is it an idea that's hitting you?
You just have an appreciation for what it is. I mean, I don't think about the composer. I don't sit there and go, "Boy, what a great guy. He dreamed that up." You know, because all I hear is the music. I hear the material performing its little function before my very ears. I listen to the piece. I don't know anything about the lives of these guys. They may have all been absolute bastards. I probably don't want to know what kind of a guy Webern was, but I like the music. And the same for the other pieces that I enjoy listening to. I'm not thinking about who wrote it, or why he wrote it. I'm only listening to the results.
DM: Do you ever listen with interest to the scoring for TV Shows or movies?
Oh, that's so transparent. There's hardly any challenge to that. The thing that always amazes me the most about scoring for films is where they don't use music. That's what's important. To me, films that are heavily laden with score material are almost like sitcoms with too much laugh track. When there's too much [sings beginning of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony] DAH-DAHDAH DAH. When the cellos come in, you know, the guy's saying' "Dramatic now. Appreciate this dramatic moment. Alert! Alert! Drama coming up. Major 7th chord – they're in love! Look out, here comes the love!" It's offensive to me. I find the films where you can really ... if the sound effects are well recorded, and the natural sound of what's going on is interspersed with just a little bit of music, to me it works a lot better.
DM: What about some of the experimenters, like John Cage doing silence [a piece called 4'33" in which the performer makes no intentional sounds]?
I think that's an acquired taste. When I first learned of Cage's work, it seemed like the concept of it was far more entertaining than the audio result, but that could have just been a matter of the performances that were available on record at that time. Because even if you're going to be performing – well, silence is a bad example, but somebody with more abstract notations that require a conscious participation of willingness on the part of musicians to do something constructive in the piece. It's not often that you find musicians who like that idea and who will do a good job with it. I'm pretty sure that early recordings of Cage did not have willing accomplices. [Ed. Note: According to Barking Pumpkin, Frank performed Cage's 4'33" on the Cage tribute A Chance Operation, on Koch International (1933).]
DM: You can have a lot of notes on paper but if it's not well performed, it's not good to listen to.
It's not that there's a lot of notes on the page. A lot of it is really empty. See, contemporary music seems to go through this period where everybody discovered Webern and said, "Write ventilated music." So, a lot of people were writing highly ventilated constructions, but nobody did as well as Webern with the exception, I think, of this tape of Boulez I heard. I really like that, which is all fairly ventilated, but there was this post-Webernian school that sprang up, and it just turned into "boop, beep" music. And the boop beep was eventually replaced by minimalism, which is pentatonic and repetitive. It was like, give 'em a hook, and keep it coming and so that's what you got.
DM: What do you get with new age music?
Well, that's like listening to, I think of it as kind of an audio ointment with jingle bells attached.
MG: But it makes the Pringles taste a little better.
Not if you're at the dentist's office, which is the environment in which it seems to thrive. But that's just my own personal thing.
MG: The musical trend that drives me the craziest is when you call a company and are put on hold, and you're forced to listen to whatever it is
It's awful. That's like people telling you to have a nice day.
MG: Let's talk a little bit about your reactions in non-Western music, like Indian music.
I've always loved Indian music. There was even a period of my life when I thought, "I must go to India to hear this music." Then I heard how many needles they had to give you, and what kind of diseases were lurking for you over there. I decided, "Well, I'll just get the records instead." I like Indian music, and I like Bulgarian music a lot.
DM: What about music from Africa? Do you ever listen to the tribal stuff?
Yeah. I've heard it, but I'm ... a lot of people are fascinated by the rhythm, but the rhythm of it is not so exciting to me. I'm not as interested in African music as I am in Bulgarian or Sardinian or Indian music. I think a lot of people listen to African music and want to consume it in the same way that they would consume a U.S. drum machine record. That fancy constant rhythm. And my taste in rhythm goes in other directions.
MG: Didn't you attend a concert of the Bulgarian women when they came here? Did you meet them?
It was a fairly frightening experience. They take a few musicians along with them. There's a guy who plays some kind of a drum-like thing or guitar-like thing but it looked to me like these guys were Bulgarian KGB, like they were watchdogs for the group. They had the special look, the black leather coat. And they were hanging out backstage, and when it was done, after the concert, the girls were in the dressing room. They were kind of lined up in a formal reception thing and we got to come in and say hello, and then we were ushered out. You couldn't really have any communication with them.
MG: What about Asian music? Indonesian?
You mean gamelan music?
MG: Gamelan, Balinese, or Javanese?
That wears on me. The timbre of it is nice, but it goes on and on like a Harry Partch piece. They can play that same pentatonic thing for centuries on end. That's as close as you're going to get to minimalist music.
DM: Well, what about noh music? Japanese?
I like that. That to me is like – it's science-fiction Webern music. You know, people doing erratic grunts followed by one drumbeat and all this oddly balanced stuff. It's like points of sound in time oddly balanced, and I have no idea what it's about or what will be going on onstage, but the sound of it is something I find interesting.
MG: What about reggae?
I don't have a collection of reggae music. I like to play it more than I like to listen to it. Reggae is a ventilated rhythm. If you're going to play a solo with a lot of notes in it and your rhythm accompaniment has a lot of notes in it, then it neutralizes it. I find it more intriguing to play to a reggae background with jagged pulses and big holes in it – there's blank space, whereas the least comfortable thing for me to play to would be something like a fast James Brown band. I wouldn't know what the fuck to do with that.
MG: What do you think of [Captain Beefheart|Beefheart's]] music?
The best of it is unbelievable, and the worst of it is under the influence of some really bad A&R people at Warner Brothers. But there are things on Trout Mask Replica that are unbelievable, and on Clear Spot also.
MG: Is there more from the Trout Mask period?
There are some other things. Yes.
MG: Do you think those will ever come out?
I don't know. There were things in the original sessions that he didn't want to have used. The original plan for the album was to do it like an ethnic field recording. He and his group lived in a house out in the Valley, so I wanted to take a portable rig and record the band in the house, and use the different rooms in the house as isolation – very slight. The vocals get done in the bathroom. The drums are set up in the living room. The horn gets played in the garden, all this stuff. And we went over there and set it up, and did tracks that way. I thought they sounded good, but suddenly he was of the opinion that I was just trying to be a cheapskate producer, and not do any studio time. So I said' "Well, you want to go in the studio? Let's go." So ...
MG: There's a little bit of it on the album, isn't there?
Yeah. There's some stuff off of a cassette machine that we wanted to have in there – "Dust Blows Forward, Dust Blows Back."
MG: And "The Blimp." That's yours.
I was in the studio mixing some other tapes, and the band that's playing on "The Blimp" is actually the Mothers Of Invention. The vocal on "The Blimp" was recorded by telephone. He had just written these lyrics, and he had one of the guys in the band recite it to me over the phone. I taped it in the studio, and recorded it onto the piece of tape that I had up at the time, which was my track. So, that's how that came about.
MG: And now your version of "The Blimp" is out on the re-release version of Weasels Ripped My Flesh, too.
It's also going to be on this new episode of You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore. The piece is called "Charles Ives." We used to play it on the '68–'69 tour.
DM: In your so-called orchestral music, do you have visual components going on in your mind while you're composing?
I always think of something.
DM: A lot of composers hate the idea of any sort of program element.
That's because program music is very old-fashioned, kind of like the cuckoo-in-the-meadow-from-Beethoven syndrome, but the audience consumes music largely pictorially. They make up their own mental picture, so why shouldn't the composer have a little input?
DM: So in the case of "The Food Gathering In Post-industrial America," you were trying to create scurrying sounds?
Well, when we did it, the sounds themselves were created just as sounds, but when I listened to it, it seemed to me they conjured up this picture of desperate post-yuppies scrounging just through little, you know, nubs of used Pringles and stuff.
DM: What about "The Girl In The Magnesium Dress"? That's a strange piece.
Yeah, it was made from dust.
DM: The dress?
The piece was made from Synclavier digital dust. It's hard to explain, but when you look at the G page on the Synclavier, you'll see note names and numbers, but that's not all that lives on a track. There's subterranean information which can only be viewed when you go out of the user-friendly part of the machine and into the mysterious world of XPL programming. At that point, you can see these things that live on the track that are giving secret instructions to the machine telling it what to do. One classification of these secret instructions is something called "G numbers," which would be derived if you plugged in a guitar. They have this guitar unit that you can plug in, and besides recording the note that you play, it records a bunch of data in the form of G numbers. It's very complicated to explain what G numbers do, but they're not exactly notes. So we found a way to convert bunches of G numbers into note blanks. And G numbers occupy points in time. They indicate that something happened on the guitar string at a certain point in time. It takes a little piece of eternity and slides it up, and if your finger moved, there's a G number that says what your finger did besides just playing the note. So we converted this dust into something that I could then edit for pitch, and the dust indicated a rhythm. So what I did was take the rhythm of the dust and impose pitch data on the dust and thereby move the inaudible G number into the world of audibility with a pitch name on it. That's how "Magnesium Dress" was built.
DM: So-called serious music isn't often recognized as being funny, and even when a Mozart or a Beethoven or somebody puts in a little joke, the audience sits with a very straight face. Why is it that either composers or audiences have limited the range that they'll allow to be expressed or heard?
It's difficult to summarize audience behavior in general on a worldwide level. The audiences that I'm most familiar with are the ones in the United States, and most of them are of the rock and roll variety, and they do have a sense of humor. What I do know about the U.S. classical audience is, basically, they are not there to hear the music, they are there to see who else showed up. It's a social event more than a musical event. They will go to a concert based on whether there is a star conductor or if there is an acceptable brand-name familiar composer on the program, but most of these people who go to these concerts in the United States haven't a clue as to what's going on. The main event of the evening is intermission, where they go out and piddle around with the white wine in the lobby. One would not expect them to be riddled with humor, especially since many of them happen to be Republicans and you know how they are.
DM: Do you think that's true of a Frank Zappa audience at a premiere of an orchestral piece?
Well, that audience probably is going to come largely from the world of rock and roll. There'll be crossover people. I would imagine that in Germany the audience for this piece is going to be derived mostly from fans of the band. Those fans who like the instrumental music on the tours would be attracted to this show. The ones who want to hear "Titties 'n Beer," they're going to be radically disappointed. There'll be a certain number of serious music concertgoers that will be there because they might have bought season tickets to the festival or something like that, but I expect that the bulk of the audience is going to be the same people that we play for at the rock shows.
DM: Let's talk about the upcoming German festival. Someone the other night described the Ensemble Modern as your new band.
I wish! One of the things they studiously avoid is having so much to do with any given composer that a composer will influence their ability to have a varied repertoire. There are other ensembles that have been welded to a composer of a certain school and wind up regretting it. And I think that their way is the best. They play all different kinds of music by all different composers, and they have a big repertoire and a busy touring schedule, and I think it would be a big mistake for them to get welded to what I do.
MG: Where did the idea of using the didgeridoo and the coffee can and water come from?
Well, a long time ago, we had a contact mic that we put on a Sparkletts bottle, and we got this really close-up sound of this horrible gurgling, glugging stuff. I used it as a sample on the '88tour in a lot of songs. So it seemed to me the idea of bubble-like sounds of all densities and magnitudes could be used as interesting source material for a composition. Because the musicians in this ensemble take everything so seriously – and I mean seriously: If you tell them to scrape their instrument or do something weird to their instrument, they don't look at you out of the corner of their eye, they'll just do it, and do it very seriously. The oboe player was blowing bubbles, and when I suggested that she take her didgeridoo and stick it into a pot of water and grunt through it and blow bubbles at the same time, she didn't say, "You're out of your mind. I'm a lady. I shouldn't do that!" She got the didgeridoo, and a couple of the other guys went out and got the little jug of water, and she knew that she was advancing the science of music like every player ever has, but the sound made me laugh so much I had to leave the room while she was recording it. I couldn't believe it. I'd imagined it would be fairly grotesque when I suggested she do it, but when I heard it, I couldn't stop laughing. I was spoiling the tape. I had to leave. You know, "Just do a bunch of these, and I'll come back." We expect that it's going to be one of the more enjoyable portions of the concert in Frankfurt, because it's going to be miked through the six-channel system, so that means the illusion for the audience is that they will have the experience of sitting inside of the container of water that she is blowing bubbles into.
DM: What are some of the technical challenges of combining the Ensemble Modern with the Synclavier? Is it also going to be making some of the sounds?
There's going to be a six-channel playback of some of the material generated on the Synclavier that will be used as background for the dancers. It's about 15 or 20 minutes of the show, this piece called "Beat The Reaper." That will be reproduced from a Sony 33-24. All the concerts will have a six-channel P.A. system, and all the musicians onstage will be miked in such a way that they can be positioned around the audience in a kind of interesting spatial perspective. Plus, there's this device called "the hoop," which you can think of as a six-channel fish-pole microphone which can engulf a performer. It's a ring with six microphones around it, and each one of them feeds a different speaker in the hall. It's designed so that you can approach a soloist with this device. You can go up to a performer, put it over his head, go up and down his body while he's playing, and do all kinds of spatial tricks with it.
DM: How is the hoop operated?
A person with a strong arm and a will to succeed [laughs] will wander about the stage as I aim him in different directions. During the improvised sections that I'm going to conduct, I'll also be conducting the "hoop meister." And if I point over there, he'll go over. It's kind of like a butterfly net, you know: "Go over and bag that guy over there." And the house mixer is instructed that at those times when the hoop is in operation he is to do a cross-fade between all of the mikes on the entire Ensemble. They get faded down, and the only thing that's left in the P.A. is the six mikes inside the hoop. So you get this zoom-in effect. All the audio is focused on that one soloist.
DM: The concert is a great honor. How often is your stuff being done around the world?
Gail would know. We get requests monthly for various things.
MG: Do you say yes to everything?
Sure. There's going to be a CD of the Cincinnati Wind Ensemble, who wants to record "Envelopes" and something else. We just gave permission for that. There are a lot of requests for regional orchestras that want to play "Dupree's Paradise" or "Perfect Stranger." Usually, the things that they've heard already on a CD are the things they want to play. Usually, they are for smaller orchestras. Nobody wants to tackle the big things, because they're too expensive to rehearse, with the exception of this orchestra in Germany that's going to be playing "Bogus Pomp."
MG: What's your best-selling album?
MG: Without re-issues? Did anything significantly outsell ...
I don't think anything has outsold Sheik Yerbouti, partly because "Bobby Brown Goes Down" keeps becoming a hit every ten years.
MG: Do you understand why?
No. Last year in Austria it was number one. It was top ten in Germany, and I think it was back on the charts again in Norway. For no apparent reason, it was back. For those of you who are ever interested in odd things that will happen in the future, we just got a request from Sweden to do a Swedish translation of "Penis Dimension" to be sung by a girl. We're going to let them go ahead and do it. The idea of a Swedish cover on that is pretty fascinating. The Swedes are odd in terms of the things that they choose to cover. Some jazz performer there in the '70s wrote words to "Toads Of The Short Forest" and recorded it.
DM: Who does covers of your stuff in America?
MG: Are you planning to do any more touring?
Not if I can help it.
MG: What was your reaction to the GrandMothers, the old Mothers Of Invention?
I thought it was pathetic.
MG: Maybe you should do a Frank Zappa band without Frank Zappa. Just send them out on the road to play your music.
Well, there's been talk of doing that with this Zappa's Universe Project that was done in New York. They're trying to organize a tour of that, but it doesn't look like it's going very well, because there's no money behind it. You can't put a band together to go and play hard music without rehearsal, and nobody wants to rehearse without getting paid, so I doubt whether it's going to happen. Probably the Zappa's Universe Project is a one-shot deal.
MG: But that was extremely ambitious with all different kinds of ensembles, right? What about just a rock band?
It's not easy to put together a rock band for any purpose. It's more difficult to put together a rock band to play hard music, and the hardest thing of all is to get a band booked into any venue with a promoter who is not sure he's going to sell tickets. Although I think there might be a market for such a band, you would be doing a lot of arm-twisting to get promoters to put up cash to bring it out. If there's a name attached to it, that name being somebody who is coming onstage, there's a whole different marketplace, but if it's just Band X going out to play the tunes of ...
MG: But what about some of the great players who've played with you? I'd think people would come out to see it.
I think people would come out to see it, but you have to convince the promoter. He's the guy who has to put up the down payment.
MG: Because it seems as if the venues that you were playing got bigger and bigger and bigger over the years.
Yeah, but I think it had partly to do with the fact that I was going to be at the venue. I mean, if I'm not going to be at the venue, then I'm not sure that they will stick it in a big venue.
DM: Did you just grow to hate touring?
No. I just got old and ill and not prepared to put up with any kind of travel. Traveling for me is really very uncomfortable, especially in the United States since they have this ridiculous law about no smoking in airplanes. It's an uncivilized way to comport yourself on a trip, so this event in Europe was really a special thing just to go do the six concerts or whatever it's going to be over there.
MG: You mentioned that you'd discovered in your archives a large number of hours of music recorded at the Fillmore East in 1970 or '71.
I didn't realize the volume of releasable material from those tapings: the album Playground Psychotics which will be coming out later this year ...
MG: You said it was a surprise how much musical material you have. Have you listened to everything you've recorded?
No. I've got reels of tape in the vault that still have the original silver gaffer's tape from the night that they were stuck in the box at the end of a gig and haven't even been opened. Virtually the entire 1980 tour, which was recorded eight-track, is untouched by human hands. The '73–'74 tour with Ruth, and Chester, and George Duke, the bulk of those tapes from the United States and Europe, they're all four tracks, are untouched.
MG: What about the band with Jean-Luc Ponty?
That was '72. There's a few tapes of that. That's also four-track.
DM: Did you record almost everything you did on tour? Every night?
Starting in 1969, Dick Kunc, who was the engineer on some of the early albums, built this little James Bond suitcase recording apparatus. He built a briefcase. He took a couple of Shure mixers, and packed it all in there, and we had a Uher, about this big, 7-1/2 ips. He accompanied us on part of the U.S. tour that year, and would sit in the corner of the room with earphones on and try to do a mix on whatever we were doing. I mean, it was impossible, but there are tapes. The first volume of You Can't Do That On Stage was mostly that. Those kind of tapes from the 1969 band. When we did the Pauley Pavilion recording I had just bought this Scully four-track, and that was the first of the four-track recordings that we did. We recorded four-track for, I guess, ten years, nine years. Then we went to eight-track in 1980. Then we went to a single 24-track machine packed in a box in '81. In '82, I bought the Beach Boys' mobile truck, and put a pair of 24-tracks – in fact we had three. One as a standby, in case the Ampexes blew up, and we used that for a number of years. In '84, I bought the digital 24-track, and we did a tour and recorded that 24-track digital. And in '88, I had two 24-track digital machines, and we did 48-track live recordings of the '88 tour.
DM: Do you have a good memory of what's good from each of those tours?
I used to, but I don't think about it much anymore. I used to know the name of the gig, and what song was good on a certain occasion, and I used to be more involved in it, but I'm reaching the end of that phase of my interest in music.
DM: So, after the German event, you don't necessarily want to resurrect some of these good performances?
It's hard to find a reason or a market or a logic to package it, with the conclusion of the You Can't Do That On Stage series. That was always promised to be six volumes, and it's done. The two remaining live-like objects that will be corning out, Playground Psychotics and this other thing called Ahead Of Their Time, which is the '68 band, I don't know whether there's gonna be a market for anything more than that.
MG: I think there is a market for anything. Earlier in your career it was much easier to play your whole catalogue in order, and now, as you're releasing more of the stuff from the old years, I have to go back and revise my ideas about what you were doing because you're throwing in more pieces of the puzzle.
One of the arguments against putting out that old material is that there's not that many new titles that could be extracted from there. If I were to release that material, it would just be yet another version of "Pound for Brown" or yet another version of "Trouble Every Day." For live performances, there's a limited universe of songs with titles. What there is of a unique nature is that on every occasion, there would be some improvised something or other that would happen during the show that would be a one-off deal. You would have to do a lot of gathering to collate that stuff, and put together albums of songs that exist of only one kind. The '74 band did a lot of that.
MG: One of the things I like about the albums that are just a single concert, it's like, oh, that's a document of what you experienced that night. I really liked that. Although maybe you can edit the best songs, it's been a pleasure for me to hear entire shows.
That to me is excruciating, because when I've listened to those, it's hard for me to imagine one show that had so many good things in it that you'd want to release the whole show. There are always mistakes. With live stuff, you want to optimize the sound. You also want to optimize the solos. You've done a tour for four months, and you know that on a certain night, a certain song is played really, really well. It's a shame not to take that version of it and edit it in into the thing. I just think since it's all live, what's the difference whether it came from the same building or not?
DM: Do you miss playing the guitar?
Maybe a teenie weenie, teenie tiny, weenie weenie bit, but generally not. Every once in a while I might want to pick it up and play something, but, you know, it hurts. Just manipulating it.
DM: Your calluses.
DM: You can get those back.
Yeah, but it takes months to really develop and get your chops up to the point where you can say, "Hey, yeah, I'm a guitar player again." If I had to, I could pick up the guitar and play some kind of a solo right now, but I don't know whether or not I would like to have it stored for future consumption. I mean, you can do instant entertainment to amuse your friends or baffle people on the moment, but compared to some of the things I've done on tape that I think are really good, I'm just so far away from what I was able to do when I had some skill. It's disappointing, and I hate to do things half-assed.
DM: Do you like ever to listen to your old guitar work?
A few things, yeah. I'll listen and go, "How in the fuck did I do that?" 'Cause I just really have no idea how to do that.
MG: Are you going to play guitar at the festival in Frankfurt?
They want me to, but the logistics are very difficult, because in order to do it I'd have to bring a guitar roadie. I'd have to bring all my armaments, and it would mean I would have to eat up part of their daily rehearsal schedule to do a soundcheck for a fuzz-tone guitar, which is not something that is a pleasurable sensation for anybody. We're on such a tight schedule, the way the concerts are set up. We're going to need every minute we can just to make the P.A. work and get the acoustic instruments balanced. The other thing is that the expectation level would be so high. If I walk out onstage with a guitar, then people will expect me to do something worthwhile, and here you've got this fantastic group playing, and then this has-been guitar player walks up and goes [imitates weak fanfare] "Ta da."
MG: I have a feeling that members of the audience wouldn't go, "Ugh, a has-been."
Well, in Germany it's different. First of all, it's a very critical audience. Second, we've played there so much, and it seems like everybody in the country bootlegged the shows. They know what we played when we were there. We have some very dedicated fans in Germany, and I'm sure, without being malicious about it, they would listen to what I was doing and just know that it wasn't as good as what I used to be able to do and then, in the typical German fashion, would reject it.
MG: You sang "Sofa" in German.
We learned it phonetically. The translation was done by a girl who used to be our babysitter. She was from Munich, and apparently not a very good translator. People look at what it means in English, and then listen to the German words, and they've told me that the translation is laughable. And then they tell me what it really should be in German, and it's unsingable.
MG: They ought to be appreciative. Did you ever sing in any other language?
Dutch. All we had to learn in Dutch was just about a paragraph's worth of this one song, and the audience was so amused that anybody would attempt to do it. That particular tour, I tried to convince Mark and Howard that it was a good idea to learn these things phonetically, because most American groups, if they go and play in another country, make no attempt to communicate in the native language, and I thought it would be a worthwhile gesture and probably a groundbreaking thing to do. In fact, in Germany, it was groundbreaking, because I had reports afterward that people in Germany who were musicians who wanted to do rock and roll had never considered that their language would work for rock. I didn't realize that they weren't doing rock stuff in German. If they did rock, they would be doing bad phonetic English rock lyrics.
DM: In terms of future recordings is it going to be the German event and possibly Phaze III? Is that happening?
We're planning two CDs of the German event, or material generated by the German event, or material that involves me and the Ensemble Modern, whether it includes things that were recorded last year. Some combination thereof. And Phaze III, which now looks like it's going to be two CDs. Those are the things that are on the drawing boards now, plus The Lost Episodes, that's also coming out. The Lost Episodes is all the unreleased studio cuts, Volume One.
MG: Let's talk about your ideas about time.
Well, I think that everything is happening all the time, and the only reason why we think of time linearly is because we are conditioned to do it. That's because the human idea of stuff is it has a beginning and it has an end. I don't think that's necessarily true. You think of time as a constant, a spherical constant ...
MG: – in which –
– everything's happening all the time, always did, always will ...
MG: So this coffee cup –
– Was always full, and always empty –
MG: – and it's always being drunk and it's always being heated –
– And it's always being thrown, and the guy was always painting it, and so on and so forth. Everything is always.
MG: Why does this empty cup make sense to me?
I don't know.
MG: You know what I mean, though?
Is that a Zen question?
MG: No, why do I go, "Oh, I have already – the cup that I drank no longer appears to be full."
Well, that's because it is not full at this particular version of –
MG: Our perceptions?
We're dealing with time in a quasi-practical manner. We have devised our own personal universe and lifestyle that is ruled by time sliced this way, and we progress from notch to notch, day by day, and you just learn to meet your deadlines that way. That's only for human convenience. That, to me, is not a good explanation of how things really work. That's only the human perception version of how this work. It seems just as feasible to me that everything is happening all the time. And whether you believe your coffee cup is full or not is irrelevant. It's like – here's another way to explain it. What something is depends more on when it is than anything else. You can't define something accurately until you understand when it is.
MG: When in time.
Yeah, when is what. Without the perfect understanding of when, you've got nothing to deal with, see? 'Cause you analyze that cup of coffee a little bit earlier, and it's full. In a few minutes, you'll kick it over, and it won't even exist anymore. The state of the cup is determined by when you're perceiving it.
DM: Which means that the future has already happened.
Yeah. And the reason why I feel so strongly about this is, you know, this is one of the better explanations for why people can have premonitions, because instead of looking ahead, they're just looking around. You don't have to look ahead to see the future. You can look over there.
DM: That was going to be my next question. What limits our perceptions of other things or other times or the future?
I think you devise your own limits for your own personal convenience. There are some people who wish to have limits, and they'll invent as many boxes for themselves as they want. It's like, you know, men invented armor. They wanted to protect themselves from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and so forth. And people do the same thing psychically and psychologically. They build their own armor. They build their own rathole, whatever it is. And they choose their existence. Whether they do it consciously or whether it is helped along by a government or an education system, somebody is helping to shape this imaginary box you live in, but it doesn't have to be there.
DM: Then what are the limits to our being able to understand what the whole purpose of any of our lives is?
Well, why do you have to? I think that when is a very important thing, but "what the fuck" is also a very important thing to ask. Just keep asking, "What the fuck?" I mean, why the fuck bother? See what I mean? The important thing is, deal with the when. When will open a lot of shit for you. "What the fuck" really makes it easier to deal with it when you understand the when.
DM: You sound like a very mystical but common-sense guy, because you've always talked about the common sense solution as always the best solution to anything, and yet this is very mystical.
Why is it mystical? Can you understand that when is important? What's mystical about that?
DM: Well, not just that question so much as the idea that time is a Moebius vortex –
No, the shape of the universe is a Moebius vortex I believe that Time is a spherical constant. Now imagine a Moebius vortex inside a spherical constant, and you've got my cosmology. But when is very important.
MG: How does music composition fit into that?
It's just something that you do. You know, I can do it, so I do it. You can draw cartoons and so you do it, and you can make people laugh and you do it. And that's what you do. And if somebody tried to keep you from doing it, you'd kill them, wouldn't you?
MG: Yes. See, I judge the universe by pencil mileage.
That's a pretty linear kind of thing. And the callus on my finger. I used to get that when I wrote with a pen. In fact, this finger right here has a permanent dent right in that bone from just holding that nub of a pen, and going [choking, strugging sound] like with those little dots, and now I get cramps in this arm from holding my thumb like this to do a certain move on the keypad to make the Synclavier do something. But in the larger scheme of things, what's a little nub in your finger or a twisted thumb? So long as somebody gets a laugh out of it, what the fuck?