The Perspective of Frank Zappa
Down Beat Magazine: September 13, 1973
by Jim Schaffer
An interview with Frank Zappa -- Great! But I'll have to be ready for it as it may be a difficult one," I thought, as I prepared my material for the interview. Instead, I found myself totally engrossed and captivated by a charismatic man and talented musician. With all my fallacious thinking discarded, the "interview" proceeded harmoniously with Frank in complete control.
Frank Zappa knows what he expects from his music and his musicians and how to achieve his expectations. Yet, he is an artist who is fully aware of the practical side of music with all its perils and knows how to survive in the real world of music.
Frank touches on all of these areas during the conversation. Since his music is of prime importance to him, Frank Zappa wanted to begin by stating what he considers the most important part of music.
Zappa: I'm interested in melodies and it's the one thing I find lacking in most of the music today. The construction of melody is a specialized art form. I know a lot of people who can write and arrange but don't pay too much attention to where the melody is. It's a big challenge to write a melody. That's why people who can improvise well against chord changes are so unique because that's a challenge met instantaneously. When all you're presented with is the harmonics skeleton, your challenge is to create a personalized melody against that set of chord changes, it's a very impressive feat.
There's only one person in the group who doesn't really improvise and that's Ruth. That's because she has a mental block against it. I think she's capable of it but she just won't take a solo. Everybody else in the group is improvisationally oriented.
db: What about the bands educational backgrounds?
Zappa: Ian has a couple of degrees -- a bachelor's and an MA in music. I think everybody in the group has a degree except me. They are all thoroughly trained, schooled musicians with either jazz or rock backgrounds. Ruth has more of a classical background. She's a Juilliard product.
I'm mostly self-taught. I had one semester of junior college. It's the highest rank I achieved in school. During that one semester I had a harmony course and the rest or the time I went to the library and listened to records. Played in bars.
db: It's almost a phenomena.
Zappa: A long time ago they didn't have schools and without schools they managed to produce the main body of what is called classical music. So, why should we be so brazen as to presume that the more and better schools you have the more and better music you will have. I think a school is practical to provide instructors for the manipulation of instruments. But when a school announces that it doesn't approve of live performance, because it interferes with your studies, I think it's making a big mistake and most schools take that attitude. They expect you to take an academic approach to music and I don't think that's good. I think schools tend to turn out a lot of people who are very poorly suited to earn a living in the music business and that's doing a disservice to the students in not schooling them. I think it ought to be changed.
School is for getting chops. Part of your chops should be some survival tactics for the music business and they just don't give you that. They don't give you any concept of how to read a contract and the better you are when you get out the more susceptible you might be to getting reamed on some kind of a deal, spending the better part of your life in legal bondage.
All your creative energies might still be there but you wind up applying them to the betterment or somebody else's pocketbook. You might have to go out getting a part-time job in order to live under your contract. I know one guy who I thought was a very creative writer and got hooked with a manager who signed him to a seven-year contract and the guy was just stealing him blind. When he tried to get out of the contract the manager said: "If you don't work for me you won't be able to work at all for the duration of your contract. He just fucked him all up for seven years. So, there are people like that and unless you get some kind of knowledge of what to expect when you get out of school to try to earn your living as a musician or writer, the school has done you a disservice by not preparing you for the real world.
It doesn't make a shit how much musicology you hear in school or what they teach you about the things of the past, unless they teach you about the things of the present you are unprepared to survive. So, you wind up in a situation in the US., where there may be a large number of composers looking around with real great things to say who will never have a chance to have their music played because they have to take a part-time job in a gas station to afford the luxury or writing music. Then once they have written it, they have to go around begging an orchestra someplace to play it. In a way, that's how I got into the rock 'n' roll business. I hadn't even tried to write a rock 'n' roll thing until I was 21 years old. All the rest or the music that I had been writing, from the time I was 14 until that time, had nothing to do with rock, jazz or anything else. I was writing strictly chamber or orchestra music and I could never get any of it played. So, I figured the only way I was going to get it played was to put my own band together and write for that band. Then, I found out it was not easy to find people who could read what I was writing and so I wound up doing things that were not exactly complicated but at least it was mine and got to hear the idea I had dreamed up.
db: Is that early Mothers?
Zappa: Yeah. I had a group together for just about a year before we finally got a regular contract. Our manager shopped us all over the place and nobody was interested in our group because they thought we weren't commercial. Finally, a guy from MGM, named Tom Wilson, came to see us at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles and saw one song which happened to be a blues and thought he had a white blues group on his hands. He signed us up for the grand total of $2,500.00, split evenly among the members of the Rock 'N' Roll Teenage combo. I think it was a three year contract with a couple of years off-something like that -- and then when we finally got into the studio and recorded Brain Damage and all those other weird tunes the eyebrows got higher and higher, and the phone calls from L.A. to N.Y. began but it was too late.
The very first group of Mothers consisted of an ex-carpenter, an ex-employee of the Electric Co., in Texas-Kansas, and a guy who had just recently stopped driving a lumber truck, and me who had just recently stopped being a commercial artist in the greeting card design business. Anyway, the first bunch of Mothers could not read and they didn't have any concept or time signatures above and beyond 4/4, and 3/4 was sometimes difficult but we managed to squeeze in a couple or bars of 6/4 here and there and as time went along they started getting into 5/8 and 7/8 but it was all by ear. They didn't have any concept of what was going on in contemporary music. They'd never heard of Stravinsky; they liked rock 'n' roll. So, it was very difficult to teach them how to play the things I wanted to have played. The crudest example is: it took two weeks to teach Jimmy Carl Black how to play the drum break at the end of the phrase in Anyway The Wind Blows and the beat was this; (demonstrates vocally) -- a 6 bar on a 6 beat fill. It took two weeks for him to figure out all he had to do was to add two more beats in there and it'd come out right. First or all, he couldn't understand why anybody would want to add two more beats in the middle of a song that was in 4/4. That was too weird. After two weeks or drilling, and I mean 4 to 5 hours a day on that one lick, he got it. Then he could play the heck out or it.
db: He had it down.
Zappa: Yeah. he had it down. Now, that's the same way we learned how to do all the rest or the stuff-just by grinding it out. That's one of the reasons why some people used to think of me as a tyrannical director just flogging people to death to get them to do all these things, but there was no other way to do it. You just have to keep going over and over the same thing until you get some semblance of (I wouldn't say perfection) but at least get the thing to where it comes off. As each successive group of Mothers came along the quality of musicianship kept going up and up until about 1968 or 1969 by the time the group broke up, it was a 10-piece group and there were four people in it who could actually read music.
db: Horn players?
Zappa: Well, let's see, there was Ian Underwood, Bunk Gardner, Buzz Gardner his brother on trumpet, and Art Tripp who was our other drummer. He is very well-schooled professionally. They could all read well. But, that's four out of ten. I don't read very well myself I can write fast, but I can't read worth a shit. So, that still wasn't getting near anything what I needed to melt any elaborate musical textures of a written nature. We could play all kinds of weirdness spontaneously but in order to play a score of something we just couldn't do it by that time, so it was very disappointing. And, also, the fact in that year of '69 when I broke up the group, we had sort of been beating our head against the wall to develop something that was very unusual within the framework of pop music and nobody was interested in it. We were making very little money and we had a reputation that was sort of infamous rather than famous.
So, when I put another group together I just went in a completely different direction. The basic thrust of the first group of Mothers around '69 was instrumental -- 70% of the show was instruments. There were a few vocals thrown in for amusement sake. I put the next bunch together who did mostly vocals and stage antics, stuff like that and wasn't nearly as complex to follow. That group gained much larger acceptability. The group was disbanded at the point where I had that accident in England. Now this group has all the best aspects of the weirdness of the early Mothers because they can improvise spontaneous textures but they all read very well, except for me and the bass player had a little bit of trouble. We're doing vocals, too.
db: Since doing "200 Motels", have you thought about doing more film work?
Zappa: I'll probably do another one at the end of the year.
db: Why did you choose video over film?
Zappa: There's just a different look to video than film. It has a different lens and a different depth. The depth of focus you get in video is far and away different from what you get in normal film lens. It's terrifying how you can flatten out a scene. in "200 Motels," when the guy is walking down the street toward the camera, toward the concentration camp, he's in perfect focus and the whole length of the street is in perfect focus. It's in perfect focus all the way back. It's pretty hard to achieve that with your normal film stuff because of the amount of lights you would have to use. We did it with a very reasonable amount of lights. All flat white lighting over the top. There's no colored gels.
db: Did you use instant replay?
Zappa: We didn't play anything back instantly. It took too much time. When you have 200 people on a crew being paid at an exorbitant rate, you're not going to stop and play your thing back. You'll wait until the end of the day. We shot for seven days and we only had two hour-and-a-half playbacks in all that time. We didn't have the budget to squander to have the crew and all sitting around while we rolled it back and looked at it. You could feel it while it's being shot, unless you're a dummy. You can feel from what you saw on the screen whether or not you want to go back and do a retake.
db: Did you have previous knowledge of video?
Zappa: I got my complete video education while working on the film. I knew some basic things before I started doing it but by the time I finished the video editing of the thing I was running the equipment myself. Don't tell the union, I was doing it because I've had plenty of experience with tape editing and I just looked at the tape and saw it was the same size as 8-track tape so why should it scare me. (laughs.)
db: Will your next film be done in video?
Zappa: I'm not sure. It's a science fiction thing and I'm not sure whether it's the right medium for it. It's not economical to do it in video unless you're going to do the whole thing and have it on a real tight schedule. Video pays off if everybody who is doing a scene has the scene rehearsed as in a stage play. You gain speed by having everybody know what they are doing, setting up four cameras around it and shooting a whole scene in continuity several times.
db: Did you have any previous business to prepare you for the business aspect of music?
Zappa: I'll tell you. Basically, the only thing I knew, from about the time I was 18 years old, was that I learned it's not safe to trust anybody. So, once I learned that, everything was okay. Instead of relegating 100% of the business that's done on my behalf to somebody else, I like to oversee it as much as I can without having it interfere with the creative work I do. Because I don't enjoy sitting in an office, talking on the phone, and reading contracts and all the rest of that stuff. But, if I don't pay some attention to it, I'll wind up getting in predicaments.
db: Has that happened?
Zappa: You know, even with the best intentions in the world, you hire somebody as a manager or doing PR for you or something like that, they can misrepresent you just on things based on their taste versus yours. When it comes time to make a fast decision, if you aren't around to say: "Well. I feel this way about it." They make the decision and then you wind up getting stuck with it. So, I try and involve myself as much as possible in those things. The things I stay away from are the booking of the tours, and the sort of grubby, practical things on that level. After the tour has been packaged and so forth. I'II look at it and see if there is anything disastrous implied in it and complain about that. But, usually I just let that all take place sort of on a mechanical basis.
db: Your horn section uses the Barcus-Berry Pickups. Right? What's the difference between that and playing through a microphone.
Zappa: More presence. You get higher gain with no interference from the other instruments on stage. You have an open microphone on stage and it's going to hear cymbals. Period. It'II hear, like, here's the microphone and if there's something right in front of it, you'll hear about 80% of it. But, when that instrument is not playing, it's going to be picking up 30% of the distant cymbals and drums and that's not a nice sound to reamplify. But with the thing going through the wires, it's like 90% pure instrument. We've experimented around. I had a group not too long ago which had mostly brass in it and it was all miked, that didn't work. So for us Barcus-Berry is the answer.
db: When did you decide to do your own label?
Zappa: The minute I found out the record company was cheating and stealing from us on our record royalties. It was approximately 1968 when we had enough evidence to substantiate that. We caught them in a weird legal position and got our contract back and negotiated a deal with Warner Bros. to distribute our product.