The Ryko Variations

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Gary Steel talks to Jill Christiansen
T'Mershi Duween, #47, December 1995


You're allowed to ask 'Who she?' And you'd be right; who is Jill Christiansen? The following should make it all clear ... The interview took place on April 17, 1995.

What's your role in the current Ryko campaign?
I was hired last December as Catalog Development Manager. The job is to manage the Frank Zappa catalog, that's all I work on.

Were you a fan before this?
It was new to me. I had worked with Ryko once before, I have been in the music business for twenty years. (She was involved in the Church solo albums released through Ryko in the late 80s.) We always got along, so when the company purchased this catalogue last Fall, a couple of people called and said there is this job available. Initially I think what the company was looking for was a Zappaphile, or someone who knew Zappa inside out. But then Don Rose, who's the president of the company, decided that he wanted somebody with a management background, to manage the catalog as an entity, as a living entity. I didn't know Zappa's stuff. All I knew was that there was a lot of it. I had respect for him, more for non-musical activities.

I assume you've become familiar with it now.
Yeah well it's funny because it was daunting as you can imagine. I also had some awareness that Zappa fans were very loyal, and knew all the details, so that seemed pretty challenging. But honestly, I immersed myself in it and listened to nothing but Zappa for probably five solid months, and I would say after about one week of listening to nothing but Zappa I was pretty much a fan. I had no idea how much I was gonna love the music. I feel very fortunate to have been given this job.

Why such a big campaign for a dead man?
Six months ago I would have thought the same thing. I think Don Rose always recognised Frank's genius. I remember when Musician magazine did a tribute after he died and got quotes from various people who knew Frank or had worked for him or whatever, and Don had a quote about how in America we don't appreciate our geniuses until they're dead. And I remember reading that and thinking he really believes that. And then I read quotes from people like Steve Vai or Adrian Belew where they always use the word genius. They used the term immortal and that this music is going to live on, and I used to read it and think 'Really?' I can honestly say that now I've listened to the music it isn't like anything else I've ever heard, and because it is so unique and such an original voice, I think it's immortal too, I think it's gonna outlive most of the music I know, contemporary rock. So that's why such a big campaign: he deserves it.

What exactly was Frank's involvement in the reconfigurations of albums?
As I've been told by Don, who really was the person who dealt with Frank over the years that Rykodisc had a relationship with him, and also did the deal for the purchase, Frank wanted to sell the catalogue as part of his estate planning. As I understand it he wanted his wife Gail, who had run the business all these years, to have a nice life, and not have to deal with all this business, and so knowing he was going to sell the catalogue he went for a review process where he listened to every title and made decisions about what needed or didn't need to be done. And as happened when he was alive, some of the stuff he did himself and some was done by his studio staff there at the house, which is the way he worked when he was alive as well.

I'm still learning from Zappa fans all the intricacies of what was done because we were doing new masters on every title, and notes came with the masters that would say 'a new timing sheet generated', 'audible clicks cleaned up here and there'. It would say whether something had been remixed. Then there was one more listening process where a guy who works near our office here who does a lot of our mastering listened to every title and made additional notes, so that's pretty much what I knew, but I've since heard from fans which ones they think sound particularly great or ... like on the second set of notes it would say 'db's louder', so I think he made even more tinkering changes.

The big question for the fan is is it worth biffing out all the old CDs and reinvesting in the new ones?
Those questions of course came up here too and what we did was gather together all those notes – and in fact there were other things we found like on 'The Grand Wazoo', he switched tracks one and two around – so I gathered all the notes that I possibly could and posted on Internet, 'here is everything we know title by title, this is the musical change, this is the artwork change', so that people were better educated as far as what purchases to make. Obviously it's a huge financial investment, we stand by the first ones, the ones that Rykodisc put out from the mid-80s on were the best they could be at the time. The artwork had suffered because originally in going from LP format down to CD format you lost a lot on the way, as far as images or colour or whatever. So we have done more as regarding the artwork, restoring all the colour and the photos, blowing things up again so that they fold out and you get a bigger look at the artwork.

The whole intention was to restore them to the original as much as we could. The biggest gripes here were the twofers split. Rykodisc had made the decision to put them out the title that came out, so in those two instances those were separated. I did find that people griped about it before they got it, but then when they got it they were so happy at how much better 'Over-Nite Sensation' and 'Apostrophe (')' sounded and looked, and they were fine with the split. And of course 'Money' and 'Lumpy Gravy' are restored back to the 1968 version. 'Lumpy Gravy' really sounds much better: there's much more dynamic to it. I generally found that most of the bitching happened prior to actually seeing and hearing. And we did the best that we could, you know. We tried to do justice to Zappa, to the masters that he delivered, so for the most part people were okay. The second gripe was about 'Cruising With Ruben & The Jets'. They wanted that original one back, but that's not die master dial Frank delivered. That wasn't a Rykodisc decision, it was Frank's.

And on 'Money' the censored bits are now back! (Don't forget Gary hadn't seen/heard these -Ed)
It isn't easy to try to piece together what happened. When he got his masters back after the legal battle and discovered that they had gone into disrepair because of bad storage and cheesy tape, that was when he made an aesthetic decision to redo the bass and drums. Frank made it very clear in interviews he wanted to put on new bass and drums, it was not that he had to. He went back to the original multi-tracks and got rid of those original rhythm tracks, and put on these new ones, and I know certain elements of the fans were not pleased, even though they hail the uncensored lyrics. Why he was able to restore 'Money' and 'Lumpy Gravy' was because he found an original edited two-track analogue master. The multie's he'd already messed with so those were gone. This is an edited one so that's why the censored lyrics are back.

Why split up 'Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar' back into three CDs?
That was just an aesthetic decision to, to try to reflect the artwork from the original vinyl release. When that was put out it was three separate vinyl records, and eventually sold in a box, so when you see it it's actually three CDs in little cardboard sleeves inside a box, that looks like the original LP box. That was the only reason.

You must get sick of these gripes.
Yeah well I try to laugh about it, because at the beginning it was like 'Oh no!' I took everything to heart. But I wouldn't survive if I did so I just try to understand and answer as clearly as possible, and I've also learned that Frank had a lot of people who would write to him when he was alive ... that's just the way it is.

How would a record company market someone like Frank? I would imagine that his audience would fall between all the cracks in conventional marketing strategies.
It is really difficult because he was such a nonconformist. And in his marketing he was the best marketing guy of all, that he not only survived but succeeded in this music business in unconventional ways without radio play. He only had three top forty radio hits in the States, and the videos, the few that there were, were not played on MTV. He really had quite a lot of celebrity and fame and success via his own message. We do have to think of other means, I guess. I will say that when I was first told that we were going to put all fifty-three titles out at once, my eyebrows went up and, 'Really?' I can't take credit for that decision, but as nutty as it seemed, in the end it was really great because at the retail levels here and in Canada, Europe, boy, they really came to the party. Suddenly we had Frank Zappa displays, and attention to Frank where I was getting calls from fans saying 'Thank you'. In the end it was great putting it all out at once.

And now we have a nineteen track compilation coming out here at the end of August called 'Strictly Commercial – The Best Of Frank Zappa'. This is the first, and it is designed for the neophyte, somebody who only knows 'Valley Girl', but knows Frank Zappa went and spoke in front of the Senate about censorship in lyrics but doesn't know the music. I can only speak for myself but I know that I didn't listen to him, and once I actually listened and discovered how great it was I think our job is to get people to listen to his music, because the music does the rest. Where do you start with fifty-three titles? Okay, this CD focuses on the rock/pop stuff, there's no classical, no jazz, so it's certainly not an overview of Frank Zappa, because everything is too limiting. He worked in so many musical traditions, but its a start, and we did an instore play CD where we had maybe a dozen tracks that retail could play. I'd like to pitch some stuff to movies and see if we can get some Zappa music in movies. We have to get the music heard in whatever ways we can. And I do think that he was ahead of his time and that people will start catching up to it.

Frank had 'The Yellow Shark' in Germany in six channel sound. Do you think in the future there might be potential to reconfigure the music in those kind of ways?
Once I got through this re-release, I said now how long before all of this is reconfigured in some other format? Frank was always on the edge of technical advancements and Rykodisc also, so I would imagine that the sky's the limit.

Apart from the back catalog, do you have any plans for new stuff or otherwise unreleased stuff?
I'm just now starting to think ahead to next year. Nothing's carved in stone yet but there are two records that Frank compiled that were part of the purchase that will come out, at least one of them will come out next year. One of them's called 'Have I Offended Someone?' It's been termed by Don as 'Frank's idea of a best-of'. It's the sexual and politically incorrect songs. When I first got here I thought 'Why would he put these songs on this, but now I think it's hilarious; because I realise how tempting it is for people to smooth him down or clean him up or something like that, and he fought thirty years against censorship, and god bless him for putting this compilation together. That's 'Bobby Brown' and 'Titties 'n Beer' and all those songs that might offend mom or something. I think that might come out next year, then there's another compilation called 'The Lost Episodes', which I cannot speak about with any intelligence because I have not listened to it, but I believe it is rarities, I think some of it is unreleased. I do know that 'I Don't Wanna Get Drafted' is on it, but I think it's a remix (obviously the aborted CBS deal 12" single mix). As far as what exists in his vaults, it's speculation on my part, I don't know how much is there, but anything that we would put out would be at the instigation of Gail Zappa, a joint venture with her. But I can only hope, because I certainly want more.

So 'Civilization Phaze III' was the last actual album?
'Civilization' was the last album that he released, and that was not part of the purchase because we did not get unreleased classical music, but the distribution company that is owned by Rykodisc actually distributes 'Civilization' but it is actually a Barking Pumpkin. As far as I know that's the last record. I think Gail is preparing for release an Edgar Varèse record that I think is Frank conducting the Ensemble Modern. And I don't know when that's expected. And that's got nothing to do with Rykodisc. People say 'You've put out all of it, so what's your job now?' But you look at it and there are all the compilations to make and I have a lot of lofty ambitions. I just want more and more people to listen to him.

It's a matter of finding doors that people can walk through.
It is. When I first got here people talked about entry points all the time, and I realised that the first record that I listened to when I came up for my interview and I went home and they gave me a choice of records to take, and for some reason I took 'Hot Rats'; it was a great choice. Now I laugh and think 'What if I had taken 'Zappa In New York' or something, which is one of my favourite records now, but I think if I had listened to it immediately, with 'The Illinois Enema Bandit', I think I might have hmmm. But now all that stuff I think it's hilarious! The lyrics bother me not at all. I see his point. And it's more what I've discovered in his music which has surprised me, which is that it was so emotionally moving so often.

A lot of people don't want the whole catalogue; they want to be able to buy the five best or most representative albums, which is a tall order.
It's a tall order because he didn't dwell on just one style on any one record, but I do know if I have a friend who really likes jazz, I know to send them 'Hot Rats', or 'Waka/Jawaka' or 'The Grand Wazoo', and if they like rock I know what to send them. But on many days 'One Size Fits All' is my favourite. It changes daily. But what a great record! It's a rock record but it's also something else. I have to say that Don was very smart in hiring someone who could come at it totally new, with no experience, because I've talked to people who claim to be huge Zappa fans, and then they'll admit 'Well I like this period', but I pretty much love it all, because there's no record I grew out of or that I loved in high school. They laughed and thought it was funny that a female was gonna do this, because definitely by the research on response cards it's a heavily male-dominated fanbase. Maybe we can change that, I dunno.