An Interview With Frank Zappa
By Dan Forte
Mix, June 1983
Frank Zappa is at it again. Or, to be more accurate, Zappa has been "at it" continuously since Freak Out, his landmark debut with the Mothers of Invention, in 1966. The liner notes to that and several other early Mothers LPs include the epigram, "The present-day composer refuses to die," a quote from Frank's idol, Edgard Varèse. If Zappa himself is any indication, the present-day composer also refuses to take a vacation.
Zappa is quite probably the most prolific rock artist active, and at 42 he shows no signs of slacking off. Early this year he released his latest album, The Man from Utopia, on his own Barking Pumpkin Records. The record's inner sleeve features an ad for another LP – a picture-disk soundtrack to his film, Baby Snakes, available by mail order only. Originally released a couple of years ago as a 2½ hour opus, the film was seen only at selected screenings; Zappa recently edited it down to ninety minutes. He has also finished another feature-length video, The Dub Room Special, and is currently remixing all of his early catalog items – most of which are out of print – for reissue, along with some previously unreleased material from those periods.
Along with his massive output of rock & roll, Zappa has continually written contemporary symphonic pieces, which are only now beginning to be performed by orchestras. Twelve-tone composer Pierre Boulez commissioned Frank to compose music for his ensemble, slated to be performed in Paris early in 1984. In January, the London Symphony Orchestra did a program of Zappa's music, conducted by 31-year-old Kent Nagano, conductor of the Berkeley and Oakland, California, symphonies. Zappa also produced and engineered a studio album of the LSO performing his compositions, soon to be released on Barking Pumpkin. Nagano, one of the foremost champions of new music, declares, "As a composer, I rank him right up there with the other great masters of the century. It was one of the most exciting projects I've ever worked on."
In February, Zappa shared the baton with maestro Jean-Louis LeRoux for a 100th anniversary celebration of the music of Varèse and Anton Webern, performed by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players at the city's War Memorial Opera House. Though the concert was a bona fide success, Zappa admitted afterward, "It was the first time I've conducted anything by anybody else, and we only had two rehearsals. I didn't even know if I was going to be good enough to do the Integrales, because it's a lot harder than Ionisation, the other Varèse piece I conducted."
The day after the San Francisco performance, Frank sat still long enough to answer a few questions about what he's been up to lately and what he'll be into next.
How did you interact with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players in the rehearsals?
Did I tweeze it out? Yeah, I tweezed it. They knew the stuff very well before I got here; they had played it before. They knew what the notes were – it was just a matter of spiffing it up. Ultimately, it's up to the musician. What the conductor is doing is showing where the beat is, and then telling them things about style to taper it to his own taste. The instructions I gave them about style were not extensive, because the minute I started conducting them they sounded like they had a pretty good grasp of what the piece was supposed to be. The only things I told them, for instance, was how to say certain parts – don't just play the notes, but make it talk.
What's your feeling regarding the success of having your name connected with a program of classical music by other people?
Well, I think it helps to sell tickets.
To whom? To your audience?
Well, yeah. There's probably more of them than there is of the audience for contemporary music in general. The fact of the matter is unless you sell tickets to somebody, that music is going to die. Some of the people in my audience have never heard that kind of music, and if they heard it they might like it, so it's a good thing because it spreads out the base of the ticket-buying potential for modern music in the future. Otherwise, it's the same 25 people who go to the concerts in an art gallery. Unless you can broaden the, base out, that music is just going to be museum stuff.
Producing and engineering a symphony orchestra must be drastically different from the albums you've produced with rock musicians, electric instruments, and overdubs.
Well, here's the way I did it: First of all, we performed in the London Symphony Orchestra's new permanent hall, the Barbicon – a huge, gigantic, multi-million dollar cultural complex, English style. A real shitty hall. The acoustics are not great, and they vary drastically from seat to seat. The stage is too small for a major production. It was so tight for our setup, in fact, that we had to leave two violas out of the orchestra because there was no place to sit them. So I wouldn't have wanted to record it in there anyway.
The two halls in London where orchestras ordinarily record, with good acoustics, were both booked, so we wound up recording at a place called Twickenham Studios Stage One, which is a movie sound stage. Very dead acoustics – which at first I thought was going to be a disaster. But after getting the tape back and finding out what I can do with different types of reverberation added to different sections, it's better than having done it in a live hall where you have no control over it. So we miked it with PZMs, 90% of the orchestra, plus we had a[n Edcor] Calrec [microphone] over the conductor's head.
How many mikes?
Mmm ... 62. 24 track digital. I've rented a digital 24 track so I can do the editing in my studio. It's a dream, the Sony PCM 3324.
Would you ever record your own band digitally?
If I could ever afford one of those machines – they're $150,000.
The complaint has been that the digital tape sounds great, but when you transfer it to an analog medium you get a whole different sound.
You do get different stuff, and the reason you do is that the dynamic range of the digital tape is 90 dB and the dynamic range of a record is about 45 to 50 dB. So you can't let all the peaks go where they would normally go – you have to compress it. But if you're going to plan for the future, I think ultimately records are going to be released on compact discs, little laser discs, and they've got 90 dB. There's a way to do it. I'll compensate to get it on a piece of vinyl and still have the right thing digitally.
This was the first time you heard most of your pieces performed. Any surprises?
A few. The surprises came in terms of things I thought would be easy for people to play but actually tortured them to death to do. I don't want to be critical of the LSO, because they really gave it their all and struggled valiantly with the problems at hand. They weren't fuckin' off; they were really putting out the energy. But there was a certain uneveness from one section to another, in terms of the quality and style of the players in the section. The strings were generally quite good, especially ensemblewise. Good concertmaster. The winds, great – except the first flute had immense problems with Moe 'n' Herb's Vacation. But other than that, wonderful. In the brass, the trumpets – a little bit of a problem [laughs]. If what I had written had sounded just a liiittle bit more like Star Wars, they would have been okay. Trombones and French horns, good. Percussion, good, except for one guy. Piano, great. Harp, great.
When Kent went to tweeze everything out, certain things had to be taken slower than I would've liked to have heard them, just in order to get people to play the parts. There was this one run in Moe 'n' Herb's Vacation that was just driving this flute player crazy [laughs].
Do problems like that arise because you're writing for instruments that you don't play yourself?
Oh, no, I've calculated all of that in advance. The problem is that certain musicians have certain types of skills and certain musicians don't. And if you write everything for the lowest common denominator of musical skill, you're going to have –
Together: Star Wars [laughter].
And Star Wars is nice music, you know – for Star Wars-type consumption, okay? But if you're going for something else, you have to presume that out there someplace lurking is a maniac who can do the hard stuff. I'm offering the challenge for the guy who wants to play something rougher than Star Wars.
You had the same sort of problems with LA studio players on projects like Lumpy Gravy, right?
Yeah, but if you ever saw the Lumpy Gravy music and compared it to what these guys in London had to do, Lumpy Gravy was the easiest stuff you ever saw in your life. It's just that most studio players are lazy. Most studio players get paid by the whole note, by the pound for chordal backgrounds for singers. They don't want to sweat. I mean, the hardest thing in Lumpy Gravy was this one section where everybody had to play in 5/8. In 1966 when that session took place, you never saw anybody hand you a piece of music in 5/8. It just wasn't done. But with the proper amount of rehearsal, there are guys who can play the stuff. A lot of the trumpet stuff written for the concert in London was based on the fact that I know two guys in LA who can play it without sweating any tears. It's not written just to be arbitrarily punitive.
At the end of your European tour last year you stated that you will never again tour Europe with a rock band. Do you see this period as a transition in your career, moving towards your orchestral works, or are you just setting the rock & roll aside temporarily?
Well, as of right now, I've got at least the next five records already on tape, 37 tunes ready to mix, with the last road band. I have no plans to go on the road with the band in the next year, because I have another big project I'm trying to get off the ground: a Broadway show. It's a little idea I came up with over Christmas vacation. Not my vacation, but since everybody who works for me went on vacation, I couldn't do anything in the studio. So I wrote this Broadway show – and also three film treatments.
You have said in print that you think you'd miss playing hockey rinks if you stopped touring.
Well, they are reasonably addictive. There's something about a hockey rink. But not in Europe, I can tell you. I have no qualms whatsoever about never playing rock & roll in Europe again. Over the years I have learned to dislike going there; I really don't enjoy it. And unless I'm having a good time, I can't convey that to an audience.
How different are the creative processes for writing an orchestral piece as opposed to a tune for the band?
Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Some are so simple, you just hum them to everybody. Of course, for an orchestrated piece you don't have time to hum it to a hundred guys – and besides, they won't remember it anyway.
They're all composed different ways. I'll sketch some things out while I'm waiting in an airport, and come back from a tour with a briefcase full of sketches. The lyrics to "Dumb All Over" were written on a Lufthansa flight coming back from Europe. The march at the end of "Sad Jane" is an orchestral setting of a transcription of a guitar solo from the Shrine Auditorium in 1968, transcribed by Ian Underwood.
So a whole orchestra is playing your improvised guitar solo.
Yeah, but harmonized out and orchestrated. You'd never know it came out of a guitar. The reason I chose it is that it sounded so composed. The third movement of "Sinister Footwear" is an exact transcription of a solo that Steve Vai transcribed. That's fiendishly hard – probably the hardest thing on paper I've got.
Could we trace the various creative processes through a couple of your songs? How about "Duke of Prunes," which was originally on Absolutely Free and showed up in orchestrated form on Orchestral Favorites?
The melody to "Duke of Prunes" was part of a film score I did when I was twenty years old for this western movie called Run Home Slow. It was the background music for a scene where a cowboy nymphomaniac is pooching a hunchback in a stall next to a dead donkey [laughs]. That's where the melody came from, okay? So then I wrote words to it and it went into the Absolutely Free album. Then I did that orchestral arrangement of it.
How did "Dwarf Nebula" [from Weasels Ripped My Flesh] come about?
"Dwarf Nebula" started off as a piano exercise. During the time we were doing Uncle Meat, I was working with an engineer [Richard Kunc], who was real cooperative, just trying to do any kind of weird thing we asked him to do. During the 60s, who knew what was right? "Let's try this. Plug it in backwards and see what happens." So we were dealing with different types of short-term distortion, and he built a little box with three pushbuttons; we called it the Apostolic Blurch Injector. And we took various tracks of different types of material and cranked them up into the distortion range and then by poking the buttons you'd get these little rhythmic bursts of white noise, brown noise, pink noise, and gray noise – in a rhythm that you'd select. But instead of being derived from a noise generator on a synthesizer, it was completely distorted voices, instruments, percussion, whatever. We cranked off reams and reams of tape of this kind of material, and that was intercut with the piano exercise.
One thing you seem to be able to do that is lacking in most rock performers is think abstractly.
My secret is I know what I'm doing.
Did you have the ability to project things abstractly in, say, adolescence?
Yeah, I could always do that.
Did that cause any strangeness in any of the early rock bands you played in?
Well, it's a little bit hard to convince people that a marimba has a place in a rhythm and blues band. In my band in high school, I was the marimba player. I always thought that type of sound would be good for boogie guitars and so forth. Not a traditional approach.
You're planning on reissuing everything and more from the old albums?
I've got it all. The only things I don't have are the masters for 200 Motels; United Artists has them. I'm thinking of releasing them in either 7-or 8-record boxes. All the Verve stuff would be the first box, ending with Ruben & the Jets. Then there'll be an extra disk in there that has all the stuff that was left out of those sessions, that era. I've got some real nuggets lurking around. The next box would start off with Uncle Meat and go all the way up to the band with Mark [Volman] and Howard [Kaylan] [Flo & Eddie], and I have more than a disk's worth of unreleased material with them.
You're one of the few artists who absorbs virtually all of the production costs for all of your projects, rather than being subsidized by a label or someone.
Well, it's for a worthy cause. It's for entertainment of a special type. Nobody else is going to invest in it, because they're too fucking stupid and scared. Now, if I've got money to invest in something, would it be fun for me to invest in a goddamn condo someplace, like these other assholes do? I don't want to own a condo; I don't want to be a partner in a shopping center. If I make some money, I turn around and put it back into the work that I do. I've got no condos, no stocks – I've got unfinished projects all over the place is what I've got.
I've also got a wife with a great sense of humor [laughs]. I think it's a traditional American thing to do. If you have a small business, you reinvest in the business.