Humo Spoke With Zappa!
First published in Humo, 1973
Zappa: Un stella?
Never on the job! Instead, tell us what has happened since you came over here two years ago to give a brilliant concert in the Paleis Voor Schone Kunsten?
Let's see. I've been pushed off stage by some asshole in London, which means I've spent a good number of months in a wheelchair. My expensive equipment has gone up in flames at a concert in the Montreux Casino. I've made a number of lp's that didn't sell all too good. And I've tried in vain to keep alive two gigantic groups.
Yes. A band like Grand Wazoo cannot be kept alive unless you're willing to price your tickets untolerably high, so, with every concert we did, I've lost quite a big amount of money from my personal bank-account, which is not all too considerable as it is. Go figure how long a person can do this before he goes under.
Then why have you done it for a while?
Because at that moment, I wanted to make that music, of course. If you want to express yourself through music, you can't let material problems get in the way; if you want to create something, and this something costs a lot of money, you have to try and find a way to get that money.
But you could as well have performed the music you wanted to make without having to go on tour with all these people. If you wouldn't have gone on a European tour with the Grand Wazoo, you wouldn't have made any losses.
That's true, very much so even, but only in theory. Reality is something else: all the guys from Wazoo had spent their entire life inside a studio. Now that they finally got to play in a real group, pretty soon the conditio sine qua non was a European tour, so that they'd get to see a part of the world of course. Understandable, but very expensive, let me tell you.
Were you glad you were able to give rein to your capacities as orchestral leader?
Glad? Well no, let's just say I was happy I could do anything at all. You can't perform a lot of jumping and dancing around from a wheelchair, unfortunately.
What does your new group, the one we saw at Vorst-Nationaal, offer that the old group doesn't?
This group has a 1000% more musicality.
And a 1000% less theatricality?
Pungent remark there, jackass. The lack of theatricality, of course, does have its reasons. I might be something of a authoritarian kind of a person, but i don't have the slightest need to force some sort of behaviour upon someone that does not become the person. You could expect Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman to do crazy stuff on stage, those guys were born for it, but Jean-Luc (Ponty), Bruce and Tom (Fowler), Ruth Underwood, George Duke and Ralph Humphrey aren't exactly comedians. So all I ask of them is that they make good music, which they are capable of.
What are the other Mothers, the old ones, up to lately?
Lemme think: Jimmy Carl Black, "the indian of the Group", has a candy store in New Mexico. Bunk Gardner is hanging out some place I don't know, Don Preston is having all kinds of Magical Trips in Los Angeles, Mark and Howard are probably on tour with their group, Aynsley Dunbar is working with Reed and Bowie. Who else have we forgot ...
So Beefheart's band is starting to look a little like the Son of Zappa?
I guess you could call it that way. Let it be clear by the way that the music of Beefheart doesn't interest me one iota anymore.
Did he steal those wonderful deep vocal phrasings from you, or did you steal them from him?
How shall I put it? Maybe like this: if Frank Zappa ever makes it in the history books, it'll be because of the fact that he has been the Vocal Coach of Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart. Your turn.
How come groups may come and groups may go, you've been sticking around for the last ten years?
Well, 'cause it's my profession i guess? I mean there's more people that exercise the same profession for over ten years isn't there? I'm a musician and I think I always will be. It's all I've ever done.
With the exception of the odd movie every so often.
Of course, you're not bothered in the least by the fact that they hardly attract any audiences, and that critics ditch them.
Of course I'm bothered by it, but it's not going to make me change my mind. I still consider "200 Motels" a good movie. It could have been better, but it's good. Next question.
When will you be presenting a festival over here, the way you did so gracefully in Amougies in '69?
Don't mention that, it's the blackest period in my whole life. First they get me over here to present a festival, something which I'm really not any good at. I still haven't figured out how I got dragged into this. Next it becomes obvious that absolutely no person in the audience understands one word of English, so my incredibly witty puns have no effect whatsoever, so that I find myself to be totally useless, and, as such, renounce to the job of presenter. Since I was stuck here anyway, I let myself get overwhelmed once again, and went out to jam with some of the groups at the request of the promotors, very much to their dislike might i add. Finally, let me just say it was icy cold in Amougies and there was nothing but Green Hotdogs to eat, so you'll understand that from now on, any person that conjurs up the idea of organizing a festival in mid winter gets my best wishes and can shove it.
Why is it you've never had a hit?
Don't ask me. I've been trying to achieve this for years. We've released about 10 singles, each one of them with no success. Of course I have my own theory for this: you see, I think the record company doesn't know that the singles are singles, and i think the d.j.'s don't know that it's singles, and i think the public doesn't know it's singles, and I fuckin' think I'm the only one that knows its singles. I can cry sometimes when I look at the hitlists, and we're not in them once again. Imagine what were to happen if we'd make it with one of those rotten commercial singles. People would get curious and buy our lp's, and then they would really start to flip seriously: they wouldn't understand any of it anymore, and I would find that very funny.
So could it be right in the end what the Dutch rockwriter Elly De Waard says about you: that you make intellectualistic music?
Why is the Political Engagement practically totally absent in your recent work? Have things gotten better in America, or are you in the opposite camp these days?
America hasn't improved one bit, on the contrary, but that's no reason why I should start to repeat myself. I've said what I had to say. There's no point in coming back to that time and time again. That would be no fun for me, and no fun for the people that have been buying my records from the beginning. They have a right to some thematic diversity, don't you think?
Why did you play so little tracks from the latest lp in Brussels? The only track I think I recognized was "Montana"?
Cause the material on "Over-Nite Sensation" is way behind me. Those songs interested me when I wrote them, when I rehearsed them, and when I recorded them, but I've little to do with them now. I have other things on my mind: my next solo-lp for instance. A lot of stuff we played in Vorst is on that. "Cosmik Debris" and "Penguin In Bondage" for instance. That's the kind of music I'm making now. And I'll keep on singing, so you'd better get used to the sound of my voice.
What kind of music do you listen to at home?
Penderecki, jazz, no pop. I don't want to get influenced too much, you see.
What are you heading for with those lyrics you write?
I want to write about the things that interest me, and if those things are not what everyone else finds interesting, that's not my problem is it. I sing about Dental Floss because I want to and because Dental Floss (a product to remove food leftovers from one's teeth) is, I think, a fascinating topic.
Even if you consider that, over here in Europe, nobody knows what Dental Floss is.
Even then, yes. But I'm of good will. I adjust my show everytime I visit a non-English speaking country. It's not like I make any fundamental changes, but I don't make things too difficult. During the first concert of this tour I've performed a very long act with a terribly complicated text, but, since I noticed that there was close to no reaction from the audience, I just dropped it afterwards. But what am I talking about, why don't you ask me what I would like to do.
What would you like to do?
Laugh, damnit, laugh. Come on, let's laugh. One, two, three... (laughs)
Humo (idem) (still chuckling): Todd Rundgren happens to think you're not very funny anymore. That you prefer being the best musician on the scene rather than the funniest.
We're incredibly funny. But the funny thing about what we do is the fact that we are doing it. Nobody seems to grasp this.
What I don't grasp is why you and Lennon had to deliver such a bad record with "Some Time In New York City".
Well, I also still don't understand how John had the guts to do that. It was pure private fun, there was no intention of these tapes ever seeing the light of day. If they really needed to be brought out, I would've like John a) to tell me about it and b) not to have messed around with the tapes so much ...
What do you mean?
Well yeah, John sort of censored those tapes. First, he let out all the Dirty Talk Mark and Howard uttered during that jam, and there was a lot of that. Next, he erased all the cursing words that some people from the audience directed to Yoko Ono, so you can hardly speak of a truthfull account on what happened that day. I'm a bit disappointed in John for this, I never would have expected it from him, but then again, what can you expect from friends.
Right. One more question: Don't you find it to be annoying to be mistaken for Guy Mortier all the time?
Aahh, the toll of fame my friend, nothing you can do against that.
This interview translated back to English by yours truly, not Marc Didden.