By Dan Forte
Musician, No. 42, April 1982
Ladies and gentlemen ... Pat Benatar!"
Frank Zappa lowers his baton and the band strums one last power chord as their mustachioed bandleader/MC weaves a gut-wrenching blues guitar cadenza. But it's a far cry from "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" or anything else in the Pat Benatar/top ten catalog. Rock music's premier satirist – who in the past has lampooned everyone from The Beatles to Peter Frampton – has just pulled off perhaps his best spoof ever by playing rock 'n' roll's most requested song, "Whipping Post." But the joke this time is more on the audience than on the Allman Brothers, because Zappa and his virtuoso seven-piece band played the Southern boogie anthem straightfaced, sincere, even inspired.
Why? Well, in Frank's words, "Why not?"
At 41, Zappa has just ended a three-month U.S. tour, which he describes as one of his roughest but most enjoyable ever. One of the reasons Zappa was so satisfied with the road show was the band that accompanied him this time out – guitarists Ray White and Steve Vai, bassist Scott Thunes, drummer Chad Wackerman, percussionist Ed Mann and keyboardists Tommy Mars and Bobby Martin (who doubles on sax). Another reason the experience was more pleasurable, Zappa tells the interviewer, was that Frank did only a few selected interviews as opposed to the five-a-day schedule he once kept.
When Musician last profiled Zappa (in the August '79 issue) his double album Sheik Yerbouti (on his own Zappa Records) was selling better than anything he'd ever released, thanks in part to his first bona fide hit single since "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow," his disco send-up, "Dancing Fool." That album also included the infamous "Jewish Princess," which probably garnered Frank more media coverage than his Grammy-nominated single, thanks to an edict issued by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. Zappa was also about to take his former label, Warner Brothers, to court, because, according to FZ, he delivered the remaining albums to fulfill his contract with them but was never paid – even though those albums (Zappa In New York, Sleep Dirt, Studio Tan and Orchestral Favorites) were all released by Warners in rapid succession. As of this writing, the case is still "about to go to trial."
"So tell me, Frank, what have you been up to since the last time I interviewed you?"
I had to ask, didn't I?
In the past two and a half years (just think for a minute what the average rocker's output is in that space of time) Zappa has done the following:
Released Joe's Garage Act I (a single LP) and Joe's Garage Acts II & III (a double set) on Zappa Records, which was then distributed by Phonogram. This rock opera, which came out at the height of the crisis in Iran, addressed the possibility of music being banned by the government in the foreseeable future. It also included the answer to "Jewish Princess" – "Catholic Girls."
When President Carter reinstated the draft, Zappa countered with a single entitled "I Don't Wanna Get Drafted." When an executive at Phonogram refused to release the record, Zappa Records released (and distributed) it themselves and subsequently signed a press-and-distribute contract with CBS.
Zappa's first release on his newly named Barking Pumpkin Records was Tinsel Town Rebellion, a double set of live material ranging in content from an onstage dance contest to a blues shuffle called "Bamboozled By Love," a remake of "Brown Shoes Don't Make It," and the title song, about the insincerity of L.A. punk groups. (In case anyone's wondering about the Barking Pumpkin logo, it features a jack-o-lantern saying "Arf!" next to a terrified cat saying something in Japanese. The cat is saying "Holy shit!")
Simultaneously released with Tinsel Town were three (count 'em – three) all-instrumental LPs, available by mail order only. These first three volumes of what Zappa says will be a continuing series, are entitled Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar, Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar Some More, and Return Of The Son of Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar, and feature Zappa's much underrated, always surprising guitar work at its best. (For information on availability, write to: Barking Pumpkin, Box 5510, Terre Haute, IN 47805.)
You Are What You Is (yet another two-record set) contains 21 songs – all vocals except for the third movement from Zappa's ballet, "Sinister Footwear" – strung together without pauses, in much the same way that Zappa's band performs live.
And that, in addition to his concert tours, is only the part of Zappa that the public sees. Lately he has also: completed work on his own studio attached to his home, which is now fully operational; composed music to be performed by one of his early classical influences, twelve-tone composer Pierre Boulez; emceed a New York concert featuring the music of his "boyhood idol," Edgar Varèse; and started work on a book, which will be "a compilation of all the things I've done dealing with the written word – all the song lyrics, essays and stories."
At this point in your career, do you now, or have you ever, thought of retiring or staying off the road?
No, I get pissed off at a lot of aspects of the business, but the idea of stopping writing or playing music has never occurred to me. As far as touring goes, there have been times on a tour where I said, "Good god, who booked this thing?" Because the scheduling was just so murderous. But the curious thing about that attitude is, those feelings all occurred during the times I was doing interviews. See, before I stopped doing print interviews a year ago, I would go on a tour and do an average of five interviews a day, either by phone or in person. And on days off, you just want to lay down and relax, because you want to save your energy to do a good job for the show. But when you have to sit there and answer questions, it gets you pissed off after a while. So after that one particular tour, where they just had me talking my ass off, the clipping service sent me this bundle of clippings that resulted from all the work I had done on the tour ... and it was pathetic. I mean, I couldn't believe how I was misquoted, and all the crap that was in the papers, and I said, "Do I need this? No way." So I decided I'm not going to do it anymore. And I stopped, did another tour with no interviews ... I had the time of my life. I said, "Why have I been busting my ass for sixteen years doing all this stuff to net two pounds of paper at the end of the tour?" I had a great time on this tour too, because I only did a few interviews. And this is the longest and probably roughest tour we ever did in the United States – it still was pretty fun.
Does it get harder and harder to go out and do one two-hour show after another now that you're forty?
If you like music and you like to play, that's the easy part; that's no problem. The traveling is boring – waiting in airports, waiting in line and stuff – that's a little bit of a pain in the ass. But I've gotten used to it, I've been doing it for so long. I'm not ill at ease in a hotel at all. I really know how to live out of a suitcase, and when to eat, and what to eat, and what not to eat, and what to do if you get sick. I know how to do this job, and it's actually easier now, in a lot of ways, than it was when I first started out, when theoretically, I should have been so young and fresh. I was kind of young and stupid and didn't know how to conserve my energy. I definitely know de ropes (laughs).
Why did you start doing interviews again?
I started doing them again on this tour, because I think that the album (You Are What You Is) really suffered from neglect from the radio stations. And when the album suffered from neglect so did the concert attendance, so something had to be done to draw people's attention to the fact that there was a really good album out there. But it didn't do any good; the album's a total stiff. Didn't sell, and it didn't get played on the radio. I think only two stations in the United States played it – one in Connecticut, the other in New York City. It's one of the best albums I ever made and it's one of the worst received.
I would've thought it would lend itself to radio airplay pretty well – short songs, mostly vocals, certainly no language as offensive as on, say, Joe's Garage.
Well, we're in the age of non-content here, and there's just too many ideas on that record that they didn't want to have on the air, I suppose.
Is it possible for an artist like yourself to survive in this business without granting interviews?
Yes. It is possible.
Even when your albums don't get any radio play, and your sales are only "respectable," and your name isn't in magazines?
Well, I never lived to have my name in a magazine. The thing that bothers me, though, is that the people who control broadcasting – and it's only just a handful that do – have so much of a stranglehold on what people get to hear. You know, I think what I'm doing is really excellent and it's worth being heard and is as useful as pop music consumption as any other type of music that's being produced today, and I'm just hoping to have my fair share of the audience. I have made pragmatic decisions about how to try and induce people to play the records so that people will hear them – that's one of the reasons why I started talking to reporters again. I was always doing radio and television interviews, but I started doing some print again because it just helps to get the word around that there's a product, there's a tour, and that I'm still alive. But other than that, I don't care. It's not a matter of wanting to be famous; it's a matter of making sure that the people who like to consume what I do are notified that it's there. A lot of people don't even know it's out there. The only way you can let them know is by buying very large quantities of advertising space, which I can't often afford to do.
Back to radio, is there any recourse for an artist whose stuff won't get played because of the powers that be? Can you fight them, or maybe trick them into playing your music?
No. Not if your name is Frank Zappa.
You could put out "Mary Had A Little Lamb" and they probably wouldn't play it.
They'd be looking for the mysterious secret meaning between the words, because by raising my eyebrows or changing the tone of my voice I can make the Lord's Prayer sound like the most obscene thing you ever heard. They're scared of that. But the real problem is not the broadcasters, the real problem is with lazy people who listen to the radio. If you believe that saying fuck is okay, if you believe that saying shit is okay, if you believe that nobody ever went to hell because they heard a dirty word, then you should let your opinion be heard by the broadcasters, because the only people who ever call the stations are the fundamentalists or weirdos. It's the only type of input that the broadcaster gets. He's only interested in his advertising revenue, so he responds accordingly. If the bulk of the people in the community, who talk like that and who live that way and who could care less whether or not somebody gets right to the point when they're delivering a song, would let the broadcasters know that that's the way they feel, that's what they want to hear, and they would prefer it that way, then things would change. But regular, normal people never call the station and talk about stuff like that; it's only these aggrieved, fundamentalist, bizarro types who get on the phone and write letters. It's the taste of this tiny minority that rules the taste of what the bulk of the population gets to hear.
You said before that your audience seems to be getting bigger and younger every year. I would imagine you're pleased that it's getting bigger; do you have any thoughts on the fact that it's getting younger?
The reason why older people don't come to concerts as much is because of the places we have to work. An older person with average intelligence does not want to sit in such an environment, and he doesn't have the social pressure to go to a concert; he'd rather stay at home and listen to a record or watch TV or do something else. He doesn't want to have some fifteen-year-old vomiting on his shoes.
Those same people are of the age group that's being bombarded by Styx, REO, Foreigner and such. Do you think your audience, being within that age group, is an entirely different audience than, say, Foreigner's? How much overlap do you think there is?
Well, you can't judge a person because of their age, okay? That's age discrimination. Saying that a person is fifteen years old, therefore they're not equipped to make rational assessments of what they like – that's not right. People have different types of intellectual equipment at different ages. What we're talking about is the ability to discern between Styx and REO Speedwagon. And there are people, even fifteen years old, who can tell the difference and can also say, "Well, I don't like either, and I would prefer something else." I am not averse to Styx, REO Speedwagon, Journey, Foreigner; the thing I don't like is when that's all you ever get to hear on any station. That does a disservice to everybody else who's making music who never gets heard. It's not just me; I mean, think of all the other new wave groups that never get on, think of all the things from the past that are really good music that don't get played. It's too monochromatic. It's a combination of what the radio doesn't play and the fact that in the record store they can only stock so many albums and they don't let you listen to anything before you buy it. All the decisions are based on what the cover looks like or what people hear on the radio – those are the important sales tools. It's also based on who's got the biggest display that week at the local record store. It's also based on how much money there is in the consumer's pocket to spend on something like an album for entertainment.
Knowing all of that, and being the head of your own label, where does that put you in terms of competing as far as ad space, displays, artwork?
I can't compete – there's no way. I can only do what I do and try and do as good a job as I can for the people who already like it. And if the audience gets bigger, great; if it doesn't, tough tuchus. I am in business to entertain the people who like what I do. That's my audience, and my duty is to take care of their wishes. And also to amuse myself, because I usually feel if I enjoy what I do, those people are going to like it.
Isn't one alternative, in terms of competing with major labels, to sign with a major, instead of having Barking Pumpkin?
No, that's not an alternative, because a person who does what I do would be swamped in a major label, because they always choose the path of least resistance, which is the music with the least content, which is the easiest to get on American radio. I would be totally lost on a major label, I'd receive no attention from the promotion department.
But wouldn't your track record and the loyalty of an audience that can fill relatively big venues throughout the country have some bearing?
Not enough to be dangerous, because the correspondence between concert ticket sales and what happens on the radio is not really that close. There are some acts who sell tons of records who will not draw at a concert. We draw at concerts by word of mouth and by the fact that we've been there year after year, and we deliver the goods, we put on a good show, and people come there to see what we're doing new each year. If we signed with a major label I don't think they'd give much credence to our concert capabilities.
Do you think you're becoming more cynical the longer you stay in this business?
I don't think I'm getting more cynical, I've just got more evidence to back up my cynicism. Where in the past I might have only guessed that people were horrible, today I can prove it.
Knowing as you do how conservative radio programmers are, and how afraid they are of anything with your name on it, then putting out something like Joe's Garage would seem only to reinforce their opinion.
I'm not in business to kiss their ass.
You don't think that's being a bit destructive to your own career?
I'm still here, aren't I? My goal is to get accurate performances and good recordings of everything I write. That's it. And if someone else wants to hear it, I want to have it available for them.
What's your overall attitude towards what's going on in music right now?
It's a manifestation of bottom-lineism, which is probably one of the greater dangers facing society today. Short-term solutions that ultimately erode the quality of life. Record companies today don't go in for building artists' careers, because everything is deemed to be disposable. They're looking for the short-run high yield on any group. Because the chances are good that if a group has a hit and they go out and tour, they're all going to break up anyway at the end of the tour and form other groups. Nobody sticks together, nobody plans on staying in the business for decades. Let's go out and have a hit, get as much dope as we can, get laid every fifteen minutes, and that's it. And the record companies like this, because they know that people who are that stupid are easy to cheat on their royalty statements. They're very much in favor of those kinds of groups. That's the way the business is designed now; it didn't used to be that way.
With it being so hard to compete in the marketplace, is it wise to put out albums as rapidly as you do? Why do you do that?
If I put out an album and it pays for itself and gets me enough capital to make the next one, I'm happy, I'm okay. I do what I do because I like music, I have respect for the audience that consumes it, and my theory is that the more of it that's available, the better they like it. So I put 'em out as fast as I can.
On an album like You Are What You Is, what do your production costs run to?
That one was around $175,000.
Where does all that money go?
Musicians, engineers, equipment rental.
At least you don't have to pay studio time now.
Oh? Think of what the studio time costs me. My electrical bill for that studio is about $2,000 a month! Then the engineer is getting a very healthy salary for working extremely long hours putting a project like that together. Also you have to include in that cost the artist who does the cover, the photographer, the typesetting, the mastering cost – we spend about $30,000 in mastering. I spend money on records to the degree that I can afford to spend it. If something needs to be done I try and do it the right way. It wasn't always possible, because in the early days the first three Mothers albums had budgets of $20,000 for Freak Out! (a double album), Absolutely Free was $11,000, and Lumpy Gravy was about $30,000, but it had an orchestra, and We're Only In It For The Money was about $25,000. The Bizarre albums had a fixed budget of $27,500. All the Discreet albums had a fixed budget of $60,000.
What about projects that either never came out or were transformed into something else before they did come out? You had an album called Warts And All, another called Crush All Boxes ...
Crush All Boxes became Tinsel Town. Originally, Crush All Boxes was supposed to be called Fred Zepellin. I changed the name of that because of one of the guys in Led Zepellin. [The name Fred Zepellin has not gone to waste, however. Zappa later informed us of a band called Fred Zepellin, featuring Frank's twelve-year-old son, Dweezil, on guitar. "That's what he wanted to call it," laughs Dad. "He's twelve, and that sonofabitch can play the guitar. He really is good. I showed him some chords, but all the rest is Stratocaster/whammy bar syndrome that Steve Vai showed him. They do original material – it's totally heavy metal fuzztone au go-go."]
Looking back on your enormous catalog of recordings, can you pick out any albums that stand out in your mind as your favorites or most successful from an artistic standpoint?
I don't think any of the albums are a hundred percent; there are certain pieces that I like. I like "Greggery Peccary," Lumpy Gravy, "RDNZL," the We're Only In It For The Money album, "Watermelon In Easter Hay," I think You Are What You Is comes off. I like the song "The Blue Light."
You're the composer, the producer, the bandleader – who's the judge of what goes on the albums and what doesn't? Are you the sole last word?
Do you ever feel like you should have a third ear?
No. I listen to other people's opinions, but I don't usually take them into consideration. They don't know what I'm trying to do with the album, they have no idea, so why should I value their opinion more than mine? I'm the only one who knows what's going on.
Why were the Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar LPs released for mail-order only?
Because if you put out instrumental music for normal release in America it won't get played on the radio, so it's a waste of time. You know, right now the Guitar album has sold more than Tinsel Town or You Are What You Is. That album went into a profit position two weeks after it was available.
I was a little surprised to see you put out three instrumental guitar albums at this point, because on the last couple of tours you've had several other guitarists in the band and you seemed to be playing guitar less.
No, the very least I would play during a show, based on our current lineup, is seven to eight solos per night. And some nights I'll play ten to thirteen solos. It doesn't look like I'm doing as much because I'm not holding a guitar all the time – I always pass the guitar over to the roadie who tunes it while I'm singing. But as far as the actual improvised leads during the show, I play most of them.
It also seems, though, like you're doing less instrumental compositions.
That's not true either.
On albums you are.
On albums, of course, but in the shows, it's not. As a matter of fact, we've got enough instrumental pieces in our repertoire right now where we could go on stage and not do any vocals and still do a two-and-a-half-hour show.
Why are the albums so vocal-oriented?
Well, I've got some lyrics that I think are worth hearing. It's a little bit difficult to make a pointed statement about the Moral Majority with an instrumental.
What's the motivation behind the lyrics? What does it take to get you to sit down and start writing words?
Well, my son Ahmet walked around the house one day singing a song that he made up called "Frogs With Dirty Little Lips." The words would change every day, and I'd always try to get him to sing it, you know, because I thought, what a great concept, "Frogs With Dirty Little Lips." But he kind of lost interest in it, so while I was in Detroit I had fifteen minutes before the soundcheck – got out a pen and finished that song. I wrote "Frogs With Dirty Little Lips," and I'm hoping we can get it ready in time to give him a surprise when we play L.A.
Since Sheik Yerbouti, some critics have accused you of playing it safe a little.
Those are the same people who say I haven't made a good album since We're Only In It For The Money. Those are the people who wish the Garrick Theater was still around. Those are the people who would go see the Grandmothers and think it was a hot show. There's no accounting for taste, but I don't think those people are very well informed.
Sheik Yerbouti is, however, a very slickly produced album, and from that album to the present you seem to be doing more short, catchy songs-compared to works like "Dwarf Nebula."
Yeah, look at the time frame, though. "Dwarf Nebula" was in 1969. Sheik Yerbouti was 1979. If you compare something from that period with Sheik Yerbouti, you're overlooking all the albums in between – which included Overnite Sensation, Apostrophe, and other albums that had sing-along type songs on them. Unless a person can sit there and accurately recall all of my – what? – 300 song-like compositions, and can make rational comparisons between all 300 of them, they're not qualified to talk about what I do. There isn't anybody I've met who knows the catalog and has recall of the tunes and can make comparisons between one thing and another. The Freak Out album is full of little short songs. I started that way.
You don't see yourself moving in the direction of shorter, catchier songs?
No. Look, if in a given year I write five pieces for orchestra, release two double albums and one triple album, start work on a book, do a month and a half work on another album, two months rehearsal – and the only thing the public knows about is the albums that actually went into release, which contain such diverse material as "The Blue Light," certainly not a sing-along song, and "Jumbo Go Away," which is a nice little tune and then goes into something that only a handful of musicians in the United States could play, there's a pretty wide spread of what goes on in my creative output over a period of a year. Especially when you think in terms of minutes of music, there are more minutes of music I made last year that have not been heard than have been heard. There's a lot of music that no one has heard yet.
Will it ever be heard?
Depends on the economics.
Doesn't it sadden you that you do write a lot of music that might never be heard, especially the orchestral stuff?
It pisses me off; it doesn't sadden me. That's the only reason I write it – I want to hear it.
Do you think Sheik Yerbouti sold well because –
It sold because of the picture on it.
But it also had a single ("Dancin' Fool") that did pretty well.
That helped. But the point of purchase aspect of it was the cover.
That was the first album Adrian Belew appeared in. How did you find him?
I was in a bar in Nashville and he was working with this bar band, and he was playing good Stratocaster noises and singing like – who was the guy that did "Leah"? – Roy Orbison. He was doing Roy Orbison imitations. I said, Mmm, here's an interesting guy. I got his phone number, brought him out to audition, he passed the audition and got the job.
You've had a history of discovering some great players. Are these unknowns just abnormally gifted when you find them, or do you work them up to that level, or is it just the environment that you foster that stimulates that sort of creativity?
First of all, I go out on the street – and most rock 'n' roll people who have a name do not. I don't go to bars just shopping for musicians, but I know what I like, and I can spot a talent. If I see it, I'll take the guy's name – because if I don't use him I can always recommend him to someone else. People call me looking for musicians. But a lot of groups don't go out and hang around with normal people and go into little dip-shit bars and stuff. I do. And that's where they're at, out there workin', scufflin' along. Then the next thing that happens is when they come into my band they get a chance to work with better equipment, they get some discipline, they get a chance to be seen by hundreds of thousands of people for a period of time, they get mentioned in interviews and stuff – presto chango, they're fantastic musicians. But I don't think that some of the people who've been supposedly discovered by me would ever have been discovered by any of the people they eventually went to work for, because those people don't know where to look.
Considering your knowledge and love of modern classical music, and some of the things you've written in that realm, do you view yourself as something other than rock performer?
No. Basically what I am is a composer, but the way I earn my living is performing rock 'n' roll music. So if that's where I'm most visible, then by process of elimination that's what I am.
Are your rock compositions influenced much by people like Varèse and Stravinsky and Webern?
Well, once I've absorbed an influence and it's part of my fibre, it's there. It's just as influential as Bulgarian music or Indian music or rhythm 'n' blues or whatever. What I write is a product of what I like, and what I like is a product of what I've been exposed to. And fortunately I was exposed to a wide range of stuff.
What did you write for Pierre Boulez?
He asked me to write a piece for his ensemble. He has this virtuoso ensemble of about thirty musicians he works with all the time called the Ensemble Intercontemporaine. So he sent me a list of their instrumentation.
That's awfully flattering that Boulez would want to play your music.
It's nice – considering that nobody in the United States gives a damn.
There always has been a sort of dichotomy between you performing rock 'n roll in that arena, while having a great love for 50s R&B, and at the same time being a devotee of Edgar Varèse, Stravinsky and people like that.
So what's the dichotomy? Ever met a person who only wanted to eat fried chicken? I'm sure that there are people who like certain types of things I do that would hate the rest of it. I like rhythm 'n' blues, I like the electric music I'm doing onstage now, I like writing orchestra music. I like all that stuff equally well; one thing's as much fun as another. I like producing records, working with videotape, all those things.
Don't you get tired of breaking in new band members, and going on the road to play the same songs every night? Wouldn't you rather concentrate on writing more?
That would be fun, but I'm sure I'd miss playing hockey rinks. You don't understand – unless you've been on the road with a band, and have seen what happens over a three-month period of time traveling around with the same guys. It's really great. It's much better than going to summer camp. This particular tour, the guys have been great.
A lot of people seem to think that because of your penchant for modern classical music, and also because of the humor you sometimes direct at the music itself, that you don't actually like rock 'n' roll, and that you don't view what you do as rock 'n roll.
What kind of rock 'n' roll? There are some types of rock 'n' roll I don't like, there's some types I do. Suppose somebody said to you, "Hey, what's rock 'n' roll?" What are you gonna do, tell them that Joni Mitchell is the same as Black Sabbath? Besides that, I don't give a damn whether I'm certified as rock 'n' roll or not, because the music is what it is, and that's that. Call it whatever you want.
Another criticism some have voiced is that by some of the weird twists in your compositions' musical structure, or with a sort of "toilet humor," you sometimes sabotage an otherwise straight-ahead accessible composition.
Well, that misunderstanding basically derives from this fact: people who deal in rock 'n' roll criticism are all part of the machinery that thrives on the idea that the largest number of units sold equals the best music. And if somebody does something without wanting to sell billions of platinum units, then this is incomprehensible to the average rock 'n' roll critic, because they believe that anybody who doesn't play the same game is crazy or dangerous or both. So they can't compute the idea that maybe the concept of the song that they perceive as a perfectly acceptable, viable, nice little rock 'n' roll ditty that they think was sabotaged – maybe the sabotage is the actual information in the song, and the rest of the stuff surrounding it is something that will attract the attention of the people who need to hear that other information. It's the carrot on the end of the stick to make you experience that other information. The part in the song that turns out to be weird to those particular critics is the part that's important, and the other stuff is just something to set you up for that little twist that's in there. Without the setup, the twist doesn't work, and oftentimes the compositions are designed to lead you right down the primrose path until you hit the brick wall.
Do you sometimes have a regular, sing-along little rocker, and then think this is too straightforward, let's tweeze it up a bit?
No, I've never done that.
In the performance I saw by the Grandmothers, they weren't particularly kind to their former leader in the few comments they made about you.
Well, I think they feel that's probably the coolest thing to do. If they want to appeal to the writing public at large, it's easier to get more coverage if you call me an asshole than it is if you say I'm a nice guy. But the fact of the matter is, what they're doing isn't particularly defensible from an artistic standpoint, because it's a ripoff. They're not paying me for the use of my compositions that they're performing onstage, they're using my name and the work that I've done in order to earn income for themselves, and then they present me with the total ingratitude of treating me like an asshole in their performance. If you had been around when they were in the band and you had seen them and seen the kind of performances they gave and the persona they exhibited onstage when they were official members of the Mothers of Invention, then compared that to what they are today, you would say, "This is a fraud." Because when a guy is in the band he's got a little something going for him. He's got the security of the band paying his salary, he's got a license to be as weird as he can be onstage because he knows that his ass is covered – because I take the rap for what's going on there, right? That gives them the chance to be something other than what they would be in everyday life. And when a guy leaves the band, he loses that license. He has to take the rap for his own behavior, okay? And a lot of the image that was conveyed by those guys at that time – of the funny, weird, whatever – was purely that: just an image. They weren't really that funny, they weren't really that weird. But they were placed in a setting where they were allowed to be those kinds of characters. And now, they have to take responsibility for who they actually are. And who and what they actually are is not what they were. So for a person who goes to a performance of that group and expects to relive the golden days of yesteryear, you're not going to get it – because I'm not waving the stick over it.
What do you think of people who do want to relive that era?
First of all, they can't do it. The era itself is gone. The reason the Mothers were what they were was a combination of these ingredients: the time in which they appeared, and the personalities of the individual members in that particular year of their growth as people. People change. Motorhead of 1967 is not Motorhead of today, nor is the Don Preston of 1967 the Don Preston of today. The Don Preston of today has been on the road with – what's that guy's name? – Leo Sayer, right? He was with Leo Sayer for a number of years. It changes a guy, you know? Those guys in '67 were different people, and the year '67 was a different year, and where they were working was a different world. They were at the Garrick Theater in this little test tube environment for six months or whatever, two shows a night, six nights a week, perfecting a certain type of weirdness that will never happen again. I've got it on film, I've got it on tape – but it ain't on the stage with those guys. So kiss it off, it's gone. If you didn't see it in '67, then you ain't gonna get it. No matter what they play or how weird they pretend to be, it's not going to be recreated – it's a fake.
Is it harder for you now to do something that will make as much of an impact as the things you did in the 60s when you were considered to be so outrageous?
Well, it's not my desire – in those days it wasn't my desire either... I didn't go onstage and say, I'm now going to be weird. I'm gonna go onstage and do what I do. If it appears weird by contrast to Herman's Hermits, that's a sign of the times. But for an American audience that's been hyped into believing that a person who goes onstage and piddles with a python snake is really fantastic, with that type of Alice Cooper advertising blitz of "This is weird," where people are told what is weird ... they're not ready for conceptual deviations from the norm, because there's not much thinking involved in music consumption today. You just go and see what it looks like, hear what it sounds like, and you've consumed it. But you don't really think about it much. It's just something that happens to wash over you. But in those days when we did it, it was a real confrontation, because everybody had been so used to the British Invasion syndrome. For anybody to do anything outside of that norm, it appeared to be very drastic. But I think what we do today is pretty drastic compared to the rest of what's going on. We play melodies, we play rhythmic compositions that are really hard, and we do it with choreography. We play long songs that have long guitar solos. We do everything wrong (laughs). We're totally against the grain of what contemporary music is today. But it doesn't appear to be weird, because we're dealing with real musical factors. There are many musical groups today that are thought of as avant-garde who aren't dealing with musical factors; they're dealing with literary factors. Certain groups that appear to be really "happening" have enormous rap sheets that have to explain their ethos, you know, to give them a reason to exist. And the press loves to go along, because it's not music, it's all words, and that's something they can deal with. But it's all fake. There's no substance behind it. We've been doing some stuff in the last weeks on the tour – I taught them a bunch of old obscure rhythm 'n' blues songs. They're so much fun to play. We're doing "Mary Lou" by Young Jessie, "The Man From Utopia," the flip side of "Death Of An Angel" by Donald Woods & the Velairs, "The Closer You Are" by The Channels, and we're doing part of "Johnny Darling" by The Feathers – ever hear that? It's a single that sells for about $500.
Do you think you'll record any of the R&B stuff?
We've recorded all of it. Remember, I bought the recording truck. Bought it from the Beach Boys – a hundred inputs, two 24-track machines, and most of the outboard gear for my studio.
Do you think you'll ever do another theme LP? Like Cruising With Ruben & The Jets was the band doing this certain type of music.
I'm trying to get these guys interested in that form of music. I love that stuff. And they're coming along; they're starting to get more enthusiastic about it. It's one thing to inflict it on them and say, "Play this," but when they start getting a feel for it, then the music comes to life. I'm working on this killer tune by The Turbans called "No No Cherry," but I can't remember all the words. "You told me baby, baby, you told me a great big lie/'Cause when I got inside, you didn't have no cherry pie." Then the chorus is: "No, no cherry/No, no cherry/No, no cherry pie." That much we've got done, and it sounds great! I think we're well on our way of putting together 45 minutes of that kind of material.
Getting back to the changes in performance –
Well, the stuff we're doing is musically impossible. If you saw the stuff on paper, and someone said, "Okay, here is the score for this, and you're going to take eight people, and you're going to take them on seventy dates, and they're going to play this at this tempo, with choreography, night after night." You'd say, "This is impossible." But we do it. In fact, one of the harder pieces is a thing called "Envelopes," and in this one section where the bass has sixteen bars rest, instead of resting every night he invents something new for himself to do. One night he ate three bananas – just crammed them into his mouth. Just random acts; I have nothing to do with this. The other night in Salt Lake City he topped himself; he covered his body in mayonnaise in sixteen bars, got back to the bass and finished the number. Why? Why not?
That's been absent from your recent performances – the spontaneous abstract theatrics.
You can't inflict that on somebody. If you get a guy in the band who's a natural at it, then he's the guy that should do it. You can't say, "Okay, on the count of three all you guys are going to cover your bodies with mayonnaise." I'd never ask anybody to do that. That's him. That's really him. That's a logical extension of his personality, and he should do it.
Do you think it was a logical extension of his personality before he joined your band?
To a degree. He's always been a little tweezed, I think. But now that he's in the band, he understands. He can do this. So long as you're on the beat when you come back in to play your part, and you play all the hard notes right, you can cover your body with anything you want. I don't care. The audience doesn't care either. The main thing is that you're doing a musical performance.