Zappa: Now And Then...
By Steve Vai & John Stix
Guitar, May 1986
I started listening to Frank Zappa when I was about 13 years old. Tears of joy (or was it laughter) filled my eyes when I heard him say the phrase, "the influence of a frozen beef pie," from the Just Another Band From L.A. album. Intricately composed and performed melodies combined with the epitome of humorous cynicism – this is what I'd been searching for.
I wanted to learn more about the guy and his music. There was never a dull moment, or a disappointment, with the possible exception of the song We're Turning Again. But then again, who else would dare blaspheme dead rock stars?
I started hearing wild stories about this musical madman. "Oh, Zappa? Ya, the guy must be constantly stoned, man. He's really out there. He'll fire his band members in a wink. Frank Zappa, ya, he's a genius. Hey, did ya hear about the time he ate shit on stage?" I had no idea what a genius was, or if any of the rumors were true. It was good press, though. Then as fate would have it, later on, we got a chance to play together.
When I was 18, I worked as a transcriptionist for Zappa. The following year I joined his group and was with him till 1982. As I got to know Frank, I realized what a distorted view a lot of people have of him (or at least in my opinion, they do). Believe me, he would probably be the last person on Earth to eat anybody's shit. Or take it, for that matter.
My conclusions as to what qualities make up genius were drawn from observing Frank's activities. Never have I seen a person so dedicated to the execution of his ideas. Self-discipline is not a conscious effort for Frank. There is only work. And that's not hard; it's fun. He placed high demands on his band members, but only a fifth of what he demanded of himself. Strong integrity in everything he did was always apparent to me. He's very funny, too. These attributes inspired me most of all.
But these characteristics don't necessarily produce genius. Innovativeness and originality are the result of unflinching concentration. This type of concentration is a gift, but can also be developed.
Watching someone like Zappa work is inspiring. You can see a person whose mind is completely and undistractedly focused on the event at hand, whether it be a simple conversation, the reading of a newspaper or the construction of a fantastic orchestral piece. Every event is like a meditation. I've learned that the highly developed power of concentration is what constitutes genius. Any other personality traits just go along for the ride.
I conducted the following interview at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen (Frank's studio).
What are the work hours that you and your Expresso machines are keeping these days?
Today I woke up at 8:30 and I'll probably work until 2:00 tomorrow afternoon and then I'll probably go to bed. I've been doing long days for this past week because I have something that I really have to concentrate on. It's real time consuming.
You've been writing manuscript for so many years, how has the Synclavier changed your way of approaching traditional notation?
Music on paper is the same as a recipe for food. You don't eat the recipe. The music you write down on a piece of paper isn't music until somebody plays it. If you have a machine that will allow you to play your ideas directly you don't even have to write it. I don't worry about pencil and paper anymore, I just play it and tweak the raw material until I get the composition the way I like it in the machine. I get massively more done and now I can write for instrumental sounds and combinations that don't exist in nature. You can make things that sound like normal instruments play things that those instruments couldn't do in the hands of a human being. The thing now is to remember that nothing is impossible as long as you have enough RAM memory.
Can you comment on the difference between working with the Synclavier and real musicians?
I don't have anything against working with live musicians so long as I don't have too high expectations of what the live musician is going to be able to do. I've battled for years trying to get accurate performances of stuff that human beings find difficult to play. Now that I have a machine that will play the stuff exactly right, there seems to be no reason to burden the human beings with problems of rehearsing difficult licks and playing them faster and faster. There will always be a place for real live musicians to play types of music that live musicians find easy to play. Now that machines are available to playthings that live musicians find difficult to play it should make life easier for the live musicians.
What are you working on now?
Last night I built five new complicated timbres which I call Spastic Orchestras. I started a piece with the Spastic Pressure Patch. Basically how the Synclavier works is when you take samples you build these things called Patches, which is an instruction to the machine to locate different sounds under different keys. You could have one sound under all 88 keys or you could have a different sound on each key times four. That means that a middle C can not only sound a C on a guitar but it can be a C on a trumpet, a C on a harp and a C on a xylophone at the same time. You compound this by the fact that the stereo panning and the way each sound travels in time and space can be determined on a partial by partial basis. We do stereo sampling here which is something that most people are not doing right now. The other type of information you can build into a patch is what happens the harder you press a key. For example, on the Spastic Pressure Patch you press a single harp note and the harder you press down the more gliss you'll get. Spastic Orchestra takes a whole assortment of orchestral sound and lays it on across 88 keys and with pressure lets you bend the stuff and do all these tape effects in real time. So you can play in with a single line and score a whole orchestra's worth of utterly ridiculous stuff on a single track in about five minutes!
How do you feel about the mutated guitar sounds of the 80s?
They sound great but it's just like another vocabulary. There's one thing that a Synclavier will teach you and that is the most important thing in music is timbre. You can take the most mundane tune or collection of notes and if it's got an interesting timbre it will be far more listenable. Every period has got little timbres associated with it. You can hear a recording of Renaissance music and know right away that's the Renaissance sound and Renaissance timbres. If you had those same timbres playing Purple Haze it would still sound like Renaissance music. So if you take all of today's squeals and the rest of the common coinage for rock'n'roll guitar playing and have those same timbres playing Renaissance music, it's not going to sound like Renaissance music even though it was actually written in the Renaissance.
How do you feel about some of the mutated players out there today?
Some of them are good and some of them are not. There's a lot of mechanics out there and once you learn how to make all the squeal noises on demand, then what you do with it is a matter of imagination. But the record industry itself is more to blame for the way guitarists behave than the players themselves. If you play an instrument you have two possibilities. One, you're going to be a performer who plays preconstructed things and plays them exactly, over and over again. That's like what you do if you play in an orchestra. If you have a musical imagination and not necessarily the inclination or the time to write your ideas down on a piece of paper, then you want to play them right off the bat and improvise them. The way the music business is constructed now, there's not very much interest in finding people who improvise. They want it freeze dried. So people are beginning to give up on really improvising on the spot. Instead, what they do is memorize sets of formulas which are then decorated with all the current sounds and when they play a solo they play collected formulas decorated with mod-sounds. To me it's less musical, but then again, you have to consider how the end product is consumed. Most of the people who buy these records are dancing to them or not really listening to them. They just put them on to have that contemporary style playing in the background while they do their stuff. I think there is probably less interest today in really listening to a record. That may be because there's not much in a record that you can stand to discover. What's to discover? You hear the song and that's it. You either like the song or you don't like the song. There's really nothing tucked away. The record companies are not going to sign people who do things other than that because 30 million people buy a Michael Jackson album. The album had nice songs and nice arrangements, but no weird things to discover. Obviously, from the record company's point of view, that's the right way to make records. So everything is patterned after that. For my taste that's a loss.
What are some of the future projects you have in mind?
We finished off this deal with a company called Rykodisc, which is going to be a distributer of CDs. The basic release schedule we're talking about is eight CDs a year for the next two or three years. They want two from the Verve albums, two from a later period, two current and two wild cards. I've been working on the wild card assemblies and the digital tapes of the '82 and '84 tour.
Do you plan on releasing more guitar albums?
Yeah, I've got another one in the works right now. In assembling the wild card CDs for Rykodisc I found some real neat guitar solos. It hasn't been edited to a format yet, but I probably have enough for at least a CDs worth.
For everything that you release, how much do you think you have in the can?
I release maybe 2% of what's in the can. It's a big can.
Do you still work on your playing, or do you just play what you can, when you have to?
That's usually what it is. I play the best I can when the time comes. I don't drill myself 36 hours a day. I never have. I never had a day to devote to it.
Your solos aren't climax oriented.
I don't play for effect; I play for music. I play for my own amusement, and if somebody else likes it, that's fine. And if they don't, they can just go to see a guitar star someplace.
Regardless of your intention as a player, you are among the original stylists in rock guitar. It sounds like you combine blues with Middle Eastern modes.
There's a lot of stuff in there. As far as style goes, a person can only recognize an element of style based on things of his own experience. If you've heard Eastern modes, you can identify them. If you've heard blues, then you'll be familiar with that. But if you don't know anything about contemporary music, then you will not hear that part. So most people don't realize that what's going on in there rhythmically is probably pretty far out.
Musically, would you give your older recordings as high a rating as your new stuff?
Yes and no. There's different kinds of music in there. You take an album like Live at the Fillmore in 1971; that's kind of a vaudeville record. I don't think it compares with Lumpy Gravy, which is a different realm altogether. But there are people who prefer the Fillmore album to Lumpy Gravy, even though I think Lumpy Gravy is a better record. Joe's Garage is probably a better record than Sheik Yerbouti, but there are those who think differently. It depends on your orientation. I have my favorites of the batch.
Obviously Lumpy Gravy is one of them. Why?
Because the idea of it is just off the wall, to chop up dialogues and rhythms and stuff, and edit that together to an event. It's more of an event than it is a collection of tunes.
Joe's Garage also seems to be a personal favorite.
It's because of the way it started versus the way it ended up. It was originally a group of songs that had nothing to do with each other. One weekend I decided that I would write continuity to it and make an opera out of it. By golly, I did it, and the storyline makes sense, the songs are good, and the album is well-produced. I think the vocal performances are really great. It's a good sounding recording and it's a nice package.
Would you include Peaches En Regalia on that list?
Peaches is a classic; it's probably the ultimate across-the-board Frank Zappa song of all time. It's the only thing I've never heard anybody say they don't like.
Do you have any favorite guitar moments?
Ultimately I hate them all as soon as they're out. In the case of a live album, the day you have the 24-track truck may not be the day you played your best.
Which of your bands has been your favorite?
I don't think I've ever had an ideal band, and I probably never will. There are individual musicians I've enjoyed working with. Every band has its assets and liabilities. Aynsley Dunbar and Vince Colaiuta are drummers I really like to play with. Warren Cuccurullo is another musician I like. George Duke, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan were fun. I really enjoy working with Roy Estrada.
I've heard that all of your bands go into intensive rehearsal before going on the road. Do you teach them with sheet music or records or ...
All of the above. If they are learning old songs, usually I just say listen to the record to familiarize yourself with the song. Try and pick out a part in there that's going to be the one you play. The thing that's different about our group is suppose you're a musician and you're just coming up and you want to join Led Zeppelin. What do you think the odds are that you're going to get in? They're not good. A musician today who can play his instrument, has a sense of humor and might be interested in the type of stuff we do; he's got a chance to get in the band. I hold auditions every year, and if he wants to do it, by golly, he may have the job before he knows it. For the last few years all the people who have been in the band have all auditioned and competed against each other to be there. Consequently, our live shows always consist of a combination of old material, new material and current material. With the older material I arbitrarily select a few of the old classics that have been on albums 10 to 12 years ago. Those will be the ones they've got to get from the records. Since this is the modern world, and they play better than the guys on the original records, I usually juice up the arrangements to give them things that are more challenging to their technique.
Was there a time when you had to teach the band all the parts?
Ultimately, I do have to teach them all the parts. But I'm busier now than I was in the beginning. I have a rehearsal assistant and usually what happens is, I come in for the first part of the rehearsal and say, ok, you're going to do this; your part is that. The assistant makes a cassette of the instructions and writes down notes of what's supposed to happen. We work on a couple of things a day. I leave, and it's like the rehearsal assistant's job is to drill the band over and over again, like I used to have to do in the old days. The whole show is memorized.
It's like a Broadway play.
At least as complicated as that. The thing that is accurate each night is the sequence of events. It's totally professional the way that it's organized. I spend a lot of time, effort and money trying to get the best stage equipment I can afford to take on the road. Then I get the best crew to maintain it. Then we go out there and do it.
Do you find that your audiences are getting younger?
Yes, and I think that one of the reasons for that is that the places where music is performed are usually so uncomfortable that older people don't want to subject themselves to it. They don't want to go to a barn-like arena and have somebody younger than them puke on their clothes. So they stay home. Most rock concerts have very little to do with music. Ours, I think, have a lot to do with music, and we have a special audience that knows that, and they come to see it.
Rather than creating a mood, your music seems to demand that people listen and react.
It's participatory. The music should interact with the person who's listening to it. What I do isn't designed to reinforce someone's lifestyle. It's not product; it's coming from a different place. Ultimately, everything that gets released by a record company turns into product, but the intent of what I do is not product-oriented. I've got something to say. I've got certain ways that I want to say it, and I take great care of the presentation of the material. I see it through all the way to the mastering process. I take care of the packaging, the album covers, the ads, do the interviews and answer specific questions about it, so that it doesn't turn into product. That's doing it the right way. I take responsibility for what I do, whether someone likes it or not.