Allan Zavod interview by Avo Raup
July 16, 2003. Tallinn, Estonia
I read on your homepage that during your vacation you got a call from Zappa for an audition. How did that happen?
His name was Chase. He was the road manager for Jean-Luc Ponty when I first joined Jean-Luc Ponty. They had a few managers but he was the first one. I was out of Ponty for eight years and I hadn't seen Chase for maybe six years. And I don't know how he found me, but I was in Arizona, I'd just come back from the Grand Canyon, with my father. My father came to visit me in the US; he said we'd go for a holiday. My girlfriend lived in Phoenix, Arizona. So my father and I went to Phoenix, put our bags down, took the car and went to the Grand Canyon, just the two of us. Then we got back, got into bed, we were tired after three or four days of traveling and the phone rang.
How did this man find me? It's eight o'clock at night and he says: Frank's looking for a keyboard player and I know you're the guy. You're the guy, you're the right person! Get to L.A.! Here's Frank's number. So I called Frank. He gets on the phone right away. He knew who I was because I'd been with Jean-Luc Ponty, he'd followed my career. I didn't know that. So he gets to the phone and he says: Can you come now to L.A.?
In those days (it was in '84) the airlines only flew till 7.30, now they fly in each hour. I was an eight hour drive away from L.A. so I said: I can't fly but I have a car, I'm gonna get there for two o'clock, why don't we do it tomorrow? He said: no, no, come now. OK, then.
Nine o'clock I'm on the road with my father, we're driving and about twelve o'clock we're still not there, so I called Frank again and I said : Look, I wanna be good for the audition, I'd be so tired, maybe we'd do it tomorrow. No, come now, you have to come now. Don't worry if you're tired, I understand. So I get into car and I said to my father: Dad, I have to get some sleep, you have to drive. My father had never driven in America. So, he's driving on the freeways of L.A. and I'm sleeping, I got a one hour sleep, which was good.
We got there three o'clock in the morning, Frank was there, the whole band was there because they said this guy must be good, if the boss is stayin', we're gonna stay, we're gonna check this guy out. Some of them knew me anyway. I had my father with me so it looked good, you know, good family upbringing, Frank was a big family man.
And he puts the most impossible music – Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch – can't read it, he was making a joke. I tried. He took the music and said I can see you can read and then he said: we'll play. So we just played a couple of chords. I was playing with everything I've got and he liked that. I could see they were all smiling and he was looking and smiling at his band so I got more confident and then he played and I accompanied him. Then he stops the band and he says: Excuse me, he says, can you hear me? Very rude. He was just testing – can I take his personality, will I fit into his band? He's already made up his mind, but he wanted to test me, checking out my vibe. So I said nicely, yes I can hear you very well. He says you're playing too many notes. So I played beautifully. So now he knew he could give me orders and that I could understand them and that I was strong, so he could rely on me to give him information. He wanted me to give him ideas, too. Frank Zappa was very strong but he always looked for others too around him for ideas. He wanted to bring out the best in everybody and sometimes on the tour I'd play something and he'd say listen to this idea or some other. He would always go for the challenge.
Anyway, so we played and he said: OK, we'd like to have you. The only time in the whole history of Frank Zappa ever did he give the job on the spot right away, except for me and George Duke. Normally he would say we'll call you or we'll let you know. He was looking for something. I know what he was looking for. He needed someone who was classically trained and jazz trained, good rock deal, someone who would be able to be new at something, research it and get it. The keyboarders at Frank Zappa's band were very important, especially me. I had to anchor the band. The strong harmony, pulling it together was very important and you had to be able to accompany. The last keyboard player who played – Tommy Mars – couldn't accompany very well. He was great, he knew all the material but he couldn't accompany very well. Frank used to say when I solo, don't play. But with me, because I was jazz trained – I'd been with Woody Herman, Glen Miller, Maynard Ferguson, Jean Luc Ponty – I studied and taught at Berkley, so I knew my stuff. We'd have a terrific relationship. Nothing bad to say about Tommy, he was a fantastic musician, but they wanted something different this time.
Allan, as you said, Tommy knew the material. You were a new member, how could you know all the material?
I didn't, but I managed to learn four two-hour shows, like eight hours of music, in a year. Every night on tour I'd go to my hotel room and then next day whatever I'd learned we'd rehearse. We never had a sound check, it was always rehearsal. Sure you tried the instruments, but we rehearsed for two hours every day before the gig. And if I the rehearsal went well, that night it would be on the list. See, every night we'd play a different program, different order and different things. We always had a meeting before the show and he would say: This is what we'll play. So we never knew what we'd gonna play. It was always up to me, whatever I could learn, they would play, it was a lot of pressure.
But sometimes you had even two shows a day.
Yeah, I'll tell you the truth, it took me a while to get used to the band. Everybody has to get used to it. George [Duke], too. You have to go through a process, where you understand, where you can fit in. It doesn't happen right away, because the music is very difficult. The band I'm playing with now, I fit in right away, because I'm experienced. Once I'd played with Frank Zappa, I could do anything. I was invited to Australia to do a film, big movie score, starring James Coburn. I said: sure. I'd never done it, I wasn't scared or anything after Frank. I went to Australia, had this Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and they wanted a big band, it went very well. I'm not afraid because of Frank, that's what Frank did for us, he gave us confidence.
What was the place for auditions of the pre-tour, Frank's house?
No, but he had a big studio. He also has a big warehouse where we rehearsed.
For how many hours?
From four o'clock till midnight every day. Everything started with 4 pm with Frank, everything: the sound checks, the plane trips, we'd leave at 2 o'clock to get to 4 o'clock. He was awake from about 2 o'clock in the afternoon till about 7.30 in the morning. He was always up all night. Maybe that's why he was able to do so much. Because nobody was awake. He had quiet and peace. He'd do his phone calls to late and then he'd compose and do music till 7.30 every day.
Zappa once explained that he can work at night much more efficiently because other people are sleeping and they are not doing all the bad things and dirty tricks and he can feel the absence of evil during the night. That was the official explanation.
He was such a joker, so good, so funny.
You lived in Frank's neighborhood in LA? And you drove him home. Did he explain why he had no car of his own?
Yes. Cause he was smart. Why drive when you can let everybody else drive you? It turns out that I was his neighbor. I lived in Bel Air and he lived in Low Canyon.
It's the most beautiful place in LA.
Yeah, Bel Air, too. I lived in the most beautiful area. Next door to me I had George Harrison on a big mountain. So he was my neighbor so I gave him a lift, it was on the way home. So he would invite me in, the new member of the band. Never once did I not come in, he would always ask me to come in, every night.
As we know, Frank's best friend was his family. How were the relations with band members?
Let me tell you something. When I joined Frank Zappa he was 44 years old and he had mellowed out (laughs). He was very mature. I was very lucky to be with him. He played me videos of him when he was young, 24 years old, leading the band, he was angry and when something goes wrong he stops the band and he's rude. I was sitting next to him and he said: What an asshole! I'm glad I'm here now and not then, he said exactly that (laughs).
But actually he was a very friendly man?
I was on very friendly terms with him and his family. He respected my musical background. He treated me with a lot of respect, mutually. Once he said, when I was playin' my solo, he loved my solo work, he'd say: Do you want me to play here or what do you want me to do? (laughs).
About your solos. In which songs did you have solos? "Let's move to Cleveland".
That's the one we'd play every night. Every night was a different program, but every night we always played "Cleveland", never missed a night. He was a great leader. He had to keep everybody happy in the band. The way you make them happy is you played a big solo every night, but made it different. He didn't say it but we made it different every night. I never played the same solo twice. I played it a hundred and fifty times but I never repeated the same solo, and him, too, always new. So it was always a new adventure every night. The only thing is we always played that one piece every night, every concert, but it was always different, so that's why he played it every night. Then he was inspired and he inspired me and I inspired him.
So after a couple of months I looked at Chad [Wackerman] and I went: you take with Phil here. So I played like in jazz, you play four bars, then drums will play four bars, then you come back and play eight bars. I used to love that about Phil Evans so I was doing that with Chad. It was my piece, whatever I wanted to do and it was working. Frank loved it, if it was going well, go with it. There was never any discussion, just a musical language. He never said: Oh, this is going well. You didn't have to speak it because music is a universal language so if it's going well everybody knows it without having to say it. I just pointed at Chad like this (shows). So he realizes I wanted him to play a major solo. So every day he's getting more and more drums, the drum solo is getting bigger and bigger, but that never made my solo smaller. I used to play piano and sometimes the bass, too and then Frank would play his solo. And it grew into this big beat. And how could he not play it every night. The drummer gets to play his solo, the piano plays a major solo, the bass plays a major solo, he gets to play a great solo. It was a jam, it was a jewel in the crown and it was an instrumental, it was meant to be. It had many different names. I don't know if that's one of my best solos but he liked it and he put on the album.
Have you ever heard your recorded solos issued on records of "Cleveland"? One version is on Does Humor Belong In Music album, another version is when Archie Shepp is playing key solo and you are playing your solo from album You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore vol. 4?
I didn't know that. I'd like to hear it. There are many volumes.
Six. And a lot of this material is recorded in these volumes.
I'd like to hear it. Is it possible to make some copies?
Sure, I can send you. Do you remember some particular shows of this tour?
The most exciting one was in New York City and it's on video. One thing I learned from Frank and people should know this, it's very important. I told this to my band here just recently and it helped them. It didn't matter to Frank whether there were cameras whether the fuckin' president of the States was in the audience, it didn't make any difference to him. Every show was special. I'm just always excited to be in New York and the one was on Halloween, you see. I remember all the excitement and the energy, incredible energy. We did two shows and people came in to the backstage, they let people come and be crazy. We had a terrific security guy. Just a lots of energy. It was great.
Then I remember another time when I used to wear the same pants and then everybody got sick of them and then Frank finally wrote it in the show, it was called "Allan's Blue Pants". He used to change the words and the band would listen and they would answer. He would sing something like "Allan's blue pants" and then he would say something about how grotty and disgusting they were.
Frank's words were a satire on the American sexual perversion. That's what Frank was doing, that was his style. The music was brilliant, but the words were really stupid. No, I can't say they were stupid. They were silly, but they were very intelligent. He was satirical. It was satire on American sexual perversions. That was his imagery. A strange combination of serious music and silliness or satire. He wrote this incredibly wonderful 20th century atonal piece, very difficult to learn, a brilliant piece of music – how can you call such a brilliant piece of music "Alien Orifice"?
Once I said to him how can you be so against drugs – not that I was drugging – because he used to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee. I think it killed him. That created his prostate cancer. He ate good dinners, he had massages but he was always chain-smoking strong Winstons. When we went to Europe he always had cartons of American Winstons because it was bitter. That's when I started smoking. So I said why are you so anti-drug 'cause you're drug addict, you're a nicotine addict and you're a caffeine freak. He said that's not drugs that's food. After that conversation, he used that line again somewhere.
Yes, this "Food for me", he referred to it in many interviews actually.
And it all started from that conversation when I accused him of being a drug addict. 'Cause I believed that he was against drugs for business reasons.
He was against drugs from the very beginning, from the 60s. I read an interview with him from '68 and he announced that he is against them.
There were two reasons for that. I'll give you some inside information. One, he knew that your natural facilities will take you much further and you'll do much better than on drugs. Sometimes drugs can do something unusual but in the end, the best comes out of you and not from stimulus. That's true! I think anybody would agree with that with some life experience. Secondly, he didn't want anybody to get arrested. He was very politically minded. If Frank wanted a police escort we'd have six police cars. He had good relations with the establishment, the police and with the mayor. He used to advise the audience to vote for Democrats. He was a Democrat. He said: There are voting polls out in the lobby, fill in the papers and vote! In 1990, I think, President Bush objected to recordings that had obscene lyrics, keeping them in record stores but not on display. That was wonderful for Frank. He just got up and spoke in front of 200 000 people. He talked about abortion and drugs; he said: George, stay out of their bush. Frank was heavily into politics. I tell you, he didn't want any drug records because if he had drug problems he would never have a chance of having the same cooperation from the establishment. These were the two major reasons. But there was a big one that no one really knows about. It was very good for us for discipline because we began to realize that he was right. We could play much better. We were on top of the world. The attention was 100%. You needed attention with Frank's music, you had to memorize everything. Like with "Black Page". It was great discipline.
The last show of his tour was before Christmas. What did the last show look like?
We were rehearsing just like normally. I'd been up the night before, I'd learnt some new music. We had a big rehearsal. It was just like any other day. It was never-ending. There was so much music with Frank.
Have you played any Zappa's music after you left Zappa's band?
Well, once. There's a band in Australia called "The Zappa Instrumentale" and they asked me to play with them. That was four or five years ago, I think. I find more importantly that in my composition things happen, things come out from my experience and some of that experience is influenced by Frank. In my composition is very important aside from doing thirty US and Australian movie scores since 1986 I do composing and television and it's all good 'cause they kind of work it very lucrative and very experienced, working with directors. I did a movie for "Shine's" director; I've done a movie with Eric Clapton. But away from film, on concert stage I'm writing works for orchestra and concertos. I wrote a piano concerto in 1988 for myself for Australia's bicentennium, a very important occasion. Then I went on to write a trombone concerto for James Morrison. We played it recently with the Munich Radio Orchestra and before that with Sydney's Symphony Orchestra. They're all world class orchestras. This music combines classical and jazz. It's a classical-jazz fusion. So you have James playing trumpet or trombone and myself piano. We're a jazz trio. Symphony orchestra combining classical and jazz. Not side by side. That's a big challenge. It's a new style of music, I'm one of the pioneers. In Australia I'm considered the foreman of this compositional style. I've had a lot of success with it. It's very important to continue this. My background is classical and jazz, I have a music degree from Melbourne University in classical and I have degree from Berkley in Boston. I wanted to combine my background and all the experience with jazz and jazz rock and whatever. When you get to my age you wanna, like Ray Charles said to me: Go with what you've got! He's a real gentleman. Now I've established a classical-jazz fusion award. We had the first one last year. It's an Australian national award. One day we'll make it international. Now it's $5000. We do it for composers on university level to write work in jazz style. The idea is to expand the horizons of young composers by encouraging them to try this. Secondly, it promotes the style; it makes the music more popular. Because I had success I wanted to put something back and that's why I established this award. It's administered by the Melbourne University where I went to college. The donator is a wonderful woman whose husband was one of my best friends who died of cancer. So we made this classical-jazz fusion award dedicated to the memory of Noel Castan. It's given me the opportunity to commit something to education for young composers. It's the only award of its kind at the moment.
You are very active in classical music scene. You know many conductors, composers, performance artists, and so on. Can you tell me, how well-known Frank Zappa is among people who are connected with classical music. He is very well known in rock society, but in others?
He's known in many musical circles. In America all the classical people know him. I've said it many times and I believe it's obvious that Frank will go down in history as one the 20th century most prolific composers. Not all his music is great but a lot of it is.
When you were hired by Zappa, it was only for one tour?
Yes. But we remained friends.
Do you still have any relations with other band members?
Oh yes. And with his family, too. I speak to his wife occasionally and I've always been invited to their home. I think that Frank was comfortable with me. He had very few friends because he just wanted to write music all the time. But whenever I or some of the other band members called he never said just Hello! He would say: Coming over? Would you like to come over? So I never called if I wasn't coming because I couldn't say no. He would play his music to me and his videos and I would play him some of mine and I got to know his wife. So there's always a possibility to see them again.
I haven't been in L.A. very much. The last time I was there I was visiting Frank, and Gail came home and he said: Come out we'll go out to dinner. And I said: Frank, we're going out? I can't believe it. 'Cause she wanted to go out, but you know, he was the boss. L.A. is very blasé. They don't care. They used to see Robert Redford or Marilyn Monroe walking down the street so they're used to it. But when Frank was sitting in the restaurant everybody kept staring because he never goes out. We were just talking about normal things but all these people were staring. Frank was writing a book then and he said he wrote some good things and some bad things about me. I wanted to know what the bad things were. But he wouldn't tell me. So I said to him: If you don't tell me I'm gonna go out to all these people who are staring at you and I'm gonna tell them what a real asshole you are. Of course I didn't do that.
It was the "Volcano" thing.
Oh yeah, had I known that I would have done it differently. I thought they wanted me to do that. Frank could be very arrogant if you gave it back to him. He would walk down the road and he would say very funny dry things.
And later you would hear about it in a song?
Every time. Like "Joe's Garage" or "Dong Work For Yuda". I didn't know what that was about till I joined the band. Yuda is John [Smothers], he was the bodyguard. Very funny. We'd do a rehearsal and John would start dancing. He was like a big bear. I used to go to sleep on it, very comfortable. But he was a killer if you got into trouble with him. Someone pushed Frank down the stairs once and he broke his leg. So after that he got a bodyguard. But he used to look after all of us.
Which place can you call home?
Australia and America. After 25 years in one country you develop relationships, close friendships. In those close friendships you inherit another culture. So I've inherited American culture and Australian. When I go to America I have old friends of 30 or 35 years of friendships. From these friends comes understanding and knowing American life. Australia and America have very different cultures. Some similarities – the language – that's about all. Australians think just the way Estonians think. Maybe 50 years down the line people in Estonia will be a lot more easy-going. I feel it strongly that you have been suppressed, it's very sad. They're negative, but they're nice people. It's been most subtle oppression that Russia brought. Things are made difficult in a subtle way.