Father Of Invention
By Rick Davies
Music Technology, February 1987
Twenty-two years and fifty-odd albums into his musical career, Frank Zappa still finds new ways to astonish with his unique brand of music. Now he takes a break to discuss exactly what he's been up to all these years.
Whe the first Mothers Of Invention album, Freak Out!, came out in 1966, it was so unlike anything ever to appear on vinyl before, reactions to it – and the band, led by Frank Zappa – were polarised. People either loved it or hated it. Still, the reaction to the album was strong enough to lead to more MOI albums on the Verve label, including Absolutely Free and We're Only In It For The Money, and led eventually to dozens of albums bearing the mark of Frank Zappa.
The two aforementioned albums exhibited Zappa's ability to rip his songs' targets apart with uncompromising, satirical lyrics and biting delivery which many listeners found hard to take. Zappa pulled no punches, and everyone, from politicians to high-school drop-outs and hippies (many of whom formed part of the MOI audience), was fair game. In that sense, little has changed in Zappa's music in nearly 22 years.
Much later, an album called Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention, marked the beginning of Zappa's public opposition to the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC – a US organisation whose members want to "clean up" rock music, among other things) and their goals. The 'Porn Wars' track was 12 minutes of digitally generated music concrete, using recordings of PMRC senate hearings as source material which Zappa twisted, stretched, and otherwise mutilated using his Synclavier. Since the time of the PMRC hearings, Zappa's face has appeared in American television interviews concerning the PMRC, and other topics such as proposed mandatory drug testing of federal government employees.
Frank Zappa's concern with what is going on in the world was made very clear as soon as we met at his home in Hollywood. No sooner had we been introduced, than he asked that we hold off on the interview until a news report on the Contra arms deals was over.
"I did another interview this morning for USA Today, or somebody who was doing a wrap-up. Every time somebody wants an opposing point of view, they call me up. Unfortunately, they do call to get an opposing point of view, because before I started doing it, there was no opposition. The record companies didn't oppose it at all. I do at least one interview a week on the PMRC, and some weeks five."
One thing is for certain: Frank Zappa's music has not weakened. Perhaps the eighties' flood of fashion and sound production has made some of his music stand out less than it used to, but his latest album, Jazz From Hell, shows that even his sequencer chops are beyond the range of most synth programmers, and recordings such as 'Massaggio Galore' feature some of the most challenging music to emerge from his home-based recording studio. Considering the PMRC's warnings of satanic messages in rock music, the album's title seems a bit ironic. Is that, in fact, the case?
"No. You know the expression: If there's somebody in show-business and he's an asshole, he can be referred to as an Entertainer from Hell. It arrived from that type of concept. This is it. If this is Jazz, then it's Jazz From Hell."
A good album it is, and though the cover notes (of the cassette, at least) do little to explain what's going on, it becomes apparent that Zappa is getting impressive mileage out of his Synclavier. Melodies are scattered about, often stuttering as timbre changes occur in mid-phrase. Words alone can't do this music justice. It has to be heard to be believed.
Many names appear in the band credits which most Zappa show-goers will recognise: Steve Vai, Ray White, Tommy Mars, Bobby Martin, Chad Wackerman, to name but a few. But with sampling and sequencing available on his Synclavier (or 'Barking Pumpkin Digital Gratification Consort' as it is credited on Francesco Zappa), it becomes hard to tell where impeccable musicianship ends and technology steps in.
"There's only one song that's got a band and a guitar solo", Zappa reveals. "Everything else is on the Synclavier. This is my third Synclavier album. The first was the Francesco album, the second was the Mothers Of Prevention, last year, and this is the third."
The new album's live track, 'St. Etienne', is the only evidence of Zappa's guitar playing on the entire album. What has he been doing with his guitar?
"Nothing. I haven't touched it since December 23, 1984. I don't have any reason to play it; I have more guitar solos on tape than anybody could ever stand to listen to, and I figure I did it. There it is, it's done, it's a good solo. How many times do you have to do the same thing?"
Not even for entering music into the Synclavier?
"The linkage between the Synclavier guitar controller and the system doesn't work for me. Other people use it and are happy with it. I wasn't and so I didn't buy it. There are several ways of inputting information: you can play it on a keyboard, play it in on a Roland Octapad, and you can type it in on the G-page in the music printing mode or a computer line called Script. So there are a lot of different ways to put it in.
"My preferences depend on the piece. If I've got something in my catalogue sitting in the other room that I wrote years and years ago and I now decide I want to listen to it, I would take the sheet music, go into the music-printing mode on the Synclavier and type it in note for note right there. Or, I'd give it to my assistant who types script, and who would type it in. It doesn't make any difference. And then you can edit it in different modes too."
Is there an instrument Zappa actually enjoys playing now, just for ideas?
"No, I just go in there and go to work. Sit down and start typing. I like it."
As ever, Frank Zappa continues to be one of the most prolific and hard-working composers around. So much so, in fact, that even he seems to have a little trouble calling to mind his current and future plans.
"I did some wind quintet pieces for the Aspen Wind Quintet, and there was a bunch of material that preceded that. It's been sitting around for years, and I pulled out one of those disks a couple of days ago, put it in and listened to it, got fixated on it, and decided to go back to work on it. That's what I was working on this morning.
"There's tons of stuff planned for future recordings. You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore is a ten-record box – a live collection that I've been working on for the last 22 years. I have a huge collection of tapes and stuff, and I've been going through the final examples of strange stuff that happened on stage with all the different bands.
"And there is the sequel to Lumpy Gravy, which is done. That's an amazing piece. It's all the missing dialogue that will help you understand. If there is anything to understand about Lumpy Gravy, this is all the missing components: a single album containing the missing dialogue plus new music.
"Then there's another guitar box coming out, there's a three-record box called the Helsinki Concert, which was done in 1974 with George Duke. The London Symphony Volume II will be out shortly. There's plenty of stuff to come out. I've got three albums of Synclavier chamber music. It's done, it's just sitting there. I have to schedule when it's coming out."
Interestingly enough, even as new recordings are being released, Zappa is releasing the second boxed set of re-mastered albums, Box 2 of The Old Masters. Together with |Box 1, The Old Masters contains all of the Mothers of Invention and Zappa albums from Freak Out! to Just Another Band from L.A.
The original releases have become increasingly difficult to locate in record shops – an unfortunate situation, considering Zappa's music does not reach its public as quickly as, say, rock music crafted to please a designated audience. Instead, the early Zappa and Mothers recordings take time to settle in, and the Old Masters present a great opportunity either to become familiar with albums like We're Only In It For The Money and Weasels Ripped My Flesh, or to replace old, played-to-death pressings. Word has it that new parts have been added to the originals. Is that the case on all of the albums?
And what are the Mystery Discs that are included in the Old Masters sets?
"The Mystery Discs are items of interest from the era from which the other masters are drawn. For example, the Mystery Disc in Box 2 is really fantastic. It's got one side, about 22 minutes, of an unreleased, never before heard, live concert with the original Mothers of Invention and the members of the BBC Orchestra recorded in London in 1968. The members of the band are doing a play, and the orchestra is backing them up. And the play is about why everybody wants to quit the group. It's really funny. On the other side there are odd little things like the origin of the story of Willie The Pimp. There's a cassette recording of an interview that I did with these girls from Coney Island; they're talking about one of the girls' father, calling him Willie the Pimp, from the Lido Hotel. You can see where the song came from."
Yet although there's plenty of live Zappa recordings shortly to be made available for the first time, it's been a while since the man actually toured. As it turns out, this is mainly because of the way his compositions have changed since he began recording with the Synclavier ...
"Let's suppose you go out on the road right this minute to support the album that's out there right now. No human being can play it, while I can take this computer out, hit the start button, and stand back."
And since Zappa's compositions are now greatly influenced by the Synclavier's recording and playback facilities, it seems that composing for musicians becomes more of a hassle than before. Does this mean that the Synclavier is his preferred means of generating new music?
"Yes, because if you look at the ordinary process to write music, you write the dots on a piece of paper, then they have to be inked by somebody to make your handwriting look neat, then that is given to a copyist who copies out the parts for all the instruments. At every stage in the data process, mistakes can be perpetuated.
"Then the musician takes his part and under the baton of the conductor attempts to interpret what you dreamed up in the first place. And this interpretation is subject to such questions as how much time they have for rehearsal, which is based on how much money they have to lose, and the acoustics of the hall in which the thing is going to be played.
"So basically your chances, as a composer writing for human beings, of getting your idea accurately performed are really not too good. Not good at all, unless you write very simple music, which I do not. So I said, well, I'll just go on using the Synclavier.
"If you have a band, you can't ask the band to do something it can't do. For example, if you've got a band like the one with Flo & Eddie, you can't get them to do something like 'The Black Page'. It's not their style. So whatever you write for that particular band has to be engineered for their assets and liabilities. You design the show around them As people, and the show is a product of who's available to be in the band at the time, and what their level of competence is at the time the tour takes place. Because the longer the guys stay in the band, the better they get musically, and I doubt there's any question that the people in the band have benefitted from it."
Faced with a choice between musicians and a machine, Zappa shows no hesitation when he states which he prefers to work with.
"With a machine. No question. No contest. The problem with doing anything with live musicians is that they're entitled to earn a living, so you have to pay them. And it gets expensive. When a tour is over, the band is free to go out and do whatever other things they can get in their spare time. I don't keep them on salary all the time – I can't afford them. So the best way to do music is by typing it in, pushing the button and listening to it play back correctly."
And there's the fact that, if he replaces musicians with a piece of modern technology, Frank Zappa has a door to a completely new world of sound – a door he's opened wide in recent years. A listen to Jazz From Hell and Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention exposes listeners to sounds they have probably never come across before.
"I use it all. There are all different techniques on my records. There are some other things that have come along since that time. I've got one that I was working on just before you got here. It's not very much like rock 'n' roll, but it's still music."
Production techniques have always set Frank Zappa's music apart from the rest, and although it's not really fair to lump his music in with rock music, this is precisely what has happened in the past, and will probably continue to happen as well. On one hand this has worked to Zappa's advantage in that his music has been made visible to a lot of young, often open-minded listeners. On the other hand, much of the music-buying public doesn't understand what he's doing because they're viewing it as a particular style of music.
This is a pity, for the techniques Zappa has employed throughout his career have always been far beyond those used in the mainstream. The last track on We're Only In It For The Money, for example, showcased electronic sound effects in rapid-fire succession as you're not likely to hear anywhere else.
"Oh, 'The Chrome-plated Megaphone Of Destiny'? The percussive-type noises, the thing that sounds like little squirts and explosions, was done by using a box that we built at a studio called the Apostolic Vlorch Injector. It was a little box this big", (Zappa holds an imaginary small box with both hands) "with three buttons on it. The console at the studio in New York where we used to work, Apostolic, was unique. In the sixties the audio science was growing, and people were trying all kinds of different things, and there was a lot of non-standard equipment around. This particular console didn't have a stereo fader; it had three master faders – a separate fader for the left, the centre and the right, so you could fade out the centre and leave the left and right, or whatever. So these three buttons on this box corresponded to inputs to the three master faders, and you could play it rhythmically.
"The input to the box would be any sound source cranked up to the level of gross square-wave distortion. Any noise. You'd crank it up so that if it was printed non-stop on a piece of tape, you couldn't stand to listen to it. It would be trashed distortion. But as short little bits you'd get very complex, technicolor noise. When you hit the button and open up a little window of time, the structure of the distortion was a complex waveform, and that's where the bumpy, crunchy stuff comes from.
"Then we had some backwards tape and tape slowed down and speeded up with the VSO, and were using parts of recordings of ethnic instruments. There's a tambora in there, a koto in there someplace. Some filtered tapes of industrial noises, horses, all collaged together.
"I started doing that in 1962, before I had a record contract. I just experimented in this little studio they had, so I was well into music concrete techniques before I made a record."
Many of the sound textures which appear on Jazz From Hell, such as harpsichords and woodwind, bring Mothers albums like Burnt Weeny Sandwich to mind. Are there specific sounds that Zappa finds appealing?
"It depends on the information. When you listen to a sound, there are a lot of different ways to perceive it. You can perceive it in terms of its physics, which is: What is the waveform? What is the amplitude? The scientific methods of sound. The other way to listen to it is: What does it feel like? What does it smell like? What does it mean?
"There's one rule of thumb I use in terms of all compositions, whether it's rock 'n' roll or chamber music. It's that timbre rules. The timbre of the piece is the most important thing people hear. The timbre will tell you how to hear the rest of the data, and the best example of that theory is this: You can take Jimi Hendrix playing 'Purple Haze', and take the guitar part. If you listen to the guitar, it's 'Purple Haze'. But if you take exactly that guitar part, note for note, and have it played on an accordion, it's still the same data, but it's not the same information. So the timbre is the thing that tells you what it is you're listening to."
Zappa applies the same thinking to his own work today, playing back his compositions on the Synclavier with various timbres for each part, then adjusting the parts or timbres as he sees fit.
"The things undergo constant modification, like there's a floppy that had a piece that was typed in five years ago that I hadn't listened to in a long time. It was typed in before I even had the qualifying sampling system, so I put it in and the original timbres were those depressing old FM timbres. Pretty bland-sounding. I replaced all those with samples, and I've virtually got a new piece of music on my hands.
"Every season I buy new stuff for the Synclavier, and reach the RAM capacity, get extra doodads for it as the budget will allow, and every time there's a new module added on, I go back through all my collection of compositions and update them. There are probably 250, maybe 300 compositions on floppies right now, with not more than ten of them completed. They're all in varying stages of being worked on, and I've had them since I got the machine, four or five years ago."
As synth players with their own sound library already know, keeping track of sounds on floppy disk is just as important as storing them in the first place. And just as synth players find the keeping of patch charts for all sounds in their libraries an unnecessary and time-consuming endeavour, so Frank Zappa finds keeping printouts of all his compositions, even with the score-printing option on the Synclavier.
"It takes too long to print them out. I had that commission by the Aspen Wind Quintet to write something for them, and I put it on the Synclavier, so I printed out the score and the parts on the Synclavier. I just have a graphics printer. Without a laser printer, it's an interminable, tedious job to print out a score.
"I got a call today from a group in Boston. They wanted me to supply them with something, but I can't do it. I just don't have the time. There is plenty of music I've already written that's sitting on the shelf and has never been played. I really don't have any intention of going back to manual labour, after I've been used to this stuff.
"It's always a depressing experience to write something and know what it should sound like, and then give it to some human beings and then start hearing all the mistakes, and the audience doesn't know. In the last year there have been a lot of times where people have played various chamber pieces of mine, in different places all over the country ... 'Oh, won't you come to the concert ...?' No, no way, I don't want to hear it. I already know what it sounds like, I don't want to know what you do to it."
It's hard to think of a time when Zappa has performed with musicians who were not extraordinary improvisors, but how does he combine improvisation with set compositions?
"It fits into a hole. There's the arrangement, and then there's a blank space in the arrangement and it says, 'solo goes here'. That's where the improvisation goes, and the arrangements are absolutely nailed down. They have to play them exactly the way they're supposed to be played.
"We had this thing called meltdown, where, depending on what's in the news that day, or what happened in the audience during the show, I'd start talking in a singsong tone of voice and then Tommy Mars would chop changes behind it. Now that's very freeform, kind of like the 'Dangerous Kitchen' or 'Jazz Discharge Party Hats'; those are both meltdown events. In the case of 'Dangerous Kitchen', it's a fixed set of lyrics that has variable pitches and variable rhythms. In the case of the 'Jazz Discharge Party Hats', it was completely spontaneous, 100% improvised by me and the band. It ended up right on the spot in this concert in Illinois.
"So that type of rampant behaviour is good as a contrast, but I think that for today's audience you can't go out and do a whole evening of random behaviour. They're not going to tolerate it; they want to see a structured show. It's been my experience that most people want to have any band go on stage as a human jukebox and just puke out whatever it was they put on a record.
"Which in a way is good, and in a way is bad. If you can actually play it, then you've accomplished something monumental, considering how complex today's record production techniques are. And some groups' people go to a great deal of time and trouble to make their stage performance sound just like a record. But on the other hand, those same groups that have drilled themselves to sound just like a record often have psychological problems in the band and the crew because they have to do exactly the same thing night after night. We avoid that by having some random elements in the show and by having a book that is large enough that you can vary the show every night.
"The other thing it works against is the ideas of ten years ago, when I would go out and do a whole tour based on new material, and throw in a few songs off albums. I would develop the material on the road. I stopped doing that because people usually bootlegged it, and they'd have it out in the market before I'd even have an album out. Now if I do it, there is very little unreleased material included in the show. It takes the fun out of it for me, but I'm not going to make life any easier for bootleggers.
"I've had an independent label since 1968. First it was called Bizarre, then it was DiscReet, then Zappa Records, then Barking Pumpkin. Each one had a different major label as a distributor. Capitol is the current distributor."
While discussing use of the Synclavier on Mothers of Prevention, I mention 'Revolution 9'.
"What's 'Revolution 9'?" responds Zappa. "I never heard it. I didn't like The Beatles. They sang about love and stuff – not my style."
So what does Frank Zappa listen to, other than his own compositions?
"I have little or no recreational listening time. Given the choice between listening to a record and watching the news, I'm going to watch the news.
"I've got a good record collection, and sometimes I miss listening to it, but if I've got a spare minute, it seems I'd feel guilty if I didn't pay attention to what's going on in the news. Because next day, somebody's going to call me on the phone and ask my opinion on something.
"...I won't say I've heard it all, but I've heard all the stuff I like. There may be some other little surprises lurking out there, but I haven't been too assiduous in tracking them down.
"I like Bulgarian music, I like Indian music, I like Arab and Tibetan and French Renaissance dance music. I like recordings of lute music, and most of the early 20th Century composers, until economics took over and we wound up with minimalism. I'm not too fond of that. I'm not enthusiastic about cowboy music. Early heavy metal I like – early Black Sabbath and rhythm 'n' blues. I even like some disco music, when it's clever and the production is fantastic. I'm not crazy about the stuff they have on MTV; it's not much to listen to. But some of the pictures are nice."
Well, if Frank Zappa's plans to put out a clay animation video for one of the tracks from Jazz From Hell materialise, there will be plenty to listen to.