Frank Zappa speaks up
Stars and Stripes
Published: September 26, 1978
Frank Zappa, whose first splash in the puddle of rock & roll is now more than 15 years in the past, is still writing and playing what he calls "sociological" music. In a dim-lit hotel room in Saarbrücken during his recent European tour, the quiet-spoken musician/bandleader/filmmaker talked to Stars and Stripes entertainment editor Dan Warfield. Excerpts from the interview follow:
Q: I used to have a roommate who played your music continuously ...
A: It must have been really nerve-wracking.
Q:... but I never understood exactly what the appeal was until I saw your performance last year. It was one of the most exciting rock shows of the season. Suddenly, after years of actively disliking most of your music, I found myself becoming a Zappa fan.
A: Yours is a very common case. The thing that most people know about what we do is what they read in the papers. It's only the hard-core fanatics who actually go out there and see it. And like your friend who was playing the tapes all the time: She saw it, she liked it and she wanted to keep enjoying it, but the regular people, the ones that go for the regular music, they won't even consider me and the band as a possibility for entertainment because they can't even imagine it — everything that gets written about the band puts it in avant-bizarro ... some weird realm and they automatically presume there's nothing in there for their dancing feet.
We play all different kinds of stuff — and we do it really good. In fact we do it better than most of the other groups that are around.
We spend a lot of time rehearsing ... before we start a tour I've got an immense investment in rehearsal salaries. Those guys are paid to go through boot camp that's almost as bad as what you guys get. This band rehearsed for eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week ... at the end was like six and seven days a week for eight weeks.
Q: Do you work with written music?
A: Oh, yes. You wanna see some? (Hauls out his suitcase and produces a full orchestral score for a song to be recorded next summer). I carry this suitcase around with me on the road and I write this stuff in hotel rooms, I write it at home, I write it in airports and I give it to a copyist and he does it in ink and it comes out real suave.
Q: (Examining the score) You modify this as you rehearse it?
A: Usually. I mean, a lot of the things start off very specific. The first thing they have to do is learn it exactly as written, and then as we hear the thing coming back, as I get an idea for something funny to do, we just stick it in.
We were rehearsing in London last week and just got this idea to start trying everything I ever wrote as a reggae number. I started calling off song titles and saying, "OK, play this reggae." We got some hilarious results.
Q: (Still examining the score) What sort of piece would you call this?
A: It leans more in the concerto grosso direction. It's got a lot of featured instrumental solos for the different players and you have various solo specialists in each section battling it out with the rest of the orchestra. There's a really hard and elaborate clarinet part in here.
Q: Are you pulling elements from jazz, from classical music, from rock for something like this, or do you divide these categories up when you're working?
A: The way it works is: The thing that really sets those musical styles apart is not what kind of notes are in it, but what kind of timbre is expressing it. I'll give you an example. You know the Jimi Hendrix song "Purple Haze?" Picture it being played by an accordion. Is it still acid rock? You get the idea.
The timbre of the instruments playing the line is what makes it sound like jazz. If you take the Bach Two-Part Inventions and have it played by a Fender-Rhodes piano and a rhythm section it could sound rather jazzy.
Q: It would still sound like Bach.
Yeah, but you'd say to yourself, "Hey, that's a jazz sound." You could probably release it as a jazz album because it's being said in the timbre language of that particular style.
Q: You'd have to change the steady, regular rhythm on a Bach invention.
A: Not much. Have you listened to much recent jazz? They're playing all that disco crap in the background. That's the basic underlying thing. It's not swing anymore, it's all straight up and down. So you take a disco beat and put that behind the Two-Part Inventions and you might come up with something pretty nice.
On the other hand, people who like that kind of rhythm wouldn't be too inclined to go out and buy a harpsichord record because the sound of a harpsichord doesn't get them off. But suppose I wanted to reach the people who enjoy the sound of a harpsichord. Suppose you take a song like "Penguin in Bondage." Take the words off and just write out all the notes for a harpsichord and it becomes a different realm. It's not always the notes and it's not always the rhythm that determines what the style is. The style is more determined by the sound of the instruments that are playing it.
Q: There are various scenes, or circles in music. There's a "modern classical" group in New York, for example. Some of them are pretty strange ... Is there a particular group like that ...
A: ... that I hang out with? No. I hate all of 'em. I don't have time for that stuff.
Q: Well, some of them are pretty strange.
A: They're all strange. I don't like things that are done try committee. I think that the committee is going to be one of the great retarding factors in the advancement of civilization.
The bottom line, the final reckoning of how much it's slowing the creative process down in the world today — they won't know how much damage is being done by committees for a number of years. It's not just the idea that a lot of people decide what's going to be performed and what's going to be stamped with the word — "this is artistic." It's not just that it's being done by committees. It's the type of people who are on those committees. It's horrible.
We've got corporations that make the difference in terms of distribution and financing for new artistic events, where these decisions are being made by committees of accountants.
Q: Some people are saying the way it's going in the record business, that in five years we'll have CBS and Warner-Elektra-Atlantic and EMI, and everyone else will go by the wayside.
A: It's pretty much that way now. A person who is an accountant and has an aptitude for dealing with numbers and boring pieces of paper — and still wants to get reamed, just like everybody else — he wants to have this dramatic image of himself as a man of the world and have an exciting life and so forth — he's doomed because he's got that little tiny ballpoint pen and those papers. He's looking for a way to express himself.
So he goes for the glamor industry. He goes into the film business or into the record business or he gets somewhere next to show business, right? So he starts off, and he's in the accounting department. He's keeping track of the numbers, right? He figures that if he can make his balances look better than the next guy's balances then maybe he's gonna move on up into a more important position, eventually president of the company.
Soon you have a guy who doesn't know anything about music, who knows a vast amount about retail — and believes that that's all that matters — he's in the position to determine what gets signed, what gets distributed, what actually becomes a hit and actually what the people of the world get to hear, in terms of music. What they're selling might as well be shoes or ball bearings.
And it's so depressing in the movie business. It used to be where if you had an idea for a film, there was one guy who ran the company. He was what you call your mogul. For better or worse he was the final say-so on what got spent. If he wanted to do something, he'd push the button and it got done, and you could move fast.
Today, you have committees of this, committees, of that — and you have reams of lawyers, each one trying to jack up his hourly rate — and the process of getting a project through one of these large companies is so complicated and so slow-moving ... in a world designed around fast media you know — get the news that's on TV, bing bing, it happens, you forget it — everything's changing really fast. If you want to do something with a contemporary theme. by the time you get it through one of those companies, your contemporary theme is already ancient history.
Q: Have you been trying to do a movie lately?
A See those boxes in my suitcase? That's two-thirds of the film that I've been working on. I've been having screenings of it here in Europe, trying to raise money to finish it.
Q: What's it about?
A: It's a concert film]].
Q: Just a straight concert film?
A: There is nothing straight about it (laughs). Actually what this is, is kind of a really incredible document — it's a concert in New York at Halloween at the Palladium The concert itself was fantastic. The camera coverage of it was fantastic. And the stuff that the people were doing — it's just outside the realm of your normal idea of what a concert is about. It's a good picture.
Q: What do you still need to do with it?
A: I have to do some more editing and I have all the final lab costs and the final dub. I need about another half-million dollars to finish it off. I've got nine reels cut and there's six reels in the suitcase. I've already put $400,000 of my own money in it. I just can't afford to stick any more in.
Q: What happens if you don't get some backing soon? Do you just keep it and watch it at home?
A: Yeah. I've had a lot of projects like that, because it's so hard to get somebody to put up the money to start the project blind. Nobody is gonna say, "Hey, Frank. you're great, go do this, here's the money." I always wind up starting these things with my own money. Then in the middle of the project I've got to go around looking for enough money to finish it. I've got three or four big projects that cost a lot of money to start that nobody'll ever see because I couldn't get enough funds for completion or any way to distribute the thing.
... The only reason I'm doing this interview — I know that whatever I say is going to be tweezed — you may not believe this, but I have a great fondness for service people.
Q: Say something for the troops.
A: Well, usually what I say is, "Hello, GI."
Really, I have respect for the guys in service. They're doing something that is important, that's got to be done. If you happen to be a person who likes being in the service and you find yourself doing what you want to do, then that's a kind of happiness.
Q: I remember a drill sergeant in Army boot camp who told us his ultimate high in life is to be out in the woods somewhere with a rifle — and there's another guy out there with a rifle. One of them will die. That's his idea of heaven on earth.
A: Well, in every army there are people like that. and unless we've got ours, then those other guys over there are gonna get their heaven. And also, it's better that a guy who has that idea of heaven is doing it within the framework of the armed forces rather than on top of a building in New York City.
Let's face it. People have aptitude for stuff like that — there are people who are born to do that. Now what's he gonna do if there wasn't an army? He's not gonna drive a milk truck.