Little Band We Used To Play In
Little Band We Used To Play In
by Michael Davis
from Keyboard Magazine, 1980
Frank Zappa has had such a varied career over the past 15 years that it's been rough keeping up with him. He's worn the hats of guitarist, composer/arranger, vocalist, producer, bandleader, filmmaker, and record company president and he has written and released music in many styles, ranging from doo-wop-era, rock and roll to various improvisational contexts to totally scored contemporary classical music, gaining himself a substantial following and a lot of respect in the process.
Of course Zappa hasn't been able to accomplish this all by himself; he's employed some heavyweight musicians along the way. In the keyboard category alone, four names come immediately to mind. Don Preston was an on-again, off-again member of Frank's Mothers Of Invention during the late '60s; since then he's been a busy sideman, working and recording with numerous rock and pop acts as well as assisting those well outside the mainstream, such as the Residents and Carla Bley. Ian Underwood doubled on keyboards and woodwinds with the Mothers for years before leaving to pursue his own career as a top-notch L.A. studio keyboardist and synthesizer programmer. George Duke is well known to Keyboard readers, but his current multi-stylistic success as a leader came after several years with Frank, taken in two shifts, not to mention stints with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and saxophonist [[wikipedia:Cannonball Adderley|Cannonball Adderley], and a brief partnership with drummer Billy Cobham. And Eddie Jobson spent much of 1976 with Zappa, between his gig with Roxy Music and his current  position as lead instrumentalist and composer with the popular rock trio U.K.
But more recently, Frank's keyboards have been manned by Peter Wolf and Tommy Mars, names that may be less familiar. Starting in 1977, they've toured with Zappa and recorded with him, contributing to the considerable success of Sheik Yerbouti and Joe's Garage Acts I, II & III. They also appear in Frank's new movie, Baby Snakes, which is currently going through final edits and distribution negotiations.
Wolf came to this country from his native Vienna only a year before joining Zappa; he considers Weather Report's Joe Zawinul, who was also born and raised in Austria, a father figure of sorts. He was in various bands in Europe but felt connected with Zappa through a series of fortuitous circumstances and considers his years in the band as time well spent.
"Amazing the audience every second is the name of the game," he told Keyboard late last year, "and Frank does it. The music is constantly changing; you can never get bored. You can say, 'I don't like this Béla Bartók section,' or 'This is too rocky,' or 'This is too jazzy,' or 'This is too strange,' but you can never say, 'I'm bored.' I love to have that element of constant change."
But this need for change is what took Wolf away from Zappa's group earlier this year. A band project with other ex-2appa sidemen including vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock and drummer Chester Thompson fizzled, but Peter has been keeping himself busy just the same. His first post-Zappa album is called Tutti, and it's all Peter; he played all the keyboards, synthesizers, and drums on it. It's a wide-ranging, all-instrumental affair and moves through areas commonly called fusion and orchestral rock.
"I'd rather listen to Talking Heads than I would Jean-Luc Ponty or Chick Corea, so what does it all mean?" he asks rhetorically. "I understand that if you can play, you want to be an artist and you want to be respected. But what I want is to do my electric thing in a way so that nobody has to prove anything anymore, just do nowaday's music with all the balls ahead. The emotion of every player is the most important thing, what stands behind this chord or this tone. If you leave that out, the music does not touch you."
Tommy Mars (whose real name is Thomas Mariano, he wants us to know) would probably agree with Peter that the emotional context of the music is its most important component – but, oddly enough for a man who claims to have developed a "tremendous rapport" with Zappa's E-mu, he feels that synthesizers are somewhat "dehumanizing." When quizzed about the music he writes on his own, he replies, "If I was going to do a solo album and wanted a violin to play, I wouldn't synthesize it. The way I look at it, no matter how well you synthesize a sound, big deal, it's only an electrical wave. It's not the real thing. I'd sooner hire somebody, waste myself bucks-wise, and get real people playing on the album. But I'm old-fashioned; what can I say?"
Since Tommy's on the road with Zappa right now, with possible recordings to follow, he may not have a whole lot of time to work on his own music. Bassist Arthur Barrow will be moving over to the keys from time to time to take up some of the slack left by the departed Wolf, but for the most part they're Mars's responsibility at the moment. [Ed. Note: Zappa's 1980 lineup consisted of Mars, Barrow, rhythm guitarists Ike Willis and Ray White, and drummer David Logeman.] Peter and Tommy were helpful and open, but to get the full story on the Zappa band, we had to talk to the man himself. So Keyboard tracked Frank down at his Laurel Canyon home and talked to him right next door to where workmen were hammering away, building his new recording studio.
Zappa proved to be extremely informative about his aesthetics, his equipment, and what he expects of his musicians, applying his acid wit to all areas of scrutiny. He does much of his writing at the piano but he doesn't consider himself a piano player by any stretch of the imagination.
"I'm a plunker," he admits. "I couldn't even imagine what it would be like to play the piano, it's such a foreign concept. I think of the piano as some sort of an elaborate percussion instrument. I'm very fond of percussion, but my favorite instrument is the guitar.
While avoiding a simple assessment of his latest keyboardists – "I don't want this to turn out like a report card on Tommy and Peter", was the way he put it – he did mention their relative strengths and weaknesses in regard to his music at several points in our conversation. He's since rehired Mars for his current road band, so Tommy must be meeting Frank's stringent standards at the moment, but the search for the ultimate keyboardist goes on.
"I think I'm probably gonna start auditioning again," he remarks, "because I haven't yet found a keyboard player who is 'roadable' and who can really read music. Tommy reads okay; Peter doesn't read that well at all. George reads pretty well. I'm talking about someone who can look at the most difficult stuff on a page and the notes come flying off; that means less time and trouble teaching the stuff to the rest of the band.
"Then he would have to be roadable. By that, I mean have the flexibility to go from playing simple backgrounds to really difficult written-out stuff, plus have the attitude so that he would enjoy touring. I haven't had too much luck finding someone who can do all those things because he probably doesn't exist. But maybe there's someone out there and I just haven't found him yet."
When you begin your next project will you be using the same musicians you've been using lately?
Some yes, some no. Some of the people I take on the road are not too efficient in the studio and vice-versa. Plus there are a few new people I want to try out.
Are you going to use Peter and Tommy again on keyboards if they're available?
That depends on what the project is. Peter did a lot of the work on Joe's Garage; Tommy just didn't seem to be suited for it. When we first went into the studio, Pete was back in Vienna and Tommy started the album off. He was always jamming around. We had so much trouble trying to make him behave like a studio musician and get down to business that, when Peter came back from Vienna, I tried him for a couple of days and it was a lot more efficient. With Tommy, we worked for several days and wound up with two tracks, whereas with Peter, we could do two or three tracks a day. They're equipped differently. Tommy is definitely a creative keyboard player with a good musical mind, but in the discipline department we had some problems. He just can't control himself to sit down and play something simple that's required for a simple song. So Tommy plays on only two songs on all six sides of Joe's Garage; the rest of the keyboard work is Peter. For other things that I do, Tommy is probably better qualified than Peter. Tommy reads a lot better and has a totally different kind of musical ear. It just turned out that he wasn't what I needed for Joe's Garage. You see, there's very little keyboard work on it. What was needed was vocal accompaniment, because it's basically a vocal album. We needed some tracks laid down on a Wurlitzer electric piano, without any jazz motives or cadenzas. That's all I wanted. There are a lot of keyboard players in the world who cannot imagine that that would be fun to do. Tommy is one of'em. Peter wasn't all that thrilled about it either, because he's basically a jazz guy too, but in his case you can say, "Now, Peter, stop playing the jazz and just play this," and he'll do it. You have to tell Tommy 18 times. The first few sessions were very chaotic. I hate to have to act like an umpire or referee and go scream at everybody because they're jamming. I don't pay 200 dollars an hour studio time to have guys go in there and jazz out. If you want to practice, do it at home; don't do it in the studio. The studio is the time to make the record.
Could you tell us what keyboards you've used in your band recently?
I have a lot of synthesizers. I've got an Emu, a Yamaha CS-80, three Electrocomps, a Syn-Key, a string box, a Clavinet, a Pianet/Clavinet combination, a Yamaha electric grand, and two Wurlitzers. I've got a warehouse full of keyboards. A lot of my synthesizers are going to be mounted on a semi-permanent basis over in my studio. In the control room, there's going to be one master keyboard that's patchable out to the other synthesizers, so that instead of one big toot coming out, you play the keyboard and the individual voices can be played in the live echo chamber through eight speakers going through an air space with stereo microphones in the chamber. You can set it up for eight totally different sounds, and they'll be coming at you in an air space and will sound more like music instead of electronics.
Are you going to be getting any more instruments when your studio is finished?
Yeah, I'm gonna buy some more. I'm going to get a harpsichord and a celeste. I already have a Bösendorfer Imperial grand. I don't have a Rhodes right now, and I'm thinking about buying one. Plus maybe one more synthesizer. Other purchases for the studio include percussion.
Tommy was saying something about a modified organ you had.
Yeah, the B-3. I had it transistorized and put in a road case, and I put a voltage follower on it. I put the outputs on the Hammond so that you can run the Minimoog or any other modern synthesizer with it. I also had a special set of Syn-Drums so that you could get a scale of 61 bongos or 61 tom-toms or 61 woodblocks or whatever. The box is the guts of two Syn-Drum units with higher quality oscillators keyed to the voltage that's put out by the follower. So when you play a scale, you can get any of the Syn-Drum sounds along with the sound of the organ. You can fix it so that you have two separate Syn-Drum sounds tracking parallel to one keyboard, or you can have the lower keyboard with its notes plus one Syn-Drum.
You're not using it now?
No, we didn't take it on the last tour. It was too much of a temptation for Tommy to noodle on. It's got a lot of possibilities.
Any other modifications on your equipment?
I'm having modifications done on all my keyboards to bring them up to studio quality sound. This includes rebuilding the preamps in all of them and having the Rhodes done in stereo. I'll probably have the stereo treatment done on the Clavinets and the Wurlitzers too.
What type of amplification do your keyboard players have?
Each guy has a Tycobrahe cabinet with two 15s, a midrange horn, and a couple of tweeters powered by a 300-watt Crown amplifier, plus his own mixing board.
What about the miking?
There's no miking; it's all direct into the PA. Ours is called a Bonwelke and we use four stacks about 15 feet tall on a side. It uses BGW power amps. There are four-way crossovers, with compression built into each band of the crossover so we don't blow speakers. We use Yamaha boards that have about 50 or 60 inputs.
What kinds of effects lines do you use?
I usually tell 'em not to use any, because they're so damn noisy. The biggest problem with sound on the road is that when you're using large amplification, you also have large amplification of the noises within the instruments themselves. Everybody wants to stick a flanger or a Bi-phase or something on their instruments, and those effects are nice, but they're noisy. If the instrument is sitting there in idle, it's still putting out this crud into the system. Also, these things usually reduce the heaviness of the instrument, so if, say, you put a Rhodes through a Biphase you get this horrible clipping sound if the guy really wants to play it hard. If the guy is really banging on it, the voltage he's putting out is driving the box crazy. It makes distortion. Naturally, the keyboard player is enraptured with what he's doing, just wailing away, but the kids out in the audience are hearing this big crackle, this unmusical noise. It's irritating.
With as many guitars and keyboards as you've been using lately, any added distortion would really muddy up the sound.
I really prefer a clean sound, especially from the keyboards. The main thing that bothers me about keyboard players is from the time they learn to play synthesizer, the biggest thing they want to do is sound like a guitar. You've got these Minimoog players who think they finally sound like Jimi Hendrix. There's no way; it's not gonna happen. Basically, folks, let's face it: A synthesizer is not designed to make that kind of noise. It's a bleak little instrument. How can it have the wonderful tones and expressive capabilities of the electric guitar itself? These guys are spending bucks on bucks just trying to sound like an electric guitar. If they want to be a guitarist, why don't they get one and learn how to play it? It's a real timewaster for people to learn how to make guitar-like sounds that are so cliched. Who needs to hear it?
What do you mainly want, then from your keyboardists?
The thing I'm looking for out of a keyboard section is definition. They're playing single-line instruments that add a clean edge to the guitar sounds that might otherwise be fuzzy. That tends to make the ensemble sound a little more coherent. I don't need extra fuzz or extra flange or extra tweeze-edge. The other thing that is difficult to do when orchestrating for multiple keyboard setups is to convince the keyboard players that a simple part assigned to them is the thing that's gonna do the job and to have them play it that way every night. There's so much temptation to jazz out. jazz-oriented keyboard artists are the worst thing to happen to orchestration; they just can't fathom it. In concert, especially with electric instruments, the sound is so thick that you don't need 12-note chords on the piano, much less on two keyboard setups. You need single lines that are played cleanly that come out the right way, playing with the rest of what's going on.
To play your music, you need people who can really play well, and they all probably want to play a lot.
That's true in every form of music. Guitar players are the same way. It's hard to convince a guitar player that a few notes are going to get the job done better than a million notes. This is a problem I face as a composer and an orchestrator; musicians always look at it like anyone who tells them what to play is inhibiting their lifestyle. But unless there is organization, the music is always going to sound like a big jam session. Once the musicians learn the songs in rehearsal, once they learn the arrangements and we get out on the road, the songs sound good. But as soonas the lights go on and the audience claps a few times, everybody starts adding their own little things. By the end of a tour, a lot of things sound like chaos. This is one of the reasons why some people lose their jobs.
But at the same time, they have to play the music expressively.
Well, see, the music is based on contrasts, contrasts between things that are very simple and things that are very complicated. If everything is complicated all the time, there is no contrast. Not only that, there is no contact with the audience. They can't handle it. They don't want to be baffled by 32nd-notes ripping around them constantly for two hours in a hockey rink. That's no fun to listen to. If you want to sound like you're actually doing something, it has to be put in a setting where it can show up. That's why if a guy is playing solo on keyboards and wants to whiz around, the accompaniment that the band provides him is usually kept to bass and drums without everybody else chiming in, so that you can hear what the keyboard player is doing on his own. It just seems to work better acoustically in a hall to thin things out. Another struggle that concerns the acoustics of a hall is that oftentimes what you sound like onstage is not what you sound like out in the audience. The rigs that I provide for the keyboard players to monitor themselves with are really elaborate. Each guy can sound like a million bucks to himself, but they always crank the bass up so they can rattle their groin while they're doing it. This does not necessarily translate to the audience out front because they get so much bass happening up on stage that it muddies the sound up The mixer is always telling them to take some bass off, and this makes them unhappy that they can't give themselves a scrotal massage while they're playing. At the end of the show, you have these keyboard players walking around like you'd stabbed them in the heart because the mixer told them to lower the low end out of their setup or told them to play softer. This is the battle that goes on all the time, trying to get good keyboard sounds out of a P.A. Unless everybody modifies their sound to fit the hall, the music suffers, the show suffers, and the audience suffers because they don't get to hear what the intent was.
When you have so many instruments, do your sound checks go on a long time?
Not necessarily, because if you have a good mixer he can do the necessary things at the sound check. The thing that holds them up is broken equipment, and when you have a lot of stuff there are a lot of possibilities for a busted wire or a ground loop. That's why, when we tour, there's an average of two roadies for every guy in the band. It's not that every guy has two little servants to look after his equipment, but counting all the facilities necessary to set up a show, the crew is twice as big as the band.
Do you carry substitute keyboards in case of breakdown?
We don't carry any extras. If something breaks down, it gets fixed. We carry guys and the equipment to fix it.
Did you ever work with two keyboard players before your current personnel?
Before the band that did Sheik Yerbouti? How about Don Preston and Ian Underwood? I've done two keyboards, two drums, a lot of variations. One of these days, I'll probably try two percussionists if I can find two percussionists that can work together. That's a real problem. Usually guitar players don't have problems playing in ensembles. You see bands with three guitarists and while there may be some competition there, they do ensemblize, playing harmony runs and stuff like that. But with keyboard players, it's cutthroat. It's cutthroat with drummers and percussionists too. They always love to show each other up.
Why did you decide to go with two keyboard players at this time?
Because of the orchestrational possibilities. When George Duke was in the band, a second keyboard player would have been a waste of time, partly because of the type of stuff we were doing. George is so diverse; he can play just about any style, and he's got the discipline to play parts. He really understands how to comp; he's a really well rounded musician. But people like George don't grow on trees. Sometimes to replace the guy who is so diverse, you need two guys who can fit into each other's liabilities.
What about the band you had with Eddie Jobson?
Well, there were a lot of problems having the band with Eddie, because his priorities were in peculiar locations. But I don't want to say anything bad about him.
How much freedom do you give your synthesizer players in terms of patches?
They can do what they want to do on their solos, but as far as the orchestrated parts of the show go, they're all pre-decided in rehearsals.
At the rehearsals, do you set the synthesizers up the way you want them?
I specify the sounds, but I don't personally go over and patch 'em. I say the E-mu will sound like a bright brass section and the Electrocomp will sound like French horns, and leave it that way.
Then they come up with the patches to get the sound that you specify
Right. Then they set 'em up that way each day on the road.
So you try to have all your patches set before you go onstage?
Well, with the E-mu, we just let it sit in one setting for the brass, and the CS-80 is all push-button. In the case of Sheik Yerbouti, we took the E-mu on the road and had it set up as what you call a dedicated system, where it was permanently set up to sound like a brass ensemble, a lot of trumpets and trombones. The Electrocomps were pretty much set up permanently to sound like French horns. That was the setup on "Yo' Mama" [from Sheik Yerbouti].
Do you use the CS-80 for any brass sounds?
The CS-80 has a fair brass sound, but not nearly as good as the E-mu. The string sound on the CS-80 is real nice, though, especially if a guy has good hand control, because by the amount of pressure you apply to the keys, you can make some voices, say in a string quartet, have vibrate or make them softer. It's very expressive. If you've got good touch control, you can make it sound great. That's one thing that Tommy does very well. I came to a rehearsal one day and he was playing "The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue" from Weasels Ripped My Flesh as a string quartet on the CS-80, and it sounded fabulous.
Do you prefer to use synthesizers now instead of horn sections, or does it depend on the type of music involved?
It depends on the type of music. For instance, if you are playing a synthesizer that makes a brass ensemble sound and you take six fingers and make a six-note chord and it comes out in tune and loud enough to compete with electric guitars, then you are doing the right thing. For two reasons: One, it's easier to get a balance acoustically, and two, chords and things like that really tire out brass players over a long period of time. Just playing whole-notes is a real boring job for a brass player. It always sounds good, but they always hate to do it because horn players too like to play a million notes. There isn't a horn player alive that likes to play background harmony for a guitar player. They just don't like that, and ultimately they hate their lives; you take them on the road and no matter how much money you pay them, they don't like their lives because they're not out there noodling away. You begin to feel sorry for them, and that brings you down. You feel that you can't play for too long because those guys on horns are going to go to sleep back there. So that's one of the best things about a brass-sounding synthesizer: You can get a brass-like sound in a live performance without breaking the hearts of a number of people who blow on things.
Do you work out all your orchestrations on acoustic piano?
It depends what kind of stuff it is. Some of the complicated sections like the bridge in the wet T-shirt contest [from Joe's Garage] are all written out. The musicians get the music and they're supposed to go home and memorize it. Then when they get the notes under their hands, we figure out what sounds we're gonna use for it, then practice it till we get it up to speed. But other arrangements can be just a bass line, chords, and a lead. I'll hum it to 'em and tell 'em the chords. It's all done with sketches because there's such a great resistance in rock and roll to reading music. It's always a forced situation. I can give them a piece of paper with the notes on it and they think that what they have in their minds is better than what I have on the paper. So I have to use the most stringently enforced discipline. There's always the constant reminder of the paycheck at the end of the week – that they are getting paid to play these notes. Some guys are good about it and some guys are not. Two guys that have been in the band that aren't real fast sight-readers but can learn the parts and the parts are reliable are Arthur Barrow, the bass player, and Warren Cuccurullo, our ex-rhythm guitarist.
When synthesizers first started coming onto the market in the early '70s, did you think that they were going to be as influential as they've been?
I thought that they would definitely catch on, for sure. You know why? Because every keyboard player always wanted to sound like a guitar. And the day that somebody makes one that really sounds like a guitar, everybody'll buy it.
Do you really think that has been the primary motivation?
Well, I think that keyboard players who are soloists thought, "At last, volume-wise, I can be competitive with the guitars in the band." But I think the idea that you could explore some new audio territory was a strong selling point for a lot of people. Unfortunately, when they got the instrument and didn't understand how to work it, you got some of the most boring sounds on record coming out of them, people doing the same ARP 2600 duck quack sound.
Since they've come on the market, would you say there have been any significant improvements in the instruments themselves?
The major improvement has been the polyphonic improvement; that's a big one. But I think the digital stuff that is coming out is going to be even more of one.
In what way?
Faster recall of settings that you know, settings that you make up yourself. Patching is okay for a studio – it's even a little slow for the studio – but in live performance you've got to change from one sound to another on the beat, and that doesn't go along with patch cords and making fine adjustments on your instrument with tiny knobs. You don't want to have your patch cords out and your microscope out to make sure that your low frequency oscillator is set at exactly the right rate so your vibrate won't sound too peculiar, not when you're trying to look cute to the teenage girl in the third row.