Lynching With Bonzai: Frank Zappa
By Mr. Bonzai
Mix, September 1985
I just left Frank Zappa's house where I finally got to conduct a "lunching" with the maestro himself. Ouch – what a grouch he can be. There I was, well-stocked with a batch of Bonzai questions, whimsical yet pithy, off-the-wall yet down-to-earth. Only hoping that one bozo inquiry wouldn't shoot the whole interview down, I persisted as good-naturedly as possible.
In a world of smelly hypocrites, Zappa is badass and straightforward and hangs loose and does his work – one of those rare characters who doesn't exist for the praise of clowns. Boy, it's refreshing. Even though I was anxious with my desire to really play ball with Frank, at least I could relax with the fact that we both knew he could live without another interview.
When I arrived, he greeted me at the door and whisked me into his little video theater: a couple of easy chairs, a large Trinitron and a pair of blastaway speakers. He asked if I would like to watch a few minutes of "Does Humor Belong in Music," his latest audio/visual onslaught. I nodded my reply and settled back to get the real statement of this man – his music, his living theater, his lampoon.
"Doggess," Frank's dog, sauntered over and sniffed my briefcase with an air of airport security. She then sniffed my hand and I offered a friendly pat on the head. Doggess, just like Frank, could take it or leave it. Both of them disappeared into the darkness as the video blasted off – a blaze of fast-cut close-ups and athletic cameraship following musicians in movement on The Pier in New York City last summer. From somewhere I heard Frank shout, "No dissolves, no spin filters, no fog filters." This was video with hard edges, where there is no room for "atmospheric" special effects and visual bandages.
The show is good 'n' BAAAD. He sings his songs and conducts his band with whip-cracking precision. The program, which he produced and directed, is intercut with segments of interviews from various talk shows and press conferences. Through music and conversation, he confronts record companies, disco, Hollywood, Republicans, feminists, gays, and just about every available sore point or tender spot on the soft underbelly of society.
The word is that he feels that our whole scene stinks, that there is little hope for the human race. It's pure, unadulterated Frank Zappa – the enduring professor of punk, and there are yoks galore. It's a food fight for thought.
The video is pretty outrageous, You said 'prick,' and everything, right in the first few minutes – who is going to show something like this?
Have you watched cable television lately? This show is no more outrageous than what they program on Showtime, HBO and The Movie Channel. What's the difference? There is no reason why a double standard should be applied because this is a music show, if you're showing it on a cable system that has explicit sex and R-rated language.
Do you feel that television has finally caught up with you after all these years?
Cable music shows are so slick and blanded-out that they bear no relationship to reality. Why should you expect musicians not to have political viewpoints? And why can't they use the same language that characters use in motion pictures? If an artist sings a song about a character or describes a situation that relates to "real life," he should have access to the same language that a screenwriter uses.
Judging from the concert crowds, it's obvious that you have a large following...
About 20,000 people came to those two shows. There is an audience for what I'm doing, but the attitudes of the people who buy shows for television are kind of peculiar. They do not respond well if somebody from the music world says and does the things that I do. Perhaps it embarrasses them – they don't want to deal with it.
Where do you think it will be seen?
I don't know. It was produced in a joint venture with PMI (Picture Music International). They are preparing it for home video release in August or September.
Seems to be a natural for home video.
Yeah, but it still should be broadcast. It's a perfect show for cable. The audio was done on a Sony digital multitrack and mixed down to the PCM-1610. The video shoot used five line cameras and four Sony Betacams. During post-production we took great pains with every shot – image enhancement and color correction – since it was shot live with constantly changing stage lighting, it presented a lot of problems in color balance.
Where did you do the postproduction?
Pacific Video – a great place to work. It was just myself, Booey Cober, the editor, and Rex Ingram, his assistant. Bob Stone supervised the audio here at UMRK (Utility Muffin Research Kitchen). As far as I know, it's the first all-digitally recorded and digitally post-produced music television special.
Was it expensive?
$150,000 for the shoot and the postproduction, which is not all that outrageous. A lot of work went into it – we shot 40 hours and I reviewed every minute of every camera at least twice before we edited.
What is your strongest characteristic as a human being?
What's the difference between animals and humans?
Animals are superior.
Have you ever witnessed a miracle?
Well, I think I heard my band play this certain bar in my "The Black Page" correctly one time.
What's so special about it?
Well, as you know, sampling is capturing one short segment of a sound which then can be played on the keyboard. Sample one note of a trumpet and you can then play a whole scale of trumpets. With polyphonic sampling, you can now do chords from the sample. We just received a Beta test package of their new "looping" software. It let's you take a short sample and extend it indefinitely. Now a single trumpet "boop" can be played for longer than anyone could hold a breath. It enables you to create new sounds that were impossible before. Yesterday we built what is now labeled as the "Hawaiian Marimba." You take a single marimba note and extend it beyond the normal short marimba duration. And while it's extended you can add vibrato. You can play chords that are obviously marimba, but sustained with a nice vibrato. We took a cowbell, extended it and added a pitchbend. We can do a whole chord of cowbells now that go "clang" and then "doink," up or down.
Will you use these sounds in live concerts?
No, I'm using them for albums and film scoring.
If you hadn't become a musician, what would you be doing now?
I would probably be a chemist, or a physicist.
What were your first thoughts when you discovered puberty?
Discovered puberty? Doesn't it discover you?
Who is your best musical friend?
I don't have any friends in any category – I try to avoid them.
Is there anybody special in the world whom you would like to meet?
Are you as successful as you would like to be?
I would say that the basic characteristic of my life is failure. If there is one thing that I excel at, it's failure – I manage to fail at 100 percent of the things that I do. Since most of the things that I set out to do are theoretically impossible, it's very easy to fail. I've learned to live with it. In terms of machinery and personnel, there never seems to be enough to get things done exactly right.
What makes a great music producer?
I don't know. From the record company point of view, it's someone who makes them billions of dollars. I suppose that's all that matters. That's what a great producer is these days.
Is there any quality of human beings that gives you hope for our race?
None whatsoever – and I mean that sincerely.
Who is the Picasso of music, in the sense that he was an innovator who continually shook up the art world?
Well, I don't know much about the art world, so it's tough for me to comment – but nobody who shakes up the music world lasts. The music world doesn't desire to be shaken up. In the art world they look for the novelty that will create a scandal, but the world of music is not the "world of art" – it's a world of business. Even "classical music" deals with sales figures. No part of the music business deals with the aesthetics of music.
Will this ever change?
No. Whatever aesthetic sense that might have existed in the past seems to be out of phase with contemporary "industrial reality." People don't give a shit.
Yet you persist in your career as a musician.
I persist because it's all I know how to do.
How has Moon's popularity affected homelife around here?
The popularity was in direct proportion to the life cycle of that particular hit single. There was a mysterious fever that surrounded "Valley Girl" that had nothing to do with reality. It complicated matters around here because I have my own schedule for interviews and all the rest of the bullshit that goes with the business and then suddenly she had the same thing, too. I don't drive, she didn't drive at the time, and my wife drives in a carpool. She's a minor and had to be escorted everywhere. It made things real complicated – and last year she had a part in National Lampoon's European Vacation, a film shot in Rome. It started out to be aneight-day shoot, but Gail ended up sitting around with her for about a month. It just makes things a mess, but Moon will be of age pretty soon and she'll be able to go out and do stuff on her own.
Why do you choose to live in Los Angeles?
Because if your musical machinery breaks you can get on the phone and get parts and get somebody to fix it. I dislike Los Angeles and spend a lot of effort to make sure that I never have to go out on the street. I really can't stand to look at the place. What it represents nauseates me. If I had my choice, I definitely wouldn't live here, but I can't think of another place where you can get the service and the equipment.
What's the most outrageous thing a fan has done to you?
I was knocked off the stage by some bimbo in London – broke my leg, a rib, put a hole in the back of my head, broke my nose. I was in a wheelchair for a year.
I remember the incident, but I didn't know it was that bad.
It was pretty bad. I still have back problems as a result of that injury. It wasn't very funny, but he got a year in jail and I imagine a year in an English jail isn't all that terrific either.
If you were to star in a film, what would your dream role be?
I never liked the idea of acting. I have trouble identifying with things that are "make believe," where people pretend ...
Are you related to the 18th Century composer named Zappa?
Probably not, but I researched the music and got some scores from the U.C. Berkeley library, the Library of Congress and from a library in Holland. The material was entered into the Synclavier. An album of the material is available – Francesco Zappa, His First Digital Recording in Over 200 Years.
Are there any new musicians that you appreciate?
One of the most musical people around today is Alan Holdsworth, a guitar player who has developed a very interesting style. I find him very musical. He did a few albums for Warner Bros., but naturally they dropped him because he wasn't commercial. I also like Chad Wackerman, the drummer who has done a few tours with him, and is also the drummer in our band.
You have a reputation for working with fine musicians – who else is in
your band these days?
Ike Willis on guitar and vocals, Ray White on guitar and vocals, Scott Thunes on bass, Bobby Martin on keyboards, and Alan Zavod on keyboards.
Is there any period in history where you would have been more comfortable?
Not really, because I'm an "electronic kind of guy." An earlier era might have offered more in terms of aesthetics, but so much of what I do involves electronic devices that I don't think I would be happy without them.
Do you have any idiosyncrasies?
I smoke a lot of cigarettes, drink a lot of coffee and do a lot of work.
Why do people have pets?
That varies from person to person. I have pets because I like them better than humans. Some people have pets because they think they're furniture.
How would you like to be remembered in the distant future?
I would rather not. I'd rather just skip it. I think that people who build an aspect of remembrance into their work habits – like, "If I don't do this, then how will I be remembered?" – that's really bad. You should just plan for The Big Blotch.
Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
Go into real estate – or get an Herbalife franchise.
Was there anything wrong with this interview?
No, it was perfect.