Mars Needs Evil Princes.
Another one of those Evil Prince interviews, this time a chat with the exuberant Mr. Thomas Mars, recorded at his place on April 20, 1996. Should we take some of this with a pinch of salt? You decide! Mr. Jerry Fialka was also present and can be heard laughing periodically.
What was your musical background before FZ?
In my world of music, I really believe I came out of the womb, singing and beating. I was musical from the gate. Everything was music to me. My literal musical background is first in classical music, although I wanted to take piano lessons when I was five. My brother and sister were taking lessons and the woman that was teaching them said I had to wait until I was eight. At five, I was mimicking the method books my brother and sister were using. I could play them way better than they could.
When I was eight, and they said 'You have to take lessons now, Tommy', I didn't want to but I took them anyway until I was in high school. When I got to high school and started to play in bands, then I stopped music until I graduated and decided to go into music as a career and I learned four pieces to get into a conservatory and then I really started learning classical music. There I learned all the war horses, all the most difficult pieces to play. I was always also playing by ear so I picked up a lot of styles by ear. I was very influenced by the Animals, The Beatles, Art Tatum; Bartok was a big influence. Then I graduated from the conservatory and started playing solo piano, classical music and jazz. I was sixteen when I learned how to read. I had a very good ear, so in grammar school if you told me how something went, I would sort of look at the page and listen to what you did and sort of read it. But when I went to Conservatory is when I learnt to read music. I acquired perfect pitch. I always had excellent relative pitch.
How did you like playing classical music as compared to jazz?
Well, it's apples and oranges. I love them both. It's a hard thing to say because they're both deep in me. The obvious answer to me to that the spontaneous composition of jazz has always intrigued me, but also the treating of classical pieces, I still find new phrasings and new ways to colour with the pedal a certain thing, or even a new fingering. The beauty to me of my ability to play both styles of music is that one influences the other. Many times I'll come across a certain section of classical music that I'm playing and just the mere technical thing of a particular phrase will spawn something in my own creative process, not that it's mimicking it, and this will be a jumping off place. I feel very fortunate that I've been blessed to be able to play classical music. Also the technique and discipline of the classics. I really believe there is no freedom anywhere without discipline. A lot of people shy away from the discipline. They want to go immediately to something free and it's not substantiated by anything. Not that it really has to be, but you like to get down into the primordial ooze of what you're doing and you can only really do that by working with it. The beauty is that, when you're playing classical music, in the form of it and the development of this that when I'm soloing in jazz, I'm a lot more attuned to the attention to detail of the motifs that have already been stated by the composer. If you ever listen to recordings of me, a lot of times I'm quoting like a piece of Frank's. On the last Banned from Utopia tour, on my unaccompanied solo, I'd do some sort of a quote in my solo on 'Yo Cats' for that particular town we were in, to make it personal. Quoting is one of the most humorous things in music and for a lot of people it goes over their heads. I'm always impressed by certain motifs in a composition. I don't want to blow a lot of notes. I want to say in a different way what the composer has already said.
You have also worked as a solo pianist.
When I learned classical music, I realised the absolute independence and freedom of just playing piano. The only way you could get more advanced than that is playing organ which I also do, but organ is a different sound, but there's not so much expression on the organ even though you have a volume pedal. The way the tone is created is different. Piano is so subtle, so rich in its overtones. To really play solo piano, I realised in my late teens that I would have to stretch my hand to reach an interval of at least a tenth in the left hand. Just those two notes imply so much that you don't have to play a lot of other notes with them. You can accompany yourself. If you add one or more notes to that tenth, you can actually get some rhythms going that approximate a track of a record or a band, just with one hand. Then your right hand is free to express yourself. Polyphonic things have always intrigued me, independence of lines. This would have been to no avail if I hadn't played classical.
Before I played with Frank, I was only playing solo piano. It was a gamut from Art Tatum to Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, the difference being that I sing when I'm playing. The freedom of playing solo piano is just unbelievable; you can just stop on a dime and jump over to Pluto. It's ballsy too. It's never going to be the same as a band, never have that intensity, but the intensity is calibrated in a different way. The scat singing largely came from my dad. He was a doctor – he's retired now, but he had his own brand of scat singing. He was influenced by Ella. My dad also whistled. He was an improviser and whistler, so I have to credit a lot of my vocal improvisation to my dad. My mother was totally into opera and my dad totally into jazz. I had both roots to begin with. I started singing along fairly early. Even at six or seven, I was realising how in tune my ears were, so I would sing a note and find it on the piano. The singing started to be a musical force for me when I was in high school, playing in rock bands. It helped for when we were designing the harmony parts for the band. I would be in one of those little blocks of chords, and I would always pick the inner notes. So it was sort of an organic development in that area. I haven't played many solo piano concerts. There was one in Sardinia last year. What I'm doing now is recording my own stuff. I'm constantly chiselling away at that. Mostly I'm a hired gun with different people. I do play limitedly solo, but it's just something that I haven't pursued since I've been with Frank.
I hear that you used to play in churches as well before you played with Zappa.
Oh yes. I've always been into arranging and, even if there's an actual arrangement and I can see what the voices are doing, I love to alter that to make it my own and they don't have to change anything. One of my first memories of music is being a choirboy in the Catholic church. One of the first reasons I wanted to be a musician has to do with choirs. They had me in the boys' choir when I was six or seven and I had just started to go to church with my parents. All of a sudden, I'm part of the freaking service, wearing the robes, singing the Latin, the incense, the sashes, the mystery of it, you're way up in the choir loft in this big cathedral. Everyone else in the choir is four years older than me, but they had heard my voice and it was really angelic and they wanted me there. So one day we're having a rehearsal in the church around Easter time and I looked up at the ceiling and I see these nude children-angels blowing trumpets and strumming harps. They're not like adult angels; they're nude and they're kids. So I said 'Sister Felicia, what are those nude angels up there that are blowing trumpets? What are they all about?' And she replied 'Thomas, very good question. Those are the cherubim and the seraphim. Those are the angels in heaven that when they were on earth, they were musicians and when they died, God immediately took them to heaven and they became angels to give worship and music to him.' So I said 'You mean, anything that they did on this planet, if they were musicians, they went to heaven? 'Yes' she said. So I said 'Hmmm ... (Sings) I gotta ticket to ride.' (laughter)
For a long time, I thought I could pull that marker out with god. I believed a certain Catholic way of thinking. I would not say that I'm religious at all, but I would like to think of myself in a spiritual thing. I don't really go for any organised type of religion. I was choirmaster in Connecticut. I loved directing the choir and playing the organ, writing pieces and arranging them. It's amazing what you can do if you have people that can read a little bit and sing a little bit, but have a dude that's a bitchin organ player and just has a vision of something. They don't have to be great, but I've always been in the position where I can add the electricity to the event. I have this gig in downtown LA that I've been doing for a year where I blow in a black Baptist church where I'm the only white boy. It's a blast; I actually look forward to it. They just give me the music, they're all rehearsed right when they're going to play it and I enjoy doing that. I remember the time they had their first baptism. They have this pool in the front of the church and they actually dunk the people in it. It was wild; I had to check my skin colour to see if I went over Jordan. (Fialka laughs) I never had that kind of feeling before in an organised way. The lesson that being a choirmaster gave me was that I was able to use all the data I had accrued through college and my own inspiration to create something. The other really great thing about blowing in a church is that is like a concert; people are really listening. It's not like a club. There's a sort of reverence, even though sometimes I get a bit pissed off that some dude has to tell me how to live my life. A minister has to administer his crap to you.
When did you meet Frank for the first time?
I believe it was the first week in May 1977. I was playing solo in Santa Barbara at the Biltmore Hotel. I had a call from Ed Mann who I'd always been in touch with and who had moved to California a couple of years before I did. He told me Frank was auditioning keyboard players and he really sort of tooted my horn pretty well. Frank already had a keyboard player and he didn't really need another one, but Ed raved about me so much that Frank said 'I gotta hear this dude'. I thought Ed was putting me on when I got a phone call saying 'This is Frank' and I said 'Frank who?' I was getting tired playing solo piano in terms of the people who were in these hotels and piano bars. I couldn't put the right mask on any more. It was a situation where I would see perfect ladies and gentlemen come into the bar and after a few drinks, maybe an hour later, they would turn into animals. They weren't really listening to the music and they were really disrespectful even among themselves. I would start scat singing to just one of them, like (sings) 'You're just such a fucked-up dude. What the hell do you see in this asshole, dear?' And I would get fired! So when I got the call from Frank, it was like he was going to hire me to be me, finally. I was not really versed in his music at all. 'Peaches' and 'King Kong'; those were the only two Zappa songs I knew. But it was no big deal. He appreciated what I did.
So how was the audition for Frank's band?
Ooh, it was wild. The first thing I remember, walking into the pad, were all these airline bottles of Johnny Walker Red and you have to know that Frank didn't drink or do drugs. I'm saying 'Wow, he's a drinking dude' (Fialka laughs again) and he took a sip of this and I'm waiting for him to swallow it, but he just holds it and I think I've never seen anyone drink like that. Later on, I realise Frank would occasionally get a tooth-ache and he would just hold it on his gum. That was my first impression. I'm thinking 'Why doesn't he just buy a jug?'
Then we started the audition and it was really difficult. I think he made it extra-special difficult for me because he already had hired Peter Wolf the week before. The first part of it was riff recognition. He would play a part on a record for me and say 'That's A – you got that? Here's B. OK, play A twice then B once. OK here's C. Now play C then B twice, then C and A four times.' These were not like 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' licks. These were like 'Enter the Demon'. My heart starts pounding. I did halfway decent on it.
The next thing, if I remember correctly, was a very special part to me. The song that came to be 'Sinister Footwear' had the first twenty-two measures just written. I remember looking at that page and seeing three or four measures not done yet, and on top it was called 'Slowly'. I said 'Jeez, that looks like a very interesting piece'. He said 'Yeah, play it'. I said 'OK', but he didn't want it from the top, just from the part that goes (sings the bit that also appears on 'Wild Love'). That gave me such problems because I hadn't seen figures like that since I was in college. I could tell I was cracking a nut with him, he was getting pissed off. I was reading it, and that to me means feeling a harmonic rhythm. You continue, you keep going, you grab what you can, but I think he wanted to hear it perfectly. He wanted Mr. College Graduate to just like blow. I didn't drown at this point; I was treading water with a very little popsicle stick. I was really started to get frustrated. My self-esteem was waning at this point.
He asked me if I can sing and I said 'Yah'. He wanted me to sing him a song. I was so frustrated that I said 'Frank, I must know a thousand songs, but the way I'm feeling now, my head is so blown-out with this audition that I don't think I could remember one all the way through'. So I just created something on the spot and went for a stream of consciousness. He said 'That's the first good thing you've done all day long. Go for it.' I just took off. All the frustration I felt just blew. When I finished, I ended up with a bit of the 'Wizard of Oz' which just came in and I was playing it sort of McCoy meets Art Tatum. It was wild. I finished it and there was a space of time while he waited and I was wondering how he felt about it. He said, 'You know what? You're not going to have to play in any more Holiday Inns for a long time.' That was great!
He puts his arm round me and he said 'I never heard anything like that!' and he started spewing. He went off to get Gail and he wanted me to do it exactly again. I said 'Frank, that will never happen again the way it just happened.' So I had to approximate it; I could do that all day long. I love doing that shit. He said 'Good, you're going to get plenty of time to do it'. He brought Gail down and it was all sealed up and I was hired that day.
So scat singing in a way saved me. It put me over the edge. I think he was interested, but I don't know if I would have been hired. I knew that he knew that I could read music and that was important to him in that I knew different musical styles. I have literally have been through hundreds of auditions with Frank, to see other people, all instruments and I do have to say that mine was probably the most difficult I have ever seen.
I can remember Bobby's audition for the band. It was a good audition, but when Frank said 'Let me hear you sing something'. And when Bobby started singing, he sang 'Auld Lang Syne' and it nailed me. He started up high and I knew he was going to have to go way up to grab it, so I jumped on the Vocoder. When you're in the band and somebody tried out, you sort of have a little power in the band. When Frank calls up a song, you play it a certain way. You an put it on auto-pilot or you can turn the heat up a little bit. I turned up the heat for Bobby, because I liked what he was. I liked the fact that he played French horn and I knew he would be a good utility keyboard player and he has a wonderful voice. But I know that the stuff I had to do on my audition, very very few people had to do. He really put me through the changes and I'm glad he did. I'm glad I had to hold on to those little pieces of driftwood in the ocean.
Did you ever have to face 'Sinister Footwear' again?
That was one of the most intense pieces of Frank's that I've done in all the time. When that song was finished and we started to play it ... 'Sinister Footwear' was never recorded for a long time. We would play it but it was never recorded and I was so happy when Frank finally did record it. It was so wonderful to put the overdubs on it. That's one of our favourite songs to play in Banned from Utopia. We really blow shit out of that bastard. We've reharmonised sections of it too.
Let's get technical. Frank and I both, before I joined the band, were great fans of the minor lydian. This is a polytonal concept. If you have a C minor on the bottom, and a D major on the top. That's a lydian chord with the tritone in it. I remember the first time I heard it. Errol Garner played it and I said 'I have to have that'. It's something way deep inside me, like in Frank too. It's all over his music which was one of the things that drew me to his music. So the song starts out with an Eb major over a C# minor which is what I call a minor lydian. I have my own treatise on harmony. The basic structure of the song is arpeggiated. There's a series of four chord changes, each of them goes four times. Then you have that punctuated bit (sings) and it's like by this minor third development, all of this impetus coming from that minor lydian. Then he starts to introduce the melody ('Wild Love' bit). Then from about 1980, I believe, there was an arpeggiated thing that we had and the bass went (sings the riff) and Frank would blow on that. Then the song came back with an exact transposition, the whole thing moving from C# to B, with the new melody (sings). Frank actually wrote this new melody. Generally when Frank writes a melody over one of his songs, he's extracting the notes of the chords in his melodies. That's sort of a constant with him.
Let's talk about your soloing work. How much freedom did you get and how much was ordered by Frank?
Varied and sundry. I had quite a bit of freedom during the first tour. My solo was on 'Pound for a Brown' in seven, and that could be taken out quite a bit. When Frank gave me 'Little House' to solo on, I started out on unaccompanied piano with my tour space pedals (?) [Taurus bass]. Then Terry and I would do a duo thing for a little while, and then I set up a little vamp at the end of this that I could blow on. It was just like a dream come true. However, the difficult part of it was that the shows would sometimes get abbreviated. When we played the first American tour, it was the only time that I was in the band that we had a show that never changed. Ever. We were still the Mothers at that point.
The European tour that happened after that in the winter was when Frank started the idea of cells, of little germs of segues. Two or three songs segued to four songs, segued to etc. And he'd mix and match them. We'd always have pow-wows before the show. So sometimes the formula of the show order would change and I wouldn't get a piece of meat at all. I can remember occasionally that my only freaking piece of meat in the whole freaking night was goddamn 'Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?' I would blow baroque; that was it for the night. I'm the kind of player though that whenever I can get a little taste, then I'm going to get it. So when Frank would be playing a guitar solo, sometimes it would be that I would play a bit of repartee. But you had to watch that with Frank. You'd know when you were going past the line. I was very fortunate to have that unaccompanied thing. When Peter had that solo on 'Wild Love', I can remember that I always wanted to have that burning Latin solo. Frank for some reason, didn't like us to burn sometimes.
There was one time that I wanted to solo so fucking bad on 'Wild Love' that during Peter's solo in Atlanta, I took my pants off and I was down to my bikini briefs and I went on front of stage and danced. And Frank was digging the fuck out of it. I was just weaving and bobbing to all the chicks that were up there. It was sort of like my solo, this was the best I could get. I don't know if Peter enjoyed it, but Frank said after the show 'I'm never going to ask you to do that, Tommy. But whenever you feel like it, PLEASE do it!' If you do one thing for Frank with the music, you are expected to do it that way every single time. That's a given in the equation. I thought I might have created a monster for myself during that show.
How did you build up songs in rehearsals?
A variety of ways. Some songs came in as a riff on guitar and they would always happen in a particular way. Frank would start playing it like at a soundcheck. He was always playing. He'd play until you were sick of it. He'd come in with a vamp or a little series of chords for the song and that's when the band element would start to congeal. Then out of nowhere, he'd come in with lyrics for it. Then it started to take on the shape of a song. The start of 'Baby Snakes' is a classic example of how the thing would change. We'd play it one way and he'd say 'Can you play it this way?' and he'd change it.
The funniest thing with Frank, and this would kill, is that as an artist you have your own vision of what you would do if you were in the driver's seat. You'd want your little vision to congeal with Frank's. I liked to think that many times what I was thinking was what he might think. You'd sort of personalise it; you wouldn't try to second guess him but I would try to think what is he getting at here, what is his vision here? A lot of times, Frank would just stop me and say 'That's it Tommy, great!' or he'd start laughing and you know you'd hit the mark, you know? So I'd write it down. Sometimes whoever was klonemeister would have a tape going. We'd come back to the rehearsal the next day and start playing the tune, playing exactly what I'd played the day before. Frank would look at me and scowl and say 'What in the fuck was that? What are you playing?' I said 'I'm playing just what the Christ you told me to play yesterday.' He said 'I didn't give you that yesterday.' 'Frank, I have that written down on a bit of paper. Arthur, do you have that on tape?' 'Yeah, I got it on tape, Tommy.' (Fialka laughs) And then he'd known he was cornered, like a little cat. He'd wait a long time – he always waited a long time – and then he'd say 'Well, I don't like it today. Don't ever play it again.' (General laughter)
Sometimes you'd sneak it back in. We would always put a little taste because sometimes they were the coolest things. That was the great thing when it got chiselled out to an area where you were really jiving with it and you were talking about some sort of socio-political situation, and the music to it is so emphatic, it was wedded to it so perfectly and the thing is in odd meters because that is how we say that line. That was another thing I loved about Frank. The reason he used odd meters wasn't for odd meters' sake; it was because that was the way we talk. It rolled off the tongue. We were hired to be creative.
I'm lucky I got a couple of co-writing credits, like on 'Yo Cats'. No-one ever really got that, especially in the later days. The beauty to me when we finally had the song constructed and went on the road with it, played it so that it was part of our daily routine, was to go back and finally record the song. To me there's nothing like that. Many times you go in to do a session and it's the first and last time you ever get to hear the song again. When you really know a song intimately and it because your friend because you live with it, when you finally do record it, the intimacy you have with it as an artist and a performer makes it so much deeper, the meaning of the song to you.
For 'Sheik Yerbouti', I must have spent six months practically alone with Frank. I did pretty much all the keyboard overdubs and most of the vocal overdubs too. He let me go wild on that album. 'Joe's Garage' was a different set-up because we were recording from scratch in the studio whereas 'Sheik' came from live tracks with overdubs. It was the whole band playing together. It was a situation where Frank wasn't real clear a lot of times on 'Joe's Garage' what we were supposed to be playing. There was experimentation going on. He was paying for studio time. This wasn't up at his house; he still hadn't had the studio done yet. I wrote out the whole of the middle section for 'Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?' I remember one night my mind went blank for those sixteen measures, and this was the only time I can recall this happening. It scared me so much that I stayed up writing out that part, so if it ever happened again, I would go on auto-pilot and have that.
That was one of the good things I could bring to the table with Frank was all those classical styles. He loved to caricature all different kinds of classical music. Not a lot of players could do that. Many of the guys who played with Frank were either real rockers or jazzers. Not too many classical dudes. Peter's not a classical guy; he's fusion.
Frank was well into technology. Can you tell us something about Frank's use of this and keyboards and the equipment you would use? He tried to replace horn sections with strings, like on 'Yo Mama'.
That section on that song, the whole instrumental reprise, is very dear to my heart. When we did that, I'll never forget that he just said 'Tommy, go wild. Do anything you want on this.' It was just me and him in the studio. It was like a composer for a movie giving an orchestrator an idea and saying 'Here's what the deal is'. I felt so esteemed by that. I knew that it was subject to his editorial control, but however ... I could do it. It was such a great thing to have all those little lines, all these things getting weaved in. Up to that point, I had never had a section of music that ever hit me as dramatically as that. That was sort of a pinnacle for me for a few years. Whenever I heard that, I thought it was the best thing I'd ever done musically. It's surprising; a lot of people know that piece and that section.
Speaking of the technology, when I was hired by Frank, I didn't bring any gear down with me. It was just a preliminary audition. He had given me thirteen pieces to practice for a week. When I went down, the sound that the guys from the synthesizer company were constructing with Frank was the most simple, basic and disgusting pipe organ sound and that was the easiest sound you could make on a synth in those days. It was set up with two envelope generators for each oscillator. With my stuff, I had already figured out that with one of those envelope generators, I could make a pitch change that would approximate the inadequacy and inexactness of embouchure. With human expression, you don't have perfection. The imperfection makes it human and makes it real. Everything up to that point was aseptically clean and by this little pitch change, one oscillator would stay on the same note, the other would be slightly out. When I found this out having bought my synth, I thought it had a brassy quality to it. I was always chiselling away at it. So when I brought down this synth, he asked what sounds you could have. I said 'I don't have a lot of them' but I played him this one sound I had constructed and he was impressed that it sounded like a French horn. So he had the guys from EMU hardwire this sound to his synth. Frank was always in the vanguard.
I remember one day we were in New York and we had a gig out at Stony Brook in Long Island – we called this Christmas at Manny Day. We all went to Manny's Music on 48th St, except me – I had to go visit somebody. I remember going to the soundcheck and Frank says 'I got a surprise for you'. I said 'What? What, Santa?' and he said 'Well, you know how you've always wanted an instrument that will double your voice or play chords? We always thought we'd only be able to do with a delay. But I got a whole synth that will do that for you. They came out with an instrument called a Vocoder and I just bought it. I don't know anything about how it works, but I know you're going to love it, Mars.' It had already been put up on my rack and I'm starting to play with it, and Frank says 'You are going to use it tonight, aren't you? You'll use it tonight, right Tommy?' And he looks at me in that way, and I say 'Well all right...'
That Vocoder had only two sounds on it: this heavenly angelic choir sort of sound and what we called the Ant Sound which had no vibrato and sounded very flat and monotone. That's what Frank liked on his voice, the ugly sound.
When it came to strings, I built up a tremolo kind of sound which would reiterate itself. I could flick this switch and it would re-attack itself. I used to do it really fast, like a tremolo on a violin and play in time with that. I remember when we did the concert with L. Shankar in 1981. Shankar and I had a little violin battle – I had a violin sound on the keyboard – and I was playing just as fast as he was. I would put this note in with the tremolo sound and then play piano, and Shankar would be looking wondering how I was doing that.
Another good story about technique comes from when we were playing 'Inca Roads' in 1977. We were working on it and when it came to the fast mallet licks, I was wondering how the hell I was going to play it, though I didn't have to as it was only written for mallets. Everybody wanted to play all the licks all the time. I went home and looked at that sonofabitching lick and decided to play it with two hands. I'll never forget the look on Peter Wolf's face the next day when I played it. It's a snap with two hands, but it's difficult with one hand. Peter couldn't see me playing the piano with two hands and his mouth just dropped.
Another funny story: we had these pieces called 'Number Seven', 'Number Six' and so on. They were inserts, thirty-two measures maximum. There was one used in 'Jumbo' (sings). Frank brings it in and I'm blinking my eyes at it. I say 'It's all in the treble clef'. When you see treble clef as a pianist, you organically think right hand. I'm negotiating it, but this is the first thing that he's written where I'm saying to myself 'Oho. I don't know if I can really play this.' Frank's looking at me and says 'Oh, a little difficult, eh Mars?' I'm trying to play it and my left hand is on my lap. I'm playing it, but it's unbelievably difficult for one hand. And I have played the heaviest most difficult sections of classical music. Frank is watching me struggle, seeing me die, and he's starting laugh. He says 'Ha, want me to play it for you?' I reply 'I'm practising, Frank. Don't bust my balls.' And he says 'I could show you how to play it'. He comes back with 'Mars, would you move over on the bench and let me play this damn thing?' I want to take it home and practice it, but he says 'Let me show you how to do it'. I thought this was going to be like a real super joke. He comes over and puts one hand on top of the other, one on the white keys, the other on the black, but I had never used my left hand; I was trying to play it with just the right. And he played it like he was fucking Horowitz ... It was so simple I dropped to my knees. I was screaming laughing. That was the heaviest time he ever got me on. But he actually played it. It was a childlike technique. You can come up with some great licks that way too.
Frank loved percussion. Did you ever have any discussion with him about this and the fact that you often had to double the percussion lines?
The main thing of that is the reiterated note on marimba. A note dies away immediately. To keep a sustained note, you have to continue to reiterate that note. That's all over his style. I used to call it he Mosquito Technique. It's so unpianistic to do that. The whole of that intro to 'Yellow Snow' is like that.
When we did 'Night School' with the Seattle and Portland Symphony Orchestras, I had to learn that piece in a week and a half because Ed wasn't going to do the show. So, talk about freaking mosquito bites ... I find it rather boring as a keyboard player to have to do that, but I realise it was because Frank was so mallet-oriented. I said to him that I thought it was pretty arrogant and egotistical to have to repeat a note so much. He replied 'But I like it'. It does develop a certain part of your technique that you would otherwise not have.
What gear did you use on tour?
It always changed. I never knew what I would get. Sometimes he wouldn't want the Hammond, sometimes not the Rhodes. Most of the time, he liked to have the CP70 piano, the Electrocomp, the Vocoder, the Mini, two sets of bass pedals. The coolest thing was the organ man when we had a voltage control so I could use two sets of Syndrums. Both keyboards had a set of Syndrums. They were wired in so that every note on the organ had a Syndrum with it. It was a totally revolutionary sound. I loved that about Frank that he was in the avant-garde and you'd never know what kind of vision would come next. Sometimes I would try to couple things and he would nurture that with me.
There's a story about you playing 'The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue' as a string quartet.
That was I think the first and the only time that I saw Frank's eyes get wet. We were in England at the Hammersmith Odeon during a soundcheck. I didn't even know Frank was there. We starting laying 'Eric Dolphy' and I had the most beautiful string quartet sound. The beauty of this instrument was the polyphonic aftertouch. Each note when you push in would have a different setting and degree of vibrato. I played that piece and I was reharmonising it too. All of a sudden I realise Frank's standing behind me. I looked up and he said 'Tommy that was the most beautiful thing you have ever played.' It moved him. It scared me because Frank was not like that. And I just caught that one little glimpse. When we usually played 'Eric Dolphy', it was straight ahead jazz. It wasn't sweet or pretty and I was really playing it very romantically.
What about the story of you presenting your gear to Pierre Boulez?
Frank was incredibly sick that night. I don't know what he had but he was all doubled over. And here's Pierre Boulez all hot to trot, Mr. Bon-vivant, and Frank is like dying. He says 'Tommy, go out and show him your gear'. I said 'Frank, this is Pierre Boulez, man! You gotta be shitting me.' And Frank says 'He's just a regular dude. Just show him the little poly boxes; show him the Vocoder'. And here's people in the audience screaming my name, and there's Pierre in front of a rock audience. I go to my set-up and describe what is happening with the poly boxes. He was blown away with it. Then I played a bit on the Vocoder and added the bass pedals to give it some bottom and he was wild with excitement about this. During the show, Frank had us go down the shopping list with him too. That was kind of embarrassing for me too. I didn't want to do that. I felt cheap doing it, but I did what Frank wanted me to do.
How do you see those instruments today?
They were pinnacle instruments. I use a lot of today's technology. In those days, it took three instruments to get the parallel chords you can achieve with one today, but the sound is not the same. Sure, I don't have to tune them and they have two hundred instruments in a box today, but maybe I can use two of those sounds. I much prefer having a dedicated set-up, where an instrument is dedicated to one sound. It leaves it so open. I find it very frustrating. Sometimes it makes me want to go back to just B3 organ and piano.
Do you remember singing 'Envelopes' with the 'I'm screwing you' lines?
That started off on the plane. Frank had the piece written, and he was adding a second piano part to it. I'm looking over his shoulder and he says 'Do you like it?' And I say 'Yeah, it's really happening' and I started to sing it. Sure enough, that night I get to the gig and we haven't even started to rehearse 'Envelopes'. And he has lyrics for me to sing, already. He would do that constantly. Very obscene lyrics. I loved that song. It was very difficult, but we pulled it off every night. I had to redo Peter's part when we recorded it.
Tell us something about the music you're going to be recording.
It's got a jazz sensibility to it, but within that there's a Gothic classical flair to it that's sort of neo-Zappa. There's a bit of Frank in it because I was very in tune with who Frank was before I got to Frank. Then when I worked for him for all those years, it impressed that style upon me more. It developed that part of me. So I'm still doing sort of the same things that I did with Frank. And I have a kind of pop sensibility too within that. But it's typical Mars; it's not completed yet – I keep on chiselling away at it. I'm not obsessed by it. I don't have my own band at the moment. I had a unit and we all brought a couple of tunes to the table about two years ago. That was called Epicentre because it was right after the big earthquake out here. We played a few gigs around. That sort of disbanded. I probably will have a band soon. I'm working with a very fine singer right now, a woman called Laura Easy, and she's singing some of those incredibly high things for me. I still do sessions, I'm a hired gun as I said. I do a fair amount of commercial work and I teach a lot.
What do you think of Banned from Utopia compared to the Grandmothers?
There's no comparison. It's freaking apples and oranges, man. I'm rather insulted that you would even put us in the same category. No, I don't mean to sound arrogant like that. But it's totally different. We happen to have a certain aesthetic to the band that we're trying to keep a tradition alive with the music that was very dear to us and that we want to keep instilled in people. Because that music hit us personally – I'm not speaking for everyone in the band here, just myself – and even when we knew Frank wouldn't go on the road again and then after he died, you knew the music was dying in terms of a live band. I know when Ike called and said we're going to do this show in Stuttgart, and do you want to do it with us, I said 'You betcha'. Then getting all the cats together and putting that music back on the planet in a live situation, it was such an enlivening responsibility and joy, the feelings that we hadn't felt for years, like certain sections that Ed and I used to play in our first year in the band. Just the joy of doing that again and knowing that people were going to adore it. I can't speak for the Grandmothers, but I've heard their work and I love them as people, but we're in a different world, not that one is any better.
What was the most educational and important thing you learnt from being with Frank?
I think to be myself. It's really cool to be yourself. Also music is the greatest.