Martin Perlich interviews FZ

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This is the transcription of a recorded interview with Frank Zappa conducted sometime in 1972 (probably late 1972) by Martin Perlich.

I know from your various raps in the past and from reading about you that you have a great deal of interest in classical music.
Yeah, I do. It's what I listen to mostly, I don't listen to too much rock and roll.

How come?
I don't think that it gets me off as good as some contemporary classical pieces.

Like what?
My favorite composers to listen to are: Stravinsky, Webern, Varèse, and Penderecki. I think I find more things of interest for my ear in those composers than I do in any number of pop groups that you could name.

Do you think that there's a possible audience for let's say ... Webern or Penderecki?
Of course there is.

Where is it?
Well, that's beside the point. The audience exists – it's perhaps not as large as the audience for Grand Funk Railroad but it's there nonetheless and is in need of servicing. There are some people who might be interested in hearing that music who have never heard it before and who might just like to go out and see what it does to their mind to get a little bit of it on 'em.

In the past, political types have talked of the music of Webern, the, uh Post-Webern really ... Penderecki and his friends as being elitist music – music that is difficult for masses of people to listen to.
Then I would assume from that line of reasoning that the ideal music of all time must be that of the crudest form of rock and roll. I don't think that that's elitist music by any stretch of the imagination.

Do you think it's easy for people to listen to?
It depends on the person who's listening to it and what he expects to get out of it, y'know.

What do people come to music for, do you think?
Well, in America, mostly for entertainment. I doubt that they're going to derive as much entertainment value out of watching, say, a Webern string quartet performed as, say, some rock and roll band who has a guitar player who eats his guitar onstage. That would probably be more entertaining for them, but I don't think that's down to what the music is really about.

Is the music of the MOI influenced by your interest in classical music?
Yeah, I would say so.

How? Rhythmically? Harmonically?

Other than taking other people's work and using it for theme and variations as you do in the Invocation and Ritual Dance and various other places in your work, do you think that there is a link between what we call the classical world and your music?
Yes, there is a link. It's rhythmic and it's harmonic.

Pierre Boulez says of Stravinsky that Stravinsky was the first person, specifically in the Rite Of Spring, to write rhythm that most of Western music until that time, starting with Palestrina had written harmony.
I don't know whether I could agree with that a hundred percent.

Do you think that you play harmony, or rhythm, or a combination of the two?
I think that you're getting into some deep stuff right there unless you want to get into a big philosophical discussion...

(interrupts) I do.
For a teen-age radio station, you kidding me?

I'll kid ya.
Okay. Well my premise is that you can have harmony constructed out of rhythms. That's the way I look at it and without getting into a series of charts, graphs, diagrams and explaining technically how all that's done, that's one of the things that my listening to forms of music other than rock and roll has brought to the performance of The Mothers.
I would probably tend to agree with Lukas Foss's evaluation of The Rite Of Spring although it's one of my favorite pieces, he feels that it's sort of like Bigger and Better Rimsky-Korsakov. In a way it is. It's more than that, but I think that the L'Histoire Du Soldat has probably got a lot more going for it in terms of real innovation and its rhythmic vitality; interesting sonorities that just didn't exist in chamber music prior to that time.

You said you sorta wanted to put off a philosophical discussion, it's clear, however, that you're into what music does and how audiences address music; you're quite obviously unhappy that the lowest common denominator seems so often to rise to the top - at least at the economic pile in American music; you seem to think that Grand Funk Railroad is something less than ideal. What is ideal? What is the music experience about and what kinds of things do you bring to it? What do you expect your audience to do?
Well, first of all I do not wish to state that Grand Funk Railroad is less than ideal. Grand Funk Railroad IS ideal for people who like that kind of music and I don't want you to misconstrue what I say.
I happen to be interested in performing a type of music that perhaps is not as interesting to as large a number of people as the number of people that get off on that other kind of music, y'know. But I'm not interested in that other kind of music so I'm not bothered with it.

I sat in an audience once and something didn't work; one of the amplifiers of the last of The Mothers bands, and people wanted you to play and were applauding and you came forward and lectured them on how they wouldn't know the difference anyhow but it made some difference to you. It's not done often in pop music.
It should be done more often in pop music. It should be done in classical music too because if it's not done the audience is going to continue to come to a performance saying "Merely entertain me. Just go up there and you be a juke box only we can see you moving around." Unless you do something to alter that image it'll just stay the same forever. People will just go down there and expect musicians to be robots spewing off some kind of little noise that they can identify with, and I don't think that's what music's all about.

What then is it all about? Are you interested in writing for some small segment of the population or are you interested in raising the standard of the audience listening habits?
I'm not interested in doing either of the above. What I'm interested in doing is writing music that I want to hear, okay? And if there happen to be some people who have similar taste to me, then they would like to listen to that too. However the music is made available to anybody who wants to hear it; the concerts are open to the public; the records are on sale to anybody who wants to buy 'em; the radio stations are free to pick and choose what they want to play; it's sort of a low-pressure operation.

But for those of us who have known Frank Zappa only through his records and The Mothers records, particularly over the years and have come to love you and know you through that music, when they find that you're going on into areas which they maybe aren't prepared to go in, they are a little disappointed and they say "Why?" and that's the only question that I'm prepared to ask.
Well, the question I'm prepared to ask is "Why should somebody be disappointed?" What's disappointing about having somebody do some exploring for you? If I'm going into an area that you're not interested in going into, fine - you stay home. I'll tell you what happened when I get back.

Send a postcard at the very least.
Sure. I'll do you a public service. I'll find out what's out there. The only problem is, if you don't go there with me you're gonna have to take my word for it when I give you my report. That's not too smart. You should at least come along for the ride and find out what's happening out there.

Where are you going, Frank?
I'm going wherever I can, y'know.

Going out into jazz and into Webern and all those places?
I started off in Webern. I'm trying to get back. (laughs)

Working your way home?
Yeah, working my way back from Vienna.

Are you really interested in that kind of music and atonal serial music - do you compose in tone rows and things like that or is it more American than that?
No. I started off composing serial music. I was writing serial music when I was 18 and I never had a chance to get any of it performed because I was living in a little town where there weren't too many musicians around who could read or play well enough to count the rhythm and read all the elaborate dynamic markings that are usually connected with serial music. You know, you serialize your dynamics as well as your pitches. You can also serialize your rhythm. So I was doing that kind of stuff a long time ago.

So now you're wreaking your vengeance, eh?
No. What happened was, I finally did get a chance to hear some of the serial material performed and, maybe it was the performance that I finally got of it, or maybe it was just that I decided to do something else but I stopped writing serial music. I was writing all kinds of positive and negative canons and weird inverted this and retrograde that and getting as spaced-out mathematically as I could and I was going "Wait a minute (laughs), who cares about that stuff?" I had always like rhythm and blues so here I was stuck between the slide rule and the gut bucket somewhere and I decided that I would opt for a third road someplace in between.

How would you describe that road? Other than that you like the road.
It's winding.

And do you think that people are going to.. I hate to put this question to you in terms of audience, but that's through records and through radio stations and through Hollywood Bowl concerts -- that's where it is. Do you think that audiences are going to ultimately come to it even if they don't come to it, say the first or second time?
Well, let's suppose I do it and they don't come to it. But let's suppose somebody that they like better does it because they heard us do it, and they do it -- they'll go to it. If Grand Funk Railroad started playing serial music, they'd love it.

Do you think they would?
Sure. They'd be...

(interrupts) You couldn't dance to it.
How do you know? All you got to do is keep a strong backbeat to it, it doesn't make too much difference what the pitches are. As a matter of fact, you start defining terms like serial or atonal and things like that, well - feedback is atonal and Jimi Hendrix used to do that up the ass, so what's the difference? He had the right showmanship to present with that and going into a serial framework might be just another logical extension.
I wouldn't say that any audience in the Youth Segment is ready to bid heavily in the serial market right now because they're too much oriented to laying back and grooving behind some musical experience but, eventually they may want to explore that because it just gives you a different feeling. If you've listened to very much of Webern's music and listen to it in the spirit with which it was constructed, it'll take you someplace quite far away.
What I would like to say is this: The discussion of Webern in this conversation is almost blasphemous and I would like to suggest that if anybody's got an opportunity that they would go out and actually listen to Webern so that they know what this discussion is about. First of all, for those of you who don't know - his name is spelled: W-E-B-E-R-N. His first name is Anton, and he's dead, you understand? Go to a record store and ask for, let's see, there's one album called "The Collected Works of Anton Webern" and it's conducted by Robert Kraft - that's available in MONO.

On Columbia.
Yes, and there are also some other ones that aren't too shabby that are available on some European labels. Phillips has one of an Italian string quartet that's playing some of his string quartet pieces. That's very good - I can't remember what the name of the quartet is, but ...

(interrupts) Quartetto di Italiano. [1]
Is that it?

That's it.
The one with the black turtlenecks on the front.

That's that.
Yeah. But go down and listen to some of this music and see whether or not it's too abstract for your mind. I don't think it will be, I think that if you get over the initial shock of hearing how much space there is between the notes, and hearing that the dynamics are not extremely loud and hearing that the texture of the music is something completely different than what you're normally accustomed to, I think that if you listen to it with a little sensitivity and appreciation it might even get you off. It doesn't have much of a beat but it is alright.

Give it an 83.
I'd give it a hundred and sixty five. I would say that if there was anybody who has ever written music and been involved in the composing business that got close to writing some saintly stuff - it was Anton Webern because he - you talk about a purist, you got it.

The Mothers early music, which was largely a product of your head, had one great enemy: the American high school. Other than that, you have not really attacked some of the things that became fashionable in the late 60s and early 70s to attack. Do you have a political stance that you like to talk about?
No, I don't have a political stance that I like to talk about because I don't wish to unduly influence anybody else's political stance. As far as attacking things, the early music of the MOI was not so much attacking as making some rather accurate comments about situations that existed, and it wasn't a question of picking some trendy thing to attack and then ATTACK IT, so that everybody who also agreed that that thing that you were talking about was crap could go "Yeah, they're right on" or something. The things that I talked about in those songs were things that meant something to me. And when it became fashionable for other groups to make socio-political commentary in their material, and when I saw the results of the work that they had done in that vein, and I saw how superficial it was, and I saw that it was turning into a trend, and I also saw that the audience that was buying records listened to that stuff and said "Yeah, that's really great.", I said "I don't need to tell them anything anymore, they don't need to hear that from me, they got all these other groups that are going: 'Kick out the Jams', etc. etc.", y'know and everybody's going "Yeah, that's Heavy". So, I have some musical interests that I'd like to take care of.

Do you think that you'll come back to that kind of satirical content in your music after you've taken this road?
Well, I think that satirical content in music does not necessarily have to lean on the verbal aspect. There are plenty of satirical things that you can do with a mere note or a mere inflection and never say a word and it's unfortunate that the audience that thought that the satirical aspect as described above had vanished from the MOI music was insensitive to those other aspects which remained in the music. In other words, they were so verbally oriented that by the time we had progressed into other forms of commentary, they didn't go along. You missed that road, boys and girls.

Getting away from talking about the high school and talking about society and getting into that whole trip that lasted, I don't know how long, a couple of years I guess, in which you were traveling and were on the road and did incredibly long musical and verbal riffs about being drunk, horny and on the road. And that was one of the things especially in the movie that a lot of people found that you had done that trip and why were you doing it again.
Well, that's not exactly accurate. First of all, it did not last 2 years and second of all, the content of the music that the Mothers play is not 100% the result of me making people do things. The reason we're performing that is because it was a true story, it actually happened to Howard Kaylan. It was just a process of commemorating a piece of folklore that was peculiar to the group and there was no reason why that shouldn't be saved and I think that other groups who ignore the folklore that happens to the members within the group are missing a good shot for preserving a little history. Because I also take the position that contemporary history is going to be retained on records more accurately than it is going to be within history books.
Judging from the quality of the rock and roll writers that are appearing in rock and roll publications I would say they're not doing quite as good as the people who are actually making the records. So therefore, in a hundred years if people want to find out what was going on during this period of time they'd be better off listening to the source rather than to read the thing in print. Therefore, if we are involved in things that occur on the road with groupies and assorted weird events of a sexual nature, it's better that we tell about it ourselves in a musical format and do it with the people that it occurred to than have somebody else say "And then in 1971 one time when they were out on the road at the Mudshark hotel ...". You know, it's better to do it that way.
Unfortunately, some people have a peculiar attitude towards things of a glandular nature connected with things of a musical nature and they say "Well, music is so high - it's HERE, and glands are WAY DOWN THERE, and we can't really get 'em together." And then they're hypocritical because then they turn around and a group that comes in and doesn't sing overtly about those things but couches their language a little bit and then does it with a little choreography, they think that's great and that's real rock and roll and I maintain there's no difference. We were just honest enough to go out there and say "This is THIS, that's THAT, and here you are and respond to it.", and the response to it was "Why, I'm hip, but of course I am offended."


  1. Quartetto Italiano - Webern: Complete String Quartets (Philips 420796) 1970