By Dan Forte
Musician, No.19, August 1979
When Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention released Freak Out! in 1967, the reaction of most consumers was something like, "This must be some sort of joke – but I don't get it." At a time when rock music was taking itself more and more seriously and college professors were quoting Bob Dylan and the Beatles, Zappa seemed to mock everything that was sacred – including his own music. In the liner notes to that debut album, he said of "Hungry Freaks Daddy," "This song has no message," and admitted that "Wowie Zowie" was "designed to suck the 12-year-old listener into our camp." While other groups were advocating peace and love, the Mothers would insult their audiences onstage. And they were anything but beautiful.
Few critics could have predicted then that Zappa's sensory-overload attack would become such an influential force in the musical factions which came to be known as fusion and progressive rock. Fewer still could have conceived of Zappa sustaining one of the longest, most prolific careers in the field of rock.
Thirteen years and a couple dozen albums later, Zappa is still largely misunderstood by critics as well as record buyers, and his public image is as distorted now as it was then. Tell someone you're on your way to interview Frank Zappa, and you're liable to hear: "Good luck, man; he made mincemeat out of the last guy who tried to interview him," or "See if you can score me some acid," or "Be sure and ask him about the time he ate the shit."
That last statement is in reference to one of the most widespread and long-lived rumors in rock and roll history, regarding a "gross-out" contest allegedly held onstage between Zappa and The Fugs (some accounts say Captain Beefheart), in which Frank walked away victorious after defecating onstage and then eating it. That so many fans are willing to believe such nonsense says much about the way Zappa is perceived by most people.
As for the reference to drugs, Zappa has come out in print and in song vehemently opposed to their use (he says he's smoked marihuana on maybe a couple of occasions), yet the popular consensus is, "Anyone that weird must be on something."
As for his tolerance of journalists, he will openly state that he doesn't much enjoy conducting interviews – partly because he's got more important things to do with his time, and partly because most of the rock press has not been extremely kind to him or his music. In Rolling Stone's massive Illustrated History Of Rock & Roll, Zappa rated one perfunctory paragraph in the chapter of "Art Rock," while entire chapters were devoted to such derivative acts as Rod Stewart and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
But Zappa is an interviewer's dream subject – articulate, witty, intelligent, willing to address any subject, and probably capable of turning out a better article than most of the professional journalists who write about him. After returning from Europe, where he produced an album by Indian violinist L. Shankar, Zappa took a break from his composing regimen to conduct this interview at his home in the Hollywood Hills.
Following an obligatory handshake, Zappa flops down on the couch in his purple and green living room and awaits the first question. No small talk, no niceties – strictly business, apparently of the kind that he feels is a bothersome obligation. Things start slowly, with monosyllabic answers, as Zappa drums his fingers nervously – like Johnny Carson during an especially slow-moving Tonight Show.
It isn't until the conversation turns toward rhythm and blues that Zappa brightens up, and then his speech is animated, with italics and capital letters, exclamation points, and gestures of hand and eye. R&B was Zappa's first love, and he still views it as more than mere nostalgia. Although he was born in Baltimore, Maryland on December 21,1940, he grew up in San Diego, and went to high school there and in Lancaster, in California's Mojave Desert. As he wrote in the liner notes to Freak Out, "When I was eleven years old, I was 5'7" with hairy legs, pimples, and a mustache ... for some strange reason they'd never let me be the captain of the softball team." Zappa turned to rhythm and blues, amassing a sizable record collection and playing drums in local garage bands. Although most people perceived the Mothers' 1968 ode to the 50s. Cruising With Ruben & The Jets, as a parody of that era and musical style, it was actually a labor of love for Zappa, who had written a tune for The Penguins some years earlier, "Memories Of El Monte."
The Mothers first set up headquarters in Los Angeles, during the mid-60s, when the city was in the midst of what Zappa calls "folk-rock saturation." He recounts, "If you didn't sound like The Byrds and have a Beatle haircut, you were fucked." To use a phrase that has followed Zappa throughout his career, the Mothers of Invention had "no commercial potential." One record company executive, entering a club while the Mothers were performing "Who Are The Brain Police?," characterized them as a "rhythm and blues protest band," which was not inaccurate at that stage.
The Mothers moved operations to New York City and answered Haight-Ashbury, Sgt. Pepper's, and the whole flower power hippy movement with the 1968 release We're Only In It For The Money, which included "Flower Punk" (a take-off on "Hey Joe") and "Who Needs The Peace Corps?": "I'm hippy and I'm trippy, I'm a gypsy on my own; I'll stay a week and get the crabs, and take a bus back home. I'm really just a phony, but forgive me 'cause I'm stoned."
Before moving back to California in 1969 ("because it's expedient to the business"), the Mothers played a now-famous stint at New York's Garrick Theater, lasting several months, in which they became notorious for their onstage "atrocities," such as conducting marriages onstage, having people from the audience get up and make speeches, and their collection of props – including a stuffed giraffe rigged up to ejaculate whipped cream into the front three or four rows.
What has remained most consistent with Zappa over the years, and what has puzzled many listeners from Freak Out onward, is Zappa's acerbic sense of humor – something that is lacking in so much of today's music. Throughout his recorded catalog – and the personnel changes which have seen now-established musicians like George Duke, Jean-Luc Ponty, Ian Underwood, Sugarcane Harris, Aynsley Dunbar, Flo & Eddie, and others come and go as Zappa's music has evolved – the one constant has been Zappa's biting social commentary.
This no-holds-barred sense of humor was never more present than on his latest release, Sheik Yerbouti. Included in the album are: the story of a sexual spastic named "Bobby Brown"; a song we can all identify with called "Broken Hearts Are For Assholes"; and Zappa's single from that album, "Dancin' Fool," an irresistably hot disco number about a guy who can't dance. Also included is Zappa's answer to Peter Frampton's "I'm In You," entitled "I Have Been In You." A radio spot (which may or may not reach the airwaves) was taped for the LP, featuring Frampton himself talking over said song. "Hi, Frank," the English teen idol begins, rather nervously. "This is Peter here. I'd just like to correct you on the words. It's 'I'm in you, you are in me.' Umm, there's not too much that I can say about this ... uh, I've never really liked your music, and I don't really like this. But, if you'd had me on rhythm guitar, it would've been a hit."
Another song from the LP, "Jewish Princess," brought an edict from the Anti-Defamation League. The song includes lines such as, "I want a horny little Jewish Princess, with a garlic aroma that could level Tacoma." For some reason, the ADL took offense.
As if to show that he's not singling out any one ethnic or religious group, Frank recently went into the studio to cut his upcoming "summer single," "Catholic Girls," which is about young women of that persuasion engaging in oral sex.
Sheik Yerbouti is the debut release of the artist's own label, Zappa Records, which came into being after Zappa "played out his contract," so to speak, with DiscReet, a division of Warner Bros. Because Zappa claims he has not been paid for the four albums he delivered to fulfill his end of the Warners contract, he is now in the midst of a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Warner Bros. and former manager Herb Cohen.
In the meantime, DiscReet has released the double-live package Zappa In New York, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, and Orchestral Favorites in rapid succession. It is indeed unfortunate that the music is caught in the middle of this legal tug o' war, because each album lives up to Zappa's usual high artistic standards. Unfortunately, though, Zappa's usual care as to liner notes and personnel listings are nowhere to be found, and the albums look as though they were rushed onto the shelves as soon as possible. Whereas a year and a half lapse without a new album followed 1976's Zoot Allures, the market is now flooded with Zappa LPs.
Frank Zappa has been acclaimed as genius for his versatility and consistently fine art under many different guises – composer, bandleader, producer, accomplished guitarist, "low singer" extraordinaire – and now record company executive can be added to the list.
Composer is the title Zappa feels most comfortable with, and his all-encompassing attitude toward composition perhaps explains in part his huge output. "If you take this ashtray." he demonstrates, "and go like this and purposely organize the material in that ashtray, you've created a composition. And it did make some noise while I was moving it around, so that's what you heard, and of course it has an aroma – it's kind of multi-dimensional. But some force of will was applied to the object to organize it according to my personal preference. Whether it's a great composition or not remains to be argued by the great thinkers of our time. But some people would look at that and say it's merely an ashtray. But by applying your ingenuity to the thing, you can cause transcendent events to occur. When I purposely set out to organize material, that's a composition – whether I'm packing my suitcase or shuffling the stuff in an ashtray – as long as I think 'composition' while I'm doing it"
The following is an original composition by Dan Forte and Frank Zappa.
Musician: Could you explain your lawsuit with Warner Bros.?
Zappa: I delivered four completed albums to them almost two years ago, to fulfill my contract. I owed them four albums, so I walked in one day and said, "Here's the tapes." And they were supposed to pay me, but they never did. And I'm the one who paid to make the tapes – all the costs of the musicians, the studio time, the parts copying, the rentals of the equipment, and all the other costs of making an album. I put that all out of my bank account to produce those tapes, and they have no publishing licenses, and they haven't paid any royalties. They left me holding the bag for quite a few bucks.
Musician: Weren't you also involved in a lawsuit with M-G-M?
Zappa: Yes. The one with Verve [part of M-G-M] is settled, and part of the settlement is that the masters were being returned to Bizarre. But Bizarre was a partnership between Herb Cohen and myself, and because there's a lawsuit between us, we can't do anything with those masters until all the other lawsuits are straightened out. But sometime down the road all that stuff will be reissued.
Musician: What do you suggest your fans do concerning the recent Warners Bros. releases? Buy them, bootleg them, tape them, or what?
Zappa: Well, that's a very difficult question to answer, because no matter what I say, it's going to have some bearing on the legal outcome of the case. If I insist that they bootleg these things, Warner Bros. will come after me with another suit. And if I tell them to go and buy the records, then I'm sticking money in Warner Bros.'s pocket, which they in turn use to finance lawyers to fight me. How about, just let your conscience be your guide?
Musician: Speaking of lawsuits, I understand that the Anti-Defamation League is not thrilled about "Jewish Princess."
Zappa: Well, first of all, that may be true that they are not thrilled. But, second of all, who gives a fuck? Because, in the first place, the song is true. The references to the behavior patterns of the Jewish Princess-type people, I believe, are accurate. To the best of my research abilities, the things that I put into that song to describe the necessary ingredients for the existence of a Jewish Princess are accurate. Also, the song is favorable towards Jewish Princesses; I say, "I want a nasty little Jewish Princess." I don't say that Jewish Princesses suck; I say I want one in the song. Now, what do you say about a league that gets together to suppress the truth?
Musician: Is that supposed to be your defense case if this comes to court?
Zappa: What are they going to take me to court for? That's preposterous! Sure, take me to court.
Musician: People have been taken to court for a lot less. You don't see the Frito Bandito anymore, do you?
Zappa: I have been of the opinion that the true intellectual community of the United States was populated mostly by Jewish-type people. I mean, it looked that way. Until suddenly I hear that the Anti-Defamation League is offended by a song about a Jewish Princess. Now, intelligent people are supposed to be logical. To me, it doesn't seem logical that somebody who's Jewish should dislike the song. For instance, if Philip Roth or whatever his name was – the guy who wrote "Portnoy's Complaint" – writes a book that indicates to the average person who is not Jewish who reads this book that Jewish guys beat their meat and have all these weird fantasies, does the ADL go after Roth? No, because Roth is Jewish! Now, my offer to them is, would they like the song better if I converted to Judaism?
Musician: A lot of the recent reviews about you have stated that Cruising With Ruben & The Jets was your satire on the 50s, We're Only In It For The Money was your view of the 60s, and now Sheik Yerbouti is your answer to the 70s. Is that how you conceived that album when you put it together?
Zappa: No. Do you believe what you read in the papers?
Musician: Was there a particular concept in mind when you were doing Sheik Yerbouti?
Zappa: There's always a concept in mind when I do an album, but this one just happened to have a bunch of things in it that were more popular and more accessible than some of the other things that have come out. Obviously, there are some texts in there that are ideas people agree with. Because you don't really go around changing people's minds; you only say things, and if they already agree with you then they agree and like it, and if they don't agree with you then they say what you do is shit. Apparently I said some things that a lot of people agreed with.
Musician: Do you consider yourself a musical satirist?
Zappa: No, because the way I look at it is, that music's a direct extension of my personality. And I can't help it if I have a sense of humor. You know, I don't go to work and say, "I will now make a satire of this." I start writing and that's what comes out. I'm not specifically a satire person. I'm a composer with a sense of humor.
Musician: But when Peter Frampton has a hit song called "I'm In You," and then you come out with "I Have Been In You," isn't that a take-off on Frampton?
Zappa: Well, it's conceptual. If I was doing a satire, in the traditional sense, I would probably have to stick a little bit closer to the format of his original song, and take it apart piece by piece. If there is satire involved in "I Have Been In You," it's on a little bit different level.
Musician: Was Cruising With Ruben & The Jets a parody of the 50s then, or was that a serious attempt to play in that style?
Zappa: I'll tell you, there's a very scientific reason for the existence of Ruben & The Jets. The closest relationship between that album as an artistic event and another event from a different field that you can compare it to would be the point in Stravinsky's career in which he decided he was going to write neo-classical music. He started doing stuff like Pulcinella – writing music in his day and age, but using forms that were thoroughly out of style and frowned upon by the academic establishment. You have to remember that the American people don't have much going for them in the way of taste. I mean, taste is something that's inflicted on the American public by other outside forces. So if somebody tells you that something is cool, well, you'll think it's cool and you'll go out and buy it. To make an album like Cruising With Ruben & The Jets at that time in history, in '68, was very unfashionable. And everybody went, "Oh, I can't own that; it's not cool. It's not acid rock, it's not fuzztone, it's not psychedelic. Who needs this?" I didn't do it just to be arbitrary – I like that kind of music, and I wanted to have some examples of that style in my total catalog output.
Musician: Is it difficult to find musicians who can play in that style convincingly?
Zappa: Yes, it's very difficult to find vocalists who understand that technique anymore. The sort of stuff Roy and Ray [Estrada and Collins] were doing – that's a lost art. That kind of falsetto stuff – there may be a few people left in the world who know how to do that. None of the younger singers know how to do that.
Musician: You sang the bass parts, right? That's a bit of a lost art in itself.
Zappa: Yeah, you have to understand what it means to make those sounds come out of your throat. They're not just low notes.
Musician: Did you play in bands a la Ruben & The Jets when you were in high school?
Zappa: Yeah, the first band I was in, I was a drummer in a band called the Ramblers, in San Diego. When I moved to Lancaster I put my own band together, called the Blackouts, and I was still playing drums. The biggest gig we ever had was at the Shrine Exposition Hall for an NAACP benefit; we were the warm-up act to Earl Bostic. The people weren't dancing to Earl Bostic for some reason, so he hung it up, and we went back out there and played. Everybody was jumping all over the place.
Musician: How were you viewed by your fellow students in high school?
Zappa: They probably thought I was pretty weird.
Musician: For what reason?
Zappa: Oh, I would refuse to sing the school song; I would refuse to salute the flag; I would wear weird things to school; I would get in trouble all the time, and get thrown out of school. I did a few things that were pretty notorious. I don't know whether I should stick them in the interview [laughs]
Musician: When you weren't getting into trouble, were you a good student?
Zappa: I did pretty good. I got thrown out of school so many times I lost a lot of units, and when it came time to graduate I was 20 or so units out of the picture. They figured that rather than keep me around for another year, they'd better get rid of me [laughs]. I mean, high school didn't represent much of an intellectual challenge.
Musician: Did you already feel like music was the most important thing?
Zappa: Yeah, pretty much. I used to be in the marching band in high school; I played snare drum. They threw me out because they caught me smoking under the bleachers with my maroon uniform on.
Musician: Were you brought up in a very ethnic environment?
Zappa: I'm a Mediterranean mongrel. I'm Italian, Greek, Arab, and French. When I was a kid, my parents used to talk Italian to each other, but I never learned it. When I was a little kid that was the 40s, and Italians weren't popular. Italians weren't cute, they weren't funny, there weren't fashionable, they weren't modern. They were fuckin' dogshits, especially on the East Coast. I mean, if there was an Italian – „Hey, let's go get the Italian!" A few years before that it was "Let's go get the Irish," then the Irish started chasing the Italians, then the Italians started chasing the Pollocks. You know, it's the evolutionary chain working its way down the sewer. I was in there right at the tail end of Italian abuse, so it wasn't too cool to be an Italian. No, it wasn't a real ethnic household.
Musician: Why did you switch from drums to guitar at age 18?
Zappa: The only part I used to really enjoy off the blues records was the guitar solos, because in those days the main instrument was the saxophone. Every time you turned around there was some schmuck blowing a saxophone. And in order to have the correct approach to the saxophone, you were limited to a very few notes in a pretty common style, and that got old real fast. But guitar solos were another story. To me, it seems incomprehensible that a person could listen to "Three Hours Past Midnight" by Johnny Guitar Watson and not be moved to get violent. I mean, that's really saying something. Same with the guitar solo on "Story Of My Life" by Guitar Slim. I mean, that stuff used to make me violent. I'd just want to get an icepick and go out and work over the neighborhood! I loved that. To me, that was the real world.
Musician: You've always been a huge fan of blues and R&B, but I don't find a whole lot of evidence of that type of music in your own music.
Zappa: Well, if you like something that doesn't mean you have to imitate it.
Musician: But it sounds as though you were really absorbed by it.
Zappa: Yeah, I understand it; I know how it works. But that's like people in the 50s who liked Chuck Berry and devoted their lives to learning how to play Chuck Berry's guitar solos. I couldn't play any of Guitar Slim's guitar solos or Johnny Guitar Watson's guitar solos or Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's – but I liked them all. And I think I was influenced by them because of comprehending their melodic approach to what to do with those notes in that situation.
Musician: Ever hear "Okie Dokie Stomp" by Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown?
Zappa: Sure. As a matter of fact, where I went to school in San Diego, there were a lot of bands during the 50s, and true status was knowing how to play "Okie Dokie Stomp." In fact, the record didn't exist; the record was an oldie but goodie then, and it was very obscure. Not very many people had ever heard the original "Okie Dokie Stomp," but the guitar solo from that record was passed in the oral tradition from guy to guy. I can play the first part of it.
Musician: There are certain guitar solos – like "Hideaway" by Freddie King, or Billy Butler's solo on "Honky Tonk" – that are always played note for note.
Zappa: That's right. It's like you have respect for that thing as a musical event, the same way you wouldn't want to mess around with a well-tempered clavichord.
Musician: Do you appreciate bands that play old R&B tunes just like on the records, preserving the original version as if it were a museum piece?
Zappa: Yeah. The same way I can appreciate a recorder consort trying to recreate the music of the Middle Ages, or dance music of the Renaissance. It's something that should be done. If you like the music as an artistic statement, keep it alive. I saw a group in Ann Arbor, Michigan – I can't remember their name. They were dedicated to recreating the sound of the olden days. It was an upright bass, a drum set, a guitar, and a harmonica. They were playing all songs that nobody in the club had ever heard of, and I had all the records. I was going crazy! The drums were so shitty – I mean, real shitty old drums.
Musician: In the essay you wrote for Guitar Player Magazine, you said that even though Elmore James always played the same famous lick, you got the feeling that he meant it.
Zappa: Well, he did. Here's what that stuff is like: It transcends music and gets into realms of language. The English language has a few idiosyncrasies in the way catch phrases work. Like, "Well, excuuuuse me!" You know, Elmore James' lick could be his version of "Well, excuuuuse me!" then maybe a million guitar players want to go reedledeedeedelee-deedelee-deede/ee-deedee [laughs]. It transcends the music and gets into another realm – just the same way that "Well, excuuuuse me" doesn't mean excuse me, it means a whole other bunch of stuff that's not very specific but it's hovering in the atmosphere whenever you say it. See, there's a whole folklore gap for stuff that happened back then that's been corrupted by television and magazines and newspapers. The way they talk about the 50s, they tend to adhere to the white side, and capitalize on the sort of snide viewpoint of what they describe as inferior doo-wop music. And that's not what happened at all. I mean, I think that was probably the Renaissance of rhythm and blues back then. And whenever you hear about it, you're always hearing about it from extremely biased white people who are trying to keep their show or article commercial by laying very heavily on the Elvis Presley-type syndrome and all the most obvious large-selling hits of the time. But the best of that music still remains unknown. Boozoo Chavis! "Paper In My Shoe" by Boozoo Chavis. Have you heard that? That record is classic. It's got the world's most out of tune guitar on it! This guitar player is playing one chord: pedeetitee-pedeetitee-pedeetitee .... He's just out! And it's mixed right up front: pedeetitee-pedeetitee. You know that old-time, all-the-treble-taken-off-of-it kind of rhythm guitar sound? Oh, man, what a song. It's on one of those collected Rural Blues albums on Imperial.
Musician: On a lot of those records it's not even distracting or jarring if everything's out of tune.
Zappa: Ah, but if it's that out of tune, it transcends! The things that are really good in life are the things that transcend. It's not even a guitar anymore; it's a sound. You have to listen to it to go, "What the fuck is that?" And when you realize that it's a rhythm guitar player who's making that statement .... It goes beyond good taste and gets into realms of religion. See, that shows you the quarter-tone roots of that kind of music. Not only did John Lee Hooker invent sprechstimme, but Boozoo Chavis invented quarter-tone rock. Know what sprechstimme is? Schoenberg wrote this famous piece with a chamber ensemble and a female soprano singing settings of these famous abstract poems. But instead of singing them, she sings, and in some parts, speaks on pitch. And the German word for this is sprechstimme, and it was revolutionary. The notation for it shows the note head on the line, with the accidental, and on the stem there's an 'x', which means you half-speak, half-sing. This was the rage of the early 20th century, but, I mean, listen to a John Lee Hooker record. People aren't aware of the great strides made in the world of modern music by these people of Negro persuasion in the early part of our century. That R&B was the best. All that white stuff is ... well, what can I say? Those white people, they mean well.
Musician: Did you see many live rock and roll shows when you were in high school in Southern California?
Zappa: I saw Big Jay McNeely, and I saw The Gaylarks. Remember them? "Tell Me Darling" on the Music City label. And I also saw Smokey Hogg, who had a hit single in San Diego called "Penitentiary Blues." There was just a vibe down there that was really conducive to rhythm and blues. There were a lot of Mexicans down there, and they always liked it. Man, they took it seriously in San Diego. There was some serious slow dancing – some serious Angora sweaters.
Musician: Was there a circle of people also into R&B whom you could hang around with in San Diego?
Zappa: Well, I didn't spend all of my school days in San Diego, but at the time I was down there, there was a real definite division between the people who liked rhythm and blues and the people who liked jazz. And anybody that liked Elvis Presley and that white person's music, well, you didn't even talk to them. You had the R&B guys, then you had the ones who went for Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All Stars. The R&B guys used to find the ones who liked jazz and beat them up in the parking lot – I mean, it was that vivid a lifestyle difference between the jazz guys and the ones who liked the real music. The people who liked jazz would always go around putting you down – „Aw, you like 'Okie Dokie Stomp'? Why how dare you!"
Musician: So you sided with the R&B crowd?
Zappa: Yeah. Well, to me, there wasn't that much emotional depth in listening to something like "Martians Go Home" by Shorty Rogers – that kind of stuff. It was just bleak; it didn't have any balls to it! And, of course, it didn't have any words either.
Musician: Were you ever exposed to some of the jazz that preceded that, like bebop?
Zappa: I didn't hear any bebop until I moved away from San Diego, and moved to Lancaster, and I came across a Charlie Parker album. I didn't like it – because it sounded very tuneless, and it also didn't feel like it had any balls to it. But I did get an Oscar Pettiford album that I thought was good, and I had some Charlie Mingus, albums that I really liked.
Musician: Mingus had balls.
Zappa: Definitely had balls. And the Oscar Pettiford record had some weird notes on it, you know, that sounded a little bit more avant-ey.
Musician: Uncle Meat was when a lot of critics decided to recognize you for your "jazz influenced rock." Did you see that album as a change in direction?
Zappa: There's no accounting for taste, you know. Like I said, do you believe what you read in the papers? Somebody told you that album was great? Big deal. That doesn't mean that it's great. If somebody told you it was shitty, it wouldn't mean that it was shitty. It is what it is, and the way in which people perceive it is generally a reflection of the temperament of the times. I think Ruben & The Jets is a really good album, but at the time that it came out everybody thought, "You can't. It's corny."
Musician: Why do you think they had such a different opinion about Uncle Meat?
Zappa: Because maybe based on what was going on at that time, they thought that that was more acceptable – that was serious and Ruben & The Jets was shit. When, in fact, it's all serious, and it's all not serious.
Musician: Was Uncle Meat influenced by jazz at all?
Zappa: I don't think there are jazz influences in Uncle Meat. If there's any influence in Uncle Meat it's from Conlon Nancarrow. He's a composer who lives in Mexico, but was born in Kentucky. He writes music for player-piano that is humanly impossible to perform. He writes all these bizarre canons and weird structures – punches them out on player-piano rolls. The stuff is fantastic; there are a few albums of it. If you've never heard it, you've got to hear it – it'll kill you. Some of it sounds like ragtime that's totally bionic.
Musician: "America Drinks & Goes Home" (Absolutely Free) has a real jazz standard flavor. Did you write it to pay tribute to that style of music, or was it a parody of that genre?
Zappa: It's a very scientific parody of that genre. It's so subtle that you almost wouldn't see it as a parody. It's not a bad tune. The whole essence of that kind of music is that moron II-V-I syndrome, where everything modulates around the earth going II-V-I. It's an exercise in II-V-I stupidity.
Musician: You don't write many things in II-V-I.
Zappa: I've always been against dominant chords resolving to tonic chords. That, to me, is just the bottom line of white person music.
Musician: Isn't that ever present in black person's music?
Zappa: Mmm ... not always the same way – your old stock V-I. You get a lot of IV-Is in black music, and you get a lot of II-Vs, and other stuff. But that goddam V-I, and those goddamn jazz guys with II-V-I, and modulating the fucking thing around the Circle of Fifths. Why they have their nerve!
Musician: In your use of different chord structures, you come up with some really complex things. Is that a result of an overt attempt to do something more original, or is that just what you hear in your head?
Zappa: Since I don't like the sound of II-V-I, theoretically I must also like the sound of something else. And there are of course progressions that I like a lot, and I use them all the time. I go for what I like, rather than just a conscious attempt to wage a war against II-V-I. I just don't like II-V-I, unless you want to use it as a joke.
Musician: Did you ever go through any study of jazz?
Zappa: I had some theory. When I was in high school, I was one of these incorrigible people, and to shut me up they figured, "Well, maybe he just likes music." So, since the high school I was going to didn't offer any theory classes, they would send me over to the junior college for an hour a day to take this theory class there. And it was taught by a jazz trumpeter named Mr. Russell, and we were working out of the Walter Piston harmony book. I did my little exercises in there for one semester, then I had maybe one semester at a junior college after that. But that's the extent of my formal training. The rest of it's all from the library.
Musician: A lot of people, when they get into theory, gravitate towards jazz because it's a music where they can see the theory in practice.
Zappa: Well, it depends on your approach to jazz. I mean, guys who go in there with a theoretical approach and say, "I will now apply these incredible extensions to II-V-I" – people who approach it that way – aren't the ones that you usually remember as being the great jazz musicians. I think the jazz that succeeds – and for my taste there's not much of it – is not based on the guy's erudition; it's based on balls. Balls operating in that kind of a format.
Musician: Is there any sort of submovement of jazz that you like more than others. Are you more into, say, Ornette Coleman than Duke Ellington?
Zappa: Well, I like Charlie Mingus, and I Iike Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy – I used to really like Harold Land, but I haven't heard anything from him in a long time. But that's about it.
Musician: Did you go to those sources when you started working with larger groups, voicing horn sections, etc.?
Zappa: No. My voicing of horn sections was a result of personal experimentation rather than following traditional formats.
Musician: Is that where you came up with different dissonances?
Zappa: Well, I've always been in favor of dissonance. I like food with a lot of cayenne pepper on it, and I like music with a lot of dissonance in it. And I can't stand that fucking V-I!! In fact, the stuff that I'm working with now is seven-part harmony – with no notes doubled. And most of the orchestra stuff is based on that. I n other words, if you take any kind of a diatonic scale, it contains seven notes, and there are ways of spacing those seven notes so that at all times you're playing the entire scale. But you can make it sound like chords instead of blurs. Want to hear an example? I'll play you a beautiful seven-note chord [goes to the piano]. If you take a C major scale, it sounds like this. You have a certain number of mathematical possibilities of how you space those things out to get a chord. This chord is made up of all the notes in that scale: [plays chord]. That's spread out over an octave and a fifth. See, it's spelled E-F-A-C-D-G-B.
Musician: That doesn't sound that 'off' to me.
Zappa: That's the trick. It's how you take a whole scale and play it and make it sound like something you want to hear. Anybody can go: [smashes dissonant chords randomly up and down the keyboard]. The other thing I worked out is chords built in fifths. You build chords in fifths plus one third, and that will also give you seven notes. Here's an example of that [plays scale]. That's C-E-B-F#-G-D-A. That's a third on the bottom, and all the other intervals are fifths except one half-step. It's a third, then a triad in fifths, then another triad in fifths up a half-step.
Musician: Some of your recorded work sounds like it would be impossible to reproduce live, but you manage to all the time. How much does the band rehearse?
Zappa: Well, the rehearsal schedule usually runs the summer months, for roughly two months, six days a week, six to ten hours a day. Then you do a tour. Then you get a few weeks off, and you get, like, a brush-up rehearsal for another month – six days a week, ten hours a day – then you go out and do a European tour. So that's a lot of rehearsing, and that rehearsing will represent not only the time and sweat, but it'll represent a lot of money. Because we rehearse with all of our equipment and full crew, and we have to rent a motion picture sound stage in order to set it up. The dollars involved in preparing a band to play that stuff and go out on the road are incredible. I have a huge cash commitment just to pay salaries and rentals on the hall and stuff like that before we can go out.
Musician: Do you always carry your own sound system on the road?
Zappa: Right, because I've never seen a promoter yet who would take as much care about providing sound and lights for a group as I would.
Musician: Do you think about music in terms of its social purpose?
Zappa: I think about the way in which other people use it. I think it's reprehensible to take your music and put it in the service of a political party or some sort of cause. Because ultimately, music is worth more than any cause or any party. You know, to me, music is the ultimate suave-ness. Music is the best; it's just the best. It's where the action is.
Musician: But don't you think there's an inherent social function surrounding, say, blues that's vastly different from the social function surrounding –
Zappa: I don't believe that a person like Elmore James picks up his bottleneck and goes reedledee-deedelee-deedelee-deedelee-deedee in order to stimulate somebody's capacity to promote social change. I don't think that's the motivation. And I think the idea that blues is this music of struggle and all that stuff is pure shit that white people figured out in order to make it okay to listen to it. Because if there's one thing that all these white academic nerds have in common it's that they just can't appreciate balls, you know! I think that a lot of that stuff is just that the guy just wants to play that and wants to make that noise. That's his message; he's condensed his whole aesthetic into reedledee-deedelee-deedee. That's where he's at, and he's not too concerned about whether or not somebody in a college someplace is going to perceive it as being a viable force for social change.
Musician: But wouldn't you say that there's a very different social function in what Elmore James is doing intuitively – as unconscious as it may be – and the very self-conscious function that avant-garde players in lofts in New York apply to their music?
Zappa: Well, first of all, whenever you play ugly music, it always helps to have an elaborate philosophical system surrounding it to rationalize its ugliness. This has been my experience with much of the avant-garde. I mean, let's face it, a lot of it sounds like shit. But, if you've got this elaborate philosophical system to go along with it to rationalize it and explain it, then it can still sound like shit but it means something else. You know what I mean [laughs]? These white people, they have a way with this stuff.
Musician: But 90% of the players of the avant-garde scene are black and their audience is 90% white.
Zappa: You have to understand something: White people are not denoted by the color of their skin. See, I'm not talking about pigmentation; I'm talking about the white person attitude. There's a lot of people with black skin that have got this white person attitude, and I'm tellin' ya, that's one of the reasons why there's no good rhythm and blues anymore! They've got this white person thing going for them; it's terrible. Don't they know how to have a good time?
Musician: Would you say that a fair amount of what's called avant-garde is pure shit?
Zappa: But see, that's the idea – it's pure shit [laughs].
Musician: But there's other stuff that's been called shit – because people didn't understand it – and later when people understood it, the guys were called geniuses. Frank Zappa is a good example.
Zappa: Look, the thing about people saying whether something is shit or it's wonderful is irrelevant to the thing being discussed. Because whatever you think is wonderful I may think is shit, and vice versa. And neither one of our opinions matters, because of the thing that's being discussed – it exists because of whatever it is, you know. We are not really called upon to make these pronouncements on its value.
Musician: But wouldn't you say that there's got to be some music –
Zappa: That's total shit? No! Absolutely not. Because there's always somebody that likes it even if it's just the guy himself who's playing it – and he's entitled to love it, and it's entitled to be as good as he thinks it is. And whatever we say about it doesn't make any difference, because we don't know what went into the manufacture of it. A garage band that plays a one-chord song, and plays the fuck out of it, because they're straining to fulfill 100% of their understanding of the E major chord on the guitar, has achieved something spectacular if the day before they couldn't even make an E major chord on the guitar. But today they're whanging it out, and it's really coming out good. You know, that is musical achievement. And you might say it's shit, but to them it's the greatest thing that ever happened, and they're entitled to have their opinion be correct. I think the opinion of the person who's making it is the one that should prevail – not the opinion of the listener. Because you might have had a bad day today; you might not be in the mood for the E major chord. You want to hear F today, or C7 to F?
Musician: Have you ever been to any of the New Wave clubs, like CBGB's in New York?
Zappa: Yeah, I think it's a nice scene – in New York it's a nice scene, because it fits there; it's part of that city grit. But when they bring the stuff to California, you know what it is? It's a guy who wants to look punk, waiting for the record contract. You know, let's go punk – let's get a contract. They're all auditioning for certification as the punkest new thing. But l saw groups in New York that couldn't get a record contract in a million fuckin' years, and they looked like they didn't even care. You talk about nihilism! I mean, I saw some mongoloid behaviour there. It was great! You know, just "Let's get up there and be mongoloids." What the fuck?
Musician: What's your method for composing?
Zappa: It depends on what I'm composing. I carry music paper in my briefcase, and when I'm on the road I write sketches-boxes of them. Then I come back, play them, tweeze them, correct them, chop them up, reassemble them, and scribble it all out with a ballpoint pen. Then I give it to a copyist, and it comes back beautiful and neat.
Musician: Do you ever write sketches that are purely experimental?
Zappa: Yeah. Suppose you get a theory, and you want to build a section in a composition that has a certain number of mathematical fixed points – it's not mathematical; it's just formulaic, right? It's serial. But not 12-tone. For instance, you say, "This section will contain all chords that are made of five notes; each chord must contain these intervals – a third, half-step, and a fourth, and a major seventh." Then you set about randomly constructing – first you write a line, then you harmonize the line with five-note chords that adhere to that formula. Then you work it out with voice leading. It's just like a cross-word puzzle – it occupies your time in an airport. You get done doing that, you come back to the piano, and you start playing the chords, and you modify it to suit your ear.
Musician: When does the rhythm and time signature come in?
Zappa: That could come into it at any time. It could be just a series of notes, like a row, or it could be a rhythmic pattern that you like and eventually you want to attach pitches to the rhythm pattern. That was the process for "The Black Page #1" [Zappa In New York]; it started off with a drum solo, and then I wrote a melody line. It can go any number of ways.
Musician: Are you very disciplined when it comes to writing music?
Zappa: What's your idea of a disciplined music writer?
Musician: When you have a project to work on, do you get up and actually spend a number of hours uninterrupted and turn something out?
Zappa: Absolutely. If I'm left to my own devices and I'm only writing music, I'll go 12 and 14 hours a day, sitting in a chair, and the only thing I get up for is to go to the toilet or get a cup of coffee. I love that – but I never get a chance to do it. First of all, if you spend your life doing that, what are you going to do for a living? If you're a composer in America, everything is stacked against you. There's no outlet for that kind of work. If you want to write enormous orchestra pieces, who's going to pay for it? Who's paying for the musicians? Who pays the copyists? I mean, so far on this project, [a planned Vienna Symphony concert which has since been cancelled] I have spent $44,000 on copying. That's what I've spent – just to get this far with the project, so I had scores in my hand to show those people in Vienna. Now I have more copying bills to get the parts for the orchestra. The copying has been going on for over two years.
Musician: With all the costs you've mentioned, it's amazing that you're even breaking even, but you seem to be in a pretty secure position.
Zappa: It depends on what kind of style you want to live in. As you can see, I don't live in a mansion; I live in a house that's made out of stucco, and it's a total fucking mess. And I'm not interested in flash. We have enough money to get tons of coffee every week, all the cigarettes we want, we can buy tacos, and – hey, we're doing okay [laughs]. It's not Tobacco Road over here, but the net from the work that I do doesn't go into anything but music. Most of the money that comes back from the tours is either reinvested in equipment or it's reinvested in the salaries of the people who are providing services to make the project happen, or it's reinvested in services of people who are needed to make the project continue – all your office expenses are amortized out of that. And the musicians are on a yearly salary, whether they're working or not.
Musician: Do you see the guitar as just a vehicle for composition?
Zappa: The guitar is a perfect vehicle for composition, as long as the accompaniment doesn't get in the way. I'm not interested in being the fastest guitar player in the world, or the cutest or the best dancer – or even the most sincere.
Musician: What about establishing a distinctive guitar style?
Zappa: I'm not concerned with that. I'm concerned with playing melodies as they come into my head – versus the harmonic climate, versus the rhythm section. It's an act of composition, not an act of guitar showmanship. It's just like writing, except that there's no copyist, there's no orchestra – you just make it up and you go.
Musician: When you came out with Freak Out!, the thing that seemed to jar everybody was that it had a sense of humor.
Zappa: Well, you'll find that the reason that that's always going to stick out is because there's a lack of humor everyplace else. Look, I'm an honest person, and I try to keep a certain type of integrity in the work that I do. I try to make my work consistent with who and what I am, okay? And if I have a sense of humor, I'm not going to subdue it in order to make myself more acceptable to the mainstream that wants to take life seriously. To me, that would be like putting myself in prison or something. I write it and that's the way it comes out.
Musician: But does the oddball sense of humor sometimes overshadow the musicality itself?
Zappa: Only to people who are just staggered by senses of humor. But, look ... it doesn't matter. I do it and it's done. Whether somebody laughs at it, or whether they listen to it, it doesn't matter.
Musician: Did you ever reach a point where you wanted to consciously tone down the humor and craziness in order to be more accepted as a legitimate composer?
Zappa: First of all, there's nothing illegitimate about having a sense of humor. See, you got that fucking attitude hanging over your head – that things that are funny aren't real and aren't good, and things that are totally serious are wonderful. This is what I hate.
Musician: Do you think about factors such as markets and audiences when you put records out?
Zappa: Well, I have a mental picture of what kind of person listens to my records. And when I'm working on something, I say, "This'll crack 'em up." You have to have some kind of image before you for a target.
Musician: How would you describe your type of fan?
Zappa: Well, it's hard to verbalize it, but the stuff that I do is originally written to amuse me. And, like I said before, if somebody already agrees with you, then they'll agree with you. So I presume that the person that really gets off on that stuff has similar tastes to me.
Musician: Do you think you have a nucleus of an audience that has followed you around since Freak Out?
Zappa: No. See, that's a popular presumption. They figure that once you start in the music business whoever likes you at the beginning is going to be your love slave for the rest of your career. And it don't work that way. I mean, I've been doing this for about 15 years, and most of the people who were the original consumers for the Freak Out! album don't even go out to concerts anymore. They're all working their day jobs and worrying about the important things of life, you know. And our audience seems to get younger every year – we pick up more and more young people.
Musician: Do you think the image that the media has of you is very accurate?
Zappa: No, but it's irrelevant.
Musician: But there is an image.
Zappa: Oh yeah, there's definitely an image. It's very confused and contradictory, because of the stuff that's been written about me in the papers. But I think that if anybody was ever to manifest an exact replica of the kind of person I really am and stick it in the newspapers, I don't think people would bother with it. Because what's exciting about a guy who gets up in the morning and sits at the piano and writes little ballpoint pen notes on a piece of paper, and then goes to bed? You know what I do when you leave here? I go back to the piano until it's time to go to bed. There's nothing exciting about that. It's better to have people thinking that I'm out being totally crazy – because that's exciting.
Musician: I'd have to say that you seem a lot more normal than most musicians, but then again what type of normal person names his children Moon Unit, Dweezil, and Ahmet Emuukha Rodan?
Zappa: If that were the only criterion by which to judge a person weird, then I am qualified. But, in the rest of the context of contemporary America, a person who gets up in the morning and spends his day sitting at the piano writing ballpoint pen notes on little pieces of paper is weird. He may be boring – but it's weird, you know. It's that kind of weird. A lot people in the United States think that somebody who wears mascara and plays with a boa constrictor is weird. And I don't think that's weird; I think that's right up Warner Bros.'s alley. It just depends on what your idea of weird is. You know what I think is weird? People who will really buy cases of Perrier water and really run around in a blue sweat suit. That's weird!
Musician: Speaking of weird, one of the great rock and roll myths of all-time involves a gross-out contest which allegedly took place onstage between you and Captain Beefheart. Could you please clarify that once and for all?
Zappa: Yeah, I've heard that myth in many different guises. It's supposed to be me versus The Fugs, me versus somebody in the audience – but always I end up eating shit on the stage. You know, the first time I heard this rumor, I was in a club in England called the Speakeasy, which used to be a music business hangout in the 60s. I'm sitting there and this guy from the Flock – remember the Flock? – comes over to me and goes, "Hey, Frank. Man, it's really great to meet ya. Hey, I heard about the gross-out contest and that's really fantastic the way you ate that shit!" I said, "Man, I never ate any shit onstage!!" And he goes, "You didn't? Aww." And then he walked away – fuckin' broken-hearted, you know. I mean, people want to believe this. I'll tell you, the closest I ever came to eating shit was at a Holiday Inn buffet in Fayetteville, North Carolina.