Interview by Jay Ruby
Ruby: Tell us about what you're doing now, which excites me very much, and sort of the history of how you got involved with Zubin Mehta and what you're going to be doing on May 15th.
Zappa: That was brought about by a chance meeting at KPFK. I was with David Raksin. Do you know him?
Zappa: A very nice man. He was going to introduce me to Mehta because I'd been pissing and moaning about how hard it was to get a piece of music played by an orchestra. So he just sort of undertook to help me get that to happen. I met Mehta and [Fleischmann] during this radio interview that was in progress at KPFK and we went in there and joined them and started yakking it up on the air. After it was over, I talked to Mehta for about ten minutes, during which – he probably won't remember – he commissioned me to write a piece of music for the 1971 season – just sort of offhand. I said, "Well. I got this other thing that's been sitting around for awhile. Do you want to take a look at it?"
He was too busy to look at it, but [Fleischmann] looked at it, and –
Zappa: [Fleischmann] is the orchestra manager and director of the Hollywood Bowl and all that stuff. So he liked the score very much and he sort of got Zubin to check it out. We had another meeting, and we've been meeting for about three months trying to figure out whether it is financially feasible to actually go ahead and do it, because the cost is way up there. I'm getting more rehearsal time for this piece than I expected. It still isn't enough, I don't think, but they've got six rehearsals laid out, which is heavy business. The only problem is that they're still rioting at UCLA. That may cancel it. We're playing – it's supposedly being held at UCLA in the Pauley Pavilion, which is an 11,000-capacity basketball dome.
Ruby: That's far out. I thought you were going to be at the L.A. Musical Center.
Zappa: No, we can't get in there because the opera is in there. They've got it all taken up.
Ruby: Mehta is obviously excited about doing this.
Zappa: I wouldn't say obviously excited.
Ruby: I mean willing.
Zappa: He's going along with the gag.
Ruby: Right, okay. Have you met with the orchestra?
Zappa: I met a few of the guys. I met Bill Kraft of the percussion section. They have a very difficult job to do. I also know – what's his name? – Kurt [Reher], who is – I don't know whether he's first cellist or what. He was on the Freak-Out! album – one of the cello players on there. I bumped into him. I haven't talked to any of the other orchestra members.
They have to bring in some people from the outside, though, to augment the orchestra in order to do it. Emil Richards is joining the percussion section. I've got to go over to his house because he's got that exotic collection of gongs and weirdness, and he said he'd supply any of whatever – to bring down.
This other guy that I worked with, and who I like very much is John Rotella. He's going to be playing the baritone and bass sax parts, and Ernie Watts is playing the alto and tenor part of the orchestra. Do you know Ernie's work?
Ruby: I don't think so.
Zappa: He's a jazz player and records on World Pacific.
Ruby: All of the Mothers –
Zappa: I've got one more extra added attraction – do you know George Duke? He's going to be playing the celeste and electric piano part with the orchestra. I like his playing very much.
Ruby: Yes. You're going to be doing excerpts from 200 Motels?
Zappa: That's right.
Ruby: The entire piece runs –
Zappa: Two and a half hours.
Ruby: Two and a half hours. You'll be doing what? Half of it?
Zappa: Well, we're doing movements one, three and four. Movement three is only one page long, but it's a special system that's got a lot of choreography in it – a special deal.
The second movement is this big dramatic movement with a chorus and the dancers and vacuum cleaner and all that stuff. That was too expensive to do, so they couldn't put that in.
Ruby: Did you write this prior to talking to Mehta, or is this a thing that he commissioned you to do?
Zappa: No. I've been writing this for three years. It's based on sketches and material that were actually completed on the road or in motels, for one reason or another, and then the final orchestration was done in my house over about three months, just prior to Christmas last year.
Ruby: It strikes me that there's maybe a parallel here between what you're doing and what Gunther Schuller and John Lewis were doing in the '50s with what they called third-stream music.
Ruby: Do you see this parallel?
Zappa: Yes, I see the parallel, but I think it's a little bit different in this case.
Ruby: How different?
Zappa: Well, the type of jazz that they were trying to hybridize with concert music, I didn't see as being extremely relevant to the overall social situation at the time. They took rarefied forms of both musics and then sort of force-mated them. Like this routine I saw Zacherle do one time. Did you ever see Zacherle? The horror character? He did a thing on television on Halloween night – Halloween was really big this year – where he took two burlap bags filled with jello and then explained to the audience that these were two amoebas and he was going to force-mate them right there in front of your eyes [Laughter] – and for five minutes he wacked these things together, all this gelatin squirting out of the holes, you know. They didn't reproduce. I see that analogy with third-stream music.
Ruby: Right, right. When you decided not to perform or I don't know if "disband" is the right term with the Mothers – I think it was a quotation from you about the inability of the audience that you'd been performing for to understand what you're trying to do, and your dissatisfaction with them coming to watch the freak say dirty words instead of listening to you as an artist.
Zappa: Well, that's –
Ruby: Is that a little stronger?
Zappa: It's a little too dramatic that way.
Zappa: I'm human. I get pissed off, you know.
Ruby: What I was wondering is does it strike you that the kind of audience you're going to get for this performance is going to be more likely to be people who can dig what you're trying to do?
Zappa: To me, that is the most irrelevant factor. All I'm interested in doing is hearing what the music sounds like that I wrote in those motels. If I can hear it, then I can write some more.
Ruby: So you're really not concerned with what kind of audience you're reaching.
Zappa: There's no way to tell who is going to show up or if anybody is going to show up for that thing. There are so many other problems involved in it, like for instance acoustic problems. That place is very dead acoustically. You have a 96-piece orchestra and you have a 9-piece electric band. We're louder than they are when we're soft. I mean, just any electric group – an orchestra just ain't loud. That's the worst thing about an orchestra. And so they're miking the orchestra. That means there's going to be about maybe twenty mikes on the orchestra and those microphones are also going to pick up our amplifiers, because we're set behind the orchestra.
Two of the six rehearsals that we have are just to balance the sound. Now if that works out and you can actually hear what's supposed to come out, then we'll be lucky.
Ruby: Are you going to try to record it?
Zappa: I wanted to record it, but it would cost a lot to do that. The only way that it will get recorded is if somebody wants to do a TV special on it. They're trying to sell it to the networks. If they can get somebody on a network to say "Yes, we want this," then they'll record it. That will be their big reason for spending the money. But otherwise, the union scale to do that is just horrible.
Ruby: Do you see yourself either accidentally or on purpose going in a certain direction? That is, let me suggest the direction that I could see you going.
Ruby: Excusing labels which are always a drag – but a convenient drag sometimes – you are moving out of rock or what people have traditionally thought rock and roll was or is, by doing this.
Zappa: Well you don't know whether I'm moving out of rock, because you haven't heard the music.
Ruby: Just the very fact that you're playing with a nice 96-piece orchestra makes you –
Zappa: But that doesn't work out because the first thing that anybody has said to me so far about that is, "Oh, you mean you're doing just like Deep Purple. Or like the Bee Gees, only you guys don't sing." But rock and roll groups have had violins behind them before.
Ruby: Yes, that's true. But even beginning with your first album, you are involved with non-rock sources, contributing to the kind of music you're writing, has been very strong, Satie and other people.
Zappa: All those other guys.
Ruby: Right. Do you see that influence becoming stronger in what you're composing and what you want to perform, than it was a couple of years ago?
Ruby: In other words, you still see it as a balance of things.
Zappa: The way I see it is that finally after all the years that it took me to write this thing, I'm going to get a performance of this piece of music. It's not what I'm doing now, you see. That's what I did then. I just want to hear what I did then.
So what I'm doing now is I'm working on a movie, because in between rehearsing this group of Mothers that's playing at the Fillmore and getting this stuff ready for the Philharmonic, I've been in the editing room working on Uncle Meat all this time.
Ruby: Oh, you are still working on it? Yes, we talked a little bit about that last summer. Where is it? What direction is it going now, What is it going to –
Zappa: Well ...
Ruby: You were talking about getting enough money to get Rod Steiger?
Ruby: Right. And perhaps doing some of the special effects in Japan.
Zappa: Well, that had to go by the boards. We were shuffling around, trying to make a deal just to get any money to finish the film off. So we were lucky. We got a small amount of money to do this job. Then we got luckier and Haskell Wexler shot for us for a week for free.
Zappa: To provide us with some continuity. It turns out that the continuity that he was supposed to shoot would have been interviews with all the members of the Mothers, past, present, and future, and so on and so forth, and documentary-type stuff that will help to explain the mythology of, the validity of, or even the existence of us and this music. But we had a business meeting with the Mothers, just prior to that week of shooting, and there was a whole bunch of arguments and bullshit and hysteria.
Four of the guys decided they wanted to have nothing whatsoever to do with any of the projects. That radically changed my plans for that week's shooting, which I had all blocked out. So two days before we were supposed to go – we had already hired the crew and had the lights and the stock bought and all that shit – to the tune of about maybe $12,000 for the week. Even though Haskell was free, the stuff that goes with him costs you some money. So I said, "Oh, what am I going to do here?"
I made up a chart, which is really quite intriguing, but it's so involved – I've already cut about a half an hour of the film. We had a screening of it for the money people, just before we came out here. They were very distressed. They said, "That's not the movie that you told us you were going to make." And one of the other guys says, "Why, that's horrible. It's so dull." It's not going to be very easy to please those guys. The story line that came out revolves around Don Preston, who is always turning into a monster; Phyllis [Altenhaus], who used to be Tom Wilson's secretary at MGM, who is now my editor's assistant on the film – who falls in love with the monster because she sees him on the screen with a machine everyday; Aynsley Dunbar, who likes to get beaten with toilet brushes, and wears a vibrator on a strap as part of his band uniform; and Motorhead and Calvin who have formed a group which consists of a guitar that doesn't play and cymbals. I had the cymbals plugged with a pair of pliers, Motorhead has wings and a hat and Calvin has a tin reflector off of a photographer's bulb that he wears for a thing. They like to play at the Hollywood Ranch Market in the kitchen utensil department; Tom Wilson, who's running for President in 1972, and Suzy Creamcheese, who wants to be the First Lady. Those are the characters in the story. Now the way the story unfolds so far – because there's still plenty of things that can happen – sometimes you see me directing the people and telling them what to say, so there's no differentiation between what the story is, who the people are, what they're pretending to be and what they really are, or what they're trying to make you think the whole thing is. You know, it's all laid out there in such a way that each one of the supposed dramatic sequences is prefaced by either a rehearsal or a verbal explanation of what the action is.
I say, "We're going to do this. You just watch what happens." And then we do it. After it's been done, we say, "We did that. Then we're going to do this" – you know? The continuity is really funny because there's no time – it's all happening all at once, even though the events took place over a period of, let's say, from now back five years, plus into 1972. That's the timespan covered by the film, but it's all condensed into ninety minutes, which is all happening simultaneously.
I can see why those guys who put up the money wouldn't get into it.
Ruby: You shot in 16 mm and you're going to blow it up to 35 –
Ruby: With the idea of the theatrical release.
Zappa: Yes, well it's going to be a theatrical release. It's designed as a Cinemascope, four-track stereo feature film.
Ruby: Besides what you have said already – you have about thirty hours of footage that has been shot over a long period of time of performances and other –
Zappa: That's integrated in there too, because – that's why I say it covers a timespan from now to five years back. All those things help to explain the phenomenon of Don Preston turning into a monster. Have you ever seen him do it?
Zappa: He sticks his tongue – we call it "transforming" – he sticks his tongue on the side of his face, squints one eye, the other one pops open, his face blows out like that and he hunches his shoulder. It's just like the Phantom of the Opera. He goes zooot and there he is. He does it every place – airports, you know, out in the street. Don is transformed, and he goes like this – and people go "Oooh!"
When we were on the road before, it got to be a fad to see whether or not everybody could learn how to transform. He does it the best, because he had a lot of practice. Using that as one of the thematic elements of a film – the idea that somebody turns into a monster and the reasons why he does it – it changes throughout the film. Mostly he turns into a monster whenever he hears the word "royalties." [Laughter]
Ruby: A very good time to do it.
Zappa: The other funny thing about the movie is the constant reference to the MGM royalties. It's so funny, because Phyllis used to be a secretary at MGM and Tom Wilson used to be a producer at MGM. Another one of the themes in the film is a rubber chicken. We describe events as we're using a chicken to measure it.
At one point we're measuring the MGM royalties with a chicken. Ray Collins does that. He comes up with a royalty statement which consists of a certain amount of foam which is expelled from the blowhole of the rubber chicken. He says, "Yes, I think we have some royalties coming now."
It's very avant-garde.
Ruby: Right. When do you think is the release?
Zappa: It has a completion date of July 1, with the idea of a release as soon as you can talk somebody into sticking it in a theatre, I guess. Other people who have seen that first screening think that it's going to be too hard to get it into a theatre. They think the distributors are probably of the same mentality as the people who put up the money.
Ruby: Yes, undoubtedly. But with the commercial success of rock films, they –
Zappa: Yes, but this isn't a rock film.
Ruby: With as much footage as you've collected over the years, do you have anything in mind with the rest of it? You have some sort of straight concert documentary footage of you
Zappa: Yes, I do. But I mean, when you get right down to it, that's part of the least commercial potential end of the stuff that I've got in the can. Seeing as how most of that footage is old pictures of a group that doesn't exist anymore, and probably never existed even then, you know, and a lot of it is without sound – what are you going to do with it?
Ruby: Don't throw it away.
Zappa: I'm not going to throw it away. I'll fetish it privately.
Ruby: Yes, that's right. I think my own sort of academic hangup is that people in music have no sense of their own history. They destroy it or neglect it or throw it away or discard it.
Zappa: I'm exactly the opposite. I have too much memorabilia and trash.
Ruby: I don't think that's possible, from my point of view. It's nice to have around.
Zappa: Well, if you move a lot, it's a pain in the ass.
Ruby: What we've talked a little bit about is Zappa as a performer and composer and Zappa as a filmmaker. Let's talk a little bit about Zappa as a producer and record company owner. What directions are you going to be going with Bizarre and Straight:
Zappa: I'll tell you the truth. I spend maybe two days a month in that office, and I have no intentions of producing any other groups or artists right now. I'm not interested. I don't have the time to do it. I don't even have the time to finish off the sequel to Hot Rats which I've been trying to get done over the past couple of months. I've been so tied up with this film, and so my activities in that area are a little bit slowed down.
One of the contributing factors to that is the question of: what are you going to record, and why bother to record it? What's the deal? Right now it's coming down to the fact that if I make a record, I'm just liable to earn a certain amount of dollars – you know, if the thing goes out. It's not very much of a challenge anymore, actually.
Ruby: Producing other groups doesn't really interest you that much.
Zappa: No, because the problems in doing it – I mean I really looked forward to producing Beefheart's album, but all the problems I encountered doing it with him personally, because he's so extremely paranoid about other people's involvement in his work – I really wanted to do the Wild Man Fischer and the GTO's too. Those projects interested me, because there was something to say and there was something to get into. But it's not worth the trouble,
Ruby: You've got enough material, I read somewhere, for another ten or twelve albums of Mothers material.
Ruby: Are you planning on working on this?
Zappa: What I wanted to do is put out a twelve-record set. Then we did a cost breakdown on doing that and in order to press 10,000 of each of the twelve records, plus coverage – it would come to about a quarter of a million dollars. Now anybody who would invest a quarter of a million dollars in any Mothers of Invention project on a record level has got to be desperate. So we just tossed that one into the garbage can.
What I've been doing is ripping up the twelve albums, which were already edited – I had them ready to go. Chopping them up and I put together a new album called Weasels Ripped My Flesh – the cover of which is right here. So Weasels Ripped My Flesh is an all-live album. Most of the music on it – I'd say 80% of it – is group improvisation not just accompaniment with solos, but where the group was conducted into a spontaneous piece of music.
Ruby: I wanted to get back to something you were saying a minute ago about producing other people. You produce yourself now.
Ruby: And you have – let's see, the first album – the Freak-Out! album, Tom Wilson has producing credits. Did he really function as producer?
Zappa: Yes, he did.
Ruby: Are there producer credits besides you beyond that?
Zappa: Tom Wilson produced the Absolutely Free album too. But at the point where we recorded We're Only In It For The Money, although he was still technically the producer according to MGM, I was the one who did most of the work on the thing.
Ruby: Do you find it difficult to produce yourself? Not at all? Not being a musician, it strikes me – from what I understand about it – as being very difficult to produce myself. If you look at the minimal role that a producer has he's a referee. He sort of sets things up so that a musician can do what he wants to do without any interference – the traditional way most producers have produced jazz albums. Going way the other way – you take someone like Phil Spector who controls everything; at times don't you feel the need to have someone do for you? Sort of someone a little more removed from what you're doing to say "Hey, have you looked at this? Do you really want it to sound this way?" – making comments without –
Zappa: Everybody makes comments in the sessions anyway, but when I go and record a piece of music – unless I'm just doing a complete random thing – I know exactly what I want before I go in there, and I know the methods that I need to use to get it.
Ruby: When you go into the studio, you go in with a pretty well-set-out idea of what it is you're going to do?
Ruby: You don't?
Zappa: I do it both ways. I buy a block of time and I go in with a certain amount of prepared material. Then I always allow for accidents, ideas, craziness, spontaneous whatever, and I'm willing to pay for that extra studio time just to get those things down on tape. Like an improvised dialogue between Aynsley Dunbar and Phyllis [Altenhaus], happened one night in the studio – where he's trying to get her to beat him with some kind of device in the studio. They're just discussing it. Because I took the time to record that, it gave me one of the elements for the plot in the film. Also I came up with a funny tape.
It only took maybe about ten minutes to do, so it's worth ten minutes of studio time to set up a microphone and go do it. That's the way Lumpy Gravy – the dialogue things in Lumpy Gravy – got started. I got bored with the project that I was working on momentarily and I just started sticking people inside a piano to see what would happen. It got so great, I spent three days doing it.
I think, if you use it right, the studio is a place where you can be creative. It's not just a factory that turns out records. If I've got enough money to spend, if there's the money in the budget, then I'll try to stretch out a little bit.
Ruby: Do you see the direction that you're going now, the directions that you're going now as – you're doing film and you're composing and performing.
Zappa: And composing a film.
Ruby: Okay, you're composing a film and you're composing music and you're performing. Okay. This kind of use of these two things: music and film – do you see the eventual, for you, total merger of the two things?
Zappa: I see it now. That's the way it is, because the manner in which the film is being assembled is being put together using the same intellectual processes I would use to put together a piece of music; the same mechanism, the same ordering system. So it's a piece of music. It just so happens that it makes use of pictures and other stuff – sound effects, talking.
Ruby: You command a great deal of technical competence in music. Am I correct in assuming you don't have this right now on film?
Ruby: Does it look like you want to go in this direction too, that is, to control the technical end of film the way that you control the technical aspects of music?
Zappa: I think if you don't you're going to wind up with something less than what you imagined.
Ruby: The two most exciting creative parts of our society are obviously film and music. I mean video also.
Ruby: It strikes me that you seem to be, of all the musicians that I can think of, the most concerned with film – that is, concerned in an active way rather than being in film.
Zappa: I really get off from cutting film. I like the way it sounds when you go "whoosh" like that. It's great. We're using one of those Keller machines. It's comfortable to do. You sit there and you wheel it back and forth. It's not like standing over the Movieola and scratching and ripping the film and going berserk over it. I work twelve hours a day in the editing room, after a four-hour rehearsal.
Ruby: Have you done any filming yourself?
Zappa: Yes, I shot part of it.
Ruby: The whole range of filming?
Zappa: Yes. I did animation for it. This kind of animation – single frame moving – the title sequence consists of two white gloves that crawl across my desk, fuck each other and appear later on the shelf in the bathroom. That's the opening. That's the first one you see. What you see first is the film that came out of my camera, which is shooting the glove – which cuts to Haskell shooting me shooting the gloves in the bathroom. The sound that's heard over the picture is coming out of my camera, which is taking place in another area, it's the ringing echo of this bathroom and the noise that goes like that little motor on the camera as it shoots one frame. It's really strange.
Ruby: How long has it been since you played with the Mothers?
Zappa: Nine months.
Ruby: Nine months. Did you rehearse? Did you get together before you came –
Zappa: This band that's at the Fillmore now has been together for three weeks. We didn't play together before that time.
Ruby: After the 15th, are the Mothers going to perform again? Do you have definite plans to perform?
Zappa: No, no definite plans.
Ruby: So if something comes up that interests all of you, there's the chance
Zappa: It's within the realm of possibility, but it's another one of those irrelevancies; why bother?
I was hoping that this Mother's Day tour would be beneficial to the merchandising of the film, because the merchandising of the film will help the members of the group because it will affect record sales, and then they can get their royalty.
Zappa: In extreme capital letters. So, actually it hasn't done that well, the tour itself, because for one thing we expected good crowds in Chicago, but the student strike blew that out of the box. We haven't been experiencing any immense overflow at the Fillmore East either. Wisconsin was good as usual. I don't know what's going to happen in Philadelphia.
Ruby: The group has broken up now into what? – Geronimo Black and one other –
Zappa: Geronimo Black is Jimmy Carl Black and Bunk Gardner. Art Tripp is working with Captain Beefheart. Ian Underwood is going to form a group where he's going to play guitar with his wife, Ruth, playing the drums. And Don Preston has a group called Aha and, let's see .. I've been talking to Aynsley about something called the Tommy Vincent Duo.
Ruby: You've mentioned Aynsley several times. This is Aynsley Dunbar, the British blues musician that was with –
Zappa: Yes. He's not exactly like a British blues musician.
Ruby: Well –
Zappa: He's a pretty spaced-out drummer. He's played in various blues bands.
Ruby: Okay, thank you very much.
Zappa: Is it over?
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