Zappa On The Move Again
By Richard Green
Frank Zappa is on the move again.
He has a new Mothers of Invention and it's gigging around employing anything from his music, a symphony orchestra, midgets, jugglers and performing dogs.
Even Joni Mitchell shed her quiet reserved image one night and sang with the Mothers. Grace Slick, more in keeping with her maternity, contented herself by merely conducting,
But Zappa is back ... and talkative as ever. Richard Green ran him to ground and turned the tape machine on.
HP: When did you first start writing with classical music in mind?
ZAPPA: The first thing I ever wrote was a drum solo ... a piece for snare drum and it was called "Mice". I wrote that when I was about 14 and performed it at school – you know they have these little instrumental compositions.
HP: Do classics influence your writing now?
ZAPPA: In as much as I'm writing for orchestra and some of the techniques I use are standard orchestral techniques from that world of music. A lot of thematic material doesn't derive from classical music.
HP: How different is the music you're writing now from the music you were writing when the Mothers were at their height, say, three years ago?
ZAPPA: It's hard to say. I think it's all an extension of one thing. There's only one area of consciousness in music I'm interested in exploring. I wouldn't diverge too much from that area I'm checking out just now. I just keep working in that same vein.
HP: What led to the end of the old Mothers and the beginning of the new band?
ZAPPA: For one thing we'd been touring such an awful lot and sustaining huge financial losses. One of the other problems, my attitude was getting very sour because we were working places where it just seemed like I was banging my head against the wall because we had developed the music of the group to a stage where it had really evolved. We could go on stage and we didn't need to play any specific repertoire. I could just conduct the whole group and we could make up an hour's worth of music that I thought was valid.
On the spot it would be spontaneous and new and interesting. It would be creative because the personalities of the people in the group just as much as their musicianship but you stick that in front of an audience that wants to hear songs that are three minutes long and with words about boys and girls in love. It just doesn't work.
HP: But that type of song was never the image of your band, was it?
ZAPPA: Correct. But even groups that were performing so-called underground material were singing boy and girl love songs, only with fuzz tone. Bobby Vee wouldn't work with a fuzz tone but it was the same text, only with a different bunch of clothes on. So we'd go on a concert and there'd be amber underground group, or maybe two grows that had already set the audience up with that type of material and to them that is the real rock and roll world.
No matter what you do instrumentally, get those words about the boy that falls in love with the girl or the girl that leaves the boy – that is the real world!
Anything that is apart from that is not rock and roll. It doesn't belong in their teenage concert halt. It's not something that they can identify with easily. So nobody knew how to take the band. They didn't know if we were Spike Jones with electronic music or whether it was serious. Or what it was.
I just got tired.
HP: Did you just tell them then, it's all over. And did they take it normally?
ZAPPA: No. At first they were extremely angry at me for breaking up the band. Not because they wanted to play the music but because I had been supporting them. Suddenly I had taken away their income I said to them: "Look, am I supposed to kill myself going out and doing this over and over again? Well, it's not fun for me anymore." I was really depressed about it. I couldn't do it anymore.
HP: How did you form the new band?
ZAPPA: I was off about nine months and then I got interested in playing more guitar and that's when I started playing with the Hot Rats group. I wanted not just to play more guitar but play it in the context of a stronger rhythmic feeling. Because if there was one weak point in the old Mothers it was the rhythm section. It was too static.
In order to Synchronize both drummers they had to be limited in the type of things they could play. So the beat stayed pretty monotonous. I heard Aynsley (Dunbar) play at this pop festival in Belgium and I really liked the way he played. So I brought him to the United States, in the first place to make a successor to the "Hot Rats" album which was what "Chunga's Revenge" turned out to be. And somewhere along the line all these other plans started popping up.
I had the opportunity to do something I'd been wanting to do for about 15 years, which was to play with a symphony orchestra. They wouldn't play my music unless there was a rock group on the bill called the Mothers of Invention. But we didn't have a Mothers of Invention so what I did was put together various guys who had been in the Mothers in the past, not just from the last group. I went all the way back to the beginning. We did about a six day tour in the United States, went back to Los Angeles and played the Fillmore. When that was over, I disbanded the group. The night of the concert in Los Angeles, the two members of the Turtles who are now the lead singers with the present group, came up to me after the show and said how much they liked the orchestra thing.
The Turtles didn't exist anymore and they were out of work. I'd always admired the things they could do on stage because I'd seen the group several times and thought they were excellent on stage. So it occurred to me to try something with them. We weren't even going to call it the Mothers – we were talking about doing something else. But the easiest way to get a group off would have been to call it the Mothers. So we just put together another Mothers.
HP: You're very happy with the sound you have now, aren't you?
ZAPPA: It's the best band I ever heard.
HP: Is there room for improvement?
ZAPPA: Always is. But the essential thing I like in a band is present in this group – there's a group spirit that transcends just friendship among the members of the group and there is now a certain devotion to some mythological cause and I think it comes across on stage.
The guys really feel that they're doing something and not just playing. They know now that they have their whole musical world within which they can operate and anything they do in there is fine with me as long as they play the songs. They have freedom to express themselves in a number of different ways.
In the old Mothers I was the only guy that talked to the audience. In this group the communication with the audience is divided up into several different areas – I do direct communication with the audience, I address them and more or less act as MC for the show and I introduce things that are about to happen on stage.
It's like a play in a way.
I comment about things that have already happened on stage and sometimes I do straight man things for gags they have set up.
Then Mark (Volman) and Howard (Kaylan) have special lyric monologues that they do within the songs and then Jeff (Simmons) has things that he does. It's just generally more immediate audience contact with this group.
On top of that the rhythmic foundation is much more rock and roll oriented because of Aynsley's playing. There's more of a jazz – blues feel to it which is probably the result of having George Duke in the group because he's from that world. Even the old Mothers of Invention tunes that we play in our repertoire have been rearranged to the point where it's not even the same song anymore. For instance we do "Who Are The Brain Police?" and it sounds like Canned Heat.
HP: What's the position with Captain Beefheart?
ZAPPA: I never see him.
HP: Is it an irrevocable split between the pair of you ?
ZAPPA: I don't think so. First of all, he's so changeable, he's so weird. I don't stay away from him, he stays away from me. When I'm in Los Angeles I never leave my house unless I have to go to work. So anybody I see is somebody who comes to my house. He has not been over for nine months.
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