The Mothers: Just Another Band From L.A.
By John Tobler
Since this interview was recorded – way back in December – Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, after months of inactivity due to Zappa's Rainbow accident, have formed and recorded with another group; The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie. Though full details are not available, it is assumed that this is only a filler until The Mothers get going again.*
Anyway, to the interview. Rather than dwell on the Mothers/Zappa aspects for too long, we chose to delve into the Turtles a bit too – since they're one of our favourite sixties groups. The interview is between John on one side, and Howard and Mark on the other.
ZZ: When you were here in 1970, for the Bath Festival, you intimated that your association with Zappa would last only until your legal hassles with White Whale (the label for which the Turtles recorded) had been resolved, and you could start recording again.
Howard: That's true; but things have become a lot different since then. The White Whale trouble has now been resolved, but the Mothers is like a different group from the Mothers of 1970, when our relationship with Frank was very casual. I mean, when we walk on stage now, no-one expects to see the old Mothers anymore – so we're not living with that karma over us – but more than that, Frank's attitude has widened so that our projects and gigs are much more interesting now.
ZZ: But surely most of the creativity still comes from Frank.
Howard: Right; the Mothers' music, in terms of creativity, is not our music, and that's the difference between the Mothers and the Turtles right off the bat. In the Turtles, we created the music from start to finish; the five of us scrutinised and analysed everything, so that each person felt he had given his share to make the song. Here in the Mothers, you have a different thing; a composer who not only has the final say regarding the arrangement, but also the ability to let the ideas of the other members soak into his head and become altered and re-arranged to come out the way he wants. He uses us, but we're involved – he asks our opinions and ideas ... whether he uses them or not.
But we're in the Mothers because we enjoy it ... we can be very loose and entertaining, and also get off.
ZZ: This particular set of Mothers has been relatively stable, hasn't it – since Jeff Simmons left.
Mark: Yes, and a lot less cynical. Jeff's animosity towards Frank used to create a lot of strain. I mean, Jeff Simmons is a beautiful cat and a really talented guy, but he had some problems of identity crisis ...
It wasn't a question of playing comedy music as much as the "I'm-not-taking-orders, man, we're-not-the-taking-orders-generation. ... I've got a frizz haircut, and I deserve to go and sit on a trunk and play the blues if I want to". You know the sort of thing? Anyway, he felt that he couldn't work with Frank and still be himself.
Howard: But we don't find that. The band has become a pretty unique comedic spring board for Mark and me, as well as a creative one.
ZZ: So you've no plans to resurrect the Turtles?
Howard: Actually, we have a lot of projects in mind, involving re-packaging and re-releasing Turtles material that came out incorrectly before. The first release will hopefully be next summer – a double album consisting of some of our hits on one record and maybe some new stuff on the other – done by the 4 of us who had made up our minds to stick it out.
Mark: You see, in
'It ain't me, babe' (Sept 65)
'You baby' (March 66)
'Happy Together' (March 67)
'Golden Hits' (Oct 67)
of the bands' (Dec 68) Battle
'Turtle Soup' (1969)
'Golden Hits Vol 2 (1969)
'Wooden Head (1970).
We were with White Whale for the whole of our 5 year existence, and they were a very minor label who set up independent deals for
ZZ: Do you feel like relating some of the history of the Turtles?
Mark: Sure, man, but it's a long story. To begin with, in 1965 we were very ambitious and very young, and we signed away a lot of stuff in our record contract.
Looking at it now, it may seem that we were taken advantage of, but to us then, the biggest thing that could ever happen to us was to get signed to a record label and have them pay for us to record. It just happened that the night the guys came to see us and sign us, we were going to break up in dejection, but they signed us, we recorded 'It ain't me, babe', and it was a giant hit in the States.
Howard: And they always made us feel that we were their boys, and that they were guiding us on a path to hit records but at the same time, we went through seven managers and were involved in up to three law suits running simultaneously – including one for 4 million dollars.
Mark: In 1967, we had a road manager who went to our record company and took an advance on our royalties, bought out our contract from our first manager and then skipped off with 80,000 dollars; the proceeds of a six week tour we'd done at a very prime time in our career, and the record company claimed management as a result. In the interim, we'd been obliged to sign with a
All this time, the record company had been pressuring us for singles, because we were their bread and butter; we were the only successful act they had in the 5 years we were with them. We had about 8 top ten hits, but around 1967 we started getting closer to our music; expanding our ideas and music to the point where we felt happy ... but they kept screaming "C'mon you guys, let's have another Happy Together".
We were pretty content with the '
Then we cut 'Turtle Soup' with Ray Davies producing, but the company had a hard time pushing the album because there wasn't a sure-fire hit to shoot up the chart.
Howard: Well, by this time, we were going bananas. It's hard to explain the insanity that can come as a result of pressure coming from all those areas at once.
The 5 of us had been trying desperately to keep it together but eventually, in 1970 ... well, that was it.
ZZ: I can't understand why you aren't a lot more bitter.
Howard: Well, if we really took it too seriously, it would be terribly depressing to examine those five years, which is why we've come to treat the whole music business as a satire ... just like watching TV commercials. Which makes it easy for us to be in the Mothers; we're not having to try really hard to "make it" but yet remain cool, creative and full of integrity, which is how we felt in the Turtles.
Now, we know exactly what we are doing, where we're going, the costs that are involved, what the deal is ... there are no contracts to stick to, and it's a very honest, straightforward relationship.
Mark: One of the only good things that came out of all that shit is the fact that we now own all our old Turtles masters, and that means that we can release them to whatever label we want. We're considering doing separate deals on the stuff that has already been released, and the unreleased stuff. And there is also talk of Howard and I signing up a solo deal, apart from the Mothers. (Which they have now done).
ZZ: Would you say that '200 Motels' is in any way representative of life on the road?
Howard: Well, that kind of thing is what the road does to you – if you don't like the movie, the chances are that you couldn't make it in a rock' n' roll band. The fact of the matter is that '200 Motels' should be taken' for what it is; a real diverting piece of culture, spawned from youth rather than rock ... it's just a non-linear piece of entertainment, and depending on how deeply you get into it as an art object, that's how much you'll be offended or amused.
ZZ: You never filmed as the Turtles ...
Mark: Only films of various songs for TV shows. You don't really see that sort of thing too much anymore, but in those days as soon as a single looked as if it was shaping up to be a hit, you made a film to promote it, and they ran it on all the pop shows like Shindig and Hullabaloo and even Top Of The Pops, over here. They were made for a number of reasons; you were frightened that a live performance wouldn't sound right, or you wanted to be freaky, or you wanted to imitate what the Beatles were up to ... you know. There were a lot of those shows for a while, but they closed up pretty quick, and the people that ran them are scrambling to get into video-cassette before they have to sell the Free Press on a street corner to get a living. It just changes ... you have to change too, or you die.
ZZ: Your English tour was a bit strange, wasn't it? They paraded you around like The Monkees or something .
Howard: Yes, it was really weird ... we played the Speakeasy one night, then some skating rink the next, then some huge hall ... it was chaos. We were trying too hard to sell ourselves, and it just wasn't worth the effort – but that's the sort of tour that record companies sent you on; "You won't make any money this time, boys, but it'll promote you records so that the next time you go ... " You know the sort of thing. Anyway, we came over on 'Happy Together', which was a number 12 record here, and as a result, 'She'd rather be with me' did considerably better ... and if we'd come over again, we could've kept it going maybe – but the record company over here was just fumbling around; they never had a programme to work to, and for all they knew or cared, we could've been the Fortunes.
Mark: But since we've been with Frank, we've met a lot of fanatics – people who were really into what the Turtles were doing; some here, but mostly in the States – and it's really gratifying. It's like the odd underground press article we see, which says "Wow, we've finally figured out what the Turtles were up to". It ties in with what we're doing now; in fact it's a logical pattern unless you were so out of it that you thought of the Turtles as "commercial" and the Mothers as "underground", and us as having merely swapped from 'above ground' to 'underground'. If you'd seen the Turtles live, and seen what they were doing, you'd have gotten the flash – just like Frank did.
ZZ: Doesn't it choke you off to think that business hassles finished off a good group?
Howard: Listen, man; it doesn't matter.
We profited from it in the long run, we're still alive, and we're ok ... if anybody cares.
ZZ: Do you see your work with Zappa as an extension of the Turtles?
Howard: Well, things certainly aren't as bizarre as they seemed to us a year ago; the normalcy has revealed itself to us and now it just seems to be the Turtles a little weirder – or the Mothers a little straighter.
The Mothers is an entertainment organisation rather than a straight rock'n'roll band .... we don't just exist to play music – we go out to create an environment on the stage. Frank tried for a long time with just his music, but now, through his music plus the acting and dialogue, he's creating this environment and, as a result, he's reaching a wider audience. He felt that it was silly to have just a small band of committed, active followers when, by changing his approach just a bit, he could attract a larger audience ... then, when they're not looking, he can give them what he wanted to play in the first place. As well as keeping most of the hard-core Mothers' audience that he already had, Frank has now got a larger, younger following; when Mark and I joined the group we were playing 2000 seater halls, but now we're selling out places with a capacity of 10,000.
Anyway, what Mark and I began as a temporary thing which we intended to last only until we'd finished making '200 Motels', has turned into something a lot more permanent, and as long as it stays this exciting and enjoyable, we intend to stay.
* See page 19
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