Frank Zappa: If His "Friends" Could Hear Him Now
By Steve Peacock
It's been a long time since his London stage accident: for the rest of us, life's been going on, but for Frank Zappa a large proportion of that time has been spent lying in hospital beds, and resting in his California home, recovering from the disastrous incident which left him badly injured. Lately though, he's been writing and playing music; he did the Wawa / Jawaka album, and started a tour with a 20 piece band based on essentially the same ideas as that album. A few weeks ago, he was back in London, an air of weariness and a brace on his leg the only outward reminders of the Rainbow. He talked with not a little bitterness in his voice of his experiences in the world of rock and roll, to Steve Peacock. The first question dealt with the new band ...
" ... is called the Mothers of Invention / Hot Rats / Grand Wazoo for short. It's a 20-piece electric orchestra, and the group is only going to be together for a total of eight concerts. The Hollywood Bowl, the Oval, the Hague, Berlin, two days in New York, Boston, and back home."
"Have you decided against having a regular band now?"
"Pretty much, yeah. I think that of all the unreliable phenomena that exist in the 20th century, the musician may come up in first place."
"Unreliable in what way?"
"Just in unreliability. So, rather than keep something together to a point where it becomes 100 per cent unreliable, it's better to just put things in small doses and do a variety of things, because I'm interested in exploring a lot of different kinds of music and a lot of different textures, and I see no reason why it should not be possible to put together a 20-piece orchestra for one tour, and then if I feel willing to put myself through the work of putting together another group of a totally different instrumentation for another tour, then I'll do that.
"As a matter of fact as soon as I get off the road after this tour that's exactly what I'll do, put together another group. We have a tour lined up for the United States and Canada at the end of October."
"Have you any idea yet what that will be like?"
"The main thing in it will be that I'm going to be playing a lot of guitar, and it's possible that it may have some vocals. I may do some vocals with it and probably have another vocalist – probably some brass, rhythm section, and there's another man who plays an unusual instrument who I haven't contracted yet."
"You're still finding it necessary or satisfying to go out on the road and play? Because you must be in a position now where you don't have to."
"Not necessarily. I think the only time you don't have to go out on the road is when you're in the position of a large phenomenon like the Beatles or the Stones where you sell large, frightening numbers of records automatically. I would rather face an audience and let them see what I'm doing and let them hear what I'm saying exactly than deal with them second or third hand, conversing to them through the print media or something like that.
"Certainly I enjoy playing music and a tour is a good way to keep people informed of what you're doing, and if they like what you do then of course they'll follow it up with records."
"You wouldn't feel able to get to them sufficiently closely with just records?"
"Not really, because I've got so much stuff all ready to release now that I can't put out because you've got to wait three or four months between albums because the company who's distributing your stuff say they don't get a chance to recoup their money if you do it in less.
"In fact we just had a jam session all night, I guess about a month ago. Jean-Luc Ponty happened to be in town and so did George Duke and a number of other west coast jazz men, so we had a jam session in the mix room upstairs in a recording studio in Los Angeles. It was unusual because the only thing that was being picked up by a microphone was the drums and everything else was being plugged directly into the board through transducers.
"So consequently everyone except the drummer was standing around the console and they could hear themselves perfectly at high volume in quad – no charts, and nobody even said we'll play this or that, we just turned the tape recorder on and started cranking away.
"We recorded all different combinations of instruments from seven in the evening to seven in the morning; and I can't release it because I already have another album in the can that's set for release in three week's time in the States, and then we're doing some live recording over here and I won't be able to put that out until ... And whenever you put an album out people assume that I'm totally committed to that at the time, that that's my new direction or something.
"I may have been doing eleven different things simultaneously at the time the album was made, but they don't get to find out about that until the release schedule catches up."
"After the Rainbow accident, did you want to keep those Mothers together, or were you going to disband them anyway?"
"I didn't have much choice in the matter. I couldn't work so I couldn't employ them. What could I offer them if we couldn't go out on the road? But even before that last tour we were getting into some kind of recording contract with Mark and Howard so that they could do their own album, however they chose not to mention the fact that we (Zappa and manager Herb Cohen) fought to get them out of their previous recording contract ... "
"Really? And then they put you down in their press interviews."
"Well, I would imagine that that's just the beginning of it, and that there'll probably be a lot more of that shit. But I find that distinctly unethical because what happened when we got back to Los Angeles was that I started figuring out ways that I could get the guys some money, because our tour was cut short, and we didn't do about six jobs, and also the insurance money on our equipment that got burned in Montreux only got settled last week – they haven't given us the check yet, but we've agreed on an amount.
"So while I was in Los Angeles I tried to find a way to give them some bread and I happened to have a tape of a concert we did just prior to the European tour, so I decided to release that as an album and I managed to work a deal where I got each member of the group an advance payment of 2,000 dollars, which is way in excess of what they would have gotten if I'd just done it under normal circumstances.
"I find no mention of that in their press releases. And another thing they've been garbling about in some of the papers in Los Angeles is that I didn't call them up or go to see them or anything. Shit, I'm sitting up in my house in a wheelchair with my leg up in the air, and they never bother to come over and see me either.
"I think the attitude they've shown so far has been strictly commercial."
"It seems to happen that people who work with you and leave, end up bad-mouthing you in the papers."
"Yep. A lot of people automatically assume that because somebody says something like that it must be true, and not once for any article that says something like that, has anybody bothered to call me or the office to corroborate anything that was said.
"I guess if you took the combined work of all the interviews where people have said things like that and sat down with all the receipts and all the contracts I think you'd find out that all of them were liars. And that the sole reason for people saying something like that was for publicity purposes, because if you say something that is sensational you wind up getting more press.
"So one guy says he's really hot shit and the next guy reads it and says look, they did it over there and it worked for them, let us do it, and then the next one and the next one and so on. It does work."
"I spent some time with Captain Beefheart when he was over here, and from them I got more of a general anti-Zappa feeling than any specific comments."
"Well, yes, and I've seen some of those specific complaints, and I can't see there's really any foundation for what they say, let alone what they do. It seems peculiar that they forget all the things that our office did to make things easier for them, to help them get started. Like we've got receipts for pumping their cesspool, a tree surgeon for his house ... just little things down the line that would go wrong, and they'd call up and we'd fix it for them. It's just such a weird attitude.
"If we'd used the Motown attitude to our acts none of this would have ever occurred, because when you sign with the label you also get locked into a management thing which is also controlled by the office.
"But I don't like the idea of doing that, and consequently the only artist we ever had under contract that I produced was Wild Man Fischer, and the reason for that was that nobody else would touch him. We hoped that we could get him some work in order for him to promote his album, and when he wanted to have his contract back, Herbie just handed it to him."
"Does the whole thing hurt you very much?"
"It depends on the relationship I had with the artist prior to the press releases that they put out. I felt especially uncomfortable, well I guess it was just painful in the cases of Beefheart and Mark and Howard. I just felt that that was extremely low behavior.
"In the case of Beefheart I just don't understand it because he's so erratic that he's likely to say something like that, and then the next day turn around and say the opposite, but unfortunately that hasn't happened and he just kept on saying it.
"Probably he discovered the more he said it the more press coverage he got."
"If I can change the subject for a moment, can I ask how long you were laid up after the Rainbow?"
"I was a month in the Harley Street Clinic, and then I had about another three months in Los Angeles pretty much incapacitated and I then gradually started improving from there. I've had this brace on my leg for about two months, and before that I had a cast on, sitting in a wheelchair. The leg's not healing very fast, but it is healing now at last.
"I had a whole assortment of injuries, and it bugged me a little bit to see the way it was handled in the press, a kind of semi-humorous treatment, here and also in the States, yeah. Yo ho ho, he fell in the Orchestra pit."
"Well, I'm sure that wasn't intended."
"Maybe, maybe I was feeling a little crazy and over sensitive in that hospital. I had a broken rib, I got a broken shin, tibia, I had a giant hole in the back of my head, the side of my face got mashed in, and for the first two-and-a-half or three weeks in the hospital I couldn't move my hands and I didn't know whether I had any brain damage or what. I couldn't even hold a guitar up by the time I left the place. It was too heavy for me."
"But now it's just the leg?"
"Yeah, just the leg."
"Did you start writing soon after you got back to LA?"
"Oh yeah, I wrote a whole bunch of stuff as soon as I was able to sit at a table."
"And are you still planning on "Billy the Mountain" as the next film?"
"Well, I was planning to do that with Mark and Howard, so I'm going to have to shelve that until I can come up with a new way to package it. And I'd rather not discuss the next one until I've made a deal for it. It'll be a feature film and not a cartoon though."
"Do you see film-making now as important as music?"
"I see that as just another thing I do. I certainly like to do it. It gives you a slightly different advantage because you can use things like close-up that you can't do in a concert, build up a little more character that way. I'd say the next film I do won't be near the standard idea of a rock and roll movie based on the exploits of a certain fixed group. It'll probably be a little more into being professional actors, and with a slightly different premise to work from.
"I'm about finished with investing large amounts of my time in the development of other people so that they can do press interviews and rip me off."
"This is the unreliability of musicians, you were talking about. Would actors be any better?"
"I guess not, but seeing as I haven't had any actors do bad press releases about me yet, I'll explore that field. As soon as I find out I have trouble with actors, then it's cartoons all the way."
"You seem to be very pissed off this time around, disillusioned and a bit down."
"Well I'm tired, to tell you the honest-to-God truth, got a bit of the jet lag. But something like that would tend to change your attitude towards people in general, musicians in particular, and also audiences, by the way.
"You just have to view them as a completely different phenomenon, and as I told one guy at the press conference, something like this shows you who your friends are, if you ever had any."
"So whatever you do now it'll be for yourself."
"Well, to be more specific about it, I just won't be doing some of the things that were normally expected of me before."
"In the way of patronage and so on."
"Right. I've had it about up to the ceiling, or maybe up to three floors above, of that sort of activity."
"Are you carrying on with Straight/Bizarre?"
"Yes we are. But as far as actually producing records for people myself, that's going to be severely limited because I just don't like the idea of the personal aggravation of getting the playback from it. So my involvement in the record company will probably be to the extent of approving or disapproving of what's available to sign, and I'll turn the actual production over to some other people.
"That's what I'd like to find right now, is some competent producers, who know what to do with people of unusual abilities. There's a lot of guys that can go out and make a straight slick record, but what if they had to deal with Alice Cooper in the early stage?"
"Going back to that Beefheart thing: the one specific charge they did make was that you didn't create, you just take things and put them together."
"Yeah. Is that to imply that Beefheart's music is 100 percent pristine and comes from no point of origin, or is that to say that anyone listening to Beefheart's music is befuddled to the point where they can't trace his sources? Because I certainly know where it comes from, but I wouldn't tell anybody for fear of embarrassing the dear Captain.
"I don't know what one is supposed to say about taking things from other people and molding them into something of one's own, but I'll tell you exactly what I take from other people. And it's not like taking it either, because in all the groups that I've had, the personalities of the individual musicians I felt were important enough to build into the pieces they were performing.
"When a person is working on the road a certain number of months out of the year and if they have to play a set repertoire in order to keep some sort of program and to ensure some standard of quality for the shows that you have to do night after night, it's better if the people who are performing it have a chance to have something they can identify with. That seems logical, it has to me all along anyway, and what I would do was when I wrote for the group I'd take what you might call the folklore of the group and transmute that into musical terms so that the people playing the music got the chance to play something that represented them as much as me.
"Unfortunately, some people didn't like the way I saw them or what I recognized as their folklore contribution, and other people just didn't like the idea of performing period. They'd say we were going on the road too much, and then other people felt we weren't going enough, because if you don't go on the road you don't get paid.
"In the case of the old Mothers, at the point that they broke up I was in a very embarrassing situation, because in order to tell the whole truth about [it] I would have had to say some awfully bad things about them – about their musical ability, their attitude, their reliability. It was at a point where I knew they had to get together other ensembles and I didn't want to do any bad press that might encumber them in their new career, whatever it was.
"But to tell you their attitude at that point now: they were receiving 250 dollars per week, guaranteed, whether they worked or not, and had been for a couple of years. And that was a burden I could not bear any more, because the money we were getting in from concerts was just not enough. At the time we broke up I felt that at rehearsals they slopped through the music, taking no interest in refining their technique or expanding musically to new horizons."
Source: Steve Roncaioli
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