Zappa: An Interview
By Dan Foote, Chuck Bufe & John Ridgway
New Times: That was a good show . Are they going to put it on record?
Frank Zappa: Well we did record it … in quad.
NT: Is it going to be Live in Phoenix?
FZ: I don’t know; I’ll listen to the tape when I get home and if there is something astonishing I’ll put it on the album. There’s a lot of other places that we’ve played where weird things have happened – they’re all good, you know and it’s hard to choose what’s the best things to put out.
But we’ve been in the studio for about three weeks and you ought to hear that stuff; that’s terrifying. I mean, I hate to even come out to do a show sometimes when I know how good it can sound in the studio.
NT: Why do you go live? It seems like you have a lot of control in the studio and part of your music is control.
FZ: Well, some of the ideas that I want to express are sufficiently complicated that if you don’t spell them out exactly in terms of the way the instruments are balanced against each other and so on and so forth; then some times the wrong idea comes across.
If you know anything about arranging, when you have instruments of radically different timbre and they’re playing in an ensemble. You know you got a violin, a trombone, a trumpet and woodwinds of varying things; that’s all four different sounds and if they’re playing a chord the balance is real critical between those instruments, and they can’t always tell if anybody’s sticking out. And if one guy does stick out, it makes the chord sound wrong to my ear.
NT: Then that’s why you use sheets.
FZ: Sheets? What do you mean?
NT: You have to read a lot of the music
FZ: Oh, a lot of arrangements we were playing out there were written out, and then everybody memorized it.
And some of the other ones I go “La, la, la – you play that” and “La, la, la – you play this,” and just boogie on.
NT: What are your listening preferences now?
FZ: Mostly classical music. I listen to Varèse, Stravinsky, Xenakis, Messiaen, Honegger, Boulez, Ravel, Debussy – folks like that.
NT: Do you like any more current things, like the Mahavishnu Orchestra?
F7: Well, I’ve only heard the tape of their first album and I don’t have any comment on that. But we’re about to do 11 concerts with them on this next tour. We’re playing all over the place with them.
NT: It seems that you and McLaughlin and Davis seem to be setting a similar trend … which I find especially interesting since you come from such different backgrounds.
FZ: Are you talking about the rhythmic aspect of it, or the melodic aspect or what?
NT: Well, both, and the way they bounce off of each other.
FZ: Well, I don’t find too much in common melodically between what we do and what the Mahavishnu does; and the only thing in common with our group and Miles Davis is we got a trumpet in it.
Rhythmically there are some similarities, because we’re playing eighth-note and sixteenth-note time signatures that are uneven and so forth, but we’ve been doing that for seven years.
NT: Do you mind the requests for “Louie, Louie ?”
FZ: Well, it all depends, you know, I think it was well intended in this case. In the olden days, when we were into things that were a little bit more dissonant and less good natured, somebody requesting “Louie, Louie” was obnoxious because there was one at every concert, and they really wanted to hear it, they really did. I mean here, the guy knew it was humorous to say that and we’re more than happy to accommodate him. It just means something different now when somebody asks for it. But when we first started playing and people really did want to hear it other than anything else we were doing – at that point it was offensive.
NT: You said that your music is a little less ...
FZ: It’s not as dissonant.
NT: How has that change come about?
FZ: It comes about by virtue of the fact that different people are playing it. The people in this band have superior musical technical abilities. I mean, they all are very adept at the instruments they play; and that is not something that could have seen said for most of the other groups of the Mothers of Invention. You know, in the past there was always one or two guys who were outstanding but the rest of them were just sort of funny guys to have in the band. Everybody in that band can play his ass off.
NT: Do you notice any difference in the way you’re received in various parts of the country and Europe?
FZ: Yep. The worst audience we’ve had in the United States recently has been Portland, Oregon; which was surprising because we’ve played there two or there times before, and it seemed like just the whole aura of the place had changed, it was just different, and we didn’t go over very good there. And the best receptions we’ve been getting, generally speaking, are in the South. Very, very good people in the South.
And the most outrageous reception, not in terms of the crowd jumping up and making a lot at noise, but in terms of an audience that realizes that if you’re going to do something complicated that you had better get your shit together before you get out there, was when we played in Memphis, and we very carefully balanced everything out, and there were people in the audience screaming out “Take your time”. We never heard that any place else and it was a beautiful audience.
NT: How did you find your reception here tonight ?
FZ: I thought it was really nice; it was friendly – can’t complain about that. It’s fun to go out and play for friendly people.
NT: How are you received in Europe?
FZ: Very well. The best reception is in Holland, which is the only country in the world where we’ve had number one albums. Hot Rats and We’re only in it for the Money were both number one albums there, and good in England. Hot Rats was a top-10 album there, and it’s very good in Germany, too. Scandinavia is good.
NT: How do your record sales here compare?
FZ: When you consider the size difference in the market from place to place, I think that we’re more popular per capita in Europe – or have been the past. I don’t know what the thing is like recently.
NT: How long ago did you finish Grand Wazoo?
FZ: It was done last August. I did Waka-Jawaka and Grand Wazoo at the same time. I was still in a wheelchair when I did those.
NT: What really happened to that guy (who pushed Zappa off a stage proscenium during a performance in London), that’s been quite a while.
FZ: Yeah, it’s been two years. He went to jail for a year, and I stayed on crutches for 9 months, sort of out of commission for a total of 18 months, though I wasn’t touring. I spent a month in a hospital and just a long time in wheelchair, really bad.
NT: How did you feel about 200 Motels?
FZ: Well, I had mixed emotions about it; I just wish that there had been more money to allow us more time to perfect all the things that were in it. But as it was, we had to shoot it in seven days.
NT: Seven days?
FZ: Seven days. Edited, video-edited in 11 days, and then 3 months of film handling, and then it came out.
NT: In the writing, in the finale especially, I noticed a kind of stoic acceptance of a lot of things that you had previously put down … Like “God bless the mind of the man on the street”.
FZ: Well, that all depends on how you construe the lyrics, whether you think they are straight ahead, or whether you think they’re “Hmmm,” like that you know. Those lyrics can be interpreted in a number of ways, and I won’t tell you which way is the right one.
But I’ll say that that closing scene was intended to be a parody of every sincere announcer that closes off every musical program. You know, “Ladies and Gentlemen.“ The horrible thing about that closing thing is, and I didn’t know it when I wrote it … is that that’s just about the way Theodore Bikel usually closes the act he does on stage – it’s almost the same kind of rap, and I didn’t know.
NT: Would you like to do more movies?
FZ: Yeah, I’m probably going to do another one at the end of the year. I’ve got a meeting with a guy from United Artists who financed 200 Motels, and I’m going to see him in about three weeks.
NT: Were you happy with the way 200 Motels was promoted?
FZ: No. No, even though I’d planned a whole program in order to bring the information across to the people who might be interested in seeing it, but after they opened it in first run theaters, they abandoned all the stuff I had prepared, and just did it in a stock way. And so at that point it was a choice between carrying on and making music or sitting there and spending the next five years of my life making sure a movie distributor runs the right trailer in a theater and runs the right ads. And I said, “Well, got to draw the line somewhere,” and I said “Whsst, I’m done with 200 Motels.”
I suspect that the next album we put out is going to raise an awful lot of eyebrows all over the place, because there is some fantastic stuff on it.
NT: More instrumentally oriented?
FZ: Nope, nope. There’s quite a few vocals on it of the most peculiar variety – things that you would never expect the Mothers of Invention to crank off.
NT: Did you do any of that material tonight?
FZ: Well, we have a studio version of “Montana,” that is literally hair raising. There’s a song that we didn’t do during the first show that we’re going to do during the second show called “Inca Roads.” I’ve written words for the song – it’s an instrumental piece that has very strange time signatures with a melody that goes all over the place – and last night I wrote words lyrics to it, and we’re going to put that on the album.
NT: Are you against over-dubbing and adding effects in the studio?
FZ: I’m in favor of making complete use of whatever is available in the studio.
You know, why fart away all that great technology, ’cause I remember the first time we went into the studio to cut the Freak Out album, the only thing that was available was four-track recording, and all the EQ was very limited, and all the rest of the effects that you get was extremely primitive, and you has to struggle to make things sound the way you wanted to. Now in Los Angeles there’s 16- and 24- and 32-track studios with fantastic out-board equipment that let’s you do – you can make music sound any way you want.
NT: Your next album’s going to be in quadraphonic?
FZ: It sure is. I’ll tell you how quad it’s going to be. I’ve had some special instruments manufactured. Like that marimba and vibes that she (Ruth Underwood) is playing? Well you’re hearing then mono right now, but both of them are quad instruments. There’s a transducer on every bar, and they’re fed out to a four-channel box. When you go into a studio, each one of those channels represents three half-steps on the keyboard. On the vibes it’s F, F-sharp, G-channel one and any F, F-Sharp or G will come out on channel one. And then G-sharp, A and B flat will come out on channel two and so forth, so when she plays it will go bo-i-i-ing all the way around the room, like that … The piano pickup that George (Duke) is using on the grand is also the only one of its kind – its a magnetic pickup that goes across all the strings just like a guitar pickup. When he plays, in quad, the low notes are behind you, and the middle of the piano is in front of you and the high notes are over there … it just zooms around the room. When we record the drums in quad, we place the position of the bass drum mike in the center of the room, it will sound like it’s hitting on top of the head …
A lot of quad layouts, are done in such a way that it will appear like the panorama of the group in front of you and the room echoes in back of you – that’s the legit quad. But what we do is make the person who is listening to it sit right in the middle of the instruments, not in the middle of the band, but inside of the instruments themselves, and the result is pretty astonishing … It’s just covering you up with notes. So I’m very enthusiastic about a quad release on that…
I’m trying to get it done before we do the tour … It’s going to be eight or ten weeks anyway, ’cause we’re still doing putting vocals on it and stuff.
NT: Who’s doing the vocals now?
FZ: I’m doing them mostly, and that guy Ken [Kin]  has just been added to the group. That was the first time he’s been on stage with us (tonight). That was completely unrehearsed; he’s never even been to rehearsal with the group. He used to sing with the First Edition and the New Christy Minstrels. He’s going to be singing on some of the stuff and so is Sal (Marquez, trumpet). Why we might even have George singing on some of it, but I’m doing the lead vocals.
Look here, I sure would like to take a nap.
NT: Thank you very much.
FZ: Oh, You’re welcome.
1. The interview was made between 2 shows on April 7 in Phoenix, Arizona.
2. It’s Kin Vassey. He was with the band April 7 - May 1.
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