946 Motels Later
By Robert Bowman
Frank Zappa once again has put together a "permanent" edition of the Mothers Of Invention, one of the first true underground bands in rock. The third edition of the Mothers consists of George Duke (recently with Cannonball Adderley) on keyboards, Jean-Luc Ponty on violin (a virtuoso of amazing pyrotechnics), Ian Underwood (one of the beloved originals) on woodwinds, Ruth Underwood (Ian's wife) on percussion, Bruce Fowler – trombone, Tom Fowler –bass, Ralph Humphrey – drums and of course Frank on guitar and vocals. Recently Sal Marquez (trumpet) has been added as has a vocalist. This is basically the same band that put together "Waka/Jawaka" and "The Grand Wazoo."
Both these albums represented ventures into a jazz oriented music. "I wouldn't say we are a quote "jazz" band in sense of some people's idea of jazz. We don't play weird chords with a chunk-chunk beat and go off into the cosmos. We do improvise a lot and I will be playing more guitar than I did with the Volman, Kaylan set of Mothers. An example of that is my playing on "Eat That Question" (from "The Grand Wazoo"). Actually, that was a badly recorded solo. It's pretty hard to really stretch out when you are confined to a wheelchair which I still was from the accident when I recorded that."
Frank has now fully recovered from the attack on him by a somewhat crazed lunatic while touring Europe. He is anxious to forget about those days and those Mothers. He is pretty bitter about Volman and Kaylan and understandably so. After forming Phlorescent Leech and Eddy (with Aynsley Dunbar and Don Preston) they turned around and repeatedly stabbed him in the back in the press. After that experience Frank said he was never going to put together another "permanent" band because of the general unreliability of musicians. Instead he intended upon putting a band together for each album do a tour and then break them up and start again. This set of Mothers was to be the first of those "temporary" bands, but they were so happy with each other that after one tour they decided to make it two, and now are going on their third tour with plans to stay together permanently.
We talked a bit about the two most recent albums. I asked why "Waka/Jawaka" was a Frank Zappa album and "The Grand Wazoo" was a Mothers of Invention album when they were basically done with some new band with no significant musical difference between them. "At the time of "Waka/Jawaka", according to my contract, a Frank Zappa album was called for and "Waka/Jawaka" became a sort of follow-up to my first solo album, "Hot Rats". I thought of making a movie from "Wazoo" but unfortunately the plot was too thin to do a full-length feature. I thought of doing a short, but with the cast of thousands and the immense settings that "Wazoo" would need to be done properly, it would be impossible to finance it as a short."
From here Frank went on to talk about his movies, past, present and future. First, we talked about the legendary "Uncle Meat" movie.
"Uncle Meat" was never finished because the guy who originally was putting up the money freaked at the initial rushes and immediately backed out. The rushes were totally beyond his comprehension and since he couldn't understand it, he assumed no one else could, and therefore it was bad." He finally found someone, in the form of United Artists, who had enough faith in him to put up the money for a movie. Hence, "200 Motels". "I was really happy that United Artists came through and put up the bread so I really can't complain, but I think they blew it with their publicity campaign. We had worked out the publicity and had done it all by ourselves but they decided it would be better to do it the conventional straight way. We had done the posters, the boards outside the theatres, the press handouts, etc. None of our stuff was used. Besides that I was really happy that they were willing to put up the bread and have faith. At the moment I am having meetings with people from United Artists about doing another feature-length film. I'm not sure exactly what it will be like, but it definitely will not be in the form of a cartoon."
Frank and I also talked about the size of various bands and musical aggregations. At different times he has been known to play with as little as four musicians while at other times he has played with a full symphony. Naturally we talked about the famous Mother's day concert with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Symphony at the Pauley Pavillion. "When you play music in a hall designed for basketball, you take chances. We were positioned high above the stage and the sound was so distorted we couldn't hear ourselves. When we did, we'd play one note and drown out the whole orchestra. So, generally I wasn't too pleased with it, but the audience spent the entire evening jumping up and down and shouting so they obviously liked it, and maybe that made it worthwhile. What really bothered me most was the attitude of the typical symphony musician. They don't care, they sit back sneering at everything and play whatever's put in front of their faces, without any spirit or drive." I suggested he could hand pick musicians and put together an orchestra. "That's an idea, but where are you going to find one hundred musicians with the technical capabilities of a Ponty and the drive of a Ponty. The symphony musicians generally have the technical faculties and you can find plenty of younger classical musicians with the spirit and the drive, but it is very rare that you find both in one person."
Generally steering our conversation clear of the Volman, Kaylan set of Mothers and rarely straying as far back as the original group, we kept our pattern of talking about specific things that Frank has generally not talked about too much in the past.
One interesting topic was the Jean-Luc Ponty album of Frank Zappa material, "King Kong". Until that album Zappa had largely been ignored by "serious" jazz musicians, possibly because of the bizarre things he did that appealed so much to his younger rock audience. With that album the jazz community was forced to listen, as Zappa (not unlike Mingus), re-examined and found new ways of expressing his musical ideas from earlier pieces. The title track, "Idiot Bastard Son" and "Twenty Small Cigars" all fit into this category. The album also contained the twenty minute "Music For Electric Violin And Low Budget Orchestra", which contained everything imaginable from totally unpredictable transitions, to heavily structured chordal segments, to free, totally improvised areas. In between he paid debts to everyone, from his early idol Edgar Varèse ("The present day composer refuses to die") to Stockhausen, to any one of jazz's post-war forerunners and innovators. Zappa, as usual, was light years ahead of the rest of the rock world.
"I am very critical, but I think if "King Kong" had been properly produced and had a decent budget, it would have turned out to be a far superior work. As it was, it was only given a budget of $8,000. With a budget like that, it didn't stand much of a chance of being done properly. The average rock album today has $40,000 spent on it. Working with what amounts to one fifth of that, nothing much can be done. The people behind the album felt that there wasn't much of a market for it and therefore they would only give out so much bread. Judging by the sales that album has got, they appear to be right. Jean-Luc only got to play the solos a couple of times before they recorded it and the combined ensemble practiced it about as many times. It's really too bad, as something like "Music For Electric Violin And Low Budget Orchestra" has tremendous potential, if handled properly."
I asked if he planned to do another album with Ponty, this time producing and financing it himself. "Not in the immediate future but there is one thing that may come out on my next album, that's a duet that he and I improvised. I'm playing the bouzouki, which is a Greek mandolin, and he's playing the baritone violin and it's really nice."
Frank then went on to explain what a bouzouki is. "A bouzouki has a very long neck and it's tuned not like a violin, the way a mandolin is, but the same as the top four strings of a guitar down a whole step." Speaking of the next album Frank said it was basically recorded with the same band, and will look at everyday situations and relationships in rather weird and peculiar ways.
A few years back, right after the original Mothers Of Invention broke up, it was announced that a twelve record set of previously unreleased material, ranging from the Mother's first practice sessions, to live concerts to the final recording session of that venerable band was going to be released. I asked Frank if the material was still around and if it was ever going to be released. "That's right, that material is in existence, it's all been edited and it's sitting there waiting to be released. The problem with releasing it is, if I put out two albums per year I like to have it represent what I'm doing currently. Perhaps at a point when the Mothers aren't touring, which was probably the case when that article came out, and no current material is being performed, then I'll release that."
So there you have it. Frank, as usual, is involved in several things. He just finished producing an album of 50's rock by a band called (naturally) Ruben And The Jets, which contains former Mothers Tony Duran and Motor-head Sherwood. He is talking to United Artists about the possibility of doing another movie, he has a new album set for release, and he's doing another tour. All these projects should be extremely interesting, as Zappa is never one to do he same thing twice. My guess is that the album will be musically as good as "The Grand Wazoo" but won't contain the overall combined brilliance of Zappa's unusual insight, imagination, broken musical boundaries and/or packaging of albums like "We're Only In It For The Money", "Freak Out'', "Uncle Meat", etc. But, as always, it will be well worth checking out, and, coming from Frank Zappa, it will inevitably open up your ears to something new and different. The continuing saga of The Mothers Of Invention continues on.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net