A Conversation (?) with The Eternally Charming Frank Zappa
By Steve Rosen
Frank Zappa, like his music, is quite unlike anything the industry has ever come across before. When everybody else was still swooning with the pre-Pepper Beatles and when the market was being flooded with a rash of crassly commercial R&B groups, Zappa and his Mothers of Invention were turning out double records in fold-out jackets that would have made Varèse turn over in his grave. The best way to describe Zappa is "whatever is happening at the time, he won't be doing it." And certainly the 45-minute interview with the bearded Mother proved this point.
In journalistic circles, an interview is usually set up between an artist and writer to let the former talk about his current work, clear up any misconceptions which the public may have had about him, and just generally make known what he's about. Frank's stance, however, seems to indicate a dislike for interviews which is grounded on several reasons: first, he feels the interlocutor is not knowledgeable enough (in the area of music, most specifically) to talk intelligently with him; and secondly, he doesn't see any important reason for them.
After reading all the current interviews, releases, and biographies on him, and after listening to most of his albums, this writer met Zappa with what he thought was a fairly reasonable groundwork for an interview. After explaining to Frank about the research I had done to come prepared for the talk, his first remarks instantly set the scene for a battle of wits, which, unfortunately, this reporter lost: "When somebody tries to read up on what somebody is doing it winds up reading the results of the last time somebody else tried to read up which was the result of somebody else trying to read up. It all depends upon the intent of your article; and what sort of information you expect to pass on. If you expect to pass on a point-of-view which you've gleaned from somebody else's gleaning of other gleanings and other gleanings you know, and you come in and you've seen half-an-hour of our rehearsal, the only thing you're really qualified to write about unless you've watched the group for a long time, the only thing you can really write about is what you saw in there. Without reprocessing somebody else's swill – but do what you want!"
On that promising note Frank was questioned about the early days with The Mothers and another group the Zappa had called The Muthers. His opening comment was "Are you sure they (Rock) want all this again?" and only after repeated coaxings and bolsterings did he agree to a pitiful five-minute chronology of the Mothers. "The group was formed in 1964; recorded our first album in 1965. Started off as a four-piece rhythm and blues band; playing some weird original material and it just kept growing and growing until it became about a nine or ten-piece band by 1969. Whereupon it broke up because of inability to support itself due to low concert fees and high overhead; general apathy among the members of the group for trying something new and original. I think in all there have been eight or nine bunches of Mothers and this is the ninth one" (a lineup which currently includes Jean-Luc Ponty, Ian Underwood, George Duke and others).
"The first group of Mothers that people knew from records was the one with Ray Collins and Roy (Estrada) and Jimmy Carl Black (the lineup of the Freak Out album). When we were first performing when the name was M-O-T-H-E-R-S and prior to that I had another group out in the sticks that was spelled M-U-'I'-H-E-R-S; once we started performing in Los Angeles, occasionally some club owner would put the 'U' up in the name, but once we were on record it was always with an O. There was a group called the Muthers but it wasn't that personnel; the personnel of that other weird group was Les Papp on drums, Paul Woods on bass and myself."
It was during this early period that Frank was desperately searching for a record company to be signed with, in order to purchase proper equipment (amplifiers, sound systems, etc.) for the band. He approached all the major companies and was turned down each time due to "Lack of commercial potential", so with nowhere to turn "it was a choice of not recording or going with the dip-shit company so we went with the "dip-shit company." With a "whopping $2,500 advance" Frank and the Mothers signed with MGM/Verve and according to Zappa are still trying to find out what happened to their royalty checks. Once Frank had found an outlet for his recorded material, he developed an ideology based on the continuing series of elements which he termed "conceptual continuity." "I didn't sit down and get a blueprint and a green visor and say 'Here's my ten-year plan.' The idea of conceptual continuity is that the whole of what we're doing is one piece, one event. Up to and including personnel changes and all the stuff that goes into it. It's a life event; so from one album to the next there's continuity and from one concert to the next there's continuity. And every time the group changes personnel and changes the style of music that it plays there's always continuity. And it's intentional."
There seemed to be a paradox in Frank's statement about the deliberate approach of conceptual continuity. Where many people may view Mother Music as a free-form, extemporaneous style of playing, the rigidity of Frank's music is probably only second to that of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "Well, what to you may have been free-form may have been highly structured. Where I may have said I want all you guys to make this noise here at this time and you heard it and thought 'Oh; it's an accident." A lot of that stuff is very structured. And of course I always leave holes in the arrangements so you have a chance for unpredictable events to occur; that gives you a build and a variety as you keep playing the same piece over and over again. If it was exactly the same every time it would be boring to do it. So I leave little guys in there."
Frank's drive to escape the cages of boredom and stagnancy found him fleeing the hold of MGM as soon as his contract with them was terminated. Warner Bros. picked them up and promised the band a separate label and pretty much free reign to release whatever they recorded. Bizarre/Straight was set up to release the more Zappaesque-related material (by people like Capt. Beefheart, The G.T.O.'s, Alice Cooper) on the Bizarre branch and the "straighter" stuff (a la Tim Buckley) on the Straight label. The B/S enterprise was recently dissolved and turned into a single entity under the name of DiscReet Records. The label's main attraction is that all albums will be released in quadraphonic. (The system being used to tape the four-channel records is, oddly enough, called Discrete.)
The first-released album for the Mothers on DiscReet, titled OverNite Sensation, is a quad recording and Frank explained he had been experimenting with four-channel set-ups as early as 1968. "I've been working with quad since '68 but there hasn't been a way to get it on a disc. All the stuff that's made it possible for you to get quad on a disc is quite recent. I mean I've had quad recordings ... the Albert Hall concert that we did. I recorded that in quad which will eventually come out." What advantages did quad have over stereo recordings? "Well when you have a complex bunch of information coming out of one speaker, it's harder for your ear to separate all the component parts of the arrangement because it's all coming from one source and it all muddles together. When you go to two channels in stereo you not only hear space but a chance for your ear to pick out across the stereo spectrum where a certain instrument is and identify what that instrument is playing as a component of the arrangement. And when you go to quad it's just increased that much more. You can even have more complex stuff coming out at you and it's still readable. So I think it's definitely an advantage for our music because there's so much going on inside of it."
Where some performers rely totally on their music in a live setting (vocalists like Judy Collins, Joan Baez), Frank Zappa and the Mothers maintain almost an even balance between visual and aural stimuli. As with Alice Cooper, where the medium becomes more vital than the message, Zappa has always kept a firm grasp on stage setting, props, and external devices to enhance the quality (and effect) of his music. "In 1967, when we first started to get famous, we were working in a theater in New York which was a 300-capacity theater, and we used to do two shows a night, six nights a week for what you'd call an intimate audience. What we did on stage contained a lot of direct audience involvement. We worked there for about five or six months and since that time we've worked bigger and bigger halls where you can't do the same kind of stuff; you know, you have to do something graphic on stage". But it changes depending on the environment you're playing in. We always like to see something happening on stage. We're not doing as much now because it's pretty hard, when you're playing some of the stuff that's as complicated as our stuff, to get them all to kick on the same beat."
While Frank has cut down his on-stage antics, his recent teaming with ex-Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan helped to establish him in different, more AM-ish circles. "It helped to make us a little more accessible to a point. In some ways it made us more accessible and in some ways it alienated a lot of people who like to see the group the way it was before. Can't please everybody. There was a lot of people who liked the group with The Turtles in it better than the one I've got now. There's other people who think this is the best Mothers of Invention they ever saw. From a musical standpoint it certainly is; everybody in it can play their butts off." And certainly, with players like Jean-Luc Ponty, George Duke, Ruth and Ian Underwood in the group, there wouldn't be too many arguments over this statement.
Plans are underway to release the first of what is to be a ten-part live anthology of The Mothers some time around the beginning of the year. The band has been recording live since 1968 and the tapes are in forms ranging from a two-track cassette to a sixteen-track tape machine. Frank is also working on finishing up his previously uncompleted "Uncle Meat" piece to make into a film, as well as writing a script for a musical science fiction movie. A solo album is in the works with one instrumental track including Jack Bruce on bass and Jim Gordon on drums, and some tracks with Jean-Luc Ponty. "I don't plan ahead, it just depends on what I like. As far as musical compositions I don't say I'm now going to sit down and write an album that contains large amounts of choral voices. I haven't yet ... but it doesn't mean tomorrow I won't wake up and be obsessed with it."
Source: Steve Roncaioli
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