Conversation With Frank Zappa
Story and photos by Bill Gubbins
In 1974, ten years since the Mothers first began performing, there is little that needs to be said in terms of introductory remarks about Frank Zappa.
If you haven't yet been exposed to the body of his recording or performance work, or have yet to form an opinion of him as a musician or composer, it’s highly unlikely that you ever will.
The interview was conducted at the downtown Holiday Inn, after Frank's Toledo concert. Sitting in was Joe Costa, who demonstrated his intense interest in Zappa by flying in from New Jersey especially for the Toledo concert.
The room, of course, was the standard Holiday Inn decor. Three large suitcases sat on one of the beds with a carton of Winstons protruding from one of them. A 16 mm Beaulieu camera lay on a table while copies of Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report lay unread.
Frank was sitting in bed, fortified by a pack of Winstons and a thermos of coffee beside him. Another performance of ‘Dance of the Rock and Roll Interviewers had just begun.
JC: Did you choose your set tonight out of some sort of deference to being in Toledo, Ohio? You did a lot of your old stuff.
FZ: That’s something that we’re doing on this tour. This is our tenth anniversary year so we rehearsed this Freak Out, medley the past couple of weeks, and we’re going to be doing it all through this tour. It’s just like a type of anniversary thing.
BG: There seems to-be a great deal of difference between the material on your first album, Freak Out, and your latest, Apostrophe.
FZ: Sure, every band’s different. The band playing on Freak Out was playing as well as they could at the time they made that record. I listen to that album now and it sounds really sleezette. I think the groups have gotten progressively more sophisticated. They’re able to play more complicated stuff, and they’re able to play simple stuff with more definition.
JC: I’d like to ask you about some new directions that you seem to be going to. For instance, speaking of Freak Out; on that album you were breaking down a lot of doors, but on Apostrophe and even Over Nite Sensation you may have compromised some on your subject matter.
FZ: The point is that all that stuff I said on the Freak Out album still holds true. Everything that I said from Freak Out through “We’re Only In It For the Money” still holds true. It’s been 9 years since Freak Out came out. You know, why bother to say it over and over again.
BG: Vocals have often been a problem area with the Mothers. Are you satisfied with your new vocalist, Napoleon?
FZ: Well, Napoleon has vast problems with that Freak Out material because his learning rate is slower than most of the guys in the group, especially in terms of words. He picks up the instrumental parts really fast.
We rehearsed six hours a day, six days a week for two weeks before we came out here on nothing but that Freak Out stuff. And he still doesn’t have the words memorized. He’s really struggling with it. I got on his case after the show tonight. I told him if you’re gonna play something that nobody’s ever heard before and make a mistake in the middle of that, 2% of the audience will know you blew it. But if you go out there and you’re singing songs that are already on record and people know what the words are, I don’t want anybody in the audience to feel sorry for you. So get out the cassette machine and learn those words.
But he really tries, you know. He’s the most unusual guy that’s ever been in he goes into his room after a show and gets out a cassette machine and the stuff that he’s supposed to work on, which is the flute part or the sax part, and he practices. At night! After the show! He practices on his days off, sits in there for four hours, five hours and goes over the stuff.
BG: Where did you find him?
FZ: I saw him in a bar in Hawaii. He was fronting a soul group and I offered him a job.
BG: How is Apostrophe selling’?
FZ: The album’s been out three weeks and it’s sold 90,000 copies. It’s the fastest selling album that I’ve ever put out. And that’s partly because we’ve been touring extensively over the past year. Whenever you tour your record sells. We did over 100 concerts last year; a big touring schedule.
But all the other so-called good music albums that we‘ve put out with the exception of 200 Motels, which did about 200,000 in the United States, and all the albums in between didn’t do shit, at least in the U.S.
BG: How did 200 Motels do financially?
FZ: They didn’t do a very good job distributing it because they were too busy with Fiddler on the Roof that year. But it’s paid itself off.
BG: What didn’t they do?
FZ: First of all, their idea of publicity was so stupid. They did things like, I went to New York to do some interviews and the publicity office of United Artists sent out a memo to God knows who this thing went to, but it said ‘Rock musician Frank Zappa arriving on flight number blah, blah blah. We are sure you’ll want to be at the airport to meet him.’ And they sent out crud like that that’s strictly a 1930 movie jive publicity thing. That was their idea of promotion. We had trouble getting good theatres, too.
BG: What are your chances of doing another feature film?
FZ: Good. I’m working on one now.
BG: I asked Beefheart this same question last night. Are you and he still feuding?
FZ: He called the house about three or four weeks ago, just out of the blue; he hasn’t been in touch for four years, something like that. He called up and asked for me and I wasn’t there, and he wound up talking to Gail for a while. She asked him what he wanted, and he says, ‘I called up Frank to thank him for producing the Trout Mask Replica album. It’s the best album we’ve ever put out.’ She was shocked, you know, because he’s so full of shit.
BG: It was a pretty heavy feud, especially in the English pop-papers.
FZ: Well, you know the thing is that any kind of stuff like that, generated by anybody who wants to say anything bad about anybody else makes much better copy than anything good you might say about anybody else. If you don’t have a reputation and you need one in a hurry, the easiest thing is to complain about somebody and say you’ve got some hot poop. Because you’ll get some space in the papers, and I think what he has done and what Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan did to a certain extent after they were out of the group and some stuff from Alice Cooper and some other shit from Wild Man Fisher has all been in the same vein. There’s not one of them that can prove anything bad that they ever said about me.
Especially in the case of Beefheart. I find him to be the most humorless, considering how funny he was when I knew him in high school. The minute he changed from Don Vliet or Donny Vliet into Captain Beefheart, he lost his sense of humor. He began to take himself so fuckin’ seriously.
BG: What did you think of David Walley’s biography of you, “No Commercial Potential?
FZ: I think it’s a piece of shit and I think he’s a piece of shit.
BG: What happened?
FZ: Well, first of all I didn’t want him to write a book about me, but he insisted that he was going to do it anyway.
Walley told me before the thing came out that he’d worked out this way of laying out the book that was real graphic with a little visual symbol for each of the characters that he’d imagined in this intense mosaic he’d stumbled across. It was so juvenile.
You know who can write a biography? William Manchester can write a biography. That’s my idea of biography, when William Manchester writes “The Arms of Krupp” and researches it for seven years and gives you a book that’s got some detail in it, that’ll give you a perspective of what’s going on, you know. That's a biography!
What do I get? David Walley.
BG: It seems very strange that all those people would turn on you.
FZ: O.K. I’ll give you an example of how some of these things work.
First of all, Beefheart himself is a very unstable personality. I don’t think he has the proper assortment of marbles aligned in the right way to deal rationally with business or society. He’s got some problems. The stuff from Alice Cooper’s end was generated by their management, which had some legal difficulties with us and with Warner Brothers involving a law suit which is yet to be settled for an extremely large amount of money based on a collusion between them and their management and Warner Brothers records to void a contract we had with them. So that’s strictly business. Wild Man Fisher is nuts. Period.
BG: What do you think of the phenomenal success of Alice Cooper, which you had some hand in starting.
FZ: When he was with us, he was not doing the same things that he’s doing now. They were not using large quantities of expensive paraphernalia on stage. The biggest thing that they had as a prop was a window sill that he stuck his head through and sang a song about nobody likes me.
They didn’t have a guillotine, they hadn’t gotten into the boa constrictor era, they hadn’t gotten into hanging somebody or you know, electric chairs or any of that flamboyant shit that makes for a stage show that people are going to go ‘wowweee’ for. They just weren't into that. At the time that l saw them, people were running out of the building when they played.
So, based on what I knew of their work at the time, I thought they were immanently worth recording, just as Beefheart was worth recording, just for the uniqueness of what they were doing.
BG: I’ve always followed the history of your announced but never released nine record “History of the Mothers of Invention” thing. Is that ever going to come out?
FZ: Well, as you know there is a vinyl shortage and as you know this is our tenth anniversary. I wanted to put that fuckin’ thing out. And right now I’m arguing with Warners just to get a three-disc release for that as our next thing. But I don’t know if they’re even going to let me do that because they have a policy now that says no more double lp’s.
BG: Would it be the same material that you had originally talked putting out?
BG: Why didn’t you want a book written about you?
FZ: Well, you know I hate to call somebody a Groupie, but he’s a Groupie. And I didn’t think that he was the kind of a person that could really write something about me, especially something personal. If he’s going to write a review of an album or something like that, he’s got enough musical sense where he might be able to talk about it. I’d seen some of the things that he’d said about albums before and l thought it was O.K., and that’s how I got to know him.
I told him, ‘Don’t write this book.’ But he said, ‘I’ve already got a deal with the publisher and blah, blah blah, and I’m going to go ahead and do it!’ So it put me on the spot where either I had to cooperate with him and give him some interviews that he could use for the book or otherwise he’d have to go out and fictionalize the whole fuckin’ thing. Either way I was stuck.
So, I consented to do some interviews at the house, and they were really tragic. He’d start off and ask me some questions and then he’d start talking about his father! And he'd start talking about his relationship with his father, you know, and I’d spend four hours with him sitting there trying to answer questions; and the minute I'd say something he’d constantly be comparing me with his relationship with his father. I was goin’, ‘Oh no, what’s going to happen when this fucker gets in print.’ It was just too grotesque.
But the thing that pisses me off most about the book was him going around talking to people and asking them questions about me, and never coming back and cross-referencing it with me to find out if so and so said this — is it fact or can this be supported by anything like that.
Biography must have certain kinds of scruples about it if you’re going to do it with any class, you know. Some research, and he just didn’t do any.
He never even talked with Gail. If there’s anybody who knows something about me, it’s got to be my wife! And he wouldn’t talk with her because she thought he was full of shit all along. He used to stay away from her.
When the thing finally came out, he sent me a galley at a point where there was already 10,000 copies of the book printed and in the warehouse. And when I saw that fuckin’ thing I was really pissed off.
BG: What were some of the grosser inaccuracies of the book?
FZ: Well, calling Herb Cohen a criminal through somebody else’s words without being able to support it is libelous. He’s got quotes in there from Pamela Zarubica, who he was fucking at the time, and wouldn’t bother to check up on anything she said. And she’s so coked out and full of shit, you know. She's not a reliable anything. The stuff that Lowell George said, Art Tripp said, Beefheart said and various people in the group critical of me and of Herbie; the things that they said were insubstantial. Just jive. And it really puts me off.
FZ: There’s even more now. There’ve been five bands since we first talked about putting that out. And every one of them’s been recorded.
Since I’ve bought the four track machine, we’ve recorded every concert since Just Another Band From L.A. in quad. I’ve got walls of tapes that I haven’t even listened to from tours.
BG: Do you still write things with an orchestra in mind?
FZ: I haven’t for years. Just been too busy. I’ve kept my time occupied with practical poop. Running bands and stuff.
BG: You haven’t had any chance to get any of your works played?
FZ: To me, that’s the least important of the things that I do in terms of bringing home some bacon for the house. When something comes up where I have to deal with practical stuff I take my music and stick it on the shelf. We tour like seven months of the year, so that doesn’t leave much time for writing pages of orchestration.
A page of full orchestra score will take 18 hours to draw for three bars where you’re dealing with a dense texture. There are some pages in 200 Motels where I would sit and scribe my brains out for hours just to finish a fuckin’ page.
BG: You wouldn’t prefer that to touring and being in the band and things like that?
FZ: Well, I like both things, but the problem with writing music on paper like that and sitting in your own little dream world and thinking ‘Ahhh, this is going to sound-fantastic!’ is that eventually you have to come to grips with the musical reality, that is to say the human beings who will perform that music.
It has been my tragic experience that the people in symphony orchestras are not much fun to deal with. They don’t have any real feeling for new music, and they actually resent it, no matter where it comes from or whose it is or what is is. Most of the people in orchestras or chamber ensembles or studios or shit, take the playing of an instrument the way a plumber accepts a call to go to a house and fix a toilet.
They’re watching the clock, and they’re concerned about their pension. It’s just sickening. I hate to be around musicians like that. They don’t put any energy into it. When I write it, I imagine this stuff being played with all kinds of fire and flamboyance and accuracy and everything going exactly the way it’s supposed to go.
Instead, we go in, hand it out, correct the copyist’s mistakes because he’s on the clock too, and he doesn’t give a fuck. Besides that, he’s charging you an arm and a leg. You know, it cost $7000; it cost ME $7000 and I wrote it, to get the parts copied for that thing that we did with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Before that orchestra could play my music, I had to spend $7000 to get somebody to make parts for it. And they got used once! So that’s what you get if you write for an orchestra.
BG: Do you see yourself ever being able to fulfill those orchestra composing dreams?
FZ: I can write for an orchestra anytime I want, but if I want to make it into actual music, I have to do a bunch of other stuff. Writing for the orchestra is just the 4beginning.
Here’s your options: after you write it you’re either going to see it through to performance yourself, or you’re going to hand it over to somebody else to do it.
So it you do that, you relinquish control and you relinquish some of the accuracy, the-potential accuracy of what you wrote. If you’re dealing with any kind of non-standard notation, or if you’re dealing with any kind of musical textures that are not easily notatable, or special effects, you always have to be there to explain it. You have to exert some control over it to make it come out right.
If you wrote a regular old 19th century normal orchestral score, you can hand it to just about anybody who wanted to perform it and you can get a so-so rendition of it, but that ain’t the same as hearing what you wrote.
For me, to hear what I write, l want to be there and tell every guy; it goes just like that! Don’t change it, play it exactly like that. And before you can get to the point where you can do that, you got to find just the right guy. And you don’t have any choice if you’re going to use a regular orchestra, see, because you have to use their guys, and they’re always weird.
If you want your parts to be accurate, you’ve got to copy them yourself And that takes a long time.
Meanwhile, while you’re investing all this time and effort into converting a piece of music on paper into a piece of sonic reality, you’re just spending immense amounts of time and not getting any money for it. I mean no income, period!
If I were to take the time to do that, I would have to disband the group because I can’t keep them on a salary; they’re not working. I’ve got to sit there and draw little dots all day long. It doesn’t make any sense to do it. Besides that, once you’ve written it, who gives a fuck, you know.
You get to play it one time at a concert hall and a concert hall holds two to three thousand people, if you want to have it in a real concert hall. There’s very few of them that are any bigger than that, and you’ll be scrapping to get any income from your show.
Meanwhile all those expenses are still up there, the orchestra is already begging for money. You know, they’re having fund raising drives and shit, they’re not going to pay their own way.
What they’re going to wind up doing is looking at you as some guy from rock and roll and saying, ‘Well, why don’t you pay for it and we'll play your music for you. We’ll give you such a deal.’
I just resent all that shit. I've had offers of people who wanted to play the 200 Motels music, but they always sort of want me to come along and sort of, you know, be there to make sure that they’re going to sell some tickets. The thing is all orchestra fund raising shit, and there’s no real interest in what the music is.
BG: Do you think there ever will be some interest in it?
FZ: Not really. I think at one point there’ll be some curiosity, but I don’t think anybody will ever really find out what was going on in those 200 Motels scores because there is only one recording of it and it’s terrible. If you would have had any idea of what that music was really supposed to be like, you would have even liked it.
BG: What does that make you feel like that some of the significant material that you’ve written might never be discovered until your death?
FZ: ' Well, probably not even then, because by that time everybody will be so avant that they won’t be interested in an orchestral texture that has a melody to it.
A lot of what I write is hopelessly passé by contemporary modern music standards because everybody that’s in modern music today, all the so-called serious composers, the last thing in the world they want to do is write a fuckin’ melody and have it happen against a set of chord changes, no matter how abstruse the melody might be and how abstruse the chord changes might be. That’s the way I write. I’ve got melody verses over rhythm tracks.
For serious orchestral societies and shit like that to pay any attention to what I do, it would be laughed at in the circle of modern music because it’s just not archaic enough for their tastes.
BG: Well, it’s getting pretty late and I know you have to leave for Chicago at 9:00. (to Joe) Do you have any other questions?
JC: (laughs) No.
FZ: O.K. I’ll get back to my Time magazine and find out what’s happening to Spiro Agnew.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net