By Ralph Denyer
Ou comme ça Ralph Denyer talks with the inventive Mother.
Frank Zappa is a person who makes you wonder, is he out of step with the rest of the human race or is everyone else out of step with him? Whichever it is, he’s unique. He’s survived rock music’s most turbulent years, remaining at almost total odds with the music business image of ‘product’. Paradoxically he is one of rock music’s most proliﬁc writers/performers, with around 25 albums to his credit to date. That’s counting double albums as singles (which much to Zappa’s disgust is the way he claims he was paid for them) and not including compilations. He is in all likelihood the most respected musician among his peers.
Paradox is in fact the key word next to talent when it comes to talking about Zappa. His lyrics are very funny yet very thought-provoking. His stance is one of total disinterest in the Sex And Drugs And Rock‘n’Roll lifestyle, yet those themes are persistently evident in his lyrics.
Love him or hate him, it is hard to imagine how rock would have been without him around.
Zappa started off making music at the age of 12 years playing drums. I asked him what music had inspired him to play.
‘When I was 12? I didn’t listen to any music, I just wanted to play drums. My parents couldn’t afford a record player. There was nothing good on the radio, I just wanted to play the drums, I liked the way they sounded.’
And when did the famous Frank Zappa R & B record collection start?
‘I didn’t start collecting records until I was 15. The ﬁrst music I remember hearing was Arab music when I was very young. I thought it was really good but I never heard any more after that. I never heard any classical music or anything like that. We had a pretty much unmusical family. The nearest they got to music was the stuff that was being played in the background on TV or radio, soap opera type stuff. I heard all that. As far as what you might call music to pay attention to, there wasn’t any of it around.’
So what were the ﬁrst things he found himself listening to in the black music ﬁeld?
‘One day we were driving around in the car and a famous record came on the radio. It was called I by The Velvets on the Red Robin label. I thought: Boy, that sounds really great. My parents were saying: Turn that screaming nigger music off the radio! That wasn’t even a screaming nigger record, it was just a nice ballad. I thought maybe there was more of the same music where that came from. I started checkin’ round and sure enough there was. Shortly thereafter I managed to convince them life was impossible without a record player and that is when the trouble began.’
So did he buy his parents any records of High Noon or similar to appease them as they didn’t share his fascination for ‘screaming nigger music’?
‘No, they’d rather just watch TV or listen to the radio. When we got the ﬁrst record player they gave my mother a record with it called The Little Shoemaker by some white harmony group, I can’t remember who. It was a really stupid record and she used to listen to that while she was ironing, she wasn’t that into it. My father used to play guitar when he was in college with some little troubadour type band, playing all kinds of old songs. But he hadn’t touched it in years, it would just sit in the closet.
‘I changed to guitar when I was in Senior High School. My brother had bought this guitar for a dollar-fifty at an auction. He wasn’t using it much so I started messing around on it. By that time I had gathered a bunch of records. You know, on most records in those days the instrumental or solos were always played by saxophone. It was very rarely that you would hear a good guitar solo but I searched around and found some. I thought: I really want to do that, make those sort of noises. The guitar I had to begin with wasn’t electric, just one of those arched-top f-hole models. I didn‘t know any chords, I just started playing Blues straight away.’
I asked if he listened to the likes of Scotty Moore or James Burton on the early Elvis records. (At the time when Zappa was 18, Elvis was in the middle of his Jailhouse Rock era.) Frank soon put me straight on his feelings about the popular white music of the period.
‘You mean session guitarists? That is not what I would call a guitar solo. A guitar solo is like Three Hours Past Midnight by Johnny Guitar Watson or The Story Of My Life by Guitar Slim. That’s a guitar solo, nothing freeze-dried. Somethin’ really stinkin’, that’s what I was lookin’ for.’
While still at school Frank had a band called the Blackouts and went on to do various jobs to support himself and his interests in music. ‘I had several jobs. I was a busboy, a commercial artist, an advertising copy-writer, I sold encyclopedias door to door, all the usual jobs you do when you get out of school.’ He worked in advertising on and off for about one-and-a-half years. I wondered if that period had left any marked impression on him, remembering the strong visual image the Mothers were later to project.
‘It makes it possible for me to talk to people who are in that field and who also have to deal with the print media associated with record merchandising. I can talk their language. I know all about type faces and all the rest of that crud.’ He had a spell often months playing cocktail lounge music and also wrote the music for a couple of less-than-celebrated movies. The second, Run Home Slow, gave him the money to buy a small recording studio situated in Cucamonga. He bought the studio from Paul Buff (now perhaps better known for his work at Allison Research, makers of Kepex). Zappa considers that at the time he was a musician who wanted to get more involved in the recording side of music. He renamed the set-up Studio 7. Previous to his ownership the studio had produced two hits, the surf tunes Pipeline and Wipe Out. In commercial terms Frank had less luck. However, his unique musical personality continued to develop. He recorded a band called the Omens at his studio (whose members went on to form both the Mothers and Captain Beefheart’s band) but the track called Death March was never actually released. I asked him what facilities he had at Studio Z.
‘One home-made 5-track recorder, a Presto mono deck for mix-downs and a homemade 8-channel board. There were about ﬁve or six microphones, a set of drums, two pianos and a bunch of ﬂoor space.’ Zappa indicated a roll of drawings on the ﬂoor close by his feet. They turned out to be the plans of a new studio he is currently having built. He’s still deciding exactly what equipment he will use but intends to slave up a pair of 24-track or 32-track tape machines together. He has set the basic design of the studio and when he started his current world tour he left a list of outboard equipment with people in Los Angeles to shop around for him.
‘The studio situation in LA is dreadful because they are all booked so heavily, that’s why I’m building one of my own. People go in and buy up to three months of studio time. The prices of studios are outrageous. Like the one I used for this last album now gets 20 000 dollars a week. And there’s a new one that’s opening up in Kendun at 30 000 a week. I mean, that’s ridiculous! If you are going to talk about an hourly rate, a good studio in Hollywood costs around 200 dollars, some go up to 250 dollars with no end in sight.’
When I asked if there were any particular developments in recording equipment that he found of particular interest, Zappa replied, ‘I think any device that’s been manufactured for usage is worth messing around with but I try to ﬁnd applications for them that are unusual. The biggest challenge in making a record, though, is just trying to get the best possible sound from the instrument, to make the instruments sound as good as possible without flanging the piss out of ‘em.‘
Prior to the start of his February tour in Britain Zappa spent time in London producing an album by the young Indian violin virtuoso, L Shankar, who a lot of people heard for the ﬁrst time on the two Shakti albums with John McLaughlin. Though completely acoustic, the ﬁrst Shakti album has such intensity that it can be hard to listen through both sides in one go. It must be said that the music is superb and the display of technique quite dazzling. Surprisingly Zappa had not heard the albums. ‘We were both working at a pop festival in Germany last summer and I met Shankar there. He came over to the trailer where I was sitting and we had a little jam session. I invited him to come and play with us in New York.’
Phil Palmer, who played guitar on the Zappa-produced album, had told me Shankar had moved away from the Shakti type of music. Zappa continued, ‘Absolutely away from Shakti. He doesn't want to sound like jazz-rock. He hates jazz, which is one of the reasons why I like him. He just doesn’t want to sound like that, he wants to be a pop musician. He likes pop music.’
What was that about hating jazz? "That’s what his word was, he says he is not a jazz violinist. I told him that was great because I don’t like jazz either.‘ Would he care to expand on that point? ‘It’s a matter of taste, I don’t like jazz.’
RD: I think people tend to think of you as more of a guitarist as well as someone at the helm of a band nowadays.
FZ: I doubt that, for a long time they didn’t even know what instrument I played.
RD: I suppose it was a very strong image you had with the early Mothers and images do tend to stick. In recent years I’ve tended to regard you more as an interesting guitarist. Would you say you’ve developed musically and that the guitar has become more of a means of expression for you?
FZ: Well, ﬁrst of all from the very beginning when I used to hear those solos on those old records I used to say: Now here is an instrument that is capable of spewing forth true obscenity, you know? If ever there’s an obscene noise to be made on an instrument it’s going to come out of a guitar. On a saxophone you can play sleaze. On a bass you can play balls. But on a guitar you can be truly obscene. And that is the extent of my belief in obscenity; as far as verbal obscenity is concerned, I think that is a fantasy. But really, actually, the guitar is capable of blasphemy. Let’s be realistic about this, the guitar can be the single most blasphemous device on the face of the earth. That’s why I like it.
RD: There’s a broad spectrum. Have you seen Patti Smith’s guitar solos recently? She goes pretty far towards . ..
FZ: Toward blasphemy?
RD: Yes. The guitar lends itself to extremes. From that quiet polite jazz tone to . . .
FZ: . . . the disgusting stink of a too-loud electric guitar. Now that’s my idea of a good time. But when I’m making a record there’s not often a space for that sort of information. I mean I try to be practical about what I’m putting on a record. I don’t think that people want to hear 40 minutes of blasphemy, they’re not interested in it.
RD: There are of course some people doing that.
FZ: Well, I don’t think they’re really doing it, they’re just trying to do it. I’ve been toying with the idea of putting out an album called Shut Up And Play Your Guitar on a mail order basis, nothing but guitar solos one after the other. I’ve got side one of it all put together, it’s all live cuts. There’s no songs, just guitar solos. You don’t hear no words, no tune, no nothing. It’s one guitar solo after another, just stuff that happened live. There may be a market for that if I sell it or merchandise it through magazines. It’s not a general rack item. I suppose there are fetishists out there who might enjoy something like that.
RD: One area I was told that musicians should beware of, particularly with American record companies, is a rather cloudy area known as reserves.
FZ: That is quite a cloudy area.
RD: As I understand it, reserves have something to do with the difference between records shipped and records sold over the counter on which the artist will be paid royalties. I’ve heard a band can have 100 000 records shipped and yet only be paid royalties on, say, 60 000 records.
FZ: It does exist. Every record company does it and they shouldn’t do it. It’s unfair to the artists and something should be done to stop it, along with not paying the artist royalties on free goods delivered to the dealers when they say: You buy 60 records and we’ll ship you 70. Giving the dealer like a little bit of a discount or something like that. But obviously the record company who is putting the thing out is acting as a bank for the artist and is beneﬁtting from this process because it’s an incentive for the dealer to make sales, right? But they don’t report any royalties to the artist on these things.
RD: Is there any approach an artist can have apart from having a top lawyer/manager?
FZ: On the search for the top lawyer and the top manager, I don’t think they exist. They’re all out for themselves. A person who is an artist, you just got to face it, you’re going to have to rely on someone else's word. And the chances of ﬁnding an honest human being in this world are nil. They’re all crooks. The lawyers are crooks, the managers are crooks, the record companies are crooks. The distributors are crooks and half the people who buy the records are going to grow up to be crooks. What’ya doin’? You wanna play your guitar. Here you arc, strum a few notes and the next thing you know 30 crooks rush in and get your money.
RD: Have all your experiences made you extremely cautious? Obviously you’ve now got things sorted out with CBS to your satisfaction, to some degree.
FZ: Yeah, I would say there is satisfaction to some degree. Let‘s just be realistic about it, I’m not too fond of the human race in general.
RD: I’ve noticed this.
FZ: And I think it is the only rational way to behave. I have seen no indication from a logical standpoint that would indicate that the human race is anything but a pile of shit, you know. And if you ﬁnd someone who behaves nicely, who is mannered and who is honest. then that person is a mutant. Because everybody is just so fucking horrible, disgusting. But you know, you can’t hate ‘em because that’s just the way they are.
RD: Are you ﬁnding this generally in the human race, or is there a certain percentage of people that you ﬁnd tolerable in the people you work with?
FZ: No, I’ve just made up my mind that after experimenting around for 38 years that the most rational way to look at the whole thing is: People are really a bunch of assholes basically and if you ﬁnd somebody who’s not then you just got lucky. But you can’t hate ‘em for being like that because that’s the way they are. You have to take ‘em for the way they are and deal with them, just like they are. Don’t hate ‘em, they’re just ... assholes.
RD: I must admit that in this city I do sometimes ﬁnd myself going home in that frame of mind.
FZ: This is one of the worst, London is one of the worst. I don’t know how you can stand to live here.
RD: I think the only reason I do is because it’s the place in England if you’re involved in the music business.
FZ: It’s tough to do it in Brighton.
RD: And even tougher in Scunthorpe.
FZ: That‘s one of those places where you just wanna ... or your could live next door to those people who had their child eaten by the ferrets.
RD: OK, so you wouldn’t rise to the bait that your more recent work has been concerned with musical rather than lyrical or visual statements?
FZ: I think that’s not accurate, no.
RD: It also appears to me that you are now Frank Zappa doing his job as opposed to Frank Zappa who does certain things to attract the necessary attention to his work, ie the general and initial image of the Mothers.
FZ: You have to understand that the people who were in the band were only people. The same goes for my current band. And they are perceived by the press and everybody else in any way that they want. People thought that the Mothers were weird because compared with Herman and the Hermits you’d be thought of as weird if you had been there at the time. It’s like the contrast to what we were doing and what everyone else was doing. Right now there are some pretty strange people in the band that I’ve got but by contemporary standards they won’t stand out because they’re weird in ways that are not flamboyant. It got to the point that the average consumer thought a person was weird if he took a boa-constrictor on stage. Now how weird is that? Let’s be realistic folks, is that really weird or what? That ain’t weird but some people think it’s weird. So what was weird about the early Mothers? Some of the earlier people in that group, you’ll never know why they were weird and you wouldn’t even think they were the weirdest people in there. Because the ones that are truly strange have something going on in their minds that is apart from the rest of society. Those are the ones that are interesting but they don’t show up so readily in a photograph, you have to know what’s going on. As far as the business of ‘Frank Zappa doing his job’ I’ve always done that, I work.
RD: One thing that does tend to happen is that the press/media tends to attach individual interpretations of the signiﬁcance of a piece of music, whereas you might regard an album just as what you were doing at the time.
FZ: That’s right. And you have to understand the function of a person who writes for the media. They can’t distinguish themselves merely by telling the truth and presenting the facts about something. They feel that it is their duty to impinge upon the subject with their own emotional freight. They wanna dump their own ego on to whatever it is they’re writing so that the article has their identity because, after all, they are the owner and operator of the typewriter you see. They believe deep in their hearts that the person that’s reading the thing couldn’t care less about the music or the subject matter that’s being dealt with. But the real thing that the person who‘s reading it should be interested in is the life and times of the guy that’s writing it. Especially in England, they’re so hung up on themselves, they’re so jealous of the people they’re writing about because they are doing something while the journalists are sitting in some stinking room with a typewriter going diddle-diddle-diddle.
RD: Are we talking about music or general media now?
FZ: Music media. Media in general is another sad story. But music media, that’s the way it works. Most of the people that are involved in writing for these papers, they’re just fucking frustrated. They shouldn’t even have been licensed to type because they’re doing a great disservice to the people who make the music.
RD: I think and hope that I can dissociate myself from all that.
FZ: Well, since I’ve never done an interview with you before you get one chance. Because I refuse to do business with any of the ones I’ve interviewed with before and wound up reading the stuff they’ve written and seen what kind of people they are. I don’t have time for that stuff
Concluded Next Month
Just a Second Part from FZ
Frank Zappa rehearsals are a serious business. Prior to his recent dates in Britain, at which time this interview took place, he used the Rainbow Theatre to routine for a week. The sound and light crews, as well as the band, were sequencing the show the night I went along. For an hour or so I watched as the band ran through numbers sans Zappa. Some of the current ensemble were with him at Knebworth last year; they are Vince Colaiuta drums, Ed Mann percussion, Tommy Mars keyboards, Peter Wolf keyboards, Denny Walley slide guitar, Warren Cuccarullo (alias Sophia Loren, Al DiMeola and many other great Italians) guitar, Ike Willis guitar and Arthur Barrow bass. They all sing. Next to Zappa, Ike Willis takes most lead vocals followed by Denny W alley.
Zappa arrives at rehearsals at 9 pm, and almost immediately the pace tightens up. For most of the time when he’s not playing guitar he either sits on a stool or stands to conduct. If he stops a number there follows a brief instruction to one of the musicians and they go straight back into it. One time he stopped and told Denny Walley, ‘Play the guitar that you usually play on this number, the ﬁngering doesn’t sound right on that one.’ Without a word of debate Denny changed guitars. Later in another number he stops them again and tells Peter Wolf, ‘Where you usually play triplets in that passage, don’t play at all’. I was surprised to see arrangements which the band appeared to be used to playing being changed by Zappa. Later soundman Mike Abbot explained to me that Frank (referred to by the road crew as The Maestro) sometimes changes actual notation to suit the acoustics of a particular venue. During the rehearsal the only times at which the pace slowed were when Zappa showed bassist Arthur Barrow a guitar ﬁgure, or when someone broke a string or something similar. At almost 11 pm Zappa puts on his coat and the band packs up for another day.
The resulting show is a piece of real precision work. At most concerts the show consisted of two solid hours of music during which there is no such trivia as an intermission or spaces during numbers when the audience can applaud. Zappa segued around 20 numbers into a continuous block of music. One night I saw him follow that with 45 minutes of encores. The following night he stopped after the ﬁrst number, telling the audience that he was going to play some stuff that they might not be into because he wanted to get it on tape (using the Manor Mobile) and that if they wanted to go out and get a drink he’d be starting the proper show a little later. Meanwhile back at the interview ...
RD: If we can talk about recent recording and your approach on the technical side of things, perhaps starting off with guitar?
FZ: I mic the guitar in whatever way is necessary to get the type of guitar sound that is suitable for the piece that’s being recorded.
RD: It varies greatly?
FZ: Sure, like there’s tone controls on the guitar to make it sound a different way to have a different voice for everything it’s supposed to play. In order to capture that sound in its correct form you have to modify your miking technique, change tones on the ampliﬁer, change the distance of the mic from the ampliﬁer, sometimes use direct, sometimes not. All those things are variable. I used a lot of interesting stuff on Phil Palmer’s guitar on the Shankar album. One of the things I did that he hadn’t seen before was I put mics on the strings of the guitar (electric) to pick up the plectrum and ﬁnger noise to combine that with the sound of the ampliﬁer and the sound taken by direct injection. And also taking that in stereo you get a real picture of a guy sitting there. If you listen through earphones the guitar player is sitting there playing right in front of your face.
RD: I was interested to see that you also have a Barcus Berry transducer on the head of one of your Strats to pick up left-hand hammer noises.
FZ: Yes, but I think it is better to mic it if you are in the studio.
RD: You quite often use the technique of recording live and then stripping right down to the basic rhythm section and then overdubbing everything else in the studio. I presume that is to get the excitement of a live gig.
FZ: Yeah, you can’t buy that in the studio, nor the attitude of the musicians. You get a bunch of guys in the studio and they can be totally qualiﬁed to play what they’re supposed to and they can have the best intentions in the world. But the thing that is lacking is the spotlight on their body and the potential that there is a girl in the audience that is going to suck his dick after the show. Let’s face it, these musicians ain’t exactly Boy Scouts working for the Health Department.
RD: Not as a general rule. I suppose there are exceptions and we shouldn’t generalise.
FZ: Let’s do though, because it’s closer to the truth. I think that there are very few musicians that when faced with the opportunity to get a little action are going to do anything else other than get the action. They’re not out there to behave like Boy Scouts. Because you have to be realistic now, the only thing that differentiates them from a truck driver, a plumber or anyone else in a normal trade is the fact that they get action! And so it’s: Well, if I don’t get the action I can’t be a musician, can I? So they have to go out and get the action even if it is with a donkey, a head of lettuce or an army shoe. It doesn’t matter as long as the action is there. The action is the certiﬁcation in truth that they are a musician. It doesn’t make any difference if you are a good or bad musician but how can you actually claim to be a musician unless you’re out there getting all the action? So it’s a reinforcement of their lifestyle. This is one of the important studio techniques that you have to master.
RD: But from all the stories I’ve heard about you it would appear that you are not really all that enthralled by the lifestyle.
FZ: Well, I’m not, but I’m talking about musicians. I’m talking from the standpoint of a person who hires and pays musicians to perform musical functions and it has been my experience over the last 15 years that that is the prime motivating factor. In fact if they had to choose between sex and money as the motivating factor for musicians it would be a tough choice to make because I think most of ‘em put sex above money. Maybe they’ll talk more about money but the sex will get more action out of ‘em.
RD: Still on live recording, how do you get over spilling over from other instruments when you strip down to bass and drums, is it all close miking?
FZ: You do a lot of close miking but you also understand that if you mic something really close and if the instrument is really loud – especially when using a cardioid mic right in front of something – the amount of extra stage noise that mic is going to hear is nil compared to the volume of the signal coming out. Same thing with tom tom mics if they’re up inside the drums, you get pretty good separation from that. In fact I’ve been amazed by the kind of separation I’ve been able to get on this last live recording we did in New York. We had the drums set up in a very strange place, they were up on the left-hand side of the stage with the drummer’s back to the side-ﬁlls and a C24 mic overhead looking down at the whole set plus mics, not in but looking down at the tom toms – and the side-ﬁlls were loud. When I took the tapes into the studio there wasn’t a homogenous amount of leakage from the side-ﬁlls in there. It was a very tolerable amount, kickdrum sounded tight, snare sounded good and all the rest of the drums. I take the bass direct, keyboards direct. All the guitar stuff was miked on the amps, I didn’t bother taking direct on any of the (four) guitars.
RD: So you’re in a frame of mind in which you’re anticipating stripping things down and you are not really going for a live recording as such.
FZ: You can do it either way. What I did with the stuff from New York was to mix it without any overdubs. It sounded ﬁne and the audience recording was excellent. We had a total of 10 mics on the audience including two shotguns that were looking right down into the front row. Then there were three or four along the sides and a C24 in the centre and one at the back. The combination of all those signals gave a really full room sound plus proximity on all the things people were saying. All the applause sounds very realistic. People who try and record an audience with just two mics are crazy because you just can’t do it. Even when the audience is quiet, turning those microphones up adds a dimension to the ampliﬁed stuff on stage that you’ll never get in the studio because what you are doing is recording the sound of a large volume, of air being rattled to death by high ampliﬁcation. No EMT plate is going to give that to you. One of the things people forget about recording is that a microphone is not just hearing an instrument or an ampliﬁer. It’s hearing perturbations in the air mass and it’s also hearing the size of mass that it is functioning in. So a saxophone recorded with mic A in a room this size with really dead walls is not going to produce the same sound as a saxophone recorded with the same microphone in a room of another size with a different set of walls. Even with exactly the same positioning.
RD: You have had a reputation for drilling your musicians pretty hard, right from the early days of the Mothers Of Invention.
FZ: Yeah? Well that’s nothing compared with what they’re into now. If you thought those guys were well drilled, these guys are drilled to death. It’s a lotta trouble and a lotta hard work. But I’m kinda proud of the band at the moment because they know more complicated arrangements than any band I’ve ever had before. I’ve started doing rehearsals a different way too. I started last year hiring one guy in the band to run four hours of drill before I get there. I give ‘em the notes. They either have it written down on paper or they’ve been told what their parts are. Then it’s just a case of drilling and memorising it. And so I get one guy out of the band who gets to be drillmaster, he gets a double salary for doing that. Last year it was the percussionist Ed and this year it’s the bass player, Arthur.
RD: I should imagine they earn their double salary too.
FZ: Oh, they do. But the other thing is that, invariably, everybody else in the band ends up hating them by the end of rehearsals. That’s why Ed didn’t want to do it this year because he wanted to be ‘one of the guys’. So now Ed is giving Arthur a bad time. But he’s done a really good job and we’ve covered a lot of ground; this year we’re playing stuff that nobody ever expected to hear on stage. Brown Shoes Don’t Make It, a huge arrangement of that, Andy, Florentine Pogen, Inca Roads, Strictly Gentile and a bunch of new songs that have complicated arrangements. We’re playing a lot of material from the records that was thoroughly overdubbed and trying to recreate it as much as possible without any tapes or anything. There may even be two different shows, I think they have that much material and in Europe we have to do two shows a night in some places.
RD: So the real Zappologists should get tickets for both shows.
FZ: A lot of ‘em do and that’s one of the reasons I like to do two varied shows mostly. Usually 20% or 30% are repeat customers for double show nights. It’s amazing because that’s a lot of money to spend on tickets but there are kids who do it and I ﬁgure that if they do that let’s give ‘em the most for their money. It’s not always possible to do. It’s so hard to memorise four or ﬁve hours of music.
RD: So before you get to rehearsal the band works on basic arrangements and then get into ﬁner points and accents with you later on?
FZ: What goes on at the early part of the rehearsal is they go over individual lines, vocal harmonies, all that really boring tedious stuff that used to drive me nuts for the past 15 years. We have four guitarists in this band (including Zappa) and there is a lot of harmony stuff to learn. Only one of them can read music so the others have to be taught note by note. Now all I do is come in after they’ve got the basic stuff down and I tighten it up and show ‘em exactly how the phrasing should be and go over that aspect. I’ve already done the work, that’s done. Before I can shape it up they have to know enough of it to give me something to work with. I don’t have the patience any more to sit down and give people one note at a time, I just don’t. I’ve had too many bands, it drives me nuts. I’ve found this arrangement works out really good because it makes it possible for me to sit here and talk to you while Arthur is down at the Rainbow screaming at the band. And when I go down there I can concentrate a little bit more on the stuff that I have to learn – because I have to learn material just like everybody else – my guitar parts, ﬁgure out when and where I’m going to move, and put the whole thing together.
RD: You’re not so interested in visual effects these days?
FZ: No, we carry our own lights but that’s just basically normal theatrical lighting. No 5 000 dollar risers with airport searchlights blowing up between your legs, no bombs, no foaming blood capsules.
RD: But you at one time had a type of visual effect that was totally different from Kiss and bands like that, the original Zappa visual effects.
FZ: We had visual effects that would snuff anything that anyone is doing today but we were doing it in a 300-seat theatre. We would do all kinds of weird things in there but you can only do it in a situation where everyone can see it. I think that when you play in big halls the type of effects that you have to use are prohibitively expensive, they’re not musical and I don’t find them particularly amusing. Whereas the stuff we were doing at the Garrick Theatre happened on a lot of different levels, it was a personalised thing for the people that were there at the time and we used to change it every night. It used to be ... strange, truly strange. Not that old boa-constrictor on the stage, but some really weird stuff.
RD: Do you regard that as something you’ve done that is behind you or do you miss it? It must have been incredibly good fun up there doing it.
FZ: Oh, I love doing that stuff. The thing that you’ve got to understand is that New York is a unique place and the people who were there were just right for that kind of thing. If we had spent 1967 in Texas it would have been a totally different story but we were in New York. The people there were just right and it was not just me doing my stuff. It was me and the people of New York doing these weird things together. In fact there’s a whole generation of kids that are there right now of the same mentality and they would probably really like it. The unfortunate thing is I can’t afford to go in to a 300-seat theatre now. just can’t do it, I’ve got nearly 30 people on the payroll right now.
RD: That’s the entourage?
FZ: No, that’s people who actually do work.
RD: I mean that’s the people actually out on the road with you.
FZ: Yeah, usually when I hear the word ‘entourage’ it sounds like girls with green metallic ﬁngernail polish and looking for Quaaludes.
RD: Around the time of 200 Motels you were very enthusiastic about the possibilities of video, but we have yet to see any more Zappa movies. Also wasn’t 200 Motels the ﬁrst feature movie shot entirely on video?
FZ: That’s right. The main reason that I have not done any more is that people won’t invest in any. I’ve tried to get several film projects going. I’ve got one that’s very near completion right now; I need half-a-million dollars to ﬁnish it. I’ve already ﬁnanced it myself up to this point and I just don’t have enough money to ﬁnish the thing off. It’s just one of those things, my capital is tied up in the new recording studio at the moment. Making a movie is more expensive than making a record. If I have a track record in the recording industry it’s not so hard to get money to make an album because they know what the returns on the investment are going to be. But with a ﬁlm it’s a different story. They want to know where the stars are and all that shit.
RD: Of your 25 or more solo and Mothers Of Invention albums are there any you are more happy with than others?
FZ: I always tell people that my favourite album is Lumpy Gravy.
FZ: I just like it.
RD: I get the impression that you might say the difference between your new album and your last one is that the new comes after the one before.
FZ: That’s pretty close. That’s why they call it a record. It is a record of what I was doing at that time with the people who were available to play on it. People have a lot of trouble differentiating between a good performance of a bad piece of music and a bad performance of a good piece of music, people cannot really tell. I think a lot of times I’ve had bad performances of good pieces of music but not enough money to get them exactly right on the record. But once it’s recorded it goes out and there it is, frozen in time and space.
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