Shut Up And Play Your Guitar
Interview by John Dalton
Frank Zappa is unique in the music world, a composer whose work spans rock, contemporary classical music, pop, doo wop and some modern jazz. He is 38 and from the West Coast, and since the mid sixties has released more than 20 albums full of variety in songs satirizing all areas of modern American life, instrumentals and solos from Frank and the many excellent musicians who have worked with him. Some of the best known albums are Freak Out, Absolutely Free, Ruben and the Jets, Hot Rats, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, 200 Motels, The Grand Wazoo, Overnite Sensation, Apostrophe ('), One Size Fits All and Zoot Allures, and these also reveal Zappa as an excellent producer and tape editor. His distinctive guitar style is partly attributable to the cohesive strength and rhythmic subtlety of his lines and phrases (also apparent in his arrangements), and as a soloist he is brilliantly adept at playing around and across beats. To illustrate this interest Frank kindly gave us a transcription of his solo The Sheik Yerbouti Tango, from his new Sheik Yerbouti album (reviewed in this issue), and next month, with the second part of this interview, we will feature his solo Rat Tomago.
At the time of the interview Frank had been in London for a month, rehearsing his nine-piece band for their European tour and producing an album by Indian violinist L. Shankar. Afterwards he invited us to the Rainbow to hear the rehearsals, and it was very interesting to see how aware he was of the music, for occasionally he would stop the band to say that one of the keyboard players was holding a chord over for half a beat too long, or that one of the synthesizer oscillators was out of tune – which it was, slightly.
Even at these last rehearsals he made many improvements in the arrangements, asking for different effects and fills in the interludes, swapping some of the guitar and vocal parts, and even asking for some tunes to be played in different keys. With a repertoire of more than 30 highly arranged numbers the band displayed a standard of musicianship and professionalism rare in rock, where few bands ever attempt such complex arrangements. At Hammersmith a few days later they gave a superb show, playing music from all periods of Zappa's career, (reviewed last month). The band, which Zappa largely changes every year, were Zappa, Ike Willis, Warren Cuccurrullo and Denny Walley on guitars, Peter Wolf and Tommy Mars on keyboards, Vince Colaiuta and Ed Mann on drums and percussion, and Arthur Barrow on bass.
Relaxed and an exteriorly unemotional man, Zappa is a humorous and informative talker with many oblique and entertaining views. We began by talking about his guitar collection.
I have several different kinds of acoustical guitars, and they all have different sounds and different modifications. I have a fretless and a Coral sitar which has been modified and various other guitars which all do special kinds of feedback and things like that.
How do you use the guitar by Rex Bogue with transducers in the neck?
I don't use it live because the neck transducers feed back too much. He also built me one from scratch but at the moment it doesn't feel right. It's hollow bodied with no f-holes, a very resonant guitar, and it's got two kinds of pre-amps in it and a mass of electronics. And it sustains for months. It's also got slanted frets and a lot of other things. But one of the reasons it's hard for me to play is because the dots on the neck are invisible, and I'm very neck dot orientated. It's got that vine crawling up the neck and I can't tell where the fuck I am on it. I look down there and have to think too much where my hand is.
Are the slanted frets an advantage?
Well, I think they're good but the crawling vine is tough.
Have you brought many guitars with you?
I've probably got about four or five guitars with me; the Hendrix Strat, which has the world's first triple humbucking pickup on it, another Strat, my normal SG, a new Les Paul Custom with a pre-amp built into it, a 12-string and an Ovation.
Will you be using the radio transmitter on the SG?
Yeah, I've gotten quite used to that. It's hard to go back to plugging yourself in after you use that for a while.
Do you get the same sound quality as with a lead?
I can't tell any difference. I'm sure that there is a frequency change, but it's probably in the very uppermost range. If you're playing a fuzzy sound it's not that critical if you're getting all the frequencies around 12K. It sounds OK to me. It's loud.
What's in the large console you use on stage? It looks very complex.
Well, actually it's not all that complex. It's a little rough to maintain. Things can get broken where it's shipped around. It's got a pair of Dynaflangers, a pair of MXR Flangers. It's got one input and four outputs – two dirty outputs and two clean outputs, all stereo. There's also two Big Muffs, Systec Harmonic Energizer – all these things are in pairs – Oberheim ECF, Eventide Harmonizer, MXR DBL, Mutron, DBX 162 compressors, Gain Brains, Kepexes, a Theremin and a Biphase. That's about it, and there's about 24 switches on the floor. I add to it every year. The Dynaflangers are on the newest thing. Oh yes, there's a Mutron Octivider and a DBX Boom Box.
Do you use most of them in the course of a concert?
Very seldom. I only use them if there's a logical reason to turn the stuff on. The reason for putting the rack together is that if I do something on record and there is the opportunity to make the same sound on stage I want to be able to do it. It's useful for the studio too because it takes a lot of time messing around to get a particular noise and I can step on a button and there it goes. I work with effects every day, trying to optimise the sound I want to get at any one time, trying to set things up so that I can go from one sound to another really quickly. As every guitar player knows, getting the right amount of sustain and distortion at the right moment in the line that you're playing is a difficult thing to achieve. You've always got to mess around with the knobs. My idea is just to step on a footswitch and get the noise you want, on the beat.
I have a loud soft switch on the rack's pedal board, but the way the show is structured about the only thing I play on the guitar now is lead. There are four guitarists in this band, and all I do is divide my time walking around with a microphone in my hand and being a jerk and picking up the guitar and being a jerk. I don't have to worry too much about playing accompaniment parts.
This is new isn't it, usually you've taken most of the guitar roles.
Well, I'm beginning to have more and more fun walking around with a microphone being a buffoon, and I like the idea of having a band that can play all that stuff, and I just go out there and I'll entertain and they'll play. And then if I feel like playing the guitar I'll play guitar.
Does this vary much from show to show?
Well a lot depends on what kind of circumstance you're working in, what kind of venue and audience it is, whether they want to hear a lot of guitar or just be entertained. I can go both ways, I'm happy to play as much as people want to listen to, but usually people would rather hear songs off a record, hear some words and see some funny stuff. That's what they bought the ticket for, they didn't come to hear a guitar extravaganza. They came down to see a guy be a jerk. So great. Give 'em what they want.
What do you think the English audiences are after?
English audiences are usually there to look at other people in the audience to see what they're wearing, and they're there to line up. Other than that I haven't the faintest idea what an English audience is into. They seem to be the most boring people in the world to play for.
Are they too restrained in their appreciation?
I think they're fucked, especially in London. It's not so bad outside of London. London audiences are really bad, disgusting' audience as a matter of fact. Los Angeles audiences, they're both about the same, the two worst audiences in the world.
Is it perhaps because you're laughing at and not with them?
Well I'll give you my stock speech about laughing with and laughing at. If two people are laughing together then they're laughing together, right? I'm going to keep on laughing. If you want to laugh along with me we'll be laughing together. But if you don't laugh then by a process of elimination I'm laughing at you. So I don't have any control over whether or not they have the nerve to sit up there and laugh along with me. That's up to them. I'm not going to stop laughing or wait around for them.
What do you want from an audience?
I think it's a matter of comprehension. It's not so much the idea that they're going to make a lot of noise. If you're doing something and obviously the people are sitting out there looking at you but they don't have the faintest idea what's going on, then obviously you are the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time for their lifestyle. I don't want to waste anybody's time.
But you sell out every time you come here.
That's what I'm trying to explain to you, that the English audience goes there not to see the act but to see what the person sitting next to them is wearing. They go to these concerts no matter who's playing. It's a social event. It has nothing to do with the artistry of the group in question. It's a matter of 'Did you go?' 'Why of course I went, what were you wearing?'
And in the provinces are they more aware of your music?
No, in the provinces they're just a little more hoop-la oriented, and sometimes an audience with a good feeling to it will compensate for the lack of comprehension. But I really don't get a good feeling from playing to a London audience at all. Just like playing to a bunch of cardboard cut-outs.
Is that why you asked on stage two people who couldn't dance? To show the audience what they are.
No, if you asked for two dancers from the audience and asked for people who could dance you would get the same result. I just thought I'd make it easier on them y'know because you have to have some regard for the poor person in the audience that actually can't dance and has the nerve to admit it. That's a big step forward for civilisation when you can look a person in the eye and say 'Y'know, I can't dance.' So give these people a break. They need it. They need exposure. I think that there is a place in society for the non-dancing person, and that place is on our stage. We do it in other cities too. It's not just a matter of ridiculing the people of London because obviously they're so evolved here that ridicule is useless as a therapeutic.
What, do you think could be useful?
I go out there and play it the same way every night, have a good time playing my guitar and being a nurd with microphone in my hand. That's what I do. But the way in which it's perceived varies from place to place. I mean everybody comes to the concert with preconceived notions of what they think we're doing, what it means, and all these other little ideas that have little or nothing to do with what we're actually into. The English audience has a particular problem because so much of their taste has been manufactured for them by the British pop press, which is really a tragedy. When the idea of what's good and what's bad has been decided in advance for you by someone who's spent his daytime hours going from one cocktail reception to the next eating little pieces of cheese and then going back and writing snide business on his typewriter. A nation of people who's tastes have been manufactured by these kind of idiots, why they're in trouble. And the other bad part of it is that the nation believes itself to be literate. I think the English people have always felt that they're very word oriented. Printed matter means so much over here. I mean anybody who believes what they read in the papers is crazy. So no wonder they line up and look at each other's clothes, and snatch up copies of publications that say Baby Eaten by Ferrets.
Surely the same thing happens in America?
No, because the Americans aren't literate at all. They're stupid and they know they're stupid. They watch TV and drink beer. You people read newspapers and drink beer.
Mmmm ........tell me about the band.
It's a big band, nine pieces. Two keyboards, bass, percussion, four guitars and drums.
What sort of things will the four guitars be doing?
There are some songs where they'll being playing harmony stuff. I'm the fourth guitarist, and usually it's a three guitar ensemble with keyboards. We're playing a lot of complicated arrangements this time, playing a lot of songs from older albums that were complicated, that people never expected to see on stage. We've spent a lot of time working on them, in fact we're still in rehearsal. We're playing Brown Shoes Don't Make It, Andy, Florentine Pogen, Inca Roads, Don't Eat The Yellow Snow – that whole side of Apostrophe – Dirty Love, a bunch of new songs, and about a third of the new album.
Will you tell me about your new album for CBS?
It has three guitar solos on it. One of them is called The Sheik Yerbouti Tango, the other one is Rat Tomago and the longest one is in a song called Yo Mama, which is on side 4.
Your music is often rhythmically very complex and subtle.
Well, I don't know whether it's complex but it is subtle, very subtle.
It's maybe complex for someone who's only come up through rock.
Well, that's because they've got the wrong idea about what rhythm is all about. We can play in 4/4 and play some awful weird shit in 4/4. By the same token you can play in 9/16 and play some really boring stuff too, as evidenced by a lot of jazz rock groups. I think that the real interest of what to do with rhythm is to have people's feet tapping to a normal beat, and then superimpose interesting things against that steady beat, instead of having a whole band playing a bunch of 8th note or 16th note unison riffs. We do it both ways but usually what happens when it's time to play the guitar, I go for a basic concept of a steady pulse at a medium tempo and then play all around that, and the drummer that we have right now is I think the best guy I've ever had a chance to work with in terms of following what I play. He is really astute and he can subdivide a bar like nobody's business and still come out on the beat. He's really good. This is Vince Colaiuta. Another thing which might be interesting to your readers is that I'm putting together an album for mail order called 'Shut Up and Play Your Guitar', and all it is is guitar solos, one after another. No songs, no words, no head, no ending, just guitar solos. Most of them live, and when the solo's over there's a little noise and it goes on to the next one. I've got half of it down and expect to have the rest of it done a month or two after the tour.
Is it meant to be an educational record?
No, this is for guitar fetishists. There's a lot of people who've never paid any attention to what I play. They might have read about it or watched somebody's clothes while I was playing, but if they actually want to hear what I was doing this'll be a chance for them to hear it.
Do you think you're under-rated as a guitar soloist?
Probably, but that's irrelevant to what I do. I mean I'm not interested in ratings. My interest is in playing the guitar, not because I'm a guitar player but because I can make music on an instrument that I can operate in my own hands. I'm fairly fluent on this instrument and under the right circumstances, if I have a band that doesn't get in my way, I can go out there and play some stuff that's really interesting. I don't know whether it ranks as monumental music or beautiful guitar playing, but I like it and nobody else is doing it. So, that's what I do.
What are you doing that nobody else is?
Look at that music (The Sheik Yerbouti Tango)
Rhythmically it's very unpredictable.
That's one of the things I'm doing that other people aren't. I think most of the people who are rated as really fantastic guitar players are dealing with rhythmic material that has been beaten to death, and there's nothing subtle about it at all, because what they do is either divided in triplets or straight up and down, really fast 32nd notes and stuff like that. Shit, anybody can do that if they sit down and practise their scales. But mine is based on something else.
You use groups of fives and sevens on beats.
Yeah, and across bars and stuff like that. The Sheik Yerbouti Tango is kinda interesting. Here there are groups of septuplets but they're accented in five, culminating in this little chingus here which has ten in the space of a dotted quarter, with ornaments inside the ten (bar). A guy transcribed it, a job I would not like to have had. He did it from a tape that was shortened, so there are a few bars missing.
You're also interested in playing unusual chords over simple, bass lines.
Right. A lot of people think eight can be really fantastic if you play a bunch of weird chords, but a chord is only weird if you have something to relate it to. It's the difference between the norm and the event that makes the interest of the event. How far off centre you can please yourself.
Did you ever practise these rhythms?
No. It evolved because I couldn't stand the other kind of rhythms. I thought the other kind was boring and everybody else was playing it, so why bother. What I do is more like talking, like reciting poetry. People don't/Talk like/This all the/Time and/That's the way the/Regular/Music/Goes. That's not the way you talk so why should it be the way you play? These other rhythms feel perfectly normal to me, and fortunately they're also normal for the drummer, who follows it really good, right on top of it.
Why do you think most musicians play 4's, l6's and 32nds etc?
Probably because that's what they're taught in school, plus to find someone who can play those kind of rhythms accurately...
I mean you can think of a time frame like a bar with four beats and chop it up into 19 even spaces – but you don't find people who can do that very often, nor do you find people who want to be like that. So most people go for what's going to get them across in the easiest way. You get more pussy going riddle di-diddle di-dee, so that's the way it goes.
You seem very at ease playing in various rock styles.
No, I'm absolutely uncomfortable playing normal music. Every year I get worse at it because every year I play less of the normal things you're supposed to play in a band. I'm trying to get away from it as much as possible. Eventually I want to have a situation where all I have to do is sing my stupid songs and just pick up the guitar and play, and then put the guitar down and sing some more stupid songs, and then go back to the hotel. That'll be really good. I won't have to do any of the attendant drudgery of rock.
You 're separating your songs from your longer instrumental pieces?
I'm talking about the songs we do which are purposely stupid. We deal in stupidity, and that's why the arrangements have all these different little sections in them. If there's a song, take any subject, we might then decide what would be the most ridiculous kind of accompaniment for those words, and then you go from there. Like we did a little thing at the rehearsal yesterday. At the end of one of the songs we had a make believe battle of the guitars between Alvin Lee and Al Di Meola. One guy played Alvin Lee's diddle di-diddle di-diddle from the Woodstock days, and the other guy played Al Di Meola's 32nd note A minor run that he uses on all his songs. And so it was back and forth between that. And when you take these things and just hold them up for what they are and say 'Hey, look at this. Is this stupid or what?' then that stupidity becomes the real thing.
Your motivation for making music seems almost unique.
I do it because I like to listen to it. It's totally selfish, and if anybody else likes it then that's fine, so long as I get to hear it. I think that the idea of being a composer and not being able to hear your stuff until you're dead is a really boring concept, so I've taken a lot of trouble to hear what I wrote while I'm still alive. It's against the law, against all the laws of nature.
We do things that other people don't do because somebody needs to do them. We provide a necessary social service. There's plenty of other alternatives to what we do, but the order of priorities go like this. First, I want to enjoy it when I hear it. Second, if anybody else wants to enjoy it when they hear it then that's their business, and if they don't there's everybody else to listen to. That's pretty simple list of priorities. Get that straight and go ahead and do it don't wait around for somebody to tell you that it's splendid because it doesn't make any difference. Even if they tell you they like it chances are they like it for the wrong reasons. So, it doesn't matter.
You've talked about the timbre of rock. Do you think that with rock timbres you can get across music that would otherwise not be accepted?
If you come to England, and you're an Albanian, if you have an acceptable English accent you're going to have a lot easier time getting your point across to a guy in a restaurant, for instance. Therefore if you write music in the rock'n'roll dialect then it makes it accessible to people who speak that dialect. It doesn't matter what the actual content of the sentence is, if you're talking to them in a sound language they understand then the point gets across. Thereby making it possible to make all sorts of blasphemies.
Next month Frank talks about improvising, his orchestral works, Varèse and Stravinsky, and we publish his solo, Rat Tomago.
Last month, interviewed in his hotel room during his recent European tour, Frank Zappa spoke about his guitars and equipment, and the rhythmic ideas he employs in his music, illustrated with his solo The Sheik Yerbouti Tango. This month, talking backstage at Hammersmith Odeon, he continues the discussion of rhythms and explains how composers Varèse and Stravinsky have been important influences in his rock and orchestral music. We also publish his solo Rat Tomago, a superb improvisation on his Sheik Yerbouti album (CBS 88339). 'A tomago,' said Frank in answer to my enquiry, 'is a stuffed omelette in a Japanese restaurant. You take an egg and beat it up, and I think it's got some sugar in it. Then they make a little brick out of it, make a slit in the side and stuff it with rice. That's a tomago. A Rat Tomago is different!'
Are there any guitarists around now who you're interested in ?
Well I've heard some things by Pat Martino I've thought were interesting, harmonically more than rhythmically. I used to like Wes Montgomery before they saturated him with a string orchestra. I thought he was a master of the minor 11th chord, and he really had a beautiful tone too, and real subtle phrasing. Before them my favourite guitar player was Guitar Slim. My favourite solo by him was on Story of My Life. It's one of the best early distorted guitar solos, and it's just . . . stinkin'.
The other guy I used to really enjoy was Johnny Guitar Watson. I still enjoy him but songs like Three Hours Past Midnight, the guitar solo on that's really good.
Any other instrumentalists?
Don't know. Can't think of anybody who drives me wild. I like Bulgarian music, Indian music, I like some Arab music. I couldn't name any guys who would kill me.
/ notice that you use a lot of pentatonic scales in Rat Tomago.
Well you can call it a pentatonic scale, but it depends on how it's functioning. I love just one note for a background.
Yeah. One chord change, because you can play so much stuff against it. I just like a straight bass note.
You seem to like a guitar tone with lots of overtones and harmonics.
Well for one thing it's deceptive because when you mix a record you have to EQ the instruments so that they don't conflict with the rest of the mix. I might like a thicker sound but for that particular thing, Yo Mama, you have to EQ the top end to make it stick out of all that synthesizer stuff in the background, because there's a lot of 300 cycles and stuff from the synthesizers to make it sound full bodied, and if you EQ the guitar there it would sound warmer but it would recede into the mix, so that's got a lot of 2K and 4K jacked up on it. With single coil pickups you get a brighter sound, and I like a Strat but I find them difficult to play, they put my arm in a funny position to get a comfortable pick. That's what I used on Zoot Allures. I definitely like a Stratocaster tone, especially when it's feeding back and with a mid range booster on it so it gets a real nasal sound.
Are you having any other guitars built with special features?
Not right now, but I might change my mind next week. I've got enough right now, but you know, I've got all these really neat guitars and I can use them in the studio, but for on stage the only one that I'm really comfortable playing is that old SG. The frets are all fucked up on it and the neck is real weak and it bends and goes out of tune a lot, but I'm used to playing it. I don't have to think about it, I just pick it up and play.
I notice you supply electronic tuners for the band.
Right, and the one I use on stage has a footswitch on it so I don't have to turn the knob, and I can tune up faster.
I've found a good combination of strings for the SG, Super Bullets for the top three and Maximus for the bottom three, a gold plated German string. They're narrow gauge but they have more of a snap to them. They don't flex as much as ordinary narrow gauge strings so you get a little more positive feel. I use 8 or 9 on the top, 11, 15, 24, 32 and 46. I change them about every four or five days, sometimes sooner for the upper ones, because they get bent more and get little notches in the back. Also when you do this procedure (Frank was adjusting his bridge) it's always better to do it with the guitar in playing position instead of having it sitting in your lap, because the amount of pressure that you put on the guitar body changes the intonation of the string. That's important if you're adjusting your bridge. By the way, I adjusted my bridge out there on stage a little while ago, and the difference in temperature between the two places has already made a difference, as you can see. But this guitar is real frowzy.
The tuner must be very accurate.
To within a couple of hundredths of a semitone.
But you can never get the whole guitar in tune can you?
Well you've got to start somewhere, and the best place is by assuming that the 12th fret is supposed to be equidistant between the nut and the bridge. If you get that you're ahead of the game. Depending on where my arm is when I'm playing I'm going to be in or out of tune.
I see you're using wah-wah again tonight.
I haven't used it for years. One of the problems was I tried to use it but the output from this SG with the pre-amp is so hot that it just clips the normal wah-wah and makes it sound shitty for the rest of the things.
Do you have any suggestions about how to use a wah-wah?
The first thing you don't do is tap your foot on it in time with the music. The two basics are to locate a notch in the pedal so it gets a mid-range sustain that is tuned properly to the amp EQ that you have, so you get a nice boxy sound out of it to make all those stinkin' tones that teenagers really go for, and the other thing is to move it very slightly and put most of the action in the rear half of the pedal, because that's where you get most of the speaking type sounds out of it. When you push it right down and open the filter all the way up you get that squeaky sound, and I don't like that. I like the middle range of the pedal. Don't tilt it all the way forward or back, just work the middle of it. It only takes a very little foot movement to change the whole sound of your guitar.
Which one to use depends on what kind of sound you want. They all have different responses. In the very beginning I used the original Vox pedal, and then later I moved to the Boomerang, because when I didn't have the guitar with the pre-amp it added a certain amount of distortion, and I liked that. I'll be using a Boomerang tonight.
On Revised Music For Guitars And Low Budget Orchestra (Studio Tan) you have brass tracking your improvised solo. How was that achieved?
I improvised the solo on the Ovation and then had it transcribed and had guys play it.
Is the effect the same as with the orchestral tracking machine that you've talked about?
No, actually I think the overdubbing makes it sound better, because you have imperfections which make it sound more interesting. If you had something tracking it absolutely I think it would tend to be a little bit dull. I like the idea of several instruments all trying desperately to play the same line. There's a transcription of that solo too, which is available. I'm going to have a lot of this stuff in print this year. Going into the mail order business. I'll show you . . . a wind quintet, the Bebop Tango, a bunch of the things we're playing on this tour, the interludes from Thinpot and the Wet Teeshirt Contest [Fembot In A Wet T-Shirt Contest], and here are drum parts and bass parts. Here's some stuff from Live in New York, the full band arrangement, plus here are some orchestral scores, and it's all coming out this year.
Are you interested in trying to help players become more versatile with rhythms?
Not necessarily, because I think that everybody should play who they are on their instrument. I believe the reason most guitar players tend to sound the same is because they are the same, as people. And I think if that's the kind of person you are that's the kind of noise you should make. I think if I were to go around teaching people to play this kind of stuff, ultimately it would lead to unhappiness.
Because they ain't me, so why should they have to do this stuff? I've tried to show this stuff to people and there's only one guitar player I've ever worked with who has any comprehension of how it works. And that's this new kid who's in the band, Warren Cuccurullo. He was a fan for a number of years, this kid from Brooklyn who worked on his father's garment truck. So he wanted to try out for the band and he was great. Hired him. I mean I can sit down and play some of that stuff for him and he'll look at my hand and be able to play it because he understands what it is. It doesn't come out exactly the same because he plays it cleaner than I do because he picks every note – I usually slur about 60 per cent of what I'm playing. But he can comprehend it. I don't think he could read it off a piece of paper, but he hears it, and the way it's supposed to fit inside the bar. He knows what the joke is, but most people don't. If I try to teach that stuff to keyboard players it's very difficult. Even guys who can read that off a piece of paper, if they sat down and read it it wouldn't sound right, even if they played it exactly in time, because they don't think like a guitar player.
But you 'd like other people to play these lines exactly?
Oh absolutely. I'd be delighted to walk into a concert and hear a whole band playing Rat Tomago just as a unison riff over a basic chord change. I think it would sound fantastic, and that's one of the reasons I had it transcribed, so that other instruments, people who can read really good, can pick that up. It's possible on clarinet, it's about the same range. I'd love to have people play it. Another reason I had it written down is so that I can harmonize it. One day I'll write that thing out for a string orchestra. They may never play it, but at least I will have taken those lines which I made up on the spot, and harmonized it and made something else out of it.
Is there a difference between lines you write and those you improvise?
Well if I write something out that's got complicated rhythms and make it up on the piano, I probably wouldn't be as extreme as I would if I was playing it on guitar, because once I start playing and improvising I don't give a fuck about what's going on, I just play whatever I'm thinking about, so consequently the rhythm can be really abstract and if it's transcribed properly it turns out to be something that would probably create a lot of difficulty in a rehearsal if you gave it to a string orchestra. I tend to be a little more conservative if I'm just writing a score. They still have funny rhythms, but if there's a septuplet in the score I usually don't subdivide inside the septuplet for a large orchestra, whereas in playing solos you might have triplets and quintuplets inside a seven in some of those things, or like that one figure that was a tentuplet with some subdivisions inside it happening over a dotted quarter note. That stuff seems natural when you play it because you hear it coming out, and if you're with a drummer that understands what you're doing it becomes obvious, but when you're just waving a stick in the air in 4/4 time and you got 50 guys with violins in their hands and they're supposed to play that on time, you're begging for it. Mo's Vacation was originally written for clarinet solo, and it's got a lot of weird stuff in it, but there's no problem with one musician, he either learns it or he doesn't. And then I wrote out the bass and drum part for it and they tend to reinforce each other.
Is there a side of you involved with classical musicians?
Oh no. That world is totally alien to me. I have nothing to do with them unless I hire them to do something. I don't hang out with them, they're really pretty boring people.
Are any of your orchestral works available on record?
There's an orchestral album that Warner Brothers has, and they'll probably release it in about six months.
You have a lot of music unreleased, presumably more so with your classical works?
Yes, but that's the same for everybody who writes orchestra music because orchestras are money making organizations just like everybody else. It's not a benevolent activity. They have to play hits too, that's why they give you mass doses of Beethoven and Mozart and all those other dead guys, and so there's not that much exposure for music being written nowadays. The other problem is that a lot of music being written today is not much fun to listen to, so consequently if an orchestra programmes it, then whatever audience they had for the hits goes running off into the bushes, because they don't want to hear all that abstract weirdness.
So are your orchestral works fun to listen to?
Well I don't think they're as much fun to listen to as Why Does It Hurt When I Pee, but it just depends on what your tastes are.
And there's not as big audience for that as for rock.
No. There's not such a big audience for any orchestral music unless it's Emerson Lake and Palmer getting an orchestra to play some chords behind their stuff. And what I wrote ain't like that. It's real hard, and takes a long time to rehearse to get it so it sounds like it's happening. Consequently the amount of rehearsal time required makes the budget for the production of such a work go up, and people start looking at the ticket price versus the size of the hall versus the cost of rehearsals, and the answer is no.
Is stupidity incorporated in your orchestral works?
Yes. Even to my guitar playing. I'm very consistent.
Do you find stupid things in the works of the serious classical composers?
I've heard a lot of that kind of music and there are always things in in that crack me up. There are things in Schoenberg that are equally funny as the words to Wooly Bully, but don't tell him that.
How do you include stupid things in your guitar playing. Do you practise stupid licks?
No, I don't do it that way. Like last night I was playing one solo and decided right in the middle of it to play the melody line to Wooly Bully, one quarter note off. Instead of starting on one you start on two, and I played it at half the speed of the band – that's stupid. And in the middle of another thing I had part of Petrushka that just happened to appear on the lower A string for about two minutes.
It's very interesting in Rat Tomago how you develop lines and themes.
Well it's based on practices that derive from the way Stravinsky would do it and the way Varèse would do it. Varèse is much more economical than Stravinsky I think, and that's a virtue. You see in his music how little bits and pieces of things get repeated in strange ways, and themes emerge from basic material which has not that great a spectrum. Stravinsky would take three of four notes and the next thing you know you have a motif and then the motif would be transmogrified a bunch of times and away you go. But with Varèse it was an even more minimal art. If you listen to Integrals, he gets a lot of mileage out of these two notes. Like some people listen to one Jimmy Reed record and say Hey, it all sounds the same. To the uninitiated ear it does because it's almost exactly the same record after record, but if you like that sort of stuff and can appreciate the subtleties that are involved in the way the boogies are played and so forth, then it opens up a whole new world for you and you don't get bored with it. Some people just dismiss it.
With these solos the developments are automatic, I like to do it by ear. It's a combination of what you want to hear versus what you're physically capable of playing versus the time allotted versus what the band will let you get away with before they get in your way. The trick is to make an interesting and valid piece of music in the time plane allotted. And then the whole equation is balanced against the audience's span of interest. There's the game.
Which is why you have a stupid song, then solo, then stupid song.
Right. People like funny songs. I like funny songs. Why should you have serious songs all the time? That's what's wrong with the whole rock'n'roll business. Everybody wants to be taken seriously – my art, my craft, my whatever it is. Who gives a fuck? Let's have a good time. But you can have a good time on a lot of different levels. You can laugh, you can listen to something, you can think about it, you can tap your feet, you can scratch your head, you can wonder what the fuck is going on. And then you can form opinions. That's a little bit more like real life, rather than have somebody just dump their emotional freight on your doorstep and tell you about their broken heart or how they feel about wind blowing and leaves falling off trees. That's crap, but that's what everybody likes so they're welcome to that. I just want to do something else and everybody who likes what I do, that's fine, and if they don't there's that crap, there's lots of that stuff for them.
I'm always taking the piss out of the stuff I do, and I'm always taking the piss out of the stuff you do. I mean, let's face it. Some people have felt for a long time that the world itself is full of shit. Other people think it's full of piss. And if you agree that it's full of piss then if you take some of the piss out of it nobody's gonna miss it because there's plenty more.
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