Little Band We Used To Play In
By Michael Davis
Frank Zappa has had such a varied career over the past 15 years that it's been rough keeping up with him. He's worn the hats of guitarist, composer/arranger, vocalist, producer, bandleader, filmmaker, and record company president and he has written and released music in many styles, ranging from doo-wop-era rock and roll to various improvisational contexts to totally scored contemporary classical music, gaining himself a substantial following and a lot of respect in the process.
Of course Zappa hasn't been able to accomplish this all by himself; he's employed some heavyweight musicians along the way. In the keyboard category alone, four names come immediately to mind. Don Preston was an on-again, off-again member of Frank's Mothers Of Invention during the late '60s; since then he's been a busy sideman, working and recording with numerous rock and pop acts as well as assisting those well outside the mainstream, such as the Residents and Carla Bley. Ian Underwood doubled on keyboards and woodwinds with the Mothers for years before leaving to pursue his own career as a top-notch L.A. studio keyboardist and synthesizer programmer. George Duke is well known to Keyboard readers, but his current multi-stylistic success as a leader came after several years with Frank, taken in two shifts, not to mention stints with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, and a brief partnership with drummer Billy Cobham. And Eddie Jobson spent much of 1976 with Zappa, between his gig with Roxy Music and his current  position as lead instrumentalist and composer with the popular rock trio U.K.
But more recently, Frank's keyboards have been manned by Peter Wolf and Tommy Mars, names that may be less familiar. Starting in 1977, they've toured with Zappa and recorded with him, contributing to the considerable success of Sheik Yerbouti and Joe's Garage, Acts I, II & III. They also appear in Frank's new movie, Baby Snakes, which is currently going through final edits and distribution negotiations.
Wolf came to this country from his native Vienna only a year before joining Zappa; he considers Weather Report's Joe Zawinul, who was also born and raised in Austria, a father figure of sorts. He was in various bands in Europe but felt connected with Zappa through a series of fortuitous circumstances and considers his years in the band as time well spent.
"Amazing the audience every second is the name of the game," he told Keyboard late last year, "and Frank does it. The music is constantly changing; you can never get bored. You can say, 'I don't like this Béla Bartók section,' or 'This is too rocky,' or 'This is too jazzy,' or 'This is too strange,' but you can never say, 'I'm bored.' I love to have that element of constant change."
But this need for change is what took Wolf away from Zappa's group earlier this year. A band project with other ex-Zappa sidemen including vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock and drummer Chester Thompson fizzled, but Peter has been keeping himself busy just the same. His first post-Zappa album is called Tutti, and it's all Peter; he played all the keyboards, synthesizers, and drums on it. It's a wide-ranging, all-instrumental affair and moves through areas commonly called fusion and orchestral rock.
"I'd rather listen to Talking Heads than I would Jean-Luc Ponty or Chick Corea, so what does it all mean?" he asks rhetorically. "I understand that if you can play, you want to be an artist and you want to be respected. But what I want is to do my electric thing in away so that nobody has to prove anything anymore, just do nowadays music with all the balls ahead. The emotion of every player is the most important thing, what stands behind this chord or this tone. If you leave that out, the music does not touch you."
Tommy Mars (whose real name is Thomas Mariano, he wants us to know) would probably agree with Peter that the emotional context of the music is its most important component – but, oddly enough for a man who claims to have developed a "tremendous rapport" with Zappa's E-mu, he feels that synthesizers are somewhat "dehumanizing." When quizzed about the music he writes on his own, he replies, "If I was going to do a solo album and wanted a violin to play, I wouldn't synthesize it. The way I look at it, no matter how well you synthesize a sound, big deal, it's only an electrical wave. It's not the real thing. I'd sooner hire somebody, waste myself bucks-wise, and get real people playing on the album. But I'm old-fashioned; what can I say?"
Since Tommy's on the road with Zappa right now, with possible recordings to follow, he may not have a whole lot of time to work on his own music. Bassist Arthur Barrow will be moving over to the keys from time to time to take up some of the slack left by the departed Wolf, but for the most part they're Mars's responsibility at the moment. [Ed. Note: Zappa's 1980 lineup consisted of Mars, Barrow, rhythm guitarists Ike Willis and Ray White, and drummer David Logeman.] Peter and Tommy were helpful and open, but to get the full story on the Zappa band, we had to talk to the man himself. So Keyboard tracked Frank down at his Laurel Canyon home and talked to him right next door to where workmen were hammering away, building his new recording studio.
Zappa proved to be extremely informative about his aesthetics, his equipment, and what he expects of his musicians, applying his acid wit to all areas of scrutiny. He does much of his writing at the piano but he doesn't consider himself a piano player by any stretch of the imagination.
"I'm a plunker," he admits. "I couldn't even imagine what it would be like to play the piano, it's such a foreign concept. I think of the piano as some sort of an elaborate percussion instrument. I'm very fond of percussion, but my favorite instrument is the guitar.
While avoiding a simple assessment of his latest keyboardists – "I don't want this to turn out like a report card on Tommy and Peter", was the way he put it – he did mention their relative strengths and weaknesses in regard to his music at several points in our conversation. He's since rehired Mars for his current road band, so Tommy must be meeting Frank's stringent standards at the moment, but the search for the ultimate keyboardist goes on.
"I think I'm probably gonna start auditioning again," he remarks, "because I haven't yet found a keyboard player who is 'roadable' and who can really read music. Tommy reads okay; Peter doesn't read that well at all. George reads pretty well. I'm talking about someone who can look at the most difficult stuff on a page and the notes come flying off; that means less time and trouble teaching the stuff to the rest of the band.
"Then he would have to be roadable. By that, I mean have the flexibility to go from playing simple backgrounds to really difficult written-out stuff, plus have the attitude so that he would enjoy touring. I haven't had too much luck finding someone who can do all those things because he probably doesn't exist. But maybe there's someone out there and I just haven't found him yet."
When you begin your next project will you be using the same musicians you've been using lately?
Some yes, some no. Some of the people I take on the road are not too efficient in the studio and vice-versa. Plus there are a few new people I want to try out.
Are you going to use Peter and Tommy again on keyboards if they're available?
That depends on what the project is. Peter did a lot of the work on Joe's Garage; Tommy just didn't seem to be suited for it. When we first went into the studio, Pete was back in Vienna and Tommy started the album off. He was always jamming around. We had so much trouble trying to make him behave like a studio musician and get down to business that when Peter came back from Vienna, I tried him for a couple of days and it was a lot more efficient. With Tommy, we worked for several days and wound up with two tracks, whereas with Peter, we could do two or three tracks a day. They're equipped differently. Tommy is definitely a creative keyboard player with a good musical mind, but in the discipline department we had some problems. He just can't control himself to sit down and play something simple that's required for a simple song. So Tommy plays on only two songs on all six sides of Joe's Garage; the rest of the keyboard work is Peter. For other things that I do, Tommy is probably better qualified than Peter. Tommy reads a lot better and has a totally different kind of musical ear. It just turned out that he wasn't what I needed for Joe's Garage. You see, there's very little keyboard work on it. What was needed was vocal accompaniment, because it's basically a vocal album. We needed some tracks laid down on a Wurlitzer electric piano, without any jazz motives or cadenzas. That's all I wanted. There are a lot of keyboard players in the world who cannot imagine that that would be fun to do. Tommy is one of 'em. Peter wasn't all that thrilled about it either, because he's basically a jazz guy too, but in his case you can say, "Now, Peter, stop playing the jazz and just play this," and he'll do it. You have to tell Tommy 18 times. The first few sessions were very chaotic. I hate to have to act like an umpire or referee and go scream at everybody because they're jamming. I don't pay 200 dollars an hour studio time to have guys go in there and jazz out. If you want to practice, do it at home; don't do it in the studio. The studio is the time to make the record.
Could you tell us what keyboards you've used in your band recently?
I have a lot of synthesizers. I've got an E-mu, a Yamaha CS-80, three Electrocomps, a Syn-Key, a string box, a Clavinet, a Pianet/Clavinet combination, a Yamaha electric grand, and two Wurlitzers. I've got a warehouse full of keyboards. A lot of my synthesizers are going to be mounted on a semi-permanent basis over in my studio. In the control room, there's going to be one master keyboard that's patchable out to the other synthesizers, so that instead of one big toot coming out, you play the keyboard and the individual voices can be played in the live echo chamber through eight speakers going through an air space with stereo microphones in the chamber. You can set it up for eight totally different sounds, and they'll be coming at you in an air space and will sound more like music instead of electronics.
Are you going to be getting any more instruments when your studio is finished?
Yeah, I'm gonna buy some more. I'm going to get a harpsichord and a celeste. I already have a Bosendorfer Imperial grand. I don't have a Rhodes right now, and I'm thinking about buying one. Plus maybe one more synthesizer. Other purchases for the studio include percussion.
Tommy was saying something about a modified organ you had.
Yeah, the B-3. I had it transistorized and put in a road case, and I put a voltage follower on it. I put the outputs on the Hammond so that you can run the Minimoog or any other modern synthesizer with it. I also had a special set of Syn-Drums so that you could get a scale of 61 bongos or 61 tom-toms or 61 woodblocks or whatever. The box is the guts of two Syn-Drum units with higher quality oscillators keyed to the voltage that's put out by the follower. So when you play a scale, you can get any of the Syn-Drum sounds along with the sound of the organ. You can fix it so that you have two separate Syn-Drum sounds tracking parallel to one keyboard, or you can have the lower keyboard with its notes plus one Syn-Drum.
You're not using it now?
No, we didn't take it on the last tour. It was too much of a temptation for Tommy to noodle on. It's got a lot of possibilities.
Any other modifications on your equipment?
I'm having modifications done on all my keyboards to bring them up to studio quality sound. This includes rebuilding the preamps in all of them and having the Rhodes done in stereo. I'll probably have the stereo treatment done on the Clavinets and the Wurlitzers too.
Who does your work?
Claus Wiedmann and David Gray. But Claus decided to take a little vacation.
What type of amplification do your keyboard players have?
Each guy has a Tycobrahe cabinet with two 15s, a midrange horn, and a couple of tweeters powered by a 300-watt Crown amplifier, plus his own mixing board.
What about the miking?
There's no miking; it's all direct into the PA. Ours is called a Bonwelke and we use four stacks about 15 feet tall on a side. It uses BGW power amps. There are four-way crossovers, with compression built into each band of the crossover so we don't blow speakers. We use Yamaha boards that have about 50 or 60 inputs.
What kinds of effects lines do you use?
I usually tell 'em not to use any, because they're so damn noisy. The biggest problem with sound on the road is that when you're using large amplification, you also have large amplification of the noises within the instruments themselves. Everybody wants to stick a flanger or a Bi-phase or something on their instruments, and those effects are nice, but they're noisy. If the instrument is sitting there in idle, it's still putting out this crud into the system. Also, these things usually reduce the heaviness of the instrument, so if, say, you put a Rhodes through a Biphase you get this horrible clipping sound if the guy really wants to play it hard. If the guy is really banging on it, the voltage he's putting out is driving the box crazy. It makes distortion. Naturally, the keyboard player is enraptured with what he's doing, just wailing away, but the kids out in the audience are hearing this big crackle, this unmusical noise. It's irritating.
With as many guitars and keyboards as you've been using lately, any added distortion would really muddy up the sound.
I really prefer a clean sound, especially from the keyboards. The main thing that bothers me about keyboard players is from the time they learn to play synthesizer, the biggest thing they want to do is sound like a guitar. You've got these Minimoog players who think they finally sound like Jimi Hendrix. There's no way; it's not gonna happen. Basically, folks, let's face it: A synthesizer is not designed to make that kind of noise. It's a bleak little instrument. How can it have the wonderful tones and expressive capabilities of the electric guitar itself? These guys are spending bucks on bucks just trying to sound like an electric guitar. If they want to be a guitarist, why don't they get one and learn how to play it? It's a real timewaster for people to learn how to make guitar-like sounds that are so cliched. Who needs to hear it?
What do you mainly want, then from your keyboardists?
The thing I'm looking for out of a keyboard section is definition. They're playing single-line instruments that add a clean edge to the guitar sounds that might otherwise be fuzzy. That tends to make the ensemble sound a little more coherent. I don't need extra fuzz or extra flange or extra tweeze-edge. The other thing that is difficult to do when orchestrating for multiple keyboard setups is to convince the keyboard players that a simple part assigned to them is the thing that's gonna do the job and to have them play it that way every night. There's so much temptation to jazz out. jazz-oriented keyboard artists are the worst thing to happen to orchestration; they just can't fathom it. In concert, especially with electric instruments, the sound is so thick that you don't need 12-note chords on the piano, much less on two keyboard setups. You need single lines that are played cleanly that come out the right way, playing with the rest of what's going on.
To play your music, you need people who can really play well, and they all probably want to play a lot.
That's true in every form of music. Guitar players are the same way. It's hard to convince a guitar player that a few notes are going to get the job done better than a million notes. This is a problem I face as a composer and an orchestrator; musicians always look at it like anyone who tells them what to play is inhibiting their lifestyle. But unless there is organization, the music is always going to sound like a big jam session. Once the musicians learn the songs in rehearsal, once they learn the arrangements and we get out on the road, the songs sound good. But as soonas the lights go on and the audience claps a few times, everybody starts adding their own little things. By the end of a tour, a lot of things sound like chaos. This is one of the reasons why some people lose their jobs.
But at the same time, they have to play the music expressively.
Well, see, the music is based on contrasts, contrasts between things that are very simple and things that are very complicated. If everything is complicated all the time, there is no contrast. Not only that, there is no contact with the audience. They can't handle it. They don't want to be baffled by 32nd-notes ripping around them constantly for two hours in a hockey rink. That's no fun to listen to. If you want to sound like you're actually doing something, it has to be put in a setting where it can show up. That's why if a guy is playing solo on keyboards and wants to whiz around, the accompaniment that the band provides him is usually kept to bass and drums without everybody else chiming in, so that you can hear what the keyboard player is doing on his own. It just seems to work better acoustically in a hall to thin things out. Another struggle that concerns the acoustics of a hall is that oftentimes what you sound like onstage is not what you sound like out in the audience. The rigs that I provide for the keyboard players to monitor themselves with are really elaborate. Each guy can sound like a million bucks to himself, but they always crank the bass up so they can rattle their groin while they're doing it. This does not necessarily translate to the audience out front because they get so much bass happening up on stage that it muddies the sound up The mixer is always telling them to take some bass off, and this makes them unhappy that they can't give themselves a scrotal massage while they're playing. At the end of the show, you have these keyboard players walking around like you'd stabbed them in the heart because the mixer told them to lower the low end out of their setup or told them to play softer. This is the battle that goes on all the time, trying to get good keyboard sounds out of a P.A. Unless everybody modifies their sound to fit the hall, the music suffers, the show suffers, and the audience suffers because they don't get to hear what the intent was.
When you have so many instruments, do your sound checks go on a long time?
Not necessarily, because if you have a good mixer he can do the necessary things at the sound check. The thing that holds them up is broken equipment, and when you have a lot of stuff there are a lot of possibilities for a busted wire or a ground loop. That's why, when we tour, there's an average of two roadies for every guy in the band. It's not that every guy has two little servants to look after his equipment, but counting all the facilities necessary to set up a show, the crew is twice as big as the band.
Do you carry substitute keyboards in case of breakdown?
We don't carry any extras. If something breaks down, it gets fixed. We carry guys and the equipment to fix it.
Did you ever work with two keyboard players before your current personnel?
Before the band that did Sheik Yerbouti? How about Don Preston and Ian Underwood? I've done two keyboards, two drums, a lot of variations. One of these days, I'll probably try two percussionists if I can find two percussionists that can work together. That's a real problem. Usually guitar players don't have problems playing in ensembles. You see bands with three guitarists and while there may be some competition there, they do ensemblize, playing harmony runs and stuff like that. But with keyboard players, it's cutthroat. It's cutthroat with drummers and percussionists too. They always love to show each other up.
Why did you decide to go with two keyboard players at this time?
Because of the orchestrational possibilities. When George Duke was in the band, a second keyboard player would have been a waste of time, partly because of the type of stuff we were doing. George is so diverse; he can play just about any style, and he's got the discipline to play parts. He really understands how to comp; he's a really well rounded musician. But people like George don't grow on trees. Sometimes to replace the guy who is so diverse, you need two guys who can fit into each other's liabilities.
What about the band you had with Eddie Jobson?
Well, there were a lot of problems having the band with Eddie, because his priorities were in peculiar locations. But I don't want to say anything bad about him.
How much freedom do you give your synthesizer players in terms of patches?
They can do what they want to do on their solos, but as far as the orchestrated parts of the show go, they're all pre-decided in rehearsals.
At the rehearsals, do you set the synthesizers up the way you want them?
I specify the sounds, but I don't personally go over and patch 'em. I say the E-mu will sound like a bright brass section and the Electrocomp will sound like French horns, and leave it that way.
Then they come up with the patches to get the sound that you specify
Right. Then they set 'em up that way each day on the road.
So you try to have all your patches set before you go onstage?
Well, with the E-mu, we just let it sit in one setting for the brass, and the CS-80 is all push-button. In the case of Sheik Yerbouti, we took the E-mu on the road and had it set up as what you call a dedicated system, where it was permanently set up to sound like a brass ensemble, a lot of trumpets and trombones. The Electrocomps were pretty much set up permanently to sound like French horns. That was the setup on "Yo' Mama" [from Sheik Yerbouti].
Do you use the CS-80 for any brass sounds?
The CS-80 has a fair brass sound, but not nearly as good as the E-mu. The string sound on the CS-80 is real nice, though, especially if a guy has good hand control, because by the amount of pressure you apply to the keys, you can make some voices, say in a string quartet, have vibrate or make them softer. It's very expressive. If you've got good touch control, you can make it sound great. That's one thing that Tommy does very well. I came to a rehearsal one day and he was playing "The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue" from Weasels Ripped My Flesh as a string quartet on the CS-80, and it sounded fabulous.
Do you prefer to use synthesizers now instead of horn sections, or does it depend on the type of music involved?
It depends on the type of music. For instance, if you are playing a synthesizer that makes a brass ensemble sound and you take six fingers and make a six-note chord and it comes out in tune and loud enough to compete with electric guitars, then you are doing the right thing. For two reasons: One, it's easier to get a balance acoustically, and two, chords and things like that really tire out brass players over a long period of time. Just playing whole-notes is a real boring job for a brass player. It always sounds good, but they always hate to do it because horn players too like to play a million notes. There isn't a horn player alive that likes to play background harmony for a guitar player. They just don't like that, and ultimately they hate their lives; you take them on the road and no matter how much money you pay them, they don't like their lives because they're not out there noodling away. You begin to feel sorry for them, and that brings you down. You feel that you can't play for too long because those guys on horns are going to go to sleep back there. So that's one of the best things about a brass-sounding synthesizer: You can get a brass-like sound in a live performance without breaking the hearts of a number of people who blow on things.
Do you work out all your orchestrations on acoustic piano?
It depends what kind of stuff it is. Some of the complicated sections like the bridge in the wet T-shirt contest [from Joe's Garage] are all written out. The musicians get the music and they're supposed to go home and memorize it. Then when they get the notes under their hands, we figure out what sounds we're gonna use for it, then practice it till we get it up to speed. But other arrangements can be just a bass line, chords, and a lead. I'll hum it to 'em and tell 'em the chords. It's all done with sketches because there's such a great resistance in rock and roll to reading music. It's always a forced situation. I can give them a piece of paper with the notes on it and they think that what they have in their minds is better than what I have on the paper. So I have to use the most stringently enforced discipline. There's always the constant reminder of the paycheck at the end of the week – that they are getting paid to play these notes. Some guys are good about it and some guys are not. Two guys that have been in the band that aren't real fast sight-readers but can learn the parts and the parts are reliable are Arthur Barrow, the bass player, and Warren Cucurullo, our ex-rhythm guitarist.
When synthesizers first started coming onto the market in the early '70s, did you think that they were going to be as influential as they've been?
I thought that they would definitely catch on, for sure. You know why? Because every keyboard player always wanted to sound like a guitar. And the day that somebody makes one that really sounds like a guitar, everybody'll buy it.
Do you really think that has been the primary motivation?
Well, I think that keyboard players who are soloists thought, "At last, volume-wise, I can be competitive with the guitars in the band." But I think the idea that you could explore some new audio territory was a strong selling point for a lot of people. Unfortunately, when they got the instrument and didn't understand how to work it, you got some of the most boring sounds on record coming out of them, people doing the same ARP 2600 duck quack sound.
Since they've come on the market, would you say there have been any significant improvements in the instruments themselves?
The major improvement has been the polyphonic improvement; that's a big one. But I think the digital stuff that is coming out is going to be even more of one.
In what way?
Faster recall of settings that you know, settings that you make up yourself. Patching is okay for a studio – it's even a little slow for the studio – but in live performance you've got to change from one sound to another on the beat, and that doesn't go along with patch cords and making fine adjustments on your instrument with tiny knobs. You don't want to have your patch cords out and your microscope out to make sure that your low frequency oscillator is set at exactly the right rate so your vibrate won't sound too peculiar, not when you're trying to look cute to the teenage girl in the third row.
Also in the June 1980 issue of Keyboard, keyboardists Tommy Mars and Peter Wolf recalled some of their fondest (and most frightening) moments as Zappa bandmembers. – Editor
What kind of training did you have on the keyboard?
Well, like every other kid, I hated taking piano lessons. I just wanted to improvise and pick songs off the radio. I had the typical garage band sort of training through high school. But during my senior year, I decided to pursue it as a career so I totally changed direction and went into a very strict, sort of monastic musical training. I never really learned how to read music until I went to a conservatory, and it brought out things that I never knew I had inside my self. I graduated in '72 from Hart College of Music in West Hartford, Connecticut, and I have had just about every musical job there is since then. I was a choirmaster, a church organist, movie accompanist, I played bars and clubs, everything.
Did you ever try to go the professional classical route?
I did, but I found that the whole profession is dominated by a select group of people; you have to wait until someone dies before the next one moves up. It's so limited and I just could not live in the past. To me, you have to be doing things fresh and always looking ahead instead of looking back. Now I'll never stop playing classical music; I still practice every day. I play for a couple of hours, keeping my technique up, practicing different styles, and I think that has really helped me in my rapport with Frank, my being actually able to be a musical encyclopedia. Like he'll say, "Play this in an Alberti bass style," or maybe a Tatum stride, or like a Stockhausen pointillistic sort of feel. He picks people who, when he says that, can snap right into it. You can only get that by working at a particular phase of musical development, mastering it, and then moving on. To me, being a musician should be all-encompassing. I try to think of myself as a total Jiminy Cricket; I try to learn every thing, and it's helped me, because you never know what you're going to be called on to do.
Were you in any rock bands after leaving college?
Well, I had my own. I worked with a drummer for a couple of years. It was called Mars, but that concept never really went anywhere. When I left New England and came out to the West Coast, I had to start from scratch as a solo act. I had to go up to Alaska before I could get a job in California. It was that bad; I was striking out worse here than in Connecticut. I was working in this revolving organ bar in Kodiak, Alaska, with Japanese and Russian fishermen kicking me in the back if I couldn't play an ethnic folk song to their drunken satisfaction. This was in '7Ci; I was going from bar to bar, agent to agent, trying to hustle up some work.
What led you to move to California?
Basically, I came out here to get into the movie business; that's really what I want to do, write music for movies, arrange, produce, and you have to start somewhere. But I was starting on the planet Pluto. It was really difficult, and I was very lucky to get a break with Frank. It was like immediately ascending to the snowy peaks, even though there was a lot of volcanic ash on the sides. It's a great experience; I always enjoy working with him whenever he calls me.
How did you finally connect up with Zappa?
I had known Ed Mann, the percussionist in his band, back in Connecticut. He said, "Frank has a keyboard player already and he's thinking of auditioning another one as well. Why don't you give him a call?" And that's what happened; I told him a little bit about myself and he said, "Yeah, definitely, come on down." So I just jumped. At that point, I was striking out everywhere in the bars; getting fired was my middle name.
What did your audition consist of?
I can distinctly remember that I knew that Frank was gonna put me through the most stringent musical maze that I had ever confronted in my life. I remember him arranging or writing a piece, I can't remember which, and all it had on it was, "Slowly." And on the first page was a really beautiful set of chord changes and that was no sweat so I read through that. Then all of a sudden, there were these rhythmic modulations and conceptualizations that I hadn't seen since I was in college. I was on the verge of it, but it wasn't jelling immediately because I had been playing Cole Porter and Gershwin tunes for years. Frank had a toothache that day and I could sense that I was sinking lower and lower. Then he wanted to see how I memorized. He played me a tape and said, "Okay, here's four measures; play it back. Here's eight measures." And my life raft was getting a bigger and bigger leak in it. Finally, he said, "Okay, let's hear your voice. Sing something to me." I must know thousands of songs with lyrics, but I couldn't think of one song that I could do all the way through. So I told him, "Frank, I can't think of anything so I'm going to improvise something." So I just started playing the piano and singing. I have a style of scatting that is very definitely my own and it's coordinated very basically and organically with what I'm playing on the piano. It totally knocked Frank out. He called Gail, his wife, downstairs and said, "Listen to this guy blow." And that saved me. My reading was only adequate for what he wanted but the improv saved me, I'm sure. Then we talked a lot and he said, "I guess you won't have to work many Holiday Inns any more.
And that was it?
Basically, that's it. There's reading and everything, but it's also balanced on your personality. He stressed very highly in the audition that he wanted somebody who could be flexible, moldable, compatible, and I'm that type of person. I like working with composers, working on new projects, and not just being a sideman per se, but giving the music some personality, some breath of life. I think that was what Frank was looking for at the time.
Was Sheik Yerbouti the first album that you did with him?
Yes, the first thing that I was involved with.
A lot of that was recorded live with various overdubs added after the fact.
Various, very loosely. From my experience, I would say that the overdubs on that particular album were at least equally balanced with the live tracks. We worked for months on that. For instance, on the song "Baby Snakes," I was watching a Twilight Zone on TV late one night and I got this phone call From Frank, He said, "Hi, Tommy, how are you? Feel like doing a little singing tonight?" And I said, "Sure." I came down to Cherokee Studios and did "Baby Snakes" that night about six times, my own voice on one line, no harmonies, just a straight linear thing.
Were the original live keyboard parts augmented or substituted for, or what?
I would say that a lot of times, they were reinforced and new material was added. Say, on an orchestrated section of the song "Yo' Mama," the actual things that were reinforced happened at different times. On that guitar solo, there are three different sections from three different concerts, and Frank just juxtaposed them. It was an augmentation of what happened at a live performance, but an actual arrangement that evolved in the studio. Certain things that were on the piano, Frank wanted on the Emu with a large brass-type sound; then different little countermelodies evolved out of that. He'd say, "Go free, interpret it," and all these countermelodies evolved out of the arrangement that was there. Frank wrote that song at the very beginning of the '77 European tour, and it has a personal relevance to me. We were doing this rehearsal in London and Frank was getting very tense. He expected certain things to be there when we got to rehearsal, and certain things were not there. We were gonna do the song "Zoot Allures," and he started playing this llth chord and got very angry at everybody because nothing was happening right. I got fined because I hadn't memorized this little piece called "Little House I Used to Live In." I hadn't realized he wanted it totally memorized. So this rehearsal ended in a total fiasco. The next day, he came in with these lyrics: "Maybe you should stay with yo' mama. . . " It was really autobiographic; that's how things evolve with Frank.
Does Frank also play a big role in the evolution of the solo concepts of the other players?
Sure. Say a solo on a particular night was semi-arranged, but things happened during it. He'll take those precise moments into the studio and reevaluate them and expand and augment them. That's how he orchestrates in the studio. Then things happen live in the studio that he'll use. I can remember on "Yo' Mama," there is this French horn sound that goes, " Uh-uh-uh-uh-ehh, dittle-dittle-dun, dittle-dittle-dun," and he would say "Just start it right there." He always picks the really off-beats to go on and you have to go right there, whatever he does. It's always exciting, but you have to watch him really closely. And then there's the usual, "Double that." You have this thing that is nearly impossible to do one time and you have to do it two or three times. But that's his sound, and he gets that exactness: You do it until it's right.
What were the differences in preparing for the road and preparing for the studio?
On the road with Frank, you have an incredible amount of memorizing to do. I'm fortunate in that I can read well, and that helps me out. I can say, "Frank, I'm not going to spend the time learning my part by rote from you if you can write the chart out for me, and I'll play it like that." Somebody else might have to listen to a cassette and rewind and rewind. I like to learn by having an arrangement there and having a cassette of a rehearsal tape so I can get the little stylistic idiosyncrasies as well. In the studio, you're doing essentially what you've been doing on the road, so there's no preparation at all unless he'll say, "I want you to take this home and play it in a certain way tonight and get a feel for it; then tomorrow, we'll come in and do it." I've yet to have him give me a spontaneous chart in the studio. It's either been things we've done on the road, or ideas he gets in the studio that are not that complex. You're usually very prepared for what he's going to do in the studio. He might say, "Play this a little differently than you did on the road," and that's your facility at being flexible that comes into play there, keeping cool and just playing it the way he does.
Does Frank allow you to do your own patches once he gives you a basic idea?
Yeah, it's to his advantage to have you experiment. But as soon as he says, "Don't touch it!" it's there. He heard it and you heard it and you've got to remember that. That's crucial with Frank; as soon as he knows you can do something, he won't expect you to do anything less than that.
How do you go about creating horn-like patches?
I try to take into account every variable of the brass instrument, all its idiosyncrasies and all the fine points. Not just the resonant frequency: You have to take into account how a player punctuates it, the range of the horn, the tessitura, every idiosyncrasy of the sound. The synthesizer doesn't necessarily hit it right on the money; sometimes it misses that kind of a pitch change you hear on a horn player's attack. So you compensate for that by using, say, an envelope generator that has a time control, that will add a very tiny pitch change when you hit the note. So I have my own way of synthesizing sounds and Frank seems to coordinate with it. One day, the people from E-mu came down and totally hard-soldered a patch that I had used on my small synthesizer for this polyphonic synthesizer. My Electrocomp patch was used with the E-mu.
What are your thoughts on the E-mu?
That E-mu is microprocessed to death. I have a story about that. Frank loaned it to me at my house for about three weeks so I could get really close to the instrument. Aand I believe that deep down, that E-mu has a personality of its own. One night, I was up about 4:30 or five, playing and getting different colors and textures; I had a tremendous rapport with the instrument. It has a microprocessor sequencer, a very complicated thing; it has a touch keyboard on it, and when I pushed the stop on it, the thing didn't stop! It just kept playing; it was like Twilight Zone or something. I had to pull the plug on it in the end, saying, "Jesus, I hope this thing stops playing." It was getting very touch and go there, psychokinesis up the ass. And then Frank laughed at me. "You're full of shit – this thing has no personality," he told me. But I really felt close to that instrument; it was extremely expressive and it had tone qualities that I had never used before. The E-mu components are real topnotch, state-of-the-art equipment.
When you go from a duophonic to the poly E-mu, you have a lot more to work with. Do you just concentrate on trumpet sounds, or do you combine the trumpets with other brass sounds?
I can play a middle line on the Electrocomp and have the E-mu play the full chord and have it totally reinforced. And if you're doing, say, a low trombone sound with a piccolo trumpet type of effect, it'll be a totally different sound texture that you're going to get. That's why the E-mu is so great. Now the Yamaha CS-80, even though it's not as flexible as the E-mu, is certainly more reliable on the road. The E-mu sometimes starts talking back when you're not playing it, spitting back all these digital farts and vomits all over the place. It happened to be something in the cord that they couldn't figure out. That's why Frank had to get the Yamaha in the end; I really like its touch-sensitivity, but you don't have as much control over each individual voice. It's kind of a dry, flat, bland sound compared to the E-mu, where you can set up each particular voice a little bit differently.
Are you going to be doing anything more for Zappa in the future, or do you know at this point?
That's the story; you never know. Ever since I've met the guy, I never know when or if he's gonna call. If he wakes up in the morning and says, "I want to go back out on the road," I go with him. I really like the guy even though it's hard to learn what he's all about. It's hard to second-guess and say, "I think he wants that," because he might change his mind. It's kind of like Cinderella on the event horizon of a black hole. You have all these great instruments to work with, plus the people he picks to play with, let alone his own genius, and you have to be ready to change course, swirl around, and experiment and be naked.
Could we get a bit of background on how you got involved with music in the beginning?
I am Austrian, and my father was a pianist, so I started playing piano when I was four. When I was six I started at the Conservatory. When I was 16 I cut it all out. I did not touch a piece of classical music after that, because you can't do everything. I don't believe you can be a really good classical player and a really good modern player. It just doesn't happen. Either you're a really good classical player or a really good modern player or you're somewhere in between, not really nailing anything. A classical player can't just turn around and whip into a jazz club and wail because his head will be in a different space entirely.
How did you start playing rock-oriented stuff?
I met this guy named Carl Ratzer; at that time he had long hair and was a rock and roller, which for Vienna was really weird. He blew my mind. He meant every note that he played. I could play so much more than he could but I didn't mean half of what he meant. So we formed a band called Gypsy Love. We had the group for four years and made a couple of albums. After that, Carl got more jazz-oriented and left for the States, and I started a new band called the Objective Truth Orchestra. We were pretty successful – we opened for people like John McLaughlin and Shakti, and the George Duke/Billy Cobham band. We had the jazz influences, but not like the English bands like Yes or Soft Machine – always with an American space. But it got to the point where there was no competition and I wanted to be where all the heavy guys are, so I came over to America. For a year before I joined Frank's group I was working in the South, in places like Atlanta and Birmingham in a jazz band, playing bebop.
That was on acoustic piano?
Yeah, and Rhodes. I was also using a Minimoog then. It was advanced bebop, using bebop heads and old material, but really playing. It was happening. I learned a lot from this. If you play seven hours a day in front of people, it is magnificent. I wish I could do that now. It's like looking in the mirror and finding out what your face is like; the longer you look, the more you find out. The more you play for people, the more you find out what works and what doesn't.
How did you come to join Frank's band?
The reason that I stayed in the South was that I ran out of money; I wanted to come to L.A. right away. The Weather Report guys are old friends of mine and I know George Duke and [bassist] Alphonso Johnson, so I figured that when I came out here I could get in touch with them and they could turn me on to some gigs or something, which was totally wrong because nobody has time to do that here, but I had to figure that out for myself. So I came to town and I just got lucky. The singer that was in the band with Carl Ratzer, Lalomie Washburn, was doing an album and she said, "Why don't you do this thing with me?" So I did the album. She was renting from Audrey Lewis, an old friend of hers who also knew Zappa. She must have played him some tapes and he must have liked them. So one day I was trying out synthesizers at the Guitar Center in Hollywood when Audrey walks in the door and says, "You must be Peter Wolf" And I said, "Yeah." I gave her my phone number, and the next day at nine in the morning I got a call from Frank. "This is Frank Zappa; I'm looking for a keyboard player. Do you want to audition?" So I said, "Yeah, sure." And I came down, I auditioned, and I was in the band.
What does an audition with Frank consist of?
He first played me some tapes from the Zappa in New York album and checked out my reactions, I guess. Then he whipped some music in front of me to sight-read and I stumbled through it. First of all, I am not an excellent sight-reader, and then of course Frank's stuff is unbelievable to sight-read. That's part of his trip, I guess; he gets pleasure to a certain extent to give a player something he can't pull off. You have to practice that stuff, you can't just do it. Then he said, "Play me something." I took a piano solo. Patrick O'Hearn was there and he whipped out his acoustic bass and we started playing, just acoustic piano and acoustic bass. Finally, Frank said, "Well, what do you think, Pat, you want to play with this guy?" And Pat said, "Yeah." So Frank turned around and said, "You're hired." That was it.
How much of Frank's music had you heard before?
I was not one of those guys that come in there and know every note off of every album, not at all. Now Arthur Barrow, the bass player, when he got into the band, he could play everything. He just walked in and knew all the old parts, all the old bass lines. He was actually correcting Frank in some places. There were a couple of things of his that I really dug. I loved the Hot Rats album [dist. by Warner Bros.], and I liked the King Kong album with [violinist] Jean-Luc Ponty [currently available as part of Canteloupe Island, Blue Note]. And I have two or three albums from the George Duke period which I really liked. That old band with George and Ruth [Underwood, percussionist] and Chester [Thompson] was hot. I saw them three times and they were always fantastic. After that, I saw Frank's band when Eddie Jobson was with him, and I really didn't care for it. It was all on Frank. Now he has the aura and the magic to be there alone onstage, but you don't go just to see Frank Zappa. A lot of the impression that you get from a concert concerns the band. So if the band is really happening, they can whip off his music and it will be fantastic. If the band is not really happening, then he does not try to do all his music, because he knows that the band can't whip it off. So he will go for a change in the identity of his music, sacrificing some of the weird, difficult parts and just going for the rock and roll side, which is not the totality of Frank Zappa. Part of him is rock and roll and part of him is all this other weird stuff that you want to hear when you go there. You want to be amazed, dazzled by him, and that band couldn't pull it off. So I think it is very important that Frank have the right band to do his stuff When Tommy and Ed [Mann, percussionist] and I got into the band, we could cover a lot more ground than the Eddie Jobson band. And I think Frank enjoyed it.
Were there any particular weak points in the band when you were with Frank?
The one thing that was not very strong in our band was the vocal part. [Guitarist] Adrian Belew and [drummer] Terry Bozzio could sing some, but that was it. Tommy could sing some backup, but there was not one guy in the band who was a monster lead singer like Nappy [Brock] was. After one year, Frank got [guitarists] Ike Willis and Denny Walley in the band. They are both really strong singers, so immediately the concentration was back on vocals again. We really enjoyed that a lot. There was not so much soloing going on as in the band with Adrian and Terry, but with the vocals it got into a different dimension again.
On Sheik Yerbouti, Frank took live material and then augmented it with overdubs. Did both you and Tommy work on the overdubs with him?
Tommy and I both played on the live tracks on Sheik Yerbouti, but Tommy came back immediately after the tour, while I stayed in Europe, doing some stuff of my own. So the overdubs, the horn-like patches and all, were pretty much all Tommy Mars. But after the next tour was over Frank called me in Europe, and I pretty much did everything on Joe's Garage.
What kind of a musical education has it been to work with Zappa?
Working with Frank makes you aware of a lot of things; I've learned more with him than I have at any schools or during any other gig. First off, playing with Frank, you have the opportunity to play for a lot of people, which is a totally different ball game than playing in a club. When you're playing some fast lines for five hundred people, the guy in the last row will hear every note. If you play the same fast line in a hall or a hockey rink with really bad acoustics, the guys out there don't hear the line. For them, it's a big blur. So you have to keep in mind the ears of the guy who sits out there as you play. If you take a solo, you learn to concentrate your message much more than if you play in a club. Plus, Frank's music is pretty much spread out over everything. You play '50s rock and roll and you play total jazz and you play Schoenberg or Webern-oriented stuff, and to pull that off in one concert is what Frank loves to do. You say, "It will never work," when you get in the band, but it works. That's amazing. Frank is a really good bandleader; that's why it sounds so good. He's a bit distanced from it. He can walk in and listen to the music and hear it right without being involved in it.
How did Frank delegate the keyboard parts out between you and Tommy?
When you get in the band, he sees your talent; he knows what he can do with it and how far he can extend your abilities to make the music sound good. So he would assign the parts according to our talents. There are certain areas that I can cover better than Tommy, and there are certain areas that Tommy can cover better than I can. We never had problems with that. Plus we had our two different keyboard setups, one on the right side of the stage, one on the left.
Could you go over what instruments you played?
My setup now is the Yamaha electric grand and the Rhodes 88 suitcase model electric piano. Then I play an EML Electrocomp synthesizer with a poly box hooked up that gives you instant chords; you can do some amazing things with that. Then I play a Clavinet and an Oberheim EightVoice, a dual-manual one which is a custom ax.
How do you like the Oberheim?
The only problem you have with the Oberheim is that not every function is programmable; it's the big advantage of the Prophet to have all those functions programmable. But the Prophet also has the disadvantage that every voice you play sounds the same. The Oberheim is a true polyphonic synthesizer; every voice you play can sound different. If you have a horn section with five trumpet players, each of them will sound a tiny bit different.
So you try to program the poly so that each horn voice is slightly different?
That's exactly right. That's what the Oberheim does for me and the Prophet doesn't. The Prophet is really fast; it's a fantastic ax as far as speed goes, but I'm not dazzled by the polyphonic sound of it. I talked to Tom Oberheim about it and he is going to modify my ax. His chief engineer, Jim Cooper, is figuring out a way of inserting into each module another print plate; and making every function programmable. You just press one button and you have totally different programs, waveforms, resonance, everything. Then it will have the same features as the Prophet, only that every voice can sound totally different. And that's what I want to hear.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net