Approaching the Mellow Age
By Jeff Silberman
Nestled in the hills of Laurel Canyon, a state of the art digital studio is camouflaged behind the garage of a dignified, if relatively unspectacular residence. There, in the privacy of his own home, Frank Zappa spends most of his waking hours creating anything his fertile mind desires.
Frank Zappa earned such freedom doing it his own way. From the mid-60s through the entire decade of the 70s, he carved a unique niche as a cult rock antihero. Using a rock foundation, he composed diatribes that lampooned both the establishment and the counter-culture. No one was sacred from his pointed lyrical barbs. He also had a special taste for, shall we say, sexually offbeat material. Although his lyrical perverseness repulsed many in the critical community, it nevertheless attracted a sizable audience. (Of course, Zappa could care less what the critics thought.)
But Frank Zappa also composed some ornately structured orchestral and fusion pieces. Even his biggest detractors had to concede that the man was a supremely gifted composer. His music was exposed, and his popularity spread through word-of-mouth and ceaseless touring. He has developed an unparalleled cult following in European music circles, where many of his fans cannot comprehend his lyrics but are enraptured by his melodies. His music has rarely been heard on American radio, but when it did make the charts with lampoons like "Dancin' Fool" and "Valley Girl," he attracted mainstream attention.
For the most part those days are over, and Frank Zappa has no time to look back. Instead, he has redirected his efforts into other fields which pique his interest. In April he will be the keynote speaker at a Composers Convention in Ohio. In May, four world-premiere ballets will be performed by the Oakland Ballet and the Berkeley Symphony. Halloween marks the debut of his first Broadway production.
These days rock and roll, or Zappa's version of it, is not high on his list of priorities. He quit touring last year, and most of his 12-hour-plus studio day is spent with a computer programmer rather than a backing band. "I've got three months of work ahead," he said in reference to the five rock-oriented albums he has yet to release. "The sequencing and mixing have yet to be done; the next one's about half-mixed. But I've been working on other things."
The four ballets that will premiere in San Francisco next May is something "I've been working on for years," he noted. "It's not a financial risk for me at all; investors are putting up the quarter-million dollars and they're even paying me."
Financing is still a problem for his Broadway play, tentatively titled "Stinkbush [Thingfish]." The entire play, music and dialogue, is almost finished and recorded. Acting out the play, which Zappa described as about "potatoes with lips," will be mimes and dancers.
"Broadway is more old fashioned than the record industry," he stated. "Things move slower. They're 50 years behind the times in terms of ideas." He added that he's yet to find enough investors willing to sink about four million dollars into the production. "I'm still looking for more," he said. "This is something that I have to do, although I don't enjoy doing it."
The business life for Frank Zappa is divided into weighing offers of other people's projects, and digging up money for his own. "I get mail every day from people offering me deals. I've got a thing sitting on my desk from someone who wants me to do the music for their monster movie. Then there are the times when I go out to raise funds for things I'm interested in."
One such pet project was an album of his music performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. "That's a good example, and (the movie) Baby Snakes was another," he stated. "I produced them myself and I doubt if I'll ever make my money back. But they were still worth doing. The other things I do to generate income pays for those expenses."
Although he is active in a multitude of projects befitting a truly Renaissance man, there are some areas he has little interest in. "Larry Flynt tried to get me into a TV show," he noted. "I'll find out what he wants when he gets out of jail. It's a possibility... but not an extreme possibility. He's a fairly unpredictable character, and I've always hired the handicapped. But cable is not a field I'd give up my life to dive into. Theatre is more interesting; it's got a better texture to it."
Another field of disinterest is video, even though Zappa's first movie, 200 Motels was shot on videotape. "I made that movie ten years ago for about half a million, and using video... that's why it was so cheap," Zappa claimed. "If I did that movie today, it would cost at least four million using the same techniques. Basically, video is a ripoff to the artists. The people who show the videos, channels like MTV, don't pay! It costs a fortune to make them, and artists are being conned by the media with inaccurate reports of sales that allegedly correlate with showing the videos on TV. Ultimately, what happens is that the artists who make the videos wind up paying for them, and they don't get their money's worth when they're being used by the people who show them. And they're not art! They're only commercials!"
Zappa continued his tirade against the video revolution. "Why should I give things like Baby Snakes away? I spent a lot of money making these things; I expect to get paid back for doing them. I'd rather keep it on the shelf and never let anyone see it if they're giving it away for free."
Even with all the special projects, Zappa still finds time to write far more than enough music to record and release. Since only about 60 percent of his recorded work ever makes it on vinyl, he concedes that "I write too much even when I filter out songs all the time. The bottleneck is between what I'm able to produce individually on a theoretical level, and what is affordable to do on a practical level."
He claimed that almost all of his music is a product of improvisation. "The songs are changed up until the point they are put on the disc. Everything changes it. The mix changes it, the EQ changes it. The only point when it's done and freeze dried is when it's on the disc, and even then it's changed even more by the consumer who turns up too much bass or treble."
Zappa bristled when approached about his lyrical inspiration, "Why does a guy decide to paint a picture of a horse?" he retorted. "Or a clown on velvet? You just decide to do it as the day's project."
He noted that he's now more concerned with his instrumental compositions, even though his most successful works lampooned everything from discos to the vacuousness of materialism. Often his tirades against things like recreational drugs were at odds with the tastes of his audience. "I have no way of finding out who listens to my music and why. I'm not a detective, nor am I like NBC which lives and dies by the polls. I just make my music available, put it out there, and all different kinds of people get it."
"I'm not necessarily denigrating my audience," he continued. "You make a statement of fact: Valley girls are airheads or certain trends are ignorant. That's not denigrating your audience; that's doing your job."
The sight of Moon Zappa making several talk show appearances to plug the "Valspeak" craze was described by him as "ridiculous. It was the ultimate proof that Americans in general are linear descendants of Cabbage Patch dolls. The way "Valley Girl" was consumed was preposterous. The most recent stupidity of that nature is Cabbage Patch babies."
Zappa didn't expect such a response when he cut the song, and despite its commercial success, doesn't care to conjure up another such "hit." "It's pretty depressing to see something consumed that way," he concluded.
The biggest change in Zappa's creative process is the incorporation of his own studio. "There are certain things I couldn't do before that I can do now," he explained. "So all the technical aspects can be taken into consideration. It's more fun to create now, because with my equipment the time between thinking up a musical idea and getting to hear it has been cut down by a factor of about 100. What my computer programmer is playing and what's coming out of the speakers is music I wrote last night."
Although he still has former sidemen like Napoleon Murphy Brock, Ike Willis, and Ray White at his disposal, Zappa is spending more and more time with his computer programmer. "If I pay a guy a salary to program the machines, that saves me fifty hours a week to do something else. It's very worthwhile, because otherwise, I'd be the guy sitting there for hours on end, loading stuff into the machine."
Still, he hesitated on predicting that all his work will be created by the programmer and himself. "Just because you can actually do it yourself doesn't mean that's the best way to do it. It really depends on the song. There are certain things people can't play, and that's when you rely on the machines. Then again, there are things we do that aren't destined for an album; I'm doing them because they interest me."
Currently, Zappa's recorded work is released on his own label, Barking Pumpkin, which is distributed by CBS. "They press it, they ship it, and collect. I've been with independents, and the downside of that is they don't pay, so you have to sue them to get your money back. I had Straight Records, which was distributed independently. I had to sue six distributors, and I never got my money back because it became too expensive to collect. Major distributors are about the only game in town, unless you want to spend your money on lawyers."
Even so, Zappa has been experimenting with direct mail. Two instrumental guitar albums were marketed that way, and Zappa claimed the results were positive. "We're going to do some more:' he stated. "We'll re-release our entire out of- print catalog of albums like Hot Rats. The profit margin of direct mail is far larger than any other way." He also predicted that it's likely that in time all of his future recorded product be marketed through the mail.
"I just prefer to do my own things the way I like to do it, which is without interference from too many people. I don't stop to think about setting goals or challenges. I don't grade my own report card. Every day there's something to do, and I go out and do it"
But doesn't he find it at least a bit ironic that he's able to enjoy such freedom by lampooning the materialistic American way of life? "I made myself wealthy not by satirizing the materialistic American way of life, but by spending twelve to sixteen hours a day doing physical work to keep other people amused. I'm performing a function for people that they could not perform for themselves. And I've taken the money that I've earned and reinvested it so I can continue to do that."
"That's the way I like it," he concluded. "It's a sixteen hour a day job. I enjoy it. I'm fortunate that I can earn my living at something I'm not only good at, but that I really like to do. What could be better?"
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net