His Best Friends Are Computers
By Bill Camarata
Marking his 20th year in the music business, Frank Zappa is not one whom you can accuse of being idle. In the past two decades, he has released close to 40 albums, many multiple record sets, of all types of music. Rock, jazz, R&B, C&W, MOR, comedy, movie soundtracks, and even orchestral. As a fan and follower of his music, his musical ideas, unorthodox to many, inspired me to write about music like his that doesn't get enough exposure in the first place.
In the nine years that I have been writing about music, the one guy that I have wanted to talk to the most has been Frank Zappa. Most rock writers will sit back after completing an interview with someone who they've admired from afar for years and tell you about it as though it was no more a chore than doing last week's laundry. Hell, I admit it, I've done it myself with a few popular musicians I've talked to. But I am not in the least embarrassed about saying I was excited about this one. I was finally going to talk to Zappa. This was IT.
Like most writers, I record my interviews so that I can use the tape to get accurate quotes from the artist when I write the story. On the big day, I called the number I was supposed to, and there was no answer at Frank's room. I told the operator I'd call back in a few minutes, hung up and went into the next room to turn off the tape recorder and rewind the tape. While the reels were spinning, the phone rang. Since the phone in the living room was disassembled for the recording hookup, I ran into the other room and answered the phone.
"Frank Zappa. They're having problems with the phones here, so I thought I'd call you since you can't get through here." I stood in shock for a second, then got control of myself.
"Oh. Thanks! Uh, let me go and turn the recorder back on. I was rewinding when you called." I did so, and returned to the room, sat down grabbed the phone, and started my interview of a lifetime.
The last two years has found Zappa working mostly on his orchestral music, something that he has been writing since he was 14. Now 43, two records of this music have
been released recently, one by the London Symphony Orchestra, and another just out with conductor Pierre Boulez and his ensemble playing some of Zappa's chamber
music pieces called THE PERFECT STRANGER.
But recently, he's gone back to rock and roll because of the continued trouble he's had getting his orchestra music played, and also because he "can't afford to do that anymore." From his hotel room in Cincinnati, he told me that now there are plenty of records coming out. THEM OR US, a rock album, is due in the stores this month.
"It's a two record set, and it's recorded digitally. I have a digital recording studio in my house, and it was done there. Hopefully we can put it out on a compact disc too, because the music has lots of dynamic range, and you have to fool with it electronically to put it on a regular record. It depends on the manufacturing facilities and capabilities of our distributor." Zappa also used digital recording on the orchestral recordings.
"I first heard a digital recorder a few years ago when I heard the Sony 1600, which was the forerunner of their two-track mastering machine, which I use now. I didn't like the sound of it then." Improvements in digital recording caught up with him, and 1983 saw Zappa acquiring one of the first 24-track digital recorders, which he now uses almost exclusively. "We've got it in our remote recording facility following us around the country, and we're recording almost every show with it. It's a completely different way of recording, as opposed to recording analog. It's almost like learning how to record all over again."
The current Zappa touring band consists of Frank on guitar and vocals, Ray White and Ike Willis (guitar and vocals), Scott Thunes (bass), Chad Wackerman (drums), Allan Zavod (keyboards) and Bobby Martin (keyboards, sax and vocals). Napoleon Murphy Brock, a longtime Zappa alumnus, was on some of the earlier dates, but he was sent home "for medical reasons." Zappa usually brings along percussionist Ed Mann who plays a myriad of mallet and other instruments, but he's absent from this tour.
"The band that was put together for this tour is more of a rhythm and blues, guitar-oriented group, and the music we're doing on this tour does not warrant taking a percussionist on tour. Besides, any percussive sounds we need can be imitated on the digital synthesizers we're using."
Getting back to the new album, THEM OR US, Frank assures us that there will be variety. Selections will include "The Second Movement of Sinister Footwear" arranged for rock band, Zappa's version of the Allman Brothers classic "Whipping Post," a "faithful" remake of an old doo-wop song, and "Be In My Video," a commentary about the current music video craze.
"We were going to make a video for it," he laughed, "but I decided against it because all of the things that are discussed in the song are things that you see all of the time on MTV."
There's even a song with lead vocals by Johnny Guitar Watson, who recently put out a song called "Strike On Computers." "He brought that over to the studio and played that for me," Zappa said. "It takes a very negative view of computers. He says that they're taking away jobs, but I told him he's got it all wrong. The computer is your friend. You just have to use it right."
Zappa has also finished the first in a series of re-issues of all his old records on his own label, Barking Pumpkin Records.
"I now own all of the rights to the master tapes of my old albums, and the first set will be seven records, digitally restored and re-mixed so that these old recordings are
made more listenable. There will be all of the old Verve stuff, including FREAK OUT, ABSOLUTELY FREE, WE'RE ONLY IN IT FOR THE MONEY, RUBEN AND THE JETS, LUMPY GRAVY, the mystery disc, which includes unreleased songs, and some stuff that was recorded before FREAK OUT. There'll be a book inside the box, and each record will be in it's original cover. For those who are interested in it, it's a fetishist's dream."
Also ready for consumption soon is a 365-page hardbound book of Zappa fiction, also titled THEM OR US. "It'll explain how things such as Billy The Mountain, Joe's Garage, Greggary Peccary, 200 Motels, and even Ruben and The Jets are all related."
But wait! That's not all! There's an album recorded of music written by a composer named Francesco Zappa, string trios that Frank has re-arranged for other instruments and then re-constructed on computer, add that to a piece he is currently writing that has been commissioned by the Aspen Wind Ensemble, and a three-record set of music from a musical Zappa wrote, and you might just be up to date. Anything else? Family projects maybe?
"My son Dweezil has been jamming with Aynsley Dunbar back in L.A. He's 14 now, he put out a single when he was 12."
"A single? Is it available?" I asked.
"Yes, anybody who wants to get any of this stuff can call Barking Pumpkin and get on a mailing list, just call 818-PUMPKIN."
I just had to ask him about Cleveland. He did enjoy playing at Blossom, and he asked me about an interview that a local TV station did with him.
"Did they show the thing with the tits," Zappa asked. "While we were doing this interview, this guy and his girl friend were outside the window trying to get my attention, and I asked the cameraperson to get a shot of them. The girl pulled up her shirt, and these huge tits popped out. Then the guy held up this pitcher of beer, trying to put in his request for me to play "Tittles and Beer."
"No," I said, "they wouldn't show something like that during dinner hour."
"Why," Zappa asked incredulously, "What's wrong with tits? What's wrong with beer? We were going to put out T-shirts that advertised that as the Frank Zappa diet."
With all of my questions answered, I thanked Frank for a pleasurable interview. It was everything I expected and more. Our phone conversation over, I went into the living room, rewound the tape and then gasped in horror. One switch hadn't been flipped, and I had just recorded half an hour of silence, and on the one interview I wanted to
keep, it was just between Frank and me. No tape. How was I going to write the story?
I sure am lucky that I took notes.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net