By Gary A. Shay
Frank Zappa has a well-deserved reputation as a creative genius. A multi-talented, classically trained composer, he has made an immeasurable contribution to the state of popular music. Although his critics may fault his sophomoric lyrics, no one can argue with his remarkable gift for composing striking melodies. His fans number in the millions – he is especially popular in Europe, where his music is studied in conservatories and analyzed in universities. As befits his genius, he is a man constantly on the move, an outspoken musical dynamo forever dashing between projects, composing music for his latest album, writing Broadway musicals starring life-sized puppets, or counseling son Dweezil and daughter Moon (of "Valley Girl" fame) about their musical careers. Songwriter Connection caught up with this remarkable man on a recent morning for a rambling, uninhibited, and outrageous conversation.
SW: Sorry to wake you...
Zappa: It's okay... I knew I had to get up to do this. It's just that I worked until about seven o'clock in the morning.
SW: Working on a new composition?
Zappa: No, I was working on something more boring, the liner notes. Before I go on the road I have to finish production on five albums (Yawning). One of them is the new rock & roll album which is called Them or Us, I finished those notes the other day. There's a three-record box called 'Thing-Fish '... there's a single disc of "The Music of Francesco Zappa" ...there's the first of the multi-record boxes of the old masters. Had to write a book for that one. And then there's the Boulez album, which Angel is putting out, and I'm supposed to have those notes done by tomorrow.
SW: You have also been very active in the theatrical field. A recent article called a performance of your piece "While You Were Art" at the Bing Theatre of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art "revolutionary," but hardly in a complimentary fashion.
Zappa: Yeah, I know about the article. He (the writer) never heard the piece, by the way. I invited him to come over and hear it before he wrote the article, but the piece that he wrote is really not about music. It's about people in the serious music business trying to cover their ass because they couldn't tell the difference between a live performance and a cassette... Los Angeles is literally the asshole of creation. The serious music scene in L.A. is probably much more political than any place else. The aroma of the politics in Southern California is so putrid, because the people here who have the positions, and who get their pieces played, literally have nothing to offer. They're just fakes. And that extends right down to the college level. In order for those guys to have those chairs, to be the Composer-In-Residence, or teach that stuff, they have to surround themselves with this aura of mystery, superiority, incredible artistry, creativity, and all the rest of the stuff. Really they're just hacks. If they were any good they'd be out there doing something. And then they infect their students with their same bullshit.
SW: If you could set up a college for music, what would it be like?
Zappa: I wouldn't. (Silence) I think that if a person wants to be a composer or a musician, they should go out and teach themselves. Go get a book that tells you how to read and where to put the dots, and then go out and play and do it, because what is a teacher going to tell you? Nothing.
SW: Are pop tunes boring to you? Do you listen to them? Do they interest you in any way?
SW: Not at all?
SW: Then you're not interested in creating a pop tune.
Zappa: You mean the kind of things you'd hear on MTV? No! It's not just MTV-look at all the imitators of MTV. In Los Angeles on Friday and Saturday night between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m. you've got approximately seven channels playing the same videos. Is this terrific or what?
SW: Your fans have often hailed you as a genius. Do you think they're right?
Zappa: Well, I think if a person is a genius, it's irrelevant to the rest of their personality. The word genius is used as a value judgement by some people to describe the difference between what one guy does and another guy does, okay? To some people... what's the name of the guy with the glove? Oh yeah... Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson is a genius, okay? He's a genius because he sold 30 million albums. If you compare me to Michael Jackson I'm a schmuck. He's a genius and I'm a schmuck, you see? So what the fuck is a genius? What does it mean? I once put in a bio that I sent out "Some people have called me a genius. Okay, don't hold it against me." Basically I do my stuff to amuse myself and if anybody else has a similar taste then they will be similarly amused, and if they aren't amused, then I'll stay a schmuck The innate value of a piece of music has to do with what it is and what it's about. I write a lot of really Mongolian stuff, but it's designed to be that way on purpose because that's the language that it has to use in order to say what it's supposed to say to the audience that needs to hear it. This is the kind of snobbery that happens in the classical music world. They think that anything that's played on an amplified instrument is shit, and it's simple minded music. And everything from their world is art. I've spent the last two years in their world, and let me tell you, let me out of there! We're talking about pure fakery going on – especially in American "serious music". All the stuff that's done today is done for reasons which are as pathetic and abysmal as any of the lowest motivations for making a pop tune to go on MTV. There is no difference between the motivations of the hacks that are working in the American "serious music" world, and the people who are trying to make hits. It's the same pathetic motivation, which has nothing to do with making music. Its people making reputations. In the "serious music" world, it's guys trying to keep their tenure, keep their chair, keep their reputation and get another grant. In rock & roll, it's guys trying to be stars.
SW: You once said that "people are more intelligent than record companies imagine them to be."
Zappa: Right. But the other part of that is that people are not as intelligent as they themselves imagine them to be. People are being controlled by large corporations because there is no government in the United States – there is only business. And the entertainment media, including radio, is tied to politics – but basically it's tied to money. Radio programs material that creates the image for the station that the advertiser thinks will be the best place to put his ad. That's all radio is. It's not a public service, it's a business. These MBA "consultants" advise the people who own these stations and they say, "Look, if you do this, and you do that, then you will have this many people listening to this station, which means you can charge this much more for your advertising. And the people who own the stations don't give a fuck what they play. They run it through a computer and they figure out the average type of stuff that they can put on that will make the most people listen to their station. Here's where their computation falls down. When FM radio first started off, when they first had FM rock, it used to be real creative, because you could hear just about any kind of music at any time. And few people had FM radios. It was regarded as a secondary market. People were still going wild over AM. Then, when people found out they could have all this variety, they started buying FM radios. And that was when the record business really went into a boom. You could here just about anything – different types of tastes of the public could be met. You could hear a piece of some weird album on the radio, and if that was your style, you'd go out and buy the thing. Now the record business has worked itself into a corner: Everything has to sell 30 million albums just to be a hit. You have no respect and no regard if you're selling 50,000 to 100,000 albums. You're shit. Whereas if you were doing that in the Sixties, you could stay in business, go your own artistic way, and make the kind of music that you wanted to make. And you could be sure that there would always be some weird radio station someplace that would stick it on the air. When people started buying FM radios, that's when the formatters moved in. They started applying AM radio logic and AM radio techniques to FM. They freeze-dried the whole thing. Which meant that they played a certain short list of songs in saturation, which is the device used to give the illusion that there is nothing else out there. So if there is nothing else out there, then you will be one of the people buying the 30 million records. I mean let's face it, it's over. It's not going to improve, because as long as the people who own the stations take the advice of the MBAs, and as long as the MBAs tastes is involved in there, you're never going to hear anything interesting on the radio. The Dark Ages are here again and nobody even knows. Not only that, nobody even cares because what is passed off for entertainment in the United States is so low – it functions on such a dumbo level... All these award shows go on the air, and people are rewarded for mediocrity with vast sums of money and unbelievable praise until you can't even believe your eyes.
SW: You have recently raised some eyebrows with your musical production of "Thing-Fish".
Zappa: I already wrote it as a Broadway show, as a matter of fact that was one of the albums I was doing the notes for. I tried to raise some money for it for Broadway. I couldn't. Now, all you'll be able to hear of that project is the 3 record box of the original cast recording. It was going to be all lip-synch. The whole show was on digital tape. I planned it so that all the lighting cues, all the cues for moving the scenery, and everything would be stored on the digital tape, so the show would run itself. Then you put dancers out there to mime the show. It would have been really terrific, but it would have cost 5 million dollars, and I was only able to raise about $400,000. So I said forget this, I'll go do something else. See, if the show had a more boring plot, it would have been okay, but it had a real controversial plot. It had stuff in it that has never been on Broadway before.
SW: When you're working on a piece, do you write out a lot of things on paper any more, or is it stored in your computer?
Zappa: I haven't done anything with a paper and pencil in months and months. It's all in the computer.
SW: Do you enjoy using this state of the art equipment such as the Synclavier? Do you find limits on it that you don't like as a musical instrument?
Zappa: The way I use it is more for composition. It has certain massive advantages, and a couple of disadvantages that we managed to overcome by writing our own software for a couple of special things.
SW: I understand you have programmers that work for you. That must save a lot of time.
Zappa: It does. I do all the actual music editing myself – I play the stuff in, and for things that have already been written on paper that I want transferred into the machine line, I have a guy who types that in by the hour. Once it's in there, I do all the rest of the assembly to make compositions out of it. It's like having a musical secretary.
SW: Do you find it easier to compose your music through computers rather than deal with the personalities of the studio musicians?
Zappa: Personalities have never really been a problem. You have to consider the physical limitations of what human bodies can and can't do. Instruments also have a fixed range, and they can only play so high or so low. The great thing about the Synclavier is it does away with all those problems. If you want a tuba player playing a high 'C', you can have it. If you want to have a flute go down to the 'C' below the bass clef, no problem.
SW: I wonder if a classical composer such as Bach would have utilized the synthesizer in the way you are describing.
Zappa: Oh, I think he probably would have loved it because he had to grind it out once a week.
SW: Bach seemed to have little regard for the limitations of his singers – phrases written too long to accomodate accepted breathing practices. Since you are as much of a perfectionist as Bach, your standards for musicians are just as demanding.
Zappa: Well, I don't give people things that they can't do. The way I do it is I'll ask somebody to try something. If I made the right choice when I hired the person in the first place, then they will have the attitude, "Sure, what the fuck, let's try it," even if it's the most absurd thing in the world. And then, I find out whether or not they can do certain things. The possible deeds are the ones that go in the show or go on the record. If you hear things on a record that sound peculiar or sound like they're incredibly hard, they may be. In fact they may even be impossible for other people, but they were possible for the ones that I hired to perform it. You know, you can't get blood out of a turnip. I haven't studied Bach, and I'm really not that crazy about his music. I don't hate it, but it's not something I would go out of my way to listen to. I respect it and I realize there's a lot of terrific math going on there and it works, which is the best thing about it. And out of all those old guys, I'd probably be more disposed to his music because of the logic that's involved in it than I would to Beethoven or Mozart. I don't really care for those guys. Now, true art never fails. As shitty as art is in the Eighties, it is perfect for the audience of the Eighties, because it is as fake as the people who consume it. It's made by these empty people, to be consumed by empty people, in performances of empty people. Human beings, whatever their failings, are curious. If you expose them to something unknown, there are always going to be some who will say "That's really interesting, let's find out more about it." If you expose them to the same thing over and over again, another mechanism takes over – the Pavlovian response. And then they say, that's a hit, I've heard it a million times, I will now consume that, because when I consume it, and that object is in my house, I will be one of the cool people. So, when that mechanism takes over, the other one has been totally neglected. There is no new stuff for people to say, 'Hey, that's interesting, let's check it out.' Nothing is interesting. But that's what music is today, don't you understand? You're not getting away from it, you're dealing with it the way it really is. You know the writer who wrote the article on "While You Were Art?" He is forced to write about things that he doesn't even like, because the paper has interest in these things and keeps saying more ink, more ink! I said, "How in the fuck could you look at yourself in the mirror every morning and shave?" He said, "I don't. I grew a beard." At least he was honest enough to say that. I didn't even go to the performance of "While You Were Art" because I knew what was going to happen, I didn't even want to be down there. One of the guys who was there was the guy who programmed the computer for me. Carl Stone, who was hired by the Olympic Committee to collect modern pieces for radio broadcasts was sitting in front of my programmer and said, "these guys are great! Has Frank heard them play this yet?" Nobody in the audience knew. Neither of the reviewers for The Los Angeles Times or the Herald Examiner knew. Nor did they realize that they were involved in one of the great moments of modern music. To me, it might not have made as much noise as the premiere of The Rite of Spring where people tore up the seats, but it's just as important as a statement of American music today. It fuckin' summed it up. All the rest of the hoo-ha associated with it is amplified or exacerbated by the fact that the audience who consumed it couldn't tell the difference between a hissy cassette coming out of a cheap PA. system as opposed to a live performance. The industry itself is a box. Anybody who wants to go into that industry belongs in a box. And the box should be under the dirt.
SW: Do you think that people who, quote, enjoy themselves in this box, are fulfilled beings?
Zappa: It's relative. You could give all outward appearances of enjoying yourself and still grow a beard so you don't have to look at your face in the mirror. I think there are a lot of people working in the business who have grown their beard, one way or another and never bothered to think for a minute of who they are, what they are, what they're really doing, or what any long range effect that their behavior will have on music as an art form. Because they didn't enter music as an art form, they entered it as a business. Nobody ever went into rock & roll because they thought they were going to sell just a few albums and stay in the business for a long time. Everybody who ever went in there with a song was convinced that their song was the greatest hit that ever happened, and that they were going to be the next Beatles, that girls will adore them... all that stuff. This is what brings people to the business. Not any hope of just doing work... long range work.
SW: Did you ever feel that one of your songs was a hit?
Zappa: I think that everything that I write is a hit. I think that "The Radio is Broken" is a hit. I think that 'Jazz Discharge Party Hats' is a hit. That's how sick I am. But at least I use my imagination. It was great when you could use your mind to think amazing, fun stuff. Kids don't do that anymore. They have chemicals that do it for them. Those baffling things that occur to them in their stupor is what they think of as fantasy. And all of their fantasies have been made explicit in terms of motion picture or television special effects. There's nowhere left to go. The American public has been put into the imagination box.
Gary Shay recently moved to Los Angeles from Cleveland, Ohio. His day gig is as an Account Exec for a California music magazine, and by night he plays drums for the Motown production Heatwave. He is an active songwriter and a persevering inquisitor.
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