Zappa Dishes It Out
By Roger Dakotah
In honor of his show tonight at the Coliseum , I spoke with Frank Zappa from his hotel in Memphis. He talked about video madness, his current tour, his kids and Houston.
PN: There seem to be several different styles used on the new album, Them Or Us.
Zappa: Unlike most bands that seem to know just one kind of noise, we like to play different styles of music.
Problem with these new video bands is that you can listen to a good record hundreds of times, while watching most videos, you’re bored with them after three times. Images of venetian blinds, and all that crap … it’s stupid. It’s done to death, and the print media just backs it up. And it tells all the young kids that don’t know any better that this is what real life is all about.
One of the problems that video’s created for promoters and people who do live shows is they'll hire a video act that may have a hot video, and then the band goes on stage and they can’t play a fuckin’ show. They can’t do it. A lot of the times, the people who have spent the money to go and see these bands find out that there is no entertainment involved. They’ll be looking at four or five guys up there, who’ll be wearing nice clothes, but they haven’t the faintest idea of what to do with a musical instrument or how to entertain an audience. A lot of these groups go out with their shows on tape. Okay, so they’re not even playing their songs. They may actually sing, but their instrumental stuff is actually on tape.
PN: What kinds of bands are doing that?
Zappa: Well, I understand that Duran Duran is one of them – with a Revox [tape recorder] in the background.
PN: Wouldn’t you say that there’s a movement against the whole video marketing stuff?
Zappa: There are some people who hate it. And that’s one of the reasons why I don’t feel too all alone in putting out a song like "Be In My Video." Also, there’ve been some people who’ve made anti-video videos. So what does that mean?
There are a few good videos – the Tom Tom Club has the best video I have ever seen, but it’s an animated video.
PN: We’ve heard that you made a video of "Them Or Us."
Zappa: No, I didn’t. The only video I’ve ever done was done in 1980. It was paid for by CBS. The name of the song was "You Are What You Is." I hired a guy who looked like Ronald Reagan and gave him the electric chair. So, you don’t see that in the U.S. on TV very often.
PN: Wasn’t that animated?
Zappa: No, it wasn’t. Look, what I’ve done is I started off doing visual stuff when I was in high school with an 8-mm camera. I was the first guy to do a feature-length motion picture on videotape and then transferred to film. That was 200 Motels. And there was a lot of stuff that was in 200 Motels that was the precursor of the type of stupidity that you see on MTV today.
So, the medium itself, I kind of envisioned the medium years and years ago. The idea is you take a song and get the group actually performing the song, and then pull away from the group to conceptual scenes that obviate the lyrics. That’s a simple concept, okay? Ten years ago, to tell that to a motion picture producer or somebody like that, and say, ‘Hey let’s do this’ – y’know, they thought you were crazy. And now took what’s going on…
But today, the way in which the things are done – I mean, the most offensive video I’ve seen recently is the one by a group that has the "CHOOSE LIFE" shirts.
PN: You mean the Wham – "Going To A Go-Go" one?
Zappa: Boy, that is really insidious stuff.
PN: But people are buying into it, big time!
Zappa: Of course, they’re buying into it. But eventually – there’re a lot of people who bought the Brooklyn Bridge, too … Let’s hope that the ones who spent that money for that bridge are getting their usage out of it. In fact, we can only hope that they try to drive their car across it once.
PN: The backwards song on the new album, "Ya-Hozna," can you give me any insight into what the hell that’s about?
Zappa: Well, you gotta remember that the fundamentalist Christians actually went to Congress to try to get a law passed against putting anything backwards on a phonograph record. Did you realize that? … Well, they did. I don’t think that they passed it, but the very idea that they would waste the business time of the nation’s congress for something as pathetic as that.
PN: A couple of other things – the classical project [The Perfect Stranger, Pierre Boulez conducts Zappa, on Angel Records]. How involved were you with that?
Zappa: I produced it, and I wrote the music.
PN: Are you looking at classical projects in the future?
Zappa: Most people don’t know that that’s where I started. I started composing when I was 14, and I didn’t write a rock & roll song until I was in my 20s. So I’ve been writing that kind of music all along. It’s just been recently that some of it’s gotten recorded.
PN: So, do you have a whole bank of classical compositions?
Zappa: Oh, I have a lot of compositions, but a lot of them have not even been recorded.
PN: So that’s something we can took forward to in the future?
PN: I’ve got to ask you at this point about your kids. But, first of all, I’d like to ask you what your wife thought about being called a space cadet on wax?
Zappa: Oh, I don’t think she minded. It didn’t matter.
PN: How involved do you think you’re gonna be with Moon and Dweezil in their musical futures?
Zappa: Well, Moon is not interested in a musical future. She’s gonna be an actress. She just finished a part in a film called National Lampoon’s European Vacation, which is a sequel to their Vacation. She just got back from Rome. And Dweezil is the one that’s gonna go into music. He’s a fabulous guitar player.
PN: Yeah, he is a hot guitar player. Is his band [called Dweezil] still together? Do you see working with him for the next few years before turning him loose?
Zappa: He was too good for those little kids. They couldn’t keep up with him. As a matter of fact, you know who he’s been making tapes with is Aynsley Dunbar. But they haven’t found a bass player yet.
PN: So he’s working on some stuff, and we can look forward to something from him in 1985?
Zappa: I hope so.
PN: Which band is touring with you now?
Zappa: Chad Wackerman on drums, Scott Thunes on bass, Ray White and Ike Willis on guitar and vocals, and Bobby Martin on keyboards, sax and vocals, and Alan Zavod on keyboards.
PN: Is much of the new tour Them Or Us, or is it a hodge-podge of your history?
Zappa: Well, it’s not a hodge-podge. Every night is a different night. The band knows about 80 songs. An example of the types of things we’re playing is "The Evil Prince" from the Thingfish album, "Brown Moses" and "He’s So Gay" from Thingfish. And from Them Or Us, we do "In France," "Baby, Take Your Teeth Out," "The Closer You Are," "Marque-Son’s Chicken," "Truck Driver Divorce." Um, and "Whipping Post" from that album.
PN: It kind of blew me away that you played "Whipping Post" straight up. I was expecting a little sarcastic edge.
Zappa: No, no. We’ve been murdering people with that song every night.
Course, from the old stuff we do "Illinois Enema Bandit," "You Are What You Is," "Black Page," "Drowning Witch," "Penguin In Bondage," and "Trouble Every Day." And we have new stuff that hasn’t even been released, like "Hot Plate Heaven At The Green Hotel."
PN: How do you see Houston, as someone who’s been touring for years and years?
Zappa: You know how I feel about Houston? It’s one of the few places that’s left in the United States where the blues still matters. And that’s one of the things that I really like about it. It has become my favorite city in Texas, because in the last year or so, while I’ve been trying to raise money for the Thingfish musical, I spent a lot of time down there talking with a lot of people, and I got to like the place very much. If you didn’t just have such unpredictable weather … and a dangerous police force. Of course, that’s like Los Angeles, so … Even in the ritzy part of town, and I was talking to those people about investing in this thing. I found out that people with millions of dollars in their pockets still like the Blues. You don’t find that in Chicago. You don’t find that in New York. You don’t find it in Denver. That’s something that seems indigenous to Houston.
PN: I know a lot of the new tours are having trouble filling the big halls. Have you encountered any of that or is your audience still hanging in?
Zappa: Well, the size of the audience is – for our show – is in direct proportion to the amount of airplay that we get in a given area. If the record has been on the radio in a particular town, then we do well. And if it hasn't been, we don’t. That's probably the same for everybody who has an album out, who's out on tour.
One of the reasons people have been turned away from going to live concerts is, especially the younger audiences, they see a group on MTV and go 'Boy, look at their hair! Let's go see them!' And they go there and hear something they hate, and they've just been ripped off for $15.
PN: So you think there's a definite whiplash effect?
Zappa: There is a whiplash from that, and it’s only the people who know from experience that when we come to town, what we deliver in terms of entertainment is something that they’re not gonna get from anyplace else – that it's definitely gonna be a musical experience. You’re not coming here to look at somebody’s hairdo. And if you are, you’re gonna see some of the ugliest hairdos in town.
We have taken the biggest risk of the 80s. We have NO laser weapons, we have NO smoke machines, we have NO foaming blood capsules. The stage set-up is very small, and it’s all black.
PN: So does that mean you’re not gonna do the mandatory atomic bomb?
Zappa: We have no atomic bomb. But what we do have is a band that … it’s pretty frightening.
PN: Any predictions on any new trends, not particularly just your own music?
Zappa: I think that the general trend you can look for is saturation of the video syndrome. It’s not going to change – there’ll still be masses of video because people are invested so much into perpetuating it. It’s going to stay there. But the way in which the audience responds to it will eventually change. Americans have a very short interest span, and within a couple of years, they’re going to be saying OK, now what? Because, think how many videos with girls getting out of cars that you’re gonna see in the next few years, you know?
PN: Who do you listen to musically?
Zappa: I carry cassettes of things like Bulgarian folk music, Percel [Purcell], Chopin, Faberne [Webern], Stravinsky, Boulez. I’m not a rock & roll consumer. Oh, I also carry Howling Wolf, and I have Johnny Guitar Watson.
PN: How did you get him to sing on "In France" off the new album?
Zappa: The first he appeared on an album was 10 years ago, One Size Fits All. And I’ve a stayed in touch with him since that time. He's a Houston guy, you know? I think he’s fabulous.
PN: That was a nice treat.
Zappa: I have a couple of other things that he's recorded on too that haven't been released yet.
PN: Good luck. See you in Houston.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net