The Music Interview With Frank Zappa
By Bill Templeton
Radio stations won’t play him, The classical community doesn’t trust him. Magazine publishers don’t like him, and record companies speak with him only through their lawyers.
As rock’s most misunderstood recording artist, Frank Zappa is simultaneously considered a social satirical/musical genius by some, a perverted extremist by others—depending on which side of his razor sharp wit you happen to be on. His acid-tongued barbs directed towards the press have earned him a media blackout in certain circles that is undeserving of an artist/musician of Zappa’s talent & output.
This month, Zappa wraps up a world tour that quietly commemorates his 20th year in the business. The tour saw a stopover in St. Petersburg in December and the near concurrent release of four new LPs; Them or Us (a double rock LP), Thingfish (a triple ‘Broadway cast’ LP), The Perfect Stranger—Boulez Conducts Zappa (a largely orchestral LP) and Francesco Zappa (an LP that, despite its name, has almost nothing to do with Frank or his music).
Perhaps what is most fascinating about Zappa’s career is the mass misconceptions that have plagued it. Hysterically inaccurate stories have circulated about his early concert days that have continued to fester and grow into some kind of twisted rock folklore.
While everyone has heard of Frank Zappa, the majority of music listeners that consistently criticize or categorize him have barely even heard the bulk of his 43 LP releases. A catalogue that covers a musical array so vast that even his fans have a hard time keeping up with it.
In this interview, one of the few he is apt to grant for print, Zappa pulls no punches when it comes to his distaste for the media (print, radio & (M)TV) or his distrust for those behind it. Because of this, we strove for complete accuracy in transcribing what he had to say. We did have problems nonetheless.
While his words are easy to relate, his emphasis is not. Much of what Zappa says is littered with sarcasm, intentional exaggeration and subdued conversational parody. At any given time, Zappa is bound to read like he’s embittered (he may be) when he is merely setting the scene for why he does what he does. If impatience comes through in his words, this is genuine. While he was often funny and encouraging during the course of this interview (he initially limited us to 15 minutes, but spoke for 50), he still maintained a sharp indifference to the task at hand. Of interviews Zappa once said, “It’s probably more natural to perform sex with a sea urchin than to be interviewed.” So here it is.
It’s long been known that interviews are not one of your favorite activities.
Nobody in his right mind wants to be interviewed. The only person that likes the idea of being interviewed has got to be some kind of deranged egomaniac who thinks that everything that comes out of his mouth are splendid pearls of wisdom. The reality is, that when you’re subjected to an interview, you’re being used as a piece of meat for the aggrandizement of the guy who’s writing the thing because it’s his butt that’s on the line. He doesn’t care whether it’s you or the next schmo down the line. You are there for his amusement, and for the gratification of the person who is the editor of the publication. It’s just some more crap to stick in the publication to fill up space so they can sell advertising.
In the last month you’ve released 4 different LPs. Now with your own record company, doesn’t releasing this many LPs in such a short period of time, defeat the idea of selling records?
Well, let’s look at it realistically. If I was Billy Idol ... maybe. But every one of those albums is in a different style, it’s a different type of music. The Perfect Stranger has nothing to do with Francesco, which has nothing to do with Thingfish, which has nothing to do with Them Or Us. The reason the material is being made available is that the true fans that we have, not only want that much material, but they’ll still go out and even buy bootlegs on top of it. So why not provide the fans with what they want? If they want the good stuff ... here it is ... and if you don’t, leave it.
So it’s feasible for you to continue to release this much product and not lose any money on it?
I don’t think I’m going to lose any money on it and I believe that, because of the nature of the material, it was the proper way to do it. Especially in the case of Thingfish, we had material on there which is timely.
In what way?
Oh ... you listen to it and you tell me.
Well, I did listen to it and I don’t know what you mean.
The general release schedule is four months apart, OK? If you wait longer to release Thingfish, then the whole business about AIDS, and the references to the mystery disease that is in there gets farther and farther away from the initial impact of when it was in the news.
Did you actually try to sell that as a play?
To no avail ... ?
Well, to some avail, because we estimated that it would take about 5 million dollars to put it on a stage, and I raised $400,000.
I’m going to jump subjects with you now. I had read that you weren’t looking to have your orchestral works performed any longer because of your dissatisfaction with the end result ... ?
Well, it’s not just that. It’s the economics of doing them that’s pretty frightening. If you want an accurate performance there’s only one way to get it, you have to rehearse it. And the cost of rehearsal is unbelievable. You sit around with a hundred and twenty guys and try to learn a completely new piece of music, with technical difficulties in it, the chances of you having enough money in the bank to get that rehearsed properly are not good. And so I have a Synclavier ... and most of the stuff that I’ll be doing in that medium, I’ll just do on the Synclavier. Because it plays it right every time.
So is that safe to assume that you won’t be releasing any orchestral works in the near future?
Oh, you’ll hear an orchestra, but it won’t have any people in it.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to using an orchestra?
I can’t see a way I mean it would take a miracle to make that happen. I just turned down a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Because of the problems involved?
Yeah ... look, you sit around and you write a piece of music. You think that takes 15 minutes? It takes a lot of time. And then after it’s all done, you hand it to these guys and you think they give a shit? No! Now with a Synclavier you can sit there and you can play it right in, and you can edit it and you can hear it played at any speed, at any volume, on any instrumental sound in any style that you want. And it comes out right and it comes out what your idea was. It’s not the end product of the collective lethargy of a bunch of guys with tuxedos on.
Is the classical community open to what you have to offer?
No! As a matter of fact, it’s not open to anything. The classical community, or the serious music world, as I prefer to call it, is a sad and pathetic little antique shop. And in a way it’s a scam, and the scam works like this.
Because of the economics of mounting performances of new music, most of what gets performed in the United States is music by dead people. And the two big reasons for that are ... one, you pay no publishing royalties to a dead person. That helps keep your costs down. Two! The people in the orchestra already learned the dead person’s music when they were in a conservatory, so it makes it a lot easier to rehearse. They already know it. And the other aspect of the economics is that people go to an orchestra concert not to hear the piece, they go there to see the conductor: He is the star. And so you have touring conductors, who get big salaries for touring. Now they come to town and they get one rehearsal in the afternoon, on the day of the performance with the orchestra. Now do you think, in that one rehearsal you’re going to play a brand new piece of music and do a competent job it? No way! You’re not! You’re not even going to attempt it! And not only that, you’re going to have to pooh-pooh all the new music so you can cover your ass.
And what these guys do is, they come in there and they wander through the material, the orchestra plays what they already know, and then that night, when the audience comes in there, they are expected to believe that they are being given a whiff of culture. And naturally this culture comes from outside of America ... And it’s always by dead people.
Americans have been brainwashed into believing that is what represents musical quality, the timeless musical quality of the cultural world. It’s like, everybody in the serious music world goes, ‘Shhhh, don’t tell anybody, keep it a secret, they’ll never know.’ After all, they believe what they see on MTV, who’s ever going to catch on to this scam?
There must be people within that community that feel that their music is timeless for them.
Look ... we're not talking about whether or not Mozart is, in fact, timeless, we’re talking about the industry, the serious music industry in the United States ... and the way in which Mozart or Beethoven is used as fuel for this kind of degenerate practice that’s going on.
When Mozart wrote his stuff, he never for a minute could have envisioned what would happen to it, in the 80’s in the United States.
How would you rate yourself as a serious music composer?
I’m one of the best.
If you do say so yourself?
Well you asked me, there it is.
Let me jump subjects again ... you’ve always been vehemently anti-drugs, but with the exception of a few tracks, you’ve barely touched on the subject on vinyl. Is there a reason for that?
Well first of all, the music is meant for entertainment purposes. What I feel about drugs, and other matters pertaining to contemporary civilization I’m perfectly happy to talk about in interviews. The fact that I’ve taken the chance to say anything negative about drugs on a rock and roll record is a major step forward for logic in the twentieth century, because nobody else would do it. Everybody, else is saying ‘Let’s get high’ and ‘drugs are good’ and ‘drugs, sex, and rock and roll’. One of the things that I have done about drugs is made a video tape for the Pennsylvania State Police which they use in high schools about drugs. And I’m going to make another follow up on that for them in December.
Well, obviously you’re concerned about drug use ...
Well, let me tell you why. The use is so widespread, it’s not that ... OK, you’re a teenager and you want to have a good time, you go out and you get high. No, no, that doesn’t bother me so much. What bothers me is, you’re a brain surgeon, and you’re using cocaine, and you may operate on somebody one day and they’ll die. Or you’re a Supreme Court justice, and you’re going to pass a law that is going to affect life in the United States for the next 200 years, and you’re doing it under the influence of drugs. Or you’re working in Congress and you’re working on a law that will affect everybody’s life. Or you’re the President of the United States, or whoever you are, drugs are all over the place. It’s not just kids who are using the stuff, its people who are involved in life and death decisions for large numbers of people in this country. Whether it's a corporate executive, or whatever, their decision to do something, if it’s chemically based, is going to affect the quality of everybody else’s life and that’s what “Cocaine Decisions” is all about.
“Cocaine Decisions” is probably some of your most direct and insightful lyrics, yet, as is most often the case, you give the music an almost comical accent ...
Well, what are we supposed to do, put everything in a minor key and mope around about it, what is that? The fact of the matter is, is that the situation in the United States is totally absurd, the reasons why people use drugs, and the billions of dollars that are involved in the drug traffic, the people who make the profit on those drugs and the people who use the drugs ... the situation from a rational standpoint is utterly absurd. So if you’re going to comment about it I think it’s reasonable to put it in an absurd musical context.
I’m not trying to corner you on this topic, but on the back of the Man From Utopia LP, in the crowd scene, there are two people snorting cocaine.
... And I’m sure that you’re aware that a good chunk of the people that attend your shows are drug users ...
... On one hand you appear totally opposed, yet at the same time, I’m sure that most of your fans might think you condone it.
There’s a lot of people out there that think that nobody could do what I do without using drugs. Well, that just goes to show you how bad things are. I’m abnormal because I don’t use drugs, OK? A person who doesn’t use drugs is abnormal in America. Does that give you any idea of what kind of a problem you’re looking at.
You’ve been associated with Warner Brothers, United Artists, CBS, Polygram, and now you’re working with Capitol Records ...
You left out MGM.
... Of course MGM. Why is it that none of these companies can fill your needs?
Fill my needs? It’s not just that they don’t fill my needs, they try to cheat me out of money. I’ve had lawsuits with just about every one of them.
Is it mostly money or was some of it artistic?
No, look ... basically what it comes down to is illegal or bogus accounting practices, which they not only do to me but they do to everybody, but most other people don’t bother to fight them. I’ve got another lawsuit still outstanding with Warner Brothers and a suit against CBS, which will probably go to trial before the end of the year. And they’re all over accounting practices.
Did you have any way to ward that problem off with your new arrangement with Capitol?
When you enter into a contractual agreement with somebody you say, ‘OK, you tell me via contract that you expect to act in good faith. I know what I’m going to do, I’m going to deliver records, what are you going to do, you’re supposed to pay me.’
All the contracts are based on this idea of good faith that people do what they say they’re going to do on the paper. But ... so far I’ve sued MGM, and I’ve sued Warners once and I’m going to sue them again, and I’m suing CBS, so so much for good faith.
I’ve noticed that you’ve stopped including the warnings to reviewers on your LPs against reprinting your lyrics.
Well, that was merely an editorial oversight. I’ve been on the road for six months, and all these covers were prepared in my absence by a graphics company ... and I’m going to rectify that.
Why did you feel so strongly about people reprinting your lyrics?
Because I’ve seen situations in print, where people take things out of context and then use these as examples to ... um ... create erroneous impressions ... or the edification of evil editors and publication owners.
Surely much of your material is offensive enough. Do they really need to twist things that much?
It depends on what you mean by offensive. What I intend in a lyric is a matter of artistic taste to me, and it’s my right as an artist to protect what my idea is. And I think every artist has the right to keep people who are not artists from using their art as a weapon against them. That’s what that notification is in there.
You haven’t spoken to Rolling Stone lately, have you?
Have you ever?
The last time I had anything to do with them involved an interview by a guy named John Swenson who I’ve talked with before and Rolling Stone had hired him to do a cover story on me. And what they did was they sent him to my house, and he spent like a day there and we did this real long interview, and when the thing finally came out, it was a couple of paragraphs long, somewhere in the middle of the publication, and he (Swenson) was furious about it. He totally got screwed by them and said that he would never work with them again.
As far as I can tell, although I’ve never met the man, Jann Wenner (Rolling Stones’ publisher) is definitely in the zone someplace. He has some personal grudge against me that I have no idea where it comes from because I’ve never met him.
Do you base that on anything in particular?
Things that I have heard. So that’s basically what it is, the guy who runs the magazine hates my guts so why should I give this person an opportunity to amuse himself at my expense?
You’ve always incorporated current fads and trends into your shows, at the Bayfront it was Laura Branigan ...
Yeah, we had a lot of laughs with that.
How closely do you watch what’s going on in music?
I don’t! That was something that just happened that one night. That bit (from Branigan’s “Self Control”) was something that happened in the dressing room just before we went on stage and it just turned out to be the joke of the night.
How do you keep in contact with these things if you don’t monitor trends?
I have four children.
Would you mind if I asked some quick opinions on some current trends? Like MTV?
I think it’s probably one of the worst things that ever happened to music and one of the best things that ever happened to merchandising.
Does that mean you wouldn’t involve yourself in making a video?
Well, first of all, I already made a video. I did it in 1980 and it was paid for by CBS. You don’t see it in the United States because the name of the song is “You Are What You Is,” and I hired a guy that looked like Ronald Reagan and I gave him the electric chair in the video. So they won’t show that very often. The other things is, I just did an interview with MTV, they came to Memphis and just set up cameras in the other room and talked with me and I told them all this same stuff in their interview but I doubt whether they will ever put it on the air.
How about Prince?
Prince? I think that musically he’s good, I just don’t like the packaging. I think the packaging is glove stuff.
More glove stuff.
I like Boy George’s voice, but the packaging I find repulsive.
How about Bruce Springsteen?
I don’t know anything about his music, but the thing that bothers me about Springsteen is the packaging and the merchandising, which started with the time he was on the cover of Time and Newsweek on the same week, and pronouncements by a rock critic named Jon Landau that this is the answer to everything that rock and roll always needed. Remember the line, “I have seen the future of rock and roll and it’s blah blah blah?” Remember that one?
And then the guy turns out to be his manager! I mean come on, do you smell something here?
Who better to hire as a manager than somebody who would come up with a quote like that?
It’s not coming up with a quote like that, it’s placing it in the publications then manipulating the press to the point that they put out a massive advertising campaign and people are expected to swallow this hook, line and sinker.
It strikes me odd that on nearly all of these you discussed the packaging more so than the music. It seems, as a musician ...
Why, you want to make a music critic out of me? You asked me about trends.
You have to understand that the packaging mitigates, to some degree, the content.
How about your own packaging?
It’s pretty straightforward. We’re doing something really bold in the 80’s. We have no laser weapons, we don’t have any smoke bombs and we don’t have any machinery on stage. The farthest out we get is the tweezers for picking up the underpants, and the glove, and the rest of it is based on playing music and entertaining people.
I’ve read a lot about what you’ve had to say about commerciality and commercialism. Could you pen a commercial song if you wanted to?
I could write a polka if you wanted.
Is there a reason why you haven’t done that to pay some bills?
Because if I needed to pay a bill, I’ve got two other ways to do it. One is by either not doing the thing that was too expensive or working in another medium. I’m opposed to the idea of writing a piece of product, executing a piece of product and doing all the other things that you have to do to have a hit record, namely ... an illegal act called bribery. Because the whole way that hit singles are made in the United States comes down to spending $250,000 to pay off radio stations. Period! That’s it. A few years ago it was just giving people bags of cocaine, but now it is giving them bags of money. (pause) I’m not going to do that.
Things that become hits do not become hits because they are great music, they become hits because somebody is paying off ... and there’s no way around it.
Does that mean that you’ll probably never have a hit record?
I probably never will.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net