Frank Zappa: Interview
By Pete Christensen
Frank Zappa talked backstage at the Wisconsin State Fair in August. WMSE morning man, Pete Christensen captured this interview for Express.
Q: You took about a year and a half hiatus from music –
A. Two years.
Q. Why was that?
A. I worked on an opus of music.
Q. That was when you put out the "Symphony" album, right?
Q. What prompted you to go out on the road now?
A. Well, I hadn't been in the world of classical music before, but once I got into it I found out it was even more artificial than the world of rock and roll.
Q. That's a shocker, I would think that that is something right up your alley.
A. Well, I like music, but the committees you have to work with are really depressing.
Q. How has the press been to you on this tour?
A. We've had some pretty amusing reviews. Generally good.
Q. There wasn't much promo on your show in Wisconsin, was this a spur of the moment thing?
A. I don't know. I don't book the tours, I only play 'em.
Q. Why are you doing the song "Whipping Post," you never do cover songs.
A. Well, in 1974, we were working in Helsinki, Finland and a guy in the audience requested it and I'd never even heard the song before. We should be able to accommodate people like that. So when Bobby Martin got in the band and we had the right kind of voice for it I said "Let's do it," so ten years late we're fulfilling that guy's request.
Q. Why did you decide to put in on your new album?
A. Because it's a good song and it's got a good guitar solo in it.
Q. What's your opinion of the state of popular music?
A. I think it's pretty boring, it's not real musical, it's just product.
Q. A lot of bands are doing. videos, it seems to be the rage now, are you going to do something like that?
A. Well, videos cost a lot of money. Unless you make 'em to look like everyone else's video they won't even get shown on MTV because they have a very white bread policy on that claim. If I were going to be doing something I wanted to do they probably wouldn't even show it and I'd be out a huge amount of money.
Q. You're based on the west coast now?
Q. How has the business of music changed over the years?
A. Well, it's gotten smaller, meaner, greedier, less interesting, less musical, more corporate, more committee involved. More 'save your ass' kinds of decision made at the executive level.
Q. From this you seem to be a cynic, but you seem to keep going.
A. Wait a minute, what's cynical about telling the truth? You ask me about the business, and you're working on the radio, and there's no way for you to avoid the fact that nobody cares about the music, only the profits. Maybe fifteen years ago it wasn't quite so bad, now you're signed on what you look like, not what you sound like and once you should like the last guy who came through the door you're not even going to get a record contract because all of the people who are making record deals just want to save their jobs, they're not interested in music, just the job they have.
Q. I've been in radio for ten years and I'm starving to death because most stations are run by chains that will only play what will keep the program director his job.
Q. How does a group combat that to get their music on the air?
A. Well, the best way is to go directly to the people. On the last tour I told people if they liked what they heard to go and call the radio station. But, in our case, it didn't work because most of the stations would rather explode than play one of my records. Since they're controlled by chains and they try to avoid anything that's unusual, they won't touch it.
Q. I'm frightened to interview you because you have a reputation of being a harsh character, but you seem like a real nice guy. Where did you get that reputation from?
A. From idiots. Like if you were a complete idiot I'd answer your idiot questions with idiot answers, then you'd say I was a harsh guy. I'm not an unreasonable person. But you've gotta remember I do maybe 100 interviews a year, for twenty years, and I've talked to some really stupid people both in radio, newspapers and magazines, and I'm straight ahead. If you're normal, I'm very normal to talk to, if they're idiots then I don't want to waste my time on 'em.
Q. If you had to give some advice for someone starting in the music business, what would you tell them?
A. Go into real estate.
Q. There's a lot of young kids who haven't been exposed to you yet –
A. You'd be surprised what happens at the concerts, kids that have never heard anything at all, come in and are blown away. This band is non-stop terror out there and the level of musicianship and entertainment value that's in the shows is something that most kids who go to concerts are not accustomed to. Because the ones who make the videos with all the scenery, what the fuck can they do on stage? They're too worried about their make-up falling off. This is real guys who can play music, which is unusual for the 80's.
Q. Who is in your current band?
A. Chad Wackerman on drums, Scott Tunes on bass, Ike Willis on guitar and vocals, Ray White on guitar and vocals, Bobby Martin on keyboards, sax and vocals and Allan Zavod on keyboards, who was formerly with Jean Luc Ponty, and I'm doing a lot of guitar and doing vocals.
Q. I've heard you're influenced real heavy by Johnny "Guitar" Watson, is that right?
A. Yeah. He's a friend of mine actually. I've gotten to know him since the time he recorded on one of our albums about ten years ago and actually, in the last year, he's been over to my studio and recorded several other things with us, and our new album 'Them or Us' has him singing on a thing called "In France."
Q. Are you a recluse?
A. Pretty much. Because it's difficult to go out and be gregarious like most Americans like to do. I'm not going to be sitting next to you at happy hour knocking back beer and eating peanuts. The work that I do when I'm not on the road is time consuming indoor stuff in the studio. In a way, this six months on the road is going to be like a vacation because at least I've smelled some fresh air.
Q. What new artists do you like?
A. I like Annie Lennox. I think she's probably got a film career ahead of her because she's got a great face. The other groups I've seen that are doing videos don't knock me out that much. Occasionally a song or two hits me.
Q. On Dweezils' EP, "Crunchy Water" and "My Mother is a Space Cadet," do you do some of the work on that?
A. No. I was in Europe when, that was recorded. Dweezil really is playing the guitar on that and some of the background vocals and Moon is doing some of the vocals. If you've seen the EP there's a bunch of little kids – that's whose really playing on the record. He made it when he was twelve and he's now fourteen.
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