Frank Zappa: Moving On To Phase Three
By William Ruhlmann
Frank Zappa is arguably the most prolific and versatile composer / performer of the last 25 years. Primarily known as a rock musician, his work has employed the structure and instrumentation of classical music as often as it has the improvisations of jazz. And that work has been heard on nearly 50 albums of original material in the last 22 years.
Born in Baltimore on Dec. 21, 1940, Zappa moved with his family to California at the age of 10. He began composing music in his sophomore year in high school, and by the age of 20 had written the score to a low-budget film, "The World's Greatest Sinner". At 22, he appeared on the Steve Allen television show, where he played a duet with Allen on a bicycle. He also took over a recording studio in Cucamonga, called Studio Z, where he recorded local bands and his own work. Examples of the results can be heard on the "Mystery Disc" that accompanies "The Old Masters Box One", issued in 1986, and on "Rare Meat", an EP of Zappa productions released on Del-Fi / Rhino in 1983.
Zappa joined a group called the Soul Giants in 1964, and by 1965 they had been renamed the Mothers. The group was signed to the Verve division of MGM Records in 1966 by Tom Wilson, an A&R man and producer who had worked on albums by Bob Dylan. Rechristened the Mothers "of Invention," they released their first album, "Freak Out!", a two-record set, in the summer of 1966.
"Freak Out!" was one of the strangest and most original albums of the '60s. It was followed by a series of equally challenging works, including "We're Only In It For The Money", a parody of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", and "Lumpy Gravy", a Zappa solo album recorded with a 50-piece orchestra. In the summer of 1967, the band rented the Garrick Theatre in New York and put on a series of avant-garde theatrical shows.
After numerous personnel changes, Zappa disbanded the Mothers at the end of the '60s and subsequently produced a series of acts for his Bizarre and Straight record labels (licensed to Warner Brothers through Reprise, and soon to be reissued through Enigma) including Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Alice Cooper and the GTO'S, a groupie group. Commissioned to write a piece for the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, Zappa put together a new Mothers band, eventually including former Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, and made the film "200 Motels".
This edition of the band continued until Dec. 10, 1971, when Zappa was thrown from the stage of the Rainbow Theater in London by, as he said, "an irate individual who later told police that we hadn't given him his money's worth and that I had been making 'eyes' at his girlfriend. I spent a month in the hospital and the best part of the following year in a wheelchair." Zappa and a new group of Mothers returned to active duty with "Over-nite Sensation" in the fall of 1973, their highest charting album to this point, and went back on tour in 1974. In the fall, "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" became Zappa's first hit single, and the album "Apostrophe (')" went into the Top 10.
The mid- and late- '70s was a period of heavy touring and recording, during which Zappa eventually dropped the Mothers name and performed under his own name. The band became a school for aspiring musicians, featuring future jazz stars like George Duke and future pop-rockers like the various members of Missing Persons.
Zappa and Warner Brothers parted company by 1979, with the company issuing the contractual obligation albums "Studio Tan", "Sleep Dirt" and "Orchestral Favorites". (Zappa now owns the rights to these out-of-print LPs, but has no plans at present to reissue them.) After leaving major label association, Zappa became more prolific than ever, releasing, for example, two double-record sets, along with three LPs of instrumental guitar work, in 1981 alone.
The early '80s also saw Zappa turning to more orchestral works, recording with Pierre Boulez and with the London Symphony Orchestra. On his own, he turned increasingly to the Synclavier, a form of studio synthesizer, to replace his bands.
Nevertheless, Zappa returned to the concert stage in 1984 for the "Smell the Glove" tour, again playing rock. 1984 also saw the first release in a series of reissues of Zappa's early material, as the "Old Masters Box One", a six-record set, appeared.
In 1985, Zappa appeared before Congress to testify against the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) and its attempts to censor rock music. Around the same time, he contracted with Rykodisc to begin reissuing his recordings on compact disc. These reissues continue, with more expected in early 1989.
An even more ambitious project is "You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore", a series of six double-CDs presenting previously unreleased live material from the last 20 years. To date, two volumes have been released. In 1988, Zappa mounted his first tour in three and a half years, the "Broadway the Hard Way" tour, featuring an 11-piece band, during which he helped to register voters around the country. A single-disc LP from the tour has been released, and will be followed by a longer CD early this year.
In this interview, conducted at Zappa's home in Los Angeles, he talks about his recording career, from Studio Z to an upcoming project called "Phase Three".
Goldmine: Let's start by taking it back as far as possible and talk about the recording studio that you had before the Mothers.
Frank Zappa: In Cucamonga.
Goldmine: There was an album that came out on Rhino a couple of years ago that had some productions that were done at that time.
Frank Zappa: Really?
Goldmine: It was called "Rare Meat".
Frank Zappa: What, the masters that were leased to Del-Fi?
Goldmine: Yes. Is that all the stuff that ever came out or are there other things as well?
Frank Zappa: There's much more that was recorded there, but it's never been released.
Goldmine: How did you come to have a recording studio?
Frank Zappa: I was introduced to Paul Buff, the guy who owned the studio, by Ronnie Williams, a guitar player that I was working with in some local bands at that time, and we would just go up there and record. And Paul - I don't know whether you know anything about him. I think he's a genius guy. He invented a number of pieces of equipment that are standards of the recording industry right now. But before you can understand the studio and how I got it, you'd have to know how Paul got it. He was a local boy from Cucamonga who had decided he could go into the Marine Corps in order to learn about electronics, and he did. He got out and decided he was going to be a recording artist and he was going to make his own studio. He built his own five-track recorder at a time when four-track was an absolutely exotic piece of equipment in the industry. Three-track was something that they used for filmwork. Four-track was rare. And the only person who had a machine that was truly capable of overdubbing was Les Paul. He had that eight-track. Well, Paul Buff built this five-track recorder and then proceeded to teach himself how to play just enough notes on the bass to play a bass part, just enough beats on the drum to keep a background beat, just a little bit of piano, little bit of organ, little bit of guitar, little bit of alto saxophone, and taught himself to sing, and proceeded to make pop records that were clones of hits. He would take all the hooks, he would listen to whatever was on the tracks and he would grasp what the hook element was and then build his version of something that contained the same hook-type material. And he was there doing this all by himself, just multiple recording. I don't know how he met Ronnie Williams, but Ronnie had joined him up there and was putting guitar parts on some of his things and then Ronnie brought me over and I worked with him on some stuff, and I brought in Ray Collins, who wound up doing a lot of singing on some of these things. So, he (Paul) got into debt. He was many months behind in his rent, on his lease payments for the studio. And I came into some money because I'd done a film score for a Western, and so I made a deal with him where I would agree to take over his payments on the studio, and that's how I got it. He showed me how to work the stuff, and I went from being kind of an incompetent commercial artist to a full-time obsessive overdub maniac, working in this studio.
Goldmine: How much of that stuff has ever been released?
Frank Zappa: Little or none.
Goldmine: Was any of it released at the time, on local labels?
Frank Zappa: No. The only thing that has come out, I believe "Charva" is on the first 'Mystery Disc '.
Goldmine: How long were you doing that?
Frank Zappa: I don't know, I think maybe four or five months.
Goldmine: Does anyone have rights to that stuff now or does it still exist anywhere?
Frank Zappa: I've got all the tapes. As far as rights to it go, I have absolute right to the stuff wherein I'm the guy that's playing all the parts, and I think that some of the other tapes, I actually have some of the masters that Buff made before I took the place over, and some of them are hilarious. They really should be released, but I have no idea how I would contact the people who are singing on them. There's one song that was done by a guy named Sonny Wilson called "Lonely Lips," which I think is a great song. He was not exactly an Elvis impersonator, but he had an Elvis-type voice, and it's a slow country-pop song with a good hook. I always thought it was a great tune, but I have no idea where Sonny Wilson is or how one would go about releasing "Lonely Lips." And there's a few other odd things like that. The master tapes, the five- track masters, are unplayable now because the machine upon which they were recorded doesn't exist anymore. You just can't play them back without that original head stack. So the only thing that remains of that material that would be releasable would be the two-track mixes that were done at the time.
Goldmine: Let's jump ahead and go immediately up to talking about Verve. I suppose the unusual thing to me is that the Mothers of Invention would be signed to a label like Verve, which I associate with Norman Granz and jazz recordings, so I'm curious about how that happened.
Frank Zappa: It happened because of Tom Wilson, who was the staff producer for - they called it "blue" Verve. The regular Verve label was black and silver, but blue Verve was for the rock 'n' roll and / or underground stuff. And Wilson was an interesting guy. He's dead now, but he would take a chance on just about anything. I remember one day he came in and announced that he had just signed a Japanese psychedelic artist named Harumi, and Harumi was making some kind of a flower-power album. I never heard the album, I don't know if it was in Japanese or what. But it was the idea that, "Okay, today we're gonna record a Japanese psychedelic record." A lot of the credit for the odd stuff that went on the label has to go to him because he was the one who would stand up to the people that wrote the paychecks and say, "Yeah, I wanna record and / or produce these things." Without Wilson, we never would have got a contract.
Goldmine: So he was the A&R guy as well as the producer.
Frank Zappa: Yeah.
Goldmine: And, I guess, your connection to the company, too. I mean, they must have had trouble figuring out what kind of band it was or how to deal with it.
Frank Zappa: They had no idea what kind of band it was. As a matter of fact, when I went to New York for the first time and was taken to the MGM / Verve office, they had a cafeteria in the building for the employees. They wouldn't even let me in, 'cause I had long hair. That's the kind of a world it was, it was just bizarre. And I went in there with Wilson, they threw us both out. He was black and I had long hair.
Goldmine: In the first _Old Masters_ book, you talk a little bit about the difficulty of wresting the Verve tapes from whatever vault they were in. I wondered if you could elaborate on that, and then I wanted to talk about the matter of some of the re-recordings that had to be done. But what was the legal status and when did the recordings go out of print and what were the rights to them? Or is there a simple way of describing that?
Frank Zappa: There is no simple way of describing that, but basically, there was a lawsuit that lasted eight years and at the end of the eight years I got the rights to all my old masters back and when the actual tapes were returned to me, the ones that were in possession of (what was by then called) MGM / UA were in pitiful condition. The oxide was actually failing off of the tape. I mean, you could unreel the tape, and you could see through it. It was like Scotch tape with black flakes on it, was what it looked like. And so, if you played it, what you'd hear would be a piece of music and then silence and then scratchy sound, or the volume dropped real low and then came back, and there was no way you could take the original mixes and treat them, there was no scientific method that would allow you to doctor up the original mixes in order to release them. They had to be reconstructed from the four-track master tapes or the eight-track master tapes.
Goldmine: I'm sorry, I'm confused, because I thought you were talking about the master tapes.
Frank Zappa: No, no, there's two. The word "master" applies to several different classifications of tape. The original master for "Freak Out!" was four-track, and also for "Absolutely Free", and then, by the time "We're Only In It For The Money" came along, we were up to eight-track, and two of the songs on that album were actually 12-track. We didn't do a 16-track recording until "Hot Rats"; that's how the world progressed. The other word "master" applies to the two-track mix, or the mono mix that would be made from the original master. Both of them are called "master". The thing with the flakes coming off was the two-track master.
Goldmine: Okay, but did you have either the four-track master or the eight-track master to go back to?
Frank Zappa: For some things, yes, some things, no. I do not have the four-track masters for "Lumpy Gravy". Nobody knows where they are.
Goldmine: That was an album that originally came out on Capitol, is that right?
Frank Zappa: That's right. I was offered a chance to write for and conduct an orchestra by Nik Venet at Capitol Records, and he presumed that even though I was signed to Verve as an artist, my contract was a rock 'n' roll performer / vocalist, it had nothing to do with my work as a composer or a conductor. It wasn't even mentioned in the contract. But in spite of that, at the point where Capitol had invested about $40,000 into recording this orchestra, MGM / Verve threatened Capitol with a lawsuit, and so the thing was unresolved for about 13 months and finally, Verve bought the masters from Capitol at cost and at that point it was possible to release it. But nobody at Verve would ever have given me - $40,000 in those days, to record an album with an orchestra in a studio? No way. With all respect to Tom Wilson, nobody at that Company had the vision of Nik Venet. (Author's note.- Nik Venet is probably best known as the A&R man who signed the Beach Boys to Capitol and worked with Brian Wilson on the production of their early albums.)
Goldmine: There's been some controversy about what you did with "We're Only In It For The Money " for the "Old Masters" set and the Rykodisc CD, the bass and drum tracks that were added to it. Was that the only solution to this tape problem?
Frank Zappa: No, bass and drums added was not a solution to the tape problem. The tape problem had to be dealt with a remix, no matter what. The idea of putting digitally recorded bass and drums onto those tracks was a creative decision that I made because I've always thought that this material in We're Only In It For The Money was good material, but I hated the technical quality of the recording; we were just trapped into that level of technical quality because that's the way the world was then. I mean, we were virtually using a prototype eight-track machine when that album was done. We were working in a studio in New York that had one speaker for every track. You sat in front of eight speakers. And you couldn't punch in and out without leaving an enormous click on the tape. It was living hell to mix something from that machine because every time you had punched in to add a part, in advance of pushing that part up in the mix, you had to first duck it out to get rid of the click. You had to either duck it out or cut it out with a razor blade, which would screw up the rhythm of the tape. So it was a nightmare to mix that stuff. Now, some of those things, we could never get them out. There's just no way, because there are clicks right in the middle of vocals and things like that. But I've always had a kind of fondness for the tunes that were in there, and I wanted to enhance that album above and beyond the level of 1967 technical development. So that's why as a creative decision, I decided to put it on. The problem with people who are collectors and purists and stuff like that is, their regard is not for the music, it is for some imaginary intrinsic value of vinyl and cardboard. People who demand to have the original release of this, that, and the other thing in the original wrapper and all that stuff, that's fetishism. And I think that's fine, if you want to be a fetishist and have that kind of a hobby. But it is a type of attitude that I don't share when it comes to re-releasing the material. I think that the material should have a chance to sound as good as you can make it sound, given the technical tools that are at your disposal. So when digital audio came along and you had the possibility of a 95 dB dynamic range, and, in 1967, it might have been, maybe 40 dB or something like that, the chance to make those tunes punchier, and the same thing on "Ruben & The Jets", the chance to have some aspect of 1980s transience and top end on those tapes was something that I felt was worth the time and the money that I spent redoing it. If it was just a matter of re-releasing stuff and dumping it out on the market, you wouldn't take any time with it at all. But everything that is released here has been completely gone over in terms of either equalization or, in the case of those two albums, new parts added to it. In the case of "Absolutely Free", there were a couple of bad edits that were in the original two-track album which I was able to fix using a digital editor, but everything else, pretty much the same. There's a few of the tunes in that that have been remixed from the original four-track, but nothing added to it. I don't have any more plans for taking older material and adding stuff to it - those are the only two albums that it was done - and I would describe any criticism of the addition of the bass and drums as something less than a tempest in a teapot. If you've got time to worry about that, you really must have time on your hands. There's too many other important musical, social and intellectual problems floating around the country today to give a rat's ass as to whether or not I swapped the bass and drums on "We're Only In It For The Money".
Goldmine: Part of the way to look at that, too, though, is to say, who are you reissuing them for? Are you reissuing them for people who heard them then and remember them in a certain way or are you reissuing them for potentially a new audience?
Frank Zappa: It's for a new audience, because I think that a lot of the things that were said in those lyrics, like "Mom And Dad" and some of the other songs that are in there, they have a relevance today. And the problem with appealing to the younger audience today is they have become accustomed to a level of audio excellence and would psychologically reject certain older recordings just because of the way they sound without ever stopping to listen to what the content was. The tone quality of the recording itself would turn them off or dissuade them from in-depth listening. So, in an attempt to meet those new customers halfway I would like to spiff the stuff up as much as possible, so that they can tolerate the sound of it while they're listening to the content that's in there.
Goldmine: The last time I saw you play, there was a point where you said something to the audience about voting for Richard Nixon and then you paused and you said, "I mean, your parents voted for Richard Nixon." Do you think you're speaking to a different audience now from the audience that you were speaking to before, at least in concert?
Frank Zappa: In terms of what?
Goldmine: I mean, are they different people?
Frank Zappa: You mean, have they mutated?
Goldmine: Well, no, I mean, are they literally different people from the people who were listening to you 20 years ago?
Frank Zappa: Oh, absolutely. What, you think there's a bunch of people on crutches and wheelchairs that come stumbling into the auditorium every time I'm booked to do a concert?
Goldmine: Well, you're not on crutches and wheelchairs.
Frank Zappa: There's a lot of people who write about me that have this image that if I do a concert that the people who are coming there are dressed up like Grateful Dead followers and there's just old hippies and stuff. First of all, we never had a hippie audience. The hippies went directly for the Dead. They didn't stop anywhere, they went straight for the Dead. And they've stayed there and God bless them. Our audience has always been really mixed, in terms of age, in terms of geographical backgrounds, whatever. We have strange appeal, it's really hard to describe. For example, the age range at our concerts could be anywhere from 14 to 60, with a preponderance of the individuals in the concert right around 18 to 25. 1 don't think very many other groups have that kind of range. But the idea that the people who come to the live concerts are all just remnants from the Garrick Theatre is completely without merit. Most of the ones who come are new customers. Get it out of your mind once and for all that what we do is to be consumed by people who were going to concerts in 1967. That's not true. Very few of those people have an interest in what we're doing now or have an inclination to leave their homes to go to a concert.
Goldmine: Anybody's concert.
Frank Zappa: Anybody's concert, 'cause usually the older you get, the lower your tolerance for having people vomit on your shoe. And if you leave your home to go to a concert, a rock 'n' roll concert, and that concert usually has a lot of young people who are chemically altered in some way, there is always the chance that you're going to come up with something on your clothes that wasn't there when you went in the door. So a lot of the older people stay home. So, in a way, it's a tribute to us that anybody in that older age bracket would leave their house and come to the show. They're doing it at some peril, I would imagine. And the younger ones that come to the audience are not just there out of curiosity. They come there and they know the words to the songs. So, somehow or another, they got a hold of the material, and if we're playing something that is repertoire, something that is from the older albums, I'll look out there and there's kids who know the words.
Goldmine: There's a development in terms of the personnel that appear on your records, and even on the billings that appear on your records, it gradually goes from the Mothers of Invention to Frank Zappa / Mothers to Frank Zappa. Would it be fair to say that there was ever actually a band, a group in the typical sense called the Mothers, or was it always a band that you employed and they were employees, if you know what I mean.
Frank Zappa: Basically it's always been an employee situation, even with the earliest group. They had an employment contract. I was the one who had to guarantee them a weekly salary whether they worked or not. We're not talking about the Beatles here. It was run like a business, as much as you could run something like that like a business during that period in American musical history. I had to, one way or another, come up with the cash to pay people to be Mothers of Invention. This was not a cooperative, voluntary organization.
Goldmine: In the notes that you make in "You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore, Vol. 1", you talk about trying to defeat a nostalgic notion about the original Mothers. Part of that nostalgic notion is that there was this group of six people and they were a real group.
Frank Zappa: Well, you tell me, what is a real group?
Goldmine: Well, I suppose it isn't a case where one person is paying the others, but in which there are group decisions made and it's a group situation financially. U2, for instance, one might argue, is a group.
Frank Zappa: I don't know anything about U2.
Goldmine: For instance, the songwriting credits are all listed as "U2". That kind of thing.
Frank Zappa: Well, this was a different way to do business, okay? I wrote the music. I paid the bills. I took the risk. This is called capitalism. And for those of you who don't like capitalism, please consider the alternatives.
Goldmine: There was a Warner Brothers album that came out of various productions that you had done that was sort of a promotion record in 1970.
Frank Zappa: "Zapped"?
Goldmine: Right, and on the back, it said, "Before Zappa dissolved (the Mothers) in the fall of 1969, sneering bitterly about the inability of youngsters to recognize good rock music even when it comes up and bites them on the ass" - the phrase "dissolved the Mothers": was that actually a period when there was actually a hiatus in the band or was that just record company nonsense?
Frank Zappa: That was record company nonsense, 'cause basically, the tour at which the Mothers stopped existing as a band, and we're talking about that original bunch of guys, the end came in 1969 after a concert in the Carolinas. We were on a George Wein jazz tour and we were booked with Roland Kirk, Gary Burton and Duke Ellington. And I witnessed a situation backstage with Duke Ellington begging the road manager of the tour for a $10 advance. Duke Ellington ... begging .. for a $10 advance. And we were booked into a hall - it was one of those large, circular halls like an arena, big place - and the PA system was jukebox speakers around the room. And there we are, a 10- or 11-piece band that I had then. And I started the tour off, I had to take $400 out of my bank account to eat on while I was doing the tour and I was still responsible to pay the weekly salaries of the band and crew that was out there. At the end of that tour, I was $10,000 in debt. I felt like, I'm Duke Ellington here, in that sense of the word. So after that gig, I just said, there's no way I can continue this, because to be honest about it, with very few exceptions, most of the people in the band didn't want to rehearse. It was just a job to them. You couldn't get them to put in extra effort to make the group move forward to do anything spectacular. They didn't have any faith in it, it was their gig. And when I said we're not gonna do this anymore, they were upset. It was like somebody canceling their social security. There's no way I could have afforded to give them more money to keep them going. It's not coming in to me, what am I supposed to do? And one of the last things that I did as that group broke up was, Jimmy Carl Black came to see me, he had five kids, and he came to me and said, "Look" - at that point, his playing had certainly gone into a slump since the first time I saw him playing at the Broadside in Pomona - and he said he wanted to take drum lessons. And I said, this is good. I gave him $100 to take drum lessons. I don't know whether he ever took the lessons. I'd done everything that I could with those guys to help them out, but there's no logical way you could expect any employer to just keep shoveling out money for no services rendered. And I don't think there's a logical person reading this that could put themselves in that position and say, yeah, they would voluntarily hock everything that they owned in order to keep a bunch of guys going who didn't even want to do the job. They didn't give a shit. Anybody who takes the risk to put a band together, especially a big band, is taking a big risk, because you can make a far bigger profit with a power trio. You don't make as interesting music, I don't think. But if you want to have a band with a lot of guys in it and be able to produce music with those kind of tone colors to it, you have to be just a little bit crazy. And I learned the same lesson all over again on this last tour. It was an 11-piece band. We rehearsed for four months, we toured for four months. I lost $400,000. But the tapes are unbelievable. And the audiences that saw the show really got a big thrill out of it. They liked the band. There's no way I could keep it going.
Goldmine: So that was just a function of the economics of having that many people.
Frank Zappa: Yeah, it was five trucks, two buses, 43 guys, all on the road in a band and support crew and the rest of that stuff. And we weren't doing fireworks or anything spectacular out there, it was like a basic touring package: enough lights to see the show, enough PA to hear the music and enough crew to set up the gear. It's not like taking a glamorous entourage out there. Just was not a money-making proposition. In a way, I'm glad I did it, though, just because of some of the musical things that did get recorded.
Goldmine: I know there's a "Broadway The Hard Way" CD. Do you think that you have sufficient material that there may be later releases as well from this tour?
Frank Zappa: Oh, part of this stuff, because it is repertory material, is ideal for "You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore", so it'll be incorporated in there. One of the reasons why I did "You Can't Do That Onstage" is for the people who have seen the band grow over the years. It gives them a chance to compare different versions of the same song played by different bands year after year. And some of the versions that were played by this band really are the accumulation of all of the skill of musicians through the ages totaling on the repertoire that are just plain hard songs. And every band wrestles with the technical difficulties of playing those songs. "Black Page" is hard, things like that. "Strictly Genteel". All the ones that require a high level of musical competence, this band basically did a good job playing those songs. It will be nice to put those versions into the albums.
Goldmine: When we say that you broke up the band at that point, back in '69, what we mean is you stopped paying them the weekly wage whether they worked or they didn't work, and you stopped going on the road.
Frank Zappa: I said, no, this is it. I don't want to do Mothers of Invention anymore. That's it, bye.
Goldmine. This was about the same time that you were doing a whole series of outside productions for Bizarre and Straight?
Frank Zappa: No. Those hadn't really got rolling yet.
Goldmine: Was that the next thing that followed after that, though?
Frank Zappa: Yeah. I mean, I had to do something.
Goldmine: You were at that point on Warner Brothers.
Frank Zappa: Not on Warners. We were on Bizarre.
Goldmine: Which was not associated at that time?
Frank Zappa: Distributed by Reprise which was a subsidiary of Warner Brothers. Got it?
Goldmine: Yes, sir.
Frank Zappa: Not quite as bad as all those multiple credits that you see at the beginning of a movie, a so-and-so production of a film by blah, blah, blah.
Goldmine: I suppose as a result of that that you didn't have trouble getting the rights to the albums that appeared either on DiscReet or Bizarre or whatever at a later time. Did you always own those and they were just being leased to or distributed by this giant conglomerate of many names?
Frank Zappa: Those masters were always supposed to revert.
Goldmine: Having dropped the band for these good reasons, why did you then put together another band only, what, about a year later or so?
Frank Zappa: Well, after I broke that band up, I made the "Hot Rats" album, I did some recording with Sugarcane Harris and...
Goldmine: Jean-Luc Ponty?
Frank Zappa: Yeah, just for a minute with Jean-Luc. I didn't really get involved with Jean-Luc till several years after that. Then we had this offer from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, they wanted to do some kind of a performance with a rock 'n' roll group and a symphony orchestra. And when we finally did that, Mark and Howard from the Turtles were in the audience and they came backstage after the show and they said they had either quit the Turtles, or the Turtles had broke up, something like that and they wanted to do something. So, I had met them before, on the road, and I thought they were funny guys, so we started rehearsing together, put something together. It was just a fluke. If they hadn't been to the show and come backstage and expressed some interest in doing something, I doubt whether I ever would have called them.
Goldmine: But the result of that was a band that stayed together for, what, about a year and a half, something like that?
Frank Zappa: Yeah, something like that.
Goldmine: With a few recordings until that concert in London.
Frank Zappa: 'Til I got knocked off the stage.
Goldmine: That was the death of that band.
Frank Zappa: Yep.
Goldmine: Let me go ahead and get into the "Onstage" thing in a kind of roundabout way in that sense that anyone who's followed your career over a fair amount of time has at one time or another heard about a 10-record set or a 12-record set, with various titles; I think one of them was _No Commercial Potential_. There's even a little Warners promotional thing that you included in the "Masters".
Frank Zappa: It got so far as test pressings. But, see, the problem was that Warners wanted a rate on the publishing and refused to pay full publishing on the thing, so I said forget it.
Goldmine: What was on that record at that time? Was it 10 records, or how many records was it?
Frank Zappa: It was 10.
Goldmine: And what was that material that was on there?
Frank Zappa: It was live recordings, basically, that were done either using a Scully two-track or a Uher two-track with a portable mixer, mostly from '68 and '69.
Goldmine: Do you still have that stuff?
Frank Zappa: Yeah.
Goldmine: And do you have any plans to include any of it with - I guess a couple of things have already turned up on the first "Onstage".
Frank Zappa: Yeah. But I just think that there's so much better material since that time and there's no reason to dwell on the '68-'69 period, just in terms of listening quality. Unless you're an archive freak or a music historian or something like that, it is not necessarily a pleasurable experience to listen to the technology of 1968, and some of the tunes that were played by that band have been played by other bands so much better. The aesthetic goals of that series, "You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore", have more to do with the growth of the music and a celebration of the good parts of live performance. There are a lot of good things to be said about playing on the stage in terms of unique events that will happen one time only for that particular audience and if you've got a tape running and you've captured it, you've got a little miracle on your hands. And so, the things that are included in the series, I generally give the nod to that particular version of a tune that may have occurred on one of those nights when the performance was unique. Sometimes the recording quality is not as good as some other version of it, but I want to put as much of the unique stuff in there as possible. And I don't know whether it's because the frequency of recording has increased over the years or that the bands did more unique things, but it seems in listening to the material available that the more entertaining or unique events are not of the early Mothers of Invention period. In fact, there are very few that exist on tape from the early MOI period. The most unique things that that band ever did were all at the Garrick Theatre in 1967 and there's no tape of that. I have no tape of the Garrick Theatre.
Goldmine: There's no record of that at all?
Frank Zappa: I think some people may have booted some stuff, but I have nothing in my collection. We actually had the opportunity to tape the whole show and Verve wouldn't do it. We had a deal with Wally Heider who at that time had a recording truck in New York City; he had all this gear in a van and he needed a place to park his van. And I wanted to make a deal with him that we'd give him parking space for the van outside of this theatre which we had rented. All he had to do was just turn the tape on every night. And we could have had it. Verve wouldn't do it.
Goldmine: Did going from the band that had been put together at one time in the '60s, to a situation where you were auditioning people and changing musicians, cause a jump up in the musical abilities of the band?
Frank Zappa: Well, let's just say that the first band was put together partly by accident and partly by - there was just no other way to get any players to do it. You couldn't go out and audition. You just couldn't. Especially if you wanted to do technical stuff. If you look at recent musical history you'll notice that in those early days there were very few people with conservatory chops who would venture into the world of rock 'n' roll. It simply wasn't done. If you had conservatory skill, you might play jazz, but you certainly wouldn't go out and play this stuff. And I was lucky enough to have a few conservatory type of people in that band: Ian Underwood, Art Tripp, Ruth Underwood, these were people with great musical skill. But the rest of the guys were regular guys. So at the point where it was possible to audition and select from a variety of choices of people to be in the band, I think the musical quality of the band shot up about a thousand percent.
Goldmine: I think at this point you have the sort of reputation in rock that Miles Davis has in jazz; one sees people going off from your band to - well, actually often to a lot of jazz things. Do you get a lot of people auditioning or calling you to get in your bands?
Frank Zappa: Yeah, it's been that way since I first started auditioning. I mean, we have file drawers full of resumes and cassettes that people have sent in and that kind of stuff. There's a guy who just called two days ago, wanted to be the new "stunt" guitar player. I don't know how he got my phone number, but he called right here to the house and I have no plans of touring in the near future, so I just filed his stuff away.
Goldmine: I guess a lot of the recording you're doing now is stuff that you're doing with machines by yourself. You're not bringing in other musicians too much.
Frank Zappa: Most of the stuff I'm working on right now is just to mix what happened on this last tour. The only time I'll put a musician in front of a microphone in this studio is to do sampling. We haven't had a real recording session in here since 1981.
Goldmine: Since we had left off somewhere in the '70s, let me ask you about "The Helsinki Concert", which is the newest volume of "Onstage". Tell me about those tapes, about what's special about them, especially in the philosophy you were talking about about this series.
Frank Zappa: Each band had its devotees. There were people who thought that the early Mothers of Invention were a pinnacle of their idea of musical entertainment and won't listen to anything else. There are people who like the band with Mark and Howard and think the "Fillmore East" album is their favorite, don't want to hear anything else. And there are also people (who) like that group with Napoleon (Murphy Brock) and George Duke and Ruth (Underwood), and here is an opportunity to take one complete concert, which was basically a good show, and release it in a way that the listener would get the sense of what that band was like onstage. And one of the things that was good about that show was that there was a lot of improvised, funny talking and witty stuff in there. So it's got part of the attitude of the band and I think it's a good record. It's got some good spirit in it.
Goldmine: Let me ask a question having to do with the way critics view your work, although I wouldn't think you care too much about the way critics view your work. There was sort of a turning in the way people wrote about you in the '70s. I think especially at the point that we're talking about, the Helsinki period, where at least it gave the appearance the records were selling more records, like "Over-nite Sensation" and "Apostrophe (')" were.
Frank Zappa: _Over-nite_ didn't sell that well when it came out. "Apostrophe (')" was the first one that sold a quarter of a million, or whatever it was, and that was our first gold record. And that was an accident, because a radio station in Pittsburgh took "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow," cut it down from 10 minutes to three which was part of a chain, part of their format of playing novelty records from the'60s. The guy who did it heard the song, perceived it as a modern-day novelty record and put it on right alongside of "Teeny Weeny Bikini" and it became a hit. And at this time, we were touring in Europe. We hadn't even released it as a single, and I was informed in Europe that I had a hit single on this chain of stations in the East Coast and what do you want to do about it? And I told the engineer, who was still in Los Angeles, who worked on the album, to edit a version of "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" to match the way in which this guy had cut it, and put it out. And it was a hit. But it was nothing that Warner Brothers ever foresaw, it was nothing that I could have foreseen as a guy at DiscReet Records, a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a subsidiary. Who knew? The credit goes to the DJ. And the same thing goes with "Valley Girl." Nobody knew that was going to be a hit. And as far as critics viewing my work, the fact of the matter is, if a guy sets himself up as a record reviewer, if he has any knowledge of music history or music structure, chances are he's not writing about rock 'n' roll, he's writing about something else. If the guy's in the business of reviewing rock 'n' roll records, the chances are he couldn't get a job doing anything else. And so, the actual musical opinion is of no interest to me, because most of what they're talking about is either connected to my personality or fantasies about my personality, imagined by people who have never met me. And the other aspect of it is, in order for a guy to build a reputation as a rock critic, you don't get that reputation for being a sensational critic by saying nice things about people. And I'm sure, along with the musicians who have been through my band who have moved on to bigger and better things, there have been a number of rock critics who have made their reputation by bashing me, one way or another. I'm pretty reliable, I'm always there. When there's nothing else, say something about him, everybody will understand it. But the fact of the matter is, I am still here, and a few of the ones who bashed me, they're dead!
Goldmine: Talking about the music through time, one of the things that's striking about the first volume of the "Onstage" record, given the way you've sequenced it, where it's going back and forth in time, often very suddenly back and forth in time, is that one is struck by the consistency of the music; not only the consistency in terms of quality, but a consistency in terms of vision. You come off as someone who knew exactly what he wanted 25 years ago and still wants the same things, and there's a great consistency to that. Do you see an evolution in what you've been doing musically or artistically, or is that the case, are you sort of out of the head of Zeus?
Frank Zappa: There's certain things I am interested in musically, and certain things I am limited to musically, simply because I have to hire human beings to do it. That's one of the reasons why I'm so enthusiastic about the Synclavier, because you can bypass all the human limitations. I already know how to run a band. I know how to do live music. Okay? I've done it. Now there are other things that are more interesting to me, and by the time the complete "You Can't Do That Onstage Anymore" collection comes out, and anybody who wants to take a scholarly approach to it and follow the stuff through and look at the continuity that you're talking about, the way in which things were done, I think that anything that has been written about me in a negative way in the past will certainly be put to rest by what the actual taped evidence is of what lives on the record. People who said there was nothing happening musically during the '70s certainly didn't listen to any of our stuff. There has been, consistently, from the minute that the band was formed, creative, exploratory, investigative, humorous, multi-dimensional stuff going on with this band, just because it has been like a little research laboratory going on in one way or another, to try things. Where other people wouldn't dare try it, because they would be afraid of what it might do to their career, we would try it, because they've already said every bad thing in the world about us. What the hell can they say? We're immune. We're totally Teflon to that stuff. They can say whatever they want. It turns out to be untrue. They can't do anything about it. And so, with that virtual license to explore, I've been happy to take advantage of that and to do all kinds of stuff that other people wouldn't try, for one reason or another. I want to try it, I want to find out what happens if you do this. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but at least, if you want to find out what happens if you put this kind of a chord with that kind of note or this kind of a rhythm with that kind of a rhythm, or these kind of words in a certain kind of a setting, the evidence is there. It's almost like a textbook of odd techniques and things that would be useful for a musician or a composer to learn. The experiment is there for you to see. It's just like watching Mr. Wizard on television: when he pours the vinegar into the baking soda, it makes bubbles. Thanks a lot, Mr. Wizard, now we know. But there's a certain element of that in this collection. If you have a certain basic musical knowledge and want to find out what might happen on the fringes of musical experience, it's in there. There are some very strange things lurking in that album, and also some basic good musical performances. You have to consider what the average level of musical skill was during each of the years when those tapes were made, and if you have some knowledge of that, which unfortunately most people don't, then the level of expertise that is exhibited by these bands is amazing. People just didn't do stuff like that back then.
Goldmine: Let me ask you two questions about the "Onstage" collection. One is about the sequencing. What really is the sequencing logic?
Frank Zappa: The sequencing rules are determined by things like - I like to do shows seamless, non-stop. Used to be, we would stop after every song and then you would tune up. Then came the strobe tuner and roadies who could do it for you and so you wouldn't have to do that. And also, the idea of doing the shows seamless, the albums often edited with songs slammed up against each other, and when I first got the idea of making people play edits live onstage, it turned out to be pretty funny, and so that's another one of the impossible things that you wouldn't expect, the whole band being able to make that unbelievable tempo change at a certain point and just evolve from one musical texture into another and then come back and - that kind of continuity. So the source material for "You Can't Do That Onstage" would probably have one song blending into another song, and so my first choice would be, do I continue with the next tune from this year, or do I keep the same song title, which was the natural sequence, and jump to another year, or do I let the intro start from this year and then change to another thing, or whatever? That's number one. The other that you would decide is, how many slow songs have been in a row, how many fast songs in a row, what is the dynamic of the side? Then you also have to realize that each side is constructed hopefully with some sort of talking in the front, and then the side either goes to an apparent intermission or an apparent concert conclusion. I'm trying to avoid fading out the last tune on the side.
Goldmine: So you're talking about vinyl.
Frank Zappa: No, CD, too. So that you have the feeling that you're at a concert, but it's an impossible concert. There's no way you could ever see all those people onstage at the same time, but if you've got a fairly decent imagination, you could especially put the earphones on and be at a show that spans, what, 25 years, with some of the most amazing musicians that were ever put onto a record and there they are, just performing their little hearts out for you. And the digital medium is the perfect medium for that. First of all, it allows you enough time on one side that you can give the illusion of sitting in a concert and that happening to you.
Goldmine: Could you just sketch out what the rest of the volumes of the "Onstage" will be?
Frank Zappa: Oh, what's in 'em? That's hard, because there's so many titles. It's all about random sequencing. There may be one other volume (in addition to "Vol. 2, The Helsinki Concert") that has a complete concert from a complete band, and that would be something from the '88 band, but everything else is all mix and match and some of the edits are, as edits, they're works of art, I must say.
Goldmine: The last thing I wanted to talk about, since all of what we've been talking about is stuff that has been created in the past that you are in various ways arranging, just to ask about what you're writing or composing now. I had a sense a few years ago that you might be moving more toward symphonic stuff in general.
Frank Zappa: Everything that I'm writing now, with the exception of the tunes that I wrote while I was on this tour, is all stuff that is on the Synclavier and that can be any kind of a texture, symphonic, chamber music, whatever. Even though I've got a busy schedule editing albums and doing all the mechanical stuff to stay in that part of the record business, I still manage 30 hours a week on the Synclavier.
Goldmine: So we'll be seeing some of that at some point, as well.
Frank Zappa: Yes, you will. You'll be seeing, the beginning of this year, something called "Phase Three", which takes all the missing dialogue parts of "Lumpy Gravy" and integrates them with all-new music, which will either be completely from the Synclavier or live from this tour, which is a mixture of an 11-piece band with Synclavier with audience, all of them fitting together to be in the same style of the original "Lumpy Gravy" album, but taking it to a level of technical perfection that was impossible at the time the first "Lumpy" came out.
This article is taken fom home.online.no/~corneliu.
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