Unholy Mother

By David Mead

Guitarist, June 1993


"Talking about music is like fishing about architecture." So said Frank Zappa - and here, in an exclusive interview, he casts a fly to catch a cathedral. Interview by David Mead...
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In 1965 The Mothers of Invention album 'Freak Out!' was unleashed on an unsuspecting public by a record company who probably should have known better, and Frank Zappa had invented the rock double album and the concept album at a single stroke. Since then Zappa's back catalogue has expanded to include at least sixty titles, including several works for symphony orchestra. His latest album, 'The Yellow Shark', was premiered last year as part of the Frankfurt Music Fair. it features the Ensemble Modern playing Zappa's music, some of it already familiar to us from albums like 'Uncle Meat' and 'Roxy And Elsewhere', but this time re-arranged for orchestral instruments.

Feelings about Zappa's music tend to run hot. Find a crowded room anywhere in the world, and you can bet your life that there will be a hard-core Zappa fanatic in the corner busily expounding the virtues of such works as Don't Eat The Yellow Snow or Why Does It Hurt When I Pee? to a crowd of bemused onlookers.

Over the years there have been frequent media-fuelled Zappa controversies, mostly caused by complete misreadings of his work, but Frank has never courted the headlines. If anything he's consciously removed himself from the rest of music's underground. The fact that he's equally at home with either a Fender Stratocaster or a conductor's baton in his hand qualifies Zappa as something unique in modern music circles - after all, who else could claim admirers with talents as diverse as Pierre Boulez, Terry Bozzio, Kent Nagano and Steve Vai?

A Frank Zappa interview is a rare event. It took many weeks of calls before we finally got the go-ahead that yes, Zappa had agreed to talk exclusively to Guitarist, but at the same time, we knew it was going to be difficult to talk to Zappa about his guitar playing. After his '88 tour ground to a halt because of problems within the band, he renounced playing live and now rarely picks up a guitar; these days he prefers to work on his past material, all stored in a vast archive at his home studio complex, the 'Utility Muffin research Kitchen'. It's a strange feeling to know that Zappa is actually breaking up a session in the studio to talk to you on the telephone! My first question concerned Johnny Guitar Watson, someone who Zappa has cited as an early guitar influence...

"I used to listen to him all the time," confirms Zappa, "and I used to listen to Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown."

What did you learn from Johnny Guitar Watson records? Was it the pentatonic approach?

"Well, you know, what Watson was doing was not just pentatonic scales. One of the things I admired about him was his tone, this wiry, kind of nasty, aggressive and penetrating tone, and another was the fact that the that things he would play would often come out as rhythmic outbursts over the constant beat of the accompaniment."

Is that something you tried to incorporate into your own playing?

"Yes. It seemed to me that was the correct way to approach it, because it was like talking or singing over a background. There was a speech influence to the rhythm."

What was the first guitar you had?

"It didn't have a make on it - it had been kinda sandblasted! My brother got it for $1.50 at an auction and it was an archtop, f-hole, ugly motherfucker with the strings about a half-inch off the fingerboard. I liked it because it was so tinny-sounding. It was just an acoustic guitar, but it was moving closer to that wiry tone I liked with Johnny Guitar Watson, especially if you picked it right next to the bridge."

Did it have one of those moveable wooden bridges that wrecks the intonation?

"I had no idea what intonation was! I didn't find out for maybe five or six years that you even had to think about things like intonation. It was bad enough just tuning the damn thing with the pegs, let alone worrying about whether you're going to be in tune at the octave."

When did you make the move to electric?

"My father had a guitar which he kept in a closet, a round-hole guitar of anonymous make, and I stuck one of those DeArmond soundhole pickups in that, so it wasn't a real electric guitar. I guess it was around four or five years later that I actually got an electric guitar. There was a music store not far from my house, and I rented this Telecaster for $15 a month. Eventually I had to give it back, because I couldn't make the repayments on it."

Were you ever in High School bands?

"I had a band when I was either a sophomore or a junior in High School. I actually started off as a drummer, playing in a band in San Diego, but that didn't last very long."

A lot of guitarists started out playing drums - like Eddie Van Halen, or Nuno Bettencourt, both of whom seem to have developed solid right hand techniques as a result.

"Well, I don't know whether I could vouch for that because I wasn't a very good drummer! My main drawback was that I didn't have very good hand-to-foot coordination. I could play a lot of stuff on the snare and the tom-toms and the cymbal and everything, but I couldn't keep an even beat on the kick drum. That was the reason I became no longer employed as a drummer - nobody could dance to it! But for hand-to-hand coordination I was fine. The only thing I had to coordinate with my feet was the wah-wah pedal and turning the little stomp boxes on and off."

You're retained a strong interest in percussion, though.

"Yeah - in fact, the piece that I'm working on today is all percussion. it has some synthesizer sustaining things in it, but 99% of what's being heard is all different kinds of percussion instruments."

You once said something in a radio interview about writing 'percussive harmony'...

"Oh, sure. You can write rhythmic dissonance, and you can write the equivalent of rhythmic consonance, too. What I would describe as a dissonant rhythm is 23/24, where things would rub up against each other in just the same way that notes are a half-step apart have a certain tendency to twinge your ears. Rhythms that are just fractionally 'off' from each other create another kind of linear dissonance. A consonant kind of rhythm would be like marching music, or disco music, where everything is boom, boom, boom."

How would you sum up your guitar style on the early Mothers recordings?

"It was okay, but back then the guitar wasn't a featured instrument in the way it was on the later albums. As far as a precedent goes... I don't think there was anything you could compare it to; it was the only was I knew how to do it. There was no reason to do it another way, and anyway, everybody else was doing it the other way!"

The rock guitar influences that are the most common are the '60s icons, players like Clapton and Hendrix...

"Yes, but when we did 'Freak Out!' and 'Absolutely Free', there wasn't any Hendrix. We met Hendrix in the summer of '67; he sat in with us at the Garrick Theatre, so we'd already made those albums before I even knew that he existed. Actually, I think my playing is probably more derived from the folk music records that I heard; middle eastern music, Indian music, stuff like that. For years I had something called 'Music On The Desert Road', which was an album with all kinds of different ethnic music from the Middle East. I used to listen to that all the time - I liked that kind of melodic feel. I listened to Indian music, Ravi Shankar and so forth, before we did the 'Freak Out!' album. The idea of creating melody from scratch based on an ostinato or single chord that doesn't change - that was the world that I felt most comfortable with. If you listen to Indian classical music, it's not just pentatonic. Some of the ragas that they use are very chromatic, all sustained over a root and a fifth that doesn't change, and by using these chromatic scales they can imply all these other kinds of harmonies. The chords don't change; it's just the listener's aspect that gets to change, based on how the melody notes are driven against the ground bass."

That sounds like a parallel with your own guitar improvisations, where the band plays a fairly straightforward rhythmic vamp, and you insert dissonance via the solo.

"Sometimes you guess right, sometimes you guess wrong! The most dangerous thing is improvising with a band and thinking 'Okay, now's the time to play that diminished scale,' and somebody in the band is thinking,'Now's the time to play a major chord.' Those kind of accidents do happen..."

Your guitar style underwent a marked change around the time of 'Overnite Sensation'.

"That was partly because of the rhythm section, and partly because of the equipment I was using. I imagine that anybody's guitar playing would change if one day your keyboard player was Don Preston, and suddenly the next day it's George Duke! Or the difference between (drummers) Jimmy Carl Black and Chester Thompson - that certainly made a difference. And when you have a new rhythm section with a different musical perspective, you'd be a fool not to take advantage of it."
"But it also changed because of the instrument and the amplification. prior to that I'd been playing either a Gold Top Les Paul or a Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster through a Fender amp or an Acoustic amp with a fairly nondescript tone - I just didn't have enough money to invest in new equipment. But by the early 70's I was playing a Gibson SG, and I switched over to Marshall's, and started playing through a device that a friend built for me, which had compression, phase shifting and some other little specialities."

So many musicians have come to prominence after playing in The Mothers and the various manifestations of the later bands. Like the Miles Davis bands, it's almost like a finishing school.

"Well, if you come to it with that attitude, then it's true - you can derive a lot of musical information from doing the job. However, most of the musicians look at it as just a way to earn an income. It takes an exceptional musician to work in the band and to really appreciate the type of training and information that is being delivered during rehearsals for the show. So you can either learn a lot of different things in the band, or you can just learn your part, play the gig and pick up your paycheck. I've had both kinds."

In the past, you've quoted 'One Size Fits All' as being your favorite album.

"Well, I think it was probably a good example of what the band with George Duke and Ruth Underwood could do. I think it's a good sounding album, representing that group."

Volume 2 of 'You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore' features that band live in Helsinki, and the full version of the solo from Inca Roads shows just how dramatic your editing was on the 'One Size Fits All' version - where did you pick up your editing technique?

"I started around '62, before The Mothers, when I was working in Cucamonga."

Those were all razor edit - literally cutting up the tape?

"That's right."

But everything's right on the beat. You'd never know that you're not hearing the complete story.

"I'm a pretty good editor."

What about your technique of editing together a song from completely different performances - even different bands? Like on Ship Arriving Too Late (sic, it's actually Drowning Witch -[Steve]), from the 'You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore' series - it actually goes from the '84 to the '82 band. how much time does an edit like that take?

"Well, it took years . I worked on it for five or six years."

You've also taken live backing tracks and superimposed studio performances on top - for example the 'Sheik Yerbouti' album...

"Yes, but I've gone in the other direction too. For example, ninety percent of the guitar solos on the 'Joe's Garage' album were from live shows, pasted on studio tracks. In the studio, they called it the 'Ampex Guitar' - I had all these quarter-inch tapes of guitar solos that I liked from the '79 tour, and I'd go through my files, see what key a certain solo was in, and just experimentally hit the start button on the playback machine and lay it onto the multi-track."

Didn't you have trouble with tuning variation?

"Well, we did that with a VSO - we'd wiggle the pitch around to make sure it was in the right key."

You over dubbed the guitar solo on The Purple Lagoon from 'Live In New York', because you recorded it on 'Saturday Night Live' and had to fill the gap where John Belushi did an act as a Samurai bebop musician...

"Yes, that's right, although he didn't do that act in the regular live show. I over dubbed it with a home-made SG through a Pignose amp and an eventide harmoniser set at 99."

How did you come to own your fire-damaged ex-Jimi Hendrix Strat?

"Well, there was this guy named Howard Parker - they called him 'H' - who was Hendrix's roadie, gofer and general assistant. He stayed at our house for a couple of months in the late '60s, and he had this guitar which Hendrix had given to him - I thought it was from the Miami concert. He gave it to me and we had it hanging on the wall as a decoration for years and years, and then I met some guys who were capable of putting guitars back together, so I had it done."

"I've used it on a couple of tracks, although I can't remember which ones off-hand. I haven't played it all that often, because unless you're in the right environment and you're standing in exactly the right relationship to the amplifier, it likes to feed back all the time."

What was the story behind the 1988 band, the one that started out as a fairly large outfit, got smaller and then prematurely disbanded?

"Actually, it didn't start off large and get smaller - it started medium, and got large. It was a 12-piece band, and an argument broke out between Scott Thunes and just about everyone else in the band apart from me and Mike Keneally. The others all decided that they hated Scott's guts; it was very weird. Basically the ringleader of the whole thing was Ed Mann, and he and Chad Wackerman decided that Scott had to go, and they brought about most of the discontent in the band."

"We were almost at the end of the European portion of the tour in the early summer of '88, and we had other dates booked in the United States - big, outdoor, high-paying gigs, but because most of them refused to go onstage with this guy, I had to cancel them all. There was no time to replace anybody at all, no breaks in the tour to rehearse anybody new, so I just had to break it up."

"I'd been very happy with that band; the audiences really liked it too, and the reviewers thought it was great. it was unique because it combined a very strong five-piece horn section with all kinds of electronic stuff, with effects on the percussion section, on the drums, multiple keyboards - a very interesting blend of this horn harmony and very strange sound effects."

At least you did a live CD of the tour - 'The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life'...

"Think about it, there are no overdubs on that at all. All those little effects and things coming in, that's just the way it was on the live show. We had three stations generating samples; there was Ed Mann, who had this whole vocabulary of dog barks and bubbles and weird shit, then there was Chad Wackerman who had all these strange percussion things hooked up to a big rig, and then there was the synclavier, which I could play when I wasn't playing the guitar."

Did you ever try using a MIDI guitar to control the synclavier?

"Yes, but I couldn't make it work - the detector only wants to hear the vibrations of a single string, and if you're not constantly damping and muting and doing all sorts of gyrations, then the detector can't really read accurate pitch. So if you're playing the top E string and you've got an A string ringing or something like that, it tends to screw things up. It's just a technique that I'm not very good at."

What's your attitude towards the guitar now?

"I seldom touch it. I was doing a little overdubbing here in the studio, but I don't have calluses anymore. In a way, I think I used to be a guitarist, but not any more."

How do you feel guitar playing is going at the moment?

"I don't think there's much on the street that interests me. I mean, there are certain guys that I admire because they play well and they play musically - I like Jeff Beck, and I like Allan Holdsworth and Michael Hedges. these people are all real geniuses at what they do."

The Steve Vai-transcribed 'Frank Zappa Guitar Book' is amazingly complex-looking stuff...

"It's even more amazing when you get him to tell you how he did it! He didn't slow it down - well, he couldn't slow it down. He was taking it off a cassette machine!"

There's a song you did called the Jazz Discharge Party Hats - I heard that when Vai was playing with you, he wrote out your scat-singing vocal part, and then overdubbed it on an acoustic guitar.

"Yes, that's right, he did."

And was it 100% accurate?

"It's not 100% accurate, as a matter of fact, because if you play the pitches of his transcription without the vocal, there are certain things that sound a little bit weird. I'd give it 99%, though!"

"When you're transcribing something to publish in a magazine, that's one thing. But when you're transcribing it and you know that within a day or so you're going to be overdubbing on the track, and you're going to be sight-reading your own transcription, and it's got to synch up exactly with what's on the track - that's when you'll really know whether you're a good transcriber or not. but that's how he did it; he wrote it out, he came in, we turned the tape on, he read it and he did it in two or three takes. He even put in a string-scratch for when I laughed! I went 'Huh, huh, huh' and he's got that little 'scrape, scrape, scrape' in there. He nailed everything ."

It's interesting that not all the members of your band have been able to read music...

"That's right; maybe 10% have been readers, but the rest of them had to learn it like a parrot."

There seems to be a free exchange between your 'orchestral' pieces and your 'rock' pieces. The transfer of The Be-Bop Tango on 'The Yellow Shark' from band to orchestra is one example...

"Well, look at it this way - they're pieces . Pieces of music that have harmony, melody and rhythm and some sort of an idea that makes them go, and the rest is just a matter of orchestration."

Did you have any formal training in harmony?

"I had a couple of classes early on. When I was a senior in high school I was an incorrigible student, and one of the people in the office decided that maybe I would be socially better adjusted if I was given the opportunity to study something that I was actually interested in. So they arranged for me to go to the junior college to take a harmony course, one hour a week; that lasted for two or three months. I was studying out of the Walter Piston harmony book, and I found it really boring. I probably finished up with a D grade, or something like that. There wasn't anything there that I thought was going to be useful for what I wanted to do. I didn't like the sound of the musical examples, I didn't like all this fucking Roman numeral horseshit that you have to deal with. Still, I guess it was better than putting up with the stupid classes they had at the high school."

Is there a way to teach music in a constructive and 'student friendly' way?

"I think that it's kinda useless to teach it, because what are you going to do? A person gets out of school, how's he going to earn a living? In order to make money doing something that you call music, what you wind up doing to earn a living is not music - it's shit! So why bother to teach them anything? It just seems so redundant to teach composition or harmony, when the people who will make the most money will come out of a metal shop or something like that, so something sub-Mongoloid and make a fortune out of it!"

"I once read a book on counterpoint, and on the very first page it said, 'You may not write the following intervals.' The intervals were F and A, a major third, expanding to E and B, a fifth. It also said you could not write G and B, a major third, expanding to F and C, a fifth. So I played these things on the piano and says 'Why? Why can't we do this? This sounds great!'"

And so you closed the book!

"Yeah - I mean, I figured that if on the first page they were telling me that I would have to be going against something my ears immediately liked, then why should I learn the rest of that stuff?"

Tell us about the projects you're working on at the moment.

"Well, there's 'Civilization: Phaze III', and the idea for that is to put it on stage as an 'Opera Pantomime'. All the music and the sound effects will be included in the compact disc, so what you'd see on stage would be a dance pantomime manifestation of the action and the music."

"It's due to be performed in Vienna in May of '94, but I'm still waiting to find out whether it's actually going to happen. We got a fax from them yesterday - there's been a meeting between the organizer and three of his partners who are talking about financing the thing, but I don't have a contract with them yet. The CD is already done and finished, but I don't know about a release date yet. If the performance in Vienna comes off on time then I'll hold the CD up until February of '94. But if they're not going to stage it, then I'll probably put it out in September."

"Another project I'm doing is called 'The Lost Episodes', which is a collection of unreleased studio cuts - quite early ones. Some of them come from before Cucamonga. And that includes the film soundtrack, 'Run Home Slow'."

"And what I'm working on right at the moment is a Synclavier album called 'Dance Me This', which is designed to be used by modern dance groups. It's probably not going to come out until next year."

So things are still cooking down at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen as the Master Chef contemplates more new and tempting recipes...

 

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