The Mother of All Interviews (Part 1)
By Don Menn
When we first contacted the Zappa family in early 1992, we were hoping that Frank would be willing to give us an updated interview to combine with stories we had published over the years to create a Zappa-only special issue. However, Frank and his wife Gail were so helpful that the project mutated into something quite different: a whole issue filled with new Zappa material. The centerpiece of that Zappa! issue was this wide-ranging, in-depth conversation with The Man himself. – Editor
What began last April  on the phone with "you've got two hours" turned into four hours in person a couple of weeks later, and then several days in May, and then more than a week in June. So it went throughout the summer, by phone and in person, with the cassette recorder running and eventually with video cameras going late into the night, when The Simpsons creator Matt Groening asked if he could come along and pose some questions to the man he called "my Elvis."
Everyone who works with Frank speaks of how he pushes limits. We lived what they meant. Here, then, is the condensed (!) version of the most amazing series of interviews I've ever been granted, by the most brilliant human I have ever faced, in the most open household I have ever entered.
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What impelled you to start writing music?
I liked the way it looked.
Where had you seen it?
Well, everybody has seen sheet music before.
But were you studying it in grade school, or was it just something you picked up as a drummer?
No. In my earliest experience I was doing a lot of drawing, sketching, painting, and that kind of stuff. And I was interested in art, and I always liked the way music looked. And I liked to listen to music, but when I started writing it, I just basically started doing it because I liked the way it looked.
When did you first start writing note down on paper?
Around 14, I think.
And it was pen on paper?
Yes. It was a C5 Speedball.
Before you even took up guitar?
Yeah. I was still playing snare drum in orchestra.
Did you have a sense of being able to hear what you were putting down?
Absolutely not. I didn't have the faintest fucking idea what it sounded like. I mean, I was so ignorant, I thought that all you did was you got an idea for the way it looked, you drew it, and then you found a musician who could read it – and that's how you did it. I was literally that naive. Fortunate for me, there weren't any people around who could read music; otherwise I probably would have stopped very early in my career.
Have you kept track of the exact number of works you've done?
No. It's in the hundreds.
Charles Ives used to pile up music that he would bind and put in the barn after a period of time. Do you have the feeling of the same accumulation of works that won't ever be heard?
Yeah. Well, I knew that most of them would never be heard from the day I started writing them. But you can hear them yourself while you're writing them – once you get past the graphic stage, at the point where you know what the symbols actually mean in terms of what it will sound like if you ask somebody to do such and such by drawing this symbol on a piece of paper. Once you understand what the audio result is going to be of that dot that you just drew, then you hear it yourself as a writer.
Many modern composers, though, have given up because they can't get their work heard by other people. Charles Ives once said that the reason he ran an insurance company was because he thought if he'd been thinking of commercial music it would be bad for his family because there would always be conflict about whether his stuff was going to sell or not. He thought it would be bad for him because he'd always be worried about that same question, and ultimately it would therefore be bad music. How have you managed to avoid becoming an insurance executive?
Well, that's probably one of the great mysteries of musical history: how I've been able to afford the luxury of doing what I like to do and earn a living at it. One clue is that I started early, at a time in the business when, if you were doing something odd, you could get in and get a con- tract – not a lucrative contract – but you could at least get a contract of some sort to make a record. And you could build an audience based on whatever the acceptance would he in that odd thing that you did. Today it would he impossible for anybody to get a contract and do what I did. And after the first contract expired, I began looking for alternate ways to stay in the business without being the victim of the record companies. That finally led me to be my own record company, which is not exactly like being an insurance salesman. But let's just say that the difference in economic yield between what I would he having as take-home pay if I was an artist assigned to a label as opposed to being a record company executive – there is no comparison. Because even though I don't sell enormous amounts of records, the amount of cash that you can earn from selling small amounts of records and being your own record company makes all the difference in the world.
Do you have a sense of your audience today being the same as your original one?
You mean, are the people who buy my records the ones who started buying them in 1964-'65?
Yeah, the Mothers Of Invention crowd.
No. I definitely know that it's not, even just referring to the letters that we receive, which are from all age groups. There's little or no communication from anybody that would fit the profile of an early MOI fanatic. There are a few of them still out there, but basically all they liked was that early stuff. And that's all they bought. That was it.
What sort of organizational elements or ideas do you use when you're creating? Do you just sit down and think, "This is going to be a 12- tone section," or, "We're going to improvise this part," or do you just sort of wing it and then bring all your intuitive skills into creating a work?
It depends on what kind of a work it is. When I first started off writing, it was just writing. It was a graphic concept. Then I found out about 12-tone music, and I thought, "Oh, great. Now all I have to do is keep all 12 notes in order and there's no problem, and you don't even have to worry about what it sounds like because the intrinsic value is determined arithmetically by how nicely you've manipulated all these 12 notes and making sure you don't hear note number 1 until number 12 gets its turn." I was doing stuff like that at 17 and 18 years old. I finally got a chance to hear some of it, and I really didn't like the way it sounded, so I stopped doing it.
Twelve-tone music of your own?
Yeah. I mean, I had heard some 12-tone pieces by other composers that I liked, which is one of the reasons why I went in that direction, but as a system it was too limiting for me. I asked myself the basic question: If the intrinsic value of the music depends on your serial pedigree, then who in the fuck is going to know whether it's any good or not? Only the people who sit down with the score and a magnifying glass and find out how nicely you rotated those notes. And that's pretty boring. So I started moving in the direction of what you might call a more haphazard style. That's whatever sounded good to me for whatever reason, whether it was some crashing dissonance or a nice tune with chord changes and a steady beat in the background.
So you're really just interacting with your own work, and whatever musical skills you've built up over the years really are the organizational elements.
It's like being a cook. And if you were a really good cook, and you had a lot of money for really excellent ingredients and really good equipment, then you could cook just about anything. Everything that you need would be some easily identifiable delicacy. But if you don't have all the gear, and you don't have all the finest ingredients, and you don't even own a cookbook, but you still want to eat, and nobody's going to cook it for you, then you better find some other way to improvise that dish. And that's kind of the way the stuff gets put together.
Have you ever tried to specifically imitate an older form like a concerto in a grander sense?
No. I mean, I learned all about those things during the times when I was studying, and it just seemed to me that the reason why those forms existed was so that people with limited imaginations could comprehend what the composer was intending to do. A lot of those forms were inflicted on composers by royalty, who insisted that things should be in little compartments like this, this, and this. And if you weren't like that, then it wasn't suitable for the consumption of the king.
I studied music theory and harmony with a man who strongly felt that music should reflect the sounds of any given time, and that theory from Bach and Mozart's time was not very relevant to our time or music. In terms of reflecting modern times and sounds, how far do you feel one should go in sampling, say, jack hammers or women in labor? you've built up a huge catalog. Are these the elements you use?
I have a very good jackhammer recording, which was included in the album that I just finished last night – Phaze III. [Ed. Note: In fact, Phaze III was not finished until the fall of 1993.] I've got jack hammers in it. There was a beautiful digital recording made during the construction of our new kitchen. I think that my interest in these stems from Varèse's concept of organized sound. But the musical question that I have is, what constitutes organization? In other words, if you have a really good recording of a jackhammer, and you decide to splice it into a really good recording of a woman in labor, have you organized it or not? At what point are you composing and at what point are you collecting?
It's interesting to hear what Stockhausen or Boulez can do with 12-tone music, where there's beauty coming out of something that is potentially a very rigid and dogmatic approach to creating something. That's where the artistic element comes in.
Well, the element of beauty is pretty subjective, too. You can listen to those works and admire the organization, but what you hear is a result of what instruments are playing. And if you like the instruments and the way that they're being played, then the thing that you are listening to is the activated air molecules responding to a set of instructions on paper, which are then executed by the musicians, which then tickle the air molecules, which then tickle the microphone, and you get to hear and make your decision. That same piece played by any other group of instruments or the jackhammer or the woman in labor, even though it might have the same serial pedigree, might not be as fun to listen to.
Did you learn by reading out of books on counterpoint and ...
No, I never studied counterpoint. I could never understand it. I hated anything with rules, except for 12-tone, because it was so simple-minded. It was as simple-minded as the idea of getting a pen and some paper and some Higgins ink and just drawing some music. But all the rules of counterpoint and what constitutes good counterpoint, I just couldn't force myself to do that, and I could barely make it through the harmony book, because all the formulas that you learn there sounded so banal. Every time one of the exercises was presented, you would hear how the chords were supposed to resolve. All I could hear was the infliction of normality on my imagination. And I kept wondering why should I pollute my mind with this shit, because if I ever got good at it, I'd be out of business.
When Charles Ives was at Harvard studying harmony he was going crazy the way you're describing, and he wrote home to his father, saying, "This guy wants me to resolve my chords better," and his father wrote him back and said, "Tell your professor some chords just don't want to resolve."
Well, you can tell it to a professor if you have that kind of a relationship with a professor. I mean, I really didn't have professors. The harmony training I got was because I was an unruly senior in high school, and they gave me permission to take some harmony classes at the adjoining junior college. They figured that the reason why I was such a delinquent was because my mind wasn't occupied. So they let me take this course at the junior college while I was a senior. The guy who was teaching it was a guy named Mr. Russell, who was a jazz trumpet player, and I don't think that he enjoyed harmony very much either, but that's what he was teaching. I could have said to him, "Hey, some chords shouldn't resolve." And he would probably say, "Yeah, but you'll get a D if you don't resolve them."
What book did he give you? Was it Walter Piston's Harmony?
Yeah, it was Piston.
That's a hard one to stay awake through.
You remember? I hate to read also. It's very difficult for me to digest any kind of information in that way. I'm pretty good at the news magazines. But even with all the digital equipment that I've got, I've almost never cracked a manual on any of it. Basically, I've learned how to work it by just having somebody show me. And then after I've learned the basics, I'll figure out ways to make the system do stuff that was never in the book in the first place.
It's a better way to learn.
Also, in cases of digital equipment, even the best is often accompanied by pretty dismal technical manuals. It's not just that they're boring to read, they're also incomplete. And some of the things that I do with the equipment, the manufacturers never envisioned that such a task would be performed. So even if you've read the book from cover to cover, you'd still have to call the company and say, "Will it do this? If it won't, Can you put these two wires together to make it do that?"
How many hours a day do you work; Do you have a regular schedule?
Well, I work as many hours a day as I can physically stand to. The average is about 15 now.
Seven days a week?
Yeah, eight if I can squeeze it in.
Don't you take little vacations?
When I get tired, I go to sleep.
How do you break your work time down? It's not like an hour listening, an hour practicing, an hour revising, an hour writing?
What I do depends on what kind of a job I'm working on. Like, for the last two months, I've been heavily involved in record production, so a record production workday would be a different kind of a workday than one on the Synclavier. Usually, I just get up, get something to eat, go downstairs, and go right to the Sonic Solutions [Frank's editing system for mastering CDs]. I'll transfer tapes onto the hard drive and start editing them, equalizing them, and building things. And then, after an album has been constructed, I'll dump it off, reload the hard disk, and keep going. And I usually work at night to do that sort of thing. We have an engineer – Spencer Chrislu – who works from 9:00 in the morning until 7:00 at night, four days a week. My schedule overlaps his. I'll give him instructions on what needs to be mixed, tell him how I want it done, and he'll get the thing set up. By that time, I'll go to sleep for four or five hours and then get up in the afternoon, and he will either have completed the mix or be about ready to put the thing on tape. So I'll sit with him from, say, 4:00 to 7:00 and supervise the mixes. And I take an hour off to eat. And by 8:00, I'm back at the Sonic Solutions. I usually work until about 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning.
Have you ever lost any of your music in a computer crash or a tape meltdown?
How do you protect or store your work?
Well, operating the Sonic Solutions is a little bit like playing with isotopes, because you never know when it's going to do weird things to you. It's a fantastic device, but there are some incredible bugs in the software, and it can do heinous things to you. One of the things that you have to learn to live with is a little sign that pops on the screen every once in a while that says, "Free memory is now less than 250Mb. You may wish to close some files you are not using or reboot in order to clear the system memory." And if you don't do that right away – if you don't stop what you're doing and reboot this thing, which takes about five minutes – what it will do is randomly erase whole files on the hard disk. I don't know why. It's like it's got its own built-in virus that gets you every once in a while.
Have you talked to the manufacturer?
Oh, yeah. We haven't been hired as a beta test site, but I'll guarantee you that if they haven't taken into consideration fixing some of the things that we've experienced here when upgrading their software and their hardware, they've lost a good bet. One of the reasons why I got this thing is because it's possible to do multi-channel edits in it, not just for a stereo device. And in preparation for this project in Germany, we had been doing six-channel mixes of Synclavier stuff and other things, and I needed a device that would allow me to glue these things together. So I purchased from them this upgraded, multi-channel system, and from day one, it didn't work. They've had their engineers down here fucking around with this thing. It's unbelievable. I still haven't signed the check over to them. I said the day you make this system work, you get the money. [Ed. Note: The company has since been paid. The unit works.]
How many Sonic Solutions are there?
I don't know. I hope there's thousands of them, because I want this company to stay in business, because it's a good machine. The things that it can do! I mean, can you imagine a Mac-based system that has software that will allow you to automatically take clicks and crackles and noise out of tape? The de-noising software for this thing – which is something that I didn't buy because it was too expensive – but I wish I would have had something Like that when I first started working on the catalog of all the old tapes. All you need is just a little sample of the tape hiss or the room noise or whatever it is that you want to get rid of, like just the merest amount of audio between the paper leader and where the music starts, and the machine will take a snapshot of that noise. And it builds a filter, and you run your music through that filter, and the music stays and the noise goes.
Do you oversee all performances of your orchestral music?
No, I stopped doing that after my experience with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Well, I made two albums and there was a live performance, and as a result of the first album coming out, it let some people know that this music existed. Since the time of that album's release, there have been a lot of orchestral performances all over the world, and every time an orchestra calls up for music, they would like to have me come there and be in the concert. And that's impossible. These people can barely afford to rehearse the music. They're going to buy me a plane ticket to go there and listen to what they did [arches eyebrow in doubt]?
Kent Nagano says working with you is a wonderful experience because you're so involved with the specific individuals in the orchestra, listening to their ideas, considering them carefully, and then excerpting from them or even changing your own original idea. Have you had equal success with Zubin Mehta's or Pierre Boulez's groups?
Well, the case of working with Zubin was all pretty cut and dried. The Los Angeles Philharmonic management thought that it would he a successful concert. They certainly didn't do it because of musical content. Basically, I had to buy the privilege of having my music performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In order to prepare the parts for the orchestra, I had to pay the copying rate, which in 1971 was somewhere between $7,000 and $10,000. I'll guarantee you I didn't make anything like that from the concert. Plus the fact that they wouldn't even let me make a cassette. recording of the performance. They told me that if I turned the tape on, I would have to pay the whole orchestra Musicians' Union scale. So they had two rehearsals for all this music, and – you know – it was a festive occasion because there was a rock group on stage and an orchestra playing, and it was being done in a basketball stadium. So there we have it: As far as working with Boulez, the musicians were a little bit different. First of all, there were fewer of them, so you could actually have memorable conversations with them. And a number of them had asked mc to write solos for them. One of the brass players was also the head of a brass quintet that worked within Boulez's Ensemble Intercontemporain. And he wanted me to write some brass music. And usually percussionists will come up to me and ask me for music. I never did manage to do any of those things, because they all take time.
I love The Perfect Stranger.
Well, then you're going to love the new release of it, because it's coming out on CD. When it was originally released, Angel pressed 5,000 copies. Digital recording was in its infancy at that time, and I've always been less than enthusiastic about the sound of that first CD. I thought that it didn't come anywhere near what the musicians really sounded like in the room. Last July or so, we got a new Neve console in the studio, which is far cleaner and much better sounding than the Harrison that we had for the last 10 or 12 years. So I remixed it. And those new mixes are on the CD re-release.
You've reissued so many of your albums as CDs; is that to clean up the past?
Well, to the extent that it's feasible. I received some negative comments about some of the ways that I tried to clean up some of the early albums. And now that I have the Sonic Solutions, it's possible to go back to those early Mothers Of Invention albums, take the original mixes, and run them through this device, and for all the purists out there, at some later date, put out a CD version of those original mixes cleaned up in a very professional way.
People like to hold on to the past Some cling to the notion that vinyl is better and that CDs somehow pollute what music ought to be.
I think that the major drawback to the CD is the tiny size of the artwork. I believe one of the that people who collect records like is the tactile sensation of handling a well-conceived album package. There can be stuff in it, and if you've got something in your hand, then you can read it, and the pictures look better. That's one drawback about a CD. It's a little, square plastic thing.
My aging eyes have a harder time reading the little inserts than they do the fliers that used to come in the records.
Well, I don't read them. My eyesight has gone to shit, and I'll rarely bother to try squinting at the micro type on those things. Only if I'm absolutely in need of vital information will I reach for my glasses and squint at the package. 1 like a CD because it's convenient, and to my ear it sounds better than vinyl, because I always hated the squashed dynamic range and the intrusion of all those little crackles.
What was the first performance of your "serious" music?
Actually, the first time I had any of it performed was at Mount St. Mary's College in 1962.
What was the occasion?
I spent $300 and got together a college orchestra, and I put on this little concert. Maybe less than 100 people showed up for it, but the thing was actually taped and broadcast by KPFK. Last year a guy in England, who somehow got a copy, sent me a cassette of it, but I haven't bothered to listen to it.
Are you afraid to?
No. But listen: Anything that takes place in real time needs to be budgeted. Listening requires real time. Spooling material onto your hard disk requires real time, and I'm very conscious about how much time it takes to do certain things, so I limit the recreational listening and try to spend as much time as I can actually making product and doing work.
When you were building your career, then, your focus on so-called "serious music" began much earlier than your becoming a rock and roll star.
By the time I graduated from high school in '58, I still hadn't written any rock and roll songs, although I had a little rock and roll band in my senior year. I didn't write any rock and roll stuff until I was in my twenties. All the music writing that I was doing was either chamber music or orchestral, and none of it ever got played until this concert at Mount St. Mary's.
And did it sound like music is supposed to sound?
Oh, no. It was all oddball, textured weirdo stuff.
You started out that way, and as time went on it got more so.
Yeah. In fact, this concert even involved sounds on tape. I was doing tape editing of electronic music and part of all the pieces had this little cheesoid Wollensak tape recorder in the background pumping out through mono speakers – sounds that were supposed to blend with the acoustic instruments. And there were sections of improvisation and a lot of different experimental techniques.
Varèse wasn't doing that stuff. Who was influencing you at that time?
By that time, I had already heard Stockhausen. I had already heard Boulez. I had heard Pierre Schaeffer. I had a much broader musical horizon than just my first Varèse album, and even owning that was a major achievement, living in Lancaster [California] and trying to get ahold of that kind of stuff. Try to figure that out. Well, the Varèse record I actually got when I was in high school in San Diego. But by the time I moved up to Lancaster, I was really isolated. We were poor and albums were expensive, so if you were going to invest that kind of money in some sort of audio artifact, by golly, you were going to listen to it until it was dust. You were going to get your fuckin' money's worth out of it. And so my musical education came from vinyl and large 12-inch-square things that you could actually read on the back. And some of these albums had useful liner notes.
Did you have to pay for those yourself?
Well I got a little allowance, and I saved my allowance up, and then I could buy them, because they were too big to steal. If Stockhausen had been on 45s!
You would have been much more educated sooner:
Sure. If they would have had singles of that type then, because those are the kinds of things you could stuff in your pants or your jacket. I would say maybe 3% of my R&B 45 collection was achieved through illicit means, but the albums not.
I grew up in Kansas City, and I remember hearing Shostakovich when I was a little kid and liking him a lot, but Varèse and Stockhausen just weren't at the record store. It was like trying to find black music on the radio.
All those things can be harmful to a young persons mind. In states like Kansas, you probably get the death penalty for distributing a record like that.
In medieval times, playing a third was verboten because it was considered too beautiful, and people concluded that it therefore came from the devil. And then later playing a tritone was also ruled verboten because it heralded the coming of the devil. And even in the South, when Robert Johnson whanged away on his acoustic guitar, the blues was synonymous with "holding hands with the devil." What is there about music that people consider so scary?
You have to remember who's writing about it. The real question is, if a person must write about music, why must he often mention the devil in the same context?
That's what I m asking you.
It tells you more about the mentality of music writers than it does about music listeners, because the goal of the writer is self-aggrandizement. There's only one reason to write: because you consider yourself to he a writer, and you want people to pay attention to what you wrote. It's the bane of your existence that you must write about somebody else doing something that you can't do. The general summary that I make of most people who are in the world of music criticism – be it for rock and roll or whatever – the important thing is how clever will your column be. A lot of people are forced into the world of rock and roll musical criticism; at least there is such a world to keep them employed, because they sure as fuck couldn't do anything else. So it doesn't surprise me that one often finds references to the devil in any kind of music criticism.
Here's the other thing you have to remember about the early writers on music: The people who could write were writing for an audience that was very limited, because not everyone could read in those days. And those who could were of the church and the nobility, people who certainly had dealings with the devil because they helped to invent the son of a bitch in order to keep the potato-eaters in line!
Kent Nagano says that you and he have had an ongoing discussion about art and entertainment. He says that you believe all art should be entertaining, while he feels art could be something more than entertainment.
Well, I don't really understand people who think of art as an antidote to entertainment something that should not give you a pleasurable experience. What's wrong with that? I mean, the idea of punitive art – that sounds like something from the East Village.
An "effete snobbism," perhaps?
I don't know whether I would use those kinds of terms, because I happen to think that snobbery is all-pervasive. Every social group has its own special snobbery. You don't have to be a guy with a top hat and a bow tie on to he a snob. You can be snobby and be a truck driver. There's always somebody who doesn't belong to your set. You're always looking for somebody who's either below you or outside your social realm. So, to put something down – describe it as an alien phenomenon, in terms of snobbery, is something that I don't think makes a very good argument. It's a strange idea, to me, to think that the more strenuous the experience is, the more artistic it is – like the ugliest picture is the best art. What do you mean? Who needs that shit? The most interminable, grinding composition, even if it's well conceived, should you be forced to consume it because somebody says it's artistic, or should you consume it because you like it?
So it s not like you would ever subscribe to one of those comments where people feel that artists are somehow better than other people.
Well, I don't think that they are better. They're definitely different.
What do you see as different?
I just think that it's a different process to create a piece of music than it is to bounce a check, even though they both may he a little hit creative. Creative people may from time to time bounce checks, but people in Congress very seldom write sonatas.
Why do you think people in Congress look so askance at artists? What's the problem with the message of art?
It's very threatening to them because there's always a chance that an artist will speak his mind, and a politician never will, and there's a certain envy there.
You say the most grinding music shouldn't necessarily have to be endured. How much consideration do you feel the artist should take in presenting or creating for an audience?
You have to have some picture in your mind of what you're doing and who you're doing it for. And the way I do mine is, I have to like it first. If I like it, then it's good, and it's done. And then if somebody else likes it, then that's good, too. And if they don't, that's too had.
And you feel that over the years you've been able to reach a level whereby you're satisfying your own particular artistic needs and luckily, at the same time reaching a volume of people who seem to like it?
Well, the biggest difficulty I have is getting the product to market, because there are so many forces aligned against me as an independent.
The tyranny of radio, you mean?
It's not just radio. I mean, I've experienced things like major record-store chains owned by Christians who refused to stock my work. The most recent example, I think, was in Billboard about a year or a year and a half ago. This chain from Washington State refused to stock my records. They wouldn't even stock instrumental albums.
Because of your strong language?
Let me just say that there isn't anything on any of my records that isn't piled four inches deep on any of the rap albums that are major economic successes. I mean, there's nothing I've ever said on any of my albums in terms of sexual lyrics that hasn't been surpassed many times over in current rap or dance music. The thing that's threatening, I believe, is the fact that these people know that if they come after me, I won't keep my mouth shut. I'll fight back. I'm not stupid. And one of the hallmarks of contemporary life is what I perceive to he a conspiracy against conscious thought. Every aspect of government at every level has conspired to minimize education and to punish any individual or group that chooses to experience the full benefits of the First Amendment. The contemporary message – the subtext of contemporary life – is keep your fucking mouth shut and he a drone. And government is set up in such a way now with its complete disregard for the value of education that they're going to perpetuate a type of stupidity that makes it possible to have an entire nation of people watching late-night infomercials on TV with their phone-in credit card. How else could such things exist, if it weren't for the disastrous state of education in America?
Is this an historical norm or a worsening trend?
Once you start this particular spiral, it goes only down, because once a couple of generations have gone through this American education mill, these people as adults will never be Likely to fund an improvement in the system, because they hated it while they went through it, because basically it ripped their brains out, and now they have children, and their children have to go through it, too. And they don't want to take time out of their busy schedule or spend their precious cash that they were saving up for their recreational vehicle or whatever it is to finance a bond issue to make a school better.
What do you think happened in this country?
Well, two important things, and each one of them has only three letters One was LSD, a chemical which is capable of turning a hippie into a yuppie, one of the most dangerous chemicals known to mankind. And the other is MBA. When people started taking MBA seriously, that was the beginning of the ruination of the American industrial society. When all decisions are based on an MBA's concept of numerical reality, you're in deep shit, because the only thing that can he judged as real is that which can be proved by a column of figures. And when all aesthetic decisions are turned over to these kinds of people, who use these criteria to make steering decisions for a company with no regard for people and no regard for what the product really is, and the only thing that matters is maximizing your profit, you have a problem. Because you can't have duality then; you cannot have excellence. Quality's expensive. I think most of these people that come from business schools have the desire to make sure everything is cheesy. That's what happens when you do things that way.
Do you think this problem permeates all establishments?
I think it's specifically an American type of thing.
Do you think we'll succeed in spreading it worldwide?
I'm very upset about what's happening in Russia and in Eastern Europe, with this new changeover to Western-style economics. They are the ones who are the most vulnerable to this kind of chicanery, because all of these so-called experts that are going in there to help them set up their new economies are people from this MBA school of thought. And having visited these areas and seen what great culture they have, it saddens me to see that now it's all going to die. And it's all going to be stopped by the MBA mentality. There's only one thing that's worse than our exploitation by so-called financial experts. That's evangelical missionary work. These two things are the most anti-cultural acts that a nation can take against another nation.
Go in and "fix" them up.
Yeah. On one hand, you have the arrogance of economists who believe that because their column of figures adds up, the infliction of this technique on another culture is something that is going to create a benefit. Well, I think that's going to be proven very wrong in the Eastern Bloc countries.
Within five years. I don't know if it'll revert into a more socialistic system. It's really a nightmare for that part of the world. In the past, the nightmare was the authoritarian nature of communism. I think the statistic in the Soviet Union showed that every third person worked in the KGB. That's a big fuckin' payroll. But it's full employment. They have grown accustomed to a world in which some sort of government agency Looks out for every aspect of their social well-being. And all of that has vanished. Now put yourself in their shoes. Suppose you had to change overnight to another system. And every benefit, small as it might be, from the American government was suddenly nonfunctional. It's gone. You'd be totally baffled. You'd be looking for a way to get back to something that gave you a feeling of security and a reason for going to work the next day. The people I've met over there are not just interested in money. Of course they like to own things – they want a better car, a better house, all that kind of normal stuff. But they also have an appreciation for their culture, and they don't want to see it vanish just because there's no way to fund it.
I'll give you an example of what has happened – the most ridiculous one. The revolution in Czechoslovakia was conducted mainly by artists and students. It was an artistic revolution. Under he old system, if you were an artist or something like that, you got a salary, you could work or do your craft. Now this switch-over is starting. Under the new system, there's no cash for any of that. And if you perform in some sort of activity that is language-dependent, you're sunk. In other words, if you're a painter, you can export. If you're a musician, you can export. If you're a dancer, you can export. But if you're an actor or a writer, and you're functioning in the Czech or Hungarian or Russian language, it's hard for you to export. These are the people who caused this revolution in the first place, and they don't get paid anymore! Think they're not sitting around going, "Wait a minute, what the fuck did we just do here?"
Omitting details like that seems to be a continuation of a strange new phenomenon where we have CNN presenting spectacular world events as though they're the football game of the week. We assume everything's hunky-dory when there's some Big Climax like the dismantling of the Berlin Wall or Tiananmen Square, and then we turn on the next World Crisis like the Iraqi war where we have Bernard Shaw telling us of missiles going overhead, but then in the end we get no body counts or anything no real in formation. I don't understand what all this "communication" is about that we're having these days.
Want me to explain it to you?
Okay. Well, thanks to democracy, we now have a freely elected Fascist government in the United States, elected by just plain folks – same people you graduated from high school with.
How big is the work that you're composing for the Frankfurt Festival? Is it several little pieces?
They asked for 20 minutes of music to be divided into four or five sections, but it's not just the one piece, because what I've designed is a whole evening's worth of entertainment, including some older pieces that have been re-orchestrated for this particular group, and pieces from the Synclavier. For the concerts, we will be joined onstage by a Canadian dance troupe called La La La Human Steps. They're quite unbelievable. The other thing that's going to be interesting about the presentation is the six-channel P.A. system. I don't think anybody's ever heard anything quite like this in a live situation. It's set up with a stereo pair in the front, a stereo pair in the middle, and a stereo pair in the rear.
That concept is really going to change sound a lot.
Well, it won't, because in order to listen to something in six channels, you need a six-channel source, which means a six-channel mix. Now, who can do that? Any recording artist could do it, if they wanted to do the same kind of setup in their house, if they're working on their album, after they finish their stereo mix, they might want to do a six-channel mix. It can be done, but most of the artists would be too lazy. They're not even curious about it.
Whether or not it becomes popular as a consumer setup, the possibilities seem to open up the whole art of composing beyond simply picking cool notes or neat samples.
Yeah. Considering the sophistication of today's audio consumer, once you get to the point that you like the sound of CDs and vinyl is an aberration, then you're ready to go the next step, which is to have an audio environment rather than just music-minus-tape-hiss. This is never going to be something for people's homes, because most people don't live in places where you can install this without starting a civil war with either your parents or your neighbors. There are already people banging on the walls if you play your hi-fi too loud with two speakers. What the fuck are they going to do if someone installs one of these?
What I would like to see happen with it is to have concert halls designed to accommodate performance of six-channel playback, whether it's a six-channel miked ensemble, or pre-recorded material in six-channel. But to have some kind of an installation where people can come and hear it. It could even be like a coffeehouse-type thing, where you have a conversation while surrounded by a composition. That might be a nice environment. That's feasible. I understand that in Japan, at a Kyoto exposition, they had a multi-channel playback system. But it opens up the possibility of special suites in hotels or, if you can imagine, an audio spa.
The potential of it reminds me of an historic place in Vienna called the Havelka. It's a coffee shop that has been there since Schubert, I guess, and the main entertainment is newspapers on a stick, and a little classical music in the background, and every known form of coffee and Viennese crullers – little pastry things with some powdered sugar sprinkled on top. This place is so bizarre, because there's not that much conversation, just people reading newspapers on a stick. It's owned by this old woman named Mrs. Havelka, who's been running it since birth, I think, and the walls are covered with things from famous composers and authors who paid their bill by writing "graphic currency." Vienna's funny that way. Apparently Wagner stayed at the Hotel Imperial one time, and to pay his bill he handed over some pages from Parsifal that are still on the wall in the coffee shop.
The guy who was the promoter for the first Mothers Of Invention concert in Vienna was this guy named Joachim Lieben – otherwise known as Joey Love, the guy with the perpetual ski tan. Joey was not only the only rock and roll promoter in town, he was also on the board of directors of [music publisher] Universal Editions. For me, going to Vienna was like [dramatically] "12-Tone Country." A music store in Vienna means there are scores in the window, and I was out of my mind! You can walk down the street, and suddenly here's a little shop with Webern scores in the window. So Joey was the guy who took us over there, because he was split between two worlds. He was bringing in rock groups but at the same time promoting classical concerts, and on the board of this modern music publishing concern.
Will he be involved in the concerts in September?
No, the promoter in September – this group has been in existence for ten years, and the guy who did the most to organize and put them on the map was Karsten Witt. He had a real talent for organization and helped them make a deal to get an industrial building on the outskirts of Frankfurt, which is their permanent laboratory. It's fantastic what they've done to it: triple-walled rehearsal studios, a climate-controlled basement full of percussion equipment of every description, a massive collection of really good professional equipment, individual rehearsal halls, a small auditorium for press conferences and recitals on the ground floor. The third-floor offices are all modern office equipment and communications, and the top floor is a concert hall with a 20-foot ceiling with windows that look out over Frankfurt on the top of this industrial building out in cement-plant country, and that's their facility. Anyway, Karsten helped them put this together. When the project first began Karsten was about to turn over the reins to Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, who's the director now, because Karsten got the job of being the director of the Vienna Festwochen. So when he went to Vienna part of his concert schedule for 1992 was to bring in the Ensemble with my project.
A building like that must be very expensive. They must be well funded.
Well, they share the building with a group called the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, which is really their orchestra but it's all young non-professionals. Part of the money comes from the city of Frankfurt, and the rest of it comes from their concert revenues. They have records, but they're all on small, obscure European labels.
They must be really pulling people in to survive on concert revenues.
If they do 2,000 people a night, it's a major turnout. I think for modern music, even though it's supported more in Europe than it is here, still if you get more than 500 people at a concert you're doing something special, because there are just too many other things to attract the concert dollar. But this year's budget for the Frankfurt Festival, which is the overall umbrella in which this event is occurring, I think is $6.7 million for the month. And for that amount they have to mount all these concerts for Cage, Stockhausen, my stuff, and I think Knaifel. It's a week for each composer, and it coincides with what would have been Cage's 80th birthday.
There's no American city that would ever raise six million dollars for something like this.
Yeah, and you also have to realize that during this same period of time many other German cities have their own fucking festival going on with equal budgets. Cologne's probably got something just as big and just as elaborate. Berlin has something simultaneously. In fact, one of the orchestras in Berlin is playing my music at the same time. Also during that week in Frankfurt, the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie is playing "Bogus Pomp" after the Ensemble dates.
The series of concerts will be a gratifying honor. Are you looking forward to it, or dreading it?
Well, both, because this is probably the most complicated concert music project I've ever been involved in. The logistics of it are staggering. And there are budgetary constraints. I mean, if this was rock and roll, and you were going to go out to do all this stuff, you know you could sell a lot of seats, and you could make a lot of money, and you could do a lot of things if you took that money and turned it back into the production. But when you're dealing with a 2,500-seat hall and this kind of music, the economic structure is not the same.
Do you have to pay for a lot of this?
No. As a matter of fact, for the first time in history, ladies and gentlemen, they have paid me. And they've paid me enough money that I have been able to work on this thing for about a year. But that's just for delivering to them notes on paper. The problems arise when you start trying to figure out how to make the thing sound the way it's supposed to sound in these environments and pick it up and move it to two other locations. Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser, the director of the Ensemble, has been going around Europe trying to find the extra financing to make all this happen. And if he does not succeed in doing that, we'll have to find some kind of a Plan B. [Ed. Note: According to our sources at Barking Pumpkin, Plan A was enacted, thanks to the Alte Oper and Siemens Cultural Program, among other funding sources.]
How much impact do daily events, small or large, have on your work as an artist?
In terms of the news or in terms of what happens around the house?
The birth of children, the news, whatever.
Well, they both have an impact. If I see something that really pisses me off, there's no way I can shake it off. It'll either keep me from working altogether or send me in a blind rage to the Synclavier. Some things are just so depressing that I Can't work at all. I'll just go to sleep. I'll just have to sleep it off, because it's like having a mountain of bad vibes dumped on you.
Some artists claim that there should be a separation between themselves and those sort of things, as though they can remove themselves from whatever they're doing.
Who are these artists? What an important question to ask before you buy their album!
What sort of sociological "lemming effect" do you see in the rise of the guitar superhero?
I don't have a speech I make about this, but my observation is that guitar playing as currently understood has more to do with sports than it has to do with music. It's an Olympic-challenge type of situation. the challenges are in the realm of speed, redundancy, choreography, and grooming.
I remember an historical theory stating that the end of any century usually was marked by terrific declines in everything from arts to politics. As we careen toward the year 2000, do you think there's some sort of planetary "trigger" that goes off and creates bizarre phenomena like guitar superheroes who just play as fast as they possibly can?
I don't think that the guitar superhero mentality is an evil unto itself. We have to go back to the real evil, the MBA mentality, because this phenomenon could not proliferate if it weren't being manufactured, widely distributed, and supported by enormous industrial forces. Otherwise it would be just laughable. You can't look at something like that, which on its face is truly laughable, and laugh at it when so many people with so much money are taking it so seriously. And that's the message that goes out to the next generation of "guitar heroes." In a way, it's like the message in those ads which you'll see if you ever watch television during the daytime to find out what women get to see for commercials. In the middle of the Sally Jessie Raphael show, there are all these commercials for lawyers who will be happy to sue your employer because you felt stress. Have you ever seen these things? One commercial shows a happy couple – you – on the bow of a yacht clinking champagne glasses together because you had the wisdom and fortitude to dial this number and sue your employer because you experienced stress.
In the "Guitar Clone" article you did for Guitar Player, you stated that the entire population, even guitar players, "has been transmuted into a reasonably well-groomed, odor-free consumer amoeba that is kept alive only to service manufacturers and lives its life by the motto: biggest, fastest, loudest, mostest, and best." What a motto. What's a motto that you wish we could substitute?
I think we should avoid mottos. Mottos are what you're left with when society becomes freeze-dried. If you can reduce everything to a motto, you're in deep shit. I mean, that's the message. We are in deep shit. And it's getting deeper, and nobody wants to bail it.
How do we get out of this, Mr. Frank?
I don't think we're getting out. I think that we must adapt. The human organism is fairly flexible, and the United States is being transformed into something truly hideous, and those who wish to continue to live here and function as Americans are going to have to find some way to adapt. You're going to have to find a way to drink foul water, breathe foul air, eat semi-poisonous and/or non-foods, and find some way to keep a job so that you can spend money to experience the thrill of these things.
Sounds pretty exciting.
Well, that's evolution. We have evolved to this. Look, every senior citizen who's asking, "What's going to happen to my benefits?" can think back to the days when they told little Sonny, "Be a lawyer; it's a good job," because these are the people who went out and did their job and found ways to make their job pay better by creating more laws that were even more baffling, that caused the average person to need them. So when you have a society that is addicted to lawyers, addicted to credit, addicted to stupidity, with nowhere to go and nobody to sell it to, what do you call that? I mean, is thatApocalypse Now or what?
Lorin Hollander says that some of your music is painfully beautiful. I don't know if you hear it that way. And even in your instrumental music, where we don't have the words going on, you put humor in the liner notes. Is that coming out of this political feeling you have, or is it an organizational element whereby you're creating a contrast between something very moving and something very funny, or is it to keep these sort of emotions at a distance, or am I intellectualizing too much?
I think you're intellectualizing too much. You can reduce it to this – you can ask this question: Is it possible to laugh while fucking? I think yes.
What about the issue of the ethics of sampling? At what point does the line become gray?
I think that, aesthetically, a case can be made in both directions. If there was really some superbly artistic reason for taking massive chunks of James Brown albums, or whatever it is that you're stealing to create this unique new collage that required a wholesale chunk of James Brown texture in order for you to do your art, then I think James Brown ought to get paid, and James Brown's record company, which actually owns the copyright on the master or the chunk of the master that's used, they ought to get paid. And if you can't do your art without stealing chunks of James Brown, and you don't want to pay James Brown, then find some other art to do.
How long has it been since you've played guitar?
A long time.
Do you fiddle anymore?
Well, I keep one sitting by my chair in the studio, and when there's some boring mechanical process going on, I'll pick it up and plink a few notes on it, but I don't really play it. I just touch it every once in a while.
All the years that you were considered a great guitar player, were you trying to be a guitar hero, or were you using it merely as a musical tool?
I like music, and the guitar just happened to be the instrument that I play, rather than piano or accordion or bugle. I was never really a guitar fetishist, and all the stuff that goes along with the guitar-hero mentality is alien to me.
Do you think you've lost your skills, aside from having your calluses turn to marshmallows?
I don't think I can play anymore. I don't have any motivation to play. I don't have any backing group that would allow me to do the kinds of things that I do. They're begging me to do something in this show in Germany, and that's one of the things that I dread, because I think the audience will probably be expecting it, too. And it's difficult to go onstage with just a little stick in your hand and no guitar after 25 or 30 years of doing it the other way. So that's going to be hard. It depends on what you're trying to do on the guitar. I mean, if you know how to play chords, it's not likely that you're going to forget all the chords. But improvising a solo comes from places in your brain or someplace else in your body that can be adversely affected. And I don't feel right playing guitar. It's an uncomfortable feeling.
How do you view yourself in the world of music? Do you have a sense of place vis-à-vis other serious composers?
Well, yes: basically, that I don't belong [laughs].
There's nobody like you. Nobody does anything like what you do.
That's true, so therefore ... what? Three dots...
How did that happen?
My taste was just different.
From early childhood on.
And you had the good sense to listen to yourself rather than to other people. That's a unique characteristic and must somehow be tied into being a successful artist.
Today the most successful artists never listen to themselves. They always listen to the managers of the corporations that keep them going. Because, in today's world, if you afford yourself the luxury of following your own artistic whims, you'll be out of a contract. You'll no longer have that tennis shoe endorsement or that soft drink endorsement. You'll be a bad person. You'll be forgotten. You'll be stacked up with Flock Of Seagulls and name the next one. You'll be on the rack with those guys. Everybody is so well-behaved today.
Do you think that there might be people sitting out there working as night clerks in motels writing symphonies that will never be heard? Or have even those people finally given up?
I think there are still probably a few left. And I only say that because of the mathematical probabilities that, evil as the current system is, it's not so efficient that it can kill us all. there are a few stragglers out there. You'll never hear what they do, though. That's the problem. Unless you can hear music by reading it off paper.
You don't think a scenario might unfold in the future like in the past, when Felix Mendelssohn found a ream of paper with notes on it, which turned out to be the works of Bach, who had been forgotten for the prior hundred years? Do you think there's any future hope for excavation of these motel music writers?
No, because it's tied to economics. Look at it mechanically. In a society where the economic system sets aside money to finance cultural activities, maybe. In a society that is based purely on profit versus cost, the mathematical probabilities of anything like that happening, ever, are so small as to be not worth considering. Let me contrast just this one other thing. One of the best-kept secrets in American life is the attendance annually at museums by the American people. More people go to museums every year than attend football and baseball combined. It's the best-kept secret in this country. The desire of the average person to consume something other than shit is there, but the people do not control the hand that turns the crank that redirects the river of shit in their direction. They have no control over these guys who have made the decision that this is what they want, and this what they'll get. And they'll get more of it, and the flow will never stop. But I don't think that the American species is so debased that they have given up on all hope of a cultural life. It's just that they have no concept of how to achieve it or really understand why it's worth preserving. And that's what's so sad about museum attendance, because stuff in a museum is dead. It's cultural necrophilia. A museum should exist, yeah; you should go and see the past, you should see that treasured little thing – whatever it is. But that's like the mentality of the guy who wanted to shut down the patent office in the early 1900s because it was the official government point of view that everything had already been invented.
There's a part of me that wants to believe that somehow there will be a great sweeping away of all these forces of ignorance and evil, and these people who long for something that uplifts their spirit or entertains their eye and ear will get what they want.
Well, right now, the desire to consume that stuff – the need – is being fulfilled on a local and regional and even domestic level by people recording things on little home studios for their own amusement and the amusement of their friends. That's the equivalent of the guy in the motel writing the symphony. It's the guy with his little Fostex making his own demos even though he's never going to get a contract. And it's like the revolution in home video. People are shooting what they want to see – basically, themselves fucking.
I keep thinking of your comment about attendance at museums, and I keep wondering about the contempt that somebody must hold for the American public, of what they would or wouldn't enjoy hearing, or seeing, or doing.
It's more than just contempt. The people who make these decisions don't even care about the public at all. It's beyond contempt for them. They have a special agenda, anything status quo, which means maintaining the current administration. They'll put up with whatever they can handle in Congress, but the idea is to subjugate the population. All ideas have to be subjugated, behavior has to be subjugated. And the problem is if it were an ingenious policy and somebody found an ingenious way to inflict the policy, then everything might be sort of okay. But what you've got is a really stupid policy with an ingenious way of inflicting it. They're much better at the methodology of inflicting suppression than they are in coming up with a creative policy that is worth inflicting on the public.
What my naïveté prevents me from understanding is how this mechanism evolved, and what the breeding process is that gives us the officials or bureaucrats or politicians that enforce and perpetuate it.
For one thing, there was this entity created by Ronald Reagan called the Department of Domestic Diplomacy. If you look in the Iran-Contra manual, you'll find out.
This is not a joke.
It's not a joke. The guy that he put in charge of running this thing had no address, no phone number. You couldn't call the Washington directory and get the number of the Department of Domestic Diplomacy. The guy who ran it was Otto Reich, who used to be the head of dis-information for the CIA. You should get the Iran-Contra thing and look it up in the table of contents. I had heard a rumor about this thing. I couldn't believe that it was real. I went on C-SPAN and talked about it. And I started getting phone calls from people saying, "Yeah, it is real." And one guy faxed me the actual pages from the Iran-Contra book that had the whole story of this thing in there. And as far as I know, it was never disbanded. The thing still exists, unless there's been a miracle. It's just like Cointelpro under Nixon. Cointelpro was what they were trying to hide with Watergate. It wasn't just breaking into the Democratic headquarters. What they're trying to cover up is the fact that Nixon had decided to create a secret police. There was no legal authority to spy on U.S. citizens. He felt he had enemies everywhere, so he created a program called Cointelpro. It was all the domestic spying on political groups, people he perceived as enemies. And since it couldn't exist under law, it had to be financed by a slush fund.
He went out to investors?
There were plenty of investors for Nixon. For example, a lot of people don't realize that Marcos gave him 15 million dollars. If you've got a right-wing fascist idea, there's plenty of people who will give you money to pull it off.
Was this going to operate somehow under Nixon or under the CIA, or the FBI?
I think that it was a stand-alone operation, but under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department. It was so corrupt, and it was such an affront to democracy, and most people don't realize it already happened. The other thing that happened under Reagan is that in the early part of his administration, he signed a presidential order, a presidential finding, a directive that finally gave the CIA legal permission to spy on U.S. citizens.
Is this still in effect?
Yes. It was done as part of the war of drugs.
That's scary. How do you get so informed on this?
People send me stuff. I look at every different news source that I can find, and read between the lines, and the rest of the time you watch C-SPAN, and every news story that comes on raises a question. The first question is, why is that story on and not something else? And then what about the spin? You know, when they tell you a story, how are they spin-doctoring it?
Tell us about your phone call to Edgard Varèse.
I had received for my 15th birthday $5, and – although I had never made a long-distance call before – I thought that maybe for $5 I could make a call to that mysterious place Greenwich Village, to call Varèse. And my mother said okay. And he wasn't there. He was in Brussels getting the "Poème électronique" ready for the World's Fair. But I did speak with his wife. And I've spoken to her a couple of times on the phone.
Did you learn anything that was important to you, other than just to make the call?
Well, what are you really going to learn? What's a composer's wife going to tell you? She was a nice lady. She was kind to take the call. They lived on Sullivan Street in the Village. It was a nice place. It had a red lacquer door. When we moved to New York in '67, we had this miserable fucking apartment on Thompson Street, but it was a block away from Varèse's house. He was already dead by that time, but I used to walk by there and see that little red door and just try to imagine what it would be like to be trapped in that apartment not writing music for 25 years.
You mentioned once that you were sometimes influenced by sidemen. How much do people really influence you?
If you find out that there is a person who can play a certain instrument, and do things on that instrument that are unique, you're always tempted to write something specifically for that individual.
Like with Vinnie Colaiuta?
He's a perfect example. He's a truly unique individual.
In his rhythmic ability to hear more than a one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four?
Yeah. And to play it with style and attitude. Attitude is a prime commodity in music today, but this is one of the guys who invented attitude.
Where did the title Barking Pumpkin come from?
That's an easy one. Gail used to smoke. She quit. But she used to smoke Marlboros, and she coughed all the time. And so I had always referred to her as my pumpkin, and so at that point she was a barking pumpkin.
Since you said you haven't played guitar in so long, my impression of you over the last many years is of an extraordinarily serious composer locked away late at night typing away on a Synclavier. Do you know any other composers who have done as much continuous work as you on a Synclavier?
I don't know too many composers who can afford them. There's a guy named Herb Pilhoffer in Minneapolis who has a setup twice as big as mine, mainly because he's doing these commercial things and some film scoring. I've never met him, but my assistant (Todd Yvega) used to work for him and told me about his setup. There may be some Synclavier setups in some universities with some students using them. But as far as composers of any kind of repute that have this system or anything like it, I don't think so. Because it's not just a stand-alone system. you can't just buy one and then do it, because in order to reproduce it and capture what it does, you virtually need to plug it into a recording studio.
You mentioned once that your Synclavier was unable to stop and play from any given point. Is that still a problem, or did they fix it?
That particular thing was making it play from any given point from the music-printing page. And they are no longer supporting their music-printing software. I think they fired everybody who wrote their music-printing software. The company is basically going the direction of selling the system to the world of film and television. They use the sound-effects inserting device. And although it wasn't originally touted as a musical instrument and a composer's tool, I think that their bread is being buttered by the entertainment industry now.
So you won't get this issue taken care of.
Not unless I go out and hire the guy who wrote the music software and tell him to come in and fix this. We're using [Coda] Finale software. It runs on a Mac, is MIDI-interfaceable, and graphically it mops the floor with the Synclavier's music printing. It's probably the most complicated piece of musical software I've ever seen. I mean, I own it, but I still can't work it. Ali Askin, the copyist for the Ensemble, wanted to use it in order to prepare the scores for Frankfurt, so I let him go out and buy a copy. He learned to work it in about a week. How, I'll never know, because there are three incredibly dense, tiny-print manuals on this thing that are absolutely baffling.
The idea was that if I got a copy of the software, too, then I could do a MIDI dump by using this new feature on the Synclavier. I can take my sequences, transfer them via the MIDI port into Finale, and then send him floppies of the Synclavier stuff so he can manipulate the pictorial data in Germany. I had to buy the software just to set up this communication link with him. We installed it, but I've never even attempted to use it. The first thing I did was have my assistant, Todd Yvega, who is a real computer whiz, try to figure out how the damn thing worked. And when I saw him pulling his hair out, I said, "This is not for me. I'll get too frustrated." Let me give credit where credit is due. Todd is really Mr. Synclavier.
The other guy whom I regard as a major talent and a major asset in preparing the work that I'm doing now is the new recording engineer, Spencer Chrislu. And this other guy who makes sure that everything works is Dave "The Tree Hugger" Dondorf. So between Dave, Spence, Todd, and myself, when we all get together and all the equipment is working, we can rule the world! The days on which everybody's here and all the equipment is working are so few and far between, I think the world is still very safe.
When computer technology reaches a point where people can start using their finger or a pen to write things, would you switch back from typing in notes into writing in notes again, only now on computer screens?
Well, I have to go back to dots on paper because it seems that since I cannot operate Finale, and there are some strategic limitations to the Synclavier software, in order to prepare the composition for the Ensemble Modern, the easiest way to make some of this stuff happen is to just go back to dots. For this, I had to get special glasses made, because the normal ones that I use were the focal length between my head and the CRT, and are therefore useless. It's the hunched-over-monk work position on a table, so I had to get these mondo-magnifiers.
I've been reading about a rising interest in country music at the same time that there's a rising interest in rap. Are there racist components at work here, or is this all media hype?
Anything that appears in multiple locations on fronts of magazines which are basically owned or affiliated with record companies and broadcasters, I think you can count on smelling a rat.
You mentioned once in an interview that one of the sad things for young people is that they no longer have venues in which to hear improvisation.
Yeah. And since most of the best improvisation was never photographed or videotaped, if they're raised in a world where the interest of a musical nature is tied only to the question of, "Is there a video of it?" kids will never get a chance to hear what it was. If it is no longer fashionable to listen to music, if your peer group only watches music, and if you're old-fashioned and you listen to music, then you could lose status by being a mere listener. The trend today is to be a music-viewer-slash-dance-participant.
Are we seeing an era in which even the phenomenon of listening to music will give way to some other fad like the Duncan yo-yo men and ballroom dancers and vaudevillian jugglers?
That even sounds like a kind demise.
You think it will be more brutal?
Since music exists now at the whim of corporate sponsorship, the temptation to create musical divisions at corporations who prey upon these consumers is going to be very strong. In other words, the trend I see is towards a Coca-Cola concert division, a Pepsi-Cola concert division, a Nike concert division, a you-name-it concert division, where the type of music required to help sell their products is nurtured in a test tube and then foisted onto the consumer world with the whole control, cooperation, and financial backing of the manufacturer who stands to benefit from it.
Do you see the same scary, depressing future for metropolitan orchestras as well? They already play Beethoven's Fifth every season.
What could be more scary than their existence right now? What's more scary than being in that orchestra where you never do anything other than that? Except die.
How many orchestras do you know that are able to even expand their repertoire? Kent Nagano was the first conductor that I ever heard of trying to do something semi-strange.
Well, Kent is also a unique individual. This is a chance-taking, weirdo, outside guy. He's not a normal orchestral conductor. He's being very successful, more successful in Europe than here, because that's where the action is. Take for example this project that I'm doing. There's no way it could ever be done in the United States. No group would ever come to me and offer me the amount of money that would enable me to work on it for a year.
How is your next album coming along?
I finally finished disc one of the Civilization Phaze III album, which is something that I've been promising for years and years. Most likely, it's going to be a double CD. But the thing that's unique about this album is, it combines the people inside the piano that were on Lumpy Gravy, except that on Lumpy Gravy there was just this smidgen of what was actually recorded with them. I've had these tapes since 1967 and have extensively edited all this semi-random conversation together into little scenes that form the bridges between the Synclavier pieces that are the bulk of the album. And it's pretty astonishing.
How long were they in that piano?
And then you let them out?
Well, you can't make them stay, and you don't want them in there unless they're being entertaining. And so it started to become a trendy thing to do at this particular studio. Like the receptionist out there would go, "They're in there in the piano again, ha ha ha." And the next thing you know, she's one of the people in the piano. So the cast of characters that wandered in and out of the piano covered everybody from Motorhead and [bass guitarist] Roy Estrada to the sister of the guy who owned the recording studio to Monica the Albanian receptionist to bunches of other people whose names I can't even remember. They just happened to be there, and I said, "Do you want to go in the piano?" And they said, "Yes."
Sounds like a microcosm of America once again. Did you listen to all of the hours of this stuff?
Absolutely. And I've been listening to it since 1967. This is a process of creating stylized poetry using digital editing techniques. You know how hard it is to edit any material that's ambient using a razor blade? You can't make it sound right. But thanks to the Sonic Solutions, you can do these cross-fade edits where the resonance of the piano does not cut off and the people who were not even in the piano on the same day would talk to each other or answer each other back in some strange conversation. Without Sonic Solutions, I couldn't have put this thing together. It was truly a project that had to wait for technology to catch up and make it possible. So not only do we have these smooth transitions from different days and different groups of people inside the piano, but they also blend seamlessly into the Synclavier pieces. So the piano overhang, which would be the result of voices setting the strings in motion, will be overhanging the start of the Synclavier piece, and the last chord of a piece will be ringing off into the piano as they come in talking again.
Were the Synclavier sections composed after listening to all this older material, or had you been sketching them out all along?
You've got to understand what the Synclavier process is like, as opposed to writing for any other medium. Imagine being a sculptor, okay? And imagine making your own mountain and then going to the mountain periodically and hauling your own hunks or marble back to the shop so that you can whack away on them. Sculpture is a subtractive medium, and you start off with more than you wind up with. So the analogy here is that the raw material that I'm working with is whatever is in my imagination versus what samples are at my disposal. And building the mountain is building your collection of samples. After you've recorded the individual instrument, or jackhammer, or whatever it's going to be – you can't deploy it into a composition unless it's been captured. You know, it needs a start mark and an end mark put on it, and all this really drudgerous book-keeping kind of stuff, which Todd does for me. So I've got far more samples on tape now than I even have access to in the Synclavier, just because it takes months to prepare the raw material. And as the new samples come on-line, they are deployed into compositions which have been worked on over periods of years. In other words, the day I start a certain composition, I have one set of samples, and it makes the composition sound a certain way. But as new sounds come along, and they're plugged into the composition, the notes may be the same, but the whole sound of the piece changes.
And so you're often rewriting material you wrote long ago. At least the notes on paper now have a different timbre.
It's not just that. I mean, when you get to hear other possibilities, you're influenced by the very process. For example, when I first bought the Synclavier, it wasn't even a sampling machine, and I started writing things for it that just used the FM synthesis. The main charm with a Synclavier at that time was the power of its sequencer and the fact that you could have multi-tracks and things colliding with each other. So some of the pieces that were started even in the pre-sampling days on the Synclavier have gone through permutations over the years and still haven't been released yet. About a month ago, we finished something that I've been working on for 10 years; it's 24 minutes long. It sounds like an orchestra piece, but it's an orchestra like you never heard before. You couldn't get an orchestra like this. Not only do you have all the normal orchestral-sounding instruments – the piano, percussion, and the rest of that stuff – but it has every known kind of synthesizer noise built into it, plus vocal sound effects and car sounds and all this stuff organized into basically a diatonic composition. I've been working on this thing for years and years and years, and every time a new sample comes along, it would go into this thing. That's going to be the centerpiece of the second disc. Timbre is determined by your samples, which is determined by your ability to purchase the samples or make them from scratch.
But the only real limitation on the machine is an "S" with two lines through it. Everything that it can do costs way too much money; since there are so few of them around, the price per pound of what it does is still way up there. In order to stay in business, the company had to make a decision to move it away from being a composer's tool to more of a sound-effects film-business-type tool. And so they've stopped supporting the music software. They've had a lot of software updates for all the editing aspects of it, but none for maybe three years on the music-printing software. They fired the guy who wrote the printing software, so that's kind of frozen in time. The software contract is $2,500 a year, just to stay current with what they're doing. It's mostly to expedite "housekeeping," et cetera.
The one thing that I am kind of proud of is that I never took any foundation grant money to do any of this stuff. it was all financed from record sales. But as the record sales go down, so does the amount of money that I can turn around and reinvest into the hardware – which has a price that's steadily rising – and it squeezes me into a weird kind of position, because it keeps me constantly in debt to the bank to pay off loans in advance to buy the equipment that's in that room. So it's like going down on a black hole, where it'll eventually reach a singularity, and – poof – there it is. Gail does all the business. She takes care of all the stuff for the bank. She arranges for all the loans to get the equipment. The house is her project; that's her composition.
How do you catalog your samples? Is it broken down by car-bumpers-falling-off noises versus. . . .
That would be under "Industrial." It's completely broken down. Not only that, but I think we've got tens of thousands of samples by now, and you memorize their names. There's an eight-digit computer name for each of these things. I can sit there and watch the thing, and I can see the name of the sample, and I know what it sounds like. I know every one of those little bastards. I know how far it will travel on the keyboard all by itself. I know this stuff inside and out. To be able to write music for that kind of sound universe offers some major opportunities if you have the time to do all the typing to manipulate it properly. And there's never enough time at one sitting to finish something, because the more you get into it, the more you understand it could sound a lot better if it only had this nuance or that nuance. And every nuance you want to add takes hours, which then go into days which go into weeks, and on and on.
And every one of those nuances needs to be defined – amplitude for each note, whether the note has vibrato or whether it's going to bend to the next note, all that stuff. All that has to be typed in as data. And it has to be transferred to tape, then it has to be mixed.
How do you ever know then something is done?
When I get so fucking sick of it, I go, "It's done!"
Does this ever feel like torture to you?
Oh, yeah. There are some intermediate stages that are definitely not fun.
But it's a habit you can't kick?
Yeah, that probably would be accurate. I don't think I would even want to.
As your skills increase, do you notice your music changing?
I don't know how to answer that. That's pretty subjective.
What do you feel are your greatest weaknesses?
I just can't do normal stuff.
You're talking about life skills?
Yeah, and their equivalent in music. I can't do counterpoint. I can't write traditional harmony, which would mean I would be virtually unemployable. Without me employing myself, I wouldn't have a job.
I've listened to some of your orchestral stuff and thought, "Gee, I notice he's getting rid of these sort of things I learned about in college."
I never had to get rid of them!
What are your greatest strengths?
Probably the greatest strength that I have is a sense of humor.
Your humor seems to show a real concern for the plight of human beings in a declining culture.
Well, I don't think in terms of things like "the plight of human beings," because they certainly haven't cared about my fucking plight, so why should I care about theirs? However, I think that the label of "misanthrope" is probably not right for me, and "misogynist" is not right either. The thing that interests me is the behavior. That's always been a fascinating thing to me. Whether an interest in behavior constitutes a "concern for a plight," that's subjective. But I think that it's even scientifically worthwhile to make some notes about behavior as observed. And this can lead you to speculation as to why such behavior occurs.
You once said you never got a good studio solo. Do you even try studio solos anymore?
No. I'll make one exception. I think that maybe "Sleep Dirt," for all its imperfections, is a pretty nice little solo. I've done a few guitar samples, but I probably should do more, because one of the things that would be a stimulating addition to the sample library would be a set of my guitar notes that would allow the machine to play all the shit I can't do with my fingers, and still make it kind of sound like my guitar. I'll get around to that one day.
Whatever happened to your Jimi Hendrix Miami guitar?
I gave it to Dweezil.
Is it playable?
Oh, yeah. He had it refurbished. Fender spiffed the thing back up.
Is there any type of music you hate?
There are certain things that I'm not fond of, but hate takes a lot of energy. I'm not really fond of commercial cowboy music or contemporary country – the "Slick Willie" type of shit. And lounge music I don't enjoy.
At one time weren't you a lounge musician?
Oh yeah, I had to do that, and at the end of it I put my guitar in the case and stuck it behind the sofa and didn't touch it I guess for a year. It was nauseating.
Do you see the world of sound as just this palette to draw from, or were there things about lounge music that actually made you run screaming out of the room?
When you're adopting or adapting a style in order to tell a story, everything's fair game. You have to have the right setting to the lyric. If it's a lounge setting, then there it goes. If it's a slick country setting, then there it goes. The important thing at that point is to tell the story. But I don't think of the world of musical style as the world of sound. That's another topic altogether. That's another planet. The world of sound is back to the jackhammers and women in labor.
You quoted Stockhausen's "lazy dogmas of impossibility."
Yeah. He had presented the score of the woodwind quintet of "Zeitmasse" to some musicians who looked at all these mondo tuplets and proclaimed the piece unplayable. Then he responded that they were creating "the lazy dogma of impossibility." And one of the most accurate performances of "Zeitmasse" that I know of was a cassette that somebody gave me of a group from San Francisco that had played at a chamber music concert. The guy who conducts the San Francisco Chamber Symphony invited me up there to conduct Varèse in '83. He gave me a cassette of a performance that he had conducted of "Zeitmasse," and it was really good. The first Columbia recording was full of mistakes.
But I'll tell you something: This Ensemble Modern could play that shit with their eyes closed. In this incarnation of the group, there's an American guy living in Italy who is playing the tuba, a Swiss character, a couple of Canadians, and an Australian, but, of course, being based in Frankfurt, it's mostly German musicians. The total instrumentation for my piece was about 25. They had to add some outside musicians because they don't normally have a mandolin player. The Ensemble Modern [normally about 14 members] has been augmented by an extra percussionist, so we have three percussion, a guitar, mandolin, two harps (one doubling piano), piano doubling celesta, five woodwinds, five strings, and seven brass. The group has been around for about 10 years, and they own themselves. They have an elected three-musician board of directors which handles the aesthetic decisions on what they're going to play and when they're going to play it. In order to be in the group, you have to be voted in every year. If you fuck up, you're out.
No tenure. And there's a waiting list of people who would like to be in this group. They do about 100 concerts a year all over the world, and it's a full-time job. These guys don't go out and do jingle dates, and none of them are making a lot of money from doing this. They all seem to be living pretty close to the economic borderline. About half of them go to work on bikes – rain, sleet, or snow.
And can they play! It's unbelievable.
Are they young, old, or mixed?
How did you hear of this group?
I was contacted by a guy named Henning Lohner, who had a documentary about me that's never been on the air in the U.S., but it's been on in Europe. It's all about the serious-type stuff. Henning knew a guy named Dr. Dieter Rexroth, who runs the Frankfurt Festival and was the director of the Hindemith Institute in Frankfurt. Dr. Rexroth, although he doesn't speak much English, is a big fan of my stuff, and Henning suggested to him that they invite me to do something in this festival. So they sent me an economic proposal that was insufficient and I thanked them and said no. What they wanted was impossible. So about four months go by, and I get another call, and they say they really want me to be involved in this festival, and would I meet with these guys from the Ensemble Modern. Then they sent me some CDs that the group had made for some German label. And the thing that astonished me was that it was just a great album. They had recorded the music of Kurt Weill. The selections were all obscure, unique things, some of them with vocals, and the recording was great, the performance was great.
At any rate, finally we came to an agreement, and I definitely had the idea that these people really wanted to do this. I didn't realize the decision was not just coming from the director of the festival; the musicians voted to invest their time and energy in this project. The musicians themselves desired to do this. And so you know under those circumstances that, whatever you write, they're going to play the fuck out of it. So the next thing that happened was, I said let's construct the piece while you're here; why don't you come to Los Angeles for two weeks, and I'll rehearse with the group just like I would rehearse with a rock and roll band. And that's what happened: We did rehearsals, we recorded some improvisations, we did mass samples with the whole group and individual samples – things that never came out of notation in any textbook, things that you could never write down on paper.
How long did they stay?
For the entire two weeks. Now here's the other thing: During all this time none of them got paid anything!
Sounds like your type of guys.
There was nothing they wouldn't try. If we were after a particular musical result, they were all for it. The classic example was they are so sound-texture-oriented that they would try anything, even abuse their instruments. The French horn players were sitting there scraping the bells of their horns across the floor, and those things are very expensive. If I had the finest Hollywood musicians, at no price could I have gotten those sounds.
And they certainly wouldn't have been that committed.
The other great noise was – there are two people in this group who play didgeridus. One of them is the woman from Australia who is also the oboe player. And one afternoon, I imagined this awful sound that could be created if one were to take a didgeridu and play it into a partially filled coffee pot. And I asked her whether she would do it. She said yes, and let me say, it is truly nauseating. I was laughing so much I had to leave the room.
That sounds like a great group – fun to work with.
They're so serious. The kind of laughs that they gave are German laughs. You know what I mean? It's like there's a different kind of humor involved here. There's a different perspective on things. You can laugh, but not too much. Anyway, you know what happens if you take a little straw and blow it into a half-empty Coke bottle? Imagine a straw with a diameter of about an inch-and-a-half or two inches. It already has a wooden resonance to it. You know the noise that comes out of a didgeridu, that kind of circular-breathing-type low droning noise? If you plunged anything that would make that noise into a liquid, you get the tone and the bubbles at the same time. It's pretty nauseating, but fascinating.
How much do you feature it in the new piece? Is it just a little punctuation that comes and goes, or is it the whole theme?
She's going to have a solo.
Does she know that yet?
Oh, sure. They all – since they were using up their vacation time to do this project – she had to leave the day before the last day, and so I had to make sure I got all of her individual samples out of the way. I said goodbye to her and thanked her very much. And the next night, we were having our final jam session of the season. And she showed up again. She cancelled her flight, because she was having so much fun. And at the end of the thing, she said, "In all my musical life, I have never had as much fun as these two weeks working on this stuff." And I was stunned, because it was really such hard work and so many hours.
You allowed them to be so creative, and you asked them to draw upon all their skills and to expand their own borders in ways that they probably don't get a chance to do.
Well, for one thing, I wanted to find out whether they could improvise. Most of the musicians in that part of the musical world don't. And for the first time in their lives, these people got a chance to play a solo and they went from sheer terror to ecstasy.
You gave them all these opportunities. You have a reputation for being a mentor of the young and/or fosterer of unknown people's careers. How did that happen?
I think that it probably has something to do with fractals. The more I think about fractals, the more the whole idea of fractals relates closely to what I do.
Well, if you're trying to divine order out of chaos, that's a little bit presumptuous, but then on the other hand so is the concept of chaos. So I would say that the fractal theory falls in the cracks between those two attitudes. And rhythmically, if you're dividing the universe into twos and threes, which is basically what happens with all polyrhythmic subdivisions, you are to some degree missing the boat – the fractal boat. If you can think of rhythm as an extension of the fractal universe instead of even subdivisions of twos and threes grouped into elevens and thirteens or whatever, if you can think of microsecond relationships as being valid components of polyrhythms, then you're getting closer to the way I view things. And if you can, transferring that into the anthropological domain, how I wind up being, in your words, a mentor to these kinds of people, it just seems that the odds are in my favor, that if I keep doing what I'm doing, we will meet.
You made the comment that listeners accept polyrhythms in your music and African drum music with much greater ease than they do dissonance. Why is it that harmony seems to linger around so much?
Rap music may bring an end to that. Think about it. What is so preciously consonant about spoken words? It used to be, in order to have something acceptable as broadcast material or even listenable material, it had to be saturated with consonance. And although rap music is not dealing with harmonic combinations of major and minor seconds, it is certainly dealing in dissonance.
That's true. You've done a lot with spoken material, too, such as that thing with Steve Vai tracking your voice.
Oh, on "Dangerous Kitchen"? Yeah, where he wrote the – well, I'd have to call it a scat because there's no other word for it. It's on that and "Jazz Discharge Party Hats." He transcribed it and then learned it on the guitar and then played it on the record. But I think that the other, better example of spoken material would be something like "Dumb All Over."
Why is it okay to hear really strange rhythms but not to hear really strange harmonies?
Well, arguing the other position, people do assimilate really strange harmonies when they are accompanied by the appropriate image.
Do you mean like in horror-movie music when the maniacal slasher is about to come?
It's got to be visually triggered.
Well, the society has been so saturated with visual data, and the audio that goes along with those pictures stays in your tissue, kind of like dioxin. And you hear the slasher music, you know what slasher texture is, you know slasher harmony [laughs]. And if you hear anything that sounds like slasher harmony, and there's no slasher, you're still going to feel the slasher.
Then the question becomes, have the visual media people created the proper image to go with the sound?
Well, if I were going to do a slasher movie, I could be a lot scarier than the shit that they stick in there. I thought that the pinnacle, the thing that everybody has gone for since it was established as a slasher norm, was the squeak squeak squeak from Psycho. Most film scoring for tense moments runs the gamut from squeak squeak squeak to the filter opening up on the Minimoog on the low note. Not too much in between there.
How do you think Schubert would feel knowing that the Unfinished Symphony is the Smurfs' theme?
Well, how do you think that the people in America would feel if they knew where the Smurfs came from? They were an advertising device for British Petroleum. When we went to Holland for the first time with the band with Mark and Howard in '70 or '71, the whole place was riddled with fuckin' Smurfs advertising BP. And the joke in the band was "Smurf mee," because on the billboards that's what they said. "Smurf me" spelled "me-e-e." I don't know what it means. But to go from that to what we now have as a family of Smurfs with their own personalities. According to Ahmet, who saw this spectacle on television, he witnessed an interview with a guy who was one of the Smurf voices, taking himself so seriously that it beggared description. I mean, he did about a five-minute routine on this guy.
There's our cultural hero. And again it gets me back thinking of guitar heroes, and why they are gunslingers. In your touring days with rock bands, did you see guys out there playing air guitar?
What is that, and how come girls don't do it?
Well, because their tits get in the way, for one thing – same reason why you don't see that many girl guitar players unless they're handling it at a low altitude. But I think it's probably because girls are too smart to play air guitar. If ever there was something that the women's liberation movement could use to prove the inferiority of the male species, it's the extremely low number of women who play air guitar.
We haven't talked about your business. As I understand it, you and Gail handle everything.
In the house, we have three offices. We've got one upstairs in the bedroom where I do all the liner notes and that kind of word-processing stuff. Gail has an office, and then there's another office just as you come in the gate that we use for all the phone transactions and that kind of stuff. We have a lab, we have a studio, we have an editing facility, three vaults for tape and film. That's all right here where we live. There's two other buildings in the San Fernando Valley. One of them is Joe's Garage, which is a rehearsal facility. And then there's our warehouse, where all the equipment and stuff comes out of. Gail runs all that.
Why did you decide to handle all these things yourselves?
Well, I would say there's a certain hose-job factor in there, but in reality it's just good business sense.
What's in that huge vault downstairs?
Since the early '70s, I've collected every interview, every performance clip, everything that was done around the world that I could get a copy of. Then there's all the rest of the footage from Baby Snakes, the accounts of every documentary that was done in Europe and everyplace else, and then there's videotape – every format from two-inch to digital video and all stops in between. Plus all the masters, all the road tapes, and all of the 1/4" tapes from Cucamonga. The audio tapes go back to '55.
So early on you were very careful about keeping thing and keeping them in order.
Well, being a pack rat is something, but keeping it in order is another thing.
In other words, it's a hellacious chore for someone.
Well, the vault is very well organized. And I know where stuff is, but nobody else does. In order to put it in a condition where anybody could go in there and find anything anytime they needed it, it would take about a year and a bar-code generator. Even a student intern wouldn't know what the fuck to do with it, because many of the road tapes have never even been listened to. They are still gaffered shut just the way they came off the road. And in order to log it, you've got to listen to it. And what intern is even going to know what he's hearing? And the mental notes that I have about what's on those tapes is not only what the tunes are, but where the good versions are. And your only other option to leaving the stuff scattered like that is to go through the arduous process of making logs of everything, clip the good takes out, collate them, and start yet another library.
Does it frustrate you that it's impossible to do all of these things as fast as you would want to?
Yes. Let me put it to you another way. If I could, I'd keep my studio running 24 hours a day. For some of those things that need to be done on the studio level, I don't need to be in the control room with the engineer. I could just give instructions, and because the board is automated, once you've done a mix, if anything needs to be changed in the mix, all he's got to do is go back and tweak a couple of faders and rerun it, and no time is lost. But this engineer that I'm working with, Spence, is a mutant, because not only does he understand old analog technology – he's still a vinyl guy at home, and he's one of these guys that likes tube amplifiers and all this kind of stuff – but he knows how to operate all of the digital recording equipment. He understands the Sonic Solutions, and he can even operate that aspect of the Synclavier that interfaces with the recording machines. In other words, I could leave him alone. I could say, "Call up this sequence, do this, this, this, and this," and he knows how to run all these things.
Now there's not too many recording engineers that I know of that have a hands-on experience with all this gear and do it right. And he's got real good ears for balancing things. I would need three guys like that in order to run three eight-hour shifts in there. And I feel lucky that I can get him four days a week, ten hours a day. But you know at the end of the day when he's got to go back to his wife, I'm sitting there going, "Oh well, we almost got that one done." It drives you crazy a little bit, but then on the other hand, if I were to just hire a bunch of guys to move the faders up and down, I wouldn't get "the good result." And besides, all these people have very unique personalities. Todd is truly a unique and mysterious character. Same with Dondorf, same with Chrislu. And fortunately they all get along with each other. And it's very amusing to be in the same room with these three guys trying to have a conversation with each other. I really enjoy it.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net