The Last Post

By Phil Alexander

Mojo, January, 2004


In July 1991 Phil Alexander conducted a TV interview with Frank Zappa about his move into business and politics. It remained unpublished. Until now.

“FRANK ZAPPA? IS HE A ROCK THING?” ASKS THE Dorchester hotel’s duty manager, the contempt in his voice audible. We have, it seems, come at a bad time. It’s 2.55 on a warm July afternoon and we are indeed here to interview the proud owner of what Matt Groening describes as “the best moustache in American history”. The only problem is that our gear-laden four-man film crew are likely to run into the Dorchester’s Afternoon Tea set and that, according to our high-pitched, plumby friend, “Simply will not do.” “We’ll just have to move you now!” he continues.

Moved we are, and forced to stand behind a screen to the left of the lobby. Our indignation is interrupted by the arrival of Dave Moulder, Frank’s personal assistant, who, in a bid to make us feel better, informs us of the hotel’s refusal to allow Frank to order a takeaway pizza the previous evening. As we ascend to Frank’s suite, we offer to smuggle in a pizza in our circular lighting case. Zappa chuckles at the idea.

On first impression there is none of the cantankerous behaviour Frank has previously displayed towards the British media. Casually dressed in a white sweatshirt, black jogging trousers and all-black trainers, Zappa lights a Winston, tosses the packet on to the couch to his right and nods his readiness to begin the interview.

There’s a lot to talk about. Musically speaking, Frank’s abandoned the guitar and live set-up in 1988 in favour of the Synclavier and studio work. Away from music, he’s set up Why Not? – a company designed to deal with international licensing and “social engineering” which has attracted the attention of the financial pages. Through this company he’s been involved with the rebuilding of post-Communist Czech government and become firm friends with guitarist-turned-cabinet official Michael Kocab and President Vaclav Havel, the former playwright, dissident and Zappa-freak (fave album: Bongo Fury) who led the so-called Velvet Revolution.

Visiting Prague in January 1990 at Havel’s invitation, Zappa was mobbed and shocked to find himself lauded as a symbol of artistic and social freedom. Capitalising on his folk hero status, the Czech government enlisted Frank as a “special ambassador to the West on trade, culture and tourism” (a tide afforded him in an official document). It’s a role he’s taken on with particular relish, interviewing Havel for the Financial News Network’s Focus programme in the US in a bid to talk up the Czech economy.

Today, Frank is on his way back from the Eastern Bloc to the US via London. He’s just played the Adieu CA festival (translation: Goodbye Soviet Army) in Prague, jamming with Kocab’s band Prazsky Vyber on an “improvisation in the key of A” known as Blaznivy Reggae. He’s also put in a similarly impromptu appearance at the Taban jazz festival in
Hungary. It’s intriguing stuff With all this in mind, and, weary of the fact that Frank doesn’t suffer fools gladly, it’s hard to know where to start. It’s here that our experience in the lobby comes in handy...

 

The manager downstairs described you as “a rock thing”...
“It doesn’t bother me. I mean, I’ve been called worse.”

Such as?
“I dunno. Whatever it was, if it was bad it was probably in the British press so I would imagine that rock thing’ is probably the nicest thing that anyone’s said to me all day.”

Let’s move on. You seem to be moving away from music and into the world of politics and finance. How do you view the business world?
“Hmmm... I think business is a good thing. Generals could learn a lot from corporate executives. The first rule is, you don’t kill your customers. If there is going to be a World War III then the major weapon is going to be the cash register and not nuclear missiles. People have to think about the business. They have to. I’ve never been shy about saying I was a businessman, even in the ’60s. It was the last thing in the world that anybody would want to say. I prefer to be able to earn money from what I do rather than take a part-time job in order to afford the pleasure of being a musician. I would rather scale my operation to a size where it can finance itself. And I think that today that there are a lot of people in rock’n’roll who are getting that idea. It’s not bad to look after your own interest.”

Your debut album Freak Out! on MGM was the first double album and cost a lotto make [reportedly $25,000]. What was that situation like, because you did seem to get a certain amount of freedom...
“You think they just let us make albums like that?! We argued with them all the time. In the case of [1968’s] We’re Only In It For The Money there were certain words on there that they didn’t like, and they wouldn’t let me use the word ‘psychedelic’ any place on the album and cut it out. Every step of the way they were afraid that there would be something on those albums that would drive somebody in high office to distraction. Somebody at MGM was close friends with Lyndon Johnson and when we put out the second album and we started making jokes about the President Of The United States they really started getting worried about it, so I’m glad we got away from that company.”

When you decided to set up independently in the ’70s, how did you approach your career?
“If you take the independent route you have to finance it all. That means that if you make a dollar you have to be ready to turn that dollar over and put it back into your company to make more product. It’s not like you make a dollar and now you’ll buy a yacht. You’re running a business and some records sell better than others and you have to be prepared to make your business work. A lot of people who got into rock’n’roll think that once you get a video into MTV then you’re a star and everything’s wonderful. The next step is the endorsement with Coca-Cola and you live happily ever after, but that’s not so. There are plenty of people who are famous on MTV and Sky and whatever who go, ‘Yeah, but what do I eat now?’”

In terms of business, sponsorship has raised a number of issues.
“You can’t escape it because the guy who is the promoter of the show may have already made a contract with a beer company – and this has happened to us because we’ve never been sponsored. You go on stage, suddenly the lights go on and either side of the stage there’s a soft drink or a beer name. The promoter picked up a quarter of a million dollars from the sponsor because he’ll run their sign throughout the whole concert series over the summer. There’s hardly any way to escape this, unless you’re playing tiny clubs where nobody wants to put up those beer signs.”

It does seem that rock’n’roll has become more money orientated...
“Well, it’s totally money-orientated with the collaboration of the artist, actually. The cost of taking a band on the road with a big light show, 10 trucks, huge crews and a big stage and fireworks and all the rest of that stuff, that costs a lot of money. The only way you’re going to go out on stage and look big is if somebody’s putting big bucks behind you. The trade-off is that they get to advertise some kind of product. Now some groups want to go in that direction and some groups don’t, but most do.”

As an independent flagship yourself, how do you view that?
“Well, a few years ago I made the drastic prediction that the future of rock’n’roll will be based on the fact that major beer and soft drink companies will eventually start their own concert divisions. They’ll build the kind of entertainment they want from scratch so that they can really control it, kind of like building The Monkees. Right now, we’re in the transitional phase where certain groups who seek these endorsements will write songs which they know, from the very moment they put the pen on the paper, that this is going to be good for beer. They know that not only will they get the tour sponsorship and the advertising back-up for the tour, but maybe their tune will be used for the beer commercial which generates hundreds of thousands more in revenue. So that’s what they do. I don’t do it. But because I didn’t do it in 19881 lost $400,000 on my tour, so I couldn’t afford to go back on the road even if I wanted to.”

Let’s talk about your musical output, there’s over 50 albums out...
“There are. I couldn’t tell you right now whether it’s 52 or 54 or 55 because I stopped counting. I would have to get the discography out and go down the list and total it up. I mean, I have been doing this for over 25 years...”

It seems you’re constantly working and that therefore one idea would flow onto the next. But when you get a new Frank Zappa album, most of the time it doesn’t bear any relation to its predecessor.
“Why does there have to be that kind of continuity? A problem with a lot of the groups that have tried to sound the same – or what a rock writer would call ‘consistent’- is that after three albums you’ve heard it all, it’s boring and it’s flat. With my material, since the personnel of band changes all the time, each album is kind of like an entry in a musical diary that goes over 25 years. Each entry reflects what the budget was, what the politics of the time were, who was available to be in the band, all that stuff. There’s a historical continuity to what I do rather than other groups that go, ‘Yeah, we have our style, our producer will always make us sound like this and therefore the audience will think we are really, er...’ well, whatever an audience might think. For me the compositions are what’s important and how they’re arranged and who plays them, what sort of recording style was used, whether it’s really tight or really ambient and whether I change to suit the material.”

You’re using the Synclavier more. Did you just get bored with six strings?
“No. I can hear guitar solos in my head, but why should I play them for no audience. I can’t play a solo unless I have a band and make a profit. You spend enough money on things that don’t bring anything back and you’re out of business, so it’s more economical and fulfilling right now for me to write music for the Synclavier than it is to play the guitar. Unless I just go around the world sitting in with people. Pick a key and do a jam. That’s about all you’re limited to unless you have your own band playing a composition that’s special to you, then why bother to do it?”

Fair enough. You ‘sat in’ in Prague recently.
“And Budapest also.”

So what’s the situation out there? You don’t have an official title, but you seem to be some sort of cultural attaché for the Czech government...
“I’m trying to help them because one of the problems they’re going to face as they change their economy over to a capitalist system is that under the communist system all the cultural stuff was subsidised. If you’re a writer, a painter or whatever, you could stay alive because you got some state cash. That’s gonna vanish. When they go to capitalism there’s no state cash for that kind of stuff. So I’ve come up with an idea to create a regional cultural fund that would be contributed to by Western industries that are going in there to set up.

“The idea is that they put money into this fund and instead of corporations deciding who gets the money, the fund is turned over to the regional government and they continue to subsidise culture with corporate cash. What the corporations get out of it is a better environment in which they will do their business because if the culture crashes in Eastern Europe then the people will be less likely to tolerate the inconveniences of changing to the capitalist system. In other words, there’s plenty of other disruptions that are going to come into their lives.

“If suddenly films in their own language start disappearing because the film studios can’t stay open any more, concerts in their own language start vanishing, the best artists in their own country leave the country because they can make more money elsewhere – if all that happens then the citizens in that part of the world are going to go, ‘Well, yeah, we have a capitalist economy now but our life isn’t as beautiful as it used to be.’ And when that happens there’s always the temptation that, in their new democratic system, they could have an election and the communists get back in via the vote instead of the tank. So I think it’s in the interest of the Western businesses that are going in there to keep a cultural continuity going. Things will work better.”

Looking at America at the moment, it seems a new wave of conservatism and censorship is raising its head again. Have you ever actually been censored yourself?
“Most of the stuff you can really call censorship came from those guys with the scissors at MGM who took stuff and cut it from the albums. But there have been more subtle situations. For example, certain major retail chains refusing to carry my product at all – including instrumental albums. And this is something that happened last year. There was a funny story in Billboard about this company who had 136 stores who wouldn’t sell my albums including Jazz From Hell. Billboard asked them, ‘How come you’re not going to carry that?’ and they said, ‘it must be something to do with the cover’ and the cover is just a picture of my face so... And there are video stores that won’t carry my video products from Honker Home Video.”

So how do you deal with that?
“We have a mail order company and we let people know if they call 818-PUMPKIN and they live in a socially retarded area they can order these products through the mail.”

OK, we’ve touched upon the past briefly...
“And that’s all it needs.”

We could go into it for a couple of decades, ’cos there’s so much history...
“Yeah. If you want me to relive all of it, but that would be boring.”

OK, let’s talk about the future. Where are you heading?
“I guarantee you that there are some audio surprises lurking within the next year because the Synclavier itself as an instrument has evolved so rapidly with what it can do as opposed to when I made the Jazz From Hell CD you wouldn’t even believe the difference. It’s an impossible machine. I’m also writing a piece for the Frankfurt festival in ’92 which is going to be performed by the Ensemble Modern which is a 25-piece chamber orchestra. They’re coming to Los Angeles for two weeks starting July 10 and I’ll work just like I would with a rock band to put the composition together, so that should be interesting. And I’m also thinking about running for President.”

Seriously? What’ll happen when you get in?
“Well, there’s going to be a lot of people very upset.”

 

The mischievous glint in Frank’s eye made it impossible to ascertain how serious he was about hitting the Presidential trail. He never got the chance to. Three months after our meeting the news broke that Frank had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. This stopped any further political explorations. In addition to this, US Vice-President Dan Quayle visited Havel in Czechoslovakia. “I felt sorry that he [Havel] would have to spend time with someone as stupid as Quayle,” commented Zappa.

Quayle’s message to the Czechs was simple: trade with Zappa and we won’t trade with you. It left Havel’s government with little choice.

Zappa himself plunged into what he’d always described as “the best”: music. His illness didn’t stop him from working on Civilisation Phase III (a posthumous release many view as his meisterwerk) and completing his work with the Ensemble Modern. The shows he conducted in Germany in September 1992 were recorded and made up the material on The Yellow Shark album, released on November 2, 1993. It was the last recording he would release in his lifetime, a fittingly ambitious final bow from a man whose sole ambition had always been to become a great composer. And, as his hero Edgard Varèse once said, “The present day composer refuses to die... ”

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know ka (at) afka.net