Head Mother Speaks Out

By Anna Maria Stramese

Underground Digest, March, 1968

Frank Zappa, Head of The Mothers of Invention, was interviewed by Anna Maria Stramese exclusively for the Underground Digest. The Mothers new Verve album "Lumpy Gravy" will be released shortly.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: Have you found that, because of the music you’re doing, you’re being kept from working in clubs or concerts?

ZAPPA: As a matter of fact, we turn down a lot of jobs.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: Is that mostly in New York?

ZAPPA: No, we get booking offers from all over. Most of them are on the East Coast. The West Coast, except for San Francisco, is pretty well dead. The cops have shut down just about every place you could work.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: I would have thought the West Coast music was much freer and looser and more diversified than the East Coast.

ZAPPA: I’m sure the music itself is freer, looser and more diversified, but where’re you going to play it? There’s no place to work in L.A., unless you want to work some cheesy bar that’s not going to pay much.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: In your European tour, did you find that the general public there received you differently than the America public?

ZAPPA: Yes. They acted like they were listening to what we were doing and had some idea of what it was. Americans don’t give that impression. In the United States, more people have heard of us than have heard the albums or heard us in person. So when they come to a concert it’s usually out of morbid curiosity to see what we look like. In Europe, surprisingly enough, we had already sold a lot of records and people were somewhat aware of what we were trying to do musically. They came to appreciate it on a different level.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: So you have found in this country, perhaps your looks alone, you can be given a rough time – people will create a tough situation for you?

ZAPPA: We don’t worry too much about tough situations.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: Your group isn’t like the typical rock-and-roll group with long hair. You’re an extreme, you’re not playing it safe.

ZAPPA: No, we’re not.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: You say in your music, when you compose, you’re doing what you want to hear. But yet when I’ve seen you perform, you seem very improvisational. Are you actually repeating something that you’ve rehearsed – are just themes rehearsed, are there scores to your music?

ZAPPA: Yes, there are scores and certain parts of the music are very firmly fixed. Some of the supposedly spontaneous sound events, like coordinated noises, are operated on cue on the bandstand by means of finger signals like numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on. The band is trained so that when they see the signals on a given beat they’ll play these noises which we’ve rehearsed and they can be assembled in any order. And in between the noises, we have free improvisation. When we do a show I’ll figure out what the audience wants or needs, and I’ll put it together from the parts we’ve already rehearsed and we do like a happening when we play.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: When I saw you perform I thought your act was also very comic. Is the humor an intention or is that a by-product? .

ZAPPA: If we do something funny, it’s intended to be funny. But the shows differ widely from show to show. Some shows have no humor, sometimes we just play, sometimes we just fuck around.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: Do you personally care about your image, Frank – might you shed the long hair and wear a shirt and tie and conduct at Philharmonic Hall in five years?

ZAPPA: Nobody cared what I looked like five years ago, I doubt if they’ll care what I look like in the future. I can conduct just as well with long hair. This is the way I want it for now. The personnel of this group changes radically. There’s no way we can be assured of a consistent look to the group. In fact, one of the new members of the group almost appears to have a crew cut.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: How long have you been together?

ZAPPA: A little over two years I formed the group.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: As a child, Frank, were you the typical kid on the block, did you think of yourself as a very square teenager?

ZAPPA: Yea, I was a pretty square teenager. I was different than the rest of the kids on the block ’cause my folks wouldn’t lest me have a car so I stayed home. 

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: Whose music did you dig as a teenager? Were you very involved in music at that time?

ZAPPA: I started listening to music when I was about 14. I was listening mostly to rhythm and blues and simultaneously I bought a few classical albums. The first album I bought was the EMS recording of the complete works of Edward Varais [Edgard Varèse] and the second album I bought was the Rites of Spring. After buying those I never bought anything less dissonant. It made me feel unsatisfied to listen to recordings of Beethoven or Mozart or anything less strange than those two albums. This left immense gaps in my musical background which have helped form the way we sound today.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: Then what happened? Did you have other groups before this did you pursue a musical education?

ZAPPA:. I started off playing drums in a rhythm and blues band in San Diego called the Ramblers. After I left San Diego, I put together my own group called The Blackouts. The one thing they had in common with The Mothers was the fact that they were vastly unpopular. Finally I quit the group, which eventually became Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, after a series of bizarre accidents. Meanwhile, I left the desert and went to L.A., worked a bunch of eight-to-five jobs, saved some money, scored some films . I bought a recording studio , got some of the guys from Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band and we tried to form another group called The Suits – that didn’t work out. I tried to score a film: “Captain Beefheart versus the Grunt People.” I couldn’t raise enough money to shoot the film. Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band finally recorded before we did and didn’t get any action with what they had done, and we’ve been running some sort of a friendly competition since that time.

The Mothers was assembled from what you might described the dregs of musical availability. Most of the guys in the group were playing in small clubs around Pomona.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: When you first put The Mothers together, Frank, wasn’t it a very nervous thing to do – not just because of your music, but you’re considered to be doing some obscene, censorable things on stage when you perform – wasn’t it very nervous, or were you on top of it from the beginning?

ZAPPA: I don’t know where we really got our reputation for being obscene. I think that’s probably the work of one columnist in New York whom I talked to a year ago, who made the mistake of comparing us with The Fugs, after hearing some of our tapes when we were recording the first album.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: And that’s not a comparison you would appreciate?

ZAPPA Well, you know, you can compare us to anything you want but I don’t think that we’re striving to do the same thing The Fugs are – I don’t think they’d appreciate it if we were running competition with them. But from the beginning, the main problems we’ve had with the group was not getting all the guys in the group adjusted to playing dirty on stage and worrying about it. Basically what we had was a rhythm and blues band, and we were earning our living by playing such time-honored numbers as “Midnight Hour” and “Louie, Louie” in topless bars in California in order to stay alive. Meanwhile, I was trying to teach them how to play some newer, more original stuff, and that was a struggle from the very beginning because at the time they weren’t technically capable of executing the music. After we got some of those wrinkles ironed out, I changed personnel about fifty million times. The group finally shaped up into sort of a strange little sub-culture of society. They have their own myth, their own language, their own folklore. If you talked with them, you see each one of them individually is strange enough in his own right to have a place reserved for each in the Smithsonian Institute.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: But now that your records are selling, Frank, do you know who’s actually buying them? Is it the Establishment who’s coming around even if they don’t understand what you’re doing, they want to know about it or is it the hippy thing?

ZAPPA: No, we sell most of our records to what you’d call your clean, wholesome American youth across the United States.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: I can understand when you say they come to see you out of curiosity, but to put money down for an album it must be more than curiosity.

ZAPPA: Well, you have to realize why people buy records. Most record purchases are impulse buying. People may be unaware of the group when they go to the record store, they’ll pick up an album because of what it looks like to them. After they’ve got it home, if they like it, they’ll purchase the other ones. Sometimes the fame of the product spreads by word-of-mouth; one kid tells another in the community.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: Other performers today, Dylan, Ochs, Baez, The Beatles, profess that with their lyrics they’re hoping to better and influence society, to make society aware of their crimes and sins. Are you at all interested in having any social impact?

ZAPPA: Oh, we’ll have our social impact whether we want to or not.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: But you wouldn’t care about calling yourself a social protester in your work?

ZAPPA: No. that’s a by-product of the work.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: Are you at all influenced by the other work going on today, the other artists?

ZAPPA: I’m more influenced by the work of society itself than by  other artists.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: Are you the main composer for the group?

ZAPPA: Yes. There are other composers in the group, but I write all the music the group plays. We’ve performed other people’s songs but we usually do them as satires. We have a new single coming out that we hope to get on the air, it was designed to go on the air – we’ll see what happens.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: Does it have audible lyrics?

ZAPPA: Audible clean, wholesome teen-throb lyrics.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: Did you write them?

ZAPPA: Yes. It’s a song about a girl who’s very lonely because her mother and her father don’t understand her. It’s a pretty easy song to write if you see some of the kids that come to see us work.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: So, you hope this will help commercialize the group?

ZAPPA: I see no reason why an artist should starve for the rest of his life. I see nothing dishonorable about making money from doing something that you like to do. I don’t think that I, or anyone in a creative field, should be forced to work in a gas station during the day so that he can do his thing at night for a limited audience.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: What about television work – again, are you being censored just because of the way you look?

ZAPPA: I have a feeling that we’re being censored, for one reason or another. I remember when Captain Beefheart was offered a show on television. The group as they’re seen now on their album cover has pretty short hair and when I knew them they were pretty grunzy-looking. They were advised that if they wanted to do this big network TV show, which shall go unnamed, they’d better cut their hair.

UNDERGROUND DIGEST: The Establishment can force their demands on you, then, as an artist, and it must be pretty hard to beat it,

ZAPPA: They can force their demands on some people.. They haven’t tried very hard with us.

I’ve already been offered movies to score but I’m not interested in doing that kind of work for other people. We’re working on our own film now. It’s a lot of work to score a film, it’s a lot of work to write music, you’ve got to put some kind of time and energy into it and I don’t get much of a kick out of doing that kind of work for other people. We’re really in it for the money.

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