The Sounds Talk-In. Frank Zappa

Interview by Steve Peacock

Sounds, December 5, 1970

Can I ask you first about the ‘200 Motels’ project? You were planning to do it on Dutch TB weren’t you?

Yes, but then there was a problem. They called us up and said that they couldn’t get a studio for that period of time. We had planned to do it in December, but they said they couldn’t do it, could we postpone it until May. About the same time we noted some interest on the part of United Artists and … but I don’t want to give away any more than that. I can’t say too much about it because we’re still hiring people in England to work on it. We’re going to make a feature film of it, and I’ll make an announcement about who’s doing what when things are a little more settled – after we finish this tour.

Have you finished writing the music for it?

I’m still working on it. I’m working on a scene right now where Jeff (Simmons) the bass player goes into a drog-induced stupor, and there’s some interesting music for that area.

When did you start writing the music for it?

Three years ago. It is made up of sketches that I wrote in hotel rooms while I was touring – that’s when we first started touring in 1967. I just collected them over the years, and then figured out a plot based on the adventures of going on the road and getting crazy enough to write that sort of thing. There’s a lot of music – about 1,600 bars or so. The film will be about two-and-a-half to three hours long.

You’ve already performed some of this music in the States, haven’t you?

We’re performing parts of it now, on the concert tour. We don’t perform the orchestra stuff, we do our half of it. We did part of the orchestra stuff in the States, yeah.

Apart from the concerts you’re doing in Britain, what else are you doing over here?

We’re going on the Continent – Stockholm, Copenhagen, Austria, Germany, France, Holland, and then back here.

Are you going to do any recording?

Yes, we are. I don’t know which studio we’ll use yet – I’d like to check some out. We used Trident before.

What will the recording be for?

It will be for the film. Some of the things in it will be pre-recorded and then we’ll act them out.

“Uncle Meat” was the soundtrack for a film, and you shot some scenes for it. Will you be using any of that in “200 Motels”?

I cut 40 minutes of it, but at that point the people who were backing it financially took their money away. I was stuck – I didn’t have any money to finish it, so its still sitting in the basement. Maybe someday I’ll finish it, but I can’t be using it for “200 Motels”.

* * *

Did you consciously write the music for “Uncle Meat” as a collage of different musical styles, say from 1950?

I’d say a lot of it goes way back before 1950, some of it goes back to 1920. That’s just the way I write. When I write I just sit down and write, I don’t say “now I’ll take a little bit of this and stick it in there …”

How tightly do you like to keep control over the way the Mothers play what you write?

I always have ultimate control over the material, but I allow them the opportunity to contribute their own ideas. At the point where I show them the material, the first thing they do is learn the notes. Then there is the question of expressing the notes – like they’ll go through it and do it the way they think the thing should be done. If it agrees with my original concept of the way I thought the song should sound then I don’t say anything but if I don’t like the way they’re doing it I say “change it to this”. It’s the same way as you’d conduct an orchestra.

Some elements are very carefully worked out, other elements are completely left to chance and they can be changed any time during a show. And all of the songs are subject to change all the time – like we could have been performing a song on the road for a couple of months and then one night I’ll say I don’t like a section, and we’ll just talk it over in the dressing room before we go out. I’ve been having some problems with the guitar solo section in “Call Any Vegetable” – we’ve changed that every night for the past five nights, just trying to make it work better.

But in the studio it’s more tightly controlled.

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t – there’s various ways of putting those tracks together. For some things you set the band up just like a live performance and you play it, and then do the vocals, and if they don’t come out right you replace them. That’s one way. The other way is to build things up carefully, track by track – a lot of things on the “Uncle Meat” album were done this way. The ending section of “Dog Breath” is 40 tracks – ping-ponged back and forth.

That must take a lot of organisation.

It takes a lot of time. But I think I got most of the groundwork and the experimentation done when we recorded “We’re Only In It For The Money” where I learnt a lot of techniques. From then on I had a whole vocabulary of techniques, so now I go into a studio and tell the engineer “do this, do this, do that”, and if he’s a good engineer it goes fast. If I have to explain to him how to execute those techniques then it’s a pain in the ass.

* * *

You use the same engineer, Dick Kunc, for most of your sessions, don’t you?

Well, I did up until a short time ago. I had to let him go. I don’t now have any one permanent engineer – I just use whoever happens to be at the studio at the time.

At the time that Dick was really working he was excellent, he was the perfect engineer for the Mothers, but something happened to him, I don’t know what.

On “Chunga’s Revenge”, it seems to me that the other Mothers are contributing much more than they have done in the past. It sounds less your music, there are many more personalities coming through.

I think the personalities are more strongly defined within […..] that the audience can understand. Each member of the old Mothers had a strong personality, but that wasn’t so perceptible to the audience because they were so weird. Like Don Preston’s personality – how do you compute somebody like this? George Duke, who is now playing in the same musical position, is easier to comprehend. Also, there’s a lot of free, just rocking out on “Chunga’s Revenge”.

* * *

Do you take each album as a project in itself? Obviously, “Ruben And The Jets” was, but does this apply to the others as well?

Yeah, but it relates to the album that has just preceded it and to the album that’s coming out after it – they’re all related. For instance, the continuity between “Ruben And The Jets” and “Uncle Meat” would be the track “The Air Escaping From Your Mouth” which has a 1950’s style musical accompaniment but abstracted words; and the continuity between “Ruben And The Jets” and “We’re Only In It For The Money” would be a song like “What’s The Ugliest Part Of Your Body?”, which is doing 1950’s type music with satire-type lyrics.

“Chunga’s Revenge” was originally planned to be a follow-up to the “Hot Rats” album. It just so happened that in the middle of production on the album I put together the new Mothers, so I thought “well, put them on the new album – they could use the session money”.

You perform a number of different roles – guitarist, composer, leader, producer – is there any one that you are more interested in than the others?

I see myself doing a bunch of different jobs just like they were jobs. When it’s time to play the guitar I play the guitar, when it’s time to produce, I produce, when it’s time to write dots I do that. I like to do all those things and I have certain amounts of time in which I have to perform those functions, so I do it.

* * *

One of the strongest Mothers legends is about the 12 tapes of albums that haven’t been released. Will they ever be?

In about five or ten years, when they assume more historical importance.

You want to release them on their historical value rather than their musical value?

The question about releasing an album is that once you put it out on the market, it has to sell, you have to earn enough money to break even on it. In the case of that material, I think that if I released it now I would put the company in a bad financial position. I don’t think those albums would sell, because it is like releasing material from a recently deceased group that nobody cared for in the first place. Now you have a group with different personalities under the same name that is actually doing something, and they want to make records too. So what do I do? Release the stuff I’ve got in the can and not record the group I’m working with now? It’s not fair to them They don’t want to live in the shadow of the other group.

* * *

Which of your albums so far do you think has been most successful in musical terms?

I like the “Uncle Meat” album. I think that was very well put together. And I have a feeling that the sound track to “200 Motels” is really going to be the mind rocker of the year.

Is that going to be a double album?

It might even be four records. Our agreement with the … I don’t want to talk about it.

* * *

I read somewhere that Captain Beefheart wasn’t pleased with what you did with “Trout Mask Replica”.

Beefheart is one of the most changeable people you’re ever going to meet. After I put that album together, it was Easter, the whole band dressed up and came to my house at six o’clock in the morning to hear the new album. They listened to it, and they said it was the only album that had ever sounded like the band. They went on and on and on for about four hours saying how pleased they were. Next thing I know, he’s not even coming to my house any more. I haven’t seen him in about nine months – maybe even more. He’s such a weird person. May be he’ll come over when I get back to Los Angeles.

Did you enjoy making that album?

Uh-oh. Not in the least. That was hard work. It is very hard to work with him, even though he’s your friend. The band wasn’t too much of a problem, because they made all the tracks in one night – they had it all rehearsed and they just did it. But to put Beefheart’s vocals on those tracks took five days.

He refused to wear headphones, didn’t he?

Well, it wasn’t that he refused to wear earphones. He had a rhythm problem – he couldn’t sing in time with his own tracks. So he took them off, and he could hear a little leakage through the window of the control booth so he sang sort of at random over the tracks. I just left it wherever he wanted to put it. I said: “It’s your music, do it anyway you want – all I’m going to do is record it for you, and mix it the way you want to hear it”. The choices were always left up to him. I did everything I could to make sure that there was no tampering with his artistic concept because I thought that in the past his albums weren’t accurate representations of what he was into.

It took me maybe two months, three months of my time, completely devoted to that project, trying to get that across for him, and in the end he winds up badmouthing me all over the pop newspapers saying I’m some sort of a villain.

* * *

How did you go about recording that Jean Luc Ponty album?

We had some conferences beforehand where we worked out some things that he liked to do. He has a preference for playing in the key of G with a certain set of harmonic backgrounds, and if that’s what gets him off when he’s playing solos then I try to give him those areas. I tried to tailor the songs for him as much as possible, but I also wanted to give him some challenging material that would show off the fact that he could play classically.

* * *

Do you think it did that?

Not as much as I would have like no, but the budget for that album was somewhere between eight and ten thousand dollars which is very cheap by American standards. We didn’t have too much time to make the album, and he didn’t get too many tries at his solos. Most of the time he got one shot, and then we had to go on to another tune. I don’t think that’s fair to any improvising artist.

Have you any plans to record other people?

I’m pretty sour about the idea of producing in general, especially if it’s your friend. That concept of letting the artist make the decisions is so different from the way records are normally produced by a producer, they think that if the album doesn’t sell a million copies, it’s your fault. And if it does sell, they think it should have sold more.

I would have liked to have produced some stuff with Jeff Beck – we had discussed it the last time I was here but we couldn’t get our plans together. I’ve always liked the way he plays.

* * *

You like to get involved with all aspects of your albums don’t you – the packaging and everything?

At the time when I’m thinking about the cover, I’m not even thinking about the music that I just made. I’m into album cover world. Each different area of the total artistic concept offers different possibilities for creative expression. Covers should be functional, but still there’s a chance to get into craziness on those covers, and in ads.

This applies within the music too. Some of the editing performs the same function: refocussing people’s attention on the music.