Mothers In Town

Steve Peacock and Bob Dawbarn talk to three Mothers

Sounds, December 5, 1970

How has working with the Mothers affected Aynsley Dunbar?

Well, for a start he is much more relaxed than when leading his own bands in Britain. And he seems to have taken on some, at least, of the element of unpredictability latent in everything Zappa’s group does.

And how he likes living in the States for example. The normal musicianly response is to talk about how relaxed it is to be back in Britain and how tense and up-tight everything is in America. Not so Aynsley.

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“It’s so relaxed over there,” he told me. “On the West Coast anyway. So much goes on and there is so much money to be made. In England everything happens so fast, so frantic and nervous. And there is no money to be made.

“These days I can do what I want to do in between working with the Mothers. I’ve not had any of the American hang-ups, in fact America has made me feel good to be alive. I’d been through a lot of pressures before I left here and they have all been relived.

“And the audiences over there are more open-minded – they don’t judge you before they hear what you are playing to them. This may have something to do with the fact that most people over there seem to play an instrument. It gives them a better knowledge to judge what they are hearing.

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“I admit I did think living in Los Angeles might become a bore after a while but it still holds things I haven’t seen. It’s so big – 90 miles from one side to the other. There are beaches close by, mountains, desrets where the temperature is up to 125 degrees, and places you can ski.”

I asked how Aynsley’s decision to go to America had come about.

“It really started last November when I had Retaliation,” he recalled. “Frank set in with us at the Brussels Festival and he was telling me how much I could earn on sessions over there.”

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“We spent a couple of hours talking although he didn’t offer me a job at that time.

“Soon after I decided Retaliation was not fulfilling my wildest dreams and thoughr I would try the big band. Then Frank came over and offered me the job. At first I turned it down but after a week of thinking about it I rang him back and said ‘Yes’.

“now I work with the Mothers and also do sessions. One I did was with Shuggie Otis, Johnny Otis’s son who I think could be big in the future. It was an interesting session. We had the bass player from the Jazz Crusaders and a guy from the Oliver Nelson band who played two horns.”

Aynsley says he doesn’t miss being a leader. “I still have control of what I think and say,” he told me. “Frank doesn’t tell you what to do, he will ask you what you think. All the members of the group are bandleaders.

“Frank is a man who completely shatters all preconceptions. He never says or does exactly what you expect him to. Personally, I think he is still trying to find himself. He certainly comes up with some very weird things.

* * *

“We freaked out like the Who a couple of times on stage, just for fun of it. It certainly surprised the audiences.

“With the Mothers you are playing such varied things, from jazz to rock and sometimes things with a classical influence. Parts of the new LP are almost Tamla Motown.

“I guess most of the best musicians are pretty bizarre people. They become so frustrated they tend to become slightly nutty. Music seems to release some sort of power which stops everyday people from becoming freaks. Most people good at their art are reckoned to be a little insane.”

* * *

Aynsley says he is a better musician now, partly due to the wide variety, and difficulty, of the music he has been expected to read while in the States. He has also taken up the vibes.

I asked if he felt that Geography had any effect on the sound and style of music – is it true that English music is different from West Coast, for example.

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“There must be something in it,” he said. “A musician is obviously in tune with the things around him. England, and especially London, is such a hustling place.

“That is why the music comes out jittery, ragged and cluttered.”

Frank Zappa seems to draw on as many areas of music to get the musicians for his band as he does to get the inspiration for his writing. In the present Mothers he has Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, two singing ex-Turtles, Aynsley Dunbar, Scottish drummer from a string of white blues bands, Jeff Simmons, bass playing electric rock and roll star, George Duke, organist from the straight jazz circuit in the States, and Ian Underwood, music college graduate and keyboard and horn player.

Ian Underwood: “Before I joined the Mothers I was scooping ice cream in Berkeley, California. I was going to graduate to music school, not really studying anything – I got a degree in composition, played a couple of piano concertos with the school orchestra, and gave a few weird concerts with some friends of mine which were totally outside school. The rest of the time I just sat at home and scooped ice-ream. That’s the main thing I did.

“After I left school I went to New York, and saw the Mothers at the Garrick Theatre, and that’s about it.”

That was the place where they had all those exploding frogs?

“Oh yeah, that was great. There was a lot happening in those days as far as the visual stage presentation went; it looked like a garbage pit. It was very hot, because there was no air conditioning in there and it was the middle of the summer in New York – just a dirty little theatre on Blaker Street.

* * *

“That night I talked to Jim Black and he said they were doing some recording so I went up to the recording studio the next day as well as going back down to the theatre a few times to play with the band and just hang out. Right after that it was decided that I was supposed to be in the band, so I said OK, and got to go to Europe. I just stayed with the band ever since.

“Frank fired everybody, and then he got a band together to make the ‘Hot Rats’ album, that he was obliged to make to follow up ‘Lumpy Gravy’, and he asked me to do that. We actually did a few concerts with a band called Hot Rats. We did three concerts with different instrumentation each time and it was small, only a quartet for each concert.”

Playing with them in various combinations on those concerts were Ed Green (drs), Max Bennett (bass), Jeff Simmons (bass), and Aynsley Dunbar (drums).

“But that thing fell through, because actually it ate – it wasn’t a good band.”

George Duke: “The way Frank met me, I was recording an album with Jean-Luc Ponty at a rock club in LA – “The Experience” – and he came down and sat in with us. As a result of that the producer hit on Frank to do some writing for Jean Luc. So he did it, and I was used on that album – “King Kong”. Ian was conducting on that album, so that’s how I met him.

“Then Frank asked me to come down and do a solo part in “200 Motels” when he did it with the LA Philharmonic, but time being what it was I didn’t even get a chance to play – I played about five notes in the whole thing. Than he asked me to do the tour in Europe with the Mothers earlier this year – I thought it was just a temporary thing, but it seems to have held together.

“Basically, before that, I was just working round with jazz groups. I worked with Don Ellis for about seven or eight months. I was just playing round clubs and with my own group.”

Did they do anything musically outside the Mothers still?

Ian: “Not a lot, but I have some music that I wrote that I like. I haven’t done anything with it yet – just sit at home and play it sometimes. Eventually I’ll write more and when I get enough stuff that I like I guess I’ll record it or do something with it. But I don’t want to do anything with it right now. I don’t play with any other bands – in a fact I don’t even know of any other bands that I’d like to play with. If I weren’t playing with this band I’d probably just sit at home and write some more music.”

I asked if they found it difficult to work with Frank Zappa.

Ian: “Working with Zappa is just a job that I enjoy. And I get paid for it. All the music in the band is his music, all the arrangements end up the way he wants to do it; even if we do a head arrangement, he decides which way we finally do it. It sounds very boring, but we just have fun doing it.”

George: “There’s always a basic thing happening all the time which constantly can change. I think that what makes it interesting, for me anyway, because if it was always the same, that would really be a drag.

“It’s hard music to play, because it’s a really different conception to what I was doing before. I lose a lot of my chops – I just don’t get a chance to play so much. But I dig it, it’s another thing. I still do some jazz gigs, but I know that if I tried to play a five-hour jazz gig again now – man, I’d be scoffered.”

Ian: “You have to like D minor an awful lot to play in our band.”