Frank Talking

By Roy Carr

New Musical Express, November 27, 1971

I thought that it would be the ultimate absurdity to have Ringo Starr playing Frank Zappa.

AS IF you didn't already know... Frank Zappa is in town. In company with his Mothers, business manager Herb Cohen and a few friends, Zappa is primarily here to promote his first full-length and highly controversial movie "200 Motels" a double-album soundtrack and undertake a concert tour of European cities, which includes appearances at the Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park, London.

Preferring to call "200 Motels" a surrealistic documentary, Zappa during the course of our conversation, which naturally took pace in a hotel room, told me the full background to this film which has had a very mixed reception from British critics. This then is a word-by-word ... blow-by-blow account of our encounter.

CARR: Frank, do you feel that perhaps '200 Motels' may have had more of an immediate impact upon the spectator if more of the sequences had actually been shot on location?

ZAPPA: Well, some of the sequences were shot on the road. Some of the film in there was 16mm footage that I shot myself ... the scenes where the girls were being grabbed ... the hotel interiors, but that only represents maybe three of the 98 minutes.

That 16mm footage was transfered to video-tape and then processed along with the remainder of the material. But, I didn't see that it all needed to be shot on the road, because I don't think we could have done it all that effectively.

CARR: Why not?

ZAPPA: I didn't want '200 Motels' to become another sort of Joe Cocker documentary. This film is in an entirely difterent format. All the information about being on the road, the attitudes and the concept of it has been codified and abstracted so that it would blend better with music. In other words, if the music is only one aspect of a documentary story it's far too straightforward.

CARR: This may be your personal concept, but do you think that the general public can relate to this?

ZAPPA: Well, they seem to be relating to it quite well in the United States. It's doing very good business there.

CARR: That may well be the case, but apart from the mixed reviews it bas received in this country, I have found that the general reaction has been one of bewilderment.

ZAPPA: Well I can't understand why someone would be completely baffled or bewildered, but I'll tell you what happened the first time I saw it when it came back to the States.

I'd been looking at it for months in a black and white work print form. When the colour print came back and the film was shown all I could do was to watch it. I didn't pay any attention to the dialogue or the music ... it was just like watching a silent movie for me, and I already knew who was in it and what it was like, but nevertheless, it was like I was seeing at for the very first time. It took about three or four viewings before I could start assembling the various components to see how it was balancing out.

I like the way it turned out. I know there are many aspects that could have been improved, but they could have only been improved with the budget being increased in order te give us more time to shoot the various sequences and perfect the performances involved.

CARR: When I saw a preview, I felt that certain parts of the film seemed to be an expensive in-joke between the you and the band, with the audience placed in the position of that of an eavesdropper.

ZAPPA: Well, the film was designed for people who already know something about the legend and lore of the Mothers Of Invention ... it was designed primarily for the edification of that particular audience. (At this point the hotel room door opens. In strides singer Mark Volman carrying a silver disc for sales in-excess of 250,000 copies of T-Rex's 'Get It On' on which both he and Howard Kaylan sang. He pours himself a drink, sits down, munches on a tomato, and listens while Zappa continues).

ZAPPA: If you have to make a choice as to where you're going to aim the basic concept of the thing, you might as well aim it in favour of those people who have supported you and been your friends all along. I would say that the hard core Mother Of Invention freaks are gonna get off on it probably more so than those people who dislike the group or don't know anything about it.

CARR: What was your prime motivation for having Ringo Starr to portray you throughout the film?

ZAPPA: I thought that it would be the ultimate absurdity to have Ringo Starr playing Frank Zappa, and especially having him say the dialogue which he had to deliver in the front part of the film. Ringo accepted it, because he was getting a bit browned off with his goodguy image. From what I hear about the other film he's working on, he's gonna take care of his good-guy image pretty well.

CARR: Putting aside Ringo's part, you yourself were only on camera for a few brief moments. Was this intentional?

ZAPPA: I didn't see any reason why I should occupy any more screen time than I did. I mean to say, I didn't have any dialogue. When I wrote the script, it wasn't envisaged that I should be spewing out lines. First of all, I don't feel comfortable doing that ... quite honestly, I don't think I bring it off well, so why should I jump in there and star in the movie.


CARR: In those sequences where Ringo in his role as Frank Zappa is seen to be taping the conversations of the group and then turning them into songs, was this a statement of fact? Do you in fact utilise situations and conversations within the Mothers to form the basis for the lyrics of your songs?

ZAPPA: Oh yes ... We record each other. Mark spies on the guys, I snoop around ... (Mark Volman who had been listening with great interest to our conversation revealed some interesting aspects of this line of questioning).

VOLMAN: I remember, we had a meeting one day. The whole idea of the meeting was that the rest of the group was going to meet Frank to discuss certain important business operations – a quite normal situation. At the time, Howard and I had been in the group about three weeks and I made this tape recording of the meeting.

Of course, Jeff Simmons (the Mothers ex-bassist) added personality to the tape in the type of things he used to do. I mean, Jeff was pretty vigilant in his animosity towards Frank and kinda pulled everybody right along with him.

I played the tape to Frank some months later, because I felt that after we got to know each other he could listen to the tape and actually look past a lot of the shit and see the real humour.

CARR: Does this infer that the rest of the band contributes a great deal to the Mothers' music?

ZAPPA: (Looking across at Mark): What do you say ...

VOLMAN: It all depends on the kinda stuff we're doing.

CARR: I'll put it this way. When a new Mothers' album comes out, how much of the music is a direct result of a joint effort.

VOLMAN: The actual musical stµff is pretty much all Frank's. As far as the lyrical content is concerned ... a lot of the time that stuff is being derived from things that are actually done on the road ...

ZAPPA: It means that the group is interested in it. Like if you're gonna write a song you have a choice of different situations.

CARR: In other words, it's not just Frank Zappa with sidemen?


VOLMAN: I don't think that anybody in the group looks at it or feels as though it's Zappa and sidemen. I can't speak for everybody but I think I know everybody in the band well enough to say that.

Nobody feels like that, otherwise they wouldn't be here, because that's what destroyed the other band (referring to old Mothers), everybody did feel like that. I think everybody in this band has the possibility of having his own band. That's just the way I feel and I think Frank would stand up for that to. He's got six unbelievable musicians playing with him. They could all have their own albums out.

CARR: It goes without saying that the Mothers are a very prolific recording group. The elaborate quality of production must take as long as the actual recording. How do you find the time to write, tour and conduct your business activities?

ZAPPA: You find the time it you wanna do a good job. You stay up late and never leave your room.


CARR: You recently stated that you have nine new albums scheduled for simultaneous release in March, how much more material have you got secreted in your vaults?

ZAPPA: I have alternate takes of most of the material I have already put out. Some of it is really fantastic, but it will never come out ... I mean, I might have six unbelievable versions of 'Call Any Vegetable' recorded live, but how many people want to listen to six unbelievable versions of the same song.

Each take may be radically different from each other in certain important details but still the name of that song is 'Call Any Vegetable', and you've already heard it so who gives a shit.

CARR: In retrospect, how do you feel about your early albums. Personally, I find them still absorbing and quite dateless.

ZAPPA: I still listen to those old albums and get off on them.

VOLMAN: Jesus ... he does ... we all do. I think the important thing is that Frank is not trying to sell the group album to album ... anyway, I don't look upon the Mothers Of Invention as an album-to-album group. Now the group that I was in before I joined the Mothers (the Turtles), was an album-to-album group.


We lived for every record that came out, without a record the Turtles didn't travel. Without a hit record we were nothing ... that was the way we supported ourselves, and that's the way 90 per cent of the music business is. Just like the illusion that this 90 per cent of the business has about how big they think they are as opposed to how big they really are and getting all these people to write stuff in the papers about them.

Frank's music isn't like that at all. It's more of a still-life painting, it's always going to be good and always reflective of the generation at that time: The 'Freak-Out ' album (Zappa's first) was very reflective of what was happening in Los Angeles and that proved to be what happened everywhere.

CARR: What is the basic method of rehearsing a new piece of Mothers' music?

VOLMAN: Well ... I remember Howard and I had just joined the group and it was at Highland Park, Illinois or something. Frank called us into his room. He was playing my guitar and weighing out a bunch of songs ... one was called, 'Shove It Right In,' another 'What Will This Evening Bring'. It was just lyrics with maybe just one line of music and we sat down and I swear we just sang the same line of music – that was all he'd written – until we had it right in various parts. The rest of the song derived from one line, like a test ...

ZAPPA: (smiling) Like a pap smear.

VOLMAN: Just to see if we could get into it ... see if we could sing it ... see how it sounded. When we were learning stuff for the movie or regular songs then sometimes it's different. We spent a lot of time with the movie stuff actually in hotel rooms. A lot of it was done in England before the movie it wasn't like the way we rehearse back home in L.A.

CARR: Perhaps you can explain briefly how the concept and arrangement of a new song is formulated. Do you actually write out individual parts for the group?

ZAPPA: No, only if it's more expedient to write. If there's a fast-changing exotic chord sequence. In other words, if you can't call it a C-7th ... you have to spell it ... then I write it out. Say, for instance, if the rhythms are very specific and require a lot of coordination all round then I'll write out a part for Aynsley, I'll wri'te out a part for Ian, then the rest of the material will either be plunked out on the guitar ... the roots given to Jim and to Donnie, the notes he's supposed to play.

VOLMAN: At that point we start to play it. But Frank leaves a lot of openings to see how comfortable it is for everyone to play. Now if someone in the band has an idea that it may sound better if played another way, he's free to say it.

CARR: How do you manage to re-create the exact timing, precision and complexity that exists on the Mothers' albums?

ZAPPA: That stems from a long time ago. I was interested in the juxtaposition ot various musical textures pieces of recordings from different times one from now, one from a few years ago. At the same time, I got interested in the editing technique. All the albums were heavily edited to make abrupt changes, then we were faced with the problems of duplicating that on stage. So I devised the hand signals that would allow things to change, and so we rehearsed in such a way that it was a question of ... keep your eyes open for a signal every once in a while ... so that when it comes, it will sound just like an edit on stage.

VOLMAN: The other thing that's great about that is the availability to record any night you want.

CARR: Inferring that each Mothers' gig is recorded?

ZAPPA: No, but this formula allows us to do so if required. However, we will be recording the performances at the Rainbow Theatre and from those we will try and do a live British album.

'Very smart'

VOLMAN: For me that's the greatest way to get the best recordings. He (Frank) is very smart, he tapes just the tracks in a lot of cases, so you've got something that's being played in front of people and generally when you play in front of people the performance of any tune exceeds itself, 'cause you've got something really happening.

ZAPPA (adding with a smirk) Vibes ...

VOLMAN: (continuing without a pause) ... so we get just the band track and then go back into the studio change it from four to 16 track and you've got endless amount of room to do something. (At this point I asked Zappa about the live session he did with John and Yoko at Fillmore East. Apparently quite pleased that I had brought this subject up, he played me the tape on his portable stereo cassette machine. The extended track proved to be quite impressive, having John singing a song from prehistoric Beatles' days, with Frank and the Mothers rockin on in fine style).

CARR: What's going to become of it?

ZAPPA: I offered the masters to them and Yoko said she's probably going to put it out on her next album ... but there's nothing definite about that.

CARR: Does this mean that there's a possibility of further musical collaborations between yourself and the Lennons?

ZAPPA: We had lunch the next day and discussed the possibilities of doing some live concerts together in the future, but I haven't talked to them since then. It may have been a lot of pleasant thoughts in an Italian restaurant.

CARR: I just want to change the subject slightly. When you instigated your own labels (Bizarre and Straight) you had a whole stable of artists ... Captain Beefheart, Alice Cooper, the G, T. O's and Wild Man Fischer. Why have you discontinued this part or your activities?

ZAPPA: Let's just say that I am disenchanted with producing other people.

CARR: Why do you say that?

ZAPPA: Because I find it to be an extremely not-productiv pastime. Not in terms of what you earn, but in terms of what it takes out of you and what you can expect to gain from it afterwards.


What I've gained from producing other artists is a bunch of interviews by other people calling me a shit in one way or another. Now I found these extremely unwarrenting. (mimmicking) 1 ain't no shit.

Producing Captain Beefheart was the most unpleasant aspect of it because I had known him for such a long time and I always considered him to be a friend, and then he werwolfed out after that album.

CARR: And what about Wild Man Fischer?

ZAPPA: I gave him his contract back. He turned out to be just too obnoxious. He does break things – all those other things that you may have heard.

VOLMAN: (interupts in precise terms) Wild Man Fischer is potentially violent.

ZAPPA: He was doing things like going to Mo Austin's office at Warners and saying, ' Where Are My Royalties?', 'Why Am I not Already A Star?' harassing Austin's secretaries.

VOLMAN: Frank may still put other artists on his labels, but this time maybe it will be a little different, eh?

ZAPPA: (as if sharing a secret) Yeah ... its more than possible.

CARR: Could this in any way mean that there will be solo albums from with the Mothers?

ZAPPA: Well I can tell you that the Turtles are releasing a double-album right after the first of the year on Bizarre.

VOLMAN: A conglomaration of some old stuff that will be repackaged, plus an album of unreleased material that we cut just before our deformation. There's a possibility that we will reform the group for recording purposes because the Turtles never made any announcement that we had broken up. Just the fact that Howard and I came and played with the Mothers didn't mean that the Turtles would never ever record again.

Howard and I have visions of recording our own album too. I think that Ian Underwood is just about ready to cut his own record.

ZAPPA: Aynsley is also talking about the possibilities of doing one. I already have some stuff on tape that Anysley and I did ... sort of a duo thing.

CARR: Frank, your music is amongst the most original to stem from within the concept of rock. Are there any particular influences that you yourself draw from?

ZAPPA: I draw from eras. I suppose if there's one main ingredient to be included in any song it will be that of modality ... because I happen to like the way that sounds. You can attribute that to Gregorian chants. Asiatic music ...

VOLMAN: (interjecting) Indian music ...

ZAPPA: Correct, but I'd say that modality is my main influence.

VOLMAN: And singing in the shower.

CARR: And as a guitarist?

ZAPPA: Well, I'll tell you I used to listen to and you can tell me whether or not it shows up. (Very cunning). Guitar Slim, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown and Wes Montgomery. I suppose the most obvious would be Guitar Slim, because there's a randomness in his playing.

CARR: It has only been quite recently that you have been recognised as being amongst the foremost guitarists. Do you feel that perhaps the overall imagery of the Mothers has to a certain extent overshadowed and distracted from your ability as soloist?

ZAPPA: Well I guess a lot of people get thrown off the track by the humorous aspects of the group and just stop listening. But I've been playing guitar for a long time and I've been taking solos all along. I don't know if anyody ever bothered to listen to them, but even in the old days I use to rip off a good one now and then.

I love to play the guitar, but I don't like to do it so much that it overshadows the impact of the group, because there's a bunch of other people up there who would like to play their instruments.

♦ Continued next week