Mothers' Pride

By Michael Watts

Melody Maker, December 18, 1971

Ian Underwood was feeling happy. His hotel had given him a back room and a piano to go in it.

He could practice there all hours of the day and night without bothering anyone or they him. He just loved that hotel. It was the first time since he joined The Mothers that he’d actually been able to play a few classical variations while on the road.

Practicing aside, Ian hasn’t always been happy with the Mothers. Two months ago, for instance, he was thinking what a bummer it was with Frank’s current set-up. No chance to do anything more than one solo: a strictly rhythm and effects man. Eight months ago it was even worse. He’d had it up to there. He just told Zappa he’d be leaving after the next tour, and Frank said okay. But it never happened. Ian changes his mind a lot according to how he feels about the last gig or so. And right now it’s hunky dory, even without the piano and that.

So what brings an ex-Yale and Berkeley student playing reeds, ARP and keyboards with three ex-pop stars, an old jazz pro who looks as if he suffers from muscular spasm, and a deep-thinking egghead who started life as a freak? Well, Ian liked the music from the start, and still does, even though it’s now more commercial and personally restricting for him. Then again, he’s always nurtured a fondness for audience participation and abuse. With the Mothers and Frank you usually get one of the other and often both.

In the old days, of course, it was all much looser. Ian remembers the tiny Garrick Theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village, where around 400 people would be crammed into this long narrow hall with a stage at the end on which stood the Mothers surrounded by a forest of amps and equipment.

That was in ’67, when Underwood joined The Mothers, straight out of Berkeley, where he had been studying music. The strange aspect of his enrolment with The Mothers was that rock and roll had not previously impinged on his consciousness at all.

As a student he had played in a jazz band, Jazz Mice, which did occasional gigs at colleges or local radio stations. And his other musical direction was towards the aleatory music of John Cage. To this day his knowledge of rock is limited.

Ian gives several explanations for this. To begin with, he was raised on the east coast, which during his formative years, he says, was musically more exposed to Doris Day than anything funky, as the west coast was. More fundamentally, however, he never attended high school, but moved through the educational system from private school, to prep school and then college. Thus he missed the high school hops and all the teenage rock and roll culture that such establishment have helped to breed. Instead, he took up jazz.

“I admired Coltrane. But Ornette Coleman, I think, is the one jazzman who’s been the biggest influence. I met him at the Lennox School of Jazz, where I’d won the Schafer Scholarship. There were five of us at all, and I won on flute of all things. But I studied there, and he was there, too, with Don Cherry. I roomed next door to him, but it wasn’t a very even relationship because I was at a different stage of musical development.”

There it was, however, and when they were at Yale, Ian and his friend Steve Swallow, the bassist, would drive all the way into New York of an evening to see Ornette and Cherry playing at The Five Spot. Then they’d get back to New Haven and drink coffee at five in the morning to keep awake for lectures at seven.

It’s weird, though. These days Ian is off jazz almost completely because “my final experience with it was so frustrating,” he says.

“With the people I was playing with before it was just emotionalism and frustration, and I became convinced that these elements would be there in virtually any jazz performance I heard, so I stopped and said ‘Where’s this at?’ I didn’t want to pick up my horn and blow my brain out and know that after ten performances the same things would happen. I have a strong desire, you see, to hear things organized, and disorganized things played in context.

“This is what I’ve liked about The Mothers – they would do something disorganized within an organized framework. There was a time – when Howard (Kaylan) and Mark (Volman) first joined – that I didn’t like the music at all, because it was very commercial, and frustrating because not only was I not playing any solos, but there was no organized madness. Now the solo space had been increased to combine with these looser elements.”

He became a Mother in very much the casual way that they all do. He went to see them at the Garrick, where the stage looked like “a garbage pit,” and dug the performance so much that the day after he followed them down to the recording studio and started work on “Absolutely Free,” he thinks it was. He then went on to do some gigs at the Garrick with them, when one night Frank called and said: “Do you wanna?” and Ian replied, “Sure.” A couple of weeks later he was playing at the Albert Hall on the first tour here.

It was the first gig at the Garrick that clinched his decision to join: “The music was good, but Frank really had it together, he had it precisely – though not as much as he would’ve liked, I guess. Frank was into conducting, and there were all these little pieces like ‘King Kong,’ and I dug the audience participation so I said ‘Yes, that’s for me ’.”

Since then the music has become more commercial, and predetermined, with an emphasis on intricate arrangements. The lesser flexibility has prompted him therefore, to think of working outside The Mothers. He wants to compose a lot more, but within what framework he’s not sure.

About a year ago he made tentative experiments with a small group which consisted of himself on guitar, a bassist named Alan Cooper, and his wife, Ruth, who studied at the famous Juillard School of Music, on drums. It was assembled partly because he wanted to try out writing for a small group, and partly because he wished to learn guitar, which would increase his facility in composing.

“My wife, who played with Alan in a rock group called The Hamilton Face Band, is very, very good, and she made me write parts for the drums because she didn’t want to improvise. They were highly complicated, and a little bit abstruse, and the music would come out sounding vaguely like Captain Beefheart; it was a mixture of different styles. We rehearsed off and on for six months, because we were on the road with The Mothers at the time, but there’s some good music there, and if ever I put a band together I’m sure I’ll use it.”

That may or may not be soon. The Mothers are going to take it fairly easy next year. They will do only three tours, and Zappa will perhaps do another Hot Rats album. Right now Zappa is waiting for the delivery of some electronic equipment, which will have a far-reaching effect on their overall sound. For a start, the keyboard equipment will be compacted, and a few extra devices added to their sound.

All this, and not to mention the movie.