More groupies, less dope: Zappa

By Gil Onyett, Anne-Marie Willis, Joe Cannon, Ross C

On Dit, July 25, 1973

This interview with Frank Zappa was made in Sydney by Gil Onyett, Anne-Marie Willis & Joe Cannon

Setting: Midnight in the Lobby of the Commodore Chateau Hotel.

We are absorbing the plush kitsch atmosphere when the group's road manager wanders through.

"I thought that this interview was cancelled."


"Nobody told us."

Five minutes pass.

Chris Nolan the WEA rep strolls in.


Then we are taken upstairs and ushered into a room where sat the Head Mother himself. And so we began our interview

Q: Do you have many problems with record companies these days?

Z: Nope.

Q: You used to have problems with censorship ...

Z: I don't anymore ... except in Australia ... At the press conference yesterday I noticed that somebody had taken it on themselves to censor the "Uncle Meat" album. That's strictly against our contract.

Q: That was censored, and also "We're Only In It For The Money" ...

Z: Yeah, I know about that, but as far as all of our albums distributed by WEA are concerned, our contract rules out any tampering with the product.

Q: What about companies that tamper with albums, well, for example Captain Beefheart's "Strictly Personal" album – it was remixed without his authority, and references were made on the packaging to LSD – "the 5,000mg persona of the Captain"?

Z: That's not a very nice thing to do to anyone, but I can't say any more than that. It's not very fair to the artist.

Q: I don't know what's happening with· the "200 Motels" film out here.

Z: Well, they've got those archaic censorship laws.

Q: They're getting better out here now. For instance, they released "Last Tango in Paris" without any cuts!

Z: Well, if they let that in, they should be able to sneak "200 Motels" in. I'll talk to the people at United Artists about getting a copy sent over when I get back to the States.

Q: We have a lot of trouble out here with record companies, especially with inferior quality pressings.

Z: It's funny you should mention that because I heard in Europe that the best vinyl comes from Australia. It's true, the best vinyl comes from here, and the best pressings from Holland.

Q: About bootleg albums. You were chasing up the "200 Motels" bootleg, and you said that the only people who were profiting by these albums were the actual bootleggers themselves. Do you think that there's possibly no reason for a company to take action against bootleggers, in that anyone who's going to buy the bootleg is going to buy the artist's records through the company as well?

Z: Well, it's not the company who's being cheated so much as the artist. Let me give you the specifics on "200 Motels". First, if that had been done by normal means, all those people in the LA Philharmonic would have been entitled to royalties, and they got screwed out of their money; all the rest of the Mothers got screwed out of their money; all the writing and publishing that's supposed to have been paid on the album didn't get paid and I got screwed on that. And the record company that would probably have been pressing the album got screwed on that. So it's not just the record company, it's the artist as well.

Q: Isn't it more of an illegal profit, rather than a loss?

Z: Well, I think it's a loss when the quality of the product that comes out is beneath the standards of the things you'd release yourself. I don't go around recording new albums on a cassette machine. And to make a duplicate of someone's fifty or sixty thousand dollar master is definitely a financial loss. But I just feel bad when someone attempts to record a concert with some inferior equipment, and then releases a product that you wouldn't release yourself. The loss is both artistic and financial.


Q: I came across references to nine-album sets, and different films that were being made ...

Z: The nine-album set is still sitting in my house, they still haven't been released. I tried to release it twice, but each time we've run into financial problems. The cost of putting an album out – it's not just the cost of the studio techniques, or the cover, or the piece of plastic that goes in the wrapper. There's all sorts of payments that go out to everybody connected with the record. And our estimate of the cost of putting out a nine LP set was ... a quarter of a million dollars – that's up to the point of having the things pressed.

So everybody sat around and scratched their heads and said, how are we going to sell enough of these things to warrant spending $250,000 on an album. Our normal budget for an LP is between 20 and 27 thousand dollars, so a quarter of a million dollars was too much.

Q: It was originally planned to release it as three triple-LP sets issued close together. Is there a possibility that you'd release some of it as double album sets, or something like that?

Z: Well, here's what we're trying to do for Christmas. A lot of that material was originally recorded in quadraphonic, as far back as 1968, and we're going to take selections from the different Mothers lineups since then and release it as "Four Generations of Mothers – In Quad". That'd be about as close as I could get to releasing a lot of the stuff that's in the can.

Q: What happened to the album, "Our Man in Nirvana – The Mothers and Lenny Bruce"?

Z: We had access to some concert tapes of Lenny Bruce and I was asked to write music for them. I listened to the tapes and decided that they didn't need the music.

Q: What about the "Uncle Meat" movie, with Don Preston as the monster?

Z: The very idea of monsters is appealing. If you think about nothing else but monsters for a while you start liking them. I did.

You really can't appreciate Don Preston as a monster until you've seen him. He makes an incredible monster – he even has two or three black capes in his wardrobe!

(Editor's note: Because we were using a cheap crappy cassette some of the interview was wiped by the second side of the recording. In the wiped section, Frank was telling us that "Uncle Meat" was still sitting in his basement awaiting finance to complete it.)


Q: What is your relationship with Captain Beefheart now?

Z: I haven't seen him for two or three years.

Q: There were a lot of interviews where nasty things were said ...

Z: I prefer not to say bad things about him although I certainly don't bear him any goodwill – he's a jerk!

Q: Who is Erroneous ?

Z: Alex Sigmund Hoffsky [Alex Dmochowski] who used to be bass player with the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation. At the time I was recording "Waka/Jawaka" and "The Grand Wazoo" he was in the country illegally.

Q: How did you get "Sneeky" Pete Kleinow to play the pedal steel guitar solo on the "Waka/Jawaka" album?

Z: I just invited him over to play on it.

Q: Do you like the sort of music he's generally into?

Z: He tried out for the Mothers once and rehearsed with us for a week then decided that he didn't want to leave the studio and go on the road. I like him as a player, he has some very good ideas.

Q: The "Fillmore East – June '71" album also produced another half LP with John and Yoko and the Plastic Ono Band ...

Z: Yeah, well don't believe what you hear on that one 'cause they butchered the tape. First of all they turned off Mark's and Howard's voices, and then added extra volume to disguise it 'cause they cut it off in a weird way. And they cut off some things that the audience were saying about Yoko's performance which I have on tape, and if I bring out that "Four Generations of Mothers" album, that's going to be on it. It was the best part of the show!

Q: Was "Scumbag" a big sendup of Yoko – "Bag Productions"?

Z: No comment!

Q: Why is it that all the people who associate with you end up saying mostly nasty things about you?.

Z: It's the easiest way for them to get their names in the papers. Every journalist in the world falls for that one, and if they don't fall for it, they'll make it up themselves!

Q: Tim Buckley records for your label now. Do you have anything at all to do with him?

Z: No, he's managed by my partner, Herb Cohen. I don't know what he's doing right now, but some of the things he's done in the past were quite god. My favourite album by him is the one that he hates the most, "Hello and Goodbye". He won't even discuss it!

Q: I suppose he likes "Starsailor" better!

Z: He was very happy doing his avant type stuff. I didn't think that he was cut out to be an avant singer, 'cause he has a very nice voice and he writes nice songs ...

Q: What's the business set-up with your company? Do you manage "Bizarre" and Herb manages "Straight"?

Z: Well, it's not "Bizarre" and "Straight" anymore, it's "Discreet" – it's all one. As far as the business is concerned, I take care of the production of Mothers' albums, of my own albums, and those of any other artists that I produce. Other than that, I stay off the phone and out of the office – I don't like offices.

Q: Are there any other artists that you're producing at the moment, like the new "Ruben and the Jets"?

Z: Yeah, they're pretty good, you ought to see them on stage!

Q: As good as Frank Zappa's "Ruben and the Jets"?

Z: It's a different kind of thing.

Q: What do you think of Alice Cooper?

Z: I don't go to their concerts and I don't buy their records. It's a good thing that they exist for the people who like that sort of thing, but I don't get off on them!

Q: Are the GTOs or what's left of them still going?

Z: No, one of them's dead, one of them's married, another's pregnant – they're all doing separate things!

Q: How did the people on that album come together?

Z: They used to hang out at my house, they were already a group.

Q: Well, not so much the GTOs, but people like Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck. Did you call them up for sessions?

Z: No, as a matter of fact the girls called them up because they were all friends of theirs. I didn't know Rod Stewart at all.

Q: "Permanent Damage" is an incredibly frank kind of album.

Z: Yeah, that's the way the girls were – straight ahead. It's the same with the Wild Man Fischer album.

Q: What's Wild Man Fischer doing these days?

Z: He's still out there on he streets.

Q: How did you get him into the studio?

Z: Well, I wanted to record him from the first day I found out he could sing. I thought he was fantastic.

Q: Have you learnt anything from musicians like Ian Underwood, who have had formal musical training?

Z: I learn something from every musician I work with. And I think they've all learned something from me. I choose the musicians in terms of skill and abilities. I write parts for them that are almost impossible to play and then get them to play it and then they find out it wasn't so hard after all. So then I write something a little more difficult.

Q: Stretching them to their limits ...

Z: Worse than that. I'd like to see somebody take some of the stuff we do on stage and give it to some symphony orchestra and tell them to not only memorise it but to play it on stage while doing choreography!


Q: We were talking to Ian Underwood at the reception, and he was saying that most of the people at concerts these days in the States particularly are really out of their heads on grass, or LSD ...

Z: I wouldn't say that's true. I'd say that the largest proportion of people who are chemically altered in our audience are chemically altered by wine. It's the most popular cheap get-off that's happening in the audience. Statistically if you went out and questioned anybody in the audience that looked like they were out of it, most of them would be out on wine, a lot of them smoke pot before they go to concerts, smoke hash, take pills, snort coke, but LSD is way down. It's just off the charts."

Q: Well, how do you react to people who go along stoned or drunk to a concert to help them get into the music?

Z: Well, I don't think that's the reason why they go to the concert, most of them get-off just because that's what they do, because they want to escape. And I just feel sorry for them that they have to get out of it.

Q: What is your attitude to drugs like marijuana?

Z: I don't advise anyone else to use drugs, and marijuana gives me a sore throat and makes me sleepy. If anyone else wants to use them then that's their business. I don't advise it.

Q: Is that because of the effect it has on you?

Z: Partly that, and partly because I've seen what it's done to other people I've known. But you can't tell somebody who's heavy into drugs that it's going to mess them up because they won't believe you, 'cause they feel good while they're using the durgs. I've watched friends that I've known for five or ten years, watched their personalities decompose, watched their efficiency as a citizen, as a human being, go down the tubes because they took drugs, the same way I've watched people who use too much alcohol fall apart. And if you sit there and lecture somebody about it, they're not even going to listen to you. So you mind your own business.

Q: What about drugs at the universities?

Z: Most of the kids are drinking beer as the big thing.

Q: What about marijuana?

Z: It's dwindling to beer, by recent reports.

Q: Beer has always been a big thing out here.

Z: Well, beer means something else in the States. The way in which beer is merchandised to Americans, it's a whole emotion aura. For Americans beer is the cheapest thing to get wasted on besides wines. All these pop-art wines are getting very popular, now that you can get wine that tastes like soda-pop, and you can even get beer that is flavoured. It's really funny, it's like Kiddie's Kool-Aid or something that gets you out of it.


Q: How do you feel about the American pop press, who tend to review your alburns and criticise what you're doing by saying, "this album isn't really good jazz" or "it's not really rock" and so on?

Z: Well, if you had any idea of the kind of people who write that kind of stuff, you wouldn't pay any attention to it. I've been doing interviews probably longer than most people in the rock scene, and the number of interviews I do per year probably exceeds the number of interviews that other performers wind up doing. So the odds of being misquoted in my case go up higher than for anybody else, and I just stopped reading reviews about two or three years ago because it got to be so sickening that I couldn't even stand it. I just have no regard whatsoever for the American pop press and some aspects of the British pop press. I can't say anything about the Australian pop press becuase I haven't seen the results of it yet.

The horrible thing is, you go and do interviews with these people and they're all very nice, and then you read what they write and you say, "Man, I never said that, I never meant that". And not only that, but that person's writing about me 1ike I was a monster!

Q: The impression we get from articles out here is that you're a very domineering, aloof person.

Z: Well, suppose somebody who had a brain the size of a peanut came up to you with a little cassette recorder, told you he was from a rock 'n' roll magazine, wanted to interview you, and started trying to push you around. You weren't going for it and all you did was sit there and answer his questions and not get involved with what he was doing. Would you wind up coming off as domineering and aloof in the article?

Q: That's what happened to Mick Jagger when he came out here!

Z: Well, I know Mick Jagger, and I don't think he's domineering or aloof – I think he's funny! And if he comes over as anything other than that, then there's something wrong, 'cause he's a very funny person.

Q: I dug out the old Playboy, with the Zubin Mehta article ... [1]

Z: Yeah, I talked to him about that the other day. It's a great example of pop journalisrn. The last part of that article talked about a solo at that concert, and the writer, in an article that was supposed to have some authority to it, couldn't even tell the difference between a cello and a bassoon. And it's all there in Playboy, with millions of readers, right down here to the bottom of the world!

Q: Bad PR?

Z: Not just bad PR, it's bad editing and proof reading and all that. 'It's just ... shocking!

Q: Did you write in a protest?

Z: No. What are you going to do? I'd spend the whole of my life writing letters. Why give them the satisfaction of letting them know that you read their swill? It's obnoxious!

We did a concert with the Grand Wazoo in the Hollywood Bowl and this newspaper in Chicago sent out a lady to cover the show. I talked with her the day after the show and she started asking me some questions, none of which were about the show. And not only that, but she didn't even see the show! You see, the Hollywood Bowl was an open air concert and she was getting a chill so she went home. And she was still going to write an article about the show!

Q: What sort of audiences do you generally draw?

Z: The group is generally 15 to 17 years old, male, white, upper middle-class, short-haired, kids. And a lot of them are Jewish, especially on the East Coast.

Q: How much of a groupie following have you these days?

Z: Oh, it's improved vastly.

Q: You've got lots?

Z: Got lots and they're a lot better as well. They're hot! And some of them are even intelligent!


Q: On the covers of "200 Motels" and "Fillmore East" you added the note, "Don't forget to register to vote'. What do you think of the landslide victory, and to what do you think it's attributable? [2]

Z: Television advertising. Also the fact that a lot of people got scared to vote for McGovern 'cause they found out that he's a jerk!

Q: What about "Watergate"?

Z: Looks good. Looks like they're gonna get him at last. It's fascinating watching a government squirm like that – turn on the TV and see them all saying, "Oh, I did this, and I did that, and don't put me in jail". Don't you love to see your government being put through these changes?

Q: Why did you want to come to Australia?

Z: It's just weird, that's all.

Q: Ian was saying that it seemed like the end of the Earth, with the long plane trip and all.

Z: I don't think it's the end of the Earth, but I do have all kinds of notions about it, like how close it is to the South Pole.

Chorus: Oh no!

Z: Yeah. It's just funny to look at it on the map. I saw a map at the TV station and you know it was like, here's a real Australian map of Australia, not a map made in the States about Australia. And I looked at it and saw where the cities were placed, and I remembered that the last time I saw a map of Australia, it didn't look the same. The one that I had seen, the edge where Perth is, was sort of quashed in and more square looking. And Adelaide I thought was over here (indicates) but it's really down the bottom someplace.

It's just weird to think where you are. It's underneath of Asia someplace!

Q: You didn't have the usual kangaroo/koala bear hangups about coming out here then?

Z: No, but a lot of the people in the band, the first day they got here, went to the zoo to see all those things: I slept for 18 hours.

In Adelaide, Zappa was interviewed with Ross C of the Jazz Rock & Blues Club. Zappa turned out to be fairly friendly, open, frank, intelligent musician – very different from the divine figure many people had imagined him to be.


When you look for musos to join your band, what do you look for in a musician?

They have to be able to execute their parts on the instrument with a certain amount of facility. And it helps if they can read; although that's not 100% required. They have to have a certain kind of sense of humour, and the right kind of attitude about the work that we do.

What do you think of 1973 rock music?

I think that it's good that there are all different kinds of music available for all different types of people with all different kinds of tastes and everyone's able to get off on whatever thing they like. I personally like Neil Young, a new group in America called Steely Dan, and I heard a track off a Yes album which I thought was very good.

What would be the ultimate art form for you?

I think that it would have to be some combination of real projections, synchronised sounds, live action, and audience participation, all in a controlled acoustical environment. I'm doing a science fiction movie now which will probably be a musical.

Will it be anything like "200 Motels"?

I don't think there's anything sort of like "200 Motels" –  I doubt if it will resemble that at all. Your discreet Australian censors, much in the same way as censors in Portugal, Spain and Brazil, decided it was unfit for Australian consumption. However, we seek to remedy that. Before we leave Australia we're going to have a meeting with the senator who controls all that stuff; and see if we can get 200 Motels in here.

Do you believe in any form of censorship?

 Well, I think it's a matter of discretion more than censorship. I think people should be careful of the things they say and of the actions they perform, so as not to cramp somebody else's life style. But as far as choosing to omit certain words, cover up certain pictures, pretending certain body functions don't exist – I think that's absolutely absurd. It's a really non-productive activity for grown men to sit in offices, and it's an embarrassment to consider that an entire population would allow that sort of activity to be carried out on its behalf by someone that they hired to be in the government.

Have you had much time to judge Australian talent?

I've seen three groups so far. I was very interested in Barry Leaf, lead singer of a group called "Bakery". We auditioned him for a position in the Mothers while we were working in Melbourne; and it is possible that he might become a member of the group.

In a live recorded performance like "Billy the Mountain", how perfect do things have to be?

At the time "Just Another Band From L.A." came out I was still in a wheelchair from that thing in England. The group had already broken up because I couldn't tour, and that was the only recorded version of it available. It wasn't a perfect recording of it – it wasn't a perfect performance – but it was the only one of release quality.

Is that all arranged – or is there any spontaneous improvisation made in the performance?

It is all arranged, but within the arrangement the structure of the pieces is determined by first what I write in terms of the lyrics, then how the melodic sections hold the piece together. Then you go this far into the piece and there's a blank space, and the two lead singers were instructed to improvise a certain event right there. Next you go a few more bars that are arranged, and then there's another blank space which has to be improvised; but improvised in relationship to what they said in the first one. There's about four of these in the thing, and that guarantees you that every time you play the piece there's going to be some variety in it. A lot of pieces are done that way.

At the moment we're playing some very complicated arrangements. Do not come to the concert and expect to see anything from the Fillmore album because we don't play any of the groupies material or any of the things that were heavily vocal orientated from our other albums. We do mostly a completely new repertoire, and we get out there and boogie off in an abstract manner.

How do you think you could reach a larger audience?

First thing is, we've got to get some of this stuff played on the radio, and give people a chance to listen to what we're doing. The other thing is that we continue to tour and get people to listen to us live. Radio stations don't play my kind of music because their marketing research has shown them that it's safer to play a particular kind of music that has a wider audience appeal, without taking a chance to find out whether there's a larger audience for more unusual types of music.

People seem to identify with the politics or attitudes of the music/musicians they admire rather than perhaps formulate their own opinions from them. Do you think you and your music influences people this way?

Yes. I don't know why people allow their opinions to be formed externally. It seems to be a human trait – that a large number of people are dependent on outside stimuli in order for them to make some kind of a plan by which to live their lives. Schools tend to perpetuate this. Instead of an educational system that trains people to make decisions for themselves by showing them how to use criteria to make judgements; you go in there and you learn in a parrot type fashion the things that are going to be useful to you as a consumer. And so the educational system cranks you out in a special kind of mould, gives you just enough intelligence so you can operate a machine in a factory and just enough intelligence so that you might even enjoy that kind of life, if you could buy a refrigerator from working in the factory.

1. See "Zubin And The Mothers", Playboy, April 1971.

2. In 1972 Richard Nixon won the presidential election in a landslide, taking 60.7% of the popular vote and carrying 49 states, while being the first Republican to sweep the South. George McGovern took just 37.5% of the popular vote. Nixon won in the electoral college 520 to 17.