Frank Zappa likes Stravinsky: an interview

By Allan Mandell

The Varsity, November 23, 1973

Can the man who wrote “Weasels ripped my flesh” and “Willie the Pimp” be a hardworking musician who likes Stravinsky?

What would you expect going to meet Frank Zappa?

This is a man who's put over a dozen albums with such titles as, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Hot Rats, Chunga's Revenge and Lumpy Gravy, and is generally regarded as one of the freakiest phenomena in music.

I think I expected magic or at least craziness.

I found neither.

Entering the hotel room, (pretty posh – The Windsor Arms) I encountered a real human Frank Zappa already being interviewed. So I sat and waited my turn listening attentively to what was going on. This wasn't just a hotel room you understand but a suite, and we were sitting in the living room portion. There were about two dozen cassettes, lying around on the tables. Each one bore the name of a city. As it turned out Zappa records all his concerts. What I saw were the stereo cassettes, but he also simultaneously records everything quadrophonically. The band listens to each tape after a performance to catch any mistakes or see what improvements can be made. This is no haphazard musician.

The other interviewer finished, and Zappa put on a tape of the previous night's concert in Waterloo. [1] For almost 10 minutes we were treated to the middle movement of a song that merged two very different musical styles, “The Be-Bop Tango”.

And then... yes, and then, I interviewed Mr. Zappa.

What I found was a very opinionated, very frank (no pun intended) individual who is truly involved in his music. The general public doesn't understand that seeming 'freakiness' is just an outgrowth of his approach to life.

“My philosophy is, there's no reason why you can't play any music you want to play, any time you want, or do anything you want on stage. I believe in that kind of freedom of expression.”

Zappa is a serious musician. He writes all the music for the Mothers. With “very little classical training” he scores all the parts for whatever medium he's writing in, be it a full orchestra, a brass quartet or a six-place rock band. His own musical preferences tend towards the contemporary orchestral sounds of people like Penderecki, Varèse and Stravinsky.

It's easy to say that Zappa's main concern these days is his music.

“In the early days I kept a bunch of people in the group 'cause I liked them and because they had good spirit in spite of the fact that they weren't great musicians. Jimmy Carl Black's one of them. He's not the greatest drummer that ever happened but he had a great spirit and he added a lot to the group. Don Preston used to make mistakes all the time in his parts but he also has one of those personalities that was just so right for the band.

“But I don't like to maintain that attitude anymore, I've been doing this for so long, I've been waiting for so long to get the right notes played every time, that I'm looking for people that not only have the right spirit, but get up there and do it – really play the notes.”

Because he is concerned with giving accurate performances he says he would never have former Mothers in the group again. Commenting about his recently-departed lead singers, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman.

“They didn't always give accurate performances in terms of the notes that they sang. Howard was better about it than Mark, but Mark had a tendency to extra-curricular excess which ruined his voice and made it impossible for him to negotiate the parts. After a while the only thing that he was good for on stage was juggling a tambourine, being fat and making people laugh occasionally. But when it came down to actually singing the notes, he was fakin' it and Howard had to carry him. Howard has a great strong voice... a stronger physique too, because he would carouse as much as everybody else but he would be more on the ball when it came time to get back on stage.”

Zappa and the Mothers have already performed in Toronto twice this year. In fact, they've completed over 100 concerts since January. Most bands dislike touring but Zappa feels different.

“If I had to choose I'd be touring.”

“l like to have something happening where the music is alive, and there's people in it, and some feeling to it. It's so hard to get something that exciting in a studio. I think that anyone that wants to shut himself up in a studio for the rest of his life is missing out. To me, the studio is a useful tool. It's a great place to do certain experimental things. There are a number of things that are feasible in the studio that are impossible on a stage, like overdubbing. But for getting out and 'doing it' you've got to go on the road."

Once the band has adjusted itself to touring, “everybody is really interested in jumping out on that stage and just 'doing it' to an audience, just surprising the living shit out of them by doing things that are theoretically impossible.”

Zappa's discussion of his song “The Be-Bop Tango” give you some insight into the way in which he constructs his music.

“You have a melody that first of all is technically difficult to play on any instrument. It's the hardest twistedest bunch of notes you ever saw on paper. First of all everyone had to memorize it, then they had to get to play it that fast. If you ever saw it on paper, I'm telling you, it would look like a bunch of ants had run across the thing. It's ridiculous. Then after they memorized it and learned to play it that fast they have to make fun of it along with me on behalf of the audience who couldn't hear it anyway – they just don't know how hard it is to even play that tune. Then after we've joked around with it, George (Duke) is sitting there playing it, and singing it and breaking it up and tossing it around in between what I'm saying. That's some fancy shit.”

“It takes a lot of work to do that and it takes some really good people too.”

“I wrote it about a year and a half ago. It was originally written as a trumpet solo for a guy named Malcolm McNabb. It took him three months of constant practice before he could play it. And he can't play it that fast. He can play it maybe half that speed. And he is a fantastic trumpet player who's worked with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and does recordings and concerts – he busted his chops to learn to play it. That piece has been played by three different sets of Mothers and each time it's been played it's undergone changes.”

About a year and a half ago Zappa released a full length feature movie and an accompanying soundtrack album called 200 Motels.

“Some of it was successful and some of it wasn't. I think the main thing that held it back was a small budget, because there wasn't enough money to give us enough time to do things perfectly.”

“That film was shot in 56 hours, seven eight-hour days exactly.”

“I didn't like the way that the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played my music. Most of it is very inaccurate... it was a combination of not enough respect (for the music) and not enough rehearsal time. If you took a piece like "I'm Stealing the Room”. If you ever saw it on paper it's a complex score. It's not a joke. It's a hard score and conservative estimates of the length of time it would take an orchestra to play it right have run up to a year of rehearsal. They had that plus about 10 other hard pieces to do in front of the camera with maybe 10 hours of rehearsal.

“Then on the other hand who in his right mind is gonna want to spend enough money to get those pieces played right because after they're played right who wants to listen to them?

“See, it's sort of a dilemma folks!”

1. November 18, 1973, concert in University of Waterloo. Songlist: soundcheck intro, Be-Bop Tango, T'Mershi Duween, I'm The Slime, Big Swifty, Pygmy Twylyte, The Idiot Bastard Son, Cheepnis, Montana, improvisations, Dupree's Paradise (q: Echidna's Arf, T'Mershi Duween, incl. Nowhere riff).

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