A Chat With The Mother Superior

By David Rensin

Circular, December 10, 1973

Situated between two parking lots on the “wrong side” of the Hollywood Freeway exit at Sunset Blvd., the squat, white building doesn’t seem as though it would house Frank Zappa’s newly created record label, DiscReet.

And while not as freaky as the public might expect a Frank Zappa domicile to be, the structure inside is vaguely reminiscent of a car dealership, circa 16th century Turkey. Offices surrounding a courtyard are accessible only through their own sliding glass doors, while miniature minarets and mosque designs pop out here and there. One almost expects to see a sign reading “Frank’s Used Car Deals/Best East of the Bosphorus Straits” hanging in close proximity.

DiscReet, according to Zappa, its president, is not an extension of the old Straight/Bizarre labels. “Those,” he says, “were two labels for two different kinds of product. This is one label for all different kinds of product, an independent distribution deal on more favorable terms with WEA and for more dollars.”

Behind the corporate offices is yet another building, once, perhaps, an old garage or warehouse. It presently functions as a grand rehearsal hall for Zappa and his Mothers of Invention, where the group can often be found practicing on the life-sized stage, in concert-like conditions, in order to gain a realistic appraisal of their live sound.

The last half hour of work on some new material reveals the music to be as intricate, interesting and stimulating as ever. But like the new record label, the music has evolved more than it has changed. In fact, some of the tunes even sound like the old MOI.

Retiring to the cluttered floor of an office in the progress of “becoming,” Zappa talks about the similarities.

“One reason Over-nite Sensation sounds like the early stuff is because I’m doing the vocals. The kind of voice I have is so limited – I don’t have very good range or intonation; I mostly talk on pitch – that if I write something that I’m going to have to perform, I'll do it in a vein that’s comfortable for me; hence it sounds like when I used to do the singing.”

Frank’s upcoming solo LP, Apostrophe, will also contain more vocals than any of his previous solo albums which were usually more jazz and instrumentally oriented. The vocal development is interesting in light of his statement that “I really used to hate to sing.” The explanation for the change stems both from strange circumstances and necessity.

“I injured my neck when I had that accident in Europe a few years back, and it did something to my voice. Not that it made it better, but it doesn’t annoy me so much to sing now. I was always embarrassed about my piteous little croakings in the recording booth, but I figured I couldn’t get the right inflections on the text unless I either did it myself or demonstrated hours on end to somebody else to tell him exactly how to say the words.”

Inflection, to Zappa, is very important when considering the total product. “The words, themselves, on paper, mean only so much,” he gestured, “but when you say them right, you can multiply the meaning to a point where they become something grander than they really are.”

While Zappa’s solo career gives him a chance to work with other groups of musicians, do tracks where he plays all the instruments and “experiment around with some of my favorite oddball type things that I would never perform onstage but are interesting projects for the studio,” his continued leadership of the MDI gives him the opportunity to go on the road and express his ideas through live performances.

Violinist Jean Luc Ponty and reed man Ian Underwood have dropped out of the line-up leaving Tom Fowler, bass; Bruce Fowler, trombone; Ruth Underwood, marimbas, vibes and percussion; George Duke, keyboards; Chester Thompson and Ralph Humphrey on drums and new vocalist Napoleon Brock, with Frank (lead guitar and vocals) as the latest manifestation in a long line of Mothers. “Now,” smiles Zappa, “we have a very strong group.”

The lineage of the Mothers has been so long and so involved that Zappa plans to issue an album containing quad recordings of four of the various bands in concert to commemorate the MOI’s 10th anniversary next year. In addition, he would like to put out his legendary yet mysterious nine-record history of the Mothers, but, as always, the project presents a number of apparently insurmountable problems.

“Next year is the time to put it out,” Zappa explained, “but it would be hard to release something so gross in a depleted
market at a time when they’ve just raised the overall retail cost per disc $1. Plus, there’s no way I can afford to pay everyone entitled his fair share of royalties for his work,” he chuckled. “I may be squeezed into the position of putting out a quadruple album now and waiting another 10 years for the next set.”

Natural Slime

Meanwhile, Zappa and band continue to tour. Having already done Australia and Europe, the East Coast and Canada are now playing host to the Mothers while listening to the new single from Over-nite Sensation, “I’m the Slime.” According to Zappa, so many of the other tunes on the album were getting airplay, that for the first time, problems arose in deciding which cut to release. He thought “I’m the Slime” was the least likely candidate, but the opinion of various pop music reporters in England and Germany was that “Slime” was a natural.

As he finished discussing his immediate projects (touring and making a movie with a monster in it that he can’t talk about) and priorities (he’s not doing any producing other than his own product inside the company; his last outside effort was the Ruben and the Jets disc for Mercury) Frank paused to consider the fact that he is often labelled the “father” of theatrical rock a la Alice Cooper (an early protégé) and others. Here he offered some interesting insights into the MOI’s past.

“I probably am the father,” he admitted, “and I can see that now it’s turned into something quite spectacular. At the time we were doing it, we had very poor equipment and did it under circumstances that most of the spectacle rock groups today wouldn’t work in. In other words, we did it the hard way: six nights a week, two shows a night for five months at the Garrick Theater in New York, in August and September with no air conditioning and the humidity at 90%. It was a little 300 seat theater, and we played for whoever would come in and take part in what we were doing. We would involve the audience so that what we did was an extension of the personalities of the people in the group and in the audience instead of a locked-in, spectacle type show. It was spontaneous, and our credo was that we weren’t afraid to do anything as long as the audience was going to get off on it. I do weird things onstage, but nothing involving material discharges from the body or small animals subject to injuries. We’ve done some strange things, but we don’t hurt people or animals, and it doesn’t smell bad.”

Ultimate Audacity

But since Zappa and company’s circuit only gets them to each town on the average of once a year, the rumors and speculation have a habit of running rampant.

“We never had a gross-out contest with the Fugs. My father is not Mr. Green Jeans from Captain Kangaroo, and when I’m accused of killing chickens, I tell people to check with Alice Cooper,” he said, trying to set the record straight once and for all. But speaking of Alice again, has Zappa even seen his “child” all grown up in concert lately?

“I’ve never been to one of his new grand shows. The last time I saw them, they still had dumpy equipment, but then I don’t go to see anybody unless they happen to be the group we’re working with and I get to the show early. I’m just not interested because I don’t buy rock & roll records, I don’t listen to the radio or watch TV. I don’t go to rock concerts as a member of the audience because generally, when you get right down to it, what the other groups do is so demeaning to the consciousness of the crowd that I don’t want to be a part of it. It’s the whole idea of the show being inflicted on the audience.”

What, then, sets the Mothers, a group once known for its outrageous actions as well as words and music, apart?

“I don’t feel we inflict our show in the same way,” Zappa says defensively. What we do is go out and have the ultimate audacity to perform what we do whether or not the audience believes they can enjoy it. Most of the time, they don’t have any idea they can enjoy it.

“We have a hard core group that makes up the basic attendance at our gigs, but there are others that come as first time visitors to our environment out of curiosity or because there’s nothing else going on in town or because it’s already pre-paid on their student body cards. They don’t know what to expect, so if you start playing things like “Farther Oblivion / Part Two: The Tango” or Kung Fu: A Shuffle,” they have to make up their minds right there and then what’s happening to them.”

He stood and smiled for effect. “And they usually do.”

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net