Formula Perfecto

By James Riordan

Musician's Guide, August 1977

The following interview with Frank Zappa was conducted with the valuable aid of Rick Denhart, guitarist for the Tonguesnatcher Review who perform several Zappa compositions. FZ = Frank Zappa, RD = Rich Denhart, JR = James Riordan.

RD: Do you think that Rock musicians are tending to get technically better?

FZ: Some are, some aren't. Would you say the Ramones are technically better than the Mahavishnu Orchestra?

RD: In some way.

FZ: Right. In their own peculiar way, of course. What techniques are you talking about? Direct communication is a technique. I think that over the past few years Rock 'n Roll got really etherealized and laid back to the point where it might make nice background music in a funeral parlor. All those west coast groups with the real quiet drum set, a strum guitar, and pea soup harmony in the background. Everybody's in love and everything's real nice. That's not my idea of a good time. There are other people who thrive on it.

JR: Do you think that communicates though? People like Harry Chapin, that kind of thing.

FZ: Well, Harry Chapin – now there's one song he did that I really enjoyed. That was "WOLD". I thought that was hilarious but, I don't particularly care for his other things.

JR: While there are progressions and changes in all your records, I noticed a big change in the sound of "Zoot Allures" as compared to past albums.

FZ: Yeah, the record sounds different. The record sounds different because I played most of the instruments.

JR: Is it closer to what you were trying to achieve than the others ... on a per album basis?

FZ: Yeah.

RD: Are you going to continue doing that or is it just something you wanted to try?

FZ: I just wanted to try it ...

RD: You kind of did it before, didn't you?

FZ: Not like that ... I played keyboards, synthesizer, bass, and guitar before but, I always left the drum up to somebody else. There's a little color here and there but, basically all the tracks are the way I wanted to have them done. It's hard to explain to other musicians in that kind of situation that one note will say more than a hundred notes in certain spots ... because a guy who's studied for years to get his chops up doesn't want to be told to lay out.

FZ: They take it as a personal affront. But see – what people lose sight of is the fact that if you're a composer, then you know that the last thing in the world you want to do is have everybody playing as much as they can, all at the same time ... because that doesn't lead to a good design. To me that's the equivalent of taking a nice piece of white paper and painting the whole thing black. You know you get maximum density ... it just gets too busy and it goes nowhere.

JR: You started out playing drums. Your drumming ability shows in your arranging.

FZ: The story of me and drummers ... boy ... I'm telling you it's hard to find a drummer. Drummers have a funny idea of what music is all about. I've never met a drummer who liked to keep a beat.

JR: Yeah, that's true.

FZ: It's like ... well did you ever meet a bass player that wanted to play that bass? Or did you ever meet a piano player that was interested in chords. Did you ever meet a rhythm guitar player?

JR: I know for a fact that there is no such thing.

FZ: How about a singer who liked bands? How about a band that liked singers that don't play anything? It ain't easy when you talk about making a band play an arrangement you're talking about ... building the tower of babble. Every time you try to teach a band a song, everybody's got their own idea about what should come out. There are certain aspects of the music business that are less appealing than others. I happen to really enjoy playing concerts and working in the recording studio. I don't enjoy the hassles like at the airport, being searched for no reason or there being a mixup and one guy having to unload 8 tons of PA equipment.

RD: Do you like playing two shows?

FZ: It hurts.

RD: Does the second show usually feel better?

FZ: Well it has to, you know. It just has to, 'cause if it doesn't you're done for ... It takes a lot of energy to get out there and do that ... a lot of concentration. Especially with what I'm doing because I gotta tune in to the audience and still keep my eye on what's going on with the band. If they get sloppy I gotta go bip, bip, bip ... Two shows ... I try and avoid that as much as I can.

JR: Do you write on the road at all? (Picks up notated sheet by way of answer.) What about lyrics ... do you do music first?

FZ: Depends.

JR: Do you sit down and write lyrics out in a restaurant?

FZ: Usually in a hotel room. I'm not much for the words on a napkin scene. I have enough control where I can wait until I get back to the room.

RD: When you're composing how much do you write out? Do you write out all the vocal parts for example?

FZ: It depends on the song. Some things are dot for dot including every kick drum beat, every high hat squat. Some things aren't – writing stuff down for me is a very time consuming project, and I'm only going to do it when I have to do. The relationship between music on paper and music in the air is the same relationship as a recipe book to something that you eat.

JR: Do you have total control over the bands you put together? They work for you and they do it your way?

FZ: Yeah.

JR: It's understood up front as that way – right?

FZ: Yeah, it's a very simple process. Suppose you were going to be a musician in a symphony orchestra ... there's a guy who waves a stick up there. He tells you when to start, when to stop, and when to beat it. He even has something to do with selecting the repertoire. That's my job. In this case my job goes a little bit further because I buy the equipment, I pay all the salaries, I pay all the salaries of the crew, I provide all the transportation. ... It's like they don't have to worry about anything once they get in because it's being provided for them. And on top of that it's the best musical education that any of them will get.

RD: Do you think there is any reason why the music that comes out today has to die within a year?

FZ: Probably because most of it is not very memorable.

RD: True, but bands are not encouraged to play older tunes mainly because they're encouraged to write so they can make more money off the publishing, but isn't there an awful lot of good stuff that could be played that's ignored?

FZ: Of course there is, but then you have artists like Linda Ronstadt that do a whitewash job of an old song and make a hit with it. And they thrive on other material because they don't write. Let me tell you something that most students of musical history have managed to overlook. Classical music is formula music. The classical period of composition is formula ... to death. And so is today's (music) ... formula to death. Who's to say that five hundred years from now the formula that goes on today will be accepted as the classical music of the sixties; because while classical is so good, it's so predictable. It's just as predictable as the top 40 single. With a hook, recapitulations of the hook, a little modulation ... it's the same. Except that it's played by violins, and oboes, and people in tuxedos. If Mozart had some guys in the orchestra that vomited blood with tongues this long, it would've been a different story.

JR: It's already happened that earlier Beatles stuff is being looked upon as classic in that they were ...

FZ: Formula perfecto, there's a lot to be said for the formula. There's also some analysis that could be made of that formula and see that their (The Beatles) audio success formula, in many ways was derived from earlier success formulas present in American music. Somebody ought to write a real music history book.

Do you know anything about the rules of musical composition? Where do they come from? The way it's taught today is you get a book and there's the rules. Nobody asks where they come from. Somewhere in the book in fine print it says, these rules are an assessment of the mannerisms of the music of this period. Somebody sat down and said well everybody that was writing these kinds of songs did this so you do this ... eight bars then you do this, another 12 bars and it goes to here. And now you go to music school and they teach you that stuff.

Somebody, somewhere along the way back there had to be experimental, combined things, found some things out, and had some good ideas to create a style. His friends, who are singularly interested in producing audio (phenomena) copied his style. One good boogie band ... a thousand good boogie bands. One good piano concerto ... ten thousand good piano concertos. So one guy does it, one guy figures it out. The rest of the people say that sounds good, I'm going to work in that medium. Viewed from a distance it becomes the accepted norm.

Alright now ... where does rock 'n roll traditionally come from? Think about it. If you had to spell it out in writing what makes rock 'n roll songs sound like rock 'n roll, you'd have to go back to the timbre of the music which is the result of the instruments that are playing it, the way it's being attacked, the typical rhythms, typical chord progressions and typical lyrics formula.

JR: Do you use the formula?

FZ: I use the formula to make fun of itself. Yeah, but see the thing is one of the reasons why people have a hard time dealing with the stuff that I do is because if I want to say something I'll try to use the setting that is proper to the text that's being said. And there's so many different kinds of musical formulas that you can use. They're all valid. They're all worthwhile to experiment around with the service of the lyric that you're saying. I can take any one of the songs that I've written and rewrite it by changing the timbre of the setting, changing the speed of the song, and doing it another way. And I've done that a number of times ... in live performances.

JR: How is the accepted formula decided?

FZ: Well that's probably based on the law of supply and demand. In the old days, people who wrote music were working for the king. If you wrote something he didn't like, you were dead. That's really where classical music was at. It was never really written for the people. It was written for the people that were paying for it. That meant royalty. It was all supported by the guys who had the bucks. That hasn't changed too much, has it?

JR: How did you get Verve to put out a double album?

FZ: It wasn't easy.

JR: Why don't you tell me how you did it?

FZ: I talked like a son-of-a-b...

JR: Did you go into commercial possibilities with them?

FZ: No.

JR: Just pure art ... or pure bull?

FZ: Before they knew it they had two records in the pile.

JR: When an artist starts out he has to deal with all this bull at the lower levels at the bottom of the music business ...

FZ: The bull on the bottom is the same as the bull in the middle ... it's the same as the bull on the top.

JR: But you have to go from the bottom up.

FZ: Well just remember on thing ... whatever level you're on it's going to be the same bull. The people that are dishing it out just change costumes, that's all. At the bottom the guy's got an apron on, and maybe he's the guy who's selling beer at the club you're working at. At the top it's the president of some exotic multi-billion dollar record company. They're still feeding you the same doo doo. I've been doing it for twelve years ... and I still can't get the people at Warners on the phone.

Another version of this interview was published in Rocky Mountain Musical Express, January 1978.

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