Frank Zappa On His Current State Of Affairs

By Samuel Graham

Record World, January 21, 1978

Guitarist/composer/bandleader Frank Zappa's recording career is currently in limbo, due to a spate of lawsuits now in the courts. The suits, in which Zappa is the plaintiff, essentially involve a contractual dispute with Warner Bros. Records (the artist's most recent label affiliation) and a fraud and breach of fiduciary responsibility action directed against Herbert and Martin Cohen, Zappa's former business manager and attorney, respectively. While the legal action has prevented him from having any new recorded product on the market, Zappa has kept himself busy touring with his current band and putting together his new film, "Baby Snakes." In the following Dialogue, he airs his outspoken opinions on music industry matters, both musical and practical.

Record World: What's the story with DiscReet Records these days, and the status of the label, if any?

Frank Zappa: Once upon a time, there was a company called Bizarre and Straight Records, and the successor to that contract was DiscReet Records. Bizarre/Straight was the first label deal we had with Warner Bros. as the distributor; that contract expired, and a new one was negotiated for DiscReet. That contract was what you'd call a "sweetheart" contract, which was working more on behalf of the Cohen brothers than on my behalf as an artist.

During the course of operating DiscReet Records it became evident that the trust that I had placed in Herb Cohen was placed in the wrong location. Our agreement was that I was the one who was supposed to decide who was going to be on the label – I would concern myself with all the musical matters. But shortly after the signing of the contract, I was surprised to learn that an album by an artist named Kathy Dalton was not only recorded but pressed and ready to be released. This came as a surprise to me, since I never signed Kathy Dalton. Herb signed her, and he spent three times what the specified budget for a new artist on the label was supposed to be. I'd never heard anything about it, so I became very irate; I had a meeting with Herb and his brother Martin, the attorney who drew up the contracts, and I said, "Look, this can't go on, doing a label deal under these circumstances. My name is on the line, and I wouldn't have signed Kathy Dalton, but you already have, and you spent three times what you were supposed to on the record. What's the story?" The net result of that meeting was "Well, we won't do it again."

Shortly thereafter, I was on my way to the MIDEM convention, and I happened to drive to the airport with Mutt (Martin) Cohen. It was during this car ride that I learned of the existence of an album called "Growl." What had happened was this: Herb and Mutt have a publishing company called Third Story Music. There's a guy named Duffy who works for Martin as sort of a talent scout, and apparently Duffy had brought this group named Growl to Martin's attention. Martin had sold some Growl demos to Camden and somehow managed to get them back.

On the flight to the convention, I was riding in the first class section, and Mutt was in the back of the plane. It happened that Joe Smith was also riding in the front of the plane. He wasn't a close acquaintance of mine –I didn't even recognize him until he came over and introduced himself – but we sat down and talked for a little while. I asked him if he'd ever heard of the Growl album, and he started laughing and said, "Have I ever heard of the Growl album? I'm the guy that's gotta stand up in front of a sales meeting with one of your albums in one hand and the Growl album in the other hand and say, 'And now, from DiscReet Records we have ... ' " So I said, "Well tell me, Joe, do you think there's any way we can just forget about this whole DiscReet thing and I can sign directly with Warners as an artist?" And he said, "Sure, that would be great." I asked him what kind of a deal I could get; he made me an offer and said that they would be delighted not to have to do business with DiscReet, because it had been an embarrassment to them.

By the time I got to the convention, Joe Smith had recommended an attorney to me. Joe's recommendation was a guy named Lee Phillips. He said, "Go talk to Lee Phillips. He'll help you work out the deal – after all, he's the one who negotiated my employment contract with Warner Bros." The lawyer that had been mainly representing me in music business affairs in L.A., all those years, had been Herb's brother, Mutt. So I didn't know where to go to get any outside legal assistance, because I'd been sort of tied up in the Cohen family syndrome for ten or eleven years.

RW: As far as lawyers are concerned, you have certain strong feelings about record company-lawyer conflict of interest or collusion; you have even expressed them from time to time in your songs. What are those feelings?

Zappa: First of all, I don't think it's fair that if a person is earning his living as a performer, a musician, a writer or whatever, and he needs representation on his behalf when it's time to sign a contract with a purveyor of musical wares, like a record company or a publisher, getting that representation from a lawyer who isn't already connected in some way with the other side of the fence is almost impossible in Los Angeles, because it's so incestuous here. From the lawyer's point of view, the main thing that he's interested in is large billing, and if a record company is one of his clients, that is a large billing. So if an artist comes to him and says, "I need my contract negotiated," I don't think the lawyer is really going to fight as hard for the artist as he would on behalf of the record company. Basically, what's happening is that all the top music business attorneys are out going to those special, wonderful Hollywood parties with the special, wonderful Hollywood record executives, indulging in all those unusual little record industry pleasures that those people have for their noses. You can't force these people to do an honest day's work on the part of an artist – I've seen it, it's happened to me.

RW: Without incriminating yourself in this court situation, can you speculate as to just when you'll have recorded product next available?

Zappa: I can't really say, because aside from the problems that an artist faces dealing with lawyers and dealing with people who purvey the goods, the other big problem you've got is the American justice system, which is kind of difficult to deal with in California because of the length of time it takes to get a civil suit into court. This court backup in civil cases is one reason why those large companies will take the liberty of messing with people. It's three to five years before you can get your case heard, and this always works in favor of those big guys who are pushing the little guys around. How many people can afford to pay a law firm to do that work and shuffle papers back and forth for five years? It's unbelievably expensive, and all these guys are doing is sending letters to each other, filing little writs of this and complaints of that, while you just keep paying and paying. To me, it's a large part of my income. To a corporation, it's nothing. And it's really not fair.

RW: Let's change the subject. You've just finished one of your most successful tours, and afterwards you said that your audiences seem to be getting younger and younger each year. Why is that?

Zappa: I think that all audiences are getting younger for live performances, because there are more concerts being played in places that are not physically comfortable to attend. We play in a lot of them, hockey rinks and so forth, where they have what you call your festival seating, which means that everybody has the right to total discomfort for the three hours of the concert. I think older people don't want to subject themselves to that, but younger kids will go there because it's a party kind of atmosphere.

I think that the older people who liked what we did a long time ago, and went to the concerts then, may just be buying the records now and staying home. And some of them just don't like it anymore.

RW: You also mentioned that the actual make-up of the crowds has changed – not just their ages, but the type of people.

Zappa: Well, this is true of all audiences, because audiences are a product of their environment. One important thing in the environment these days is chemicals, chemical alteration of the consciousness of the people in the audience. About ten years ago, you'd see audiences who were strongly influenced by LSD; today, you have a lot of people in the audience who are using angel dust, or beer, or whatever happens to be there. So these are things that change audiences and. their ability to perceive what's going on.

RW: Why do you suppose more blacks and more women are coming to your gigs, as you suggested?

Zappa: Well, I think the blacks started coming at the point where there were some black musicians in the group. The women started coming when we had more cute people in the group. That's the way it goes.

RW: Do you think that your audiences, both for concerts and for records, are attracted to you more by the music itself or by the element of comedy they expect to hear?

Zappa: I'd love to show you a review I just saw for a concert we did in Philadelphia. The review ended with the statement that "If you can't laugh, then why go to a Zappa concert?” The guy was complaining that he didn't think we were funny enough; although he said that the music was real good, everybody was playing good, bla bla bla, the bottom line for that particular person was that I'm here to make everybody laugh. Well sure, I'm here to make as many people laugh as I can, but I do other things besides that. If you just want to come and laugh, "that's great – I'll' give that to you.

RW: Well, were that reviewer's comments an accurate reflection of the audience's reaction?

Zappa: No.

RW: What was the audience's reaction?

Zappa: I heard some laughs.

RW: Along the same lines, you're well known as one who neither reads nor puts much stock in the press that's written about you. What is it that you object to primarily about critics, reviewers and so on?

Zappa: There's one thing I just object to in general, and that's futility. There's so much going around, and I hate to be a party to it. I've said in other interviews elsewhere that there are two things wrong with this world – this is back when I had it reduced down
to two – one, readers, and two, writers. In America, reading comprehension is amazingly low. The way in which an American reader decodes and processes information off a printed page is frightening – they just can't read. And of course this isn't helped very much by the way in which writers write. There are so many people with access to a typewriter, which can be a very dangerous tool in the hands of the wrong kind of people. There are too many people who just decided, "Well, I'm gonna be a writer," and too many other people who said, "I'm gonna be a publisher.” And since it's a free country, you have a proliferation of swill. It seems to me that it's just an exercise in futility to get involved in that.

RW: In your own writing, specifically in a piece you did for Guitar Player magazine last winter, you expressed your dislike for guitarists who play as many notes as they can as fast as possible, instead of a few long notes played with feeling; and you expressed your own admiration for players like B. B. King. Yet in your own playing, as I think you'd agree, there's a tendency towards lots of fast runs and plenty of notes. This seems to be what you yourself were criticizing.

Zappa: Well, first of all you have to understand that the main thing I'm concerned about is a link between what you mean and
what you say. I think you're making good music if you say what you mean and play who you are. If I was B. B. King, I'm sure that I would play notes just like B. B. King; when I hear what he plays, I think it's coming from him as a person. I don't think he cares how many notes somebody else plays. It's not relevant to him – he's found his own musical identity, and he'll stand up there and play it, no matter what anyone else thinks about it.

That's the way I play. If I play a bunch of notes – and I also play long notes, too – that's the way I feel, that's who I am. What I'm trying to do at the point where I'm playing a solo is to take a piece of time and decorate it with notes that are relevant to the harmonic climate that's being laid down by the ensemble behind me. Sometimes, you take what you can get as far as accompaniment goes – you may have instructed them to play in the key of A minor, and some of them are playing in A minor, but you might hear a bass note which is coming from another key some place. To some members of the audience, this is jazz. But to a modal enthusiast such as myself, this is heresy, and it makes me want to murder and commit vile deeds right there on stage. But the show must go on, and you keep playing.

RW: I'm getting back to your comments about audiences, after you played at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion in November, you were very critical of the audience there; yet you returned to play there on New Year's Eve.

Zappa: Don't get me wrong – I appreciate anyone who will come and see a concert of mine. But if you had to compare an audience from one location to another, I'll say it again, as I said before: the Pauley Pavilion audience was the singularly dullest audience that we've played to in the last three months on the road. That audience's response was probably a combination of three things: the amount of supervision in the hall, the attitude of all audiences in Los Angeles, and however they heard or related to what we were doing. I think the impression of the music was generally favorable, from the comments I heard after the show, but there was quite a bit of supervision in the hall. Yet even if it was festival seating, as they say, and they were jammed right up against the front of the stage, I don't think the response would have been the same as what you'd get in Cleveland or Chicago or New York City. People in L.A. are still waiting for the Beatles to get back together.

RW: Doesn't that view of L.A. audiences also extend to your opinions about the radio market here?

Zappa: I think that you can only draw conclusions about things that you have been exposed to – you can only have an opinion about something if you have had an example held up to you – and the narrow framework that the music on Los Angeles radio is squeezed into doesn't give the audience in this town a chance to hear as much interesting music as the people in the midwest get to hear. Los Angeles radio, especially considering how much of it there is, is some of the most boring radio in the country.

RW: You once described the sound of so-called "fusion" music which some people might say is a form that you helped inspire, though not intentionally – as nothing more than "technique over a disco base." Why has this music become so popular?

Zappa: I don't feel responsible for it in any way. But I think that anything that you can give a label to will eventually find adherents, because that's just the way the American public is. For the people who like it, it's divine. Same way for the people who like country and western – it can do no wrong. If a certain kind of music appeals to your taste, there's no way that anyone will convince you that it's not the most wonderful thing that ever happened. I believe that everybody is entitled to experience that joy, in their own little way. It's not my idea of a good time, but it's got to be there for the people who want to enjoy it.