Pop Music's Central Scrutinizer

By Dan Forte

M.I., November, 1979

It is 4:30 this Monday afternoon at the Hollywood Hills home of Frank Zappa.

Half a dozen workmen are trudging through the living room, hammering nails and sawing planks in half. Zappa's wife, Gail is feeding her two month-old daughter Diva. Dweezil, Zappa's oldest son returns from school and heads straight for the television in time for The Fantastic Four. Zappa's twelve-year-old daughter, Moon Unit, is in the kitchen working on a homework assignment – a Super-8 movie of younger brother Ahmet making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. For his film debut, Ahmet, age five, insists on wearing a ballerina tutu.

In the next room, the head of the household is sleeping, or at least trying to.

"He was working on his film until 6:00 this morning," Gail explains, "and didn't get to bed until around 10:00. I'll wake him up in about fifteen minutes. Are you sure this interview was for 3:00?" The former leader of the Mothers Of Invention enters the room half an hour later, still pop's central scrutinizer barefoot with his newly sheared hair uncombed.

Zappa has been termed a workaholic, and the accuracy of that description is evidenced by his vampiric lifestyle as well as his massive recorded output. Not only has Zappa released 27 LPs (many of them double sets) over the past thirteen years, he has written nearly every song that went into those albums. He currently has two LPs in the can – Warts And All and the all instrumental Shut Up And Play Your Guitar and is about to release Acts II and III of his rock opera, Joe's Garage. He recently produced Touch Me There by Indian violinist L. Shankar, and he is currently in the final editing stages of his film, Baby Snakes.

The film is a two-and-a-half-hour multi-media documentary, incorporating live concert footage, backstage interviews, and animation – both cartoons and frame-by-frame photography of clay sculptures.

Zappa's two most recent LPs are on his own Zappa Records, which was formed after he satisfied the requirements of his contract with Warners Bros. by handing over the tapes of four completed albums. Zappa is presently suing Warners, because he claims he has not been paid for those releases – Zappa In New York, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, and Orchestral Favorites.

Today, Zappa is more popular, more visible, and more controversial than ever before, thanks to Sheik Yerbouti and Joe's Garage, Act I. The song "Jewish Princess" (from the former) brought an edict from the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, for lines like "I want a horny little Jewish Princess, with a garlic aroma that could level Tacoma." As if to show he's an equal opportunity satirist, Frank's follow-up includes "Catholic Girls," which concerns said females engaging in oral sex in the rectory basement. (In the event of a suit, Zappa threatens to have members of his band testify and "name names.")

Zappa's rock opera takes place in the future, when music is about to be outlawed, and is narrated by the Central Scrutinizer (Zappa) who's job it is to enforce laws that haven't yet been passed. The story follows the career of Joe, the leader of a garage band, who is arrested for playing too loud; his girlfriend, Mary, who becomes a "crew slut" for the big-time rock group Toad-O; and Father Riley, a defrocked priest who changes his name to Buddy Jones and emcees a Wet T-Shirt Contest. Joe eventually gets out of jail, only to contract an unpronounceable disease from a girl named Lucille. He then gives all of his money to L. Ron Hoover and joins the First Church of Appliantology.

And that's just Act I. Act II picks up with Joe having an affair with a household appliance, and things degenerate from there until the final act, where Joe goes out with a glorious guitar solo.

Like Sheik Yerbouti, (which scored a minor hit single with "Dancin' Fool"), the music on Joe's Garage is some of the catchiest, most accessible in the Zappa catalog. R&B, Fifties rock, and even reggae influences crop up, and Zappa comes up with some of his best guitar playing to date, particularly in Act III.

The personnel on the session was thrown together in true "garage" style. Zappa found harp player Craig "Twister" Steward in a bar in Wichita, Kansas; Ike Willis was a roadie at a college date; Warren Cuccurullo was a guitar playing fan. Also appearing on the album is Al "Meatball" Malkin, a friend of Cuccurullo's, who works as a cab driver in New York and has the bizarre hobby of making tape recordings of himself trying to pick up strange women. (Frank has signed Malkin to a contract with Zappa Records and is considering releasing the tapes in some form.) Zappa's knack for finding people with unique talents is also evidenced in Baby Snakes, which includes some incredibly complex animation by Bruce Bickford, who literally dropped into Zappa's life, after hopping over Zappa's fence.

Zappa, 38, has by now transcended mere rock and roll musician status and has become more of a pop personality. Normal activities such as getting a haircut (which in the case of Zappa constitutes major surgery) or having a baby daughter (and keeping the world guessing as to possible names) make headlines when Zappa is involved.

Like the music he composes, Frank Zappa is articulate, outspoken, and witty. Interviews with him invariably share the same qualities; each is approached with the care of an orchestral composition, while maintaining the spontaneity of an extended guitar solo.

M.I.: Where did you find the musicians on Joe's Garage?

Zappa: Well, Peter Wolf and Tommy Mars, the keyboard players, were already in the band from Sheik Yerbouti, as was Ed Mann, Ike Willis was a roadie at a college date in St. Louis; he was helping set up the equipment.

He said he played the guitar and sang, so I told him I'd give him an audition. I did, and he turned out to be fantastic. Warren Cuccurullo was a fan up until the time he got into the band. In fact, he's in the movie, as a fan. He always told me that he played the guitar, and I said, "Well, I'll try you out." Shortly thereafter I flew him out to California and gave him an audition, and he turned out to be really great.

M.I.: What about Craig Steward, the harmonica player?

Zappa: Found him in a bar in Wichita Kansas, about six years ago. He sounds like Coltrane on a harmonica. And I mean fast like you won't believe. This guy is like the Al DiMeola of the harmonica. I brought him out to California to audition when we were putting together the Roxy & Elsewhere album. But he was kind of a primitive musician; he'd never worked in a band before, and he didn't know how to learn parts. We were doing a lot of written stuff, and he couldn't read, and he had some difficulty manipulating the instrument in order to play some chromatic passages – because he only plays regular diatonic harp. I told him to go back home and develop his ear to the point where somebody could say, "It goes like this," and he could hear it and play it. Five years later I got a letter from him; he said, " I've been practicing and I want to try it again." I got on the phone to him right away and got him out here.

M.I.: Tell us about Meatball.

Zappa: Al Malkin plays Officer Butzis on Joe's Garage. He's a cab driver in New York; he was a friend of Warren's.

M.I.: And he makes tapes of himself trying to put the make on women?

Zappa: Yeah, and then he also makes tapes of himself talking about how he's failed. He just talks into the tape recorder and explains to the world at large his views on sex and why he thinks he didn't get laid that night. And then he has interviews with people on the street; he has an interview with a junkie sitting on a bus bench that's pretty good. Just situations. He just talks.

M.I.: Do you think Zappa Records might eventually release a Meatball album of some sort?

Zappa: Well, I have a contract with him; I have an option for a period of time to try and do something with the tapes.

M.I.: You have a reputation of discovering people with unique talents.

Zappa: Well, they more or less find me – and I happen to appreciate what they do, whereas somebody else might not appreciate them as much. Somebody like Al Malkin comes up to you and starts talking, and if you listen to what he's saying you can discover some really fantastic stuff. But a lot of people might listen to Malkin and say, "This guy is nothing." I think Malkin's a very special person.

M.I.: How did you connect with L. Shankar?

Zappa: I met him a little over a year ago in Europe – he was working with John McLaughlin.

M.I.: I wouldn't have thought most record labels would be interested in signing a classical Indian violinist.

Zappa: Well, the reason I wanted to sign him is because I like the way he plays. But the stuff I like best – the classical Indian stuff – he didn't want to put on the album. Shankar insisted that he didn't want to make a fusion-jazz album – he wanted to make a rock and roll record. And this album is very good; it's got a lot of stuff that's' definitely going to hit the radio right where it lives.

M.I.: What's your film about?

Zappa: The advertising on it is very simple: "Baby Snakes – A film about people who do stuff which is not normal" It's opening at a theatre in New York on December 21.

M.I.: In almost every interview you talk about various projects that are never heard from again.

Zappa: That's because I'm a cottage industry, and since I'm not funded by any foundation or government grant, and since I'm usually the one that is ultimately responsible for paying for these things, the projects are kind of at the mercy of what my income is like and what my overhead is doing to me at the time I undertake the project. I might start off on something with the best intentions of finishing it off, but without the finances to do it you have to shelve things. I've been working on this film for a couple of years, and it's been very difficult to keep putting money into it. It's extremely expensive.

M.I. Where did you find Bruce Bickford, the film's animator?

Zappa: Around 1971, I was sitting in my basement with my leg in a cast, and this Mansonoid guy climbs over my fence with two reels of film under his arm. He came back from Vietnam and decided he wanted to work with clay, so he went out and bought a hundred pounds of clay.

M.I.: Did he just come up with the scenes in the film on his own or did you try to direct him?

Zappa: Well, I tried to direct him, but there wasn't much I could do. One day he'd just decide he wanted to do some stuff with scientists, so he made about fifty clay scientists with little horn-rimmed glasses and white lab coats and slide-rules sticking out of their pockets. I mean, what are you going to do with fifty scientists? Then he said, ''I want to animate the ocean out of clay." Why? Can you imagine the geometry involved in just doing one wave with the whitecaps and everything?

M.I.: Why are you building the studio next to your house?

Zappa: Basically because I want a studio that is suited to my needs and available any time I need to get it. One of the things that made my workload so heavy in the past years was the fact that I had to change my schedule around, because the facilities I needed weren't available when I needed them. You might get used to working in a certain studio, and you think the sound is good there, and you finish your tour and are ready to make an album, and you find out that studio's booked for six months. I just want to build it and work there whenever I feel like it.

M.I.: Will you be your own engineer?

Zappa: I can engineer mixing or I can engineer recording of other people, but when it's time for me to play my instrument it's a little tough to engineer and play at the same time.

M.I.: You've done that in the past, though.

Zappa: Yeah, but it's difficult. I've got a thing rigged up where I can punch in by stepping on a button. But the thing that's hard is playing the guitar and setting the EQ at the same time.

M.I.: When did you decide that you would do the remixing instead of having someone do it for you?

Zappa: I decided that about six weeks ago. I did a set of mixes here completely unassisted – just me and this room – and the things turned out great. I decided there's no reason why I have to pay thousands of dollars for somebody else to do this part of the work. I can do it myself; I like doing it; I don't have to answer to anybody; I don't have to be cordial. I just have to close the door and do the work.

M.I.: What kind of board is the studio going to have?

Zappa: This Harrison board [currently in the basement]. It's a 48-in, 48-out console with a computer and all that swill. We've also got two 24s slaved together with an EECO SMPTE generator, and – let's see – three ATRs – one ATR 4-track, one Scully 4-track, another smaller Ampex 4-track, a Scully 2-track, four cassette machines, and 60-some Dolby's. We've got three M-16s and an M-8 and probably more outboard gear than you'd find in most studios.

M.I.: What sort of effects devices do you usually have with you onstage?

Zappa: Oh, I've got a huge rack full of stuff – it's got two of just about everything that's available. The pedal board has 24 on/off switches that operate what's in the rack, and it's a stereo setup. On the last tour, though, I hardly ever used any of it; I just played straight. In fact, I went back to the wah-wah pedal.

M.I.: What synthesizers do you have for your studio?

Zappa: I've got an Emu, a 6-voice polyphonic with 7,000 note memory built into the keyboard; I've got a Yamaha CS-80; a Mini; a 2600; two SynKey's; a couple of Poly boxes; an ElectroComp; a Roland; two Wurlitzers; a string box; a Clavinet and a Pianet/Clavinet combination; and a Yamaha electric grand. We also have a modified Hammond, and we're getting a Rhodes. So we've got just about every kind of keyboard noise there is. There's going to be a master keyboard in the control room, where one keyboard could trigger any number of synthesizers.

M.I.: Have you ever experimented with guitar synthesizers?

Zappa: I've tried the 360 Systems, but it didn't speak fast enough for the way that I play – because of the left-hand stuff I do. I tried the Ampeg one, and it responded faster because the string connects with the fret and it's like an on-off switch. But its big drawback is you can't play open strings. And if you don't have open strings – I mean, who wants to sound like a jazz guitar player? They always damp their strings so it goes doot.

M.I.: How many guitars do you normally take with you on the road?

Zappa: Usually five. I would take my SG, an Ovation – which I usually keep with me in the hotel – and a hopped up Les Paul. John Carruthers did the work on it. The only problem with it is that the neck is so fat compared to the SG, and I've got super-big frets on it so that the notes are real pure. It's really good contact with the strings; I get the most beautiful sounds out of this guitar. Then I've got a Fender 12-string that I've only had a chance to play in concert once. I put heavy-gauge strings on it and tune it weird ways. And I do take a Strat with me on the road. I don't like to lose the feeling for playing a Strat, because I know that when the tour's over I'm going into the studio, and the odds are better than fifty-fifty that I'm going to have to play something that requires the Stratocaster. And because the technique is so different on that guitar, as compared to the SG or the Les Paul, I try to keep it in my hands part of the time while I'm out there. I'm not specifically a Strat player, though. The whole balance of the instrument – the way it's located on your body – the Strat seems to be located more to the right, which means you have to hold your hand in a different position. It puts weird pressure on your shoulder.

M.I.: What will be your main guitar the next time you're on tour?

Zappa: It's probably going to be a toss-up between the Les Paul and maybe an Acoustic Black Widow that I had souped up. It's got a 24-fret rosewood neck, and I had two EMG pickups put in it, and new fret work by Carruthers.

M.I.: Is your guitar collection very big?

Zappa: About 25.

M.I.: Do you still shop around for new guitars?

Zappa: The only time I go shopping is if I need a special sound. I got that Coral electric sitar that's used throughout Joe's Garage – actually, Denny Walley found it for me. I got one real nice guitar in England; it's just a neck built onto a Vox wah-wah pedal for a body. It sounds beautiful. Warren's playing it now. Before the last tour I got a metallic blue Fender Jazzmaster.

M.I.: Is there anything that you'd like to have on a guitar that hasn't been available?

Zappa: Yeah. I want a guitar that has a really comfortable neck that's 24 frets long, with total access to the top frets, that has a tone circuit in it that's completely clean in one position and completely dirty in the other. With a whammy bar.

M.I.: Do you use finger vibrato mostly or the whammy bar?

Zappa: Both. Mostly I use my fingers, though. If you want even sustain, it's more reliable if you've got a whammy bar that doesn't go out of tune.

M.I.: How do you keep them from going out of tune?

Zappa: There's two things you can do: 1) you can put some graphite at the nut so that the string slipping back and forth actually travels the full distance and doesn't hang up and remain sharp after the whammy bar comes back; or 2) there's an extra spring that you put inside the whammy bar unit that counterbalances it.

M.I.: What's your amplifier setup?

Zappa: Normally, I play through a MESA/Boogie and a Marshall and a Vox Super Beatle. The Boogie plays through its own speaker plus a Marshall bottom that's been rigged with JBLs and stuffed with fiberglass, so it's less resonant than a normal Marshall cabinet. The Marshall then goes through the Super Beatle bottom, and the Super Beatle top powers another pair of Marshalls.

M.I.: Have you tried any of the wireless transmitters?

Zappa: Yes, I've been using a Vega, the one made by Shaffer, for the last two or three years. Sometimes I'll go out and sit at the mixing desk during the sound check and set the EQ for the band myself.

M.I.: Would you say that your guitar technique is fairly orthodox, or do you have any special idiosyncrasies?

Zappa: I just learned to play the way that it was comfortable for my hand. My fingers are pretty much double-jointed, so I guess my technique is different from other people's, because my fingers bend in funny positions.

M.I.: What would you say is the most distinctive aspect of your guitar playing?

Zappa: The left-hand technique – because I probably finger five notes for everyone note that I pick.

M.I.: When you're soloing, do you think in terms of visual patterns on the fretboard, or do you actually think of every note that you're hitting?

Zappa: No, I don't think of every note I'm hitting; in fact, I don't think of notes at all. I think of possibilities.

M.I.: Do you ever work off scales?

Zappa: I don't think of scales, and I don't think of chords. They're audio events, you know. Based on experience, you know that if there's a certain harmonic climate going on, a certain type of audio event versus that climate is going to generate a third event. That's what I do.

M.I.: When you took up guitar at age eighteen, when you were listening to a lot of R&B, were you playing mostly blues guitar?

Zappa: Yes.

M.I.: What events or influences transformed your guitar style into what it is today?

Zappa: Well, let's be analytical here. If you take a line played by guitar on any rhythm and blues record, and you extract it; and if you move this line over to here, and then you decide to move the accompaniment that originally surrounded it over to here also, you'd have a duplicate of a rhythm and blues guitar solo. But, if you take the line and you put it over here, and you accompany it with a set of chords that are completely different than what happened over there, then it changes the textural and the harmonic climate in which that line functions. It's not rhythm and blues anymore – even though you're playing the same fingerings in the same positions. If you play those same lines with two chords, say, raised a half-step. then you're going to get a different thing – you're going to get another kind of modality.

M.I.: So you still work out of blues positions pentatonic scales, etc?

Zappa: Yep. All I have to do is reharmonize the line.

M.I.: Do you practice guitar much?

Zappa: Hardly ever.

M.I.: What do you do when you do get time to practice?

Zappa: Usually I just pick it up and see what comes out. If anything interesting is going on that day, I track it down.

M.I.: Is that how you write songs?

Zappa: That's one way.

M.I.: Do you compose at the piano as well?

Zappa: Yes, and also just on paper. I write out sketches.

M.I.: You compose most of your music at night, don't you?

Zappa: Yeah, I like working at night. Nighttime sounds different than daytime. Did you ever notice that? And, to me, it sounds better. It's hard to sleep during the daytime, because it sounds so horrible. Even if it's quiet in the it sounds different, because the air are agitated by all the sunlight and shit – things are in a general state of stir. I didn't get much sleep today – I didn't get to bed till around 10:00 [AM]. We have another problem, which is "the infant."

M.I.: Doesn't this type of lifestyle put extraordinary strains on trying to maintain any sort of normal family life?

Zappa: That depends on whether you want a normal family life. I'd say that the life I lead right now makes it impossible for what you'd describe as a "normal" family life. But that doesn't mean that the one I've got is bad. I think we get along fine; we have a real good time; we like each other, even though there's six of us here in this house

M.I.: What sort of father are you? Are you the head of the household, disciplinary figure?

Zappa: You betcha [laughs]. Like, if Gail tells the kids to do something, they might not do it – and then she will probably yell. But if I tell them to do something, they will do it – and I don't have to yell. I don't spank them or kick them or beat them, but if they do something that's really stupid they do get punished.

M.I.: I noticed the kids call your wife Gail. Do they call you Frank?

Zappa: Some of them call me Frank, some call me Dad. It's variable; we're all good friends here; we know what our names are [laughs].

M.I.: What are you like as a bandleader? Are you very hard to work for?

Zappa: It just depends on what self-discipline you have. The only things I require of a musician that comes into the band is, if I give them an assignment to do, and I'm paying them money to do it, I expect that it's going to be done. In other words, you've got parts to learn, you learn them. Just like any other kind of a job, the guy who's paying you the salary expects that the money he's paying is going to induce you to perform accurately to the best of your ability. And if a person has good self discipline and doesn't have bad social habits, then there's no problem, we get along fine. But if the person is not highly motivated, then they're going to have a lot of trouble. Most of the guys who come into the band are chosen because they want to do the job and they have high motivation at the time they come in and audition. Then usually the enthusiasm wears off after a few years when they think they've learned all there is to learn about being on the road. And that's the time when you change personnel, because they don't care anymore. And it's always better when you do, because the band just gets better and better every time.

M.I.: Is it hard for you to find musicians who are motivated and self-disciplined, and don't have bad social habits, who are still good players?

Zappa: No, it's not hard at all. As a matter of fact, I constantly get letters and tapes from people who want to be in the band.

M.I.: Do many of them sound good?

Zappa: You bet. If somebody really wants to do it and they've really got the chops, I do everything I can to get them in the band, because it's to my advantage to have musicians who have exceptional abilities. Some of them are just so unique in what they do, you wonder how they could work any place else, because it would be too boring for them. I got a tape from a kid – I think he's eighteen – named Steve Vai. He plays Stratocaster, and he's going to Berklee [College of Music in Boston]. He sent me a cassette, and it was fantastic; I mean, this kid has got incredible chops. He said he wanted to play the "Black Page Number One" [Zappa In New York] on the guitar and asked me for the music. So I sent it to him, and he sent me a cassette of two versions of it – one at metronome 58, and another one at metronome 84; I mean, if you saw it on paper you'd realize what a problem it is to do that at 58. It's a slow metronome tempo, but it's still fast when you get to the fast parts. And he got it going so fast that you could just barely discern what the melody was. That's pretty much the faster is better. But he's got an awful lot of chops, and he sent me a cassette of some original compositions that are real nice. I think he's going to turn into something.

M.I.: Do you write out parts for the guys in the band to play?

Zappa: If I have to.

M.I.: Are the musicians in your band good sight-reader's?

Zappa: Well, the best sight-reader I've worked with in recent history is Vinnie Colaiuta. Drummers shouldn't be able to read like that; it's against the laws of nature. And still be able to play a shuffle. My favorite way to work with drummers is to sing it to them. It's easier for me, since I used to play drums, to describe the pattern, making different sounds with my mouth and indicating which drums they're to go on. But even if I write it out down to the last detail, no matter how detailed it is, Vinnie plays it.

M.I.: How much space do you allow your musicians for spontaneous creativity in the studio.

Zappa: Little or none. It slows down the process of the session, and it opens the session up for committee art. And if you're the ultimate arbiter of what's got to go on the record, you wind up getting into philosophical discussions with somebody about why their knick-knack doesn't work in there. So usually I say, "Do it this way," and it gets done. At $200 an hour or whatever they're charging you in the studio, you don't want to sit there and play games with somebody.

M.I.: Sheik Yerbouti and Joe's Garage seem a bit more accessible than most of your previous material. Was that a conscious effort?

Zappa: No, the music that's on the record is usually a combination of what I'm interested in and what the abilities and the liabilities of the musicians playing at the time are. For instance, the band that played on Sheik Yerbouti probably could have played "Greggery Peccary" [Studio Tan], but they wouldn't have been as enthusiastic about it. I don't think the band on Joe's Garage could have done "Greggery Peccary."

M.I.: Would you agree that the music on Joe's Garage is simpler?

Zappa: Ohhh, I don't know. I wouldn't say that the interlude in "Wet T-Shirt Nite" is simple. It's deceptive, because you have things that have simple harmonic progressions and recognizable beats, but what's going on inside of that is pretty complex.

M.I.: "Catholic Girls" seems to combine a lot of different elements.

Zappa: A lot of shit going on. During the fadeout you hear the resolution of all the choral stuff from the front part of the song, plus a bass singer who's not only performing the function of the rhythm and blues bass vocalist but is giving you an assortment of Italian melodies as part of the bass line. And on top of all that is the melody from "Jewish Princess" played on an electric sitar. Now, that's Charles Ives. Charlie would've been proud of that little number!

M.I.: What was the final upshot of all the controversy over "Jewish Princess "?

Zappa: I got harassed by a public relations organization assigned to an ethnic group. They tried to make a bunch of noise; and I think that, ultimately, if you were to evaluate what happened with "Jewish Princess" with a little bit of rational thought you would see that they embarrassed themselves by drawing attention to the stupidity of their viewpoint. There's nothing wrong with that song. Plus, why spend the money to go after me and make a big stink about something like that? Don't they have something better to do?

M.I.: Have you heard from any Catholic girls who were offended by the claims made in that song?

Zappa: No, and I don't think there's that many Jewish Princesses who should be offended by the claims made in "Jewish Princess."

M.I.: Do you get much flack from feminist groups?

Zappa: Let me give you an example of feminist flack. We got a letter from an organization addressed to Zappa Records; "It has been brought to our attention that the album covers of Zappa Records are offensive to women because they show women in humiliating situations." Bennet [Glotzer], my manager, was forced to send them a letter back saying, "Zappa Records has so far released one album. It's called Sheik Yerbouti, and it has a picture of Frank Zappa on the front with a sheet on his head. How this is offensive to women is beyond me. We welcome your comments [laughs]."

M.I.: What was the first record you ever owned?

Zappa: Let me see... the first record I ever bought was the Edgard Varèse album, EMS 401 – The Complete Works Of Edgard Varèse.

M.I.: Not some R&B 45?

Zappa: No, the first R& B record I owned was "I" by the Velvets, on the Red Robin label.

M.I.: So you were listening to rhythm and blues and classical music at around the same time. Did you see them as two entirely different pursuits?

Zappa: I used to make the guys in the band listen to Varèse; " If we could just do some of this, wouldn't that blow their minds?" And they would go, "You're fuckin' crazy!" They hated it. No, to me, there was no difference, because what I heard in rhythm and blues transcended what the notes were saying and what the performance was all about. It was the same thing that I heard in Varèse. There was something in the music that was apart from, or above and beyond, the actual dots that were on the page. There was an attitude about it. To me, it was like the melody line in Octandre is in the same vein as Johnny Guitar Watson's guitar solo on "Three Hours Past Midnight." Both of 'em are comin' to getcha. It's that kind of aggressive attitude in both things.

M.I.: You mention Johnny Guitar Watson in almost every interview.

Zappa: I think he's one of the most underrated guitarists in the world. I mean, we used to listen to songs like "Three Hours Past Midnight" and just get all glazed, because what he was doing on the guitar just sounded so relevant to our lifestyle. It was just the meanest, razor-blade-totin' guitar – very naughty notes coming out on that record. We used to sit around and go, "God, how does he get that sound? How does he get so much treble on it?" That used to be the big problem in those days – how do you get enough treble out of your amplifier? I went after all the records he made. The one that got the most play was "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights." That's the other history-making solo – get your one good note and work it to death. He's the only guy who could have pulled that one off. If Joe Houston ["All Night Long") could do it on the saxophone ...

M.I.: The music you like seems to all be fairly aggressive. Do you like any "easy listening" kind of stuff?

Zappa: Give me an example of easy listening music.

M.I.: Something like a Laurindo Almeida album maybe?

Zappa: Uh, no. I've heard some bossa nova that I liked – not because it was relaxing, but because it was intricate. But chord progressions that say II-V-I are not my idea of a good time, no matter how you disguise them. I like things that don't resolve.

M.I.: But blues resolves.

Zappa: Not like that, though. It doesn't go II-V-I.

M.I.: It resolves V-lV-I, though.

Zappa: That's different. I don't mind symmetricality; I can like songs that go 1-1-1-1 like Indian music. Look, it's not just the resolution of II-V-I, it's what it stands for; it's the ethos of II-V-I; it's the type of mind that accepts that as the ultimate pay-off in life [laughs]; it's the person that can drive himself to believe that no matter where you go, you can always modulate back by going "II-V-I. That's like going home to your mama. II-V-I is the sissiest fucking chord progression that there is!! And there are people who devote their entire lives to learning how to play bebop licks that go on II-V-I. That's compounding the absurdity.

M.I.: But some of those bebop players are technically really accomplished on their instrument.

Zappa: That's wonderful, but suppose you're technically really great on your instrument and you're playing II-V-I, and you're trying to find the most unique ways of ornamenting II-V-I. It's still II-V-I. You're still going home to mama – just because you happen to go by way of New Jersey that time. I don't think they're challenging themselves enough, no.

M.I.: Do you get a lot of strange reactions from your fans?

: Yes, usually they wind up coming up to me and sticking their thumbs in both ears, sticking their tongue out, and wiggling their fingers – or the verbal equivalent thereof. I am generally not impressed!

M.I.: Are you still taking applications for your fan club, the United Mutations?

Zappa: You know, I had to stop that, because I couldn't afford the secretary. That's true.

M.I.: Was the secretary a mutant, too?

Zappa: Yeah, she was. She was English, but I didn't hold it against her. And she was really good about it; I mean, she kept in contact with all these people. The whole idea of it was that weird people from one town would be cross-referenced to weird people from another town.

M.I.: In an interview with Rolling Stone [Lennon Remembers] John Lennon was asked if he thought he was a "genius." He said if there is such a thing, then, yes, he was one, and that he probably realized that when he was about ten. How would you answer that same question?

Zappa: Well, I'm a genius ... but don't hold it against me ...

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