No More Heroes

By Penny Braybrooke

Guitarist, December 1989

Do you dismiss classical music out of hand and reel whenever you hear professional bass players pay lip service to Bach..? Interview by Penny Braybrooke.

SCOTT THUNES, BASS PLAYER with Frank Zappa, owes a great deal to studying the classics. but in so doing has dismissed the majority and has broken down much of the prejudice. Perhaps Bartok would hold some appeal if you put bass and drums behind the first movement of his fourth string quartet and discovered it was high power rock. Perhaps opera would make you smile if you thought of it as the first pop video format. On the other hand you might disagree with the idea that the invention of the phonograph destroyed music.

MORE OF THAT later... First of all, though, how did Scott get the gig with Frank?

In 1981 my brother Derek decided to play guitar in the Zappa band. So he travelled from San Francisco, where we were living, to Los Angeles to audition. He’s like a classical composer, and he brought a bunch of scores and he practised guitar real heavily, came down and tried to talk to Frank and Frank said: “I’ve already got two guitar players. Steve Vai and Ray White but I need a bass player and a drummer.” So my brother said: “Well, my brother plays bass.” Frank said: “Can he read?” Derek said: “Yes.” Frank said: “Is he fantastic”, and Derek said: “Yes”. Frank said: “Have him give me a call.” So Derek called me up and said: “This is Frank’s number. Call him.”

I picked up the phone and I dialled all the numbers for Frank’s house, except the last one, about ten times. I just couldn’t believe it, it was too weird, it just wasn't about to happen. Finally I spoke to him and he said: “Come on down.” And I said: “I can’t. I have to park cars this weekend.” It was my job. And he said: “Well, too bad...” and I hung up. My girlfriend at the time said: “What is your problem? Get a sub for the weekend and get your ass down there.” So I did. I auditioned and boy it took me three weeks. I kept on going down there and he finally hired me; he came walking out of this door with his hand outstretched and said: “Well. do you want the job!”

What did you do for those three weeks?

I kept on travelling between San Francisco and Los Angeles, back and forth, three times. The first time I went down for one day, the second time I went down I was here for five days. He put me up in a hotel and he gave me a bunch of music to learn and one particular piece of music that I guess was my audition piece. It was called Mo And Herb’s Vacation and that took me four, eight hour days to learn.

What was the complication?

It was a modern classical piece of music, with septuplets and thirteenlets and all sorts... it was horrible.

Written for modern electric bass?

Yeah. Basically the part was the clarinet melody because the piece was for clarinet solo and orchestra. The bass has a lot of the melodic structure to it in the piece of music, though, so really I was doubling the clarinet a lot of the time. There was a lot of modern semi-atonal melody going on with highly complicated rhythmic structures. And I mean the bass part was built to sound like a modern melody, a bass part. I told my girlfriend: “You know these parts are not really written for the bass very well” and she said: “Isn’t that kind of bad composition?” because she was thinking you are supposed to build your structures so that they fit the instrument. But all great composers have always stood outside of the norm of instrumental facility. They say: “I hear this. You play it”, and that’s the way instrumental growth occurs. The beginning of the The Rite of Spring, the bassoon melody, that was a note that bassoonists at the time considered impossible to play, they said that that note was not on the bassoon. But Stravinsky heard it and since then every bassoonist in the universe better be able to play that note or they will never get a gig.

What sort of training did you have, to be able to read that well?

I had two years at Junior College. I started when l was 15. You're not supposed to go to college until you’re 18, but I get in three years early because my mother was the music department’s secretary and she pulled some strings. I was too young unfortunately to really concentrate on school. I always hated school anyway. I was just rebellious and stull. So I ended up cutting all my classes and either hanging out in the music library, or playing in the bands. I loved the concert band and the orchestra. I learned how to play string bass and I learned a little bit of theory, but with cutting all the other classes I didn’t learn as much as I could have. During the four semesters you had to study baroque music, classical music, romantic music and modern music. I loved modern music and spent the whole time listening to it, so I got like three D’s in the music appreciation class until I got to the last semester when I got an A because I’d been studying it for two years straight. I missed my ear training final but I still got an A in the class.

It’s the notes themselves that intrigue me. I mean, I still like Haydn, I still like listening to the string quartets: they are beautiful, they are pretty, but they don’t grab my balls, they don’t twist my head. The modern music, there just isn’t anything like it – you can’t get that on the street. There are a couple of friends I have, like one in particular where we have like a music listening club. But everybody who I play music for has a rock sensibility; they can’t listen to a piece of music that’s longer than three minutes. They start talking. They say: “Oh. that's a great bit!” or: “I got fired from my job today...” Whereas Mahler’s 9th Symphony, his last complete symphony, lasts for an hour and a half and we sit and listen to the whole thing and don’t say a god damn word for the whole hour and a half, because you’ve got to listen to the whole. The first movement lasts for a half hour: if you say a word you break concentration. And nobody knows about that today. You know people on the street it’s TV and pop music and you know they can’t stand keeping their mouths shut. Classical music means you have to follow the composer’s time space. You have to keep your mouth shut.

… Our three minute culture; TV adverts for example are perfectly timed for maximum absorption and memory.

Pop music is blipverts. Have you ever seen Max Headroom? Blipverts are the reason that Channel 23 crumbled because this computer kid invented three second blipverts that concentrated all the information of a thirty second or sixty second advert and people exploded. They couldn’t handle all the information. They were mainly fat and lazy people. It was pretty good.

At what point does ‘music’ become predictable and degenerate into just a reliable code?

That is actually not really a problem, but it is an interesting process, because when I was a kid my brother and I listened to the radio and if there was Bach or Vivaldi or something – this was before we had picked up rock instruments because my brother and I were playing rock before we went to school, my first tune was Batman – we would hear a classical piece of music, a baroque piece of music on the radio and it would be ‘de be de be da, biddle de da’, or you’d get a ‘de be de be da, da de de deh’. Boring! This was before we’d heard of modern music. But also in modern music, extremely modern music, there are gestures, just as there are in any other set of structures, and especially jazz – jazz is the most predictable structure in the world. There are people who have stepped outside the boundaries like Miles (Davis) but for the most part even today there are people who are really playing bebop. Bebop is head, soles, head out. Talk about predictable! New within that, within each of the soles, you're going to have your little gestures: ‘I’m going to play really fast here. I’m going to play a lyrical melody here.’ Within classical music, modern contemporary classical music, you have the same kind of gestures.

I saw a piano concerto by Toro Takamitsu, a Japanese composer, written in 1985, and it was not a very good piece of music. I’m not saying it was a bad piece of music because of the fact that it didn’t have any emotional background, because I like a lot of music which doesn’t necessarily have this big emotional stretch – I like the combination of tones anyway – but in this particular piece of music it was just gestures, just a strung along series of musical gestures. And at one point the piano would just do these atonal arpeggios: you’re left thinking. ‘How many of these is he going to do?’ And when you get bored in the middle of a classical piece of music you know that that person hasn't stepped outside the boundaries to what music can be.

In rock music the form is so totally normally organised you are not looking for differentiation in the structure, you are looking for the pretty chorus or a beautiful verse that you can sing along with. I personally look for the big chords. I like interesting combinations of harmony.

I like differentiation of form as well, but that means in a rock format that you have to have a lot of different structures thrown in. According to, shall we say, European compositional format, a surfeit of melodic information, too much melodic information, is bad composition. They say that Gershwin is a bad classical composer because his piano concerto first movement has like eight melodies in it. And they say: “Where is the economy of melodic thought!” You know, somebody like Schoenberg or Beethoven, they would base the whole piece of music on a three note germ cell, and that is supposedly good composition! Modern composition doesn’t fit on that base. There are people who are asemantic composers, it’s just there is no important melodic theme which generates a whole piece of music. The whole piece of music is its own concern and has its own rules for being. And those are the kind of pieces of music that intrigue one because you are in the composer’s world: the composer can lead you into their structure. If you use sequences and these normal things, you know where it’s going to go. It’s like a bad movie: ‘Oh boy, the guy’s going to fall off the cliff now...’ and you step out of the music into the real world again. So what's the point of having a piece of music if you are going to be in the real world?

For me music is a drug. If I can’t get high on a piece of music it doesn't do it for me and I might as well melt the wax.

But somebody like Sonny Sharrock is so demanding for a lot of people, it will seem to them like weird for weird’s sake. How do you work out when there is purpose and when there really isn’t?

But most musicians aren’t living in your world, they are living in their world and their world is important because if they don’t stretch the boundaries, music doesn’t get stretched. I have this theory and I have had it for years and years, that records have destroyed musical thought and growth. Because back in the old days you had concerts and that is all you had. You went to a concert and if the conductor championed modern music you would hear modern music pretty much every concert you went to. As time went on your ear would get attuned to it. But once it got really weird, once you got Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and Messiaen and all these guys, the phonograph came and if you didn’t like what was playing at the music concerts all you had to do was buy a record or cassette and go home and listen to Mozart for the rest of your life till your ears dropped off through boredom. People don’t like Schoenberg – Schoenberg died in 1951 for God’s sake and his music is still not truly loved. Webern said: “People will be whistling twelve tone themes in twenty years.” I can’t play Schoenberg for a lot of my musical friends because it doesn’t have bass and drums!

I have a girlfriend, Eugine. I met her in Germany and moved back here and we had a telephone relationship for a few months. She went and bought ‘Does Humour Belong In Music?’ which is a live video tape of the Frank Zappa band that I was in in 1984 from The Pier in New York City, and she said: “What is this! Between every song there is this bit where everybody is playing against each other?” Now she likes funk, her favourite grow is Parliament/Funkadelic, so for her a Frank Zappa guitar solo is seven or eight people going at each other with sticks. You know, it doesn’t sound like music to her. Now basically this is true, but the battle, the musical battle, is not to play against each other but to kind of go up against this rubbery clear wall where everybody is. They are all trapped in their little booths, but you can put your hand through and touch to the other side. It’s how much communication can occur with these desperate personalities. And that’s the structure of those pieces of music: you are either doing dumb notes to support a guitar solo proper, or you are communicating musically and it's a feeling thing. But she says we are playing against each other, because the drummer is playing in thirteen, over there I’m playing in seven, over here and Frank is playing twenty four-lets over six bars. And that is the intended structure of that piece of music, but for someone who isn’t trained in classical music it sounds like modern mish mush. But the Stockhausen ‘Gruppen’ for three orchestras sounds like chaos as well: if you listen to it, it’s like half a dozen twelve year olds beating on logs with Coke bottles. You can’t imagine that these people are reading notes, but if you look at the score, and I have the score at home, it is organised down to the last dynamic. Every single thing is organised: mathematically it is absolutely perfect.

When you suddenly feel yourself click in with somebody else playing, it’s an incredible high, but a lot of it is private; the audience is almost completely excluded...

That happened to me once, when I was about eighteen, where I lost myself completely. Fortunately it wasn’t a piece of music that I had to come back in on in three bars or something, it was just a jam out. But much of the beauty of music is that the experience cannot be transferred to the hearer, and that is the problem with most fusion jazz. It is meant just for the musician to play. I can’t stand it. I haven’t been able to listen to fusion since I was about nineteen, although I played a lot of it when I was about sixteen or seventeen. I can't stand it any more.

When I started off I was playing the blues; I was ten, and that’s the easiest kind of music... I have a thing against the blues now though – they are so boring – but when I was a kid I didn’t know. I was still listening to lots of complicated things, but when I was ten the blues was the easy base to live on because you had three chords. No matter how complicated you wanted to get, even if you wanted to do nothing but thirty second note arpeggios during the whole piece of music you still only had three chords. Those three chords are the foundation of a lot of classical music as well. But you need all three of those chords to firmly understand what key you’re in. Now the blues don’t modulate, so you can understand where you are at. That for me was important because all my friends and I would sit around and play the blues and listen to Hendrix – Hendrix was an extension of the blues we could understand. Now once it got too boring, once I needed more things, I started playing jazz and fusion and once it got to that point I thought this was great, wonderful. But unfortunately I started playing with a guy named Bill Nelson, this little jazz guy, and he made me go out and buy all of the Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock albums, because he wanted me to play exactly like Ron Carter on every single tune. Once I realised that that was happening I got out, and exactly at that same moment that I was getting into jazz, I started listening to classical music. I didn’t need any help with listening to classical music: Bartok's third and fourth string quartets were all the rock music I needed because they out-fusioned anything. If you put rock drums to the first movement of Bartok’s fourth string quartet – I’ve done this with synthesiser and drums – it is the heaviest rock music in the world! Try it, play ‘boom boom chack, boom boom chack’ behind the whole thing while you are listening to it and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It is incredibly high power, tensioned rock music. It’s intense.

After that I went straight back to rock and punk rock, the Sex Pistols, and I started again from there. All of my jazz friends wouldn’t talk to me for years until I started buying more classical music and was able to act like a real person. When I was playing with a punk band I’d be up there with a pick and this would bother people immensely. They said: “What has happened to this wonderful two finger technique you have?” But I just couldn’t stand the sound of it, it sounded muddy to me. My best friend, Joe Gardener, and I learned to play the bass together and we had three rules: all bass no treble on the amp, play only with the fingers and you could only play one note at a time. We listened to Cream and there was no other way you could do it – the bass was supposed to be the bass. Nobody decided but we all just changed, once we started playing rock. I did an outdoor gig using nylon strings. I’d used them for ages, but at this outside gig I couldn’t hear myself, it was ridiculous, so I took the strings off and I’ve been wearing roundwounds ever since and using a pick because it sounds huge.

What bass do you have?

I have a 1964 Precision bass and that is the love of my life. And I use it for everything. It is the most incredible bass I have ever played. I have been playing it with Frank for the past several years and I have used it on everything. It is totally stock except for the fact that the pickguard broke and I had to replace the knobs so it’s connected straight from the pickups to the jack. Whenever I use it for recording the guy goes: “Is your jack turned up!” and I go: “Urh no”, because obviously if they have some trouble with the level it’s with them, because I have no tone. I always turned my tone control all way up and whenever I would get really excited I would bump into it...

Rock has seen generations pass now and will continue, but in retrospect what do you think its epitaph will be?

Well, basically it is an American thing, and obviously you have got hundreds of years of musical structure that you can immediately compare it against. If electricity continues rock music will continue. Now if rock music continues through the time that we have electricity it will last longer than classical music and classical music will be the anachronism, not rock. Rock music will be the classical music. They will look at these silly Europeans who wasted all their time writing down all these little notes on paper. It’s kind of like people making totem poles, this is the type of thing that isn’t done any more because it doesn’t mean the same thing to the society. Rock music, even though it is a simpler structure, harps back to the beginning of classical music where everything was even, in 4/4 or 3/4, and the melodies were just for melodies and the accompaniments were just to be an accompaniment. That’s all that rock music has ever supposed to be. Personally I’m not a wordsmith. I’m not a person who likes words. I mean, some people think Dylan was the greatest rock and roller of all time because he wrote the best songs. That’s incredible to me! He didn’t write songs, he sang words and put stupid musical accompaniment to them. Singers of rock bands are automatically put down as the leader. That makes me so mad! We are going back to the time of the troubadour; people want to hear stories, they don't want to be intrigued, they don’t want to be interested in music processes. I like music processes whether there is no theme or whether there are ten themes. These people don’t want to hear any themes. They just want to hear musical accompaniment and words and that is why rock is so predominant. It is all words and all visuals. An opera was supposed to be the biggest musical expression of its day but even they were just melodies and accompaniment and visuals, and the words. They weren’t like real musical processes.

So in retrospect will all categories of rock music be seen as 20th century folk music?

Absolutely. The business side of it has turned it into something else – the troubadours didn’t have agents. But unfortunately businesses, you know, multinational corporations, have taken every single aspect of life and used it for their own purposes. In America we have marketing structures that allow every single person to be pinpointed as a marketing group and everybody knows that the Bohemian Mix is one of them. There isn’t even any such thing as ‘Alternative Music’ because you have been pegged by the big business picture as the Bohemian Mix. If you think you are out of the structure you are not. They expect to know what you will buy and that’s why they can put out something like ’10,000 Maniacs’, which is boring and bland and brown, very brown music, very beige.

One of the saddest things about punk is that Malcolm McLaren had the marketing concept before he found the Sex Pistols.

Totally, absolutely. But fortunately he picked some guys that I think could play. Listening to ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ it does something to the hairs on my chest it’s so big, and nobody has copied that since. They knew it was a good product, that it had its area of where it would be sold, but at the same time it put blood back into rock and roll: rock and roll was dying. Linda Ronstadt! Give me a break here! Music was dead, record sales were plummeting. Everything was horrible; everyone was depressed. Punk music came and Papa had a brand new bag. What can I say? And it hasn’t died since.