Frank Zappa Interview

By Ron Chepesiuk

Overseas!, February 1990

The man who brought a mother lode of musical inventions to modern rock speaks to Ron Chepesiuk about rock'n'roll's future and other thorny issues.

Many of the rock’n’roll performers who burst on the scene during the frenetic Sixties have faded into oblivion, but 48-year-old Frank Zappa, one of the era’s most colorful personalities, is thriving.

Zappa’s discography, which now includes 50 albums, defies easy labeling. Over the past 23 years. Zappa’s wide range of musical styles has featured everything from classical to jazz to, of course, rock’n’roll. He has written over 300 often-satirical compositions on many subjects.

Time has not dulled the creative edge either, as Zappa continues to experiment with music, recently all but abandoning the guitar to take up the New Age musical instrument known as the synclavier. He is good enough a guitarist to be nominated for a Grammy in 1988 for his totally instrumental album Jazz From Hell.

There is more to Zappa, however, than just music. The rock legend has been outspoken about a number of issues – the environment, voter apathy, commercialization of rock – and is considered one of pop music’s most witty and articulate spokesmen. During the 1988 presidential campaign, the Libertarian Party asked Frank Zappa to run on its ticket as a vice-presidential candidate, but Zappa declined.

Through it all, Zappa has remained married to Gail, whom he met in l966 when he was the Mothers of Invention leader and she worked at the Whiskey a Go-Go in Los Angeles. They live in Los Angeles with their four children – Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva. Moon Unit had a top-ten hit as an 11-year-old seven years ago when she teamed up with her father to record “Valley Girl.”

Ron Chepesiuk recently interviewed Frank Zappa for Overseas! at the artist’s Swiss Chalet-like home high in Hollywood Hills. The interview was timely; in 1989 Poseidon Press published Zappa’s auto-biography, The Real Frank Zappa Book, while in the fall, Zappa released three more albums.

Overseas!: The public likes to think of Frank Zappa as the gadfly of the establishment, but many at them don’t know that you were actively involved in the 1988 elections, registering young people to vote. How did that come about?

ZAPPA: I was on a four-month tour while the primaries were going on, so I thought it would be natural to get involved with voter registration. The United States is the least registered industrial country on Earth. Something like a mere 15 percent of the eligible voters between 18 and 24 cast ballots in the 1984 elections, it’s pathetic! I don’t believe an American has a right to complain about the system if he can vote and doesn’t. For an American to say “I don’t understand politics” or “I don’t have the time” is no excuse.

Overseas!: How many people did you register?

ZAPPA: I managed to register about 11,000.

Overseas!: What about Frank Zappa, family man – the guy with a wife of 28 years and four kids? Has it been difficult being a musician and a family man?

ZAPPA: No, not really. I’ve got a wife who is supportive. Gail’s got a great organizational mind and handles the business part of my music career.

Overseas!: Your children have been drifting toward careers in entertainment. Have you encouraged them in this direction?

ZAPPA: They can do what they like. I like to stay out of their lives, but I’m there if they need me. Dweezil and Moon Unit are of legal age now.

Overseas!: Looking back 20 years ago, do you get nostalgic for the Sixties?

ZAPPA: There are things I don’t miss. I think we were incredibly naive in our belief that we could change America. On the other hand, there are things I do miss. It was an exciting time. I was young, starting out, on the cutting edge of my career.

Overseas!: Many people think the music back then was better. Do you agree?

ZAPPA: Well, some of it was. But the reason for making music now is different. Today, the music is being made by bands who are into elaborate stage sets, outlandish hairdos and formula music. But I guess if that is what the market wants, that is what it will get. Back in the Sixties a lot of the songs were about something. They made a statement. I don’t think you have that today.

Overseas!: If you were starting out today as a musician, could you compose and essentially play the same type of music and still be successful?

ZAPPA: No, no way! I think that would be almost impossible.

Overseas!: So what does it take to get a recording contract today?

ZAPPA: You have to be stupid.

Overseas!: In what way?

ZAPPA: Well, the recording company figures that if the group hits it big, they are going to try to find out what the company did for them. Where’s the money? But fortunately for the recording company, the groups today are stamped out of a machine. For every group you see on MTV, another one is waiting down the hall to take its place. Back in the Sixties when a recording company signed a group to a contract, it believed it had a stake in the group’s development. They took their time and brought the group along slowly. You don’t have that today.

Overseas!: What’s going to happen to rock music if the record companies don’t start taking an interest in developing young musicians?

ZAPPA: One thing that’s happening is that there is an increase in home-recording equipment. Kids are buying the equipment, taking it home, and recording their music. They are realizing that a lot of those groups they see on MTV – making the big money, enjoying the lame, winning the awards – are musically less competent than they are.

Overseas!: Is the rock scene a total cultural wasteland today or are there some good groups?

ZAPPA: I’m sure there are but I haven’t heard any.

Overseas!: Do any of today’s rock musicians teach you anything about music?

ZAPPA: No, what’s there to learn? I’ve been around over 20 years.

Overseas!: Is it possible to reach stardom in rock music without looking good on a video?

ZAPPA: I would say it’s possible, but highly improbable.

Overseas!: Have you put out a video?

ZAPPA: Yeah, but it didn’t do so well.

Overseas!: You are a pioneer as far as digital music is concerned. You have put a lot of your music on compact disc. Are compact discs that much better than LP’s?

ZAPPA: Sure. I don’t know of anybody who likes to hear music on records that have all kinds of scratches on them. There is no comparison in the quality of the sound.

Overseas!: Can putting music on a compact disc make a musician better than he actually is?

ZAPPA: No, that’s a myth that’s grown up around the introduction and development of the compact disc. It’s just another piece of audio equipment. The CD will only be as good as the music that is put on it.

Overseas!: Where do you get your musical ideas from?

ZAPPA: By being alive, I get them from reading a lot – newspapers, all kinds of books, watching TV . . .

Overseas!: Do you feel that you have to be constantly working to be creative?

ZAPPA: No, but I love to work. Before you came, I was upstairs working. After I’m through with you, I will go back up there. I hate holidays (laughs)! In fact, I make sure, I work extra hard on holidays.

Overseas!: Do you see yourself playing rock’n’roll at 60?

ZAPPA: No, but I hope there is such a thing as rock’n’roll when I’m 60. If the recording industry doesn’t take a long hard look at itself, I won’t have to worry about playing rock’n’roll. By the time I’m 60, I might be saying: “How did they do that (laughs)? What did they call it? You say, rock’n’roll“?

Overseas!: Looking back over your music career, what would you say is your greatest accomplishment?

ZAPPA: Being able to earn a living this long playing music.

Overseas!: It is quite amazing considering the average playing expectancy of a rock musician.

ZAPPA: And to do it without radio time. I guess I’ve been lucky.

Overseas!: You also are a good musician who happens to be a sharp businessman.

ZAPPA: I don’t know about being a sharp businessman. If I am such a sharp businessman, I would have done something else that made a lot more money and gave me a lot more security.

Overseas!: But you wouldn’t have been able to do it your way and you wouldn’t have been doing what you wanted to do.

ZAPPA: As I said: I’ve been lucky.

Note. Another edited version of this interview appeared earlier in Gallery magazine, June 1989.