Zappa's Swedish Universe: An Interview With Mats Öberg

By Håkan Engborg

T'Mershi Duween, #30, March 1993

Mats Öberg appeared on the Swedish radio channel P2, in Jazzjournalen, on February 10, talking about the (then) forthcoming Zappa's Universe classical bash which graced last time's back cover. Håkan Engborg was there to record it and now offers his translation of that event.
The interview starts with a short Mats Öberg presentation. He was not only involved with both Zappa's Universes, but also in a duo with long-time friend and drummer Morgan Ågren (hurrah for ASCII!) called Two of a Kind and with the Jonas Knutsson Band and Latin Quarter (presumably not the band that had hit singles in the UK, but who knows?).

Q: How would you describe the tribute concert?

MÖ: Well, it's a tribute to Frank Zappa and his music. It will include myself and Morgan along with Zappa's bass-player Scott Thanes and guitarist Mike Keneally, plus a forty piece symphony orchestra.

Q: Are you and Morgan the only Europeans in the shows?

MÖ: Yes. It's like this: Morgan and I met Frank in Stockholm in 1988. At that time, we both played in a band called Zappsteetoot and we played Zappa covers. When we met him just before the concert, we told him about us. We also told him that we played an unreleased song. He liked that and invited us to perform the song as guests sometime during the concert. That song was 'T'Mershi Duween' and it has now appeared on two albums.

Q: Where did you get the song from?

MÖ: From a bootleg!

Q: What was Zappa's reaction to that?

MÖ: Well, he said (talking in a deep Zappa-type voice): 'It was good even though you got it from a bootleg'.

Q: That fast contact with FZ has now proved to be a pretty good one, hasn't it?

MÖ: Indeed it has. When the first tribute concerts were going to take place in 1991, Joel Thome and Zappa talked about which musicians were going to participate. Scott and Mike were apparently already chosen. I had called Keneally a few days earlier and he told me about the concerts, and suggested I should call Joel Thome and tell him about Morgan and myself. So I did. I also sent along a tape. Later, Joel and Frank talked about possible keyboard players and drummers and eventually we were chosen. Of course, I thought that was great.

Q: What will be included in the new show?

MÖ: It's a follow up to the 1991 concerts, only this time there is just one show, not four. It's related to the record coming out, recorded during two of the concerts last time.

Q: So it's partly the same music?

MÖ: There's actually only two songs left from last time. Most of the music is symphonic, played only by the orchestra, plus a piano piece called 'Ruth Is Sleeping' that I'm going to play.

Q: In what form did you get the piece? Did FZ send a tape? (Mats is of course blind -Ed)

MÖ: I first received a Synclavier version on tape which Zappa had made, a sort of a demo. Then I had another version that's just been released as a CD single, which is in a slower tempo, by a piano player named Jeffrey Burns.

Q: Is it a hard piece to play?

MÖ: Yes, very. Actually, I still can't play the piece through yet! And to be honest, as it feels now, I doubt if I'm going to make it at all. But I'm getting some good help now from the Swedish modern composer and pianist Carl-Axel Dominique. We've been working through the piece bar by bar and he's shown me some practical hand positions (fnarr fnarr).

Q: So you don't have the piece written down?

MÖ: I have it on sheet paper too, and Carl-Axel is reading it to me. He is extremely good at reading music. It was incredible how he just read the piece right away and played it. Amazing...

Q: Is there any braille available for music?

MÖ: I don't know how much is published, but there is a system called the Punktual Note System. I can read it, but don't use it very often. It's a pretty uncomfortable system considering that you can't read and play simultaneously, so you have to learn the piece first and then play.

Q: How important is FZ as an influence?

MÖ: Very important. I've been listening to his music since I was eight years old, so of course, he has meant A LOT to me. His music consists of the things that I find most appealing in music: experiments, different styles (though of course with his own very personal style), and he's got a great sense of humour. All those things together ... well, it's just great. And he mixes all that with what we call 'serious' music, rock and jazz.

Q: What has Zappa meant to your own musical development compared with other influences like Chick Corea, George Duke and others?

MÖ: Zappa is very important to me, as are Corea and Duke, but in a different way. I like them mostly as pianists and maybe partly as composers. But Zappa has such a wide range, being a great composer, arranger and guitar player. He just has it all.

Q: Do you hear that Zappa influence in your own music?

MÖ: I'm sure it's there, even though I don't think about it. I often hear people say 'That sounded just like Zappa!' when I play, but it's not something that I strive for. I don't say Right, let's write a song influenced by Zappa.' That's not the way to do it. You have to have a voice of your own. I very much enjoy mixing 'beautiful' music and the more 'ugly' stuff with a lot of fun in it, but there must be a feel too. I like my music to be a blend of different styles but without becoming 'fusion music'.

Q: Something like the music you and Morgan make in Two of a Kind?

MÖ: Yes, absolutely.

Q: What will happen next, after the New York concert? Are there more collaborations with Zappa to come?

MÖ: Well, they're planning a tour actually, for the Zappa's Universe, both in Europe and in the States. It's not really planned out yet. And then there's the record coming out.

Q: How about your own music then?

MÖ: Polygram in the US seem interested in our music and have had a promotional tape and information package. Morgan and I are booked to play the Knitting Factory in New York, at a festival there.

The interview concluded with a song called 'Bangladesh [Shuttzpa]' from that demo tape. Håkan rang Mats a couple of days before the interview and asked about the delay to the Zappa's Universe album. He was told that it was going to be released in February 1992 (sic), but had a bad mix. There was also some problems with Steve Vai's record company who wanted to release Steve's new solo album before the Universe album, so who knows?

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