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2000 Mots (Part 1)

Frank Zappa

Article from Sound International, April 1979

Frank Zappa is never short of a word or a thousand. In this case, there were so many, we had to make it a two-parter. In this first, Ralph Denyer finds out why Frank doesn't hate people (quite) and why London's one of the worst places on earth.

Ou comme ça Ralph Denyer talks with the inventive Mother

Frank Zappa is a person who makes you wonder, is he out of step with the rest of the human race or is everyone else out of step with him? Whichever it is, he's unique. He's survived rock music's most turbulent years, remaining at almost total odds with the music business image of 'product'. Paradoxically he is one of rock music's most prolific writers/performers, with around 25 albums to his credit to date. That's counting double albums as singles (which much to Zappa's disgust is the way he claims he was paid for them) and not including compilations. He is in all likelihood the most respected musician among his peers.

Paradox is in fact the key word next to talent when it comes to talking about Zappa. His lyrics are very funny yet very thought-provoking. His stance is one of total disinterest in the Sex And Drugs And Rock'n'Roll lifestyle, yet those themes are persistently evident in his lyrics.

Love him or hate him, it is hard to imagine how rock would have been without him around.

Zappa started off making music at the age of 12 years playing drums. I asked him what music had inspired him to play.

'When I was 12? I didn't listen to any music, I just wanted to play drums. My parents couldn't afford a record player. There was nothing good on the radio, I just wanted to play the drums, I liked the way they sounded.'

And when did the famous Frank Zappa R & B record collection start?

'I didn't start collecting records until I was 15. The first music I remember hearing was Arab music when I was very young. I thought it was really good but I never heard any more after that. I never heard any classical music or anything like that. We had a pretty much unmusical family. The nearest they got to music was the stuff that was being played in the background on TV or radio, soap opera type stuff. I heard all that. As far as what you might call music to pay attention to, there wasn't any of it around.'

So what were the first things he found himself listening to in the black music field?

'One day we were driving around in the car and a famous record came on the radio. It was called I by The Velvets on the Red Robin label. I thought: Boy, that sounds really great. My parents were saying: Turn that screaming nigger music off the radio! That wasn't even a screaming nigger record, it was just a nice ballad. I thought maybe there was more of the same music where that came from. I started checkin' round and sure enough there was. Shortly thereafter I managed to convince them life was impossible without a record player and that is when the trouble began.'

So did he buy his parents any records of High Noon or similar to appease them as they didn't share his fascination for 'screaming nigger music'?

'No, they'd rather just watch TV or listen to the radio. When we got the first record player they gave my mother a record with it called The Little Shoemaker by some white harmony group, I can't remember who. It was a really stupid record and she used to listen to that while she was ironing, she wasn't that into it. My father used to play guitar when he was in college with some little troubadour type band, playing all kinds of old songs. But he hadn't touched it in years, it would just sit in the closet.

'I changed to guitar when I was in Senior High School. My brother had bought this guitar for a dollar-fifty at an auction. He wasn't using it much so I started messing around on it. By that time I had gathered a bunch of records. You know, on most records in those days the instrumental or solos were always played by saxophone. It was very rarely that you would hear a good guitar solo but I searched around and found some. I thought: I really want to do that, make those sort of noises. The guitar I had to begin with wasn't electric, just one of those arched-top f-hole models. I didn't know any chords, I just started playing Blues straight away.'

I asked if he listened to the likes of Scotty Moore or James Burton on the early Elvis records. (At the time when Zappa was 18, Elvis was in the middle of his Jailhouse Rock era.) Frank soon put me straight on his feelings about the popular white music of the period.

'You mean session guitarists? That is not what I would call a guitar solo. A guitar solo is like Three Hours Past Midnight by Johnny Guitar Watson or The Story Of My Life by Guitar Slim. That's a guitar solo, nothing freeze-dried. Somethin' really stinkin', that's what I was lookin' for.'

While still at school Frank had a band called the Blackout and went on to do various jobs to support himself and his interests in music. 'I had several jobs. I was a busboy, a commercial artist, an advertising copy-writer, I sold encyclopaedias door to door, all the usual jobs you do when you get out of school.' He worked in advertising on and off for about one-and-a-half years. I wondered if that period had left any marked impression on him, remembering the strong visual image the Mothers were later to project.

'It makes it possible for me to talk to people who are in that field and who also have to deal with the print media associated with record merchandising. I can talk their language. I know all about type faces and all the rest of that crud.' He had a spell of ten months playing cocktail-lounge music and also wrote the music for a couple of less-than-celebrated movies. The second, Run Home Slow, gave him the money to buy a small recording studio situated in Cucamonga. He bought the studio from Paul Buff (now perhaps better known for his work at Allison Research, makers of Kepex). Zappa considers that at the time he was a musician who wanted to get more involved in the recording side of music. He renamed the set-up Studio Z. Previous to his ownership the studio had produced two hits, the surf tunes Pipeline and Wipe Out. In commercial terms Frank had less luck. However, his unique musical personality continued to develop. He recorded a band called the Omens at his studio (whose members went on to form both the Mothers and Captain Beefheart's band) but the track called Death March was never actually released. I asked him what facilities he had at Studio Z.

'One home-made 5-track recorder, a Presto mono deck for mix-downs and a homemade 8-channel board. There were about five or six microphones, a set of drums, two pianos and a bunch of floor space.' Zappa indicated a roll of drawings on the floor close by his feet. They turned out to be the plans of a new studio he is currently having built. He's still deciding exactly what equipment he will use but intends to slave up a pair of 24-track or 32-track tape machines together. He has set the basic design of the studio and when he started his current world tour he left a list of outboard equipment with people in Los Angeles to shop around for him.

'The studio situation in LA is dreadful because they are all booked so heavily, that's why I'm building one of my own. People go in and buy up to three months of studio time. The prices of studios are outrageous. Like the one I used for this last album now gets 20 000 dollars a week. And there's a new one that's opening up in Kendun at 30 000 a week. I mean, that's ridiculous! If you are going to talk about an hourly rate, a good studio in Hollywood costs around 200 dollars, some go up to 250 dollars with no end in sight.'

When I asked if there were any particular developments in recording equipment that he found of particular interest, Zappa replied, 'I think any device that's been manufactured for usage is worth messing around with but I try to find applications for them that are unusual. The biggest challenge in making a record, though, is just trying to get the best possible sound from the instrument, to make the instruments sound as good as possible without flanging the piss out of 'em.'

Prior to the start of his February tour in Britain Zappa spent time in London producing an album by the young Indian violin virtuoso, L Shankar, who a lot of people heard for the first time on the two Shakti albums with John McLaughlin. Though completely acoustic, the first Shakti album has such intensity that it can be hard to listen through both sides in one go. It must be said that the music is superb and the display of technique quite dazzling. Surprisingly Zappa had not heard the albums. 'We were both working at a pop festival in Germany last summer and I met Shankar there. He came over to the trailer where I was sitting and we had a little jam session. I invited him to come and play with us in New York.'

Phil Palmer, who played guitar on the Zappa-produced album, had told me Shankar had moved away from the Shakti type of music. Zappa continued, 'Absolutely away from Shakti. He doesn't want to sound like jazz-rock. He hates jazz, which is one of the reasons why I like him. He just doesn't want to sound like that, he wants to be a pop musician. He likes pop music.'

What was that about hating jazz? 'That's what his word was, he says he is not a jazz violinist. I told him that was great because I don't like jazz either.' Would he care to expand on that point? 'It's a matter of taste, I don't like jazz.'

RD: I think people tend to think of you as more of a guitarist as well as someone at the helm of a band nowadays.

FZ: I doubt that, for a long time they didn't even know what instrument I played.

RD: I suppose it was a very strong image you had with the early Mothers and images do tend to stick. In recent years I've tended to regard you more as an interesting guitarist. Would you say you've developed musically and that the guitar has become more of a means of expression for you?

FZ: Well, first of all from the very beginning when I used to hear those solos on those old records I used to say: Nowhere is an instrument that is capable of spewing forth true obscenity, you know? If ever there's an obscene noise to be made on an instrument it's going to come out of a guitar. On a saxophone you can play sleaze. On a bass you can play balls. But on a guitar you can be truly obscene. And that is the extent of my belief in obscenity; as far as verbal obscenity is concerned, I think that is a fantasy. But really, actually, the guitar is capable of blasphemy. Let's be realistic about this, the guitar can be the single most blasphemous device on the face of the earth. That's why I like it.

RD: There's a broad spectrum. Have you seen Patti Smith's guitar solos recently? She goes pretty far towards...

FZ: Toward blasphemy?

RD: Yes. The guitar lends itself to extremes. From that quiet polite jazz tone to...

FZ: ...the disgusting stink of a too-loud electric guitar. Now that's my idea of a good time. But when I'm making a record there's not often a space for that sort of information. I mean I try to be practical about what I'm putting on a record. I don't think that people want to hear 40 minutes of blasphemy, they're not interested in it.

RD: There are of course some people doing that.

FZ: Well, I don't think they're really doing it, they're just trying to do it. I've been toying with the idea of putting out an album called Shut Up And Play Your Guitar on a mail order basis, nothing but guitar solos one after the other. I've got side one of it all put together, it's all live cuts. There's no songs, just guitar solos. You don't hear no words, no tune, no nothing. It's one guitar solo after another, just stuff that happened live. There may be a market for that if I sell it or merchandise it through magazines. It's not a general rack item. I suppose there are fetishists out there who might enjoy something like that.

RD: One area I was told that musicians should beware of, particularly with American record companies, is a rather cloudy area known as reserves.

FZ: That is quite a cloudy area.

RD: As I understand it, reserves have something to do with the difference between records shipped and records sold over the counter on which the artist will be paid royalties. I've heard a band can have 100 000 records shipped and yet only be paid royalties on, say, 60 000 records.

FZ: It does exist. Every record company does it and they shouldn't do it. It's unfair to the artists and something should be done to stop it, along with not paying the artist royalties on free goods delivered to the dealers when they say: You buy 60 records and we'll ship you 70. Giving the dealer like a little bit of a discount or something like that. But obviously the record company who is putting the thing out is acting as a bank for the artist and is benefitting from this process because it's an incentive for the dealer to make sales, right? But they don't report any royalties to the artist on these things.

RD: Is there any approach an artist can have apart from having a top lawyer/manager?

FZ: On the search for the top lawyer and the top manager, I don't think they exist. They're all out for themselves. A person who is an artist, you just got to face it, you're going to have to rely on someone else's word. And the chances of finding an honest human being in this world are nil. They're all crooks. The lawyers are crooks, the managers are crooks, the record companies are crooks. The distributors are crooks and half the people who buy the records are going to grow up to be crooks. What'ya doin'? You wanna play your guitar. Here you are, strum a few notes and the next thing you know 30 crooks rush in and get your money.

RD: Have all your experiences made you extremely cautious? Obviously you've now got things sorted out with CBS to your satisfaction, to some degree.

FZ: Yeah, I would say there is satisfaction to some degree. Let's just be realistic about it, I'm not too fond of the human race in general.

RD: I've noticed this.

FZ: And I think it is the only rational way to behave. I have seen no indication from a logical standpoint that would indicate that the human race is anything but a pile of shit, you know. And if you find someone who behaves nicely, who is mannered and who is honest, then that person is a mutant. Because everybody is just so fucking horrible, disgusting. But you know, you can't hate 'em because that's just the way they are.

RD: Are you finding this generally in the human race, or is there a certain percentage of people that you find tolerable in the people you work with?

FZ: No, I've just made up my mind that after experimenting around for 38 years that the most rational way to look at the whole thing is: People are really a bunch of assholes basically and if you find somebody who's not then you just got lucky. But you can't hate 'em for being like that because that's the way they are. You have to take 'em for the way they are and deal with them, just like they are. Don't hate 'em, they're just... assholes.

RD: I must admit that in this city I do sometimes find myself going home in that frame of mind.

FZ: This is one of the worst, London is one of the worst. I don't know how you can stand to live here.

RD: I think the only reason I do is because it's the place in England if you're involved in the music business.

FZ: It's tough to do it in Brighton.

RD: And even tougher in Scunthorpe.

FZ: That's one of those places where you just wanna... or you could live next door to those people who had their child eaten by the ferrets.

RD: OK, so you wouldn't rise to the bait that your more recent work has been concerned with musical rather than lyrical or visual statements?

FZ: I think that's not accurate, no.

RD: It also appears to me that you are now Frank Zappa doing his job as opposed to Frank Zappa who does certain things to attract the necessary attention to his work, ie the general and initial image of the Mothers.

FZ: You have to understand that the people who were in the band were only people. The same goes for my current band. And they are perceived by the press and everybody else in any way that they want. People thought that the Mothers were weird because compared with Herman and the Hermits you'd be thought of as weird if you had been there at the time. It's like the contrast to what we were doing and what everyone else was doing. Right now there are some pretty strange people in the band that I've got but by contemporary standards they won't stand out because they're weird in ways that are not flamboyant. It got to the point that the average consumer thought a person was weird if he took a boa-constrictor on stage. Now how weird is that? Let's be realistic folks, is that really weird or what? That ain't weird but some people think it's weird. So what was weird about the early Mothers? Some of the earlier people in that group, you'll never know why they were weird and you wouldn't even think they were the weirdest people in there. Because the ones that are truly strange have something going on in their minds that is apart from the rest of society. Those are the ones that are interesting but they don't show up so readily in a photograph, you have to know what's going on. As far as the business of 'Frank Zappa doing his job' I've always done that, I work.

RD: One thing that does tend to happen is that the press/media tends to attach individual interpretations of the significance of a piece of music, whereas you might regard an album just as what you were doing at the time.

FZ: That's right. And you have to understand the function of a person who writes for the media. They can't distinguish themselves merely by telling the truth and presenting the facts about something. They feel that it is their duty to impinge upon the subject with their own emotional freight. They wanna dump their own ego on to whatever it is they're writing so that the article has their identity because, after all, they are the owner and operator of the typewriter you see. They believe deep in their hearts that the person that's reading the thing couldn't care less about the music or the subject matter that's being dealt with. But the real thing that the person who's reading it should be interested in is the life and times of the guy that's writing it. Especially in England, they're so hung up on themselves, they're so jealous of the people they're writing about because they are doing something while the journalists are sitting in some stinking room with a typewriter going diddle-diddle-diddle.

RD: Are we talking about music or general media now?

FZ: Music media. Media in general is another sad story. But music media, that's the way it works. Most of the people that are involved in writing for these papers, they're just fucking frustrated. They shouldn't even have been licensed to type because they're doing a great disservice to the people who make the music.

RD: I think and hope that I can dissociate myself from all that.

FZ: Well, since I've never done an interview with you before you get one chance. Because I refuse to do business with any of the ones I've interviewed with before and wound up reading the stuff they've written and seen what kind of people they are. I don't have time for that Stuff.

Concluded Next Month

Series - "2000 Mots"

Read the next part in this series:

All parts in this series:

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2

More with this artist

Previous Article in this issue

The Fender Bass Story

Next article in this issue

Survivor: The Single

Publisher: Sound International - Link House Publications

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Sound International - Apr 1979

Donated & scanned by: David Thompson


Frank Zappa


Keyboard Player
Composer (Music)


2000 Mots

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2

Interview by Ralph Denyer

Previous article in this issue:

> The Fender Bass Story

Next article in this issue:

> Survivor: The Single

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