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Just A Second Part From FZ (Part 2)

Frank Zappa

Article from Sound International, May 1979

The continuing story of Francis Vincent Zappa who, out on the road with a rock band for the first time in weeks, relates to one Ralph Denyer just how musicians get their action.



Frank Zappa rehearsals are a serious business. Prior to his recent dates in Britain, at which time this interview took place, he used the Rainbow Theatre to routine for a week. The sound and light crews, as well as the band, were sequencing the show the night I went along. For an hour or so I watched as the band ran through numbers sans Zappa. Some of the current ensemble were with him at Knebworth last year; they are Vince Colaiuta drums, Ed Mann percussion, Tommy Mars keyboards, Peter Wolf keyboards, Denny Walley slide guitar, Warren Cuccarullo (alias Sophia Loren, Al DiMeola and many other great Italians) guitar, Ike Willis guitar and Arthur Barrow bass. They all sing. Next to Zappa, Ike Willis takes most lead vocals followed by Denny Walley.

Zappa arrives at rehearsals at 9 pm, and almost immediately the pace tightens up. For most of the time when he's not playing guitar he either sits on a stool or stands to conduct. If he stops a number there follows a brief instruction to one of the musicians and they go straight back into it. One time he stopped and told Denny Walley, 'Play the guitar that you usually play on this number, the fingering doesn't sound right on that one.' Without a word of debate Denny changed guitars. Later in another number he stops them again and tells Peter Wolf, 'Where you usually play triplets in that passage, don't play at all'. I was surprised to see arrangements which the band appeared to be used to playing being changed by Zappa. Later soundman Mike Abbot explained to me that Frank (referred to by the roadcrew as The Maestro) sometimes changes actual notation to suit the acoustics of a particular venue. During the rehearsal the only times at which the pace slowed were when Zappa showed bassist Arthur Barrow a guitar figure, or when someone broke a string or something similar. At almost 11pm Zappa puts on his coat and the band packs up for another day.

The resulting show is a piece of real precision work. At most concerts the show consisted of two solid hours of music during which there is no such trivia as an intermission or spaces during numbers when the audience can applaud. Zappa segued around 20 numbers into a continuous block of music. One night I saw him follow that with 45 minutes of encores. The following night he stopped after the first number, telling the audience that he was going to play some stuff that they might not be into because he wanted to get it on tape (using the Manor Mobile) and that if they wanted to go out and get a drink he'd be starting the proper show a little later. Meanwhile back at the interview...

RD: If we can talk about recent recording and your approach on the technical side of things, perhaps starting off with guitar?

FZ: I mic the guitar in whatever way is necessary to get the type of guitar sound that is suitable for the piece that's being recorded.

RD: It varies greatly?

FZ: Sure, like there's tone controls on the guitar to make it sound a different way to have a different voice for everything it's supposed to play. In order to capture that sound in its correct form you have to modify your miking technique, change tones on the amplifier, change the distance of the mic from the amplifier, sometimes use direct, sometimes not. All those things are variable. I used a lot of interesting stuff on Phil Palmer's guitar on the Shankar album. One of the things I did that he hadn't seen before was I put mics on the strings of the guitar (electric) to pick up the plectrum and finger noise to combine that with the sound of the amplifier and the sound taken by direct injection. And also taking that in stereo you get a real picture of a guy sitting there. If you listen through earphones the guitar player is sitting there playing right in front of your face.

RD: I was interested to see that you also have a Barcus Berry transducer on the head of one of your Strats to pick up left-hand hammer noises.

FZ: Yes, but I think it is better to mic it if you are in the studio.

RD: You quite often use the technique of recording live and then stripping right down to the basic rhythm section and then overdubbing everything else in the studio. I presume that is to get the excitement of a live gig.

FZ: Yeah, you can't buy that in the studio, nor the attitude of the musicians. You get a bunch of guys in the studio and they can be totally qualified to play what they're supposed to and they can have the best intentions in the world. But the thing that is lacking is the spotlight on their body and the potential that there is a girl in the audience that is going to suck his dick after the show. Let's face it, these musicians ain't exactly Boy Scouts working for the Health Department.

RD: Not as a general rule. I suppose there are exceptions and we shouldn't generalise.

FZ: Let's do though, because it's closer to the truth. I think that there are very few musicians that when faced with the opportunity to get a little action are going to do anything else other than get the action. They're not out there to behave like Boy Scouts. Because you have to be realistic now, the only thing that differentiates them from a truck driver, a plumber or anyone else in a normal trade is the fact that they get action! And so it's: Well, if I don't get the action I can't be a musician, can I? So they have to go out and get the action even if it's with a donkey, a head of lettuce or an army shoe. It doesn't matter as long as the action is there. The action is the certification in truth that they are a musician. It doesn't make any difference if you are a good or bad musician but how can you actually claim to be a musician unless you're out there getting all the action? So it's a reinforcement of their lifestyle. This is one of the important studio techniques that you have to master.

RD: But from all the stories I've heard about you it would appear that you are not really all that enthralled by the lifestyle.

FZ: Well, I'm not, but I'm talking about musicians. I'm talking from the stand-point of a person who hires and pays musicians to perform musical functions and it has been my experience over the last, 15 years that that is the prime motivating factor. In fact if they had to choose between sex and money as the motivating factor for musicians it would be a tough choice to make because I think most of 'em put sex above money. Maybe they'll talk more about money but the sex will get more action out of 'em.

RD: Still on live recording, how do you get over spilling over from other instruments when you strip down to bass and drums, is it all close miking?

FZ: You do a lot of close miking but you also understand that if you mic something really close and if the instrument is really loud — especially when using a cardioid mic right in front of something — the amount of extra stage noise that mic is going to hear is nil compared to the volume of the signal coming out. Same thing with tom tom mics if they're up inside the drums, you get pretty good separation from that. In fact I've been amazed by the kind of separation I've been able to get on this last live recording we did in New York. We had the drums set up in a very strange place, they were up on the left-hand side of the stage with the drummer's back to the side-fills and a C24 mic overhead looking down at the whole set plus mics, not in but looking down at the tom toms — and the side-fills were loud. When I took the tapes into the studio there wasn't a homogenous amount of leakage from the side-fills in there. It was a very tolerable amount, kickdrum sounded tight, snare sounded good and all the rest of the drums, I take the bass direct, keyboards direct. All the guitar stuff was miked on the amps, I didn't bother taking direct on any of the (four) guitars.

Odeon Hammersmith, February 1 7.


RD: So you're in a frame of mind in which you're anticipating stripping things down and you are not really going for a live recording as such.

FZ: You can do it either way. What I did with the stuff from New York was to mix it without any overdubs. It sounded fine and the audience recording was excellent. We had a total of 10 mics on the audience including two shotguns that were looking right down into the front row. Then there were three or four along the sides and a C24 in the centre and one at the back. The combination of all those signals gave a really full room sound plus proximity on all the things people were saying. All the applause sounds very realistic. People who try and record an audience with just two mics are crazy because you just can't do it. Even when the audience is quiet, turning those microphones up adds a dimension to the amplified stuff on stage that you'll never get in the studio because what you are doing is recording the sound of a large volume of air being rattled to death by high amplification. No EMT plate is going to give that to you. One of the things people forget about recording is that a microphone is not just hearing an instrument or an amplifier. It's hearing perturbations in the air mass and it's also hearing the size of mass that it is functioning in. So a saxophone recorded with mic A in a room this size with really dead walls is not going to produce the same sound as a saxophone recorded with the same microphone in a room of another size with a different set of walls. Even with exactly the same positioning.

RD: You have had a reputation for drilling your musicians pretty hard, right from the early days of the Mothers Of Invention.

FZ: Yeah? Well that's nothing compared with what they're into now. If you thought those guys were well drilled, these guys are drilled to death. It's a lotta trouble and a lotta hard work. But I'm kinda proud of the band at the moment because they know more complicated arrangements than any band I've ever had before. I've started doing rehearsals a different way too. I started last year hiring one guy in the band to run four hours of drill before I get there. I give 'em the notes. They either have it written down on paper or they've been told what their parts are. Then it's just a case of drilling and memorising it. And so I get one guy out of the band who gets to be drillmaster, he gets a double salary for doing that. Last year it was the percussionist Ed and this year it's the bass player, Arthur.

RD: I should imagine they earn their double salary too.

FZ: Oh, they do. But the other thing is that, invariably, everybody else in the band ends up hating them by the end of rehearsals. That's why Ed didn't want to do it this year because he wanted to be 'one of the guys'. So now Ed is giving Arthur a bad time. But he's done a really good job and we've covered a lot of ground; this year we're playing stuff that nobody ever expected to hear on stage. Brown Shoes Don't Make It, a huge arrangement of that, Andy, Florentine Pogen, Inca Roads, Strictly Gentile and a bunch of new songs that have complicated arrangements. We're playing a lot of material from the records that was thoroughly overdubbed and trying to recreate it as much as possible without any tapes or anything. There may even be two different shows, I think they have that much material and in Europe we have to do two shows a night in some places.

RD: So the real Zappologists should get tickets for both shows.

FZ: A lot of 'em do and that's one of the reasons I like to do two varied shows mostly. Usually 20% or 30% are repeat customers for double show nights. It's amazing because that's a lot of money to spend on tickets but there are kids who do it and I figure that if they do that let's give 'em the most for their money. It's not always possible to do. It's so hard to memorise four or five hours of music.

RD: So before you get to rehearsal the band works on basic arrangements and then get into finer points and accents with you later on?

FZ: What goes on at the early part of the rehearsal is they go over individual lines, vocal harmonies, all that really boring tedious stuff that used to drive me nuts for the past 15 years. We have four guitarists in this band (including Zappa) and there is a lot of harmony stuff to learn. Only one of them can read music so the others have to be taught note by note. Now all I do is come in after they've got the basic stuff down and I tighten it up and show 'em exactly how the phrasing should be and go over that aspect. I've already done the work, that's done. Before I can shape it up they have to know enough of it to give me something to work with. I don't have the patience any more to sit down and give people one note at a time, I just don't. I've had too many bands, it drives me nuts. I've found this arrangement works out really good because it makes it possible for me to sit here and talk to you while Arthur is down at the Rainbow screaming at the band. And when I go down there I can concentrate a little bit more on the stuff that I have to learn — because I have to learn material just like everybody else — my guitar parts, figure out when and where I'm going to move, and put the whole thing together.

RD: You're not so interested in visual effects these days?

FZ: No, we carry our own lights but that's just basically normal theatrical lighting. No 5 000 dollar risers with airport searchlights blowing up between your legs, no bombs, no foaming blood capsules.

RD: But you at one time had a type of visual effect that was totally different from Kiss and bands like that, the original Zappa visual effects.

FZ: We had visual effects that would snuff anything that anyone is doing today but we were doing it in a 300-seat theatre. We would do all kinds of weird things in there but you can only do it in a situation where everyone can see it. I think that when you play in big halls the type of effects that you have to use are prohibitively expensive, they're not musical and I don't find them particularly amusing. Whereas the stuff we were doing at the Garrick Theatre happened on a lot of different levels, it was a personalised thing for the people that were there at the time and we used to change it every night. It used to be... strange, truly strange. Not that old boa-constrictor on the stage, but some really weird stuff.

RD: Do you regard that as something you've done that is behind you or do you miss it? It must have been incredibly good fun up there doing it.

FZ: Oh, I love doing that stuff. The thing that you've got to understand is that New York is a unique place and the people who were there were just right for that kind of thing. If we had spent 1967 in Texas it would have been a totally different story but we were in New York. The people there were just right and it was not just me doing my stuff. It was me and the people of New York doing these weird things together. In fact there's a whole generation of kids that are there right now of the same mentality and they would probably really like it. The unfortunate thing is I can't afford to go in to a 300-seat theatre now. Just can't do it, I've got nearly 30 people on the payroll right now.

RD: That's the entourage?

FZ: No, that's people who actually do work.

RD: I mean that's the people actually out on the road with you.

FZ: Yeah, usually when I hear the word 'entourage' it sounds like girls with green metallic fingernail polish and looking for Quaaludes.

RD: Around the time of 200 Motels you were very enthusiastic about the possibilities of video, but we have yet to see any more Zappa movies. Also wasn't 200 Motels the first feature movie shot entirely on video?

FZ: That's right. The main reason that I have not done any more is that people won't invest in any. I've tried to get several film projects going. I've got one that's very near completion right now; I need half-a-million dollars to finish it. I've already financed it myself up to this point and I just don't have enough money to finish the thing off. It's just one of those things, my capital is tied up in the new recording studio at the moment. Making a movie is more expensive than making a record. If I have a track record in the recording industry it's not so hard to get money to make an album because they know what the returns on the investment are going to be. But with a film it's a different story. They want to know where the stars are and all that shit.

RD: Of your 25 or more solo and Mothers Of Invention albums are there any you are more happy with than others?

FZ: I always tell people that my favourite album is Lumpy Gravy.

RD: Because?

FZ: I just like it.

RD: I get the impression that you might say the difference between your new album and your last one is that the new comes after the one before.

FZ: That's pretty close. That's why they call it a record. It is a record of what I was doing at that time with the people who were available to play on it. People have a lot of trouble differentiating between a good performance of a bad piece of music and a bad performance of a good piece of music, people cannot really tell. I think a lot of times I've had bad performances of good pieces of music but not enough money to get them exactly right on the record. But once it's recorded it goes out and there it is, frozen in time and space.


Series - "2000 Mots"

This is the last part in this series. The first article in this series is:

2000 Mots
(SI Apr 79)


All parts in this series:

Part 1 | Part 2 (Viewing)


More with this artist



Previous Article in this issue

Bands On The Rung

Next article in this issue

Backstage with Peavey


Publisher: Sound International - Link House Publications

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...

 

Sound International - May 1979

Donated by: Richard Elen

Artist:

Frank Zappa


Role:

Musician
Keyboard Player
Composer (Music)

Series:

2000 Mots

Part 1 | Part 2 (Viewing)


Interview by Ralph Denyer

Previous article in this issue:

> Bands On The Rung

Next article in this issue:

> Backstage with Peavey


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