A Mother Speaks Frankly
By Chris August
Synapse, Summer 1978, January/February 1979
Part One: On the record business, the law and lawyers, hype, and hardware. Next issue Zappa speaks on musicians, composing, music and politics, instruments, and academia.
Chris August: How were you able to get a recording contract, how were you able to get on Verve?
Frank Zappa: That was an accident. We had gone around to all the record companies, shopped our demos around and done all the things that a new group does in Hollywood to get somebody at a record company to listen to them, and been turned down by everybody. And finally this guy, Tom Wilson, who was the producer at MGM, was down the street at one club while we were working at the Whiskey a Go-go, and he was induced to be dragged away from his lady friend and come down and see us play just for a moment. And he walked in while we were playing the Watts Riot Song.
Synapse: "Trouble Coming Every Day."
Zappa: Right. That was a rhythm and blues kind of number. He walks in and he sees the band, sees us play that. We finish the set, I come out and shake hands with him, he said he liked it. He said that he thought we could make a deal, and he walked away thinking that he had signed a white rhythm and blues band. And they gave us the astounding sum of $2500.00 to sign the contract, and we went in and started making the record the first song we recorded was "Any Way the Wind Blows," and the second song we recorded was "Who are the Brain Police;" and that's when the phone calls started going out to New York, You know, uh, oh, what happened?
Synapse: Were they committed to manufacturing the first one?
Zappa: That's right, yeah it was already signed, the money was spent and they didn't really know what they had bought. So, like I said, It was an accident. If he hadn't been there and we hadn't been there and we hadn't been playing that one particular song when he came in; if it hadn't been a certain hour of the night where the crowd at the Whiskey a Go-go was up dancing and looking like they were having a good time to this particular number, well, it might not have happened.
Synapse: Right now you're in the middle of a dispute with Warners. Why is it that you have a difficult time with record companies?
Zappa: Well basically because none of them mean you any good. It's difficult, if not impossible to get a fair deal if you're an artist. This may sound like some sort of rude paranoia but it's not, it's absolutely true; and I believe that the upcoming antitrust investigations will bear this out. In Los Angeles, there are several law firms who specialize in show business law, right? It's a specialized field just like copyright law, divorce. There's only a few people who do it; and among the few who do it, there's a few who are famous, and who have a lot of connections, and those are the top ones. But they're working both sides of the fence because not only are they representing artists, they're representing record companies, and the record company is the guy that's really paying them their salary. So if you're an artist and you go and you get the best lawyer you can get from the best firm you can get, all you're really doin' is gettin' reamed, because the guy owes his ass to the record company, see? And so it's difficult, if not impossible to have adequate representation if you're an artist when you go to negotiate your contract. And to make it even worse there are some law firms who represent several major record companies.
Synapse: How do you get around all that? You must have known that before you got into a contract situation.
Zappa: There's one thing that I have always known: that I don't know anything about the law, and I think that the sooner people realize how little you can know about the law – even lawyers don't know about the law. The situation with law in the States is disgusting because all it does is perpetuate red tape, it perpetuates the employment of people who deal in law which is a fantasy. Law does not deal with right and wrong, as it should have from the very beginning. It does not. It deals with ways in which people can commit various types of white collar crime. And the people who are operating as lawyers 9 times out of 10, are on the fringes of one kind of a fraud or another. They're all bending the law to suit the purposes of either themselves or some client that they have, you know? And when people have to make agreements on paper that bind them to one another for a certain period of time to perform functions, like a record contract for instance, it has to be set down on paper, just so the parties know what it was that they were talking about in the beginning, okay? But by the time you've agreed on your points, and the time that a lawyer draws it up, there are so many little doodads they can stick in there that can completely change the spirit of the contract; something that starts out to be a reasonable deal winds up being indentured servitude by the time the lawyer and the other people get done sticking it to you. Because there is little or no good will in the record business, or in any business for that matter. Business is a process of making money.
Synapse: Do you think setting up independent labels is any help?
Zappa: No, it's not.
Synapse: Because you still have to go through them for distribution?
Zappa: That's right. That's the weenie. Because if you seek independent distribution what happens is the little distributors don't pay you. Say you're a small label – you pay and you have your records pressed and you pay to have them shipped, and they arrive at a small distributor and he sells them and he collects, but he don't send the money back to you, and then you have to sue him, and you have to sue individual distributors all over the United States. You know what that costs you in terms of legal fees? Forget it. See? So your other option is independent label, go with mass distribution through a single company – through Capitol, through Columbia, through Warner Brothers whatever, right? You make a sub label deal. Then you only got one guy to complain about about getting paid.
Synapse: What do you think of the music that's coming out that's called New Wave, or punk music?
Zappa: I think it's just a way for people who can't play to earn a living.
Synapse: Would you rather that they be working on cars or –
Zappa: No, because considering the way they play, I wouldn't want them working on my car; but I think that it's good that this music is available for people who like that music. But let's be honest about what it is. It is not the wave of the future, and it is not the voice of social protest of today. It's just another record company hype. I mean, did we all believe that Bruce Springsteen was the new Bob Dylan, or what?
Synapse: When did you first become aware of the synthesizer?
Zappa: I've known about the synthesizer since I read about Oscar Sala's Mixtur Trautonium , and it's been over 20 years. It was reported in this article that it makes sounds like chordal glissandos of kettle drums and things like that, and I said, hey, that's for me, but of course in those days there were no synthesizer records, and anybody who was dealing with electronic music had to be in "New York."
Synapse: Were you aware of other people doing things in Europe, like Stockhausen, and people
Zappa: This was before Stockhausen.
Synapse: But in the early 50's, after the war, when they started doing tape pieces?
Zappa: Yeah, Pierre Henry  and yeah, I knew about that stuff. In fact there was a record store in Clairmont California that occasionally got some of these unusual, very rare recordings, and since it was so primitive in those days, you could actually go into a record store and listen to the record before you bought it. I actually went in there and listened to that music. I had a chance to really hear it. Of course I couldn't afford to buy it, but I heard it. I have since acquired a lot of those records, though. I have a pretty good collection of electronic music.
Synapse: Are instruments developed because of a need, or do things appear and then excuses are made for the use of them?
Zappa: No, I think that, from talking to the people I know in the hardware end of the business, they won't do anything unless they can sell it. I know people who have brilliant minds that could probably build any kind of a noise maker you want, but either don't have the money, or don't have the inclination to develop a new process or a new black box unless there is some potential for them to earn money from it farther down the road – which is logical because they have a brain and they want to earn a living from what their brain does and they're only going to develop things that they think are merchandisable, and the problems of merchandising new electronic devices are pretty complicated. I'm sure that there are a lot of things that could exist right now that won't, simply because there's no way for the guy who builds the box to make a buck off of it.
To be continued next issue.
Synapse: What do you think of the potential of the synthesizer now that you've used it as a guitarist? Do you think it's going to be as accepted by the guitar player as it is by the keyboard players?
Zappa: Here's the thing that really sucks about synthesizers: you get a guy a Minimoog, and the first thing the guy wants to do is sound like a guitar player. Invariably. Every keyboard player has always wanted to bend notes all of his life. Now he can push the wheel and go wheeeee! and suddenly he thinks deep in his heart he's a lead guitar player. That sucks. Now you've got guitar players that always wanted to have clear attack, and they figure that if they plug into a synthesizer they're going to get clear attack; but the things don't trigger right, so that sucks.
Synapse: You have to adapt your playing style to it.
Zappa: Yeah. Well, if you're going to adapt your playing style to execute every note that clear, well, that's like starting from scratch again.
Synapse: What have you been able to do with synthesizers that interests you that you weren't able to do without it?
Zappa: Oh, it's definitely a relief, but the problem is the musicians. Since I'm not a keyboard player, I can't sit down and play my own orchestra music on keyboard, all right? So that means you gotta get somebody else to do it. I've invested thousands of dollars on very exotic, advanced synthesizer equipment. I have a humongous Eµ set up, and I just spent another about $8,000.00 on this special Hammond organ, that has special triggering stuff built into it, and we just had the audio premiere of this little noise maker yesterday, that triggers a modified Syndrum unit off of the keyboard which means that now a keyboard player can play scales on tom toms, and has the ability to actually do harmony runs on simulated instruments. Right now I've got my Eµ dedicated to making the sound of a full brass section – in this case 5-part polyphony with an extremely realistic brass attack. I had it on the road for the last tour. The keyboard player who was using it couldn't even fathom what to do with it because when it came time to play a solo the first thing the guy did was get his little Minimoog out and go eeeee, you know? I mean, that's distressing to me. All I can do is make the equipment available. I have to go out there and beet my brains out to make the money to buy that shit. I buy it, I maintain it, and it's there to use, and I can't get people to use it right. And since the world of rock is an ongoing proposition and there are tours coming up, and there are albums here and there's a film there, you can't just sit and say, "Wait a minute. Stop. I'm going to search the world to find players who can actually operate this stuff and get the sounds out of it that are in it." You can't do it. You just keep on going. So you know what I've done? That big expensive Eµ unit – it's in storage. Now the organ, which is a smaller more compact thing to take on the road will get its chance on this tour. If it doesn't perform in the hands of the player who's using it to the standards that I have set up here to make it work, it'll go into storage too. It pisses me off.
Synapse: Do you think the synthesizer is just another instrument to be assimilated into music that's being made, or do you think it represents a point of departure?
Zappa: I think it's just another instrument. As a composer, I wouldn't say I prefer a synthesizer to an oboe, or a synthesizer to a guitar, or a synthesizer to a harp or – I know what each of the instruments can do in terms of the sounds that it can make. I know roughly the kind of problems you have writing for the things, and roughly what you have to go through in order to get it performed. It's another instrument as far as I'm concerned. But to a synthesizer player of course, it's God. I mean we wouldn't want to interfere with the synthesizer player's little dream world.
Synapse: Most of the time we've talked about synthesizers, you've referred to them in terms of imitating other instruments.
Zappa: No. I just told you what I have in terms of equipment. I'm well aware that it can modify the sounds of things existing in nature, or it can make things which are not harmonic, stuff like the Vocoder – that is of limited use to the type of music that I like to write. I'm diatonic. That's the most radical thing you can do, is really be just diatonic.
Synapse: When you're composing, are you thinking in terms of the different ways that it is going to be performed: the performance in the studio, the performance live?
Zappa: You have to think for the medium that is going to be the ultimate carrier of the information. If I'm writing a rock n' roll song I know that the arrangement of that song has to be suited to the place where it's going to have its first performance. Live performance arrangements have to be a different animal than recording arrangements, because you're dealing with a different set of problems. It's just different. So if you're writing an orchestra piece, there's an approach that a composer can take now that he couldn't take before. In the olden days if a guy was writing a piece, he wrote quantities and densities that were apropos of a live performance environment only. Based on what he knew about the performance of instruments, how loud they were, and what they could do tone wise, he shaped the composition. He would write down instructions on a piece of paper which, when interpreted by a conductor and the musicians sitting in the room, would produce a sculpture in the air.
In those days the air was not being shaken by tweeters and woofers, it was just by the instruments themselves: the air to the ear. Now, if you write a piece for orchestra, you have the option of saying, well, if this is going to be recorded, I can have a bass flute, which is a very soft instrument, be the loudest, most predominant instrument in the middle of a full brass section playing six f's, just by overdubbing him, and putting him on right there, and he'll stick out right in the front of the mass: and that's fantastic, you know? You can do things now with orchestration that you could never do before.
I think orchestras are fantastic. But the thing that I've always hated about being a composer, is dealing with musicians, because my experience is that musicians not only hate music, but they also hate composers, and the only thing that they really like is their instrument, because the instrument is an extension of their own ego. The person that's playing the instrument says, "Hey, I'm playing, I AM PLAYING, this instrument," and has studied for years to play that instrument, and it's a strong identity from the person to his instrument. Nobody ever learned to play a violin to sit in the 18th row in the back of a section and go like that when the conductor waves his stick. They just aren't born to it. They all want to get out there in that one spotlight and Paganini to death, you know? And it's the same for all players. They have such a strong identity with their instrument. They think that the instrument they play is God's instrument. You try telling a trumpet player that an accordion's where it's at, and see whether or not the guy just wants to strangle you. Why does a person decide to play a contrabassoon. What is it? They believe in it. The contrabassoon is their way of life, and you talk to bassoon players, they're so into it, OK? Everybody who plays something loves that instrument because it means something to them, and it relates to them personally. And in most instances, the composer is the shmuck that's getting in their way because he's telling them what to do. They don't want to know what to do. They want to play the instrument. "Just let me play. Let me be free," and meanwhile the composer is stuck with the horrible job of having to tell 120 guys what to play, when to play it, how loud to play it, when to stop, and all those things. He's doing the shittiest job. He's the organizer. He's like an umpire at a baseball game. Stick 120 musicians from an orchestra in a room, and tell them to play beautiful music without any music on paper. You could take the best players in the world, 120 of them, sit them down, and say. "Play me something beautiful." You gotta have organization, so the composer's job is organizing the time-space relationships of the sonic elements that are gonna shake the air. It's a fuckin' piece of drudgery. Does anybody care about composers in modern day America? No. Not unless the guy's writing a hit, writing a Pepsi jingle, or making some background music for a movie. I mean, composers are obsolete. Who gives a fuck about composers? Musicians don't. The experiences that I've had in Los Angeles writing music for orchestras and things like that have been harrowing. I'm the guy that's gotta pay for copying the parts. It's not enough to sit down there and figure out when they play and when they don't. I gotta pay for copying the fuckin' parts. When I did that performance at UCLA a couple of years ago, the total bill for the copyist was $15,000.00 for 40 pieces.
Synapse: But you do it because you want to hear it?
Zappa: I do it for 2 reasons: 1, I want to hear the music, 2, I'm foolish.
Synapse: Then you'll keep writing music for orchestra?
Zappa: Yeah. I don't know whether or not I'm gonna keep paying to have it done. There's gotta be a better way. Because – you know the only time anybody ever came to me and said, "Will you please write some music for us?" Let me tell you this story – they said, "If you'll write a double piano concerto, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will play it. If you'll buy two 11 foot grand pianos and donate them to UCLA. Do you know what an 11 foot grand piano costs?
Synapse: Too much.
Zappa: Now how do you like that shit?
Synapse: And that was the only time you've been asked?
Zappa: That's the only time anybody asked me to write any music – if I would buy two fuckin' grand pianos.
Synapse: You mean, you haven't been approached to do film scores?
Zappa: Oh, somebody asked me to do a film score, but, what is that, you know? The producer of the movie says, "Bring the cellos in here, they're falling in love."
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net