Ultra-Modern String Bean
Interview by Mark Seidenfeld and Jon Tiven
Sounds, December 22, 1973
ALTHOUGH DEPICTED as vicarious forms of slimy nightmare, Frank Zappa is NOT creepy, when asked about days of old (when everyone was groping around, trying to be realistic, you were being surrealistic, and more real than the rest. Did you ever feel like a turnip lost in a cabbage patch, or the gardener?), he replies, "None of the above." Frank says that he is doing lots of fantastic things, in fact, EVERYTHING. Right now, he's editing a new film for next year.
If Frank listens to other music than his own, which he says is an activity he does not indulge in overextensively, he "isolates" himself. In fact, when asked how long he has been conducting this screening process, the reply was, "Since I was born."
Frank does not deny that he is influenced by what he likes, in fact, all the influences are listed on the first album "Absolutely Free." But he won't list them himself. "You have to learn something from somewhere, everybody who ever wrote a note of music learned something from someplace else." Unfortunately, Frank hasn't heard anything he likes recently, but he likes what he's doing recently, and he likes more than things he was doing two years ago.
Oh, I think my skills have improved. That's probably because I have better material to work with. As things become available to you and as you understand what you can do with them, if you apply that to the basic groundwork of your songs then you can write better and better stuff. In the old days, you had to imagine a song that had to be performed as a lump. Now I can imagine a song that can be performed as a basic track with various kinds of overdubbings and things like that."
Frank says that the performances are getting better because the musicians are more skilled. As a matter of fact, according to this ultra-modern string bean, it was his stupidity that kept the first group together for five years, in spite of the fact that they were musically limited. Stupidity means that he didn't have the heart to fire people (friends). Frankie made sure to emphasize the importance of this golden heart or lack of sense.
It means a lot because the audience can't tell the difference between a good piece of music performed badly, or a bad piece of music performed to the utmost ability of mediocre musicians, they don't make that distinction. Consequently, the work that I was doing, the writing I was doing, was being misconstrued to a certain degree, because the people who were playing it couldn't really play it right, people thought that's what I intended."
Two drummers are used in the new band. Ralph Humphrey came from Don Ellis's group, and a new drummer came from Brother Jack McDuff's band. "Ralph has some limitations in terms of his rock 'n' roll capabilities and he doesn't have any limitations at all as far as I can see, in terms of his reading ability and the manner in which he can play in all sorts of unusual time signatures and complicated technical events, but his background is basically jazz.
"Chester's background is more like a soul background, and he can also read, and he can also play complicated stuff but he's not as proficient as Ralph is at it, so the two of them together fill in each other's deficiencies and add up to a very stomping rhythm section."
Zappa agrees that it would be a drag if he were staying static, thus he is travelling, evolving. In what direction he refuses to reveal, and even the most careful manipulations to extract information were thwarted by his keen perception and unwillingness to climb out of the automated response unit trip he was in.
Frank pays the band salaries and he pays their expenses, and buys equipment. He owns most of the band's equipment, and most of the money he earns through music is reinvested in equipment. When touring, he listens to tapes of the Mothers, because all the concerts are taped, and as soon as they get off the road, he starts working on road tapes for albums. Answering my question, if he is planning on putting out a live album, he replied, "Well, I'll wait till I have a sufficient amount of extravagant stuff, and collect it all together and release."
Frank explained the process of judging what goes into the albums, and what material is better than other stuff. "The criteria that's used, is the quality of the performance, the quality of recording, the feeling of the performance, and what the improvisation was like. As far as what we're playing now goes, one third of what we play on stage is 100% notated, the rest is lead sheets, or I just hum them their parts or say do this here or do that there, I only write something down if it's so complicated that it saves time to do it that way."
At each concert, they record a master on a 4 track Skully, and make a cassette. Then they listen to the concert that night or the next day, check where the mistakes are, check the balance, straighten out all sorts of acoustical problems which differ with each place the concert is being held in.
With the dawning of the seventies, a new record company, Discreet, totally eliminates his Straight and Bizzare record companies for business reasons. Bizzare was interested in putting out things of a unique nature "... with a limited esoteric appeal", and Straight was more pop-oriented. Discreet will put out just about anything.
Herb Cohen is the businessman behind it. New artists signed on the Discreet label include Cathy Dalton and Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes. As a producer, one sees Zappa in a different role. When working with Reuben and The Jets, he gave them some advice as to which material that should be selected for their album, helped them in rehearsals, helped them with the arrangements, and made decisions about what gets recorded which way.
Working with an orchestra is a "dismal experience," said Frank. '''You don't really have a lot more to work with, because those people do it for one reason, they get paid. They don't have any desire to play the music in the proper way or proper spirit, they give an inaccurate performance of it, they don't care about what you're doing, and the only, thing they care about is their paycheck at the end of the week. I don't like musicians who think that way, and to see 120 of them all together, it's depressing."
Frank was asked, who are his contemporaries, meaning, people who can interrelate with him, and share ideas on a comfortable level where he can sit back and it's not an interview. "Most of the people I talk with are not musicians. It's just that I don't have anything to say to them, because most of the people that are musicians are not composers, and most of the people that I know who are composers don't have a sense of humour. So it's boring to talk with them. I have a few friends I talk with in L.A. – they're in electronics."
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