A Conversation with Zappa, Vol. 1

From a conversation with Zappa at his home, 1988

From the archives, a conversation with Frank Zappa, conducted at his home up on Woodrow Wilson Drive in Los Angeles, 1988. Zappa would have turned 80 in this year, 2020. It was one of the first interviews I ever did, and I pulled it off. Much of it is Zappa schooling the naive writer on the realities of the music industry. He understood the big picture way better than most people, even starting his own indie label for his own music long before that became common.

I always wished I could go back and do more. There are so many more questions to ask. And Zappa, as his devotees and fans know, could answer any question. But it’s a good start.

When he was thirteen years old and living in San Diego, he read an article in Look magazine praising the record merchandiser Sam Goody. It claimed that Goody was such a genius that he could sell any album no matter how ugly it was musically. And the album they chose as an example of this ultimate ugliness was The Complete Works of Edward Varèse, Volume I, which featured a percussion piece called “Ionizations.” The writer described the piece as “a banging and clanging with sirens and stuff.”

When young Frank read this he said to himself’, “Yeah! That’s what I want!” He made the trek to what was then referred to as the local “Hi-Fi shop,” where records were played on the new equipment to demonstrate the magic of Hi-Fi.

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“Apparently, the guy had gotten this thing because the percussion was supposed to be spectacular,” Zappa remembered, smiling warmly beneath his huge mustache. “But whenever he played it he didn’t make any sales so the album was listed at $10.95, an exorbitant price for a 13-year-old. I walked into the store and saw this album with a black and white cover and a guy on the front who looked like a mad scientist. And I knew from the minute I saw it that it had to be the one.

“So I asked the guy how much it was and he told me and I didn’t have the money, so I negotiated with him. And he was so happy that anybody would buy it to get it out of there, that he sold it to me for six dollars just to get it off his hands. I took it home and listened to it day and night for years.”

From that day on, Frank Zappa’s life was injected with music both wild and weird, music few of his childhood friends had ever heard of, let alone chose to play in their own homes. As he grew up, Zappa continued in the tradition of his idol, Varèse, in creating sounds and melodies and rhythms and textures entirely his own, music the world had never heard before.

Zappa died on December 4, 1993 in Los Angeles. He was 52 years old. Though his life ended at such a tragically young age, he left behind a body of work much greater than most men ever achieve in a single lifetime. Besides the universe of songs he wrote, Zappa wrote chamber music, orchestral suites, ballets, jazz compositions, concertos, symphonies and more, experimenting with and pushing the boundaries of pretty much every musical form there is.

In his songwriting alone there is such a vast range of expression that it shares a quality with Scott Fitzgerald’s famous quote about Hollywood, that it’s impossible for one person to hold all of its equations in his head at once. Zappa’s lyrics were often so barbed and ironic, or so deceptively simple and direct, that people sometimes neglected the compositional complexity and beauty of the music that accompanied them. Even his hit “Dancing Fool” shifted into measures of 10/ 16 time, a pretty weird time signature for AM or FM.

Zappa’s soul was perhaps most completely expressed in his instrumental music, in which he was able to explore every rhythmic, tonal, harmonic, sonic and melodic relationship available to human ears. His album Sleep Dirt, for example, is an entirely instrumental work that features music both breathtakingly beautiful and mind-boggling. As he learned at an early age from Varèse, there are no real rules restricting music. It can be anything and everything that a composer can imagine. And the imagination of Frank Zappa was limitless.

When we first interviewed him a few years ago, the Synclavier was giving him a liberty that Varèse never shared, to not only compose and experiment with new musical sounds and shapes, but to be able to hear the fruit of these labors instantly. He had just completed the wondrously instrumental Jazz From Hell when we met, and was in the midst of extending those discoveries into further realms of compositional exploration which he was happy to generously share with us in the warm inner sanctum of his home studio.

I conducted the following interview with Zappa for SongTalk in 1988, at a time when he was publicly fighting Tipper Gore’s PMRC and their attempts to place warning labels on albums. Because of this political activity, Zappa was seen to be a little too controversial to be featured on the cover of this journal published by a non-profit organization, and was relegated instead only to our inner pages. It’s a belated honor for us at this moment in history to pay tribute to the astonishing musical legacy of Frank Zappa by finally featuring him on our cover.

What follows is part one of my original interview with Zappa. It led me to believe that all interviews could be set up as easily, and that all interview subjects would be as gracious, humorous and brilliant. Of course, I was wrong. There is nobody else like Zappa.

Frank Zappa means different things to different people. To some, he is the outspoken, political activist who went to Washington to speak out against the PMRC and all forms of censorship. To others, he is the long-haired Zappa of the sixties, fronting the Mothers of Invention, who, in 1966 released both the first double album and the first concept album in rock history (Freak Out).

To others, he’s a true guitar hero: filling up full hockey stadiums with the sound of his extended guitar solos. To still others, he is the very cynical, bizarrely humorous creator of satirical gems such as “Dancing Fool” and “Valley Girl.”

To many, especially those outside the realm of American influence, he is a compositional genius, writing his own distinctive brand of harmonically complex, rhythmically jangled music for everything from a rock band to the London Symphony Orchestra. However you view him, he is undoubtedly one of the most innovative and creative forces in music, continuing to break new ground now as he has done for twenty years.

Zappa’s new ground is being broken on the Synclavier, an amazing machine that can produce both sampled and synthesized sounds and which can be controlled completely by a computer. With one, a composer has the equivalent of a symphony orchestra always at his beck and call, ready to play any piece of music the instant that it is conceived. The difference being that the Synclavier can perform music humans would be physically unable to play, and it can produce sounds and combinations of sounds previously unheard by human ears.

At home, Zappa’s demeanor is closer to an Einstein than a Hendrix. Prior to this interview, he caught a quick four hour nap after leaving instructions with his engineer to make mixes of pieces he had been working on in his home studio. When we arrived, he was summoned from his bed – many days of gray growth on his face, hair all over the place – looking very weary. The guy literally works around the clock.

After the interview was completed, we had the privilege of being ushered into Zappa’s home studio and hearing Synclavier pieces in progress. Though he didn’t smile much, his pleasure at being the first person ever to create this particular music was obvious, and wonderful to share. (For example, he would say, “Let’s see what 22 notes in the space of one eighth note might sound like on a bassoon.”) He put out a cigarette in the standing ashtray beside his chair, lit another, leaned back and pushed the start button on the Synclavier. The music that filled the studio with all the force of a concert hall, was, like all the music that he has created in his life, colorful, compelling and uniquely and unquestionably Zappa.

Zappa with a fork. Photo by Henry Diltz

American Songwriter: Do you generally approach a composition from a rhythmic viewpoint rather than a melodic one?

Frank Zappa: It depends on what kind of song it is. If it’s a song where the text is important, the first job is to make sure that the setting is doing something for the lyric.

Sometimes it’s like a difference tone. That’s where you have a note and a note and the combination of these two notes gives you a third note, which is a difference tone. You get a theoretical difference tone from lyrics which are set ironically. The sum total of the package is more than just these words, this chord. You get the third concept, which is that these two things don’t belong together but somebody put them there. And so you get the extra message there.

The other thing that you have to keep in mind, when writing a song, is who is going to perform it. When I write for myself, since I can’t really sing at all (I have a very difficult time holding a pitch, can’t hold long notes, can’t do any ornamentation), the melody lines tend to be simpler in terms of how wide the leaps are, how long the notes have to be, and the orchestrational texture tends to be more complicated to compensate for the lack of interest that is in the vocal line.

When you’re thinking of melodies, do you work on a keyboard or do you come up with melodies in your head?

I can do it any way. I can think of them in my head, I can do it on a keyboard, I can do it on a guitar, I do it on a marimba.

Do you have a favorite way of doing it?

It depends on what the end result is going to be. A song like “Strictly Genteel,” for example, which has not only a fairly dense orchestral texture, but it’s got complicated words, there’s no way that I could have done that without the help of a piano, because the piano part is so integral to the thing. I don’t play piano – I can plunk things out slowly and write down exactly what the thing is supposed to be.

Your newest album, Jazz from Hell, contains all instrumentals. Is this because you feel restricted by the song form and feel freer to express yourself without words?

It’s two different mediums for me. When you’re writing a song with words you have one kind of job to do. I look at that challenge as to how do you take something that is basically in my case prose data and try to make the prose data rhyme with itself and not compete with the notes that are connected to it. So that’s the game I involve myself with when I have to write a song with words. When writing an instrumental song, you don’t have to make those two things fit together, so it’s a different challenge.

By “prose data,” do you mean that you work on the words first before the music?

Not always. Sometimes I start with a complicated instrumental line and just for the hell of it see whether I can write words to it. “Inca Rose” is one of the songs that came out that way. It was originally done as a kind of fusion instrumental. I said, “If somebody has to sing this, and it is fiendishly hard to sing, what would be the words that fit on it as it came out?” “Montana” was done the other way. It was like an old story song. The chord changes and notes were fitted in later.

Another example of long prose data that had a musical setting put to it is a song called “Dumb All Over”. I wrote it on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to L.A., and it was pages and pages about the fundamentalist right and weird things that they do. And it took awhile to organize a setting that worked on that thing.

You talk about the words and music opposing each other

Sometimes they’re supposed to. I think the irony of the setting is one of the things that can enhance the words or, if the words are used phonetically to assist the music, then you design your entire piece so that the words will definitely take a back seat. They’ll just function as texture to the music.

An example of that type of writing would be 1950’s “doo-wop” music. The “Doo-run-un”. Now what does that mean? But that’s your song.

And you have a great love for those fifties songs.

Well, it was the first rock & roll that I heard. It was like a brand new invention when I was going to high school. So I’ve got a pretty thorough grounding in that musical tradition.

Is that all you were listening to at that time or did you get into classical music too?

No, I was buying rhythm and blues records and avant-garde 20th century classical music at the same time and loving both.

I know Varèse was a major influence.

Well, see, in those days, albums were very expensive, and there were no albums of rock and roll music. The rock and roll album was something that came along long after the rock and roll single was invented, and the original first rock and roll albums were just compilations of hits. If the label had a bunch of hits they would just stick them onto an album.

The first one that I ever saw was called Teenage Dance Party that had a bunch of songs from a New York label – I can see it now, it’s orange – that was the first one I got. I think the wisdom in the marketplace was that the teenagers wouldn’t spend money on albums, they’d spend it on a single but it was a major investment to spend more money on a big record to play it on a slower machine. Remember – most teenagers in those days had 45 rpm record players with a big nozzle in the middle of it that you can’t play a LP on. So only a few of the consumers in the rock and roll marketplace actually had a machine that could play an album.

Anyway, I was not really financially in good condition in those days, but I managed to buy two contemporary classical LP’s that I listened to day and night, because it was the only two albums I had. I had a cheap recording of “The Rite of Spring” on Camden budget line. It was the “Worldwide Symphony plays the Rite of Spring”. And the other one I had was “The Complete Works of Edward Varèse, Volume 1,” which is on some obscure label called EMS.

Yeah? And you liked it?

Yeah, sure, right away. My kind of music.

Oftentimes, though, unless you have really skilled musicians in the band, you can’t have the piece rendered properly because it takes a certain amount of skill to be able to do those things, and people with that kind of skill generally don’t gravitate towards rock and roll. But I’ve been really lucky in having people available for auditions that want to go into the band and play hard music and actually turn out to be roadable people that can do it. And so I write for them.

When you are working on a composition, do you write everything down? For example, the pieces on Jazz from Hell?

Everything on that album was typed on the Synclavier except for “St. Ettiene” which was a live guitar solo.

By “typed on the Synclavier” do you mean that you play it on a keyboard or that you are typing it?

You can do it either way – on the keyboard or by typing note names on sheet music. You look at a stave and say, “I want a G, G3, one eight note long, right there,” and you type it in and presto, there’s a G there.

Zappa & The Mothers of Invention. Photo by Henry Diltz.

And then it plays it for you?

Yeah, as any instrument that you’d like to have it be.

And do you enjoy this method of composing?

Well, since they have software updates every year, and since there’s new hardware available every year, every album that I’ve done on Synclavier has gotten more and more sophisticated. . So compared to what I can do now, it sounds technically crude. The second one I did was the Mothers of Prevention album where I used the voices of people in congress.

Is it true that you had given up the guitar?

I did. I stopped playing it for the last 4 years. I only picked it up again in the last month. I keep it sitting next to my chair in the studio and I occasionally pluck around on it, but I’m only barely getting some callouses back. I literally hadn’t touched it since December 23, 1984.

Why did you give it up?

I didn’t think that there was any great demand in the marketplace for what I do on the guitar. I mean, why should I bust my chops, so to speak? There’s plenty of people who play faster than I do, there’s plenty of people who dance around more than I do, and there was nobody doing what I was doing on Synclavier. Rather than stand in line and be just another redundant guitar player plying his trade in the music business, I thought I’d better come up with something new.

But isn’t there always going to be an audience for what you do? Does Frank Zappa really have to worry about the marketplace?

Sure. Certainly. Remember-I’m self financed. The money doesn’t fly down from heaven or from a recording company. It’s all what I can afford to spend to do what I do.

There is a practical side to making records. And then there is the amount of what you can refer to as assumable risk: How weird can you get and still make a living? I think I’ve experimented well with the fringes of that concept. I’ll take it to the max. I will stick my neck out. I’ll make albums of stuff that if I had a normal record contract with a normal record company, I would have been dropped from their roster centuries ago.

Some of the things that I’ve recorded that I happen to like the best are the things that people in the marketplace find the most repulsive about what I do. Songs like “The Dangerous Kitchen” or “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats” are unique in American popular music. There are no two other songs that are in that same style.

If you ask anybody what their favorite song is that I’ve done, most people would say “Peaches in Regalia” or “Mudshark.” They have little or no concept of what some of the other more adventurous things would have been.

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