This is Part Two of our interview with Frank Zappa, conducted at his home in 1988. Part one of the interview is here.
Did you have any friends at the time who shared your enthusiasm for Varèse?
No, but I would play it for them anyway. I mean, usually if they’d come over to the house, everybody does this same thing, if you have records, you tend to play your favorite items for whoever comes in. And that gives them the test to find out what kind of person that individual is. What I used to do was play them parts of the Varèse album and then play them Lightning Slim things like “My Starter Won’t Start” or “Have Your Way” or I’d play them some Howling Wolf. That would clear them out really fast.
They didn’t like that stuff either?
Well, usually that would get rid of the girls and the ignorant boys and what was left over was somebody you could have a conversation with.
It’s interesting that you mention these two separate currents because I was introduced to your work by a classical cello player who mostly listens to avant-garde 20th century music and you.
Well, he’s missing a good bet by not checking out those old records by guys like Lonesome Sundown and Lightning Slim. That’s good stuff because it’s real direct, it’s not a matter of pretense there. It’s right to the point.
Did you start writing music at this time?
I was writing chamber music. I didn’t write a rock and roll song until I was about 20 or 21. But I’ve been writing chamber music since I was 14.
Did you study keyboard?
No. I started writing music because I liked the way it looked and I had art talent when I was a kid, so I used to draw music. I figured that’s what everybody else did, you know, just draw it till you liked the way it looked and then handed it to a musician. Theoretically a person who could read dots on paper and then translate your engraving into some kind of audio masterpiece. And I did, since I didn’t know any musicians, labor under this delusion for quite some time and just draw music.
Without being able to read it?
Right, I couldn’t read it. I could write it. I could make it look terrific.
Were you basing these drawings on any sheet music that you looked at?
No. I’d seen pictures of music before and I knew how to draw the clefs. That might sound ignorant and impractical but I would say there are many contemporary scores that probably don’t sound as good as what I was doodling on paper.
In fact there was a reference – I guess in the early fifties – to a certain type of music common in the contemporary European tradition called “Eye Music”. You couldn’t play it and you didn’t want to listen to it but it looked great on paper. I didn’t find out about this concept until I managed to get these things played by musicians and I got the shock of my life when I realized that it didn’t sound like what I wanted it to sound like. So at that point I had to find out how the system really worked.
And that’s when you learned music theory?
The standard theory that I know is really quite limited because I always found it quite boring. I got a hold of the Walter Piston harmony book when I was in high school and I went through some of the exercises in there. And I was wondering why a person would really want to devote a lifetime to doing this, because after you complete it you’ll sound like everybody else who used the same rules. So I learned enough of the basic stuff so I got the concept of what harmony was supposed to do, what voice leading was supposed to do, how melody was supposed to function in a harmonic climate, what rhythm was supposed to do. I learned all of that and then chucked the rest of it.
I started writing my own music in which the thirds were omitted from the chords. That seemed to give me more latitude with the melody because if there’s no third in the chord then you’re not locked into an exact statement that your harmonic climate is major or minor.
If you have a root, a fourth and a fifth, or a root, a second and a fifth, your ability to create atmosphere and imply harmony by having a variety of bass notes that will argue with the suspended chord gives you, for my taste, more opportunities. Then the melody line can go back and forth between major or minor and lydian or whatever else you want with ease. You have more flexibility.
But even to take that approach you’d have to have the understanding of how a triad is structured and the effect of a third.
Yeah, but that’s really basic beginner mongoloid stuff.
Yes, but at the same time there are many writers who are at that stage and don’t know what a third is.
They don’t want to know. I think that when you have award shows that glorify the most ignorant among us for doing things that are called excellent merely because they’ve achieved large numerical sales, it is not much of an incentive for a young songwriter to come along and say, “I want to learn how music works.”
Because there’s just no reason to participate in the construction of music on an intellectual level when all you have to do is just get lucky one time and then have the record company do the payola. Then you will be the next guy to be standing in line to get a major award. So that’s the message that is sent to the marketplace for all the new guys coming in. And there’s no glamour to doing the laborious job of developing a personal theory of harmony or a personal feel for how you want rhythm to function in your work.
See, I make a distinction between a songwriter and a composer. They’re not always the same kind of a guy because the goals of the two types of disciplines are not always the same. Composers may write songs, but it is a very seldom that a songwriter will do a composition.
A composition is when you’re dealing just in a theoretical and abstract way with the raw elements of music, and trying to do things with those basic elements which has not been done before. Instead of sitting down to write a hit, you’re going to the raw material to go in a new direction.
Songwriters tend not to do that. They tend to write in a song form. And if you compare it to architecture, it’s the difference between building a cathedral and building a Taco Bell. And fast food is important when you’re hungry. Fast music is important when you need something to drive to.
Is it your opinion that the state of songwriting is bad and getting worse?
No, the only thing that saves it is the fact that the American’s memory span is so short that they actually believe that when they hear the latest regurgitated version of a style that was prevalent five years ago, they believe it’s new. I mean, I’m amazed that some of the stuff that is passing for New Wave music today is 1960’s semi-folk-rock chord changes that have been reorchestrated to use 1980’s technology. It really is the same.
Have you heard any songs recently that you thought were worthwhile?
I like “Living in a Box” by Living in a Box, and I like “Daddy’s Home” by Walk the Moon.
So it is possible to use that very restrictive song form and still create something good?
Sure, it is always possible. But when a guy sits down to write a song, he’s not sitting down to make history, he’s sitting down to make money.
Do you really believe that is always the case? Don’t you think there are some songwriters who want to write some timeless songs?
I don’t think the urge to be timeless necessarily permeates the pop tune marketplace. The urge to be rich permeates the pop tune marketplace.
That’s true, though I know the urge to be timeless does exist among songwriters, although they have to face the reality of the music business.
Any songwriter who had to choose between being rich and being timeless, if he chose timeless, he’s probably out of a job. There are just too many commercial pressures on the guy at the end of the food chain, the guy who writes the song, because before he thinks about anything else, he’s already looking at airplay or looking at MTV. I think there’s got to be an inkling in the back of every songwriter’s mind like, “How will this shoot ? What will they do when they make a video of this one?” So what’s that got to do with writing a song?
Not much. But isn’t it possible for something new and great to be heard-even if it doesn’t fit the pat hit-making formula?
Not unless there’s a massive change of attitude at the distribution level, which includes the places where music is dispersed: radio, TV, jukeboxes, whatever, until current values disappear. Until then, there is little hope that a person who is doing anything other than formula swill will have an opportunity to have his music recorded, let alone transmitted.
But don’t you feel that there’s an inherent need among people to have serious, expressive music as a part of their lives?
The problem with that concept is – would they know it if they heard it? Would they like it or would they prefer it to other stuff? See, an audience gets trained. They’re trained by their environment. And what they hear on the radio has nothing to do with life – it’s all freeze-dried and dead. It’s like dead artifacts that are repeated over and over again. The repetition helps to sell records, but the repetition reduces the composition to the level of wallpaper.
Sure. Especially in the radio sense, you don’t hear it anymore. It’s a rock and roll atmosphere that you play in your car, that you hear in an elevator, that you experience in a boutique. It has reduced wallpaper to a lifestyle.
But a great song, even if I hear it a billion times, can still move me. It can’t ever become wallpaper, no matter how many times it gets played.
But let’s take a look at the broad spectrum of what everybody knows as common American coinage, the musical experience of being an American. The boundary of your musical experience has been determined by accountants. Unless you are going to seek out the newest and the finest of whatever is available in any field, what you are presented with as your set of alternatives that you will choose to inhabit your lifestyle is tiny.
Because of the way that the business is structured? If a record sells 50,000 copies, it’s a commercial failure. But you’re still reaching 50,000 people. Would you consider that a failure, even if you’re reaching that many people and affecting that many lives?
If you were a classical composer and you sold 50,000 albums, you’d be a hero. I mean, the regular pop industry spits at 50,000 records. I regularly do 50,000 records. The only album I ever had that was in the million plus category was Sheik Yerbouti and the only reason that it sold that much is because the song “Bobby Brown Goes Down” which could never be played in the U.S., was a hit all over Europe. The bulk of those sales were outside the U.S. so it was an unpredictable fluke. Usually my record sales are in the 50,000 to 300,000 range depending on what the content of the album is.
Do you consider sales of 50,000 records to be a failure?
I think that that’s about the bottom margin for feeling okay given what it costs to make an album. You know, the success, if you’re going to look at it in financial terms, you have to look at the difference between what you spend to make it and what it nets you after it’s gone into the marketplace. And because I have my own studio and do my own stuff, I can actually make a profit at 50,000 records, where another guy probably could not.
So what would be your advice to the young songwriter when he sits down to write a song-should he concern himself with writing a good hook or should he simply try to write a great song?
It depends on what he wants to do. If he just wants to make money, he should copy everybody else’s stuff, which is what everybody else is doing.
But you can only do that for so long.
That depends on how good a copier you are.
How about if you want a career in songwriting?
Basically, it’s a career in being a fraud. It’s just like when someone says, “What would you advise a young composer?” I always say, “Get a real estate license.” You can’t earn a living being a composer in the United States. But as far as being a songwriter goes, you can make a lot of money if you will listen for what everybody else has done that has been successful, and tweak it around to the point where you can convince an accountant at a record company that you’re fresh, new and original. This is usually accomplished by changing your hairdo periodically and having a good wardrobe. That’s basically the business you’re entering. The idea of writing a nice tune is the farthest thing from the minds of the people you will be doing business with, and that is the reality of the business.
Recently we interviewed the songwriting team of Livingston & Evans who said that they didn’t think that a good melody had been written in about thirty years.
I’d say that’s probably true, because the basic thrust of today’s music is dance music, especially for Americans, who have an incredibly limited concept of what rhythm is. If you look at the typical dance rhythms that motivate an American dancer, you’re very close to march music. It’s boom-bap-boom-bap, and if there’s anything more than that, an American’s feet get tangled up.
So you start with a basic sort of fascist marching beat, and then you add a few parallel fifths to it (if you want it to be heavy metal) and make sure that your melodies don’t have anything shorter than an eighth note. Make sure that there is an incredible amount of repetition in the composition, because you’re presuming that when people are out there semi-marching and pumping their buttocks up and down that they couldn’t really comprehend any more than a five note melody.
If you were to were to do a statistical analysis of some of the most popular, big selling tunes that have been on the market in recent days, you’d see not too many notes, the chords don’t give you too many surprises, and the beat is boom-bap. So if you want to do that and make a lot of money, it’s not too hard to learn. But if you want to write the great American tune, I would say to get a real estate license.
Do you have an album of your own that is a favorite?
By the time I finish working on an album, I never want to hear it again in my life.
And you don’t?
No, I do, sometimes. For example, we’re releasing the old masters collections and the old things have to be remixed or remastered again and you do get to hear them again. But usually what I hear is everything that went wrong during a session. It’s very seldom that I’ll listen to a song and say, “Yeah, that’s a good song,” because by the time I’m finished doing the grunt work of putting an album together, the initial thrill of writing the song has vanished.
If you are the artist and the producer and the record company president and the art director, after doing all those jobs it becomes a blurr; the original songwriting idea is just something that happened in ancient history.
And when you’re in the studio you don’t reconnect with that original inspiration at all?
No. That’s a one shot deal.
If you had to name a few songs, written by other people, that you consider to be great, what would they be?
I liked “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan. I liked “Paperback Writer” by the Beatles and “I am the Walrus.” And one may not underestimate the impact of “Louie Louie,” the original Richard Berry version.
Were those the only songs by Dylan and the Beatles that you like or do you like them in general?
No, those are the only ones I liked. I generally liked the Rolling Stones better than the Beatles during that era; they were a little bit more to my taste because they were more involved in the blues.
I like the group Them, with Van Morrison. And the other thing that I really enjoyed were the early compositions of David and Bacharach. I thought that they were so good because prior to that time there had been little of bitonal or polytonal harmonic implication in American pop music, and we are to thank them for providing them through those early Dionne Warwick recordings.
What do you think of the New York school of composers, such as Phillip Glass?
I’m not familiar with his music but the whole realm of the New York school of repetition music, it’s like stuff to be played in the background of an art gallery. It’s an atmosphere that people might enjoy participating in, but it’s not my style; it’s not my idea of a good time.
Should we expect in the future that most of your work will be on the Synclavier as opposed to working with a band?
I don’t think it will be exclusively that because there’s still certain things human beings do better than machines. One thing about human beings, though, is that they really enjoy being paid. And one thing about doing records that are not selling 30 million units is you have to be very conscious of what you’re spending to make the record so one day you have made a profit that allows you to make another record. That’s another reason why that machine (the Synclavier) is sitting there.
Do you find any satisfaction in your enormous body of work and the knowledge that it will remain?
Not in a way that you can identify with. You know, I think that what you have in mind is probably something more romantic than the way I look at it.
How do you look at it?
Well, all of the songs that were dealing with sociological topics were things that needed to be said at the time. The comments made then still remain true today and will probably remain true as long as we have bad government and ignorant religion working in America. And on that basis I think they serve a sociological function as an encouragement to other people who have a similar point of view.