Frank Zappa Talks Music, Money and Steve Vai in His First Guitar World Interview From 1982, Part 2
The late Frank Zappa made his first Guitar World cover appearance with the March 1982 issue, during the magazine's third year of publication. The cover calls him "America's Most Misunderstood Genius," and the original story by John Swenson starts on page 34.
Here's part two of the Zappa interview. Note that the first question below is from part one, so you can see where we left off.
GUITAR WORLD: Given your current group, is that pretty much what we see is what we get, or do they suggest another group of songs or ... there were some things you played that I had never heard before.
There are other things that are already recorded that you haven't heard on stage, too. Because we did a bunch of recording before we left LA.
What kind of stuff can we expect? Can you describe any of it?
Well, I'll tell you what we've already recorded. A lot of stuff with [One-Time Mother] Roy Estrada. A song called "Truck Driver Divorce," which will probably be the end of country and western music. It's like country music on PCP. And another song called "Willing Suspension of Disbelief," which is a science-fiction extravaganza. It has everything in it about cheap monster movies that wasn't included in the song "Cheepnis."
And another song called "Sex," which is a very nice song. And then there's a straight-ahead Mongolian sing-along song called "No, Not Now." And there's another one called "Viva La Rosa," which is like a jazz song, bossa-nova type. That features Tommy Mars on Hammond organ and recorder. And then there's all the ones that we were doing in the show that you heard that have also been recorded and haven't been released yet.
What was that Jimi Hendrix song?
That's called "Returning Again."
When did you write that?
Two or three years ago. It's got some good words to it.
What's that line about the way they play it on the radio?
"If you listen to the radio and what they play today you can tell right away, all of those assholes really need you. Everybody come back. No one can do it like you used to. If you listen to the radio and what they play today, you can tell right away, all those assholes really need you.
Is that a comment on the fact that The Doors are the second best-selling American group right now?
No, it is just a comment on the fact that as we head and those who make the into the Dark Ages again you will hear only ten songs for the rest of your life. And I think a little variety never hurt.
There is also ... you do really like Hendrix obviously?
Well, yeah. I think that he was really good. Steve loves Hendrix. You know, Steve, he's got tattoos on his body. He's the Stratocaster guy. And I knew Jimi. He came over to my house once. Nice guy. And it's too bad that he met such an early demise.
So there is in a way a kind of tribute to him?
Of course, it's a tribute to anybody who did anything in rock and roll that set the standards for what people are doing now, and often copying in a bad way. You know, to me the original stuff ... it's just like the original rhythm and blues records. There's nothing like it. A lot of those same things are being re-recorded again and recorded cleaner and nicer and better and whatever, faster. But it's not the same. And it's really not New Wave and it's not improved anything. It's just today's freeze-dried version of the mannerisms of another form of music that already happened.
There's a sense in which you play "Whipping Post" as the ultimate joke on encores, because that's the most requested song of all time.
Well, I'll tell you how it happened. We were playing Helsinki, Finland, about six or eight years ago, and in the middle of this very quiet, nice concert hall from the back of the room a voice rings out, "Whipping Post." And I thought, if we only knew it we could blow this guy's socks off. You know, it would be great to just ... sure, fuck you, "Whipping Post" ... all right, here it is. So, when we got Bobbie Martin in the band I said, "He can sing the shit out of 'Whipping Post' and so let's go for it."
What did the other members of your band think when you said...
"God damn right, let's do it." They love it. They enjoy playing it.
Did you similarly like Duane Allman?
I never listened to their music. I like "Whipping Post," though. In fact, I think they even premiered it when we were working together at this pop festival at the baseball stadium in Atlanta years and years and years ago. It was the first time I heard this song and I liked it then, thought it was really good but I am not an Allman Brothers consumer.
But, as a guitarist you were obviously aware of Duane Allman.
Well, I heard him like the same way I hear other things, if it happens to be on the radio when I go someplace. I don't follow it, I don't consume it.
But, you do offer a kind of homage to a famous dead guy who was a great player.
The credit is all his. It's his song. I didn't invent it. It's a great song.
Yet at the same time you are making fun of Jim Morrison, right?
Well, I knew Jim Morrison too. As a matter of fact, my wife knew Jim Morrison when she was a child. They used to play together. In fact, I think she even hit him on the head with a hammer or something. And so, I know all about Jim Morrison. And, as a matter of fact, Herb Cohen tried to manage him at one time. And they were playing around LA when we first started. They were working at the Whiskey Au Go Go and all that stuff.
And so I am pretty well-acquainted with the rise of Jim Morrison. And the thing that was obnoxious about Jim Morrison was when Crawdaddy decided to proclaim him the Lizard King of rock and roll and went on this bizarre rampage. And the type of merchandising that was originally associated with Doors music I thought was really distasteful and stretching the boundaries of what it actually was beyond the realm of credibility.
Okay. So what you are making fun of is the deification of Jim Morrison.
No, I'm not even picking on Jim Morrison. I am talking about the machinery that takes anything and exaggerates it to the point where it's blown out of proportion and the public believes the inflated version of what the reality is. I am a realistic kind of a guy. I just try and look at things the way they are, take them for what they are, deal with them the way they are, and go on to the next case. But Americans thrive on hype and bloated images and bloated everything, and anything that's realistic they turn away from. They want the candy gloss version of whatever it is. And Jim Morrison is only one example of that.
Getting back to what you do perform, the stage act seems to be taking new directions. What gets you off as a "director"?
I enjoy doing anything that is theoretically impossible, and making it work. I mean, you saw some things on stage that were impossible and didn't even know it. If you saw what that music was that they were playing, if you saw it on paper and realized these guys were out there doing it with choreography and kind of dancing all over the stage that was some of the hardest shit anybody in a symphony orchestra would ever be asked to play. They're dancing around and fucking doing it from memory. There's not an orchestra in the world that could have done that.
It was pretty amazing.
Right. And it looks like, "Hey, we're having a good time." They fucking sweated their nuts off to learn that stuff.
How long did you rehearse?
Two months. Minimum of five days a week. Sometimes six days a week. Minimum of six hours a day and sometimes ten hours a day.
Does it ever happen that you put together a band and they seem like the right guys and then they just can't do it?
Sure, all the time ...
What do you do then?
Fire them. Get another band.
But, obviously that didn't happen with these guys. The bass player was really great too.
Great. He's a great guy. His name is Scott T-h-u-n-e-s. And he's really a great guy. He's twenty-one. The drummer, Chad Wackerman is twenty-one. So is Steve Vai.
You have a sort of policy of not staying with anyone lineup for too long.
Well, that's not my policy. That's just the way it works out: Because a lot oftimes you'll hire somebody who's a great talent and he gets in there and says ... as soon as he says to himself, "I've done one tour and thousands of people have clapped for me while I was out there and it's now time for me to launch my own career." And bingo, they are gone. And so you say, "Great, good bye." Have a nice career. And then we get another guy.
You know, it would seem almost like ... that it's like an indulgence for you, not of yourseif, to perform live with a group because it's so expensive and takes so long to work up.
Well, just so you really understand the mathematics involved, what do you think two months of rehearsal costs?
A quarter of a million dollars. That's before I buy the airplane tickets and pay for the hotels in advance. That comes out of my pocket before I get a nickel from any ticket. That's what I have to invest to make a band sound like that. And I don't think the audience has the slightest idea what that means. I am not funded from the sky. The money that they spend on a ticket this year turns into somebody's salary next year. Or it turns into airplane tickets. It turns into new equipment. I have been telling people I don't stick this up my nose and I don't buy yachts.
But, in a way it would be much cheaper for you to just record and compose and try to get your things done that way.
Yes and no. But, I mean, look - I love music. I love to play. And I enjoy going on stage and improvising a guitar solo. You know, you can't do that at home. You can sit around and noodle on your guitar but it's the instant challenge of going against the laws of physics and the laws of gravity and going on stage and playing something nobody ever heard before. And nobody would dare to play. That's what I like to do. That's . . . I mean, that's sex. It's better than sex. That takes you into a realm of science: And you can't do that sitting at home and you can't do it in the recording studios. It's not the same feeling.
So you don't want to take all of the money that you've made and go out and buy a farm and grow tomatoes?
No. Even though I am an Italian I do not wish to grow tomatoes.
Which brings me back to that thought before .. . you know, everybody is making such a big deal about ... Gee, the Rolling Stones are still actually doing this despite having more money than they know what to do with.
And yet here you are making this .. .I mean, actually in a sense a donation to your audience.
Hey, listen. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the audience. I mean, I would still be off someplace scribbling stuff down that wouldn't be getting played. Unless there was somebody who wanted to hear it and paid money to hear it and bought the records, unless that exists we can't do what we do. You have to understand how the ecology of the whole thing works. It's an eco-system.
A person who buys a ticket makes it possible for the event to occur next year. The person who buys the record makes the next record Possible. If you like it support it. If you don't, it ain't going to be there. That's what it's all about. Because I'm not going to get a Rockefeller grant and the government's not going to send me a check. I'm just a small business operation. You know. It's up to you. You like it, help me do it. Help me pay for it.
What about orchestral projects. I know we talked about this last time but do you have any?
Well, here's the orchestral policy. I have alrady spent as much money as I can to make them happy. I can't spend another nickel. I have already invested too much money trying to make it happen and not one note has been played. Okay? Somebody wants the orchestral music, they pay. They pay for everything including the phone calls. I can't put any more money into it.
Is there anybody interested?
Yes. The Orchestra Nationale of Mexico City wants to do three of my ballets. That's the latest. Do you know about the orchestra in Poland? The Polish Radio Orchestra wants to give a complete concert of all of my orchestra works.
All of them?
All of them.
More than your mouth can hold. The Berlin Festival this August wants to do an evening of music with this orchestra in Czechoslovakia. The Buffalo Symphony wants to do a bunch of stuff in the springtime. All of these are offers that are in and nobody has signed a contract and nobody has finalized it. But that's ... every year there are offers. People call up and say, "Let's do it, let's do it, let's do it." But nobody ever signs on the line. And I'm sitting there holding the fucking bag. I still write the stuff.
You are still writing?
Sure. I wrote three pieces this year. In fact, I am almost finished with a piece that I was writing for Boulez's group because he wanted me to write something for his Ensemble Intercontemporaine in Paris. But that's a small orchestra.
Were you happy with the way the Varese concerts went?
I think that most of the pieces were well played. I think that the way the concert came off was good and it should happen again.
Do you mean, it ought to happen again?
It should, it ought to, yes. Because they didn't play all of his pieces. They didn't play all of the large orchestral works.
It was fairly well attended. Must have done reasonably well.
It did not make a profit. It lost about six or seven thousand dollars. It costs a lot of money to hire all of those musicians, and rehearse them and rent the stuff to do it and payoff the union and all that crap.
I actually thought that you were going to perform at that.
No. I am not qualified to do that. I could have conducted "Ionizations" because I did at rehearsal for awhile. But, it just wasn't . . shouldn't have been a thing for me to perform. I was there to be a host and to help draw people to the concert and I think I did my job.
I was pretty impressed at how the audience, which obviously was largely made up of people that had no clue as to what that sounded like that just came because of you.
And they liked it.
Right. They responded. They were delighted.
Totally quiet while the music was being played. And they liked it.
That was pretty amazing actually. Because they don't get to hear that on the radio.
That's right. And they may never get to hear it again. But, they heard it that time and I think the kids who attended that concert will get their money's worth.
I include myself in that. I got my money's worth, I got the ticket for free. But not that I wouldn't have paid for it.
Who are the best guitarists who you've hired throughout the years.
Who I've hired? I'd say Steve is the best. Period.
In all aspects?
Well, he doesn't play slides. Denny Walley is the only slide guy that I've had. And he was real good. But, he can't do what Steve does.
You never really liked any of your guitar players that much.
Not as soloists. I mean, a lot of times a guitar player will be hired because he can sing. Ii's not that I'm looking to hire vast quantities of decent guitar players. I've never really picked guys as guitar player members of the group. They have always been singers.
How about rhythm players?
Well, the best rhythm player, I think, is Ray. He understands rhythm. And that's one thing that you can't find today is a good rhythm player, because guitar players don't bother to learn any chords. They don't. Everybody wants to go wee, wee, wee all the way home, whammy bar and go ape shit and play all the high screaming notes. Because nobody gets laid from being a rhythm guitar player, you know what I mean?
So nobody learns how to do that. I started off as a rhythm guitar player. I always liked strumming. I learned I a bunch of chords so I had an appreciation for the people who can do that. And there is an art to it. And most people don't think in those terms anymore, everybody wants to be a lead guitar player.
What about your own playing? How do you feel about that now as opposed to what you've done in the past?
I'm playing my ass off. It has definitely improved.
Does it all sort of blend together or is there a level where you are jumping beyond stuff that you ever were capable of.
Well, the funny thing about the way I play is that I never practice. And every time a tour ends and I put my guitar away I usually don't touch it until the next season's rehearsals. And every time I pick it up it's like learning to play all over again, I don't have any callouses, it hurts, I can't bend the string, you know, the guitar feels too heavy when I put it on, I feel awkward holding it. It's like somebody hands you a piece of lumber. And now you are supposed to perform again and I was off-the-road for nine months before this tour. And I didn't hardly play at all, I mean, a couple of times in the studio and that was it. I lost all of my technique, and didn't have any callouses. It was really hard to play.
And so, this tour started and it was with a brand new drummer which usually takes some amount of time adjusting to. And I suddenly found that I didn't have any problem playing, I just went out there on the stage and started blasting away. I have been playing good since the beginning of the tour, and a few nights I've played things that I think are really remarkable even by my own standards, or by my own aesthetic, of what I am trying to do when I play, I think I've exceeded my goals on a couple of nights. I really do.
Can you describe how that feels when you've hit that point?
Well, it's great. You just know that for that point double .00000009% that's out there in the audience that understands what's going on, that person really got the message and the rest of the people say, "Wow, he's playing loud." Whatever they think is going on. "He's going crazy." But, you know, you get to the point where you know you have just said some thing that nobody has ever heard before, that nobody has ever thought of before and there you did it. And on top of that, it's recorded.
And you can play it for somebody later and say, "Would you believe that on such and such a night at such and such a time giving this set of circumstances under these climatic conditions this occurred? I am looking for things that are just unlikely. Rhythmic events that are unlikely. Melodic events that are unlikely. You've already heard all of the good licks that all of the good guitar players play. You've already heard every pentatonic scale there ever was. You have heard all of the chromatic scales there ever was. You've heard the Aeolian mode played with a muted palm of the hand. You have heard all of the nice bent notes. You have heard clean playing, accurate playing. You have heard it all, you know.
I don't give a shit about that stuff. I want to play what's on my mind and I think I succeed when I can directly convert my compositional idea, my instant compositional idea into sound patterns right there on stage on the moment, and if the rest of the band accompanies that properly so that it obviates the musical idea, then I did it. But, that's a lot of variables, because it means that everybody on stage has to hear each other just enough so that it works, and that everybody else's musical imagination and the support function of the rhythm section is tuned into somewhat I'm doing. You don't have any go-for-yourselfers out there. And that's the thing that usually ruins a solo. If a drummer overplays, if the bass player overplays or the keyboard overplays ... if they don't have any sensitivity to what I'm doing or if they aren't smart enough to track the direction that I am going in it's like dragging an anchor.
In fact, I'll point out the way that song, "Watermelon in Easter Hay" got it's name. It's from the statement that playing a solo with this band is like trying to grow a watermelon in Easter hay. And most of the bands that I've had it was like that. It's been just recently where I've had rhythm sections that don't get in my way and let me do what I am going to do. And also guys playing behind me who are fans of what I play. Not just fans of the group or whatever, but they really enjoy listening to what I am capable of doing given optimum circumstances and they get off on it. When you have somebody pushing you like that and working with you to help make a musical event unnatural or unknown or alien or beyond or scientific or whatever, then it's great. So I enjoy that.
So that's where you do ... one of the things I wanted to know before was where you rely on the imagination of the musicians that you hire.
It's a matter of pattern recognition. The faster they can comprehend what the -- do you know what a hemiola is? That's where you play a pattern across a bar or series of bars - the faster they can comprehend what my sub-division is where I am going and what they have to do to make that thing payoff. There was a couple of things that happened I think even on the Friday night show where on one song I played this hemiola that was really complicated over seven bars.
This big monstrosity thing that's ... the time is 4/4 and I am playing something really weird over seven bars and it comes out exactly on the down beat of bar number eight. And the drummer got it exactly right and I waited about twenty bars and did it again, the same type of rhythmic thing came out again.
When you see that stuff on paper that's science fiction. That proves ESP. Guarantees it. There is no other way that you could do something like that, because if you took each part and wrote it out and saw what rhythm was, how else could it have happened? These people have to be reading my mind. I'm not reading theirs because I am not thinking about that, I've got something else to worry about.
That's a really great description of it.
I mean, that beats the shit out of any of those blindfold card tests that they do at the famous universities. You know, you want to prove ESP, get a tape of some of those solos on the road.
So that means the future Shut Up and Play Your Guitar records are going to be real monsters.
I'll tell you what. Without wishing to impinge on the sales of the present Shut Up and Play Your Guitar records, I'll guarantee you the next batch will make them sound like nothing. Because there's more interesting stuff going on right now, I mean, we're really wailing away out there. Also, I expect the sound quality will be better on the next albums too because of my own equipment rather than relying on record equipment.
Do you have particular favorites now that you've got some distance from those three records?
I like "Stucco Homes" and "While You Were Out." I've always kind of liked those ones. And I like . .. I think it's the first Shut Up and Play Your Guitar record. I like "Heavy Duty Judy," I like "Soup and Old Clothes." Those are my favorites.
Why did you include those voice segues?
Because I tried the album . . . I edited it together with no vocal texture in it and I thought it was flat. I think it needed just a vocal distraction to set you up for the next thing, because one solo after another after another with no interruption is, to me it wasn't dynamic enough.
Was that why you had those conversations and weird sounds on "Lumpy Gravy."
No. That was the composition on "Lumpy Gravy." In this case, it just served as punctuation, just to give your ears a chance to stop hearing a fuzz tone for a minute and hear another texture and then it set you up for the next thing. It just, it's structural.
Does it bother you that you are not revered as a great guitarist?
But, I am revered as a great guitarist by at least four or five people. And that's better than none.
What I meant to say is that, you know, where somebody like Eddie Van Halen can become a big star ...
Eddie Van Halen is a good guitar player, you know, he's entitled to all of the adulation that he can acquire. That's great. So, what I am supposed to say? There's a lot of good guitar players out there. I'll guarantee you that I am the only person doing what I am doing, though. Because I don't approach it as a guitar star. I go out there to play compositions. I want to do compositions instantly on the guitar.
I want to take chord change or a harmonic climate and I want to build a composition on the spur of the moment that makes sense, that takes some chances, that goes someplace where nobody else wanted to go, that says things that nobody else wanted to say, that represents my musical personality, that has some emotional content that speaks to the people who want to hear that kind of stuff. And for the ones that don't like guitar stuff at all they can forget it, it will be over in a minute and it will be back to another part of the song. That's what it's all about.
A lot of people can't stand to hear me play the guitar because it's not regular rhythm. You know, everybody wants to tap their foot, when I go crazy, they lose continuity, they can't count it, they can't think it, they can't feel it, so they just totally reject it. They want that nice, safe, straight up and down stuff, and there is tons of it to go around but, just don't come to me for it because I am not the guy to play it for you. I can't play it. I don't know how to play it. I couldn't play straight up and down. It's unnatural to me. I don't even enjoy listening to it. It's not my world. It's like wearing a coat and a tie.
A lot of people have caught up to the sophistication of your musical concept who were completely mystified by it when you first started.
There are some people that have caught up to it to the. point where they can tell that it's music. Where they don't reject it anymore. But whether they have caught up to it to the point where they can comprehend it is a matter for further discussion because I don't think they understand it, I don't think they know why it's done, I don't think they know why it works or how it works. I don't think they want it to work, because if they understood what was really going on, then they would have to reject everything else because I think that what I am doing is the best solution to the musical problems that are set up at the time.
I am going for optimum solutions to musical problems. And I think I am doing it the right way. I am providing good solutions to the empty canvas problem. Okay, I think other people are providing really boring solutions to the empty canvas problem. Really safe, really boring, but entirely competent solutions to the problem. To me, a lot of other people sound like clowns on velvet. You know what I mean?
If you have a piece of black velvet and wanted to solve that problem you'd paint a nice clown on there. You know? Or you do one of those Keane paintings with the children with the large eyes. You know, somebody likes that stuff. And there it is for them. That is not my solution to the empty canvas problem. I am going for something else.