Frank Zappa Talks Music, Money and Steve Vai in His First Guitar World Interview From 1982, Part 2
In part two of Guitar World's first interview with Frank Zappa, he discusses Steve Vai, the high cost of being a band leader and the state of music in 1982.
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.
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