In the last 15 years, the boundaries between various musical genres have all but dissolved. And somewhere along the line, people began realizing that serious music doesn't have to be dealt with as a sacred entity - it can be approached with a sense of fun and irreverence; it can be juxtaposed with other, less valid kinds of music to create startlingly original statements.
Frank Zappa seems to have had this kind of vision all along. From the early days of the Mothers Of Invention in the mid-'60s, Zappa's composing, arranging and performing have embraced any number of styles. And the question of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the sources doesn't seem to apply in Zappa's case. Everything fits into his unique artistic perspective.
After a long spell between releases, Zappa recently presented his public with Zappa In New York. Recorded live late `76, the album features a number of instrumental works that show off the talents of Randy and Mike Brecker, Ronnie Cuber, Tom Malone, Lou Marini and David Samuels, as well as Zappa's `76 touring unit.
For his most recent road trips, Zappa's band has consisted of Zappa and Adrian Belew on guitars, percussionists Terry Bozzio and Ed Mann, bassist Patrick O'Hearn, and Peter Wolf and Tommy Mars on keyboards. As might be expected from the presence of two keyboardists in the band, synthesizers have a lot to do with defining Zappa's current sound. The following interview focuses on that instrument, as well as observations on the state of contemporary music.
Schneckloth: What are you up to now?
Zappa: I've been in the studio doing overdubs on some live material. I like that process because you can get rhythm tracks with live excitement. Then you can go in and add orchestration to them.
Schneckloth: It seem like you've done a lot of live albums over the years.
Zappa: Some of them have been totally live, some have had orchestration added on. Fillmore East was about 90% pure live; Just Another Band From L.A. was 100%. That was a four-track recording right off the p.a. Roxy And Elsewhere had some things that were live, some were overdubbed.
Schneckloth: In the last few years, it seems you've been going away from larger orchestrated things back to a fairly basic rock band format. Is there a conscious reason for that?
Zappa: No, I do whatever I feel like doing. See, all you know about what I've done is what's been released on records. And all you know about that is what you've listened to. Right now, I think there are about 45 albums out that I've made over the last 14 years. Chances are you haven't heard all of that, and that's maybe 50% of what's actually available to be released. I've got orchestra stuff that's been recorded, more elaborate compositions that haven't been released yet. They're just sitting around waiting for a home.
Schneckloth: Do you anticipate releasing it all someday?
Zappa: Oh yeah, I hope so. It's very difficult to do because record companies, in order to protect their investment, try to avoid putting out more than two albums per year on an artist because they want to milk the sales on each release as thoroughly as possible. I think that's a fantasy in my case because we sell so much in catalog. Whether the album becomes a hit when it's first released is irrelevant, because the stuff just keeps selling. People hear about it by word of mouth.
Schneckloth: That's true. Looking through record stores, I notice most of your stuff is still there, even going back to the Verve things. That's unusual.
Zappa: Maybe it's because some of the things that were said on those early albums are things that still remain true today, and there are young people who want to hear that stuff being said. I don't need to repeat myself. If I've already done it once on an album, I don't need to go back and do it again.
Schneckloth: There's a lot of talk about the mellowed-out `70s--how the world's falling asleep. Do you miss anything about the `60s? Was there an urgency to making music then that doesn't exist now?
Zappa: I don't miss the `60s at all. I don't miss anything.
Schneckloth: Things haven't changed that much?
Zappa: Well, they do change, but I feel those changes are external to the way I do things.
Schneckloth: What about your audiences?
Zappa: Oh, they change. They change every season.
Schneckloth: What about your audiences now? Are they more jaded? Do they demand more in the way of entertainment?
Zappa: They're more enthusiastic. They're more alert because there's less acid being used - which is not to say they don't use other things. But the type of drug that is popular with the audience has some bearing on the way in which they perceive things. There was so much acid during the `60s that it was very easy for large numbers of people to think they had seen God as soon as the Beatles went boom, boom, boom, you know? So that particular chemical made a lot of really peculiar things possible in terms of musical sales. And since the status of that drug has been wearing off, and other things are taking its place - notably wine and beer - you have a different kind of audience mentality.
Schneckloth: I would think you've kept a lot of your original audience - people who are around 30 now.
Zappa: Some of them still come to the concerts. But usually they don't, because now that they have wives, kids, mortgages, day jobs and all the rest of that stuff, they don't want to stand around in a hockey rink and be puked on by some 16-year-old who's full of reds. So consequently, our audience gets younger and younger. We've picked up a larger number of female audience participants and there's been an increase in black attendance.
Schneckloth: How do European audiences react to your music?
Zappa: The audience in London is very similar to the audience in L.A. - which is to say, singularly boring and jaded. The audiences in some of the smaller places in Germany are more like East Coast or Midwest audiences - they have a good sense of humor, they like to make a lot of noise, but they're not obnoxious. And then you have you pseudo-intellectual audiences like in Denmark. Paris is a pretty good audience; I'd have to give Paris like a San Francisco rating.
Schneckloth: Maybe one of these days the State Department will ask you to go to the Soviet Union or something.
Zappa: I don't think the State Department is ever going to seek my services. And if I go to the Soviet Union, it won't be for a long time, I'll tell you. I'm not a communist enthusiast.
Schneckloth: As a rock musician, it seems you're carrying on a tradition that you don't hear that much of any more - the long, blues-based guitar solo. Nowadays you don't hear much that's over three minutes.
Zappa: Well, a reason for that is because you only have a certain number of minutes to deal with on an album side and it's a big risk to fill up album grooves with a lengthy solo because they don't all sustain interest.
Schneckloth: It may be getting progressively harder to sustain interest with long things. Maybe it's all caught up in the disco thing - people have to hear things that are concise.
Zappa: I don't care about that stuff. I figure that a person that's buying my record is interested in what I'm doing, okay? And I do him a favor by doing what I FEEL like doing, because then he hears who I am at that moment in time. If they don't like it, fine. If they don't, they can go out and buy another record, I don't care. I don't claim to be a universal entertainer, a man for all seasons...I don't want to run the entire show.
Schneckloth: What are the ramifications of Disco mania?
Zappa: Disco music makes it possible to have disco entertainment centers. Disco entertainment centers make it possible for mellow, laid-back, boring kinds of people to meet each other and reproduce.
Schneckloth: Driving around Los Angeles listening to the AM radio, everything somehow seems more appropriate; it seems to FIT better than in other places-disco, Tom Scott, sax solos, country-rock...
Zappa: Tragic, isn't it? I'm not too much for that laid-back syndrome. That's the kind of music that, if you had to have something piddling away in the background while you did you job, country-rock would be better than clarinet and an accordion and a trombone playing Anniversary Waltz. It's superior to that kind of music for that function. But as a musical statement, it doesn't get me too much.
Schneckloth: You're well known as a satirist of many facets of pop music - things like long, overwritten rock poetry. You used to call it Lizard King poetry. Does that kind of comedy writing come easy for you?
Zappa: Oh yeah, you can crank it out by the yards, man. There's so much negative stimuli to make it happen.
Schneckloth: Do you think you'd make a good gag writer for somebody like Johnny Carson?
Zappa: Gee, do you think he'd stay on TV if I was writing gags for him? Only let's face it, there ARE a lot of things to laugh at. I mean, Lizard King poetry is only scratching the surface. And there are plenty of proponents of pseudo-Lizard King poetry today. I've always felt that poets who decided to pick up a musical instrument and get into the World Of Rock were really not good. There's hardly anybody around that qualifies for the title poet anyway. And when they take it to the extreme of playing an instrument badly and having simplified monotone background so they can recite their dreck over it - I think it's too fake for my taste. But if hearing that kind of music or Lizard King poetry reaffirms your belief in life itself, well, then you're entitled to hear it. I'm glad that it's available for all the people in the world who need it.
Schneckloth: Speaking of humor, I saw you on Saturday Night Live a while back. How did you get Don Pardo to debase himself like that?
[NBC announcer Pardo had assumed the title role in a spirited rendition of Zappa's I'm the Slime.]
Zappa: Debase himself? That's not right. That's really not right. First of all, he has a good sense of humor. Second, he really enjoyed doing that. And thirdly, he actually came to the concerts we played in New York after the show and performed with us live on stage. See, Pardo's never seen on screen on that show. He's never been seen. The man has been working there for 30 years and nobody knows what he looks like. So I thought, fantastic, let's bring Don Pardo live out on stage and let the world see him. We got him a white tuxedo; he did some narration for some of the songs we were doing; we brought him out to sing I'm The Slime. And the audience loved him...the highlight of his career. He's a nice guy; I really like him. And I don't think it was debasing at all. It was giving him an opportunity to expand in OTHER REALMS.
Schneckloth: I was using the term ...
Zappa: Facetiously? Facetiousness hardly ever translates onto print.
Schneckloth: How do your bands come together? Is there an element of accident?
Zappa: Well, I found a lot of people just by going into bars and seeing bar bands. I'll find one guy out of a band that sounds good to me, get his name and address, and when I have an opening for that instrument, I'll get in touch with him, bring him to California and have him audition. Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don't.
Schneckloth: What kinds of things do you look for?
Zappa: A combination of skill and attitude.
Schneckloth: Does a person have to know how to read to be in your band?
Zappa: It always helps. The main thing a person has to have is very fast pattern recognition and information storage capability. That's because we play like a two, two-and-a-half hour show non-stop with everything organized. There are solos, and those are improvised. But the sequence of events is planned out so that the show is tight and the audience doesn't have to sit around and wait for something to happen. So it requires a lot of memorization - fast memorization. You can't spend a year teaching somebody a show. With the band that I've had on the road for the past two tours, we spent three months, five days a week, six hours a day memorizing it and getting it just right. Now that's a very expensive investment, because it's $13,250 a week for rehearsals - we rehearse with full equipment, full crew and a sound-stage. So I prefer people who learn fast.
Schneckloth: There was a time when you had to adjust your writing to the capabilities of your players.
Zappa: I still do.
Schneckloth: You mean there are times when you'd like to write some things that are so complex that you can't get anybody to play them on tour?
Zappa: Every day. I'll tell you, the kind of musicians I need for the bands that I have doesn't exist. I need somebody who understands polyrhythms, has good enough execution on the instrument to play all kinds of styles, understands staging, understands rhythm and blues, and understands how a lot of different composition techniques function. When I give him a part, he should know how it works in the mix with all the other parts. You'd be surprised how many people who have chops in one department are completely deficient in others.
Schneckloth: Maybe one of the difficulties with performing your music is the surprise factor - different sound, different instrumentations, different rhythms come at the listener in abrupt shifts.
Zappa: See, that's only unusual if you're accustomed to music that's boring and bland and all the same color. That's not the way music should be, I feel. What to you is an abrupt shift is functional orchestration to me. If you change the color of the instrumentation that's playing a certain part of a line, it changes the emotional value of the line; it changes its relative importance.
Schneckloth: Leading into the subject of synthesizers, does it get harder to find sounds that will surprise, sounds that aren't bland?
Zappa: Absolutely not. That surface hasn't even been scratched yet. Without even touching a synthesizer, there are so many things you can make with normal instruments, and in a diatonic context. There are so many people who are dashing away from diatonic music in order to give the appearance of being modern - which I think is a waste of time.
Schneckloth: Do you write specifically with synthesizers in mind?
Zappa: I have. I've developed different types of notation that accommodate the different things that synthesizers can do - like parallel chord tracking and things like that. There are ways of indicating what kind of parallel chord the thing is going to track. Then you can just add a little inscription at the head of the bar, kind of like a key signature. Next, you write a single line, and, if the guy sets his synthesizer up right, that single line will yield parallel chords tracking around. So it saves you a lot of writing on paper.
Schneckloth: How do you arrive at the synthesizer sounds you want?
Zappa: Well, obviously the best way to deal with music is according to your own ear and your own personal taste. And since most synthesizers that people work with are production models off the assembly line, and there are slight differences in the way the settings of the knobs respond, if you're a composer and you're writing out a complete description of what all the knobs are supposed to be set at, chances are that you won't get the exact same result each time from instrument to instrument. It's just because of different things about the parts. So the first thing you have to know is how to talk to the synthesizer player. If you're a composer or arranger and you want to use the synthesizer, you have to know all the basic language of what the instrument is dealing with. You have to know what an oscillator is; you have to know what a filter is; you have to know what an envelope is; and all the rest of that stuff. So when you tell the guy, No, that's wrong, I want more of THIS, you're not telling him in romantic terms, you're saying, "Give me more frequency modulation" or "Open your filter up to make it brighter". Just so you can communicate with the people who play the instruments. The way I learned was by buying an ARP 2600, getting the manual, and just sitting around and piddling with it. Then I got a mini-Moog and a lot of other kinds of synthesizers and got my own hands on them, even though I'm not a keyboard player. I was just familiarizing myself with them.
Schneckloth: I understand the percussionists in your band are using drum synthesizers.
Zappa: That's very true. Not only do we use them as drums, we use them as synthesizers. We started doing something on the last tour that I think Pollard [manufacturer of the Syndrum] is going to be pretty thrilled about when he hears it. Terry Bozzio got to be very good with the Syndrum - he can control them fantastically well and still be playing his set. He can reach over and change the setting and still keep time. For some of the things we were doing, if you put the sustain on the Syndrum up to a very long time, you can hit it and get like a constant pitch coming out. And if you move the little knob, you can play tunes on it. So I had chorales between the two keyboard players and the two Syndrums and the bass. All I did was conduct a downbeat, and anybody could hit any note they wanted on that downbeat. And every time I'd conduct a beat, they'd pick another note. The results were fantastic.
Schneckloth: How about the guitar synthesizers? Have you tried those?
Zappa: Yeah. The problem with guitar synthesizers, versus me, is the way I play. There's so much left hand business going on, and the synthesizer is more interested in what's happening with the pick. In order for the synthesizer to track what you're playing, it prefers to see one string, with nothing else being held or rattling, neatly picked so that the note just comes right out. Then the synthesizer can make up its mind and play the note for you. But the faster you play, and the more pull-off, hammer-on stuff you do with the left hand, the harder it is for the synthesizer to track you...It requires a more legitimate guitar technique... I'm not adverse to guitar synthesizers. I think the idea is good, but, to me, it's not going to be a practical musical thing to deal with until the synthesizer will play exactly what you're playing and not just give you a hint of it - so that the synthesizer won't get in the way of your style. Right now, it's kind of like the tail wagging the dog, because you have to slow yourself down and play in a different way in order to make the thing talk.
Schneckloth: Have you ever used a really large synthesizer setup in the studio?
Zappa: I've got one, but I've never used it in the studio. It's an EU, and it's about a $50,000 system. It's got a computer and all that stuff. I don't have it set up; it's in storage. Stevie Wonder called the office the other day wanting to rent it.
Schneckloth: How much work is involved in setting it up?
Zappa: It requires a technician. It's fairly easy to set it up and put it all together. It's portable; it was designed to be taken on the road. But there's so many modules and stuff built into it that I prefer to have someone who is conversant with the electronic ins and outs of it set it up for me and tell the keyboard player what to do with it. I have enough to worry about with the console without having to worry about the synthesizer. It's got 14 oscillators or something like that.
Schneckloth: What other kinds of keyboard synthesizers do you tour with?
Zappa: For the last U.S. tour we had a very elaborate set up. We had two players and each had about eight instruments. Peter Wolf was playing a Rhodes, and Electrocomp, a mini-Moog, the EU, a Clavinet, an ARP 2600, and a Yamaha Electric Grand. Tommy Mars had a Hammond, a Yamaha Electric Grand, an Electrocomp, and ARP String Synthesizer, a Clavinet and a Roland.
Schneckloth: When you get all that stuff together, it seems like the arranging problems would be really complex.
Zappa: It doesn't make the problems complex, no. It gives you more latitude. But it makes the performance a little bit more difficult. The more things there are to stick your hands on, the more wires there are to get out of whack when you set it up every day.
Schneckloth: There are those who take a somewhat snobbish view of synthesizer playing. They feel that a person really has to know exactly what's happening electronically with the instrument in order to be a truly good synthesizer player.
Zappa: A guy's got to start somewhere. You've got to mess around with it. Even if you think you know how they work, there's always a chance that you'll come up with something new just by doing a dumb experiment. Remember: dumbness is the American way. Dumbness has created more progress for this country - just from people saying, Well, I really don't know what's going on here, but let's try this. And then they come up with something great. The best example of that is Thomas Edison. You know about the filament in the electric light bulb, don't you? He'd tried everything until he finally said, I'd be willing to try a piece of dental floss with some cheese on it if I thought it would work.
Schneckloth: What about those who feel that synthesizer, and electric instruments in general, somehow detract from the humanity of the music being played?
Zappa: Let me tell you something about that kind of thinking. People who worry about that are worried about their own image as a person performing on the instrument. In other words, the instrument is merely a subterfuge in order for the musician to communicate his own personal, succulent grandeur to the audience - which to me is a disservice to the music as an art form. It's the ego of the performer transcending the instrument. Now when you start talking about humanity - who cares about that? If you're going to play music, I think the music is important. And I think the guys that say this makes it less human aren't really talking about the feel of the music, they're talking about something that's going to get in the way of the audience understanding how swell they are. You've seen soloists get up there - they're not playing music, they're playing their egos out. And there are whole bands of people who get together to do nothing but explain to the audience through their instruments how fabulous they are. Well, who gives a shit? I don't want to go and see somebody's deep inner hurt in a live performance. I don't want to hear their personal turmoil on a record, either. I like music.
Schneckloth: Can't it be a moving thing to hear somebody express his soul through, say, a very sad-sounding trumpet solo?
Zappa: I don't care about souls; that's the Maharishi's department. See, I take a real cold view about that stuff. I think that music works because of psycho-acoustical things - like the way in which a line will interact with the harmonic climate that's backing it up. And all the rest of it is subjective on behalf of the listener. Maybe you WANTED to hear a sad trumpet solo, but it wouldn't be sad unless the notes he was playing were interacting in a certain way against the background. The best test is: if it was a 24-track recording, take the same trumpet solo, change the chord progression behind it, and see if it sounds sad any more. People see and hear what they want to see and hear. If you're in the mood, or have a deep, personal need for sad music or soul-searching or sensitivity in that stuff, you'll find it wherever it is. You'll go into an art gallery and be totally amazed by the things you see, whereas I might go into the gallery and go hah? This is a gross example, but say a person buys a Kiss album and listens to it and has a moving experience from it. I mean, are they wrong?
Schneckloth: Well, people go crazy at their concerts, and that may be understandable.
Zappa: I'm not talking about their concerts. Take the fire bombs away, take the blood capsules and the rest of that stuff away. Just listen to the record. There are people who listen to the records and get off on them.
Schneckloth: Speaking of that band, you once said, Americans hate music, but they love entertainment.
Zappa: You want me to explain that to you?
Schneckloth: Yeah, if you would.
Zappa: Sure. The reason they hate music is that they've never stopped to listen to what the musical content is because they're so befuddled by the packaging and merchandising that surround the musical material they've been induced to buy. There's so much peripheral stuff that helps them make their analysis of what the music is. Here's the simplest example: Take any record, stick it in a white jacket and hand it to somebody and let him listen to it. The next day, hand him the same record with a real album cover - with a picture and some type on the back that gives him some key to what the music is. The results are completely different. The way in which the material is presented is equally important as what's on the record. It's the GARNI DU JOUR way of life. You go buy a hamburger. If somebody gives you a hamburger on a dish, it means one thing. If somebody gives you a hamburger on a dish with a piece of green stuff and a wrinkled carrot and a radish - even though you don't eat that stuff - it's a Deluxe Hamburger. It's the same piece of dog meat on the inside, but one's got the GARNI DU JOUR. Americans have become accustomed to having a GARNI DU JOUR on everything... Maybe the world is moving too fast for this now, but in the old days, you used to be able to go to a record store and listen to the record before you bought it. You can't do that now, and that's been one of the major factors in the type of merchandising we have in music today.
Schneckloth: Over the years you've managed to turn the system to your advantage. To what do you attribute you longevity in the music business?
Zappa: What do you attribute Stravinsky's longevity in the music business to? He didn't want to stop composing. I'm just using that as an example; I'm not comparing myself to Stravinsky in any other way. I'm just saying that if a person wants to write music, he's going to do it whether he's getting performances or not, and that's the attitude I take. I started off putting a band together because I wrote music and I wanted to hear it and nobody else would play it.
Schneckloth: On the subject of performing, you've always been underrated as a rock guitar player. I guess you'd call it a blues-based style, but it's very original and distinctive.
Zappa: The basis of that kind of music is derived just as much from Eastern music as it is from the blues.
Schneckloth: Where does it come from?
Zappa: I think it's just natural to me. Part of the Eastern influence is like Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian kinds of sounds as well as Indian sounds.
Schneckloth: Have the various composers who have influenced your writing had any effect on your guitar style?
Zappa: Well, I think that if there's anything from the composers I like that's incorporated in my guitar playing, it's Stravinsky's idea of economy of means, because I'll take just a few notes and change the rhythm. If you want to look at it in purely scientific terms, you have a chord that tells you where you harmonic climate is - where the event is taking place. The chord is like the establishing shot in a movie - where you see the exterior of the building, or the alley with the garbage cans. It tells you where it's happening. Then the action takes place. So you have a chord, and you have three notes that provide certain types of emotional activity versus the chord. And that emotional activity is redefined every time you change the order of the notes and the space in between the notes. That's the kind of stuff I'm dealing with. When you listen to the thing in continuity, it sounds like there's a line going on and there's something happening. But what's really happening in the solo is this: for each harmonic climate that's presented, there are experiments being conducted, in real time, with different notes and weights and measures of those different notes, versus the climate. And every time you change the position of the note, it has a different impact. That's especially true of bent notes.
Schneckloth: Do you still get an exhilaration from playing live? Does it make the whole thing worthwhile?
Zappa: It's the greatest thing there is. As a matter of fact, it is the ONLY thing that makes it worthwhile. Some of the drudgery you have to go through on the road is so boring. And once you get a chance to do that...I wouldn't even care if there wasn't an audience there. It's just that you've got all the equipment set up, the musicians are there and paid for, the lights are on, it's just the right temperature, the stage is the right color, it's the right mood. And then you play, and you can create things right there. And fortunately, there are cassettes of it so you have a chance to hear it back later and see if your experiments were successful or what. That's one of the prime reasons for me going out on the road and touring.
Schneckloth: Do you think of yourself primarily as a guitar player then?
Zappa: No, I think of myself as a composer who happens to have the guitar as his main instrument. Most composers used to play the piano. Well, I'm not a piano player, so obviously, because of the technical limitations of the guitar versus the piano - in terms of multiple notes and so on - the stuff I write is determined by my interest in the guitar. And consequently, it provides difficulties for other instruments. If I hear something in my head that's guitar based - blends, and stuff like that - a lot of times, those things can't be executed on other instruments. So it provides a slight element of frustration when you hear your lines played on instruments other than what they were intended to be played on.
Schneckloth: As far as the technical limitations of the guitar are concerned, with the electric guitar today, it seems you can do almost anything - legato stuff and so on.
Zappa: With feed back and sustain you can do some really beautiful legato stuff which wasn't possible before heavy amplification. In the earliest days of electric guitar playing, first you had the advantage of being heard at the same volume as the saxophone player. Then came fuzz, which gave you a chance to add a different emotional slant to your notes. In other words, a C note played clean is different from a C note played with fuzztone. It means two different things. One of them is wearing little white gloves and the other one has brass knuckles on.
Schneckloth: When you visualize it, it's the difference between a thin straight line and a thick, jagged one.
Zappa: Yes, it occupies more space. And when you get right down to it, what is music, really? Did you ever stop to think about what's really going on? Here's my theory. First of all, music functions in the time domain - there's decor and the time domain. That's the canvas you paint on when you're working with music. Another distinction: written music is to real music what a recipe is to real food. You can't listen to music on a piece of paper and you can't eat a recipe, so I put them both into the same category. And once the music comes off the paper and goes into the air, what you're literally doing is making a sculpture with the air, because your ear is detecting the perturbations in the air. It's decoding the way the air has been shaken by the different instruments. So the duration of your piece occupies a space of time - that's your canvas. And the medium you're working in is the air. So no matter what you play, you have to be consciously aware that it is not just a note. It is an impulse which is going to alter the shape of the air space, which in turn is going to be detected by the human ear. Now, you compound the misery when you start dealing with recorded material, because usually the material, if you're doing it in a studio, is being recorded in a very unimpressive air space. It's blank, dead, uninteresting. All the reverberation is being added electronically. Furthermore, the person who finally listens to the piece is going to be listening to it on equipment that is not quite as spectacular as the stuff in the studio. So you have to rely on the efficiency of the home speaker to create your air sculpture live in person for the listener.
Schneckloth: That must get frustrating.
Zappa: Well, you know that the guy sitting in his house is never going to hear the sculpture the way it was designed, because most home units can't reproduce the top and bottom end the way they're supposed to be. All you're giving them is the mid-range. And there are also problems with disc recording. Discs can't reproduce everything you can get on a tape. And neither disc nor tape can give the listener the dynamic range you get in a live performance. I mean, you can turn the record up so it's loud, turn the bass up so it's beating on your chest, but it's not the same thing as sitting in a hockey rink and listening to an immense mass of air being shaped and moved around by heavy amplification. So what if there's a lot of echo? I like to play in hockey rinks.
Schneckloth: Don't they present a lot of problems?
Zappa: The problem about playing hockey rinks is that sometimes it's hard to hear the words. If you're word oriented, okay, that's tough. But that air space you have in there is such a great thing to work with - it's this huge tonnage of air. And when you go wham and hit a big chord, you've taken ALL THAT and spewed it over 15,000 people.
Schneckloth: That must be quite a feeling of power.
Zappa: It's not just a feeling of power. If you want to play really soft, think how soft one note is diluted in the air space of a 15,000 seat hockey rink. That's REALLY SOFT. And one note played really loud is REALLY loud. So the dynamic range in a place like that - softest note versus the loudest note, the top to bottom of your sculpture - with the right equipment, gives you a chance to do a more interesting and complicated sound event. Forget about whether it's a song or a drum beat or a scream on the microphone or whatever it is - those are sounds that are moving air around. Taken in the purest abstract sense, the opportunities in a large, enclosed, resonant place like that are very interesting.
Schneckloth: People still complain about those places though. I don't know if they're looking for intimacy, or what.
Zappa: That's because people have different desires when they go to a concert. The prime desire of the concert-goer is to see the person that they bought the ticket for reproduce the record they have at home. In other words, they want a human juke box; they want that replica. And they're never going to get it, not in a place like that, anyhow.
Schneckloth: Do you think the high amplification thing can be overdone?
Zappa: No, I think it's necessary, it really is. It's not just because it makes it louder, but if you have all that wattage, you don't have to run the thing at full blast, which gives you more head room and you get cleaner sound.
Schneckloth: How much work is involved in moving all that sound reinforcement equipment around?
Zappa: In the U.S. we use two 45-foot trucks and a 22. In Europe we were using two 40s. For every person on stage playing an instrument, there are two other guys in the crew. There's seven people in the band, 21 total traveling. And they all work. There are no traveling hangers-on. It's not like the Grateful Dead tour or something like that.
Schneckloth: I've seen you take your sound checks right up to the performance. The audience is already seated, and you're still working away at getting the sound right.
Zappa: Sometimes the trucks get held up and you can't have it all set up and waiting when the audience gets there. So you have to make a choice - are you going to be a star or are you going to play music? Some groups don't even do a sound check. We do one every day.
Schneckloth: Getting back to performing, how conscious are you of the outrageousness factor in your music?
Zappa: Wait a minute, let's examine what outrageous is. That means something deviates so far from the normal contemporary accepted standard that it appears outrageous. Well, after Watergate - finding out that the President of the United States may be a crook...I mean, what's outrageous? Is it outrageous to go on stage in a funny costume and spit foaming blood capsules all over the stage? Well, that's what people think is outrageous.
Schneckloth: It's all entertainment anyway.
Zappa: So you have to assume that Watergate was the finest entertainment America had to offer. I think the President we have now is not exactly of Watergate stature but will ultimately provide a certain amount of entertainment for the history books. The thing that marketed him in was the more-wholesome-than-thou attitude, and I don't believe people like that exist. ... You have this desire among the American people to find something nice. So anybody that is personally clean-looking and smiles a lot can get away with murder. It's the GARNI DU JOUR. It's equally true of the jazz world. The whole jazz syndrome is smothered in GARNI DU JOUR. People who really have very little to say on their instrument and have built their reputation on one or two albums have wound up forming and reforming into super groups to produce jam session albums of little merit other than very fast pentatonic performance...
Schneckloth: The whole fusion thing - is that a dead end?
Zappa: Well, first of all, in order to be fusion, in order to match that marketing concept of what people think of as fusion - it has to SOUND fusion. This has little to do with whether of not it's actually fusing anything together. It just means that the keyboard player has to sound like Jan Hammer, the guitar player, drummer and bass player all have to play in a certain vein. And after each guy has molded himself into that certain syndrome, then the whole musical event that they perform has to be further molded into the syndrome. So what have you got? Nothing. It's wank music. The problem is that people then start looking down their noses at three-chord music or one-chord music or two-chord music. And with fusion music, what do you have? Some of it is three-chord music, it's just that the chords have more partials in them. Instead of being one, four, five, they're playing one two flat seven or some other simple progression that allows them to run a series of easily recognizable patterns over it. It's all mechanical. See, part of the problem is the way in which consumers use music to reinforce their idea of what their lifestyle is. People who think of themselves as young moderns, upwardly mobile, go for the fusion or disco - that slick, cleaned-up, precise, mechanical kind of music. And they tend to dislike everything else because it doesn't have its hair combed. Three-chord fuzztone music is not exactly the kind of thing that you'd expect a young executive to be interested in. He wants something that sounds like it might be really good to listen to riding around in a Maserati. So ultimately, that cheapens the music and whatever the musicians have done. ... But like I said, it's a good thing that all that music is there for all those people. Because without it, their lifestyle would lack something.
© Tim Schneckloth and Down Beat Magazine - May 1978