A Conversation With Frank Zappa
(Scant days before the 1988 presidential election, I had the good fortune to interview Frank Zappa at his home in the Hollywood Hills. He had just released his strongly political Broadway The Hard Way album; his classic back catalog was in the process of being reissued by Rykodisc; and a new series of double-CD projects called You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore were being rolled out as we spoke. Between his Barking Pumpkin record label, his Honker Home Video line, and his 818 PUMPKIN mail-order company, Zappa (who’d recently won his first Grammy for his Jazz From Hell) was all over the place in the very best sense. Unquestioned highlight of the interview–which was quite lengthy–was his taking me downstairs into his enormous master tape vault, filled with shelves of thousands of reel-to-reel tapes bearing labels like “Pomona 1966” and much more. Absolutely unbelievable. -dd)
You’ve just released a new album, Broadway The Hard Way, and at the same time, Rykodisc is reissuing your earliest material on CD. Do you hold that older material to be equally as relevant as your latest work?
Yes and no. I don’t like to listen to most of it. It’s been remastered and prepared for the consumption of those people who find it charming and want to own it. Because if I didn’t remaster it and put it out, the people who want to own it are going to be paying like $100 a whack for the Freak Out album at some little store. Or somebody is going to pirate it. And there’s a number of pirated releases that were made by some stinkers in Milan, who just photographed old jackets, remastered off the vinyl, and all over Europe you could find pirated, counterfeit versions of We’re Only In It For The Money, Lumpy Gravy and stuff like that. So there is a market for the material, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be in the marketplace, if people want to listen to it. I’m far more interested in the stuff I’m working on now, but my business is a catalog business. Since I don’t get big-blast exposure on radio or television–where all of a sudden people will find out that I do something that they might like–they find out about it accidentally over a long period of time. And so part of my job is, at the point where they find out about it and they figure they like it, I have to do something to make it available to them–the whole spectrum of what it is. It’s kind of a unique situation.
Do you own most of your masters?
I own my masters, except for 200 Motels and the Boulez album, and I expect to be getting the rights to the Boulez album after the first of the year. The contracts were written in such a way a long time ago that after a certain period of years, the rights to the masters reverted.
The Ryko reissues of We’re Only In It For The Money and Ruben And The Jets featured some current-day “modernizing,” I noticed, apparently because of some issues with the original masters. Did you consider finding a second generation of the master and reissuing the disc without that overdubbing?
Well, anybody who is at that level of consumption, that verges on fetishism, would insist that it be absolutely exactly what was on the original thing–and probably is already in possession of an expensive $100 version from an old record store. I think that it’s more important since, to my mind, whether you like it or not, the material is the important thing that’s on the album. Not the aura, not the fetishist’s prestige of it. In the case of We’re Only In It For The Money, I happen to like that material. I think that it deserved much better production than it received at that time in history when you had only a certain number of hours to make the album, and we were using a prototype eight-track machine to record it. So why not do what you can to spiff up this particular batch of material? The same thing with Ruben And The Jets. But those are the only two I’ve overdubbed on.
Is there anything in your catalog you would prefer not be reissued?
Eventually, I’d like to have it all out on CD.
What about that material that Warner Brother put out against your wishes?
I have the masters, but they would be very low on a list of priorities of what to put into the marketplace. In fact, it was the release of those albums that generated the lawsuit between Warners and myself. And there are two ways to go about re-releasing that material. One way is to put it out under the separate titles the way Warners did–Orchestral Favorites, Sleep Dirt, Studio Tan–and the other way is to put the whole batch together into a package the way I had originally edited it, into an album called Lather. And I haven’t decided which way I’m finally going to make it available.
Broadway The Hard Way is a rather direct album.
It’s real blatant. And the downside of it being that blatant is it has a very short shelf life. Because until, let’s say, Pat Robertson decides to run again in 1992, who’s going to care about what those lyrics are? Certain truths will be continuous throughout the years–I doubt whether we’re going to get a change of heart in the Republican Party anytime soon. I think that they’re sufficiently polluted with this involvement with the Fundamentalist Right to give them some things that they’re going to regret in future years. I think that the leaders
hip of the Republican Party that chose to make the alliance with the Fundamentalists literally sold out all other Republicans who have a more practical view of the real world. The blending of religion and politics–you can see the result of that in Iran. If you want Iran, just keep mixing the politics with religion.That’s what you’re going to get. So yeah, I took a chance in pinning it down to real names and real places. There’s no vague generalities here–this is about that. And I really had to scuffle to get the album out in time for the election. It was very difficult to do it.
Aesthetically, do you see a stylistic schism developing between, say, pure music–as in Jazz From Hell–and a sort of musical “journalism,” as in Broadway The Hard Way?
Well, let’s examine the reality of the situation. You as a person listening are totally on the outside of the situation. All you know is what gets released. So except during this one blast of work–where I was concentrating all my energy just on that batch of material, to get it out on that one target date–all the rest of the time that I’m working on music, it’s on the Synclavier. So the bulk of what I do resembles more closely what’s happening on Jazz From Hell than it does this new one. So when Jazz From Hell was released, in spite of the fact that it got a Grammy���squatting right over there (points to Grammy statuette)–it never got played on the radio. In fact, I’m horrified that the thing was nominated and that it won. I don’t know how anybody ever found out about that album. It’s a great album, but nobody ever heard it. Now if you’re talking about “pure music,” who’s going to broadcast this pure music? How is a person going to discover that such pure music exists? The fact is they won’t–because American broadcasting has virtually extracted me from any possibility of airplay. There are certain stations that are going to play certain cuts from this album, just because it’s going to be part of their format, and it’s timely for their location. There’s a station in Chicago that went crazy over it, a few others. A station in Providence is going to be playing it, because “The Untouchables” was recorded there in Providence. Little exceptions like that. But in general, I can’t imagine that this album is going to get any vast radio recognition. Jazz From Hell certainly didn’t, and in the case of Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention, the thing that came out in 1985, with the stuff about the PMRC, I know for a fact that at KROQ in Los Angeles, the boss of the place, before the album was even released, sent a memo to all the DJs saying under no circumstances play the Zappa record. He hadn’t even heard it, he didn’t even know what was on it. But the memo was circulated.
What was his rationale? Obscenity?
How can you have a rationale for that? This is fear–the only rationale is fear. This is a guy who, no matter what I’m saying, if it has anything to do with a politician, he don’t want to have any part of it. This is a guy thinking to himself he’s being prudent and protecting his license. So it’s got nothing to do with the content of the record; he hadn’t even heard the record. There’s nothing obscene on the record.
Do you think that with Barking Pumpkin Records, you’ve in some ways removed yourself from the industry promotion machine?
Well, let’s examine what promotion really amounts to. You can virtually guarantee yourself a spot on the charts if you pay for it. You know it, I know it, OK? Same thing with advertising space–the more space you buy, the more column inches you’re gonna get. In the ’70s, when the shit was really ripe���when the corporate rock syndrome was really ripe–all the supposed critics who supposedly made a difference in the supposed world of rock ‘n’ roll were being wined and dined and coked and getting blow jobs and flown around, and people were getting great reviews out of this, and stars were made through this traditional kind of pseudo-criminal activity. And then the bottom falls out of the industry and these guys don’t get junkets anymore. So you would think that maybe there would be a return to reality���no, that didn’t happen. That disease was replaced with MTV. MTV is the vehicle by which rock ‘n’ roll has been made as real as wrestling–it’s as simple as that. Everything has been made so fucking fake. Now if you say I have removed myself from the promotional machinery–you bet your ass. Because I don’t want to participate in that. If I decide to buy an ad, you know I’m going to design the ad. And basically, all I’m asking from the publication is to make sure the color is right when it goes in and put it in the spot that I bought. We very seldom advertise–and still manage to sell enough records to stay in business without bending over and doing the sleazoid stuff that everybody else does. I’m proud of that.
What was your goal in setting up Barking Pumpkin?
For those of you who don’t know, Barking Pumpkin is distributed by Capitol, and we’ve had a good relationshipwith them. We pay Capitol to press it, ship it, and collect from the retailers and distributors. That’s the business arrangement–they do no promotion for us, they don’t have any input into the contents of the album, they have no say-so about what’s on the tape. In the past, the various other deals I’ve had–sub-label deals, artist deals with various companies- -you have to wade through the apathy and sometimes antagonism that exists at the middle-management and executive level in these companies. Because they have virtually no time for a person such as myself. They have more important things to think about.
You’re talking about Bizarre and DiscReet?
Bizarre was a sub-label deal. When Bizarre Records went out, they had a Reprise logo on them. Straight was a total independent with independent distribution. It failed because
the independents that we were dealing with all across the country refused to pay on their 90-day accounts, and we had no muscle to collect from them. Which is one of the reasons why a small label goes with a major for distribution. It’s very difficult to collect. You get into a position where you’ve delivered the goods, it’s been shipped out, they have 90 days to pay you and they don’t pay you–they tell you to fuck off. So your choice is, you either eat it, or you have to sue them in that state, under the laws of the state. And civil law being what it is in the United States, that’s five years waiting for a day in court. So it’s very tricky to work without somebody who can collect for you. DiscReet was an independent label deal–it did not have a Reprise logo on it. I think there was a small credit line on the label that said “distributed by” Warners, but it was one step up in terms of responsibility for our office from what the Bizarre deal was. From an A&R standpoint, the deal with Warner Brothers was they provided an overhead budget to operate the office, and they provided a certain amount of money for the production of new artists, OK? One of the reasons why they would invest in such a thing is because they wound up making an awful lot of money off of a group called Alice Cooper, which began on Straight. And I can imagine if Alice Cooper had gone directly to Warner Brothers and tried to get a contract, they would have been out the door in about 15 seconds. So perhaps it’s fantasy, but I must assume the reason that they would enter into that aspect of the DiscReet deal was because they figured I knew what they didn’t know. Which probably remains true today. It’s almost like, “Oh God–we’ve got to release Zappa’s records?” “Yeah, but if he gets lucky, we’ll get another Alice Cooper.” “OK, we’ll put up with him.” That’s the kind of shit you have to deal with.
And what was the situation with Zappa Records?
That was distributed through PolyGram, and that was a similar type of arrangement that we have with Capitol.
Ryko was interesting, because at the time that Ryko knocked at the door, I had been literally groveling at the feet of EMI, which was my label outside the United States, to please put my work on CD. They literally refused to do it. They had more important things to worry about, and they refused to do it. So here comes Rykodisk and they’re interested in putting the stuff on CD, so I said, “OK, let’s go,” and then, as soon as Ryko puts it out, then and only then did EMI go, “Oh my God–it’s selling, what are we going to do?” And then they scrambled to put some stuff out. And then there was a big argument with them about the timing of doing this. I wasn’t really quite sure that they had the rights to do what they did. There has been some discussion with them.
The international affiliation resulted in two different versions of your Mothers Of Prevention album.
The reason I changed it for Europe was because 12 minutes of the US version was about the PMRC. Now today–we just did two months in Europe on this world tour–and they’re very well aware of what happened in Washington at that time. But in 1985, they weren’t. I made a decision that if I put this on there, nobody was going to know what I was talking about. Today they do, because it’s festered for three years. And the CD version of it has all of it—everything that was on the US version, and everything that was on the European version.
Where do you make the priorities, and who makes the decision to prioritize what?
I know roughly when I would like to have things come out. The timing for this record was obvious, and I busted my chops to make this deadline. As far as You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore goes, that’s planned to be six double-CDs. And the order in which the compilations come out, I have a certain amount of flexibility. The volume of material that I need to go through to compile it is unbelievable. I mean, I’ve got tapes in my vault that I’ve never even listened to before. And lurking in that stuff might be a great thing to stick in that compilation. And we mix every day–(Zappa points to a wall) that whole wall there is mixes that are full of You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore. From this tour alone, there’s nineteen-hundred-and-some tunes that were recorded 48-track digital, and we’re mixing that stuff right now. And it is some of the best live performances that I’ve ever been connected with. And so I’ve been thinking about how to restructure the discs that haven’t come out yet to include more of that. And after I finished working on Broadway The Hard Way, I went back and started rebuilding some of the CD masters for that set. And I think I’ve made some great improvements on them. I could’ve just said “OK, it’s wrapped” before I went out on this tour, but I didn’t. Because I knew that there was going to be something spectacular from this tour, and I was totally right.
Aren’t you the kind of guy who thinks his new stuff is always better than his old stuff?
One of the ways in which you can tell whether or not I’m full of shit is to listen to the CD, because you will hear the comparison between the old band and the new band. You tell me. I think part of it is subjective, but part of it is a very realistic evaluation of the level of musicianship, the quality of the recording, the spirit of the performance, the response of the audience, the stuff from the ’88 tour–and if you would even look at the reviews that this band got all over the world, this is like the rave band.
I understand that your group’s first digital recording was back in 1980.
Audiophiles are an interesting species–because I’ve actually heard the argument that people prefer the sound of vinyl. I consider myself to be an audiophile–I hate noise, I hate noise. I hate unwanted artifacts on the tape. And whatever the audio limitations of digits might be, I am not so crazy to say I prefer vinyl. There are magazines in England that cater to the whims of those audiophiles, you know what I’m talking about? People seriously debate, “Everything sounds better on vinyl, you can’t beat a good vinyl pressing.” Well you sure can beat a good vinyl pressing–you can.
Tell me about what you do with the Synclavier.
What you do on the Synclavier is a totally different kind of music from what you do with human beings. And I know that. And you should never expect a Synclavier to do what a band does, and you should never expect human beings to do what Synclavier does. Never the twain shall meet.
What can a Synclavier do than human beings can’t do?
They can put the eyebrows on it instantaneously. They can do nuances and shadings in live performance that you might, if you had enough time and enough energy, type in enough numbers into the Synclavier to put that kind of nuance into your piece, but it’s prohibitive. In conducting a live band, just from moving the stick another way, you’re going to get some special little twist in the performance. And then there’s the obvious difference that no matter how good your samples are on the Synclavier, when the thing plays back, what you’re hearing, even an optimized mix situation, where there’s nice echo and everything else, the audio result of individual samples of individual notes of individual instruments combined, is totally different than guys playing instruments in an airspace and getting an acoustic blend. It’s another sound. It’s not just about what are the notes in the chord. On this tour we took the Synclavier and combined it with the live musicians–that’s one of the reasons why the tapes are so unbelievable. Because I’ve got things where impossible sequences are playing in the background and musicians are playing over it. And the audience is going YAAHH!! It’s great.
(We briefly speak about his plans for his new video line, Honker Video, and his new direct order division 818-Pumpkin, from which people can order Zappa-related product directly through the mail.)
Well, the whole idea of mail order is not exactly something new or arcane. If you’ve got an idea and you advertise it properly, a little ad this big (indicates a few inches with his fingers) on the back of the right publication can bring you enduring income if you’ve got something that people want to buy. It’s a pretty low-overhead business, and it’s not very glamorous, but it’s certainly worth looking into, especially for people who have independent labels and want to do the type of independent promotions for new and unusual artists. I would say–take the chance.
Is there a natural ceiling you’ll hit by deliberately not playing the game the “normal” way?
The biggest problem that I have is at the retail level. It’s not that there are not enough consumers out there who want to consume what I do, but we’ve experienced problems with chain stores that refuse to carry the product���even product which is purely instrumental, they won’t stick it in their store. And this really started happening after 1985. Merchandisers got scared by the PMRC. What they did was bullshit –and I feel good about myself for doing what I did, even if it cost me record sales. So what?
(A little more PMRC conversation ensues, then the subject of music critics arises.)
As far as the critics go, the only thing that concerns me about what a critic does–because ultimately we do have the matter of free speech–if a person is doing something that is not based in fact, makes a personal attack on me, especially people that I’ve never even met before, or haven’t even done an interview (with), you get a review of a record that has nothing to do with the content of the record and they’re talking about my personality. Well, if it was a guy who had met me and hates my guts, that’s fine. But if it’s somebody that you never met in life, and they’re talking about you like a dirty dog, and this accumulates, then what you wind up with is something that tends to affect your industrial bottom line. On that level, I would be very annoyed with some of the stuff that has been written about me in the past. Because it’s bad for business–to the extent that the opinion of a record reviewer is actually going to impinge on business. I’m not saying that any single record reviewer could make or break my career, but the result is cumulative. The way in which an artist is regarded in the industrial marketplace has to do with what the so-called “buzz on the street” is about that artist–in other words, who’s hot and who’s not. And so we come to the basic philosophical question–how is the hotness determined? And in the mind of the executive, who may be a person that you have to negotiate with in order to make a deal, who really is out of touch
with reality because his main priority is keeping his perks and keeping his little desk and the rest of the stupid shit that they worry about. They’ve got nothing to do with music, they’ve got nothing to do with art or any other reality–it’s, like, saving their ass. Part of the job of them saving their ass is pretending to other executives that they know what’s hot. And so in order to do this, they’ll read Rolling Stone magazine, as if that were some sort of ultimate source of information on hotness and coolness. Or other publications in that realm. Or someone with a typewriter certifies someone with an electric guitar as hot or not. And that can cause you more damage on that level than whether or not that stupid review in the publication is going to influence the mind of the consumer. So the way in which I have been regarded inside the record business has a lot to do with the way in which executives get their data. I don’t go to lunch with these guys, I don’t hang out with them. Anything they know about me is what they read, what their secretary read, or what the word of mouth on what the street is. Now if I don’t buy ads, and I’m not seen plastered all over Billboard or Cashbox or any other thing, and if I don’t buy windows in record stores, and if I don’t get on the radio, and if I don’t get in some retail outlets, then who in the fuck am I? Who needs to worry about this guy over there? Forget about him. All right. Do I really need to have people like that as my friends? The answer is no.