May 17, 1984—KPFA-FM, San Francisco, CA

Interview with Frank Zappa, KPFA-FM, archive.org

Interview with Frank Zappa
Publication date 1984-05-17
[...] KPFA-FM [...]

Charles Amirkhanian interviews Frank Zappa in anticipation of his appearance on Speaking of Music at the Exploratorium. Zappa discusses his digital re-mastering of his album "Lumpy Gravy" and other early works. The musical selections played during this program are not included in this recording.

 

May 17, 1984—KPFA-FM, San Francisco, CA

Charles Amirkhanian:

Welcome to a program with Frank Zappa who is this evening at the Bay Area for performances with the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra directed by Jean Louis Leroux on Saturday evening and also tonight, and they're gonna be doing Dupree's Paradise along with a program of other classical music at the Herbst Theater. Then on Sunday, the main event of course, Speaking Of Music With Frank Zappa at The Exploratorium's program with the Palace Of Fine Arts at 8:00 PM. Frank's gonna be presenting a variety of recent music, all in digital sound, on a special playback system made by John Meyer Sound Lab, and the program begins with excerpts from Lumpy Gravy, remastered in digital sound, soon to be re-released in a—as I understand it—a box set of records from the old days. And then there will be excerpts from his classical pieces, works for Synclavier, and orchestrations of music by his name's sake from the Eighteen Century, Francesco Zappa, who flourished in the Eighteen Century but who is going to flourish again in San Francisco this Sunday night.

Frank, let's talk a little about the program at The Exploratorium first of all, because a lot of people are anxious to know what exactly you're planning for the evening. How did you arrive at this selection of things? It's such a variety.

FZ:

Well, that's the point. A lot of people don't know what kind of variety is available, but I think that they'll get a good whiff of that on Sunday. And also it's sequenced to get people some kind of insight into how the writing for instruments other than guitar, bass and drums, has progressed since the days of Lumpy Gravy. And there's a lot of surprises in it, and should be fun to listen to—I mean, I've listened to the tapes straight through to check it out, to make sure it was okay, and it's an interesting program.

CA:

I walked up to the ticket office where they're selling tickets the other in Union Square, and they said, "Oh, yeah, well, he's not playing anything, it's just a lecture."

FZ:

He's so entirely too incorrect!

CA:

Ha ha ha . . . Yeah, it was mindblowing. But I tried to straight the young man out, and then he bought a ticket, so I, I think he was convinced. I [...] the people would be out there, because this is sort of a special opportunity here [...] in a—a really incredible setting because of the sound system you're gonna be working with, 'cause I understand you've been recording all the orchestral things on 24-track digital, which is sort of new.

FZ:

Yeah, it's new. And, we're one of the first people to—or first companies to attempt that. And I think the sound it's excelent.

CA:

Now, tell me a little bit about the Lumpy Gravy remix. This album, it seems to me, is sort of [...] in a lot of ways because it has the kind of tape slicing and collaging that musique concrete and serious composers were doing but [...] in a wacky way which later was imitated by a lot of composers and serious music field as [...] the rock field. And now that everybody in new wave and punk music is doing really out stuff, this seems to me to be one of the key early pieces in this genre.

FZ:

Yeah, well, I think it's probably the first of the outside rock & roll albums, and has a special place in the repertoire because of that. That's one of my favorite albums—on a conceptual level—I don't think it turned out very well musically because there wasn't enough time to perfect the orchestral performances that are in there, and the other stuff. And it was all done with very crud equipment—It was recorded in 1966 and it was a 4-track recording.

CA:

4-track?

FZ:

Yeah. It was recorded—The orchestra was recorded in Capitol Records Studio A, and the splicing and the location of all little pieces of found objects that are glued together to make the stuff in between took about thirteen months. And that was all done in a [...] in my house. And then the whole thing was put together and mastered with whatever they thought was the fine stuff of the day, which by today standards wasn't very good. And that's one of the reasons why we're going back and done a digital retweezing on it to equalize it and clean up some of the things that can be cleaned up with digital technology so that on all the selections on this first box set that's being released—if you have the original albums it's a drastic improvement over the originals and a lot of people who have written in saying where can they get another copy of Freak Out!, mine's wearing out, well they'll be able to get a new copy of Freak Out!, Absolutely Free, Lumpy Gravy, We're Only In It For The Money and Ruben & The Jets, plus the Mystery Disc, that has little pieces of [...] stuff that was left out of those albums and other things that date from before Freak Out! included in that package—and that's set for release within the next couple of months. And this excerpt that we're gonna play is probably the first that you'll be able to hear from that.

CA:

Did you actually re-recorded anything in Lumpy Gravy or is it just—?

FZ:

No, nothing has been re-recorded—there've been two things added to the orchestral stuff—that is a brand new set of drums and a brand new electric bass playing the same parts that were originally written into the scores but not too legible on the original tapes. And . . . Basically it's the same piece, just we've improved the echo on it, we've improved the high frequency clarity and tried to suppress the tape noise where it was possible.

CA:

So, people who come out on Sunday night would be able to get a preview of the new remastering of the album—that's gonna be great. What about the other albums? Did you do significant work on 'em as well?

FZ:

On Freak Out! the only thing we did was take the original 2-track mixes, re-equalize 'em and change some of the echo that was on there. Same thing on Absolutely Free. On We're Only In It For The Money it was completely remix from the original 8-track masters, because the 2-track masters were pretty much destroyed by being stored badly. And in the case of that album all of the drumset parts and all of the electric bass parts were replaced. And the same was true on Ruben & The Jets—drums and bass replaced.

CA:

What can you do to store a tape badly while I can't—?

FZ:

Well, I don't know how they did it, but the condition of the tape was such that the oxide was falling off and you could see through the tape and when you played it you could tell that there used to be something on it but it sure didn't sound good. And there's no way to retrieve it, so you had to go back at great expense and great time and delay to re-record the rhythm tracks and do a complete remix on the original masters. And if you'd ever heard the We're Only In It For The Money album, that too is collaged together—there's lots of little bits and pieces, and they had to be located from the four corners of the world, re-spliced, re-sequenced, and that was a big job. And in the case of Ruben & The Jets there was one master that was completely gone. We couldn't find it. A little background here—because of some lawsuit that I was involved in, I now have the rights to all of these master recordings and that's one of the reasons why we're releasing them. But when the masters were returned to me, in the case of the Ruben & The Jets album, the song "Stuff Up The Cracks" was missing. Couldn't find it anywhere, so we had to just do a re-spiffing on a 2-track mix of that song. Everything else on that album has been really cleaned up though.

CA:

It's hard to think of even attempting to put some of these things back together. I mean, it's unbelievable.

FZ:

Well, see, the problem is that I know what they are and I know where they are roughly in this mountain of tape that I've got stored in this vault in my house. But to find it, to go through the hours and hours of tape to find those little pieces was unbelievable work. And just when you thought you had all the pieces that do a section you knew there was something else missing and you had to go diving back in there—because these little things are like two seconds long and they're not labeled on the box, it just doesn't say, "18th cut of 2 seconds duration in segment 9 from side 2," you have some other weird name on it or it's not named at all—you just happened to know that it might been the last note of some improvisation that was on some [...] reel of tape and you gotta go and find it—chopped it up.

CA:

[...9:58] You've done this before?

FZ:

Very seldom. The most recent event was the thing that I did at the American Society of University Composers in Columbus, Ohio, which is about five weeks ago. And I'll be making some references to that appearence and maybe even read some excerpts from the speech that I gave there, because it has some funny lines on it that even people in San Francisco could identify with.

[...10:31]

Well, I spent two years in the classical music world—so called—the last two years—, and I met a bunch of people that I thought were really not too pleasant. And experienced some things that I thought were really not too classical. And not too evolved either. In fact, pretty much retarded, compared to the way things are in the crass and ignorant world of rock & roll. I've found many things in the serious music world to be even more depressing than that. And I don't really feel at home in the world of so called serious music and the denizens that inhabit that—that's not the kind of where I feel comfortable functioning in, so after these events here in the Bay Area, which includes the stuff that's gonna happen in June, that's about it, I have no plans to ever write another piece of orchestral music in my life. And uh— I've had it. That's it.

[...]

The problems of writing for an orchestra, doing business with orchestra managements, doing business with foundations, and doing business with the unions and other obstructions on the periphery of the serious music world—it's not something that I find too worthwhile. I told some other people in Los Angeles, and I think it's probably gonna be my motto, that modern music is a sick puppy, and we might as well let nature takes its course. Americans don't want it. And to fight to keep presenting it and sticking it in their face is a waste of time. They're not willing to support it, the same way they're not willing to put up a little extra money to build better prisons or more of them, you know? Americans have strange priorities and uh—

[...17:51]

CA:

And also we're gonna hear something which Pierre Boulez recently conducted in Paris.

FZ:

That's right. Gonna hear "Naval Aviation In Art?" This is from an album that's gonna be released on Angel in the United States.

CA:

Is that your first album then for another label in a long time?

FZ:

Yes. It wouldn't have been an album for another label if problems hadn't arisen with CBS, who had originally planned to record the stuff, and I would have released it on Barking Pumpkin through CBS. But what happened was at the last minute EMI saved the day and they came and pay for the recording session, so they had the rights to release it on EMI outside the US and on Angel inside the US.

CA:

So Barking Pumpkin is not [...] not longer distributed through CBS?

FZ:

No. Only this Boulez album is going to be on Angel. And all the rest of the Barking Pumpkin product, which is about to be released, will go out through MCA.

[...20:30]

The band that we're taking out for the rest of this year is Chad Wackerman on drums, Scott Thunes on bass, Ray White on guitar and vocals, Ike Willis on vocals, Napoleon Murphy Brock on sax and vocals, Bobby Martin on keyboards and vocals. And we're still auditioning for another keyboard-vocalist. Rehearsals start on Monday.

[...] Yeah, so if, you know, you've got somebody out there who can play very proficient synthesizer and keyboards and also happens to be able to sing like Frankie Valli—

CA:

High?

FZ:

Yeah, right. We need—'cause everybody else is singing low and it's more on the high vocal department—tell him to call the station and I'll arrange for an audition if you're really competent.

[...]

CA:

We're gonna listen next to some things from the Drowning Witch album. The London Symphony recorded "Envelopes," a piece of yours, and it took them four minutes and eleven seconds, but your band plays it in two forty four. What happened there?

FZ:

Well, you know the orchestras [...] kind of this archaic dinosaur of an invention, also tends to ponder along on things that rock & roll bands can play a lot [...] and faster. And that was about as fast as we can get the LSO to play this particular piece. [...]

"Envelopes" was written in 1968 or '69. And it was originally— We tried to record it with that band with Mark and Howard and George Duke, and th—there are still tapes from that recording session that it's never been released because they couldn't play it right. So finally we have released some version of it on tape.

There's another difference between the LSO version and the rock & roll version—the LSO version has completely different harmony for the melody line, which is something that you can do when you've got 111 guys sitting around, you can do strange harmony—a little bit difficult when you have an 8-piece band.

[...30:12]

On the Mystery Disc that's gonna be included in the first 7-record box set of those old masters, there is an example of one of my first collages, based on material recorded the night that I took over occupancy at Studio Z, my first recording studio. We had a party there with a bunch of strange people including Captain Beefheart and this guy named Bob Narciso, who was doing Pachuco comedy about ten years before Cheech & Chong. And I chopped all this conversation up and there's a probably about 3 minutes segment of that in there.

[...36:11]

Well, in the stuff that I've been working on recently, I haven't found a good reason to put it in, but I'm building up another collection of found objects and I'm pretty sure that there is going to be a second installment of a Lumpy Gravy-type album, because from the original Lumpy Gravy there's at least another hour's worth of dialog of those people inside the piano, the missing elements of that story could be combined with these other things to make another real strange record.

[...37:38]

CA:

"I Come From Nowhere," what about that? Is there anything—?

FZ:

Well, I think that people who smile too much are dangerous. And that's a song about people who smile too much.

[...39:28]

CA:

The programs to which Frank has referred are going to happen on June 15 and 16 at Zellerbach Auditorium when the Berkeley Symphony performs—what is it? Four pieces, I think, eh?

FZ:

They're performing Bob In Dacron, Sad Jane, Mo 'N Herb's Vacation, Sinister Footwear, Pedro's Dowry. It's all evening of orchestral music and dance, featuring the enormous puppets by John Gilkerson, from the San Francisco Miniature Theater. These are not puppets that go on your hand, these are puppets that are larger than people. And I went over and saw the progress on the stuff today—it's unbelievable. Wait until you see the ugliest shoe in the world.

CA:

Ha ha ha ha . . . is that— Which piece is that?

FZ:

That's from Sinister Footwear, which is a ballet about a guy who designs the ugliest show in the world and all the things that happened before you get to wear it. And the shoe has been designed and I just saw like about 20 pairs of it sitting around this place. It's really great.

CA:

Ha ha ha ha . . . The Mo 'N Herb's Vacation scenario is a pretty heavy one. Is that actually been done to your specifications?

FZ:

Yes.

CA:

So, you're gonna have the enormous hair-driers and everything?

FZ:

Absolutely. The enormous hair-driers and the wives that imagine themselves and all that stuff—the enormous hair-driers are 18 feet tall.

CA:

18 feet?

FZ:

Yeah.

CA:

Wow.

FZ:

And the—then those things open up. The women who are sitting under the hair-driers, they open up and then the wives as imagined themselves come out and uh— It's one of the strange things you're gonna see. In one of the pieces, in Bob In Dacron, there's a bartender who gets so busy that he splits in half so he can wait on two tables and his guts fall out and he's hoping around on one leg—and this puppet is operated by two dancers, obviously—and he splits in half—he's a beatnik—he splits in half and goes on with his business.

[...42:04]

My daughter Diva, who is 4 years old, has a number of imaginary playmates—well, I think they are imaginary—she has one called Moggio who is her tiny father, the father that sleeps underneath of a pillow, and that's what this song is—

[...42:36]

CA:

[...] Barking Pumpkin is currently available by mail order, is that right? 7720 Sunset Blvd.?

FZ:

No. The mail order address is a Post Office Box in North Hollywood which I haven't memorized.

CA:

You haven't memorized?

FZ:

No . . .

CA:

Is it on any of the albums?

FZ:

No, it's not on those, because it's only recently since we had this lawsuit with CBS that we had to do that, but very shortly the albums will be available in stores distributed by MCA. The contracts are being drawn out for that deal right now.

CA:

[...] You've got a credit here for Droodles, copyright 1953.

FZ:

Yeah, the illustration on the cover, yeah.

CA:

Oh, these old things!

FZ:

Right!

CA:

The party napkins.

FZ:

Yeah!

CA:

Right! Droodles!

FZ:

Yeah. I remembered that one. That was my favorite droodle of all time—is that one right there.

CA:

I've forgotten those!

FZ:

And I went on this search to find Roger Price, the guy who did those things, and found out he lived in the San Fernando Valley and works for a publishing company down there, and licensed the right to use that droodle on the cover. That's the original droodle.

[43:36...]

 

 

All compositions by Frank Zappa except as noted
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