Frank was already in London producing an album for his new friend, L. Shankar. [...] Frank got bored in London (that's when he wrote "Dead Girls Of London") and decided he wanted [Warren and Vinnie] to join him over there to keep him laughing for the remaining week or so before the rest of the band was due to arrive. I was also asked to drop everything and come early, not to amuse the boss, but to go to work. Frank said that Shankar was going to be joining the band, and that I was to start tutoring him on the vast amount of music he was going to have to learn very quickly. [...] As it turned out, he did not do the tour after all, but it was a pleasure to work one on one with a musician of his caliber.
One evening, Frank invited Vinnie, Warren, and me out to dinner. [...] As we waited in the living room of his suite, a visitor came to the door for a quick hello. It was none other than a hugely successful brocade coat wearing British folk/pop star who I shall not name, along with his wife and two beautiful daughters who looked like they were about 7 to 9 years old. Frank was still getting ready in another room, so Gail greeted them and then left to get ready herself. The visitors sat down on the couch, where the folk/pop star proceeded to pull some hash and a pipe out of his pocket and load it up! He lit it, took a hit, handed it to his wife, who had a toke, then she handed it to the little girls, each of whom had a toke!
[...] Gail returned while the smoking was still in progress. She freaked, and ran to Frank's room to tell him what was going on. He appeared in a matter of seconds and started shouting, "No drugs! Get out, get out!" as he pushed them out the door into the hallway, without so much as a hello!
The rest of the Zappa band members arrived in London on January 28th, and rehearsals began at the Rainbow Theater on the 29th. [...] The last rehearsal was on February 8th, and the first gig was in Birmingham, England, on the 10th.
By the time we do our next tour in Europe, which is starting in February, it'll be a ten-piece band. It's nine right now; we're adding the tenth guy when we get over there. There's Vince Colaiuta on drums, [Arthur] Barrow on bass, Tommy Mars on keyboards, Peter Wolf on keyboards, Ed Mann on percussion, Denny Walley on slide and vocals, Warren Cuccurullo on guitar and vocals, and Ike Willis on guitar and vocals. And the tenth guy is a violinist named L. Shankar. [...] We've already recorded with him, live in New York, and the results from that are pretty good, and that's one of the reasons he was interested in joining the band.
At the time of the interview Frank had been in London for a month, rehearsing his nine-piece band for their European tour and producing an album by Indian violinist L. Shankar. Afterwards he invited us to the Rainbow to hear the rehearsals, and it was very interesting to see how aware he was of the music, for occasionally he would stop the band to say that one of the keyboard players was holding a chord over for half a beat too long, or that one of the synthesizer oscillators was out of tune—which it was, slightly.
Davey Moire introduced me to Frank in '76. We then became friends and myself and Al Malkin and some of the other N.Y. crew would hang out with FZ when he was in town. He knew we'd always be at the shows around the east coast and Smothers would set me up with passes. Terry (Bozzio) and I became friends at that time also and me with Thomas Nordegg as well . . . my whole future being plotted out then and there. Occasionally I'd play tapes of my solos for FZ and he loved my playing. I think I got the gig because of my enthusiasm for his music and his guitar style.
The way in which Cucurullo wound up in Zappa's band is typical of Zappa's penchant for giving auditions to unknowns. On Halloween 1976, he hopped on a Brooklyn subway to see his hero headline Madison Square Garden. "I was introduced to Frank by one of his old soundmen," he recalls. "I was a printer at the time and was wearing this bathrobe with all these pictures of Frank that I'd printed up and was selling at the show, just so that I could make enough money to afford the tickets. I gave him this tape of me jamming, just playing solos in odd time signatures. He seemed pretty impressed.
"Then I played together with Frank backstage at a show the following year, and a friendship developed. About two months after that, he said to me, 'Get ready to audition.' He had a European tour coming up, so I assumed he meant in six months or so, but he called me the next week and told me to fly out to Los Angeles the next day. I went up to his house, and he was playing guitar, all these odd-time and atonal types of things. He'd just throw lines at me and say, 'Play that,' to see how fast I could pick up things. I passed the audition and was in the band."
I spent a lot of time just practicing in my basement. Frank had moved back to California and one night in 1978 I get a call from him saying that he was going to do a European tour, and would I like to try out for it. I left California the next day, and then the next thing I knew I was playing the Hammersmith Odeon—plucked right from the basement to the big stage.
It was literally a dream come true. I loved the music. I loved the guy. I never really thought I would get into his band because most of his second guitarists were lead singers; and I wasn't a lead singer. But once I got to meet Frank after his soundman [introduced me to him] . . . I struck up a friendship with Frank, and I told him I was a guitar player, and we started hanging around when he'd come to New York, me and a couple of my friends he really liked. He knew we were a very enthusiastic band, and that we really appreciate his music. Frank likes to hang out and have a good time; so when he heard some tapes that I was playing he thought, this guy is ready to be in my band, he told me that one night. After dinner we went out and I had some cassettes with me, and I put it on his blaster . . . He listened to it and he went "Man, you are ready for this band", and I was like "Whaat?" Ten days later, he was in LA, I was at home jamming in my basement with my friends, and he called me, and he said, do you want to come out and audition? I need a guitar player. I was like absolutely. He goes, well can you leave tomorrow morning? I said yeah. Hung the phone up, everybody stops playing, you know, two sax players, couple of guitar players, drummer, bass, I said, you will not believe who that was. And that was it. I was out there the next day, went up to the house, you know, Frank's place, and we got a couple of guitars and he was playing some stuff. He said do you know that one? and I said yeah I know that, and played it. Then he started fucking around, you know, improvising, can you play that riff? yeah, boom, played it, just like, you got the gig.
It was incredible. It was one of the best days of my life. I think from hanging out with him before I got in his band, and playing him tapes of what I do . . . he kinda knew where I was at, he knew I could control distortion, he heard that I was a lead guitar player, he heard what I was doing and some of the interesting time signatures I was playing. He never heard me play any composition. He just heard me jamming on cassettes, shitty little cassettes, but he liked what he heard. And then we played together one time backstage when I was at one of his shows in Stony Brook University in Long Island [October 15, 1978], and I was backstage before the show, and I picked up one of the guitarist's guitars, and Frank said play this, and he had me play some riff, and we just jammed for awhile, for about 20 minutes. I took it out . . . I took it way out. I went off the riff and just started playing these weird chords, and it was hit and miss, but it was fun. So that was the actual first time we played together. Then he called me up one day when I was in New York jamming with my friends at my parents' house, and he called me and said I want you to come out tomorrow to audition, and I was like, "okay." When I actually did audition, all he did was, I went up to his house, and we were hanging out in his living room, and he had a guitar, and I had a guitar, and he'd play something, and he said "can you play this?" and I said "oh yeah, I know that song . . . " and I just played it for him, and he'd play a riff, you know . . . he'd just make something up, and I'd play it just like that. He asked me if I knew this song or that song, and I said "yep, know 'em all" and he said, "well, you got the job," and that was it.
I've tried to show this stuff to people and there's only one guitar player I've ever worked with who has any comprehension of how it works. And that's this new kid who's in the band, Warren Cuccurullo. He was a fan for a number of years, this kid from Brooklyn who worked on his father's garment truck. So he wanted to try out for the band and he was great. Hired him. I mean I can sit down and play some of that stuff for him and he'll look at my hand and be able to play it because he understands what it is. It doesn't come out exactly the same because he plays it cleaner than I do because he picks every note—I usually slur about 60 per cent of what I'm playing. But he can comprehend it. I don't think he could read it off a piece of paper, but he hears it, and the way it's supposed to fit inside the bar. He knows what the joke is, but most people don't. If I try to teach that stuff to keyboard players it's very difficult. Even guys who can read that off a piece of paper, if they sat down and read it it wouldn't sound right, even if they played it exactly in time, because they don't think like a guitar player.
Warren Cuccurullo was and still is a talented guitar player who had a desire to play standard repertoire—songs he already knew from all of the other albums. And he knew a lot of tunes; probably as many, if not more, than some of the other guys who were in the band at the time. And on the tour he did with us, we were doing a lot of the complicated songs off the records that people thought they would never hear on the stage. We were doing "Brown Shoes Don't Make it," "Inca Roads," and "Andy." We were doing a lot of hard repertoire. And he was good for that.
The E-mu after a couple of years on the road started getting 'un-roadable' [...], we were going to Europe and I told Frank before the carny got shipped that "Man, I don't think the E-mu's going to make Europe, man, especially with the voltage changes, and you hear how it's been acting up". [...] And so he said "Alright Mars, you know, we're going to have to get something else" and I had heard about the (Yamaha) CS-80, which had just come out, and I said "Let me give it a try. The CS-80, you know what I mean, it's not going to be the E-mu", and it wasn't, it absolutely wasn't. But what it was, was something tremendous, it brought me to a new level of expression; it didn't have the finesse for me, but having that marriage of digital and analogue, there were certain things you could never even hope to do with the E-mu, and more than anything it was reliable. In other words it wouldn't be going crazy, you know, having a nervous breakdown on stage.
Frank was really upset that we couldn't take the E-mu but I said "Man, it's a liability Frank, it could just fuck up and then we don't have any, you know, backup". So that's actually why the CS-80 came into the picture.
[...] The CS-80 with that polyphonic after touch was probably one of the most dream come true instruments I had ever played, and strictly because of the polyphonic after touch. I can remember coming up with like a string quartet sound, and it used to just melt Frank, the sensitivity of each finger being able to have a different level of vibrato, and volume. The ring modulation on that was incredible, I used to do so much with the portamento with the ring modulation, and it would happen so fast, I mean you would have to have three or four different instruments before, to do the same things you were doing in one second with the CS80. Yes it wasn't the brass sound that I had had before with the E-mu, and it never could be because it wasn't designed like that, there was not enough independence with each of the voices. And it was a real bitch to master tune, it was a very difficult and deceiving instrument to tune up, but, it didn't go out of tune regularly. It was digital, so it had the digital part of it controlling the pitch, a lot better than any analogue instrument before, but when you had to do a master tune, like every two months or so, Klaus Wiedermann, Frank's main tech, he was the one that figured out how to tune it so he would always say "oh no, we have to tune it again?"
Frank Zappa rehearsals are a serious business. Prior to his recent dates in Britain, at which time this interview took place, he used the Rainbow Theatre to routine for a week. The sound and light crews, as well as the band, were sequencing the show the night I went along. For an hour or so I watched as the band ran through numbers sans Zappa. [...]
Zappa arrives at rehearsals at 9 pm, and almost immediately the pace tightens up. For most of the time when he's not playing guitar he either sits on a stool or stands to conduct. If he stops a number there follows a brief instruction to one of the musicians and they go straight back into it. [...] I was surprised to see arrangements which the band appeared to be used to playing being changed by Zappa. Later soundman Mike Abbot explained to me that Frank (referred to by the road crew as The Maestro) sometimes changes actual notation to suit the acoustics of a particular venue.
What goes on at the early part of the rehearsal is they go over individual lines, vocal harmonies, all that really boring tedious stuff that used to drive me nuts for the past 15 years. We have four guitarists in this band (including Zappa) and there is a lot of harmony stuff to learn. Only one of them can read music so the others have to be taught note by note. Now all I do is come in after they've got the basic stuff down and I tighten it up and show 'em exactly how the phrasing should be and go over that aspect. I've already done the work, that's done. Before I can shape it up they have to know enough of it to give me something to work with. I don't have the patience any more to sit down and give people one note at a time, I just don't. I've had too many bands, it drives me nuts. I've found this arrangement works out really good because it makes it possible for me to sit here and talk to you while Arthur is down at the Rainbow screaming at the band. And when I go down there I can concentrate a little bit more on the stuff that I have to learn—because I have to learn material just like everybody else—my guitar parts, figure out when and where I'm going to move, and put the whole thing together.
"Frank was never happy with his solos in the studio," says Joe Chiccarelli, then Zappas engineer and now a freelance producer. "But he felt that he played great live, so I suggested we try to record his solos from the live shows and somehow put them on top of the studio trucks."
Onstage, Zappa split his signal into two stereo paths—clean/uneffected and distorted/effected—routed to four Carvin 4x12 cabinets. Electro-Voice RE20 mics were placed against the grilles of one "clean" and one "dirty" cabinet to record both signals direct to a Nagra 2-track.
"His amps were so loud that there was no band leakage into the guitar mics whatsoever," says Chiccarelli. "So we had clean solo tracks to work with. Then we'd spin the tape in the studio and have the band play to Frank's solos, rather than have Frank overdub his solos to the hand. A lot of Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar was recorded this way. For each track, we'd usually have 20 minutes of guitar stuff for the band to play to, and songs would be constructed from those jams by cutting up the multitrack tape. I did a lot of tape splicing back then."
When asked if those first three Mothers albums on Verve are still in print, he replies with what seems like a sigh of relief that "as a result of the settlement of the lawsuit with MGM, they no longer have the right to repress those records. Those masters have reverted back to us." Which means we can see Freak Out, Absolutely Free, and We're Only In It For the Money on local record racks—where they belong—before long? "Yes, as soon as the lawsuit between me and Herb Cohen [former manager] and Warner Brothers [former label] and all that stuff is settled." Translated, that means don't hold your breath.
Zappa's two most recent LPs are on his own Zappa Records, which was formed after he satisfied the requirements of his contract with Warners Bros. by handing over the tapes of four completed albums. Zappa is presently suing Warners, because he claims he has not been paid for those releases—Zappa In New York, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, and Orchestral Favorites.
ALEXANDER: I once heard a story that Frank Zappa tried to snatch you, Garry Shider and Glenn Goins [January 2, 1954—July 29, 1978].
COOPER: It's a true story. Yeah, that was the week that we played the L.A. Coliseum in '79. Frank Zappa offered me a gig. Stevie Wonder offered me a gig. That's just the way it was. We was hitting hard, and a lot of people was coming after us. And that was kind of like the demise of the funk. That's why I left before it fell.
I got a call to go to a band meeting at the Zappa management office on June 26th, 1979, a year and ten days days after I was hired. Frank told us he was dissolving the band and that we now qualified for unemployment which we should begin to collect ASAP. The band was fired.
Diva is upset because she doesn't have a middle name. She picked one—Banana—but I think we may give it a while.
When can we expect more Frank Zappa stateside live?
I don't know because one of the things I'm trying to do for 1979 is to do a Broadway show, which is probably going to require rehearsals during the summer in order to open in the fall. So we're going to be in Europe 'til April. Then I've got some more studio work to do in April and May, and then around June start rehearsing for the Broadway thing.
Totally original Broadway show, or....
Can you give us any idea of what it looks like at this point?
It's pretty much planned, but I'm not going to say any more about it until we get closer to doing it. But I've always wanted to do one of those things and I think this should be about the time to do it. So if we do that, that should put a crimp in the U.S. tour. It just depends on how much physical work I can stand to do during the year because one suggestion has been made that I put two bands together, one to sit in New York and play the show, while I go off on the road to tour the United States. That has some advantages if I can stand the work.
One of the things I want to do with that show is make sure that the band that plays the music isn't sitting there reading it like all the rest of the Broadway show bands. I want people playing it who are in it just for that show, who are cast for the show so that they learn their stuff just like the band I take on the road, they know it absolutely cold and can play it expressively every night so the audience gets the most out of it. 'Cause I went to see a bunch of Broadway shows while I was back there, and the level of musicianship is not that good.
Zappa points to fifteen years on the road as his most prominent personal sacrifice. "Some people love to travel; I don't. I cancelled my tour this year; that's why my wife cut my hair. I would've been out for six months, but I have plenty of things to do besides travel around. My wife just had a baby girl so what kind of rational person gets on a plane and goes riff on a tour in the middle of all that? Besides, my kids love having me at home. When I told them I wasn't going on the road this Fall, they were so happy, because their birthdays all fall around that time and I'm never here to celebrate with them."
Gail is feeding her two month-old daughter Diva. [...] The former leader of the Mothers Of Invention enters the room half an hour later, still pop's central scrutinizer barefoot with his newly sheared hair uncombed.
I was born with short hair, so what's the difference? The only thing that makes me feel different about a haircut is that you never know how it's going to turn out, when they chop it off. It was pretty much spontaneous. First of all, at that time, I thought I was not going to tour this year. So I didn't have to dress up like Frank Zappa. So I cut my hair.
Zappa indicated a roll of drawings on the floor close by his feet. They turned out to be the plans of a new studio he is currently having built. He's still deciding exactly what equipment he will use but intends to slave up a pair of 24-track or 32-track tape machines together. He has set the basic design of the studio and when he started his current world tour he left a list of outboard equipment with people in Los Angeles to shop around for him.
'The studio situation in LA is dreadful because they are all booked so heavily, that's why I'm building one of my own. People go in and buy up to three months of studio time. The prices of studios are outrageous. Like the one I used for this last album now gets 20 000 dollars a week. And there's a new one that's opening up in Kendun at 30 000 a week. I mean, that's ridiculous! If you are going to talk about an hourly rate, a good studio in Hollywood costs around 200 dollars, some go up to 250 dollars with no end in sight.'
The Utility Muffin Research Kitchen is the name of the recording studio that Frank Zappa built and used extensively at his home for many of his recordings. The studio was completed on September 1, 1979 and the recording of several songs that were eventually released on the album You Are What You Is began in July, 1980.
Joe's Garage was the last album that Zappa made at a commercial studio. According to David Gray, who was part of the road crew since early 1976, "Frank was talking about [his own studio] ever since I first joined, but it got extremely serious in '78. A lot of the reasoning behind it was logistical. This way, he could work when he wanted to work and it didn't require him to block-book anything so that he could come in when he wanted to. And Frank clearly liked to work at night. And I think he felt he could try a lot of stuff, in essence at no cost penalty, when he owned it himself."
Designed by Rudy Brewer, with considerable input from Zappa and his technical staff, the studio was a no-expense-spared professional setup—estimates of its cost range from $1.5 to $3.5 million. Essentially built as an addition to the Zappa home in the Hollywood Hills, itself in an almost constant state of modification, the studio required substantial foundation work, which was somewhat complicated by the fact that bedrock was further down than had been anticipated. Nevertheless, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen (UMRK) was more or less complete by late 1979; the first sessions produced the single "I Don't Wanna Get Drafted," which had been started at Ocean Way with Allen Sides engineering.
Arthur 'Midget' Sloatman was working for me at Quad Eight Electronics and he told me that I should work for Frank Zappa because he needed someone like me that had my expertise.
[I] had a lot of live experience. I decided that there was not a lot of credits there, and if I wanted to get a little bit better known, I needed to do recording. I went out to Los Angeles. I actually took a job for a manufacturer out there, just to get me out there, which was Quad Eight Electronics, and I was working there as an engineer. Designing film consoles. That's when I managed to get an audition set up to audition for Frank Zappa.
[...] It was a little tough, because originally, he'd just built the studio. [...] It was a $3.5 million studio he built at his house up on Woodrow Wilson Drive, up in the Hollywood Hills. Very elaborate studio. It was designed by Rudy Brewer, originally. It had a huge 48-track setup of a Harrison console. And when I auditioned, he was just finishing up the studio. A guy named David Gray, who works with Dolby now, was there, pretty much putting in some of these elaborate systems. I remember when I did the audition, what he did was he auditioned each engineer for about one day in the studio, and then you'd go down to a sound stage, and he would see how you would do live, and had you put some stuff on tape. So one of the first things that happened to me with Frank—it was a similar thing. I got there, he asked me to put his guitar through a whole bunch of stuff. There was a new console without patchbay that wasn't even labeled, and I was patching around, and he said something to me like—this is one of the things I'll never forget-he said, "I'm not a robot, you know. I can only stay interested in these things for mere moments." And I was just taking a little tone generator and patch it around to see what would light up. Later on, it was kind of interesting. I thought, "Oh, man. I'll never get this job. This guy's too quick." So I did some stuff for him, mixed it on tape.
The next day, went down to a sound stage where he had everything set up. He was getting ready to do a tour. They had all brand-new Midas consoles, the kind with—the brand-new line of Midas that was out there. He had a guy kind of mess them all up. Said, "OK, make it sound good." And he walked around with his wireless guitar. Then he had me put the stuff on a cassette, while we were doing it. And he said he was going to take that tape and the tape in the studio and he'd get back to me in about two weeks. Well, two weeks went by, and I didn't hear anything, so I figured, oh well, I didn't get that gig. And all of a sudden I'm in my office at Quad 8 and the phone. Honest to God truth, this is so funny. The phone rings and he says, "You ready to go?" He didn't say who he was, he just said, "Are you ready to go?" And I just said, for lack of thinking what else to say, I just said, "Well, the car's running." "The motor's running." I said something like that. And I had been at this place for almost three years. Actually, it was a little over three years I was there. So I just pretty much accepted the gig. I cut a deal with him that I would fly with the band. Because I told him I had done too much road traveling, and I really didn't want to be on the bus smelling dirty socks again. And I really wanted to concentrate on doing a better job, and he said, "OK," so we went along with that setup.
So I started off with him. We went out, got ready for that tour. We did live tours. This would be—that was the fall of '79, so 1980 and the beginning of '81, we did some live tours before we built the recording truck. So I did all front of house then. Then we did a couple of remotes as we were on tour.
[...] I hired [Marque-son] for Frank. He was a roadie in the band I played in, in Colorado. Then when I got the job for Frank, I brought him in from Colorado, and I brought Tom Ehle in, and I brought George Douglas in. They were all people that I knew from before. And I got them guys all a job. Now, George only lasted a year and left. Tom Ehle stayed with us for a long time, and Marque-son's still there, Marque Coy is still there.
It was actually December of 1979, and he was finishing up construction on the studio. The Harrison board had been put in. David Gray, who's now the—I think he's Vice President of Dolby, was the technical engineer up there. He was the guy that was doing all the wiring and installing everything, and pretty much was with Frank Zappa for a number of years. After I'd gotten hired, he was the assistant there. He moved off to Dolby shortly after that. When I got there, he pretty much was finishing everything up. A very elaborate monitoring system, for all the individual musicians, they could all do their own little monitor mix, with the headphone system and everything. It was an unbelievably elaborate setup. So the studio was just being finished. The main reason he was doing these auditions was because he, for the first time, needed a full-time on-staff engineer for his own studio. [...] Once all of that went down, once the audition all went down, and we were going on tour, he just wanted to have a full-time guy that would do—at that point, do the sound on the road, and do the recording and mixing with him in the studio when he was off the road.
My favourite was Mark Pinske. He was a genius. For sonority, for fidelity, for resonance. Mark's in Florida now and he has his own studio. We used to live together so I was really very close to Mark. And whenever he did mixing for Frank, it sounded great. I don't understand where his mixing with the thrust on it is lately, on the more recent albums. Things don't seem to have the fidelity. Even when you talk about an album like 'One Size Fits All', that seems to have more fidelity than the newer stuff. And it's not just because it's digital. Another thing. A lot of times the show tapes right off the board sounded better than what he released from those tapes. I don't know, maybe my ears are fucked up. Maybe he just wants to have a laugh at people, to have them buy the shit that doesn't sound good. Frank's got a very good ear. He always said that he was deaf in one ear, but I don't believe it. He hears shit when he wants to hear it. But it's just a style. I wish it would go back to more fidelity.
Research, compilation and maintenance by Román García Albertos