The rings under Frank Zappa's eyes, after a night without sleep, are so deep that no make-up can hide them. A couple of hours and the flash units have had enough. We adjourn until tomorrow, but in the meantime the famous sequence at the piano with FZ all dressed up in a black dinner jacket has already made history, just like the shots where, lying amongst the monumental orchestra scores for The Perfect Stranger, the musician hold Dweezil's space gun. Very happy to escape the usual weirdness of some of his past photos, FZ balks at the suggestion that he should lie inside the piano: "Hey, this is a musical instrument, you're not mistaking it for a bit of furniture, are you!"
Finally this year I'm going to get some orchestra performances and it's going to be in Berlin. That will happen in July, and for two weeks after that we'll be recording in Czechoslovakia. I'm taking my recording truck over there to do it. This truck has 100 inputs. The concert will be Golden Age by Shostakovitch and three movements from The Planets and that will be the first half of the show and the second half will be my stuff plus my band.
IB: Your audition piece for Frank was Mo N Herb's Vacation—did you ever record that (or Mo's Vacation) for him?
ST: Nope. We were going to do a rock-band/orchestral concert in Poland that would have contained that piece, among others, while in rehearsal for the 1982 tour but it never materialized. All the pieces I worked on during my audition phase were looked at for possible performance but the project was scrapped.
Is the weight factor behind your choice of small guitars?
Yes, I have three of them, and I don't wear them; I play them. I have one Strat and two baby Les Pauls. They were made by D'Mini. [Ed. Note: These models are called the Les Paule and the Strate by their manufacturer, Phased Systems.] The D'Mini Strat that I have is unbelievable; you can't believe the noises that come out of that thing. It's ridiculous, I'm having a special one made with a little bit deeper body on it so that I can have a locking vibrato put on.
How are those guitars tuned?
The little Les Pauls are tuned up to A, and the Strat is tuned to F#. The relationship between the strings is the same as on a standard guitar.
Are special strings used on those guitars?
On the little Strat I use Gold Maxima strings. On the little Les Pauls, I use Black maximas, which are Teflon-coated. They don't make them anymore, but I had a lot of them lying around. The upper unwound strings are platinum-plated.
What modifications have you had done to your D'Mini Strate?
The neck and body are stock, and it has Seymour Duncan pickups, and a built-in parametric equalizer with variable "Q" [resonance]; that's the one with the concentric knobs. It was custom-designed here at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen [Zappa's studio/workshop]. There's a volume control and a silver plug that takes the place of another parametric that failed when I was out on the road. It has a 3-way selector, and the toggle switch used to be for switching between the two parametrics. By having two parametrics, I was able to preset two different types of feedback boost. The circuit boards were worked on by Midget Sloatman and Eddie Clothier. David Robb, who was the guitar tech on the last tour, also did some work on it.
Do you collect guitars?
I don't go out and buy all the guitars all over the place. I'm not one of those kinds of guys. I do have a lot of guitars, but I don't know how I have accumulated them. I've got about 25 guitars. They just keep piling up.
Do you have top five favorites?
I've got the Les Paul that I use. It was a brand new guitar when I bought it. It's not a vintage thing. It was a very well made production-line Gibson Les Paul right off the rack.
You didn't go to the Gibson factory and have them custom-build one to your specifications?
You know, considering how long I've been playing Gibson guitars, I've never spoken to or heard from anyone connected with that company. There's no factory connection with Gibson whatsoever. I also have Stratocaster with a Floyd Rose installed on it. It was the guitar that I used the most on the last European tour. And the Hendrix Strat [a burned Stratocaster formerly owned by Jimi Hendrix; a detailed description is included in the Jan. '77 interview], which has a special size neck on it. It's an SG-size neck. It does certain things that other guitars won't do. The width and depth of the neck is different from that of a Strat, so you can do all kinds of things that just don't feel right on another guitar.
What distinguishes one instrument from another?
Each guitar has its own character and its own sounds that it likes to make, that come naturally to that instrument. So, I'm going to choose an instrument that matches the character of the song. I also have a Telecaster—one of the copies of the originals that Fender put out about a year ago. It's a real good blues guitar. The fifth guitar would be the SG copy that I got from this guy in Phoenix, Arizona. It says "Gibson" on it, but it's handmade, and it's got an ebony fretboard with 23 frets on it; it goes one fret higher than a normal SG. I play that a lot.
Do you use the 23rd fret often?
Since the cutaways on the guitar are so deep, it's very easy to get up all the way to the top. So, I can play higher on that one than on any of the other ones that I have.
How many guitars do you usually take out on the road?
On the last tour, I took out a Fender XII 12-string, the Telecaster, the Les Paul, the Hendrix Strat, my old mirror-pickguard SG, and the Stratocaster with the Floyd Rose on it. Plus the mini Strat and the mini Les Paul. Right now, the only thing I miss on my D'Minis is the vibrato arm.
Do you use the vibrato that much?
On the last tour I used it to excess. Because the Floyd makes it possible to come back in tune after you go down to the subsonic regions. You can dump all the strings slack and come back up and be in tune. And the way my Floyd is set up, you can go down two octaves practically, then back up to normal position, and then bend up a whole-step and sometimes even a third. It's balanced so well that I can just wiggle it a little bit and get a real nice vibrato.
What kind of effect did you take out on the road with you on the last tour?
I took three MXR Digital Delays—two with minimum memory storage, and one with tons of it. I also used two MicMix Dynaflangers. I didn't have any fuzztones or octave dividers. I used three different amps—a Marshall 100-watt, a Carvin, and an Acoustic—and each has interfaced with a different digital delay. So I could store three different signals and get some weird sounds. For instance, you take your whammy bar and get some terrible tweezed noise, an store that. Then it would come out of the right, and another one would come out of the left one, and you could play over the top of it all. I've got a recording of that from the tour, and it's really an ungodly sound.
Did you take a pedalboard on the last tour?
My setup was pretty basic for that particular tour. You see, things don't always go according to plan here at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. A very elaborate digital setup that had been in preparation for about six months prior to the tour turned up a semi-fatal design flaw, which was allowing some digital grit to get into the audio path, just at the last minute as we were getting ready to pack up. And a lot of work on it had to be redone—and it still isn't as perfect as I would like to have it before I take it anywhere. That particular rack had some unbelievable features, because it allowed you to do presets of any combination of effects that you might want with preset levels to each effect and preset control to all the parameters. So, during the sound check, you could set one sound with a flanger and fuzz and an octave divider and bi-phase, and set all those parameters in a memory storage. And when you'd hit your switch, it would go exactly to that sound. With the use of a pedal you'd be able to cross-fade to any other preset using any other combination of devises that you had in the rack. It was a really great idea, but so far we haven't gotten it perfected.
You really put yourself at the mercy digital equipment on the road.
Well, I'm perfectly comfortable going out and doing a tour with nothing but an on-and-off switch on the amplifier. For much of the guitar I wasn't using the effects at all. The only one I would turn them on at all was when it deemed appropriate for some event during a solo. The guitar I played the most was my Strat with the Floyd Rose on it, and it was capable of such ungodly noises with that parametric EQ and the pickups that were in it. It made plenty of noises without any fuzztones or other crap.
With this particular band, we had about 85 songs. We've been together for over a year—for "Drowning Witch" and "The Man From Utopia". Arthur helped a lot. If Frank thought we had the song okay, we would work on another song. With Tommy Mars, who had been in the band for five years, and Ed Mann, and me, who had been listening to his music for so long, it didn't take too long to learn the songs. You just listen to the record and learn it. In order to get it right in Frank's eyes, it might take a while. I guess he thought we could learn a lot of songs. Learning 85 songs was a little too much for me, because some of the stuff is so hard. I have to keep playing it to keep it fresh under my fingers. A lot of the lines don't fall on guitar very well, and it takes an awful lot of chops for you to execute the lines in a way that Frank wants to hear them. So, when you have 85 songs, and 20 of them are really hard, you have to do those 20 every night or else they get a little sloppy. We rehearsed in soundchecks too, and I had a guitar in my hotel room. But towards the end of the tour I didn't have a guitar in the room anymore, and some of the guitar parts then started to get a bit spotty.
[...] I had a '76 Fender Strat, which had a circuit card in it built by [Zappa equipment specialist] Midget Sloatman. There was an overdrive control, which had a switch and a pot, and there was another pot for a ring modulator. There was also another device that had a 500Hz boost turned one way and about a 6k boost when it was turned the other way. On the output plug was an Alembic Stratoblaster [preamp], which gives another boost around 6k. Then there was an on/off switch that would turn the batteries to the card on and off. Whenever you put a direct guitar through any circuit, it changes the tone.
After his first tour with Frank (US fall-81) [Scott Thunes] thought he would be out of the band because he had problems in following the speed of the music. Frank was easy on him and let him play every other note of the score instead. Scott was sure he couldn't make it for the European Blitzkrieg tour -82, but Frank said he would.
[FZ] told me he was gearing up for another tour, and asked again if I would change my mind and rejoin the band. I declined, but said yes to helping out the clonemeister duties one more time. That set of rehearsals ran from March 15th through April 28th.
It was at an open air festival in Schuettorf (1982). The Stray Cats, a British rockabilly band, preceeded the master of ceremonies Frank Zappa. It was hot so many good looking girls showed their titties, it was in Germany, so no shortage in beer either. Steve Vai really was at it that day, his face showing every emotion between pain and pleasure while performing on his stunt guitar. Frank told the audience that if they would throw more stuff on the stage, he would go off the stage. They didn't, so he didn't.
I stopped touring in 1982—we did a concert in Palermo, Sicily, where a number of people were injured very badly—there was a riot there, and the police and the army, and the audience also had guns and they were playing ring-around-the-rosie outside the soccer stadium, and I said, "This is no way for a person of my years to be earning his living."
Zappa was so pleased by that band and happy with the italian tour (the very first long tour he never played here) to ask himself to add a sicilian date (!) to visit the town where his father came off, Partinico, that he decided to have a double live album whose name should have been The Live adventures of the man from Utopia, where utopia stands for Italy.
I wanted to see the town that my father was born in and I went there and I saw it and then we played the concert and the next thing you know, you have the army and the police; each with their own general telling them what to do; an audience that had brought their own guns; and they're shooting tear gas and tearing up this stadium that we were playing in. We played for an hour and a half in this riot with tear gas in our face and everything else, and when it was all over we went off the stage and we were trapped inside this place. The audience was circling around outside shooting at the police and the police were shooting back.
I got a pretty good idea of what my Sicilian roots are like after seeing the town of Partinico—it was pretty bleak.
The first part of the lawsuit between Warner Brothers and Herb Cohen and myself has been settled and as part of that I'm going to be getting all those masters and I'm going to re-release the GTO's and Wild Man Fischer albums.
In 1977, Frank Zappa filed a lawsuit against Warner Bros. Records and his former manager citing artistic grievances and questioning certain "creative accounting practices," Gail says. After an out-of-court settlement was reached in 1982, the rights to his master recordings reverted to him, a lucrative boon.
What was the full story of the Zappa In New York, Sleep Dirt, Orchestral Favorites, and Studio Tan albums? Usually your albums give full credits to the musicians and in many cases lyrics; however, on all but Zappa in New York there was nothing.
That was part of what started my lawsuit with Warner Bros. It's a really complicated legal story, and I don't want to recite it again. But the fact of the matter is that part of the lawsuit was settled out of court, and I got all of those masters back; I got all of the tapes back. They're going to be remixed, remastered, and re-released.
In the 7/22/82 WLIR-FM Garden City interview by Ben Manilla, FZ mentions that the lawsuit has finally been settled and he's going to remaster and reissue all the early albums.
No more of the "long story", but it places the settlement date no later than July 1982.
I had been with Frank about four years when, in the summer of 1982, I got married. A few months later, I made one of my regular trips to his house to deliver the last few pages of the score I'd been working on. As the meeting wrapped up, he told me he had nothing more for me to do and that my work for him was officially over. My heart sank, but I told him I knew this day would eventually come. I then thanked him for everything and said I should get back home to give my wife the news. When I got home, the phone was ringing. It was Frank, saying, "I thought about it and I don't want to put you out of work when you just got married. I'll find more things for you to do." And he kept me on staff for almost another year. It was a completely unexpected gesture, revealing a kindness and generosity I hadn't foreseen. It was the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.
FL: Is it really true BOB DYLAN turned up at your gate?
About three or four years ago, [Bob Dylan] wanted me to produce an album for him. He'd been calling the office for about a week—I'd been getting messages saying that Bob Dylan was trying to reach me. I thought it was a joke.
Then one night he showed up at the gate. I hadn't seen a picture of Bob Dylan for so long I couldn't tell if this guy on the video screen standing down there in the middle of the night wearing just a shirt on a cold night was actually him, so I sent the engineer, who was more pop-aware than I was, down to the gate to see who it was. It was Bob. He brought him in, we went to the other room and he played some of his tunes on the piano and I went through the stuff and made suggestions on how the stuff might be arranged and what could be done if he wanted me to produce it.
We agreed to go ahead. I was going to produce this album. I made suggestions on musicians might use, got ready to book studio time and rest of this stuff, then I got a phone call from him—and this was something that I really had to twist my schedule around to accommodate, because had a tour coming up—and he said he couldn't it right then, he had to take a vacation. He was going to the Bahamas. That was the last I heard from him.
In 1982 Dylan arrived unannounced at the log cabin in Laurel Canyon—"in the freezing cold, with no coat and an open shirt"—and sat at the piano to play eleven songs (later to become Infidels). "I said he should subcontract out the songs to Giorgio Moroder to do a complete synthesizer track and Dylan should play guitar and harmonica over the top. It would be fantastic!" [Quoted in Dominique Chevalier, Viva! Zappa, 1985, p. 23.]
[In December 1982], a scruffy-looking figure turned up unannounced at the gate of Zappa's house claiming to be Bob Dylan. Zappa reported to the veteran British music-journalist Karl Dallas: 'I get a lot of weird calls here, and someone suddenly called up saying ''This is Bob Dylan. I want to play you my new songs.'' Now I'd never met him and I don't know his voice but I looked at the video-screen to see who was at the gate, and there, in the freezing cold, was a figure with no coat and an open shirt. I sent someone down to check, to make sure it wasn't a Charles Manson, but it was him.' Dylan was asking if Zappa would be interested in producing his next album. Zappa: 'He played me his eleven new songs and I thought they were good songs. He seemed like a nice guy. Didn't look like it would be too hard to work with him.'
[...] There was, for Zappa, one specific area of difficulty. At this point, the end of 1982, Frank had a fair head of steam going against the Born Again Christian New Right, as his recent work had stressed; Dylan had only made one album since the evangelising Slow Train Coming and Saved: and even that one subsequent work, 1981's Shot of Love, had certainly not repudiated that evangelising, and had included 'Every Grain of Sand' and 'Property of Jesus'. Faced, therefore, with Dylan playing him a new collection of songs ('He basically just hummed 'em and played 'em on the piano'), Zappa said afterwards: 'I asked him if it had any Jesus in it. I said: ''Do these songs have the Big J in?'' and he said no; [but] when I took him upstairs to give him a sandwich, my dog barked at him. I told him to watch out, my dog doesn't like Christians. And he didn't laugh.'
This Zappa-produced Bob Dylan album never happened, unfortunately.
Det har ryktats om att du skall arbeta med Dylan?
—Han har faktiskt frågat mig om jag vill producera hans nästa platta men det finns inget kontrakt ännu, så det hänger fortfarande i luften. Om det blir av så drar vi igång omkring den 15:e februari. Om det inte blir av, så blir det ingenting.
—Han kom hem till mig och spelade sina elva nya låtar och jag tyckte att de lät bra. Han verkar trevlig. Det blir nog inte så svårt att jobba med honom.
—Jag frågade om låtarna handlar om Jesus. Jag sa "innehåller de något om Big J" och han sa nej.
—När jag tog med honom upp i övervåningen och frågade om han ville ha en smörgås skällde min hund på honom. Jag sa åt honom att han måste akta sig för min hund gillar inte kristna. Han skrattade inte men det kanske han inte brukar göra.
—Han läste inte upp nåqra av texterna för mig, men jag kan tala om vad två av låtarna heter.
—En av dem handlar om Blind Willie McTell, någonting om att ingen kan spela blues som Blind Willie McTell. Den andra låten hette någonting som Here comes that jerk from Roll in Stone, eller någonting sånt.
—Mest bara nynnade han och spelade dem på pianot.
It's been rumored that you'll be working with Dylan?
—He has actually asked me if I want to produce his next record but there is no contract yet, so it is still hanging in the air. If it happens, we will start around the 15th of February. If it does not happen, then nothing will happen.
—He came to my house and played his eleven new songs and I thought they sounded good. He seems nice. It will probably not be that difficult to work with him.
—I asked if the songs are about Jesus. I said "do they contain anything about Big J" and he said no.
—When I took him upstairs and asked if he wanted a sandwich, my dog scolded him. I told him he has to be careful because my dog does not like Christians. He did not laugh, but he may not usually do so.
—He did not read some of the lyrics to me, but I can tell you what two of the songs are called.
—One of them is about Blind Willie McTell, something about no one being able to play blues like Blind Willie McTell. The second song was called something like Here comes that jerk from Roll in Stone, or something like that.
—Mostly he just hummed and played them on the piano.
He also told of a late-night visitor one recent December: "I get a lot of weird calls [at home], and someone suddenly called up saying, 'This is Bob Dylan, I want to play you my new songs.'Now, I've never met him and I don't know his voice, but I looked at the video screen to see who was at the gate, and there, in the freezing cold, was a figure with no coat and an open shirt. I sent someone down to check to make sure it was not a Charles Manson, but it was him."
Dylan was led down to the studio, where he sat at the piano and played 11 songs and then asked Frank to produce his next album."It could be funny," Frank grinned. "It's so ridiculous and off the wall that I feel I should do it. He doesn't have much of a sense of humour, but his new sounds are nice, so I'd like to produce them, though it would be a bit of an adjustment. I said he should sub-contract out the songs to Giorgio Moroder. I said he should do a complete synthesiser track and Dylan should play guitar and harmonica over the top." [The Guardian, January 11, 1983, "The father of invention", interview by Robin Denselow.]
For Dylan, that would have been over the top. He later maintained that the project foundered because Frank asked for too much money and wanted to use his own musicians. In any event, Frank didn't hear from him again and the new album, Infidels, was recorded with co-producer Mark Knopfler and Mick Taylor on guitars, and Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar provided the propulsion.
HUMO: Are there any projects that you would've liked to conclude, but couldn't?
FZ: Yes, thousand and one things. [...] I would also like to produce Bob Dylan. A couple of years ago he suddenly stood on my doorstep. I hadn't seen a picture of him in years, so I wasn't sure if this shabby vagabond I was looking at on the video monitor, was really Dylan. So I sent my sound technician—who's more in tune with pop music than me—to the door to see if it was Dylan. It was him. He played a couple of songs for me on the piano, and I gave him some suggestions, but it never grew into anything more. Pity, because Bob is one of the few people I would call a kindred soul.
Bob Dylan decided he wanted to come up and see us at the studio. Frank and Bob had never met. So he came to the bottom of the door, which is at the bottom of the stairs, he had to step down the hill. He was on the monitor, and I remember Frank—it was just me and Frank in the control room, and he said, "Man. That's not Dylan. Is that Dylan?" And I said, "Yeah, that's Dylan." And I went down to let Bob up. And he drove himself there. He had just kind of—I think he was going through one of those periods where he had fired his managers, and he was kind of going through a rebirth period there, and he came up to the studio, and the first thing Frank said to him was, "Well now, Bob, I just want to tell you, I'm a hundred and eighty degrees away from this religious shit." Or "religious stuff" he said. And Bob says, Bob looked at him and said, "Well, gee Frank, I think you've been reading too many of them there magazines." Because I realized, you got two legends that were meeting each other for the first time, that never knew each other, and all they knew was about what they read about each other. So it was kind of a strange thing.
The reason I wanted to bring that one particular incident up to you, was, as soon as they started talking, of course, everything was fine. There was no problem. We sat down, all three of us were sitting in there, talking. And Dylan was ready to look for another engineer. And Frank—remember when I told you on my audition, when I was patching things around, and Frank said, "I'm not a robot, you know. I'm only interested in these things for mere moments." Well, Dylan asked Frank, "What kind of engineer is this here Pinske guy?" And Frank said, "Markman—" "Markman" was my nickname he gave me—he said, "Markman can get you a better drum sound in twenty minutes than any engineer you've ever seen." And I said, "Gee, Frank—" because Frank didn't ever really say stuff like that a lot in front of you—I said, "Frank, what ever happened to 'I'm not a robot, you know? I'm only interested in these things for mere moments?'" You're talking about three-and-a-half years had gone by since the time I auditioned. And Frank started laughing and said, "Aw, hell, I was just fucking with you. You got stuff working faster than anybody else I auditioned." And we're sitting there talking, the three of us, and I said, "Frank, are you kidding me? You never told me that. That's kind of nice to know, but did you have to wait three-and-a-half years to tell me this?" So three-and-a-half years had gone by before it had come back to the actual moment of where something tied back to where when I met him. It kind of sticks in my mind as a moment.
It wasn't but about ten minutes later where Frank and Bob Dylan went out into the studio, and they're plinking around on the piano. Both of them. Just plinking around. And I heated up a microphone, and I actually put it on cassette, by the way. Tommy Mars has this cassette, of Frank and Dylan just writing some stuff together, just plinking around and writing some stuff together. This went on for like a couple of hours. I just ran this—I heated up this microphone over the piano, and those guys were talking and playing, and doing all this little tinking around. And I'm looking through the glass, just thinking, Jesus, how lucky I was to be there, watching basically two legends, who kind of never knew each other, but it didn't matter, because within twenty minutes, they're getting along like they've been—like what made them famous in the first place. What makes these guys famous in the first place is their unique talent that they had, and their ability to just write and create. So you got two guys from two opposite ends of the spectrum, and here they are sitting out there playing, creating something together and having a good old time. To me, it was like an amazing revelation. I obviously felt very privileged, and I always felt very privileged, the whole time I worked with Frank, I really did. He made you feel that way.
But that cassette actually still exists somewhere. Tommy Mars still has the damn thing, I think. And it would be pretty interesting to listen to it. Because Tommy was my roommate at the time I brought it home. I just wanted to throw that in.
There was just 3 people in the studio that night. Frank, Bob Dylan & myself. Needless to say I felt quite privileged. I will say this much, when I walked Bob down the steps to his car at about 3 AM in the morning he said that he hadn't had that much fun since 1969.
What happened was, when Bob came to the house, and went and had a meeting with Frank, Frank's engineer at the time, his name was Mark Pinske. And Mark ran off cassettes of the meeting at the time that they were having it. And unfortunately, those cassettes were lent out, and given out to people, and, they are not around any longer. So, unfortunately, those master cassettes of Bob and Frank at the studio talking about a possible working relationship do not live in the vault. They live somewhere else out there in the world.
Bob [Dylan] had already been up to the house, and Frank was interested, but he said he was too busy to do it himself. He told me he would subcontract out songs to various other producers. He even named Giorgio Moroder as a possibility. He told me that he wanted me to be the musical director for the project. I found the idea thrilling, but unfortunately, the whole thing never happened.
Research, compilation and maintenance by Román García Albertos