The first music I remember hearing was Arab music when I was very young. I thought it was really good but I never heard any more after that. I never heard any classical music or anything like that. We had a pretty much unmusical family. The nearest they got to music was the stuff that was being played in the background on TV or radio, soap opera type stuff. I heard all that. As far as what you might call music to pay attention to, there wasn't any of it around.
There were some theoretical things that I saw him do—mostly to do with harmonies. He told me once that he had gotten his sense of harmony from playing the guitar [...].
Eventually some of his favorite chords got written down and categorized into what he called "the chord bible"—chords would get added to each note of a melody and the final result would be five to seven parallel voices with the melody on top. This was used for most of the large orchestra pieces I worked on. That's why Sinister Footwear has such huge wind sections—so he could have these thick chords played by individual instrumental colors. When the Synclavier arrived this system was soon forgotten. He did have some special Synclavier software created which combined music files in various ways. Steve DeFuria wrote it. Can this be considered theory? I think not—it was more of a "Lets try this and see what happens"—musical experimentations where he kept what he liked and tossed the rest of the tapes into the vault. Don't forget—he called his studio "Utility Muffin RESEARCH Kitchen". I believe he did that sort of stuff throughout his career.
I remember once we were wating in an airport and he was sitting there scribbling some stuff onto manuscript paper. I went down and I sat next to him. I had the audacity to say, "So what are you doing?" He looks at me and says, "Nothing." I slinked away. A minute later he says, "Come here, boy." And he shows me this little dictionary of chords that he was building. They were these tremendous, fat, robust 9- and 10-note chords without any doublings, and he says to me, "These are densities." I thought that was great terminology to use for a chord voicing. He said, "When I get back to L.A. I'm going to use these to compose a piece of music," and he did, some of those densities were used in the composing of Sinister Footwear.
I've been real curious about his "chord bible", which was a sort of automated way he had of harmonizing his melodies. But I heard about that from David Ocker. I'm hoping to reverse engineer some of the logic of the chord bible, but haven't gotten very far, not far enough to determine whether or not I think it's even possible. But now that I know it existed, I can see it all over the place in the score to Sinister Footwear. I just don't know its internal logic. I wish I had known about it when I worked for Frank, because I would have certainly asked him about that, and I'm sure he would have enjoyed telling me about it.
They're aesthetic decisions, sure. I mean, some people like to play on II-V-I changes and can bebop themselves into a frenzy; and there are other people who even like to listen to that sort of thing. I can't stand it myself. I pretty much loathe chord progressions. [chuckles] Look at Indian musical culture: They don't have too much in the way of progressions, and that's some of the most interesting, beautiful music ever. You don't need changes to play great lines. All you need is a tonic and a 5th and away you go; sometimes you don't even need the 5th. That's the aesthetic principle that I go on. But if your ear hears a harmonic foundation of something, then the interest of the solo is the theoretical difference you perceive on a note-by-note, nanosecond-by-nanosecond basis of what the improviser inflicts on the established tonality. In other words, if you hear in the bass a C and a G, you know, "You're in the key of C, buddy." You are anchored to a tonality, and when a soloist comes along and plays the C#, he's sending you a message. And where that C# goes is part of the adventure of playing the solo. And if he's playing a B natural or an F# against those notes . . . they're like ingredients in a stew. I mean, there's a right way and a wrong way to stick a C# on top of a C-G groundbase. If you play all notes that are part of the C major scale, the recipe you have just prepared is oatmeal, know what I mean? So it's like the difference between eating oatmeal and eating salsa.
The thing that sets rock 'n' roll apart from other music—it's not the repetition, it's not the lyrics and it's not the chords—is the timbre. That's the key. You can take the same three chords from any popular rock 'n' roll song of the grossest variety, you can take "Louie Louie" and write it out for an accordion, an oboe and a harp and it's not rock & roll anymore. Even if you transcribe it note for note. On the other hand, you can take any kind of a song from another field of music and orchestrate it for a couple of fuzz tone guitars, a loud bass and a drum set with tom-tom fills and by God, it's rock 'n' roll. That timbre makes the event. Also the attack and the attitude with which the instruments are played. If you were a legit guy and you were forced to write rock 'n' roll on paper with all of the traditional terminology that they normally apply, your marking would be 'molto deliberato.'
Sandy: What do you think of all that [punk rock] stuff, like the Sex Pistols?
Zappa: Well, I think that it definitely gave the writers of the rock 'n' roll publications something to write about, which is what they always want. And since what they do with their little typewriters and pencils has little or nothing to do with music, then the punk rock phenomenon was ideally suited to their talent and craftsmanship.
STREET: What do you think of punk rock?
ZAPPA: I think it's gonna be the next great humiliator of the rock n' roll journalistic circuit. [...] It's all a hype. And then the next thing you know they call it punk rock and now those guys are gonna be writing about punk and how great it is. Unfortunately, a lot of people who are writing rock criticism today weren't around during the sixties or they'd already know that punk rock already happened folks. It was better already.
STREET: Do you like punk rock music yourself?
ZAPPA: Some of the songs. I like a couple of the songs that Blondie does.
FASS: What in particular?
ZAPPA: Sex Offender.
STREET: Do you think you can relate to the punk rock kids?
ZAPPA: What do you mean, relate to them?
STREET: Do you think they'll come to your concerts?
ZAPPA: Do you think I could have a coherent conversation with somebody with a safety pin stuck in his cheek? I mean, aside from their speech impediments.
STREET: Do you think they'll buy your records?
ZAPPA: Probably not.
FASS: Do you think the punk rock scene such as you see at CBGB's or the Bottom Line encourages prostitution?
STREET: Do you think it encourages anarchy?
ZAPPA: No, I think it encourages buying the merchandise specified by peer group pressure in that particular trend. In other words, it encourages people to put safety pins in their cheeks; it encourages people to buy leather goods; it encourages people to look a certain way; it encourages people to purport to espouse a certain attitude towards things.
SPIN: What did you think of punk?
Zappa: Well I liked the attitude of punk, I didn't necessarily like it from a musical standpoint; it is anti-musical. The whole idea was we're gonna play shitty and fast and so what? The so what part I always like. But anybody who's against music I don't like. I don't like people who smash instruments. I don't like the abuse of things that could produce beautiful results.
SPIN: Did you find any punk musically good? What about the Clash?
Zappa: One of my favorite punk records was "Gidget Goes to Hell" by the Suburban Lawns—I thought that was good.
STREET: Are there any major rock n' roll bands aside from yourself that you do listen to?
ZAPPA: I like Queen. I like Gentle Giant.
What are you listening to outside your own work at the moment. Have you listened to any of the American new wave acts?
The American ones?
Yes, I've heard Television. I don't care for them too much. I heard Blondie and I like them. I have some stuff by the Stranglers which I thought was pretty good. There's a song by Lew Lewis that I thought was nice—'Caravan Man' (originally on Stiff, now deleted). And I just heard one Elvis Costello song for the first time. I thought it was really good. 'Radio Sweetheart'.
But with me now I have mostly Penderesky, Schoenburg, Webern, lute music, mediaeval vocal music, organ music, rhythm and blues, Pat Martino, Weather Report, Stravinsky, Gentle Giant, PFM, the Outlaws, two Queen cassettes, Black Sabbath, Mott The Hoople.
Still playing Black Sabbath eh?
(laughs) I like it. It's fantastic. 'Iron Man'. Are kidding me? 'Iron Man'! That's a work of art. I'm really into that. I used to like 'Supernaught' but I think 'Iron Man' is the one now.
Billy Gibbons is an original. The style that he does, although I know a lot of the blues antecedents that it was derived from, he goes like that [raises middle finger again]. You've gotta have that in your playing.
If you had to name a few songs, written by other people, that you consider to be great, what would they be?
I liked "Subterranean Homesick Blues" by Bob Dylan. I liked "Paperback Writer" by the Beatles and "I am the Walrus." And one may not underestimate the impact of "Louie Louie," the original Richard Berry version.
Were those the only songs by Dylan and the Beatles that you like or do you like them in general?
No, those are the only ones I liked. I generally liked the Rolling Stones better than the Beatles during that era; they were a little bit more to my taste because they were more involved in the blues.
I like the group Them, with Van Morrison. And the other thing that I really enjoyed were the early compositions of David and Bacharach. I thought that they were so good because prior to that time there had been little of bitonal or polytonal harmonic implication in American pop music, and we are to thank them for providing them through those early Dionne Warwick recordings.
What do you think of the New York school of composers, such as Phillip Glass?
I'm not familiar with his music but the whole realm of the New York school of repetition music, it's like stuff to be played in the background of an art gallery. It's an atmosphere that people might enjoy participating in, but it's not my style; it's not my idea of a good time.
Research, compilation and maintenance by Román García Albertos