ROCK ET FOLK, June 1980, Part 1
This time Frank Zappa isn't here in Paris on tour, or topromote his latest record, but to introduce his new film BabySnakes, a film about people who do things that aren't normal. In thefull-length version of nearly 3 hours (which had to be cut down here to about 2hours) Baby Snakes stars Zappa, of course, but also a goodselection of the Mothers, from Terry Bozzio to Warren Cuccurullo, from theveteran Roy Estrada to little Diva Zappa. Baby Snakes, theperfect extension of the Sicilian's (sic) recorded work, isn't just a film foruncritical fans, but also an excellent introduction to the world of Zappa andits craziness. So, it's a mad, mad, mad film which allows the creator of theminiature plasticine people animations, Bruce Bickford, to let his imaginationrun wild, overflowing with visual and other perversions, to the point ofastonishing the producer himself.
The second hour of the film is devoted in its semi-full-length version tofilm of a live concert. Although it hardly stands out as a film it is,however, an opportunity to see Roy Estrada, a companion from early adventures,recreating a very theatrical version of Sexually Aroused Gasmask.
But the true stars are the very cooperative audience, who don't hesitate toget up on stage and put themselves under Zappa the trainer's baton in awfulsketches.
9 years after 200 Motels, here is a new memorial in celluloidwhich, despite being divided into two parts, and despite there being a fewboring passages, will quickly become a musical film classic. BabySnakes isn't entirely a film, and isn't entirely a concert: it's veryZappa . . .
After the showing it's a new-look Zappa, hair short and sleek like apussy-cat, who answers our questions:
Rock et Folk: What do you think of normal people?
FZ: Normal people need people who aren't normal. Withoutthem life would be pretty boring. I think normality can be cured. Withoutdeviation progress is impossible, and vice versa. People who aren't normalneed people who are normal. They complement each other by contrast!
RF: Who produced the film?
FZ: I did. I paid for it all out of my own pocket. I gotin touch with Polytel, they saw about 20 minutes, were delighted with it,wanted to finance it, but demanded in return the rights to my recordsthroughout the whole world. That was quite possible, I hadn't yet signed toCBS (outside the American continent). But they didn't offer enough, and Ididn't want to put my musical career in jeopardy for the film. So I've donemore concerts to finance it. It's cost me $500,000.
RF: Who's Bruce Bickford who did the animations?
FZ: He's one of my fans who's come up from the ranks. Wemet after my first film in 1971. He started working for me in '73 and it washe who animated A Token of My Extreme (the short film shown sometime ago on television).
RF: A soundtrack album soon?
FZ: No, it's not possible. I've already got another albumready. But CBS don't want anything before September because the previousalbums are doing well. We've had 3 albums in the charts with SheikYerbouti and the two Joe's Garage albums. Not to mentionBobby Brown which has stayed top of the charts in Scandinavia forseveral months. Also, one of the reasons my records are selling better is thatCBS make sure to promote them better than the previous record company.
RF: How do you regard video?
FZ: For me video is an extension of my musical experience. Apart from that I'm interested in new techniques like video discs, for example. I'd like to work in that area, but I'd need money for that. All I can do atthe moment is projects I can put together myself, for lack of means. Theremight be a film of Joe's Garage if I can find the money. I'd liketo begin tomorrow . . .
RF: There's a theme running through your films, that's theday-to-day life of musicians. You talk about it and in various ways show it inpictures . . .
FZ: Yes, that's undoubtedly because I know a thing or twoabout the subject. I prefer to talk about things I know or understand. Iwouldn't want to make a film about racehorse jockeys, because I don't knowanything about all that. And that's all there is to it. For the same reason Iwouldn't make one about footballers . . . I only know about musicians.
RF: Coming back to your latest records. With songs likeBobby Brown and Dong Work for Yuda, you seem to bereturning to your love for Rhythm and Blues.
FZ: I love all that stuff . . . But it's difficult to findthe singers for that type of music. In fact, it's become nearly impossiblesince that style's gone out of fashion and you can't find people who want tosing like that. So I have to search around a bit amongst the people capable ofdoing it.
RF: You did have with Roy Estrada and Ray Collins . . .
FZ: Yes, but Roy is now in a mental institution. If he'slucky, he'll be out in April and I'll take him to do some recording. But he'sbeen there nearly 2 years . . . As for Ray Collins, he's a taxi driver and hisvoice is in a very bad state. He's had drug problems.
RF: Did you play in Ruben & the Jets-style groups when youwere at school?
FZ: Not exactly like Ruben & the Jets: the groups I was inwere quite good! (sardonic laugh).
RF: You gave up drums for the guitar when you were 18. Why?
FZ: Playing the guitar, as far as I was concerned, meantthe possibility of instant composition. But in fact I took up guitar playingbecause I liked the Blues.
RF: Blues is important to you?
FZ: I've got a whole collection of Blues records. A largecollection, even, of the music I really like a lot. I always take them on tourwith me to listen to them on the road or in the hotel.
RF: Let's talk about San Diego High School. What did youthink of Rhythm and Blues and Jazz?
FZ: I hated Jazz. I thought Rhythm and Blues, on the otherhand, was marvellous. At my school there was a great division between betweenthose who liked Jazz and those who liked Rhythm and Blues. There were fights. Because the ones who like Jazz said to the others: the music you like is crap!
RF: What sort of Jazz was it?
FZ: At that time it was Howard Rumsey and his LighthouseAll Stars. And stuff like Shorty Rodgers' Martians Go Home. (Laughs). How could we like that?
RF: Yes, but when you show an interest in Eric Dolphy youcan't say you hate Jazz altogether.
FZ: I like Eric Dolphy, not because what he does is Jazz,but because I like what he does. He could play Country and Western, I don'tcare, because I like it. You know, I try and appreciate things for what theyare . . . I don't like trends or movements and things like that because there'salways something interesting, taken by itself, but never the whole lot. It'slike in pop music, when punk arrived: there were one or two songs I liked, butas for the rest, I rerally had nothing to do with it.
RF: It's more a label than anything else?
FZ: It's more an excuse for dressing up in a shockingmanner than a real musical movement.
RF: When Jazz influences are talked about, Ayler , Coltraneand Mungus are often mentioned. It's said you like Mingus a lot . . .
FZ: That's quite true, but I also like Thelonius Monk, theearly recordings of Wes Montgomery, before he put chords everywhere . . .there's not much when it comes down to it. I like certain recordings byColtrane, I've got one by Albert Ayler. 2 Archie Shepp records as well. Infact, I don't listen to Jazz much, and above all what they're doing at themoment, because it's nothing but disco. They want to do complicated disco. IfI want to listen to disco I prefer to listen to Diana Ross and Donna Summer.
RF: Were the last 4 records releaed by Warners (InNew York, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt andOrchestral Favourites) made up of recordings intended to bereleased as a Box-Set?
RF: Everything that the Box-Set would have contained hasbeen released?
FZ: Yes. I've got a lot more tapes from those sessions,but everything I chose for the Box-Set is on those 4 records.
RF: Why didn't the project see the light of day in itsoriginal form?
FZ: Warners didn't do any promotion. The records werereleased in the most dreadful sleeves I've ever seen in my life, without anyliner notes, because Warners didn't legally have permission to release them. Warners had no permission, no publishing details, no musicians' credits: no oneknew who played on what. In fact, it happened like this: I still had a yearand a half of my contract to run with Warners, I owed them 4 albums. Mycontract stated that when I delivered a tape to them they would send me acheque. I turned up one morning with my 4 albums and asked for my money and myfreedom. They took the tapes, released them and never paid me. No cheque, norroyalties. It's a big loss, which has greatly inconvenienced me in my work.
RF: Are you sueing Warners?
FZ: Yes, it's in hand.
RF: Can you tell me something about what the originalproject turned out like? The division into 4 albums, the selection of tracksfor each one - are you satisfied with the ordering of the pieces?
FZ: First of all, I always deliver a finished product tothe recording company. I personally supervise the sleeve design, which I wasonly able to do on the first one released, Live in New York; thenI follow all the processes up to the cutting, I make the last correctionsmyself and the final equalisation in such a way that I get exactly the sound Iwant. I couldn't do these jobs on any of these records. I wasn't even toldabout the cutting. The sound is ruined, even though the music is good. Itmakes me mad to see the music badly cut and stuck in horrible sleeves.
RF: Do you plan to release them again properly one day?
FZ: When the case is over I hope to get my tapes back andrelease the Box-Set as originally planned. In fact, it was a monumental erroron Warners' part to refuse to release the Box-Set originally planned. At thetime when I delivered the tapes to them there wasn't yet a 'record businesscrisis'. There was a big marketing coup to be made. The Box-Set would havemade a lot more noise with such a large amount of music released in one go andpromoted as an unprecedented event than with separate records and released ascasually as possible. It would have been smarter for them. They would havedefinitely sold more Box-Sets than separate records. But they had much biggerproblems than me at that time, like releasing a new Fleetwood Mac. You know,when you've got a project like that going on it's difficult to pay the leastattention to the rest. I don't sell 17 million albums, so I'm not worth thetrouble of waiting around for, of bothering with what I record, letting me havea year and a half in the studio, letting me spend $1,200,000 for a singlealbum. When you've got an artist on your label who monopolises resources likethat and commands figures like that, you have to keep your eye on it. Incomparison, what I do doesn't make sense to them in business terms; they justsay: "OK, let's put this shit out and see what happens."
RF: With the Box-Set did you intend to create a sort ofmusical panorama, a summary of all you were capable of creating musically?
FZ: Yes. Imagine for a moment in the same packageThe Black Page, Redunzl, Filthy Habits,Sleep Dirt, live bits, other bits with full orchestra. If youlike a certain amount of variety, that's exciting enough. More so, if youmaintain the contrast between one side and another, as on Live in NewYork, if you divide everything into tracks and categories. My idea wasthat a musically aware person could hear diametrically opposed styles clashingand superimposed in a whole in which none of them was particularly predominant. That was the Box-Set project.
RF: What was the orchestra you used for the large ensembletracks on Studio Tan and Orchestral Favourites?
FZ: It was an orchestra composed basically of Los Angelessession musicians.
RF: Classical musicians?
FZ: You know, L.A. sessions musicians are capable ofplaying anything from Pepsi-cola jingles to Mozart symphonies. They're simply'musicians for hire.'
RF: How many of them were there?
FZ: 40, including Terry Bozzio on drums.
RF: Do you plan to tour with a large orchestra?
FZ: Why do you think I've brought these scores along? It'sbecause I'm trying to get them played.
RF: I meant: are you going to tour with theOrchestral Favourites music, for instance?
FZ: I might even do that. In fact, it's impossible to'tour' with a large orchestra. First of all, because it costs too much;secondly because it's extremely difficult to get the right sound outside thestudio. Added to which the concert halls in Europe are appalling.
RF: Then why does a top musician like yourself agree toplay in them?
FZ: I don't have any choice. Perhaps there are some goodvenues, but they're either too small, or closed to rock. Show me a good venuewhich holds 2000 people and I'll play there tomorrow. France has the mostdisgusting rock venues in the world. You should understand that it's an actof self-sacrifice to play in France.
RF: But take Leonard Bernstein, who can also attract 2000people. He came to Paris recently and played several nights in 2000-seaterhalls.
FZ: OK, let's take the case of Leonard Bernstein. How manyroadies has he got? None! How many musicians has he got in his group? None! He conducts the local orchestra. They pay his fee, his plane ticket, his hotelroom, that's it. When I travel, I have 26 people on the road, 26 salaries, 26mouths to feed, not to mention the equipment. The costs involved in thatcompletely prevent me from playing in 2000-seater halls.
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