ROCK ET FOLK, June 1980, Part 1
This time Frank Zappa isn't here in Paris on tour, or to promote his latest record, but to introduce his new film Baby Snakes, a film about people who do things that aren't normal. In the full-length version of nearly 3 hours (which had to be cut down here to about 2 hours) Baby Snakes stars Zappa, of course, but also a good selection of the Mothers, from Terry Bozzio to Warren Cuccurullo, from the veteran Roy Estrada to little Diva Zappa. Baby Snakes, the perfect extension of the Sicilian's (sic) recorded work, isn't just a film for uncritical fans, but also an excellent introduction to the world of Zappa and its craziness. So, it's a mad, mad, mad film which allows the creator of the miniature plasticine people animations, Bruce Bickford, to let his imagination run wild, overflowing with visual and other perversions, to the point of astonishing the producer himself.
The second hour of the film is devoted in its semi-full-length version to film 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 to get up on stage and put themselves under Zappa the trainer's baton in awful sketches.
9 years after 200 Motels, here is a new memorial in celluloid which, despite being divided into two parts, and despite there being a few boring passages, will quickly become a musical film classic. Baby Snakes isn't entirely a film, and isn't entirely a concert: it's very Zappa . . .
After the showing it's a new-look Zappa, hair short and sleek like a pussy-cat, who answers our questions:
Rock et Folk: What do you think of normal people?
FZ: Normal people need people who aren't normal. Without them life would be pretty boring. I think normality can be cured. Without deviation progress is impossible, and vice versa. People who aren't normal need 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 got in touch with Polytel, they saw about 20 minutes, were delighted with it, wanted to finance it, but demanded in return the rights to my records throughout the whole world. That was quite possible, I hadn't yet signed to CBS (outside the American continent). But they didn't offer enough, and I didn't want to put my musical career in jeopardy for the film. So I've done more 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. We met after my first film in 1971. He started working for me in '73 and it was he who animated A Token of My Extreme (the short film shown some time ago on television).
RF: A soundtrack album soon?
FZ: No, it's not possible. I've already got another album ready. But CBS don't want anything before September because the previous albums are doing well. We've had 3 albums in the charts with Sheik Yerbouti and the two Joe's Garage albums. Not to mention Bobby Brown which has stayed top of the charts in Scandinavia for several months. Also, one of the reasons my records are selling better is that CBS 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 at the moment is projects I can put together myself, for lack of means. There might be a film of Joe's Garage if I can find the money. I'd like to begin tomorrow . . .
RF: There's a theme running through your films, that's the day-to-day life of musicians. You talk about it and in various ways show it in pictures . . .
FZ: Yes, that's undoubtedly because I know a thing or two about the subject. I prefer to talk about things I know or understand. I wouldn't want to make a film about racehorse jockeys, because I don't know anything about all that. And that's all there is to it. For the same reason I wouldn't make one about footballers . . . I only know about musicians.
RF: Coming back to your latest records. With songs like Bobby Brown and Dong Work for Yuda, you seem to be returning to your love for Rhythm and Blues.
FZ: I love all that stuff . . . But it's difficult to find the singers for that type of music. In fact, it's become nearly impossible since that style's gone out of fashion and you can't find people who want to sing like that. So I have to search around a bit amongst the people capable of doing it.
RF: You did have with Roy Estrada and Ray Collins . . .
FZ: Yes, but Roy is now in a mental institution. If he's lucky, he'll be out in April and I'll take him to do some recording. But he's been there nearly 2 years . . . As for Ray Collins, he's a taxi driver and his voice is in a very bad state. He's had drug problems.
RF: Did you play in Ruben & the Jets-style groups when you were at school?
FZ: Not exactly like Ruben & the Jets: the groups I was in were 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, meant the possibility of instant composition. But in fact I took up guitar playing because I liked the Blues.
RF: Blues is important to you?
FZ: I've got a whole collection of Blues records. A large collection, even, of the music I really like a lot. I always take them on tour with me to listen to them on the road or in the hotel.
RF: Let's talk about San Diego High School. What did you think of Rhythm and Blues and Jazz?
FZ: I hated Jazz. I thought Rhythm and Blues, on the other hand, was marvellous. At my school there was a great division between between those 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 Lighthouse All 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 you can'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't care, because I like it. You know, I try and appreciate things for what they are . . . I don't like trends or movements and things like that because there's always something interesting, taken by itself, but never the whole lot. It's like in pop music, when punk arrived: there were one or two songs I liked, but as 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 shocking manner than a real musical movement.
RF: When Jazz influences are talked about, Ayler , Coltrane and Mungus are often mentioned. It's said you like Mingus a lot . . .
FZ: That's quite true, but I also like Thelonius Monk, the early recordings of Wes Montgomery, before he put chords everywhere . . . there's not much when it comes down to it. I like certain recordings by Coltrane, I've got one by Albert Ayler. 2 Archie Shepp records as well. In fact, I don't listen to Jazz much, and above all what they're doing at the moment, because it's nothing but disco. They want to do complicated disco. If I want to listen to disco I prefer to listen to Diana Ross and Donna Summer.
RF: Were the last 4 records releaed by Warners (In New York, Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt and Orchestral Favourites) made up of recordings intended to be released as a Box-Set?
RF: Everything that the Box-Set would have contained has been 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 its original form?
FZ: Warners didn't do any promotion. The records were released in the most dreadful sleeves I've ever seen in my life, without any liner notes, because Warners didn't legally have permission to release them. Warners had no permission, no publishing details, no musicians' credits: no one knew who played on what. In fact, it happened like this: I still had a year and a half of my contract to run with Warners, I owed them 4 albums. My contract stated that when I delivered a tape to them they would send me a cheque. I turned up one morning with my 4 albums and asked for my money and my freedom. They took the tapes, released them and never paid me. No cheque, nor royalties. 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 original project turned out like? The division into 4 albums, the selection of tracks for each one - are you satisfied with the ordering of the pieces?
FZ: First of all, I always deliver a finished product to the recording company. I personally supervise the sleeve design, which I was only able to do on the first one released, Live in New York; then I follow all the processes up to the cutting, I make the last corrections myself and the final equalisation in such a way that I get exactly the sound I want. I couldn't do these jobs on any of these records. I wasn't even told about the cutting. The sound is ruined, even though the music is good. It makes 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 and release the Box-Set as originally planned. In fact, it was a monumental error on Warners' part to refuse to release the Box-Set originally planned. At the time when I delivered the tapes to them there wasn't yet a 'record business crisis'. There was a big marketing coup to be made. The Box-Set would have made a lot more noise with such a large amount of music released in one go and promoted as an unprecedented event than with separate records and released as casually as possible. It would have been smarter for them. They would have definitely sold more Box-Sets than separate records. But they had much bigger problems 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 least attention to the rest. I don't sell 17 million albums, so I'm not worth the trouble of waiting around for, of bothering with what I record, letting me have a year and a half in the studio, letting me spend $1,200,000 for a single album. When you've got an artist on your label who monopolises resources like that and commands figures like that, you have to keep your eye on it. In comparison, what I do doesn't make sense to them in business terms; they just say: "OK, let's put this shit out and see what happens."
RF: With the Box-Set did you intend to create a sort of musical panorama, a summary of all you were capable of creating musically?
FZ: Yes. Imagine for a moment in the same package The Black Page, Redunzl, Filthy Habits, Sleep Dirt, live bits, other bits with full orchestra. If you like a certain amount of variety, that's exciting enough. More so, if you maintain the contrast between one side and another, as on Live in New York, if you divide everything into tracks and categories. My idea was that a musically aware person could hear diametrically opposed styles clashing and 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 ensemble tracks on Studio Tan and Orchestral Favourites?
FZ: It was an orchestra composed basically of Los Angeles session musicians.
RF: Classical musicians?
FZ: You know, L.A. sessions musicians are capable of playing 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's because I'm trying to get them played.
RF: I meant: are you going to tour with the Orchestral 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 the studio. Added to which the concert halls in Europe are appalling.
RF: Then why does a top musician like yourself agree to play in them?
FZ: I don't have any choice. Perhaps there are some good venues, but they're either too small, or closed to rock. Show me a good venue which holds 2000 people and I'll play there tomorrow. France has the most disgusting rock venues in the world. You should understand that it's an act of self-sacrifice to play in France.
RF: But take Leonard Bernstein, who can also attract 2000 people. He came to Paris recently and played several nights in 2000-seater halls.
FZ: OK, let's take the case of Leonard Bernstein. How many roadies 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 hotel room, that's it. When I travel, I have 26 people on the road, 26 salaries, 26 mouths to feed, not to mention the equipment. The costs involved in that completely prevent me from playing in 2000-seater halls.
Go to Rock et Folk Interview, Part 2
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