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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Research, compilation and maintenance by Román García Albertos