In order to take part in an unprecedented rock show at Asakusa Kokusai Gekijo, Frank Zappa and the Mothers came to Japan for the first time. As he has been keen to visit Japan for a long time, he even shared the expenses of the touring. Although his visit coincided with other Japanese tours by the Average White Band and the Eagles, his concerts at various locations were reportedly very successful, gathering a lot of enthusiastic fans.
At 4:00 p.m. on February 2nd, I timidly knocked the door of his room in Keio Plaza Hotel, with mixed emotions. First of all, I was going to interview one of the most bizarre men in the U.S., who was notorious for his obscenity, abstruseness and crazy love for monster movies (especially "Mothra"). Wearing a long black "happi" [Japanese-style jacket] and relaxing in a sofa, however, Zappa was a handsome man with a long, peaked, mysterious nose, and his black eyes were very warmly twinkling. Talking in a cool and calm manner, this gentleman looked too intellectual to be called eccentric. The interview started with talking about the frighteningly sexy clothes he wore on yesterday's stage, which exposed his back naked and showed the lines of his body clearly.
Q: Your clothes looked very sexy yesterday.
Zappa: Did you like it? Wanna see me wearing it here? Did it sexually arouse you?
(* ...And he stood up and started to take off his happi coat in a serious face. In open-mouthed astonishment, our side shouted in a fluster.)
Q: No, no, please don't take off! That is not necessary!
(* Zappa stopped the move unwillingly.)
Q: You didn't put on underwear yesterday?
Zappa: Not only yesterday, but always. When I put on underwear, I feel like being in a prison.
Q: What did you do right after the concert?
Zappa: I took the elevator to the upstairs, went to the dressing room and sat on a small chair. I asked for coffee but there wasn't any. Then a beautiful Japanese girl came up to me and threw both arms around my neck. I lay down on the chair and she rubbed my butt. I waited until the whole band getting ready to take a car, went downstairs, wrote some autographs and went to a party. Then to a disco.
Q: Was it fun?
Zappa: No. Crowded. Getting out of the disco, I came back to the hotel, took some food, back to this room, and I can't talk about what happened after that.
Q: Your concert lasted two hour and a half without a break. Don't you get tired?
Zappa: Sometimes we have two shows in one night and that's exhausting. But two hour and a half is no problem. Rather it was a short show for me.
Q: Did you change the contents of the show for the Japanese audience?
Zappa: Not at all. It was the same as the one we do in the States. We did the same thing in Australia, and will do in the forthcoming European tour. The only thing I took care of was to speak slowly.
Q: You look much better than your photograph.
Zappa: John Lennon said the same thing. By the way, do you think my teeth are beautiful?
(* And all of a sudden, he grinned to show his teeth.)
Q: Why do you show a funny face deliberately in a photo session?
Zappa: Everybody takes my photographs, which will go up to the editor of a magazine. Then he chooses the funny ones. If my face looks funny in the photos, it's because editors want me to look funny, not because I'm funny. Every photo of the bands from England looks beautiful. But from the U.S., you have photos of the Mothers of Invention - that gives you wider variety, don't you think?
Q: I think you're far from being funny - rather very cool and intelligent and serious.
Zappa: Right. I'm as serious as being funny.
Q: People often call you a genius, or a man of unusual talent, or even crazy. What do you think of yourself?
Zappa: Do you want to hear the truth? Then please listen carefully. Yes, I'm a genius. Not crazy.
Q: Please tell us what kind of talent makes you a genius.
Zappa: My natural talent is the ability to analyze, synthesize and invent various types of materials.
Q: Although everybody says you're a man of unusual talent, very few seem to place a high value on you as a musician. What do you think about that? What kind of title do you prefer to be called?
Zappa: (Laughs) There's almost no difference whatever they call me. When I write in an entry card, I always write "composer" as my occupation. But in other occasions, I'm a musician.
Q: Do you think you're a kind of total artist?
Zappa: I don't think so, because there're some areas I haven't touched yet. I'm a partial artist, so to speak. I'm a specialist in several areas, but a total artist should be someone like Leonard da Vinci. He couldn't have touched movie and video, though.
Q: I heard you're a fan of Edgard Varèse. When did you first notice him?
Zappa: It was when I was fifteen. Do you like Edgard Varèse? (* He left the sofa and came back with a copy of Varèse's biography published in England. Although he'd just heard my name once, he gave me the copy with writing my name correctly on it.)
Q: Thank you very much. Could I really have this? (* I asked half in a doubt.)
Zappa: Sure. I have two copies, and will present one for my wife and the other for you. Varèse is a great composer.
Q: Do you have any idea on Japanese composers of contemporary classic, like Takemitsu...
Zappa: Oh Takemitsu! I love "November Steps". If you see him in the future, you must send him this message: when I was in a hospital, I was just crazy about "November Steps", listening to it everyday[*1]. It's really excellent. Another good one is "Dorian Horizon".
Q: What made you start listening to contemporary classic? It sounds precocious to listen to Varèse at the age of fifteen.
Zappa: It's quite a complicated story, but do you want to hear it all? OK. When I was twelve, I started to play drums. At the age of fourteen or fifteen, I read a magazine article about Sam Goody's record shop in New York, which got famous for selling any kind of records very well. One of the examples of hard-to-sell records was "Ionization". But this article was wrong. The real title of that album was "The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume I", and "Ionization" was just the name of one of the compositions on the album. I read the explanation of the record and thought, "it is the one I really want to hear". Since then, I'd go to various record shops to look for the record. But I couldn't find it. Nobody had ever heard of it, since the title I knew was wrong. But one day, I went to a record shop and found a weird looking album. The front jacket was gray and had a photo of Varèse. That was the one I'd been looking for. I emptied what little money I had and came home with it. I immediately found it different from any other music, even though I hadn't heard any of contemporary music - any of classical music, of course. The next record I bought was "Brighter Spring" [sic] [*2]. I would keep listening to these two records for the next three years or so. The next composer I noticed was Anton Webern. Oh, have you seen the score I wrote? Let me show you. (* Zappa showed us the score for his new album, written in his own writing [*3].)
Q: It's marvelous! Did you take lessons on studied musical theory?
Zappa: No, I went to libraries. If you read books and listen to records, you can learn everything you need. Actually, there're not so many books necessary for composing. All you have to do is just master three kinds of basic texts: one for the mechanics of writing a score; another one for orchestration; and the last one is something like an encyclopedia, which, for example, easily shows where Bartók uses harp in his compositions. That sort of book compiles various techniques of orchestration of all kinds. (* Then we talked a lot about classical music. Zappa doesn't like minimalists like Terry Riley, and his favorite French composer is Ravel. He brought up the name of pianist Alicia de Larrocha, who he thinks is very good at playing Ravel. His knowledge on classical music, especially on contemporary ones, almost outshines a professional.)
Q: By the way, what is the most important thing when you select musicians for your band? In other words, which do you choose between a technically superb musician and a heavy drinker?
Zappa: (Laughs) You got a good sense of humor! Well, I choose my musicians just like using various flowers for flower arrangement, because each band has its own style. If the group's general direction of music is very technical, I need someone who can read and memorize the parts fast. But the type of music we're currently playing is not technical, so it's appropriate to choose someone who dynamically moves on the stage, preferably with a good sense of humor and a cheerful personality to go on tour together. I once had a group with technically superb musicians only, but it was the most boring tour I ever had. Although they were pretty good musicians, I had no fun hanging around with them. The only thing they wanted to do was to play chess (laugh).
Q: When you choose a new member, do you have any inspiration, something like "he's the one"?
Zappa: Wherever I went, musicians would come up and ask me to hire them. In some cases, they'd send me a cassttetape. In other cases, I'd go to a club to see them play and take a note of their names. I have a notebook with the names of those fellows, and have a look in the list when some of my band members have to be replaced. If I find some candidates, I'd call them.
Q: What was the funniest encounter with a new member?
Zappa: The case of Ian Underwood. One day he suddenly came up to me and said, "Hello, my name is Ian Underwood. I play piano and alto sax. Very competent. I'd like to join your group". I said, "All right, whip it out". Then he whipped it out, and I said "OK, you're hired". And we cut a record on the very same day.
Q: What is he doing now?
Zappa: He's learning tennis in Florida.
Q: When your album "Over-nite Sensation" was released, Warner secretly gave us a translation of lyrics, which almost made me lose my senses, since they were so extreme. But when I listened to the record with my eyes on the translation, I really, really enjoyed it.
Zappa: What? Who translated "Dinah-moe Humm"? (* That is the most obscene lyrics in the album.) I have a very interesting story on that song. Just before releasing the album, we gave a concert in Brisbane, Australia. I was touring with a cassettetape of the album, and after the show, I came back to the hotel with two girls and made them listen to the tape. One of them was a beatnik type, and the other one was a Women's-Lib type. And then, they started laughing and really liked it. Later that night, the Women's-Lib type suggested that we should do exactly the same things that happens in the song, but this time, do them extremely fast. She was buns-up kneelin' and wanted to do it as soon as possible (* Everybody in the room laughed out loud). You should try it. It's difficult but would be a good exercise.
Q: Is there any particular person who influenced your lyrics?
Q: Everything comes from your experience?
Zappa: Some from my experience, and some from my imagination. "Montana" is not from my experience.
Q: How about "Dinah-moe Humm"?
Zappa: Until going to Brisbane, I hadn't thought it's good enough to make it on to the record. But now, it became legendary in the U.S.: it's banned from the radio, although the lyrics don't have any of those four letter words or illegal words. I didn't use any word infringing any law! But still this song offends everybody. Oh, I just remembered. Yesterday I was with another Japanese girl. I asked her what kind of letters in this country describe the word "I'm coming!", but her face turned red and told me she couldn't answer. What a funny country!! Everybody in this country gets nervous when they see hair[*4], and they can't even tell the letters for "I'm coming".
Q: You're absolutely right. OK, this is the last question: what is your personal point of view on women?
Zappa: "Woman" is really rare. There are a lot of "Girls" and "Ladies". "Ladies" don't want to get their hair rumpled. "Girls" are the reserves for "Ladies". But "Woman" is really rare.
Around the time the interview finished, I found myself hitting it off with him very well. The fear I had at the door had already disappeared. When I stood up to say goodbye, all of a sudden, he took my body in his arms without effort and hugged me strongly enough to make my spine squeak. Everybody in the room had their mouth wide open. It seemed to be his way of showing affection.
The generous musician had enthusiasm for giving a present: he later invited us to have a dinner together, and on the day of his departure he gave me the hand-written score for his new album. Perhaps we had been too biased against him, thinking "he's an abstruse eccentric". As he said, he is not crazy: a very talented musician, now aged thirty-five, with outstanding intelligence and warm personality. If you find out the truth, please relax and listen to his past albums again. From now on, Frank Zappa's music will never sound abstruse anymore.