I got in touch with Andrew when he posted an item about my book on his Idiot Bastard website (almost before I’d told anyone about the project – that man has his ears to the ground!). I listened to the first ZappaCast episode and spoke to Scott via Facebook. Next thing I knew, I’d been invited to contribute a Zappa’s Gear spot. Shortly afterwards, I discovered that Andrew lives just 13 miles away from me, so we are both in the heart of the Thames delta in England. What are the chances of that? Scott and Andrew have both been incredibly supportive and helpful regarding the Zappa’s Gear book. I’m very glad to be part of the team.
You’ve conducted painstakingly detailed research on Frank Zappa’s guitars, amplifiers, effects pedals and other assorted studio equipment and, in addition to discussing it on the ZappaCast, you’ve posted it on your Zappa’s Gear website. Discuss that.
Although I initially set up the site mainly to act as a promotional focus for the book, it soon became clear that some people would be interested in detailed technical information, photographs and interviews that would not fit into the book. As and when time permits, I’ll be posting more supplementary material of this type. I’m hoping that when the book is published, the website will continue as a repository for corrections and additional content as it comes to light.
What is it about Zappa’s gear that made you decide to devote so much time and energy to research it and so thoroughly?
Frank Zappa was an unremitting innovator and experimenter, always looking at ways to exploit the latest advances in musical equipment. His working life coincided with the explosion in the development of music technology, which started in the 1960s and continued throughout the following three decades. Consequently, he ended up using a unique and fascinating range of guitars and other devices, many of which he had specially modified and customised (or “tweezed”, as he put it) and often used in ways for which they hadn’t been designed. Although numerous books have been produced on the history of electric guitars and amplifiers, much of the gear that Frank Zappa used has received scant coverage. As a musician, self-confessed equipment geek and life-long Zappa fan, these were things that I wanted to know more about. In the end, the only solution was to write the book myself.
What is the current status of the Zappa’s Gear book that you are working on?
The bulk of the research has been completed and much of the final text has been written. I expect the book to be published in August.
I know that Gail Zappa and the Zappa Family Trust literally and figuratively lord over Frank’s legacy with an iron hand (for lack of better words). With regard to your Zappa’s Gear website, how much of a challenge has that posed for you?
I knew that I would have to work with the ZFT for the Zappa’s Gear project to succeed. I first met Gail at the 2010 Roundhouse event in London, told her of my idea for the book and to my delight, her immediate reaction was “What a great idea!”. I quickly sent Gail a couple of sample chapters and an outline of the book and she gave her support and approval for the book. I’ve just returned from Los Angeles where I was allowed to visit the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen and photograph FZ’s guitars and amps. Gail and her staff could not have been more helpful. I’ve always been careful to avoid any misuse of ZFT copyrighted material and am as committed as Gail that the final result will be worthy of the subject matter. So far, we have not hit any problems.
What are some of your favourite Zappa albums and/or songs and why?
That’s a hard question for someone who considers Frank’s best period was from the 1960s to the early 1990s. I’ll pick just two albums and two songs.
Roxy and Elsewhere – my favourite Zappa band in top form. For me, this is the perfect combination of humour, great tunes and astonishing musicianship. My jaw still drops whenever I listen to “Echidna’s Arf” and “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing”.
Lumpy Money – the best ZFT reissue, in my opinion. Worth it for the original version of Lumpy Gravy alone but filled with riches from two of Frank Zappa’s masterworks.
“You Are What You Is” – I just love this song, it always makes me happy. Ray White’s finest hour. And, to complement it, “Outside Now” (from Joe’s Garage) – the electric sitar intro always gives me goose bumps. A heartbreakingly beautiful tune and Ike Willis’s finest hour.
Do you have a preference as far as what format that you most prefer to listen to Zappa’s music? If so, what format and why?
I prefer vinyl but to be honest, I can hear little difference when listening to the CD version of an album as long as it has not been remixed or otherwise messed around with. I tend to notice more detail in my vinyl recordings but possibly only because I have a better
turntable than CD player. A decent hi-fi system with a pair of good quality speakers that are large enough to let you feel the kick of the bass drum is most important.
You’re a musician yourself. Besides Zappa, who are some of your influences as a musician and why?
Apart from Zappa, the records taking up the largest amount of space in my collection are jazz rock or fusion albums by Miles Davis, Soft Machine, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report and John McLaughlin. When I first started playing, I grew up aspiring to play this music and still spend a lot of time listening to it.
These days, a far greater direct influence would be the blues in it’s various forms. This is what I tend to play for pleasure and which I see as the basis from which almost all modern music evolved. Far too many people to list spring to mind but my favourites include John Lee Hooker, Howling Wolf, Albert Collins and Johnnie Guitar Watson.
What are your thoughts and opinions of Frank’s son Dweezil’s Zappa Plays Zappa band?
I think that Dweezil is doing a terrific job with ZPZ and I am a huge fan of the band. From time to time, I see some very unwarranted criticism in the media or on the web, mostly from old Zappa “fans” who seem to be expecting to see some magical reincarnation on stage. They should probably just stay at home and listen to their records. The band keeps getting better and better. The forthcoming Front of House album will blow a lot of people away, it is
one of the best live rock band recordings I have ever heard.
Dweezil is also a marvellous ambassador for his father’s music. Last year, after the Barbican concert in London, I watched him signing autographs for a seemingly endless queue of fans. Despite being obviously extremely tired from a busy touring schedule and the night’s performance, Dweezil kept smiling, shaking hands and courteously listening to the “I saw your dad back in…” stories. It really brought home to me the level of his commitment to bringing Frank’s music to a new generation of fans.