Les Claypool, Jake Cinninger and More Talk Frank Zappa
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of iconic guitarist Frank Zappa. Having inspired so many, Zappa's legacy still lives on, with so many current guitarists and musicians channeling his influence on a nightly basis. Here is a piece from the 2006 April/May issue of Relix featuring musicians speaking on Zappa's life and influence.
I really appreciate anybody who has any type of signature, whether it’s a guitar player or somebody who makes pancakes. It’s so rare to have your thumbprint really stand out from the rest of the bunch. He was a fellow who challenged himself and did what he needed to remain interested in making music and creating. I think that’s very bold because when most people find their comfort zone, they stick with it. He’s a shining example for guys like myself to take chances, and not be afraid to take those chances. His humor was amazing—- “Dumb All Over” is still incredibly timely. It’s almost scary. He knew how to hit the nail on the head and still have it tickle your funny bone or bring forth this odd imagery that would border on silly. But, he would never get ridiculous to the point of where it would undermine his stature.
He is the first wildman of rock. His use of small orchestras for dynamic rock rather than big band jazz is the main connection between four piece rock-and-roll and the symphonic composers of the early 20th century: Prokofiev, Copeland, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Plus, Edgard Varese’s inspiration will always be remembered through Frank Zappa. I feel like he single handedly upheld American musicianship during the early 60’s when the Beatles and Stones were dominant and Dylan was a folky. In my own music, I mostly focused on his compositional and orchestrating prowess as opposed to his guitar playing. “Echidna’s Arf (of You)” is the high bar for composition style rock music. “Regyptian Strut” is my favorite Zappa composition, but “Cheepnis,” “Who Needs the Peace Corps?,” and “It Must Be A Camel” are also all mind expanding.
I don’t believe in musical history. It’s a marketing strategy, either commercial or ideological, and I think people like Frank Zappa illustrate how silly all that is. From what I gather, he lived an uncompromised, musical life. He said what he thought, did what he believed in and produced a lot of fantastic art. The biggest impact his music had on me came just a year or two ago when I saw a video of a live show he did in Scandinavia in ‘73 or ’74. It struck me that he was making so much good music when I was stuck listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees. Hearing the comedic stuff he interspersed with those tracks offset the hyper-sophistication of the music. Maybe he did that to avoid pretension, maybe he thought it would be too obscure without it. Whatever the case, it made sense. In short, he was an inspiration. Anyone touched by that will be the better for it, now and forever.
When Zappa died, I had a thought that I wouldn’t be surprised if he “was disappeared” by some official agency—-like youth leaders who get a little too far outspoken. He is one of the great, seminal figures not only of iconoclastic music, but social commentary. In a way he took up the mantle of a contrarian naysayer like Lenny Bruce and, as Jimi Hendrix said, continued to wave his freak flag high. He was really outspoken and scathing about everything from government policies to consumerism. He skewered so many sacred cows in American culture. Musically, the genius of Frank was how he would integrate his compositions into an arranged framework In a minute he would also go from the highest of high-art, with quotations from Stravinsky, to the dirtiest doo-wop and esoteric music. And it was all done with an amazing sense of humor.
As a guitarist, Zappa played very linear, kind of like Ravi Shankar, almost like modal blues sitar riffs, a lot of open strings. It’s like a hammer tapping idea, very legato. His speed and accuracy were amazing—-just how twisted his mind would go in places where you really wouldn’t tread on the guitar. As far for my own compositions, he’s the guy that showed me how to fit any random number of beats inside a bar of music. That’s sort of where math and science and music all come together. He’s also the guy that kind of opened up rock n’ roll, making something so “out” actually groove. I feel people are finally starting to scratch the surface and understand what Zappa was all about.
We come from more or less the same background, the classical avant-garde, though in our work we expressed ourselves quite differently. As a composer, I felt a close comradeship to him amongst more rock orientated singer/songwriters. He is one of the geniuses of our time and will always have a place there. He will go on and on and on!
His guitar and compositional style were—-are—-fearless. He loved to play the “ugly notes” during his solos, not always the high flying tweedley tweedley notes all the kids love. He had such a clear idea of where he wanted his music to go from day one today—-all his music tied together. He used everything that was made available to him, not just musicians. But he embraced the times, using new technology as it came along or said “fuck it” and created it himself. He also kept his music valid to the questions of the time, Church and State, Nixon, televangelists. He was simply brilliant, a word that gets over used these days. He gave a voice to people that no one wanted to hear from. Well, too fucking bad, it will reverberate forever.
Zappa was the rock guy who plastered classical, highbrow, blues, lowbrow, reggae and god knows what else into a style that was uniquely his own. Not only because of the juxtaposition of many diverse, seemingly unrelated styles, but also because of his strongly developed personal “signature” in compositions – rhythms and melodies that are heretofore unheard. And, they were typically performed at knuckle busting, blowtorch-to-the-head speed. His guitar tone and style are also immediately recognizable – honking, stinking, too-loud, delicate and flourishing, ornate, melodic, knuckle-dragging inspiration in every note. I believe his appeal ranges from the Academic highs, to the beer swillin’ lowbrows and everything in between. He also stood up to the PMRC, Tipper Gore and Right Wing Bullshit at large and was drug and alcohol free. Made everyone outside “Zappaworld” seem like an anachronistic afterthought with humor and talent out the wazoo.
Weird Al Yankovic
While Frank is unquestionably a guitar virtuoso, I’ve never been a big fan of long solos. I’ve always been more of an admirer of his compositional acumen, which I had to study religiously when I did my Zappa homage, “Genius In France.” I call songs like that “style parodies” where I dissect the style of one of my favorite artists and try to step in their shoes, hopefully creating a composition not unlike something they may have put out themselves. I felt extra pressure doing that with Frank Zappa, since he’s one of my all-time heroes, and frankly, I didn’t want to screw it up. That’s one of the reasons why “Genius In France” is 9 minutes long – there are so many components to Frank’s style that I felt I would be doing him a disservice if I tried to emulate it in 3 or 4 minutes. People may remember Frank as a guitar god or a defender of free speech, but of course, he’ll always have a warm place in my heart for categorically proving to the unwashed masses once and for all that humor really does belong in music.