A few days ago we completed our first tour of 2012 and it was a special one!
Since 2006 it has been my goal to present my father's music to both longtime fans and new admirers in a way that emphasizes the depth and variety within his musical accomplishments. In the process it happens to showcase what the ZPZ band is capable of as well.
Growing up I had the most fond memories of the musical period from 1974 to 1988. Throughout that time I really became aware of what my dad did when he was "working." Much of the music I have focused on in Zappa Plays Zappa reflects that experience. However it could be noted that a tablespoon or two more of emphasis has been place on the period between '74 and '79.
All things considered, I have endeavored to strike a balance between treating the nightly audiences to fan favorites as well as to highlight some obscure choices during our performances. The musicians I am fortunate to work with have the ability to cover the depth and variety within the music I have described and we always do our best to capture all of the details within the music and the production.
I view Frank's use of studio production techniques and mixing parameters as another instrument, another layer of detail in timbre and character married to the composition itself. In rehearsals we dissect things all the way down to the core and try to best recreate the textures and timbres of the arrangements within the instrumentation we have a available to us as a band. We try to imbue our renditions with the infrastructure and authority of the era that dominates the version we have chosen to perform. On this particular tour I decided to focus my attention a bit more on some material from the seminal albums Freak Out and We're Only In It For The Money.
This choice came with a host of challenges for us. While some of the music is a little less complicated in terms of poly rhythms and such, it still has characteristics to it that are difficult to reproduce in a live situation. For example the quirky inconsistencies in precision from the rhythm section on the records. There's a small amount of audibly perceptible looseness that emanates from the bisection between astute production and adherence to the limited production budget. In other words, there was an urgency to get the best out of what was available at the time. As we all know, the more resources Frank had available to him the more his music transformed in detail, sonically and musically. Our job onstage was to try to capture some of that urgency along with the textures that matched the era of production.
The guitar sounds on the early records have a distinctive tone that came from primitive amplification. At the time Frank made Freak Out, distortion was a relatively new sound in recorded music. In those days it was still considered to be a mistake when a sound became distorted. It was actually something to be avoided by engineers. That all changed when a few artists used distortion in creative ways. It then became a coveted sound for many musicians and producers.
There were different ways to achieve distortion and one of the popular ways was to overload the input to the console channel strip. You could also overload the input to the tape machine and mess with the bias of the machines as well. All of those practices created a radical sound for the time and even today they are distinctly evocative of that era. Trying to capture that temperament and rich character in a modern live venue environment was an interesting task.
I was able to use my Fractal Axe Effects II to create a similar sound using the same principles I described above. In the Fractal there are amplifier and speaker simulations. If you use an amplifier without routing it to a speaker it begins to have the overloaded tape machine or mic preamp sound I mentioned. It's essentially the sound of a direct input into a mic pre that is receiving too much signal. It can produce a harsh and raspy fuzz that is fairly stiff and uncomfortable to perform with. EQ and compression did help and after a few tweaks I was able to get kind of close to the sound from the early records. It wasn't quite right yet though. I had been using my SG as I was programming but then I remembered that Frank used a Telecaster on those early records. I had a Tele in storage so I dug it out and it made all of the difference. It had all of the right kind of playability and bite I was looking for. This authentic route to the sound is part of the process I go through before each tour. With the addition of a little reverb the sound sat nicely in the mix. It's been fun playing "Trouble Every Day" just for the sound alone. "Hungry Freaks Daddy" and "Who Are The Brain Police?" fall into that category as well.
Another layer of detail I had to investigate was technique. I had to alter my playing a little bit for the songs from Freak Out and We're Only In It For The Money. The changes were all in phrasing and technique. I had to be less precise on purpose. That little bit of slop translates to attitude. Frank always had great gobs of that right from the very beginning. I hear a lot of Frank's blues influences, Johnny Guitar Watson, Howlin' Wolf, and Clarence Gatemouth Brown, in his early playing on those records. I remember Frank talking about those players and he said something along these lines, "In one note you could tell that these were not nice guys." I assumed this meant that the polite society of the 50's would not appreciate their loud and abrasive musical discourse or tolerate anything else they had to offer either. As Frank pointed out, the emphasis that came across in a few notes was bold and had raw attitude.
That's actually a good lesson to keep in mind even now. If you can make a strong impression with a few notes and a lot of attitude you will be able to create a lasting impression on people. Easy concept to grasp but very difficult to execute in a meaningful way.
In any case, the songs I selected for this last tour reflect my desire to showcase some of the tunes that started it all. It's a great way to re-educate listeners and put things in perspective. When a song that is more than 40 years old still sounds like it's from the future what does that tell you?