Zappa On Zappa: 'Eat That Question' Tells A Contrarian's Story In His Own Words

Jun 24, 2016
Originally published on June 27, 2016 10:50 am

Musician and composer Frank Zappa was a lot of things: biting satirist, ferocious critic of societal norms, outspoken defender of free speech. He saw himself as not only an entertainer, but also a serious composer. And he saw no contradiction in being all of these things at once, to the consternation and confusion of the many journalists who interviewed him.

A number of those interviews have been compiled in German documentarian Thorsten Schutte's new film Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. At around the age of 13, Schutte discovered Zappa's music when a teacher played it for him in school, and was hooked.

"It was something that I hadn't heard before," Schutte says. "The beauty of the melody, but also the dissonance of it and the noise and the cacophony."

Tracking down Zappa's interviews became a kind of hobby for Schutte. He says fans have become the curators of an informal internet Zappa archive and have compiled untold quantities of never-before-seen footage.

"This film is not solely for fans, but it's also there to be somehow a gateway for younger generations to explore him and who know nothing about him," he says. "Many of my students, when I showed them the film, they asked me, 'Who's this man with the beard?'"

Frank Zappa formed the Mothers of Invention in 1964, but he had been composing since high school. Influenced by contemporary composers of the time like John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Krzysztof Penderecki, started by writing chamber music and small orchestral pieces, and did not write his first rock song until he was 21.

He was not always happy with his earliest efforts at composition, as he says in an interview included in the new documentary. He would sit at a piano cutting up sheet music with a razor blade, trying to rearrange it in new ways.

"Then I heard what some of the stuff sounded like that I had been writing, and it was so ugly that I decided to go backwards and get into the melodic area again," he explains. "Then people started telling me that my melodies were ugly. So I guess I'm successful."

Zappa, who died in 1993, left behind a trove of music. Bunk Gardner, a classically-trained woodwind player whose brother played trumpet for the Mothers of Invention, says much of the music was difficult to play: complex time signatures layered on top of one another, fiendishly fast tempi, never the same thing twice.

"He liked that!," Gardner says. "And I think he also felt that it really kept everybody on their toes. You better, better focus."

Gardner continues to play Zappa's music with keyboard player Don Preston in the Grandmothers of Invention. While Preston bristles at the notion that Zappa was a genius, he looks back with fondness on their days playing together.

"I can remember, I don't know how many times, when I was just so grateful to be there playing this music and do exactly what I always wanted to do: emulate some of the late composers and also take my own playing into those realms and go as far as possible with it," Preston says. "I can't think of a night where I wasn't totally grateful for being in that position."

Schutte — who spent eight years making his documentary, in addition to all of those hours in the archives — is also grateful for what Frank Zappa's music gave him.

"If you listen to his music and the ingredients, the citations, quotations, allusions, it's not only that it opens you up to Zappa, but that it opens you up to a great many other great composers," he says. "Because there's Spike Jones in it, there Xenakis in it, there's Varese in it, there's Bartok in it, there's Elgar in it. There's a lot of Howlin' Wolf and Johnny Guitar Watson in it. It's such a huge body of work and that's what I always loved about it: that he opened up the world for me at a very young age. And I'm very thankful for that."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Musician Frank Zappa was a lot of things - satirist, social critic, defender of free speech. He saw himself as an entertainer and serious composer. He also saw no contradiction in being all of those things at once. That often came to the consternation and confusion of many journalist who interviewed him. A number of those interviews have been compiled, in a new film called, appropriately, "Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words." Here's NPR's Tom Cole.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: The documentary ends this way, with a 1985 public service announcement that runs after the final credits.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "EAT THAT QUESTION: FRANK ZAPPA IN HIS OWN WORDS")

FRANK ZAPPA: You're 18. Take the spoon out of your nose. Take the needle out of your arm. Take the beer out of your mouth, and go vote. You know what I mean? Vote. Register and vote like a beast.

COLE: Zappa in a nutshell - absolutely serious in his own button-pushing way, just as he was in his music. And it was Zappa's music that hooked German documentarian Thorsten Schutte.

THORSTEN SCHUTTE: The story starts when I was 12, 13 years old.

COLE: Schutte was in music class. After a year of Mozart and Beethoven, the teacher let the kids pick whatever records they wanted to hear from the school's collection.

SCHUTTE: Unfortunately, there wasn't that much popular music. There was only one record, called "The Evolution Of Pop Music." And one track was a track by the Mothers of Invention, "Who Are The Brain Police?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO ARE THE BRAIN POLICE?")

MOTHERS INVENTION: (Singing) What will you do if we let you go home and the plastics all melted and so is the chrome?

SCHUTTE: It was something that I hadn't heard before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO ARE THE BRAIN POLICE?")

MOTHERS OF INVENTION: (Singing) Who are the brain police?

COLE: Frank Zappa formed the Mothers of Invention in 1964, but he'd been composing since high school, as he told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1989.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZAPPA: Well, I started off writing chamber music and, you know, small orchestral pieces. And I didn't write a rock 'n' roll song until I was about 21.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FRANK ZAPPA SONG)

COLE: Zappa was not always happy with his earliest efforts. In the documentary, he sits at a piano, cutting up sheet music with a razor blade to rearrange it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "EAT THAT QUESTION: FRANK ZAPPA IN HIS OWN WORDS")

ZAPPA: Then I heard what some of the stuff sounded like that I had been writing. And it was so ugly that I decided to backwards and get into the melodic area again. And then people started telling me that my melodies were ugly. So I guess I'm successful.

COLE: Tracking down those interviews became a kind of extra curricular pastime for filmmaker Thorsten Schutte.

SCHUTTE: As a producer-director, when you travel and you go to archives, you know, you have something to do. You work on a subject. But what you usually do on the site is you always - just for the heck of it, you look - what do they have on Frank Zappa, you know? You never know what you might encounter.

COLE: Beyond what he found in those archives, there was the Internet. He says fans have become the curators of an informal online Zappa archive of rarities.

SCHUTTE: But this film is not solely for fans. It's also there to be, somehow, a gateway for for younger generations to explore him and who know nothing about him. Many of my students, when I showed them the film, you know, they asked me, who's this man with the beard?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "EAT THAT QUESTION: FRANK ZAPPA IN HIS OWN WORDS")

ZAPPA: This is a song about vegetables. They keep you regular. They're real good for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ANY VEGETABLE")

ZAPPA: (Singing) Call any vegetable. Call it by name.

COLE: It all comes back to the music. And Frank Zappa, who died in 1993, left behind a lot.

BUNK GARDNER: Frank was a workaholic - just no doubt about it. You give him a pack of cigarettes and some coffee, and there's no end in sight.

COLE: Bunk Gardner is a classically trained woodwind player. He and his trumpeter brother were early members of the Mothers of Invention. Bunk says Zappa's music was difficult to play - incongruous time signatures layered on top of one another, fiendishly fast tempos, never the same thing twice.

GARDNER: He liked that, and I think he also felt that it really kept everybody on their toes. You better, better focus.

COLE: Gardner continues to play Zappa's music with another early member of the Mothers, keyboard player Don Preston, as the Grandmothers of Invention. While Preston bristles at the notion that Zappa was a genius, still...

DON PRESTON: I can remember - I don't know how many times - when I was just so grateful to be playing this music and do exactly what I always wanted to do - take my own playing as far as possible.

COLE: And filmmaker Thorsten Schutte, who spent eight years making his documentary in addition to all of those hours in the archives, is also grateful for what Frank Zappa's music gave him.

SCHUTTE: If you listen to his music and the ingredients, it's not only that it opens you up to Zappa Zappa, but it opens you up to a great many other composers because there's Spike Jones in it. You know, there's Bartok in it. There's Howlin' Wolf and Johnny Guitar Watson in it. He opened up the world for me at a very young age. That - I'm very thankful for that.

COLE: And he hopes to be able to give some of that back with his film. Tom Cole, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.