Posted: October 2, 2014
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess)
Mama Lion of the Zappa clan of Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles is Gail, widow of the late Frank Zappa.
One of the most important and influential bandleaders, guitarists, and composers of the 20th Century, Frank died of prostate cancer in 1993.
He was 52-years-old.
On his own, and with his band, the Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa released more than 60 albums.
Generally, family members of celebrities aren’t well-versed in the practices of the entertainment industry and, following a celebrity passing away, are often taken advantage of.
Gail, however, was well-versed in entertainment industry trench warfare throughout Frank’s lifetime. She oversaw Frank’s business affairs, including their Zappa and Barkin Pumpkin label imprints, and a thriving mail-order business, leaving him free to create and produce music.
A strong-willed and savvy business woman, Gail has had decades squaring off against label executives, distributors, and major digital music players set on practicing music industry law that rules that artists should be beaten every morning to keep them attentive to the industry’s will.
The Zappas have frequently squared off against the music industry’s major players, including bruising, costly run-ins with CBS Music, and Warner Music Group. As well, Gail once sent a scorching letter to the late Apple chairman/co-founder Steve Jobs that is now part of Zappa lore.
Despite her jump-starting Zappa fans’ bloodstreams with mega doses of adrenaline over a slew of Zappa reissues in recent years via a distribution pact with Universal Music Enterprises, many Zappa fans will spill their beer at the mention of Gail’s name.
Some of the more vocal internet-blogging Zappa fans consider Gail a sinister force because she keeps a vise-like grip on her late husband’s legacy as trustee of the Zappa Family Trust which holds title and copyright to Frank Zappa's musical, and artistic products, as well as his commercial image.
In a dead-on, chisel-it-on-my-tombstone retort against detractors, Gail might say....well, you’ll figure it out on reading this provocative and, at times funny, interview.
Did you ever think that you’d be in a position where your future would be so closely tied to your husband’s past?
Well, yes I did know that, and I do comment on that quite a bit. It’s one of the things that I do say. That I find myself spending more time on my husband’s past than in my present. Certainly not in my future, but that’s not a bad thing.
Why the public’s fixation with Frank? People into Frank Zappa aren’t casual fans.
No. I like to point out, and it’s true that there are no ex-fans. There are people who didn’t quite get sucked in when they first heard it (his music). But the people that hear it, and go, “I want that in my life. That is part of me that resonates in ways that I can’t explain, and I want to find out (more),” those people, they never quit. They are lifers. We call them lifers.
There are Zappa recordings I love, others not so much.
Of course. That’s always going to happen, but from my point of view the lifers, they never go away. They are always there. They will tell you, “I don’t like this as much. Why don’t you put out something like that?” They will make requests for things. Sometimes we do pay attention to that.
Despite a reputation for intimidating journalists, I interviewed Frank twice, and he was very nice to me both times.
That’s nice to hear but, of course, I do hear that a lot about him. He was very nice. He was very courteous, always considerate. I think that the word is really considerate.
I also witnessed when he reacted adversely to someone. He just shut them down.
He was stern, but not rude. He was usually stern.
Any new Zappa recordings on the horizon?
There are two major recordings that Frank did before he died. That were made in the last year of his life along with “200 Motels,” and “Trance-Fusion” which have already been released. There’s a recording of the music of Edgard Varése which was recorded in July and August of 1993. Then there is “Dance Me This” which will be out though Zappa Records. That was, I think, among the last of the four records that Frank finished that were on his list. I don’t know how that works for someone who is prolific like that. “Okay, here are the albums that I want to finish.”
Aren’t there 400 Zappa compositions locked in a synclavier in various stages of development?
Locked in a synclavier, yeah (laughing). That’s like a whole other problem because it would be very expensive to resurrect that. You need a lot of hours by people who really know what they are doing to make that operational.
The same thing with developing the sound library Frank left?
Yeah, but the sound library is not quite the same thing. Yes, that exists. I could do something with that. Why bother? People are just going to steal it, anyway. The costs of putting that together? It’s the same (as other recording projects). To put out a record, the costs are frightening to put it out on CD for the return that you can expect, especially in Germany. Every one of our releases is out in Germany on vinyl, unauthorized, and unlicensed. Absolute counterfeits. And this happens. Who is the FBI going to pay attention to Lady Gaga or Frank Zappa? Good luck. That’s an easy question.
Even when Frank was alive there were countless bootlegs. I have a 1981 book, “Zappalog” by Norbert Obermanns, listing all of the Zappa bootlegs available then. There are few artists as bootlegged as Frank Zappa.
That true. He remains one of the most bootlegged artists of all-time because all the shows were pretty much different. He didn’t do the same show twice. So whatever you can get away with (in bootlegging).
Before Frank’s death, he made a deal with Rhino Entertainment for “Beat The Boots” that basically flooded the bootleg Zappa market. You didn’t license bootlegs because you didn’t own them. The deal was that you told Rhino that you wouldn’t sue if they put out the bootlegs.
We took the position that they were unlicensed recordings. In those days, and still today, artists sign a deal for exclusivity. It’s not just okay that the record company is going to be your banker, and put your records out for you. Contracts also have an exclusivity part to them, as well. You can’t make a record for anybody else except under defined circumstances. Somebody recording your show, and then putting that record out is not one of those defined circumstances. That’s illegal. That’s what is called a bootleg, especially when you are recording the show yourself at the same time.
[“Beat the Boots” is a collection of bootleg recordings by Frank Zappa, which were originally distributed illegally, but were released officially by Rhino Entertainment in 1991 and 1992. The first 8 disc set spanned a 15 year period from 1967 to 1982. The 7-disc “Beat the Boots II” included “Swiss Cheese / Fire!,” which documented the famous 1971 concert at a casino in Montreux, Switzerland where the venue burned down, inspiring the lyrics of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water.”]
Before his passing Frank told you to sell off his masters, and get out of the recording business. I guess he didn’t take into consideration who’d control those masters or the publishing.
Well, it’s a double-edged sword. Sell the masters, and get out of the business. But, on the other hand, there’s a vault underneath the house. And, “You don’t sell the publishing.” You just have to take it (Frank’s directions) with a bit of a grain of salt. It really is a big task, and he was trying to make it easier. But Frank didn’t run his business. I did, as far as the mail order, and the label, and all that stuff. It’s kind of...(laughing), it’s not like what he thought it would be, certainly.
Do you mean there’s actually a vault under the Laurel Canyon house you having been living in for over 40 years?
Yeah, I do.
Did the vault come with the house?
When was it built?
When did we build it? 1980ish. That’s when we went digital.
Joe Travers still oversees all of the recordings in the vault?
When did you set up the Zappa Family Trust? Who is part of it?
The Zappa family. Frank and I set it up in 1992 or something like that.
You are now in your 60s. How are you preparing to pass on the administration of the Trust?
The business side of it?
Yes. You are living what is probably the last third of your life. Who takes over this great family trust?
I have to consider that there’s not just one person, there’s four people (Zappa children Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva) that are part of this legacy; who this legacy was created for. You have to get back to the fact, who did Frank write this music for? For himself first, and then for us. But not someone who was sitting out there trying to think up the next Coke commercial, or someone who’s thinking, “Oh, it should have gone like this, and I’m going to rewrite it.” No, not those people. He didn’t write the music for those people.
Sometimes the kids don’t want anything to do with running an estate.
That’s true, and sometimes they do. There is always a solution. I don’t worry about that stuff. I mean it’s in the process anyway. Once, I’m gone, I don’t care. Why should I care? I do the best that I can with the tools that I’ve got while I’m here.
I think you will care at some point because of your grandchildren. You care. C’mon, yes you do. That’s not true to say that you don’t.
I don’t care in the sense...one of the things that that happens when you die is that you cease caring about this shit. That’s what I’m saying.
In 2013, the Zappa Family Trust released 60 masters.
We made a deal with Universal Music to distribute Frank’s masters. Frank made 65 (albums) that were released in his lifetime or close to it that were distributed. So those are the ones that we redid. Many of which we remastered. Then we have since released a number of albums. The 100th will actually turn out to be the one Frank actually made which is “Dance Me This.”
Why the deal with Universal? So you could co-ordinate releases on a world level? The entire catalog is there now?
Yes. We call it the primary catalog. Then there’s a secondary catalog.
How much of the Zappa catalog is now available on iTunes?
It’s all up. Universal put it all up.
Didn’t you write a “fuck you” note to the late Steve Jobs, the co-founder, and CEO of Apple Inc.?
Why not? Somebody had to. Their position was they were going to make a new deal (with the recording industry). First of all, all of the (major) record companies bent over, and set the standard deal (with Apple) that they didn’t discuss with anybody but themselves. and the publishers. They didn’t talk to artists about it. And that deal was already in place with Apple. Okay, that’s one (reason). Secondly, Steve Jobs then said, “Well, I’m now going to talk to independent artists.” I was contacted in the beginning because they didn’t really understand the difference between independent artists as in, “We don’t have a record deal. We aren’t signed to a label. Nobody can control what we do” versus all of the big bow wows that are on the labels.
[In 2003, Steve Jobs revolutionized the music purchasing experience by offering 99 cent song downloads through the iTunes Music Store. In 2006 Apple had sold its billionth song on iTunes. In 2008, iTunes became the #1 music retailer in the United States.]
The independent sector has often been marginalized in industry negotiations over music use. Merlin, the Assn. of Independent Music (AIM), and the Worldwide Independent Network (WIN) have fought for years the attitude, “Let’s get the majors in, and then we’ll deal with the indies.” They have also fought on-line businesses trying to build on the strategy of, “How do we get music for free?”
It’s even worse than that. It’s not even that question. The question is, “I don’t want to pay for music. What’s the best option for me?” There are lots of options for you not to pay for music, and that’s the point.
You have experimented with crowd sourcing and direct-to-fan distribution models.
I came up with this (direct-to-fan) concept before anybody else did it. Then I spent probably two years working with lawyers so I could do it myself. By the time that I got around to it, Louis C.K. had already done his record. So then everybody jumped in, and good luck to them. But, in the case of a comic, what are their expenses? They are virtually nothing. They need a microphone and, maybe, some guy running a mix onstage. But that’s it.
A well-known popular artist with a catalog can do certain things as an independent distributor up to a certain level. Then it becomes more difficult.
That’s right. The best thing is to have a live act that you represent. It’s very difficult when there’s nobody to tour in support of the music. We have a lot of potential releases in the vault, but there’s no Frank Zappa to tour to promote them. If there was, we would still have all of those releases locked in the vault because he would be doing new stuff.
The power the major labels traditionally held in the music industry was distribution. Today, any artist can sell their music, but how do you as an independent deal with distribution when the physical product isn’t in brick and mortar stores as much as once as it was, and Apple’s ITunes arguably defines the terms of digital delivery?
That’s a big question. The definition of a major record company was distribution. How Apple Computer won that suit (against the Beatles’ Apple Corps) that they weren’t a record company is beyond me because they are distribution. That is the name of the game. The problem with iTunes is that they have pretty much taken any record, and said, “Ok, thou shall not sell this for more than X number of dollars of which we will always have 30%.” That has helped more than anything lower the price of music, and then there’s all of those people who offer downloads for a subscription service, making it (music) available for promotion. I like the idea of a subscription, and I ‘ve tried to do that myself, but the problem is where do you start? Where do you jump into the pool because so many people have this? You sort of have to sit there until you have 10 records. Then you can start saying, “Okay, we are going to guarantee that you are going to get this many records per year if you sign up” kind of thing. The record club basic (model).
In the ‘90s the record companies somewhat lost control of direct music distribution, and even pricing terms. With iTunes, the labels essentially turned over distribution control to a third party.
I don’t know if they turned over control. Remember how did Napster and the various companies like that got a foothold in the marketplace?
No they got it because who put up the money for those companies? Think about it. Now the people that were funding those companies’ start-up in the first place, many of them were not record companies, but record company executives who didn’t have any participation or ownership of copyright, but this way they would.
What’s going on now between the labels and some major digital music players parallels the bad deals artists received through label agreements with record clubs in the past. Those 10 for one cent giveaway incentives screwed the artist. The same goes on today with advance payments from some of these services to the major labels that don’t find their way to the artists.
Well, the real deal is that anything to do with what an artist’s money is concerned with is considered a consumer issue. So distribution was a consumer issue. It wasn’t about how the artist was being paid. For instance, in sports these people (athletes) get to off-set the income they earn in the five year period where they are major athletes over their lifetime. Record artists can’t do that. They may have a career that is 2 ½ minutes long, but they have to pay all of the taxes on the bulk of the money that they earn in a very short period. They can’t amortize it out. It’s not part of the deal. The product, what they make, is not art. It’s product on the books. So that is a consumer issue, right away. So the FBI and all the powers that be, the radio stations, the industry bigwigs that control distribution on radio and in stores, all of that kind of thing, they have the right to say, “Well, we don’t want to pay when we broadcast (music)” because, for whatever reason, they have the power and because it’s only considered product.
You are talking about , performance rights payments?
This means that broadcasters don’t have to pay (artists). They don’t have to report. It also means in the United States, in particular, that all of these agencies that supposedly work for the artists are way behind as far as computer technology is concerned. They can’t account for everything, they can’t account quickly, and they don’t want to because the bulk of the money that comes in is paid out to the people that are selling the most records. They don’t care about little Joe Schmo somewhere who got airplay in one town because everybody there knows who he is, but it will never show up anywhere, and he will never get money for that.
Are you are familiar with “black box” royalties in music publishing? Unclaimed royalties from foreign revenue that is later claimed by music publishers but not usually shared their songwriters.
Yeah. But they invented a new “black box” and that’s all of the digital downloads and all of that stuff. That is a very large, very deep “black box.”
The same scenario existed decades ago with labels reporting on pressing at 8 manufacturing plants, but not reporting pressing at four other plants. The sleight of hand is just more sophisticated now.
Of course. Today, all manufacturing claims are not equal because they don’t ask you to fill a form that says you own the right to this master. If you do that (and don’t own the master being manufactured) then you can be busted by the FBI. But if you don’t, they can hardly find you.
The Zappas are considered to be the leaders in independent music distribution.
We were doing it ourselves before anybody else was doing it. It’s interesting how that happened because, of course, I was very naive about how it is normally done. But because of that I could ask for things that I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to get.
Well, Frank wanted to be independent. He started a mail order operation for certain recordings with CBS or one of their off-shoots. Of course, they were collecting for the recordings, but they weren’t shipping any records. So that was a disaster. We ended up in a lawsuit with them. Then we had no distribution for anything. Frank’s manager at the time, Bennet Glotzer, was busy making an artist deal just for Europe with EMI. So at that time, I was thinking, “What are we doing here? This doesn’t bode well for our future.”
So what did you do?
I had this lawyer who worked in this major law firm—I prefer not to mention names—but I said, “I need to get an independent distribution. I hear great things about CEMA (the record label distribution branch of Capitol-EMI). Let’s talk with them. This is what I would like.” He said, “You are crazy. You can’t do that. Who do you think that you are?” I said, “It’s not who I think I am. It’s who do you think that you are that you are telling me that I can’t have what I’m asking about?” Then I called up the guy who was the head of the firm in the entertainment division and said, “I hired you, and I’m being shoved off with this guy over here, and I don’t like that. Either you do the business for me or I’m going to move to another law firm where I can get the guy I want to work with.” That turned out to be the fabulous Owen Sloane (Attorney; Chair, Entertainment & Media Group, Gladstone Michel Weisberg Willner & Sloane) who, to this day, is a real close friend.
Owen is a leading authority on contract, copyright, and other kinds of law involving the entertainment world.
I would have to say that without him there are a lot of things that Frank is known for that he wouldn’t have been able to accomplish without help. Because no matter what, you don’t live in a vacuum in this business. You have to work with certain people to accomplish certain things. We were very fortunate to have Owen Sloane, who is quite brilliant.
What Zappa catalog was available for the deal with CEMA?
That was when I started the mail order company. We controlled the catalog at that time. The label that we had started in 1981 approximately was Barking Pumpkin. That label we intended to put out various masters that would be under an artist deal. It would be, maybe, three masters in 7 years. Whatever the contract was in those days with EMI for Europe. Then there would be whatever we wanted to do independently. As a result of, I thought, “Well, let’s do a mail order company. We’ll sell T-shirts.” We had all of this fan mail. I got boxes and boxes, and I started opening it all. I made a list of potential customers, and I wrote them letters, and asked if they would be interested in a T-shirt. I put a little form letter in there. We got more than a 25% return which was unheard of.
This was before the internet.
Yeah. Exactly. So I said. “Let’s make T-shirts.” Then Frank said, “Well, I don’t want to be in the dry goods business.”
Unlike the Grateful Dead who dived into the merchandising business with both feet.
Exactly. They are a little bit smoke and mirrors as well, and a different kind of smoke, I might say. So I put that (mail order business) together when Frank was out touring. He did a lot of touring then. At the same time, I got a local distribution deal. The deal with CEMA was divided into two parts. On one hand, I had a manufacturing deal, and the on the other hand, I had a distribution deal. They were not tied together where everything had to go under one roof. So I could manufacture independently with them. I could say, “I want you to manufacture this record, but I’m only going to put it out mail order. You are not going to distribute it.” Or I could get them to put up the money, and advance for whatever (album) they were going to distribute. It was a really nice way to balance the best of our assets. It was very successful for us for a number of years, and helped pay for the law suit against Warner Brothers.
Did the CEMA distribution deal include foreign distribution?
How did you cover that?
Well, those were days when you weren’t supposed to be selling stuff in those (international) markets, but a lot of the mom and pop stores were in the export business. So literately exporters were buying it, and the sale was in the United States.
What you were doing with CEMA as well as handling the mail order business yourself was insuring that you had control of the masters.
Absolutely. That was the whole point there was no point beyond that. It was that nobody was going to tell Frank what kind of record that he was going to make.
As well, being distributed by CEMA insured that you got paid, and got paid in a timely manner.
Yeah, but we had to do that. Primarily, (with a record deal), you get paid twice a year. A distribution deal gets you paid on a monthly basis. A few months in, and then you are getting paid every month. That was a much better way for us to operate, and be able to plan ahead, and pull monies together. Without that, we wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of things. Before, we were just struggling to save the money to hire an orchestra to do anything orchestral. Those were still the days that if you were a composer, you didn’t have a chance in hell in hearing your music unless you hired an orchestra to play it. And it was very expensive. With copying costs, every time we got involved with an orchestra event, it was always $400,000 for some reason. That was the magic number. Think about it. Even today, it’s still horrendous. When you think about all of the copying and everything. There were no digital files, either.
You had to hire a copyist to work with an orchestra.
Or several copyists depending on how large the orchestra was.
Many classical musicians in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s didn’t want to mix with a rock musician, especially a maverick like Frank. There was a snobbishness from the classical world toward the rock world.
It wasn’t even being snobby. It was that Frank was banned from commercial television. He couldn’t be on it during certain hours. There was no way.
Is that true?
Oh my God, yes. He was blacklisted from the radio, and certainly from television.
Not in Canada. In fact, “Joe’s Garage, Act I” was a Canadian gold record in 1979. Frank was particularly popular in French-speaking Quebec
That’s right. Yes, we have had certain lovely charming relationships with certain areas. But we have always had that. I think that when Frank first started there has always been this (Canadian) connection, especially with Montreal. When he was first starting in the business, he did a tenure there (with the Mothers of Invention). A sort of residency at a club on Sherbrooke Street (The New Penelope run by Gary Eisenkraft) in late ’66. It wasn’t a very big club.
Weren’t you two living in New York in that period?
We were actually in flux. I can’t remember exactly how it went but we were in New York during Thanksgiving. We were in Montreal for New Years, and then we were back in LA for March. Then we went back to New York.
You and Frank were married in 1967 in a civil ceremony at New York’s city hall where there was a vending machine where you picked up the license that sold ballpoint pens with the inscription, “Congratulations from Mayor Lindsay.”
There was a little wooden device you see them sometimes in funky old restaurants where they are straw dispensers. But this was a ballpoint pen dispenser. You turned a little knob, and a little flap dropped open, and in it would be a pen.
When you and Frank returned Los Angeles in 1968, you rented a log cabin in the heart of Laurel Canyon, at the crossroads of Laurel Canyon Boulevard, and Lookout Mountain Avenue. Wasn’t that a chaotic time?
That was only for four months. Moon had her first birthday where we live now. Except for the time that (English drummer) Aynsley Dunbar lived with us, it has been pretty quiet here. I usually had someone around. There was usually somebody, but it wasn’t like the log cabin where there was a road manager, several members of the band, and random people who would just show up. Yeah, that was nuts. That was a nutty place.
While you were raising four children, and running much of Frank’s business, he worked in his studio in the basement. How did he balance time with his music, and with his family?
Well, I don’t think it’s a matter of balancing your time, but being disciplined and to find it (time) where you can. You don‘t plan out, “I’m going to do this for three hours, and then that for seven hours” because it doesn’t work like that. The muse doesn’t work that way either.” It doesn’t say, “Okay, it’s time for me to make my appointed rounds to all those people out there who are waiting for me to show up so they can write songs.” You get a schedule going, and you fit your life into that schedule. There are things that you need to do sometimes. You need to be with one, two, three or four of your children. That happens.
Did Frank ever change diapers?
I think, maybe, three times. Not the way that you would imagine. Let’s say that Frank removed diapers on a few occasions.
The story of your daughter Diva and Frank watching “The Simpsons” TV together as their weekly date is a sweet story. In truth, your family life has been very private. Not much personal is really known about your children.
A lot of that has to do with the kids themselves. My “personal adults,” as I like to refer to them now because none of them are children. They didn’t do drugs or things like that. So there was no street or public behavior that you would know something about them.
They were free to say whatever they wanted to at home?
Yeah. That was your basic rule. There are no bad words. There are only bad intentions.
Now you have grandchildren. How does it feel, grandma?
Payback is everything. I don’t mean that in a negative way. For them to suddenly realize that there is no way that you can have favorite children. If you are a responsible being, and you know as much about love as much as any other topic that you come across in your life that you have mastered and you have experienced, you know that no none can come between you and your children. No one and nothing. So for them to grow up and see that and know that about their parents is wonderful. All of us have known that as well. One way or the other.
What’s your take on the last month’s California court decision in the Flo & Eddie case against the radio service Sirius XM? That pre-1972 recordings should qualify for public performance rights payments? Won’t that affect you because you own your own masters?
Sirius XM has announced that it will appeal, but isn’t the court’s decision generally encouraging for all artists?
It’s very encouraging when the government, and the agencies of the government start looking at lost revenues. It’s one thing when you are not paying, and there’s money to be earned, and taxes to be made off those monies. It’s another thing when you start seeing the scale of it. When a government begins to be in a position where they can scale these financial win-falls to various entities as the result of various legislation that was poorly developed, and the people that passed the laws were poorly informed, then you can start making a case for a very serious review of intellectual property, and intellectual property rights and the revenues that they generate.
[When Congress established the performance right for sound recordings as part of the new federal copyright law, it did not explicitly include pre-1972 recordings, and therefore no royalties were deemed payable by the broadcasting sector.
Judge Philip Gutierrez of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles ruled that pre-1972 recordings qualify for public performance rights payments in a case that pitted Flo & Eddie of the Turtles against satellite Sirius XM. The ruling is being appealed by Sirius XM. Flo & Eddie has now slapped Pandora with a $25 million class-action lawsuit for the same offense.
"Pandora is aware that it does not have any license, right or authority to reproduce, perform, distribute or otherwise exploit via the Music Service any pre-1972 recordings," reads the complaint. ]
With the erosion of music sales, intellectual property issues have become even more relevant. It is unconscionable that the people who create content aren’t sharing fairly in the revenue from the source.
Some of the erosion of those kinds of rights happen by organizations that have nothing to do with copyrights, and they are not copyright owners. Again, it goes back to a definition of what kind of issue is it. If it’s a consumer issue, they get away with all sorts of things. Now the real reason why I want to protect copyright, and I want to expand on those rights is because the only time that GNP (Gross National Product) of the United States of America was represented primarily by intellectual property, that was when Bill Clinton was President. It was ruled first and foremost by the output by the people that created works as opposed to (output of) the military industrial complex. That only happened one time in history as I’m aware.
Okay, why is that interesting? Why is it interesting for you and me when we are music lovers? Because musicians are people with opinions. Artists are usually people with opinions. They are independent thinkers. There’s a chance that they might start talking about stuff our government don’t want them talking about. How can they control that? They can control it by preventing them for earning a living as artists, and by making it (their music) unpopular.
The highwayman, for instance, was also a thief in some definitions. He was also the balladeer that traveled around, and showed up in your town, and played and strummed at your party on the green or whatever. So there’s always been this tradition of troubadours being on a lower level of society. They (those in power) are still pushing that sort of right wing Christian element. That this is not a decent way to earn a living.
Terrestrial broadcasters in the U.S. are still exempt from paying a public performance right for sound recordings because of the clout of the broadcasting lobby in Washington.
That’s right. But think about it. Elected officials. How many bars are there in the hometowns of elected officials versus how many working musicians there are in those towns who are trying to make a national name for themselves? That’s the problem. There’s no representation for the arts community.
Bars are licensed by the performing rights societies that compensate music publishers and songwriters for the music being played in the venues.
Yes, that’s true except with one exception. The rules for all of those institutions do not apply to if you do a revue. In other words, a concert consisting of primarily of one person’s work...
A cover band.
Exactly. That’s not covered under any license. You have to go directly to the copyright owner to make that deal to get a license to do that.
[American copyright law grants a number of exclusive rights to the copyright holder, requiring those who want to use copyrighted material to obtain a license or permission. One of these exclusive rights is that of performing the work.
However, there are cases where blanket agreements that ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC maintain with venues all over the country are not applicable. Therefore, fees must be determined on a case-by-case basis.
American copyright law defines Grand Performance Rights as the right to perform a copyrighted musical work that is also accompanied by drama, staging, telling a story, script, costumes, dancers, props, actor, dialogue, a script, plot, and so on.
Such works with Grand Performance Rights include revues, musical plays, dance, ballet, and opera.]
You view unauthorized Frank Zappa tribute bands as committing identity theft?
It is absolutely identify theft because from my point of view, Frank Zappa’s audience deserves to hear the music--if it’s for the first time, especially—presented in a way that is in the best possible light of what the composer intended.
Your position is that you are defending audiences’ right to hear Frank's music the way he intended it. Other than having Frank himself there or your son Dweezil’s band, Zappa Plays Zappa, how can that happen?
Well, you work with people. That’s part of the reason why they should come to me to get a license. It just makes it a lot easier for everybody if you say, “Okay, if you can’t play that song correctly, if you can’t master it, then don’t put it in your set list.” You get to say things like that. Or, “You can change the instrumentation in this way.” You work with them. I do this all of the time.
If I come do you with a revue in which Frank’s music is featured, you will provide me with your expertise and guidance in interpreting his music?
Whatever you ask me, I will get you an answer. Yes.
Frank’s music isn’t easily replicated.
And nobody knows how to play it. That’s the problem. It’s one thing to learn the notes. and then play it. But nobody knows how to it should be played. That is the challenge.
Frank’s music is, indeed, very intricate. There’s the story of you two in the Capitol Studio in Hollywood listening to a playback of “Lumpy Gravy,” and Frank turned to you and said, “Did I write that?” He was so amazed to hear the music he wrote coming from the speakers. A true story?
That is a true story.
[Historically important in his career, Frank Zappa’s ambitious album “Lumpy Gravy” (1967) is a suite of under three-minute movements, built on his love of 20th-century classical music R&B and jazz.]
Was Frank aware of how good he was?
You know, it’s not like that. I would have to say that almost everybody I heard be interviewed on this topic--that is a creator, that is someone who has written amazing music, almost without exception—Keith Richards or Frank Zappa or anything songwriter of note, they don’t talk about it in those terms. I have never heard them say, “Oh, that was a really good song.” They are enthusiastic about it (a work) but, almost without exception, it is a question of them catching it while it’s going by.
That’s how it is.
It’s like any idea that you get. You get an idea, you don’t know where it comes from. It’s not something that you nursed of yourself. It’s there. Boom, there it is. You catch it. and that’s it. People asked Frank whether he thought he was successful, and his version of success really gets to the core of that. What he said about it was, “The way that I judge whether or not that I have been successful is how close I got to the first time that I ever heard it,” which is in your head. You catch it as it’s going by. By the time that you make that record or you play it on a bandstand or whatever, how close is it to what you originally heard? That is how you judge how successful your works are.
Since 2006, Dweezil has toured Zappa Plays Zappa, playing his father’s music. Didn’t the band come about when you, Dweezil and his brother Ahmet were in Europe promoting a series of concerts?
We were promoting the idea of Zappa Plays Zappa. The problem at the time was that the promoters wanted it to be X members of the (Mothers of Invention) band. I said, “Okay, pay me a huge license fee and you can use the name the Mothers of Invention or Frank Zappa, and you can put your own fucking band together. But that’s not what we are here to do. We are here to do something else.” Then, right at the point it was ready to launch, Ahmet sold his children’s book (“The Monstrous Memoirs of a Mighty McFearless,” and he had to do promotion for it. So he didn’t participate initially.
What has been the outcome of the 2009 lawsuit with the German festival Zappanale? Have you since come to terms with the organizers?
No I will not come to terms with people who lie, cheat, steal and, especially, (practice) identify theft. There’s no reason to come to terms with that. I want to deal with the real deal. That’s not.
So there hasn’t been a resolution?
No. There will never be a resolution with me and people who misrepresent or claim to know or claim to have had an intimate relationship with Frank Zappa in terms of his music.
[Zappanale is an annual music festival held since 1990 outside Bad Doberan, a German town previously part of East Germany with various bands performing the music of Frank Zappa
In 2007, the festival was sued by the Zappa Family Trust for use of the Zappa name and image without permission. Court hearings were held in Düsseldorf in 2008, and the involved parties were given time to reach an settlement. In 2009, according to media reports, the court ruled that the Zappanale does not violate the trademark held by the Zappa Family Trust.]
In interviews, Zappanale spokesman Thomas Dippel has said that the festival has tried to get an official license from you.
I can only say that their version of coming to terms means that they don’t what to pay for the rights to perform Frank’s music, and the right to use his name. I had a court case that was supposed to have been heard. It had already been agreed. In Germany there are a very limited number of lawyers who can present a case to the equivalent of the (U.S.) Supreme Court (The Federal Court of Justice of Germany). There are less than 150 lawyers that they can do that with. We had a lawyer who presented the case, and the court accepted to hear the case, and then without any explanation of any kind. cancelled right before they were scheduled to hear it. I have never been able to get that back on the docket.
There are numerous media reports that a German court ruled against the Zappa Family Trust for lack of proof that it had actively used their trademarks in Germany.
No. Apparently, if you have a Germany passport, preferably what used to be East Germany, then you are entitled to take on any person’s name no matter how famous they are in any other part of the world and be that guy in Germany. That’s pretty much how it works. It’s exactly what Frank feared the most. I remember when we were in Vienna, and they had these Mozart candies. He said, “God, what a life that would be if you wound up having your name on a chocolate in a tourist mecca” which was in a square in Vienna where they were selling Mozart candies. That essentially is what Germany has done.
You recently conceived artwork for the 2014 Gibson GuitarTown collection celebrating musicians who have influenced the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.
Yes. I’m happy to say. They said, “We’d like to do a Frank Zappa guitar.” I said, “okay.” They said, “Would you just pick a Southern California artist?” I said, “I will be that artist,” and they said okay. That’s how that happened.
[The Gibson Guitartown on the Sunset Strip public art project was launched in 2010. The 2014 collection celebrates the music of Otis Redding, Jerry Garcia, Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Elton John, Prince, Cyndi Lauper, Freddie Mercury, Janis Joplin, Jane’s Addiction, Bob Marley, Frank Zappa, Rage Against The Machine, David Bowie and Marc Bolan as well as the Viper Room’s 21st anniversary. Artists included Gail Zappa, Raphael Saadiq, Willard Snow, Kevin Llewellyn, Gino Burman-Loffredo, TJ Roe and Forrest Holt.]
Were you trained as an artist?
Nope. I got all of my training working with album covers and Frank Zappa.
You spent your formative years in London did you not?
Yes. I went to the Marymount International School, and then I was working for the U.S. government. That was the crazy thing. I was a civil servant working (as a secretary) in the office of Naval Research and Development. My father was the commanding officer. It was a very large office at that time. So to say it was nepotism, it wasn’t in the sense. I had to get that job like anyone else would have to do.
Your father John K. Sloatman Jr. was a scientist who worked on classified nuclear weapons research? I know that he was also commanding officer of the U.S. Naval Training Device Center in Orlando, Florida in the 60s.
Yes. My father was a nuclear physicist. He was a pilot, and he also worked on the Manhattan Project ( the World War II project that developed the first nuclear weapons), and Julius Oppenheimer (who headed the project's secret weapons laboratory) was a friend.
You did some modeling in the UK?
Yes. I did. That was only because a very famous photographer discovered me, Terrence Donovan.
Photographers Terrence Donovan, David Bailey, and Brian Duffy captured, and, in many ways helped create, the “Swinging London” of the 1960s. Did you meet the Beatles and the Rolling Stones while in London?
I met a couple of the Beatles in places, clubs, elevators, whatever. They weren’t on my list of best friends. I met the Rolling Stones when they came back from their first tour of the United States. Of course, none of them would remember that, but I do because it was a big deal at the time.
At the 13th Zappanale festival in 2002, a bronze bust of Frank by drummer/sculptor Våclav Cesåk was unveiled. It is now in the center of Bad Doberan.
Without permission. They never contacted us. They didn’t invite us. They excluded us.
Well, in other honors, a 19-million-year-old species of “long-legged pig,” discovered in remote Egypt, has been named after Mick Jagger. It’s been dubbed Jaggermeryx naida or Jagger’s water nymph.
That’s a different situation.
Still, that’s horrible.
Why is it horrible?
I wouldn’t want it.
Well, you aren’t Mick Jagger. Maybe, he likes it. I think that’s a stunning thing. If you are a Marine biologist, and you discover a new species or if you are an astronomer and you discover a new star, you have the right to name it. and you can pick any name out of anything anywhere in the universe. You can name it after someone you admire, and it’s completely valid. That comes with the territory.
I am thrilled with all of the ones that have been named after Frank. He’s got a couple of ocean species named after him; a jellyfish (Phialella zappai), a fossil snail (Amaurotoma zappa), a (Cameroonese) spider (Pachygnatha zappa), an asteroid (3834 Zappafrank), and a specially-adapted gene (zapa) to fight cancer. Any number of things.
All of the reasons that have been expressed by the people who have named things after Frank are so incredible. These are people I have to say who are among the true fans.
[Earlier this year, Dr. Andrea Campisano and Dr. Omar Rota-Stabelli from the Fondazione Edmund Mach’s Research and Innovation Center in Italy named a new type of Propionibacterium acnes – the bacterium that causes human acne by infecting skin pores and forming spots, Propionibacterium acnes type Zappae after the Italian term zappa (meaning hoe), as well as a tribute to Frank Zappa.
“This bacterium is so unconventional in its behavior, and its new habitat is so unexpected that we thought of Frank Zappa,” the pair said in a statement. “Indeed, at the time we were discovering it, we were both playing a Zappa album in our cars.”]
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.” Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.