interviews, early 1997
originally published in the September 1997 issue of Tangents Magazine
Interview and introduction by Daniel Coston
Whether you've heard all of his music or just heard of him, Frank Zappa is unavoidable in the pantheon of popular music. From his emergence in 1966 to his death in 1993, his groundbreaking mixture of rock, jazz, avant-gardism and a bizarre sense of humor has graced over 60 albums, and a catalog that still continues to grow, through reissues and unreleased recordings.
However, despite the insistence of many Zappaphiles, and the autocratic nature of Zappa himself, Zappa did not create his musical menagerie by himself. It was in fact Zappa's first band, the Mothers Of Invention, that laid the groundwork for Zappa's early musical excursions, and influenced his work for the rest of his life.
Two key ingredients to those early records were keyboardist Don Preston and horn and woodwinds player Bunk Gardner. Originally introduced to each other during the 1950s by Bunk's brother, Buzz (who had roomed with Preston in the army, and would himself later join the Mothers), the two joined the band shortly before the band recorded their second album, Absolutely Free, in 1967, and contributed to various Zappa projects even after his disbanding of the original Mothers lineup in 1969.
While Gardner worked steadily during the 1970s with Tim Buckley, and Preston played on the soundtrack to the film "Apocalypse Now" in 1979, the past 25 years have sometimes a struggle for the two. Both Gardner and Preston have toured with other ex-Mothers from time to time as the Grandmothers (the Zappa estate still owns the rights to the Mothers name), and have spent most of the past ten years struggling with lawsuits with Zappa and his estate over royalties and credits to the early Mothers records, a subject that neither Preston and Gardner can now discuss.
More recently, Preston and Gardner have been performing as a duo in Los Angeles, along with working on their own solo projects, as well as recording with Charlotte native Billy James, who records under the name of Ant-Bee. Out of these recordings also sprang the forthcoming book "Necessity Is The Grandmothers," an Mothers Of Invention biography written by James, with contributions from Preston, Gardner and several other former bandmates.
What emerges from these interviews with Preston and Gardner (portions from which are featured in the book) is their hope that their contributions to the Mothers will finally be recognized, while still remaining loyal and proud of the music that they forged with Zappa.
Don Preston: I met Frank in '61. He called me 'cause he had the possibility of auditioning for a job at a club. He looked like the back of Reuben And The Jets. He was clean-shaven, very straight-looking, actually kind of nerdish. So I went over to his house and we rehearsed, and went over to this place called the Bank Club, and didn't get the job. But as a result of going to his house, I noticed that he had the same records that I had, so we formed a relationship.
I had this band at the time that was rehearsing experimental music, and I asked Frank to come down there, and he played with us for a while. Then he set up an audition for us to play at ABC [television]. So we got in there, and l showed [Zappa] how to play the bicycle, and so we were doing this really weird shit, and all the musicians that were on the lot all came in and stuck their heads in around the door. They couldn't believe their eyes
Then I didn't see him for a few years, and one day he showed up on my door. He looked like he did in the late '60s, and I didn't even recognize him, with long hair and a monkey-hair coat. So he came in, and we talked. 1 think that he was interested in my wife at that time, because saw was the original hippie of all time. She was extremely intelligent, but this whole about "free this, free that," take your clothes offwhen you dance, she did that. Frank got a lot of inspiration from her. "Absolutely free," all those things were her concepts.
Then I auditioned for his band, and I didn't know anything about rock and roll , and I failed the audition. Then a year later, for some reason, I started getting calls from rock bands, and then I knew all the standard rock songs, and I auditioned again and got in the band.
Bunk Gardner: Don joined about two weeks ahead of me. I went up to Frank's house and spent the whole day, and played my soprano [horn], my clarinet, my flutes, everything. And that's how we started.
Daniel Coston: Looking back, Don, it's surprising that Zappa turned you down the first time he auditioned you.
Preston: At that time, a lot of his music was based on standard rock and roll tunes. For instance, "Suzy Creamcheese" doesn't bear any resemblance to "Louie Louie," but that's how it started out. It started out as "Louie Louie," but with "Suzy Creamcheese" lyrics. Then when he recorded it, he didn't want to pay the writer of"Louie Louie," so he completely redesigned the song, so that it was completely different. He did that with a number of songs. "Flower Punk" was totally based on "Hey Joe." Almost the same music, but Zappa put it in 5/16, 7/16 time. He stole from everyone. There's no secret about that.
Coston: From a musician's standpoint, was playing with Zappa difficult?
Preston: Yeah, because he kind of set himself apart. I think there was a psychological thing that he did, that he chose to be that way so that he would be the leader. And he was tough on people on occasion.
On the other hand, he had a great sense of humor, and was always breaking up at various things that we did. We found ourselves doing things just to make him laugh. Also, Zappa was a very powerful person, and he demanded perfection. Sometimes we weren't capable of giving it to him, but sometimes we did.
Coston: How did the band work on songs?
Preston: As far as learning a song went, there was no method untouched. Sometimes he would pass out music, sometimes he would just show us the song note by note. Sometimes we would figure out ways of improvising with various hand signals, and other things.
Sometimes, we'd play a concert and we'd play for 2 1/2 hours, and we'd only play three songs. Because the band was so in tune with one another that we could do that. We would never have a set list. Sometimes, Frank would jump up in the air, and when he came down, he expected us to start a new song, but we didn't know what song. So we always had to start the right song in the right key and the whole thing, and we got so that we could do that. It was conditioning.
But you have to remember...that we rehearsed for six months, eight hours a day nonstop, including Christmas. Right through New Year's Day, every day of the week. That was the kind of loyalty that he would demand, 'cause if you don't want to do it, then don't be in the band.
Gardner: Even after rehearsing, I'd have to go home and practice some of this stuff. There are things you can play, let's say, on guitar, and if you write it out and try to play it on another instrument, your fingers fall off. Frank would write things where there was no place to breathe. And there were things technically that I had to work out that were just mind boggling.
Coston: What stands out for you about recording with the Mothers?
Preston: One time, he was listening to "Uncle Meat" and writing a harmony part for the song, and if somebody made a mistake, he'd stop them and make them go over that. I always thought that it was quite amazing that while he was writing another piece of music that he could still be listening to this one being recorded.
Frank had the stamina of a bull. We'd do 50 takes of eight bars, and then 50 takes of another eight bars. I always liked to say is that he was a compulsive editor. I saw him three months after an album was already out putting that album together in different ways, and re-editing the album when it's not even going to came out. He used to love to sit there and edit anything.
Coston: Bunk, how did your "bed" recordings come about?
Gardner: When I was in college, I met a couple of young girls, and we became good friends, and after I left Ohio State, one of them was living down in Florida. I don't remember how many times I went down to see her. She was pretty vocal, and it was just on a lark that I recorded it. Through the grapevine, Frank heard about this, and he heard it and it cracked him up, and then [the band] started using it on stage. Actually, she was good-natured about it. I didn't tell her I was going to do this. 1 still get a card from her every Christmas.
Coston: On the Mothers albums, Frank also took sole songwriting credit.
Preston: Frank took full credit for the songs, even when they weren't his. That was the one thing that always pissed me off. For instance, on Live At The Fillmore East (1969) there's a song where there's nothing on the track except my solo. Not even background [music], just my mini-moog solo. And Zappa wrote it. [pauses, then laughs]
Coston: Was this also a problem for the other members of the band?
Gardner: You can always rationalize a lot when somebody is that talented, like a genius, the ego overlooks a lot of things, and we attributed that to the need to be in complete control and the master, and "l did all of this by myself." So we kind of accepted it, and we knew that we weren't getting the credit that we deserved.
Preston: I think Mark [Volman] and Howard [Kaylan, formerly of the Turtles] had a few problems with that, because they would improvise a whole thing, and then Zappa would claim ownership.
One song, another guy came in, and he and Mark and Howard improvised this whole song. And Zappa tried to get control of that, but they were going to go into a lawsuit. It got real bad.
Coston: Where you surprised when Zappa disbanded the original Mothers lineup in 1969?
Gardner: It was a big disappointment. We were always struggling financially. And at so many of those [band] meetings, it was like, "You just got to hang in there. We're gonna make it." And that really never happened.
I think that the last eight months of the band's existence, we finally started to get a salary of $250. So we said, "Okay, but as we make more money, let's pay ourselves a little bit more," but it never happened. I think that there was a big letdown that that was it, and I'm ready for the unemployment line, and most ofthe guys hadn't saved any money at all.
Preston: It was a huge shock to everybody. It was like your wife saying, "Okay, I'm leaving you. Goodbye," and just walking out the door. Because we were very close, and we realized that was going to be the end of our friendships. Some people never spoke to Zappa again. Not once.
I maintained contact with him, because I liked what he was doing, so I remained friends with him, and played in two more bands with him.
T: After that, Zappa brought both of you back for various projects over the next few years. Was it weird to work again with Frank after all that had happened?
Gardner: In some ways, but sometimes that's the nature of a lot of bands. Personnel keeps changing. I think Frank felt that he was evolving. When you surround yourself with different people all the time, it gives you a feeling that you're doing a lot of different things, rather than staying with the same thing all the time. And I think Frank needed that.
Coston: Don, you also appeared in the movie "200 Motels" (1971).
Preston: I didn't play in the band at the time, but I was in the movie. I don't know why, but Frank always thought of me as some sort of charismatic character. Maybe Frank thought that I had some sort of acting ability. I was always doing these weird things with transforming, vile foamy liquids and all that stuff.
Coston: Over the years, have you tried to keep in touch with the rest of the Mothers? Preston: Not very much so. I tried talking to Ray [Collins], but Ray's in a strange place. He's got a lot of anger and frustration, and that comes out and gets turned onto whoever's talking to him. Roy [Estrada], he's very shy and timid, and doesn't really want to talk very much. Once in a while, I call Art Tripp, and see how he's doing. He's a chiropractor in northern California.
Motorhead [Sherwood] works on motors in the Bay Area. Ruth [Underwood] has a couple of kids. Ian [Underwood] is a studio musician and does well for himself. Billy Mundi disappeared. Nobody knows where he is. Jimmy [Carl Black] lives in Germany, and tours in some blues bands.
Gardner: When you think of bands like the Rolling Stones, they just keep playing great together. I kind of envisioned that we could do that for 10, 15, 20 years. When [Don and l] go out and play, people are still blown away by "Brown Shoes Don't Make It," "King Kong" and a whole lot of things.
Coston: With this upcoming book, do you hope that people will get the whole story?
Preston: We are interested in telling our side of the story. Not in a vindictive way, but just setting the record straight. Many of those concepts and ideas and ideologies that were on the records were ideas that came directly from the band members, even though they were copywritten as Zappa's ideas. I wouldn't say that he stole them. Zappa's now being idolized to such an extent, and I give credit where credit is due. But I say, give us credit as well.
I could go through every album and find thousands of things that we created and then Zappa got all the credit for it. Even sounds that Zappa utilized in some hand signals were sounds that Jimmy and Roy used to banter back and forth with each other. There were so many things that were created by us and then Zappa took credit for all of them, and I hope that people will understand that.