What exactly is a “percussionist” anyway? It sounds rather imposing. To a lot of people, a percussionist is someone who plays in a symphony orchestra. To others, the term suggests someone who plays a variety of Latin instruments. Still others consider “percussionist” to be a snobbish way to say “drummer. “People do generally agree that it has something to do with hitting things, but to many people, the exact function of a percussionist remains rather vague. Often, in fact, percussion is considered merely as something “extra.”
Ed Mann originally became a percussionist because he found it limiting to just play one instrument. This same idea of not being limited to any single thing applies to Ed’s function in Frank Zappa’s band: Ed does it all. Sometimes he plays melody; sometimes harmony; sometimes rhythm. Sometimes he plays complex passages that would challenge any symphony musician; sometimes he blows duck calls. Sometimes he supports, reinforces and colors what the other musicians are playing; sometimes his part is the main thing. Always he is appropriate to the situation.
RM: How did you get involved with so many different instruments?
EM: I started out as a drummer. When I was a kid, I was studying with a guy named Richie LePore in Hartford, Connecticut. He suggested that I take it one step further and take up the mallet instruments as well. So I did that to try and extend myself.
After a year with Richie, I went to the Hartt College of Music, where I studied with Al Lepak, who is a true master of percussion playing, composition, and instruction. He expanded the range of my studies to include all of the orchestral percussion instruments, and introduced me to percussion ensemble and multi-percussion playing. That’s when I really developed a solid foundation as a multi-percussionist.
In 1973, I moved to California and began studying with John Bergamo at the California Institute of the Arts. At that time, Cal. Arts was still very young and there were only eight or nine of us in the percussion department. We were pretty much free to follow any direction we wanted, individually and as an ensemble. John turned us on to avant-garde percussion music, unorthodox techniques and sound sources, polyrhythms, Indian hand drumming, and you name it. He made us realize that percussion is limitless in terms of its instrumental, timbral, rhythmic and melodic possibilities.
We had a really good percussion ensemble there. We were three-time winners of the PAS percussion ensemble competition. It was an innovative ensemble. We were playing a lot of music by people like Lou Harrison, and stuff we had written ourselves using traditional instruments along with stuff we had made ourselves. The basic idea of what we were doing was to try and expand percussion as far as it could go, and create alternative sound sources. Traditionally, that’s been the percussionist’s role anyway. Whenever there was something odd to be done, you’d give it to the percussion section.
After that, we had a group called the Repercussion Unit. John Bergamo, Larry Stein and myself were the founders of that. We were, obviously, dedicated strictly to percussion. Everybody in the group was an all-around percussionist—nobody just played one thing. After doing that for a year, I got the job with Frank Zappa. Since then, my involvement with Repercussion has been sporadic, but I still try to participate as often as possible.
So I don’t know if that tells you why I’m a percussionist, but it was the snowball effect—you start out with one thing, you get into something else, and at this point, it would be hard for me to just be a drummer, or just this, or just that. Once I’ve done something, I want to keep doing it and expanding it in all directions as much as I can.
RM: In school, where did you think your study of percussion would lead?
EM: I didn’t really think about it.
RM: Were you learning the orchestral repertoire?
EM: No I wasn’t. There are a lot of percussionists going through schools with the idea that they’re headed for an orchestra and that’s what they should be doing, and a lot of them are great at it. But for me, being a percussionist means something more than having a specific piece as finely honed as another hundred people around the country who are already doing it.
RM: How many more people do we need who can play the xylophone part to “Porgy and Bess”?
EM: I think one thing that happens to too many percussionists is that they’ll know a lick like “Porgy and Bess,” but they won’t understand the theory behind it. Many times, percussionists aren’t given a decent education in terms of the real world of harmony; understanding their instrument as a harmonic instrument—not just as something that plays parts in an orchestra.
When I was eighteen, I saw Dave Samuels play vibes with just a rhythm section, and it totally blew me out. It made me realize that if I was going to play any mallets at all, I had to understand harmonic and melodic theory and how it applies to the instrument. I studied with Dave for a while, and he helped me quite a bit in developing that style of playing. A few years later, I was fortunate enough to study with Emil Richards, who showed me several important melodic and harmonic concepts. He gave me enough material in two hours to keep me going for the next nine months! I also got together with Victor Feldman once, and he showed me several concepts about chord voicing which could be applied in many different ways.
RM: You mentioned that at Cal. Arts you were free to follow any direction you wanted. Did you have any type of formal program at all?
EM: When I got there, I had kind of a shock in terms of my learning experience. Traditionally, being a student means you go to a teacher every Wednesday at two o’clock, he takes you through some method books, and there’s this whole program, and by the end of it you’ll be where everybody else is. I had heard a lot about John Bergamo and I really wanted to study with him. I was expecting format deluxe, because that had been my experience before. I met him for the first time and he said to me, “Alright, what do you want to do?” And I said, “What do you think I should do?” He said, “I don’t know. Do what you want to do.” I said, “What about lessons?” and he said, “When you have something to do, come to my office and we’ll have a lesson.” Of course, he wasn’t putting me off—he just wanted me to do some soul-searching in order to define my priorities and gain a better understanding of myself.
I became heavily involved in percussion ensemble, various contemporary music groups, and South Indian drumming. John was very actively involved in every rehearsal and performance either as a player, conductor or advisor. He worked with us every day in a wide variety of musical situations and, as a result, the need for private instruction was minimal. It was a unique environment in which we, the students, could gradually learn to teach ourselves by observing his methods.
RM: A lot of people contend that if you want to be a musician, you shouldn’t go to school, you should go out and get a gig.
EM: At one point, I was going to follow that doctrine and leave school. But I’m not sorry I went to school, because when you’re out in the real world, how are you going to have a situation where you can play twenty-four hours a day? Where are you going to get a practice room full of percussion instruments that you can become accustomed to? You’d have to have a huge apartment which was soundproof. It’s cheaper to go to school. I basically follow that theory that you really learn how to apply your ability as a musician when you get out of school. But I think if somebody really wants to learn to be an all-around percussionist, a school is the ideal environment. They have the instruments, the space, the facility, and you have the chance to be around a lot of other percussionists, and you can be bouncing ideas back and forth. There are guidelines for becoming a percussionist, but still, it’s always unorthodox. You’re always being confronted with unorthodox situations when you’re a percussionist, even if it’s just transporting your instruments. That can be a horror story in itself.
RM: The older musicians had more chances to sit in at after-hours sessions, so in many ways, that was a type of school.
EM: Right. It’s a shame that situation doesn’t exist anymore.
RM: Maybe that situation has moved into the schools.
EM: I think that’s actually pretty accurate, but yet, it’s different. You don’t get a chance to learn as much about life in school. When you get out of school, that’s what you have to learn about immediately. It’s sink or swim. Let’s face it—a degree doesn’t mean anything at this point. If you augment it with a Master’s, then you can teach in a school. But even there, how many positions are there and do you really want to do that? To me, it doesn’t make sense to go to school, get the degree, and immediately come out and accept a teaching position. You have to have a lot of practical real-life experience. Then you have something to teach about. Being a musician is not just about technique and notes.
RM: A lot of teachers have never played a professional gig.
EM: Right. Except school gigs. As a student, I would not want to study with someone like that. A teacher with a lot of experience can tell you so much more about how to apply what you do to different aspects of things that you will probably be encountering once you get out and start doing it.
RM: A good teacher must realize that a particular student may have a more immediate need to learn now to play a wedding reception than to learn the symphonic repertoire.
EM: I had that situation with Bergamo. I started to do casuals when I was about nineteen. I had always played rock and roll, but I got a call from an accordion player who played all these rhumbas and cha-chas and everything. I could kind of fake my way through it, but I didn’t know anything about the specific styles. I went to Bergamo, and he had done a lot of things like that. So his experience was invaluable to me.
RM: How did you get the gig with Zappa?
EM: John Bergamo had done a lot of orchestral work with Frank. About the time I graduated from Cal. Arts, John called Frank just to see what he was doing, and Frank was about to do the overdubs on “The Black Page.” He gave John the music for that, John gave me a copy, and we both learned it. Before John went down to record it, he told Frank that I also knew the piece, so we both went down and recorded it. There are two versions: one is full band with mallets, the other version uses alternative sound sources—brake drums, pipes, the kind of thing Repercussion was involved in. We still had the Repercussion Unit at that time. So anyway, John and I did the overdubs on “The Black Page,” and I met Frank then.
A few months later, Ruth [Underwood] told me that Frank was forming a new band and was looking for another keyboard player. I had known Tommy Mars since ’71. We used to have bands together on the East Coast. He had just come out to California and was looking for a gig. So I called Frank up to get Tommy an audition. Frank remembered me and asked me if I would like to audition too, because he was also looking for a percussionist. That was June of ’77.
RM: Did you have a formal audition?
EM: To a degree, but Frank already had a decent idea of what I could do since I had done some recording with him. It wasn’t a “cattle call,” which was fortunate. A lot of times, you’ll see players come through those things, and when you have fifteen players waiting to audition, it’s just “Next…next…next…” Depending on your ability to handle a situation like that, you may give a good impression of your self or not, regardless of what your abilities are. So a lot of it is based on Frank’s intuitive feeling at the time.
I think that had a lot to do with it when he asked me to join the band. When I went to the audition, it was about one o’clock in the morning. I had called him up about midnight, and he said, “Well, if you think you’d like the job, why don’t you come up right now?” And I said, “Well, maybe tomorrow or something?” “No, no, if you want to do it, come up right now.” So I went up and he had this really dimly lit room in his basement. He put all of the charts in front of me. It was an audition of sorts—he wanted to see how I could handle some of the music and how my basic sight reading was. I struggled through it, but I didn’t feel I did a particularly good job. I suppose Frank just got the feeling I could handle it.
It took a lot of work that summer. We were rehearsing about six to eight hours a day, five days a week, and I would spend the rest of my time at home practicing it. I was just trying to get a basic feel for it. There are certain rhythmic patterns that Frank writes. You see them in different pieces and in different places, but it’s all sort of coming from the same idea. It’s not a formula; it’s just a stylistic thing. Certain things occur here and there and you can relate them to other pieces. So I used all of my extra time to get a handle on how Frank wrote, his phrasing, and how he wanted things to sound stylistically.
RM: After you adjusted to his style, did things get easier?
EM: Frank is never easy. He’ll write some thing which, at the time, is more difficult than anything he has written before, and it’s a challenge to see if you can cut it. You spend hours learning this thing, and once you do, then that becomes the new standard. Then he’ll write something past that.
The thing I’ve noticed since I’ve been with him is that his music is becoming rhythmically more difficult. Instead of having standard odd subdivisions per beat, like a quarter note divided into five or seven or something like that, he’ll have something like a seven grouping over three quarter notes, and then out of the seven, have a five over four of the seven beats. You have to be able to subdivide the seven to know where the five ends and the last three beats of the seven start. Also, groupings will start in the middle of a bar, say on the third quarter note of one bar, and go to the fourth quarter of the next bar, and over those five notes, he’ll have an eleven, or something like that. And it might not be a full eleven—there might be rests and triplets within it. When I first joined the band, he wasn’t writing too many things like that. If he was, it was here and there. He has pieces now that are entirely based on that principle. Everything is over the bar and it’s all odd groupings on top of the basic space you’ve been given, and then odd subdivisions within that. You really have to know how to count to play that stuff.
RM: Does he really hear those things in his mind, or are they figured out mathematically?
EM: He really hears it, and then it’s figured out mathematically later on to represent it as accurately as possible. After you get a figure like that and start to phrase it, it’s different than if you just play it mathematically. It has to be phrased, otherwise, it doesn’t sound right.
RM: You’ve worked with several different drummers during the time you’ve been with Zappa.
EM: Terry Bozzio was the drummer when I came in, and then there was Vinnie Colaiuta. I wasn’t in the band with David Logeman. There was a point where Frank took about nine months off, and then when the band re-formed, it was a very vocally oriented band. He decided not to include percussion in that particular band, so I was off playing drums, trying to keep that part of my life going. When I started working with Frank again, I guess it was December of 1980. Vinnie was back at that point. Then Vinnie left and Chad Wackerman came in.
RM: How much effect does a different drummer have on the band?
EM: It makes a pretty big difference because Frank will write around how people play. He used to do a lot of stuff with Vinnie where they would just kind of go free. They would really go out, because they had an ability to feel phrases together. So Frank did a lot of that kind of thing with Vinnie, and that really changed the whole sound of the band.
Before that, we had Terry, who has that whole, “Every note I play will be the last thing I’m remembered for” type of approach. His playing is really metric and really solid, so with that band, everything was constructed around that kind of playing. It was real hard-driving, punchy music.
This new guy, Chad, is right in between them. He has this kind of jazz-like fluidity, like Vinnie, but he really has an ability to play sparsely and simply and real hard hitting when he wants to. He kind of incorporates both. Chad leaves a lot of space and we work off each other. We get dual licks going between the percussion and the drums.
RM: A moment ago, you mentioned that you were off playing drums for a while.
EM: At that point, I hadn’t played drums for about two and a half years, and I didn’t want to let it go. If Frank had called and asked me to come back, I probably would have done it, but it was important to me to re-establish myself, just within my own mind, as being able to be a working drummer. That’s really important. If you already play drums, there’s no reason to let it go. Even if you think of yourself as an active percussionist, unless you’re in the hub of a studio scene or something, the ability to play drums comes in handy just in terms of making a living.
RM: What types of gigs were you doing?
EM: I did some demo tapes for solo projects, some club work—I was basically just freelancing. There was one band that remained together for about four months, but that was the only steady thing I did. I wanted to make it as varied as possible. I was playing some hard-rock things, a few jazz gigs at a couple of small clubs, and the normal amount of weddings and things like that. Just basic drumming.
RM: This brings up the basic problem that every percussionist has to face: How does one maintain the ability to play so many instruments, when any one of them could involve a lifetime’s worth of work?
EM: It’s controlled schizophrenia. I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’ve heard a lot of percussionists say that eventually they have to make a decision. At one point they will say, “Well, okay. It’s time to get serious with life and now it’s just going to be…” It’s usually mallets or drum set. Being a serious timpanist is also its own thing.
When you talk about zeroing in on one instrument, someone like Vinnie—he’s a drummer. That’s what he does. That’s his main focus and he’s a drummer’s drummer. He has a real complete understanding, because all of his time has been spent in developing his drumming abilities.
I find it very hard to eliminate anything totally. Since 1976, I think I’ve been leaning a little heavier on mallets than on drums, but it would be literally impossible for me to say, “Well, that’s it. I’m not going to play drums anymore.” It has been too much a part of my development and I don’t want to let it go. It’s the same thing with hand drumming. Since I spent a lot of time doing that, it’s something I couldn’t leave behind.
I see it as an all-around, comprehensive thing. Playing drums benefits your mallet playing; mallet playing will benefit your drumming. Every instrument has its own subtle techniques, but each one will give you a different slant on the others, andeventually, it all adds up to one comprehensive ability. Playing one gives you an idea of what you want the other to do. To me, that’s the greatest value of playing many different instruments.
It is harder; once you decide to take on all of these instruments and play them actively throughout the rest of your life, it is more difficult to become a virtuoso on any one of them. But I think it is possible to kind of specialize on one, and still be as competent as you like on the others. With me, mallets is pretty much my specialization. That’s something I spent enough time on, and I’m definitely more comfortable soloing on mallets. So I guess I would say that I specialize on mallets, but do all the others.
When I was in college, I would maybe go two weeks heavy on mallets, and then two weeks heavy on drum set. Meanwhile, I’d keep doing the other ones at least a couple of minutes a day, just to keep it there. That’s still kind of the way I do it. It’s like a rotational schedule—sometimes day to day. I’ll get up and I’ll think, “Today, I want to work on some hand drumming,” and I’ll just do that. It takes longer to really become proficient at each one, but you get immediate side benefits, because you realize, “From doing that yesterday, I feel a difference in this today.” You understand how it applies.
RM: Has your set-up with Zappa remained fairly consistent over the years?
EM: It has, but yet, it’s always changing. I’m always adding things to it and sometimes, when I add, there’s no more room, so I have to subtract something. But it’s pretty standard. One advantage I have is that I’m a one-man percussion section, so I don’t have to worry about tripping over anybody else. In terms of the mallet set-up, that remains the same, with the xylophone right above the marimba and the glocken speil right above the vibraphone, so I can play them both at once. I would say the setup I have now will probably stay the same, at least in terms of the mallets, the gongs, and the Syndrums. It seems to work pretty well. This year, I added some keyboards to the set-up: a Wurlitzer piano and a Mini-Moog, so that kind of changed things too.
RM: Do you have any background on piano or does it all come from playing mallets?
EM: When I was a kid, I could play Carole King-type piano. I just sort of picked it up by myself. Any harmonic knowledge I gained was from playing mallets.
RM: When Zappa gives you a vibe part, does he write out the voicings or does he give you chord symbols?
EM: He’ll usually write out the voicings. There are some tunes where it starts as chord symbols, and then the voicings are decided on later, depending on what the instrumentation is. One thing I’ve been doing more and more is functioning harmonically by comping on the vibes or marimba. I’ve come up with a lot of my own voicings. Depending on what the keyboards and guitars are playing, the vibes may function as a coloring instrument. Instead of using a full four-note chord, I might use just three voices, or two. When we do something like that, it’s up to my discretion as to which voices in which range will function best. Obviously, if you had organ, synthesizer, and vibes playing the same thing, it would sound different than if you had the organ comping chords, the synthesizer functioning as a brass section, and the vibes playing long sustains. You’d get a different texture. That’s pretty much what it’s all about.
RM: Tell me about the specific instruments you use.
EM: I have a three-octave Deagan vibraphone. They were making a four-octave model, and I tried to get ahold of one, but they told me it was out of production because they are redesigning it.
RM: Did you ever try the Electravibe?
EM: Yup. I didn’t like it because of the way the case comes out past the bars. I don’t like that because you can’t bow any of the bars with a cello bow. I love to do that. It’s one of the ways to get a truly different sound out of the instrument.
The instrument I have now is a model 592 or 594. It’s the same instrument depending on if it has pick-ups. Mine has pick-ups. Deagan has designed a new pickup which is great. It doesn’t require a preamp, which makes the signal real clean and you get quite a bit of punch out of it.
The vibraphone and marimba are adjacent to each other. They are the only mallet instruments that stand on their own feet. The glockenspiel is mounted above the vibraphone at an angle, much like the way a keyboard player might stack synthesizers. That’s so I can get from one to the other quickly, as well as, play both of them at the same time. The xylophone is mounted the same way in relation to the marimba—it’s stacked right above it. The marimba is a four-octave, the xylophone is three and a half, and the glockenspiel is two and a half. The marimba and xylophone are both Musser Kelon. I use Kelon because it’s durable. They won’t crack like wood will, and they go out of tune less. Both have Barcus-Berry Hot-Dots in them, and they seem to blend better with electric instruments than wood instruments do.
My chimes are also Musser. Chimes are the only problem. We haven’t found the right way to get those direct. We tried Hot-Dots, but they continue to ring even after the pedal is let up. So they’re being miked at the moment.
I have two sets of Syndrums, which to me, are the best electronic drums. You can get a lot of textures out of them and a lot of different variations if you have a hand free to play with the controls while you’re hitting them, which most drummers don’t. But as a percussionist, I don’t have to sit there and keep riding time. I’m constantly changing the settings, but I pretty much know how to get the sound I want right away, because I’ve spent a lot of time with them. I have two sets of Syndrums, simply because my set-up is so large. If I need to use them, I don’t have to run across to the other side—I’ve got a set on each side.
The pride and joy of my set-up is my rack of Wuhan gongs. I own fifteen Opera gongs, but I only use three, depending upon the situation. Then there’s a 20″ tam-tam and a 20″ wind gong, which looks like a cymbal without a hole or a cup. It’s a great instrument. Also a 38″ tam-tam. They all are amazing. You couldn’t get real Chinese gongs for a long time, but thanks to Bruce Howard at World Percussion, they’re available again.
Then there’s a snare drum, castanets, Chinese cymbals, antique cymbals, bird calls, whistles, car horns, tambourines, shakers, Latin-type percussion, a bell tree, a Vibraslap, things like that. Most of my things are mounted so that I can play them with mallets. That way, I don’t have to worry too much about putting the mallets down and picking something else up. So I can get back and forth pretty quick.
Obviously, the reason for having all these things is to get timbral variation. Even though the lower end of the xylophone is in the same range as the upper end of the marimba, the xylophone is tuned to have a different sound than the marimba, just by the way the bar is carved. The harmonic structure is different.
RM: When some people try to use a lot of percussion, it can start to sound like a circus, or a Spike Jones routine.
EM: That’s the stereotypical problem that any percussionist faces, but you’re not limited to that with these instruments. There are a lot of things that can be done that have not been brought to the front of people’s consciousness. They’re not used to hearing the instruments do certain things. For instance, a reggae comp on a marimba is a truly wonderful thing. If you deaden the two outer voices and let the two inner ones ring, you get a whole different texture than you’re used to hearing on a marimba. It’s the same thing for any of the instruments. It’s how you play it and when to use it. I think a percussionist’s job, more than anybody else’s in the band, is to pick and choose—not only what to play and what sound to use, but where not to play. If you play all of the time as a percussionist, you’re going to destroy the effect of what you’re doing. Just two little notes on a glockenspiel will bring a listener’s ear out to go, “Wow! What was that?” Whereas, if you played the whole thing on the glockenspiel, the listener’s ear would get tired of that. Percussion should be used to highlight the music. You can make a nice, high melody come out more. You can make something that is really hard-hitting come out bigger by using bass drum and gongs. By finding the right instrument for the right part of the music, you don’t end up sounding like a circus effect. Bring some character to the instruments and bring some character to the music through the instruments.
RM: I remember Ruth Underwood always had tympani when she was with Zappa. I was surprised that you didn’t.
EM: We always had problems with the tympani in that the heads are so sensitive that they would start vibrating from all of the sound coming from the stage. The mic’s would pick it up and it would start to feed back. We almost used tympani again on this tour. One of Frank’s sound engineers has developed a magnetic drum pickup. It uses some kind of element on the drum head which functions basically as a transducer. We tried those in some drums and they worked beautifully. We were going to put them in the tympani so we wouldn’t have the problem with miking, but we didn’t have time to do it before the tour started. If there had been time, you would have seen tympani. I like to use them.
RM: Have you done much tympani playing over the years?
EM: When I was going to the Hartt School of Music and studying with Al Lepak, he put me through a lot of tympani training, which was invaluable. I love to play tympani, but the situation doesn’t present itself that often. Much of the studio work that I do requires tympani playing, so that’s usually my only chance to play them. It’s not like playing the Bartok Concerto, but it is tympani playing.
There are a lot of ways that tympani can be used which have been unexplored. One thing is to suspend metal discs over the head, move the pedals, and use the tympani simply as a resonating chamber, letting the harmonic frequency sweep along with it. It sounds electronic; it sounds like a synthesizer. Another one we used to do was to take a barbeque skewer, lay it across the head, letting it extend out over the edge, and then bow the skewer while moving the pedal. It’s the most outrageous sound you’ve ever heard in your life. It sounds like a $30,000 synthesizer, but it’s just a 59cents barbeque skewer on a tympani head. A lot of these are techniques that John Bergamo developed.
RM: You mentioned playing tympani in the studio. How much studio work do you do outside of your gig with Zappa?
EM: I do as much as avails itself to me. It’s a real tough area to break into because the people who have been doing it for years are still doing it. So it often requires someone who can’t make a job saying, “Get this guy.” I do a moderate amount of it, but I could certainly do more. It’s the kind of thing that grows. You get established, people
start to realize that you’re around, and that aside from playing rock and roll you’re also able to read, and things like that. Calls start to come in more and more. Like I said, I can always do more, but it’s the kind of thing you can’t rush because you have a limited amount of control over getting that sort of work. There’s a lot of politics involved.
RM: Do you get artistic fulfillment from studio work?
EM: Yeah. It’s not nearly as challenging as playing Frank’s music, but occasionally you get a date that really requires you to put out some effort. So yeah, for me, it’s artistically satisfying. You hear about people who don’t care—they just go in and kind of whip it off and they couldn’t care less. I don’t run into too many people like that. People like that do exist, but a lot of times I think that point gets exaggerated. I think most people who go in there, at least most of the people that I’ve worked with, do care about what they’re doing and they try to do the best job they can. That’s what makes it fulfilling: when you look at the guy next to you and know that he’s actually concerned. Even though it may be just a TV theme, there’s not necessarily anything bad about that. It gets a bad name, but there are composers who are capable of writing good TV themes. If the music is good, and you can make it sound good, then that is its own artistic fulfillment. You may not have had the chance to change the course of musical history or anything, but it’s the chance to play music, which is what we’re all here to do.
RM: Some of the biggest complaints I’ve read about studio musicians have been in interviews with Zappa.
EM: Frank has had a lot of experience with studio players because of these orchestral things he’s done. There are always going to be a few who are more concerned with how the clock is running or what the Union has to say about it than they are about the music. In a situation like Frank’s, that doesn’t work too well because it’s not a typical date. Some extra effort has to go into it. There’s no way it will go off like an ordinary TV or film date. It’s a lot more demanding. So when you run into a few characters who try to take you for all you’re worth, and then don’t give you a decent performance of the music—you’re going to complain about it. But some people think that everyone who does studio work is like that, which is basically not true. Most studio musicians are still genuinely concerned about music.
RM: Would you be happy just doing studio work?
EM: I seriously doubt it. I have a definite urge to play in front of people. Again, it’s like, “Would you be happy just playing drums?” I don’t think I’d be happy just doing live performance and not doing any studio work. I really enjoy playing in the studio.
Studio is a whole different kind of play ing than live. You can do things that you just couldn’t do live—they wouldn’t be picked up. It’s two totally different kinds of work. I think that if tomorrow I just started doing all studio work, after a certain amount of time I’d have the itch to play live. I know I would. When we’ve taken four or six months off to do an album, after that time it’s like, “Come on, let’s start playing.” I like band playing. Studio playing is usually by yourself. I think the comprehensive musician should do both, if possible. It all adds up.
RM: For you, what is the difference between recording with the whole group at once, and overdubbing a part by yourself?
EM: A lot of times it’s easier when everybody’s there. It depends on how you’re set up in the studio. If you can see the other players, you can catch cues from each other. You can pick up other people’s body rhythms as they’re playing, which sometimes makes the ensemble things a little tighter.
RM: What about inspiring each other?
EM: That’s kind of what I’m getting at. A lot of times, by having people playing together, you can create more dynamics. It’s something that’s being created together, as opposed to having something that’s already on tape and you follow along with it.
RM: What about the end result?
EM: The end result is up to the producer. What you end up hearing depends on how they decide to mix it.
RM: Studio recordings may be perfect, but there is a certain excitement on a live recording.
EM: Interestingly enough, that’s something you hear sometimes about Frank’s music. However well the record is done in the studio, the live performance is usually much different. I think that’s because of the type of music it is. It’s always popping and there’s always a lot of stuff going on and there’s a lot of energy. I mean, look: Frank has been touring for sixteen years and he’s still doing it. There’s something about what happens live with his music that is a whole other thing from what is produced in the studio. That’s why Frank does so much live recording. I think that’s also why he can still tour successfully. People will have the record, but they also want to hear the thing live. Things are different sometimes because Frank will change the arrangement, or because you’re dealing with a different setting (like maybe playing in a hockey rink), or because of the excitement of a live situation—having an audience right there. There’s also the improvisational factor. In all of the music, there’s a certain part of it that’s going to be different every night. Not the chord changes or the instruments it’s being played on, but just little things that may be added or changed on the spot.
RM: How do electronic devices like the drum computers fit into all of this?
EM: The good thing about a drum machine is that it’s obviously steady. There’s music out now that’s got this incessant, non-dynamic drive to it, which kind of creates its own energy. A drum machine would be great for something like that because it’s hard to get drummers who will play like that.
RM: Do you want drummers to play like that?
EM: It depends on the context. I guess you wouldn’t want a drummer that’s machine like, although I get a tremendous kick out of the drummer who plays with Devo, because he sounds like a drum computer a lot of times. But they couldn’t use a machine either because the thing that’s great is seeing the guy doing it. I think drum computers are best used as an addition rather than as a replacement, although I’m sure that there are bands who could use one as their drummer and still have something good come off because of their own energy. Again, the music would have to be constructed around that kind of playing.
RM: In many ways, that would be like playing along with a click track. Can musicians play with a click and still make it feel good?
EM: I think it’s totally possible. It might not make sense for something like Elvin Jones’ thing, but for pop music, you could have perfect time and still have a lot of energy and drive to it.
RM: Getting back to the live performances, Zappa has always included new material in his concerts. How willing is the public to listen to something new?
EM: For Frank’s audience, that’s what they look for. A lot of times they don’t even know it’s something new because it’s stuck in the middle of something they’ve already heard. The audience will usually accept it if it’s organized and well rehearsed. A lot of times, you’ll hear bands try new things, but they haven’t really worked it out yet, so it comes off sloppy. It doesn’t measure up to the rest of the material they’re performing. But if you’ve rehearsed it enough so you know what you’re doing, then the audience generally appreciates it. They’re not just getting a band rehashing the same tunes they’ve done for the last ten years; they’re getting something different. They’re get ting something new for what they’ve paid for that concert ticket, and tickets aren’t cheap these days. I think it brings more value to the experience they go to a concert for.
RM: What about the need to have a certain familiarity with a piece of music? You can’t always absorb a piece on the first hearing.
EM: I agree. When you buy a record, you listen to it once through, and then the second and third times you hear it, you start to hear what went into making that piece of music. Very rarely can you hear something the first time and get everything the composer had in mind. Maybe a sign of good music is that you have to hear it a bunch of times.
RM: What have you learned from being with Zappa?
EM: With Frank’s situation, you’re always pushed to the limit of your abilities, which then becomes the standard, which means you then have to go that much farther. I think I’ve learned to be a true multi-percussionist as a result of being a one man percussion section. I’ve had to cover a lot of parts that would normally require two or three players—not only in terms of playing all at once, but also in terms of getting from one instrument to another quickly. I’ve also developed a lot of mallet chops. I didn’t have the ability to play what I can play now when I came into the band. You either cut the parts or you don’t have the job.
I’ve also learned a lot about how a group works. There was a summer where I was what we call the “Clone Meister.” I would conduct the rehearsal for five hours and then Frank would come in for three. From that, I can’t tell you how much I learned about how to organize an ensemble, getting the best out of players, conducting, reading scores, making sure everything goes together right, and being an ensemble director. And then I’ve learned about how a tour works, and what goes on behind producing an album and putting a show on the road. I never stop learning because the times keep changing and there are always new things to learn in this kind of business. So I see it as an ongoing experience.
RM: Are you involved in any projects of your own?
EM: I have been starting to write quite a bit of music. I have a minor recording studio at home, so I’m going to start recording it to help develop my compositional abilities. So I guess that’s the main goal. I’ve thought about a solo album, but you hear so many solo albums where the main thrust is just doing the album, not the music itself. They get an album deal through connections or reputation or something like that. There are a certain number of tunes, and you hear a few good cuts, but the rest seems to be filler—a bunch of solos or something that was thrown together at the last minute. And then, there’s nothing to follow it up with. I see myself right now as being young enough to where I don’t have to be so worried about having a solo album out as soon as possible. Right now, the most important thing is writing, and specifically, getting a direction. I go in a lot of different directions, so it’s important to understand which things fall into which categories. If you try to make an album where there’s a vocal tune, an instrumental tune, an avant-garde percussion piece, you know, just mix and match, you’re not doing anybody a favor. First of all, the audience for that kind of album would be small. It would have to be people who liked to have a lot of different things on one piece of plastic. I think it’s better to have a direction—this project is like this; that project is like that. So that’s what I’m involved in now—just writing material and seeing what fits where. When I do an album, it will be done right, or at least as right as I can get it.
Another project I’m involved in is teaching. When I’m not on the road I try to maintain a regular teaching schedule. Teaching is very challenging, but it is usually equally rewarding.
RM: How do you view the role of a percussionist in the context of what is happening currently in music?
EM: The thing I always wonder about is why more musical ensembles don’t take greater advantage of percussion. First of all, there are so many percussionists around, and most of them are unemployed. And there’s so much you can do with percussion in terms of augmenting your sound. It’s like I said before: any direction anyone’s going in, you can make it lighter, harder, heavier, deeper, richer, softer, or whatever, just by adding all these different textures. Percussion has been pigeon-holed, to a degree. People have an idea of what a xylophone does, for instance, and that’s what it does and that’s it. Very few artists have taken advantage of what can be gained from adding percussion to a band.
However, as I mentioned earlier, things are changing. The 20th Century has been a time of radical change for the percussion family, and huge strides have been made in terms of its influence on all forms of music. Percussion is no longer limited to supporting other instruments. Because of the wide variety of possibilities, the percussion family is finally being recognized as a self-supportive instrumental section which is capable of delivering major themes and statements. Overall, I’d say that these advances, combined with new directions in pop and rock music, will lead to a bright future for percussion.