The Zappa Band will perform on June 12 at the Center for the Arts in Homer. The band is composed largely of Frank Zappa alumni, featuring Ray White on vocals and guitars, Mike Keneally on guitar, keyboards and vocals, Scott Thunes on bass, Robert Martin on saxophone, keyboards and vocals, and ZPZ alums Jamie Kine on guitar and Zappa archivist Joe “Vaultmeister” Travers. They had previously opened a string of shows for King Crimson and are headlining their own summer tour through the Northwest. For tickets, visit https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-zappa-band-tickets-310150968897.
Mike Keneally spoke to the Ithaca Times about Zappa, “The Black Page,” and the effortof playing nearly impossible music.
Ithaca Times: What was Frank like?
Mike Keneally: Well, he was the coolest, most enjoyable guy in the world to hang with. His primary interest in the time that we would hang out most often was when we were working, so when we were on stage, [or] either at rehearsal working on learning the stuff or actually doing the gig. He was real straightforward about the employer/employee relationship. He was paying us to play his songs properly. And if we played the songs properly, we got along like a house on fire. The only times things could get a little sticky is if for some reason the band wasn’t delivering. It was my first professional gig, and I loved him and his music, so it was real important for me to deliver. So we had a great relationship, because I was very devoted to playing the songs correctly, or at least as best as I could as a 25-year-old puppy who had barely seen the world at that point. But he knew that I loved his music, and he was appreciative of the fact that as I was growing up, I had taught myself to play a lot of it, so I was devoted to bringing it off as well as I could.
IT: I know there are songs I could pitch in on, like “Bobby Brown” (1979’s “Sheik Yerbuti”), but I’m sure there’s a lot that would leave me scratching my head.
MK: It’s a specialized sort of human who enjoys that stuff in the first place, and then in the second place wants to devote a significant portion of their life to be able to play it. I had organ lessons when I was a kid, but I was self-taught as a guitar player. And because I loved Frank’s music so much, my idea of fun was to spend my spare time teaching myself, as best I could, how to play that stuff. Now, granted, it wasn’t until I actually joined the band and started playing with guys who were well-drilled in all of the theoretical nature of the compositions and the mathematics of it all, ‘cause I was teaching myself off of records. I didn’t have charts.
IT: Yeah, it’s one thing to sit down with a record on 16 rpm and it’s another when Frank just hands you the charts.
MK: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. So in the case of “The Black Page” [A Zappa piece known for being extraordinarily difficult to play], I was teaching myself what these melodies sounded like to me. But not only was I at the mercy of my ear, I was also at the mercy of the performance that was on that record. I remember having that conversation with Frank once and telling him how mind-blowing it always was to hear these musicians playing this stuff, I think I used the term “perfectly,” and he just laughed. [laughs] And he said, “Man, if you knew the science fiction-type of machinations that were required to get that stuff to sound anywhere near perfect!” And of course, later on, as I came to know the songs and came to play them more and more, I’m able to hear those records now that always sounded, like, otherworldly and absolutely immaculate and spotless, and I hear all sorts of humanity on there now [laughs] because this stuff is really hard, you know? There’s going to be times where you nail a melody exactly perfectly, and then there’s gonna be other times where you do not. But part of the excitement of Frank’s music is the sound of a bunch of humans in all their lovely humanness, which is imperfect by nature, doing their best to deliver as close as possible to perfect renditions of music which is sometimes nearly impossible to play. There’s an excitement in that, and I think that Frank was aware of that, and it was important that the people who came to his shows had their minds blown by the effort.
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