Festival preview: A Tribute To Frank Zappa, Ensemble musikFabrik
A brass band first made Dirk Rothbrust a percussionist, but it took Frank Zappa to make him a fully-fledged muso, writes Aidan Smith
IN MY second-year biology class there were two girls way more advanced than anyone else – Geraldine Cruickshank and Lorraine Docherty. Advanced in terms of musical appreciation, I mean, for while the rest of us were stuck in our bedrooms with our glam-rock 45s they were hitckhiking to Dunfermline – daring at 14 – for the live experience of Curved Air’s proggy violins. Back at school, this afghan coat-clad twosome would swan around with ever more exotic LPs under their arms – Family, Groundhogs, John Kongos, and, most intriguing of all, Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats.
But, at an age when I was still too naive to appreciate Zappa, Dirk Rothbrust was already a disciple. “Frank’s music was the first I heard in a very intensive way,” says the German super-percussionist. “I heard it every day and every night. In bed I listened on headphones so I was still hearing Zappa when I was asleep.” Now, 30 years later, Rothbrust is bringing his daring ensemble to Edinburgh for a Festival tribute to his original hero.
The Cologne-based Ensemble musikFabrik will explore the link between classical music and Zappa’s fantasmagorical output. With Rothbrust leading from the drum kit they’ll perform some of the jazz-rock that first excited him and also the classical piece that first excited Frank. It all sounds tremendously exciting and I’m going to be there. Maybe now I can finally become a Zappahead, yes? Rothbrust laughs. “I hope so,” he says. It’s not the laugh that Geraldine and Lorraine used to mock the musical dimwits and so keep Frank esoteric and just for them. Rothbrust genuinely wants everyone to appreciate Zappa’s genius.
He says: “You don’t hear many people talk about him now, which is a shame. Maybe that’s to do with how we listen to music. It’s more as background and Frank’s music was always too challenging for that. You have to be in the right mood to listen to him, you have to take your time with his music, and maybe you cannot be eating a nice meal while he’s playing.” A shame, this, given how many Zappa songs reference food and drink: Peaches En Regalia, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Uncle Meat, America Drinks & Goes Home, The Girl Wants To Fix Him Some Broth, Cruisin’ For Burgers, and the one which cautioned, Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow.
Unafraid of switching from doo-wop to heavy metal, from disco to choral and later symphonic, Zappa, over an incredible 70 albums, was always questing and always questioning. A lot of his songs are questions: Who Are the Brain Police?, Shall We Take Ourselves Seriously?, Do You Like My New Car?, Would You Go All The Way?, Eddie, Are You Kidding?, Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?, Whatever Happened To All The Fun In The World? So, why Zappa for Rothbrust?
“I think it’s the total freedom with which he made music. So many different things, so many different styles – he never wanted to be tied down. When I was young I played in rock bands but I knew I didn’t want to do that for real. Then I went to music college but I knew I didn’t want to be in an orchestra, just playing classical. Like Frank, I didn’t want to be limited. That’s why for all the years he’s been part of my music.”
Rothbrust, 44, grew up in small-town Saarland, close to Germany’s France-Luxembourg border, population a mere 2,000 but just big enough to ignite a dream. “Like all little places there was a tradition of Musikverein: a small brass orchestra which played traditional folk, Schlager music and arranged pop songs. It was the drummer. I knew him from the street and when I heard him drumming I told my parents: ‘That’s what I want to do.’
“It was the heavy noise I liked. My parents weren’t musical, although my father would get out an accordion on birthdays. The main work in the town was mining. He did that thing with the anvil… ah yes, blacksmith: a different kind of drumming, I suppose. Anyway, a week after Musikverein was Christmas and I got my first drum kit – and a soundproofed room to play in. I went from zero to 100 pretty quickly.”
The town was just big enough, too, to have a rock scene enabling kids to hang out, enthuse about records and jam together. “It was very small, of course, and how you would say, not normal, really not mainstream’” he adds. “That’s where I discovered Frank. A friend loaned me his albums and I made a tape. The Grand Wazoo, One Size Fits All, Over-Nite Sensation, mostly jazz-rock from the first half of the 1970s. I loved them all.”
The young Dirk wasn’t just grooving to Zappa. Even though he was offering seemingly infinite variety, the drumming protégé still sought out more. Rothbrust liked the prog-rock bands for their orchestral flourishes – Yes, ELP and King Crimson. And he was thrilled, when he returned to Zappa, by the latter’s forays into the classical realm. Rothbrust finally got to see a Frank gig in 1989, in Mannheim. Zappa would die of prostate cancer four years later, cutting short what Rothbrust believes would have been a fascinating late classical career. “I really liked his classical compositions. Typical of him, there’s a lot of humour in them. Like all his music these pieces don’t stick to one form: sometimes free music, a sudden break, minimal, truncated, always freedom. I’m sure if he’d lived longer he’d have written big symphonies.”
Maybe the Festival show will hint at what they might have sounded like. One of the greatest influences on Zappa was the French composer Edgard Varèse. Typical Frank, he got intrigued on reading a puffy article about music retailer Sam Goody who was allegedly such a good salesman he could shift Varèse’s Ionisation, described as “nothing but drums… the worst music in the world”. Rothbrust laughs: “That’s a great story but Ionisation is fantastic and we’ll be playing it in Edinburgh alongside the equally fantastic Frank Zappa.”
I may get a bit lost but hopefully two musical snobs will be there to hold my hand.
MORE INFO: Ensemble musikFabrik are on at Usher Hall