vendredi, décembre 10, 2004

Unlocking Zappa Treasures

Preservation and restoration results in releases from legendary Zappa Vault Laurel Fishman

Under Frank Zappa's family house in Los Angeles, the "Vault" is jam-packed from floor to ceiling with every possible recordable audio, video and film media. Within its concrete walls, the temperature-controlled Vault contains literally thousands of tapes, all neatly organized and labeled. "The Vault is infamous among Zappa fans as a treasure trove of material," says Joe Travers, official "Vaultmeister." Bit by bit, the gems are emerging.

These jewels represent the late Zappa's prolific output, spanning 30-plus years and musical genres from doo-wop to classical. Decades before the global economy, Zappa was selling out international venues that other popular musicians of the time never even dreamed of playing. From his early days around Los Angeles in the 1960s with the original Mothers Of Invention, to world tours, experiments on the Synclavier, and his orchestral works, Zappa relentlessly recorded his musical adventures.

The limitations of existing technology made it generally prohibitive for most artists to do so, but Zappa used mobile recording gear to capture his lengthy concerts. Travers learned how to "bake" the resulting tapes, heat-treating them in a convection oven at 130 degrees for four to eight hours. "Baking the tapes secures the oxide to the tape's backing so it won't shed when it's being played back," Travers explains. "If it sheds and turns into gummy residue, it's gone forever." So far, Travers has baked about 100 tapes.

When he started as Vaultmeister in the mid-'90s, Travers' job was to identify and catalog the material. He created a database, designating Zappa's ever-changing band personnel and determining song titles and which material had already been released. Travers pored over documents, publications and Web sites, and talked with the musicians involved.

Inside the Vault, Travers also found "a helluva lot of film and video, from 8 mm all the way up to one- and two-inch masters." Travers says there is early-'60s footage of Zappa's original Studio Z and from later years at the family house. There are outtakes from Zappa films Uncle Meat and Baby Snakes, and Zappa concerts on Halloween 1977 and live at the Roxy in 1973, and more.

The Vault also houses rehearsal tapes, Zappa interviews, trim reels and other remnants. "After Frank got a mix using razor-blade edits, this was the stuff that didn't make it onto the record," Travers says. "There are a lot of rough mixes and versions of albums before Frank ripped them apart. I get to hear the missing pieces of the large puzzle."

Prior to becoming Vaultmeister, Travers already held some of the pieces. A drummer who played with Zappa sons Dweezil and Ahmet in their band Z during the mid-'90s, Travers was a serious Frank Zappa fan from an early age. "I had a massive collection," he says. "I read every book and had every Zappa record, dozens of bootlegs. And this was before eBay!"

One day in 1995, Joe requested a tour of the legendary Vault. "Just by looking at the names on the boxes," Travers remembers, "I knew more about the contents of the Vault than anyone working there at the time," including various audio experts. "The staff went back and told [Frank's widow] Gail that I knew more about what's in the Vault than anybody else. She said, 'Great, he's the Vaultmeister.'"

Before 2003, Travers focused on refining his digital editing skills while cataloging and baking the tapes. Then the Zappas refurbished the recording studio adjacent to the Vault, allowing Travers to "dive into other tape formats with the best possible technology," he says.

In EQ-ing and mastering Zappa's music, Travers is salvaging arcane nuggets to appeal to hardcore Zappa fanatics, "material that otherwise wouldn't find a home on a major Zappa release." These obscurities are becoming the "Joe's" album series, starting with the current Joe's Corsage , whose title is a play on Zappa's 1979 Joe's Garage albums.

Joe's Corsage includes Zappa demos from 1965, '60s interview snippets, and perhaps the rarest of all Zappa rarities, a love song: "I'm So Happy I Could Cry." In typical Zappa fashion, it later mutated into the irreverent "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance" from the classic Zappa album We're Only In It For The Money.

Starting in 2002, Vault packages are being released on the Vaulternative label, created by Gail Zappa. Among its live concert recordings, a possible documentary and other as-yet-unreleased projects, "we're working on four different albums right now," Travers says. "I submit material to Gail and Dweezil for them to decide upon, or they come to me and say, 'We need material from this-or-that era.'"

While Dweezil Zappa concentrates on remixing his father's recordings into surround sound for future Vaulternative albums, Gail Zappa is instituting a subscription service for purchasing Vault releases. "There are most likely 40 albums that can come out of the Vault, not including the series I'm doing," says Travers.

"There's so much I don't even know about yet. The more I dive into the Vault, especially in the formats I wasn't able to document or play before now, the more possibilities keep coming up."

(Laurel Fishman is a writer and editor specializing in entertainment media. She reports regularly for, writes the EducationWatch column, and is an advocate for the benefits of music-making, music-listening, music education, music therapy and music-and-the-brain research.)