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A lot of people, including musicians, have no idea that you contributed heavily to Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti. It was in fact your break into the music business. How intense were those sessions? Was it gradual or did you just hit the ground running when you arrived?
The entire Sheik Yerbouti record, from my perspective, was done live. Everything you hear of me on the record is live, mostly recorded in New York—or other places, because Frank would record things all the time. I didn’t get to go in and play on the record. From what I can tell, there wasn’t much that had to be played. I think Frank just added some little things of his own. It’s mostly a live record, in other words.The preparation came in learning how to play Frank Zappa’s music, which was one of the biggest endeavors of my life! [laughs] And I’ve told this story many times. Before we ever touched a stage anywhere, we rehearsed in a large film studio with full production, on a big stage—lights and everything— and we did that for three months. Every day for three months, except for the weekends, when I went home with Frank and he taught me the things that would be coming up the next week. It was three months of solid work for me, trying to adapt to Frank’s pretty scary music. That’s what put me in the position to be able to contribute at all. One time, for example, he was showing me part of the new song called “Flakes,” and I was kind of poking fun at him and sang it like Bob Dylan, and that’s how it ended up on the record that way. He said, “That’s it. You’re going to do that on the record.” You have to be careful for what you wish for.
I’ve noticed a lot more admiration for King Crimson in the past few years, and specifically the trinity of records from when you first joined the band (Three of a Perfect Pair, Discipline, Beat). That really tight, interlocking but orchestrated sound that you guys created has seemed to influence a lot of recent acts, with groups like Tool citing you as a major influence. Have you noticed that influence in modern music, and if so, how do you interpret it?
Well, I’m ashamed to say this, but I really don’t listen to much other music. I know that may sound selfish, but I do have so much I’m working on, I find it’s better to not listen to too many other things, because it destroys my focus on what I’m currently doing. But, I have heard enough comments, and I’ve heard enough of the bands you’re mentioning, like Tool or Umphrey’s McGee, and what I can say about it is, it’s the biggest compliment I could ever have in my life. It makes it all worthwhile.
I was influenced by King Crimson long before I ever joined the band, because I felt the music inherently had a higher level of quality in the way that it was constructed, and in the things that they didn’t do, that they avoided doing. So when I got in the band, I was very keen to carry on that same tradition. I think that’s the only way we could have operated as King Crimson, because that really is what it’s about. It’s about pushing the limits, but you have to remain above a certain line. In King Crimson there are a lot more things you don’t do than there are things that you do.
In other words, imagine if you took a box of 24 crayons and poured them out on a table, and then took four of them and said, “These are the four we’re going to use. The other 20, no thanks.” It forces you to come up with unique ways to deal with what you have. The interlocking guitar-thing was really difficult to deal with from a songwriter’s viewpoint, because it’s a one-trick pony. It’s a very good one, but how do you keep riding that same pony and make it seem different all the time? That was the task that Robert and I had. I think we I did honorably with it, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. That was a good partnership… it still is.
Parker Guitars recently issued your signature Fly Deluxe model. Can you tell us more about how it came into being?
Well first, I’ll tell you a little bit that I know about Ken Parker. He was a luthier who, for almost 20 years or so, tried to develop a new approach to the electric guitar. He was very concerned about the woods used, and the technology. He was really the first guy to take all that stuff and view it from a scientific viewpoint— how to make a modern guitar. He cut away all of the unnecessary wood so it would resonate perfectly. The guitar ended up that. It’s only four or five pounds. He carved away everything, sculpted it… I think it the guitar looks like a modern sculpture, but the wood resonates perfectly. It’s not the kind of uncontrollable resonance; it’s the right kind.
The problem at that point is you’d have a neck that was so thin that if you put the pressure of strings on it, it would probably crack or break off. So, that’s where the science comes in. Ken Parker then developed a carbon and glass composite. They put a thin coat of that on the back of the guitar, and they shrink-wrap it. They put it in an oven and cook it. When they cook that chemical compound into the wood of the guitar, it makes the tensile strength of the wood 10,000 times stronger. Then you’ve got a very thin neck—which is the best feature of the guitar if you ask me—that stays perfectly intonated and perfectly in place. There’s never a dead note or anything like that.