Frank Zappa is one of a select few true legends in the music world. Just the mention of his name garners so much respect that simply being able to say that you played with him at one time is a claim to fame and greatness in and of itself – not least because Frank tended not to record with anyone he felt wasn’t up to his standard. On the 9th of June, Iceland will be treated to a visit by some of Zappa’s greatest band members from the past, as well as his two sons. In anticipation of the concert, the Grapevine talked to saxophonist, flautist and vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock, a prolific entertainer and one of the more striking members of Zappa’s ensemble throughout the years.
/// Tell us about how you first met Frank Zappa back in the early 70s. It was in Hawaii, right?
– Yeah, that’s right, at the time I was playing in Hawaii a couple of times a year with my own band. We played a lot of different things, top-40 hits, mixed some jazz in there, some fun TV themes and stuff – lots of variety. Anyway, after one show Frank’s manager approached me and told me that he was representing a band that needed a vocalist. I had no idea who Frank Zappa was, though, so I refused outright. I had heard good things about a couple of people in his band, however, so they did manage to persuade me to drop by and listen to the band the next time I was in Los Angeles. As soon as I heard them play, I knew it was my destiny to be in that band.
/// The early 70s was a creative period for Zappa’s music. What was the level of your involvement in the creative process?
– Well, when I joined Frank he had just released Overnight Sensation and the reason he needed a singer like me was to go on tour to promote that album. I came from theatre, you see, and Frank’s music was pure theatrics. I also have a background in blues, jazz, humour and satire – so we were a good fit and the theatrical element added a lot more creativity than was normally part of the process. That being said, we couldn’t improvise much at first, as we were all trying to learn the songs, both the new and old material. We would maybe have certain signals that we could give each other onstage to throw in semi-improvised things on the fly.
/// I understand you left for a while to pursue other projects.
– Yeah, because George Stupe asked me to come and do some vocals for him, so we made like five records together. But then Frank called me about Thing Fish, and the part of the Evil Prince. That whole idea came out of something we developed in ’76 and ’77, during ‘The Torture Never Stops’ – a period when we were using a lot of theatrics. We used costumes and kitsch to portray this character called the Evil Prince, well… originally sort of a Mad Professor type, but it developed into this devilish character with a fake opera voice. I fit the part of the Evil Prince to a tee, of course. I am a devil.
/// Eh, ok. Tell me about playing with the Zappa band these days; do you tour with them regularly?
– I go on the road with them once in a while, just to keep my chops up, you know? With this kind of music you have to play it absolutely all the time, or at least on a very regular basis, or you just lose it. I mean, I tour with a lot of groups, up to ten groups a year – just to keep my chops up. I play a mixture of so many styles, so much theatrics. The more you practise, the more versatile you become.
/// Speaking of versatility, you seem to do a lot of different things for a lot of different bands…
– I sing, play sax and do my theatrical presentations for a lot of different ensembles, that’s right. I’m an independent contractor; people call me up and ask me to front their bands. If you have a good band, and you want me to front that band, I’m probably gonna do it.
/// Well, now you are coming to Iceland and it’s my solemn duty as an Icelandic journalist to pester you with questions about our country. Have you ever been here before, do you know anything about the place?
– Nah, never been before. But I heard something about you guys stealing all the prettiest women from some place and taking them over to Iceland and breeding with them…
/// That would be the Irish peasant women, it was sort of a Viking thing.
– From Ireland, huh? Wow, I’m very interested in seeing how they turned out! Is it true that Iceland is something of a tropical paradise as well? I just love Hawaii, and I’m hoping it’s similar.
/// Ehhh… Has anyone else from the band ever been over here?
– Yeah, Terry was there once. Loved it, said it was very beautiful.
/// Do you plan to check out the famously rambunctious nightlife?
– Are there lots of women around in your famously rambunctious nightlife?
/// Yes, I believe that’s a rather crucial element to the overall experience.
– Well, in that case, yeah I’m gonna check out the nightlife! I’ll be where the women are.
/// Is there anything you’d like to tell the people of Iceland in advance of your June 9th concert?
– Yeah, man: Get yourselves some parachutes and seatbelts and prepare for something big, cause we’re coming.
/// What music will you put the main emphasis on?
– Frank Zappa’s music.
/// Yes, but with such a large catalogue…
– We’re gonna play Frank Zappa music.
/// So, no clues on the particular era or…
– Frank Zappa music.