On October 14, Zappa Records/UMe will release Zappa ’75: Zagreb/Ljubljana, featuring the best performances of Frank Zappa & The Mothers’ Yugoslavian concerts sequenced in the exact order of the show’s setlist to present the crème da la crème from each night for the first time ever.
Produced by Ahmet Zappa and Zappa Vaultmeister Joe Travers, the 27-track live album boasts nearly two and half hours of completely unreleased music and will be available digitally (26 tracks without disc breaks) or on 2CD complete with a 32-page booklet filled with photos of the era and lineup by Gail Zappa and John Rudiak with insightful liner notes from Travers, an interview between him and recording engineer Davy Moire who recorded the show and worked with Zappa from 1975-78, plus a first-hand account and illustration from drummer Terry Bozzio.
The “Mothers of Invention Yugoslavian Extravaganza” as Zappa called it took place in Zagreb and Ljubljana (now the capital cities of Croatia and Slovenia respectively) on November 21 and 22, 1975 with the short-lived and slightly stripped-down lineup of Andre Lewis (keyboards), Napoleon Murphy Brock (tenor sax and lead vocals), Norma Bell (alto sax, vocals), Roy Estrada (bass) and Terry Bozzio (drums). In characteristically Zappa fashion, The Maestro made sure to record these historical shows behind the Iron Curtain.
Zappa ’75: Zagreb/Ljubljana is a significant piece of Zappa history as it not only captures Zappa’s sole performances in Yugoslavia, early versions of songs that fans would come to know and love, but also this unique and rare lineup that would dissolve shortly after the shows.
Given that Zappa ’75: Zagreb/Ljubljana marks the first release since Universal Music Group (UMG) acquired the Frank Zappa catalog in its entirety and his Vault, we spoke to the Vaultmeister himself, Joe Travers, to discuss these latest reissues and what’s next when it comes to this historic partnership.
Ever since the announcement that UMG has acquired the catalog and the Vault, I think a lot of people have been wondering what’s changed and what might be on the horizon. To put it front and center, you’re going to remain the Vaultmeister, which I’m sure people are very, very happy about. Let’s just briefly start from the beginning, though. When did you get involved with the Zappa Vault?
Joe Travers: I started working in the Vault in 1995. I had been hired on in March of 1993 as the drummer for Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa’s band, Z. And, by 1995, I found myself in the Vault of Frank Zappa, with the endorsement of Gail. I had no computer skills, hardly any tape-handling skills, definitely no tape machine skills, but what I did have was the heart and the desire to learn all of it, and also the desire to preserve the legacy of my hero. I would never have guessed that I’d still be here, almost 30 years later, still doing this work. I’m extremely grateful and blessed that Universal sees my worth and is willing to continue to have me do what I’ve been doing for the Zappa Trust for so long.
I know it’s early, but can you tell if your role has changed (if at all) with Universal? And is there anything you’re looking forward to doing now that you weren’t even able to do before?
Joe Travers: Well, it is early. Right now, the protocol has been project-based. So, I’ve been just grinding away at the projects that are on our schedule. But when we catch up with that, under normal circumstances, I’ll continue to just archive and preserve audio and video. Not only digitize the contents of the Vault, but also accumulate things for future projects.
Some fans are wondering about the current state of the Vault now that it’s been acquired by UMG. What can you tell us about all of that?
Joe Travers: It’s in a better state now than it ever has been. The materials are in a climate-controlled area, very secure, and it’s also in a much bigger room than the room that was built underneath the house all those years ago. Also, the film itself, which was in the most danger of dying, is now in cold storage. It’s in a place where film should be preserved, and so I’m really happy about that. So, overall, the Vault is in a better state than it’s ever been in.
I know that the Vault contains countless hours of audio and video. There’s going to be new releases for years to come. Is there anything you can say specifically about those future releases?
Joe Travers: Yeah, of course. There are a lot of concerts in there. But the live material is not as easy to deal with as people might think: Frank would take out the bits that he liked from those concert tapes and he would build these reels of handpicked units. And so, in order to release full shows in their entirety, in sequence, you have to find that stuff and you have to digitally reassemble it. So that is one of the obstacles that we have. Sometimes he wouldn’t bring the four track out. Sometimes he would. So, it’s kind of a crapshoot. But all in all, there are a lot of recorded concerts. Especially in his later years. Once we hit the 80s, and he owned his own recording mobile truck that he would take on the road with him, he started documenting every show.
And then of course there are lots of studio sessions and a bunch of odds and ends; interviews, personal tapes, rough mixes, alternate mixes, project tapes, lots of stuff like that. It’s almost endless. Considering I’ve been at it for a very long time, I’ve only got a pretty small percentage of it covered.
It seems like you have been bringing out more live stuff in the past few years. And, obviously, the Zappa ’75 release that is coming out next is all live material. What can you tell us about that release specifically? What’s unique about those concerts in your mind?
Joe Travers: Well, if you go back to 1996, the Trust released a CD called Frank Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa: A Memorial Tribute. It was basically the family’s audio tombstone for Frank which featured versions of what Gail said Frank called his three signature compositions: “Zoot Allures,” “Black Napkins,” and “Watermelon in Easter Hay.” The performance of “Black Napkins” on that CD was taken from a concert recorded in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia.
Now all these years later, we’re releasing a two CD set that compiles–in show order–the best performances between the two cities that Frank played in Yugoslavia in November of 1975. It’s Zagreb and Ljubljana, and the performances are great. It’s a band that isn’t widely known. It’s a fairly stripped-down band instrumentation-wise, but it does contain a musician that was in the band for only a few months. Her name is Norma Bell, and she’s a saxophonist and she sings. So, it’s unique because of her being in the band.
The concerts are historical, in the sense that it was the only time that Frank went to Yugoslavia. The music that is played is revealing, too, simply because there were a number of songs that were in the creation stage. Looking back on it, we all know and love the songs that are on there, because we’ve been hearing them for years. But in 1975 a lot of that stuff wasn’t even released yet.
The highlight for me on this release, though, is Frank’s guitar playing. There’s just some really amazing guitar playing on this thing. There’s a 25-minute chunk of the show where it’s just instrumental, and Frank is searching and stretching and improvising, and the band is following along, and–in the middle of all that–he starts ripping into all these riffs of what would become staples in the Zappa catalog.
One other thing about this release: It’s the only multi-track document of this time period in the Vault. Frank was recording the shows at that time on a 2-track Nagra machine. But for this particular concert, it was recorded on a ½” 8-track. It’s a very obscure format. Trying to find a machine to play it back was not easy. (And the tapes needed to be baked and were very fickle, in general.) So, it was a task to get the data that we needed. But we did.
What are you most excited about with this whole new partnership? You’ve talked about just trying to get caught up. But, thinking big picture, is there anything that’s particularly exciting or interesting?
Joe Travers: The rate of projects from the Vault is going to continue at the same pace that we’ve basically been at for the past five or six years. It’s great because not only does it keep the energy of Frank Zappa and his fanbase out in the world, it also keeps him on the radar, which is important.
I compare it to The Grateful Dead, in that the Dead fans love any new material that is released. I truly believe that the Zappa fan base is like that as well. But with these projects releasing on a regular basis, every time something comes out, it also enhances the chances of somebody new discovering it. Because all of a sudden, there’s this new thing in the store, or there’s this new thing that pops up on a streaming site that maybe a younger person will run across and say, “Well, who is this person?” And then they look and they see that there are more than a hundred releases available and they’re like, “Whoa.” So, every time something comes out, it’s an opportunity for new fans to discover Frank Zappa. I appreciate that because I’’m first and foremost a huge fan.
It’s also very exciting to have these releases coming out for the fans. I mean, there are so many people that have been waiting for certain periods, certain bands, certain shows, that they might have attended, and to be able to hear that music after all these years, man, that’s super exciting.
Is there anything else you’d like to let the fans know?
Joe Travers: I’m happy to be continuing under this new deal with Universal. I will do my best to make sure that the quality of the releases remain topnotch. There’s a lot to do, and I’m thrilled that I get to do it. Thank you to the fans that have been supporting this legacy for so long. I hope that they’re as excited for what’s coming as I am.