Mark Pinske was a recording and live sound engineer for Frank Zappa from late 1979 until 1988. During this stint, he worked on the albums Joe’s Garage, Sleep Dirt (the 1991 CD version), Tinsel Town Rebellion, You Are What You Is (on which he also provided vocals), Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch, The Man From Utopia, Baby Snakes, London Symphony Orchestra, Them Or Us, Thing-Fish, Francesco Zappa, The Old Masters, Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention, Does Humor Belong In Music?, Jazz From Hell, Guitar, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Playground Psychotics, The Lost Episodes, Have I Offended Someone?, Trance-Fusion, The Dub Room Special!, Understanding America and Frank Zappa For President. Quite an impressive list.
In addition to his time with Frank, Mark has also worked with Steve Vai and Bob Harris’s band, Axe.
Having worked so closely with Frank for so long, I thought he would have some interesting insights to relay. I wasn’t wrong!
How did you get to audition for Frank?
Arthur ‘Midget’ Sloatman[i] was working for me at Quad Eight Electronics and he told me that I should work for Frank Zappa because he needed someone like me that had my expertise.
Bob Harris says you “got hired because of [your] talent, knowledge and gift, and work ethic”. What do you say?
He is right. I had the right combination of talent, which is why I got picked from the two day audition, and also why I was the first engineer to last more than six months with Frank.
After Joe Chiccarelli left Frank’s employ, you did some work on Joe’s Garage (uncredited). Can you recall precisely what that was?
Yes, Frank told me that Joe couldn’t take the heat and always gave up on some things, so he actually asked him to leave. I had to replace some erased kick drum tracks and finished up the remaining songs that Frank needed done for the record.
Any memories of your very first live show with Frank?
My first live shows with Frank were a bit of a scramble as we used so many channels live and we just got two new Midas consoles that we linked together. It was so fun to be able to mix the level of talent that Frank surrounded himself with.
How did you get Bob and Suzannah Harris together?
I introduced them as I was a friend of Thana’s (Suzannah) during her childhood. I was playing some music with her brother, and then later, when I was playing bass with Bob in a band we formed called Helix, I had the chance to introduce Thana to him.
Tell me about the Blue Box For Bimbos.[ii]
The Blue Box For Bimbos was a double rack bolted together that had almost every device made for guitar in it. Everything from the Big Muff, to the original Fuzz Face. Frank loved to put the guitar through all of those original effects.
...and the Disco Boombox?
The Disco Boombox was a rack effect that generated a “kick” drum sound made by dbx Inc. You could trigger it with just about anything. Even a tap on the microphone.
Was that used on You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 2 – The Helsinki Concert?
I can’t remember. Probably.[iii]
What’s the story behind Carol, You Fool?
Carole Mellon – Carrie, she liked to be called – was a girl that I met in Pittsburgh. We were staying at the Hyatt Hotel and Frank called my room asking me to come down to the bar and sit with him. He never really drank, usually just had coffee. Anyway he was with the girl who managed the hotel and he had asked her if she had a girlfriend that she could get to hook up with me so we could go to some clubs and such. So she called Carrie and told her that she and Frank Zappa – along with his sound engineer – were going to come and pick her up at her house. And that is what we did, and she was sitting on the steps outside of her house when we drove up in the limo. We went out and during the night we ended up at her friend’s apartment – the Hyatt manager’s place. We made love on the floor of the living room while Frank was back in the bedroom, and Carrie decided that she fell in love with me. She came to other shows and then Frank wrote a song about it: “You’ll meet another engineer…” Someday, ha-ha!
Ahmet told me recording I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted with Moon was “the coolest thing ever”. What are your memories of that session?
I think Ahmet was about six years old then?! Yes, I did a ‘Johnny Olson’ lead vocal track on that one. Frank edited it together to use instead of a guitar solo. He used to laugh at my imitation of Johnny Olson, the announcer for The Price is Right.
I also did some other vocal parts on the record, mainly some falsetto parts.
The 1982 European tour was full of incident that ultimately led to FZ wanting to quit touring. What are your memories of that tour and, in particular, the Palermo gig?
Just lots of band jealousy and things that bothered Frank. The Palermo, Sicily gig ended up in a riot and I kept recording all the way though it in the recording truck. I even got the sounds of the tear gas going off.[iv]
Have you seen the documentary Summer 82: When Zappa Came To Sicily?
I don’t think I saw that, but I do remember guys with cameras following us all around.
Just how bad was the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Frank’s music for the tapes to necessitate 1,000 edits? That sounds like loads had to be cut out, but presumably we’re talking seconds rather than minutes?
It wasn’t that the performances were bad it was more about – the way Frank put it – 107 people all playing the parts right at the same time. Frank originally wrote many of his charts for another orchestra of 132 pieces (the Berlin Symphony Orchestra), so he had to condense it down to 107 pieces, which is all that the LSO had. He wanted to get the songs mixed with as many of the parts as he wrote them. So, a lot of edits.
What do you recall of the 1984 tour – with Napoleon Murphy Brock (briefly), electronic drums and no percussion?
Napoleon and I became very close friends during that tour. It was just a different line up and Ray and Ike didn’t really like Napi much.
Talk me through some of the more radical changes made to the Old Masters that maybe fans don’t know about.
Re-tracking the drums on many of the songs was one of the most radical things. Whenever Frank got on to a new trick, he would usually over do it before it wore off, and using Chad to replace the drums was not to my liking at all. I thought the fans would rather have the original drums – the old stuff didn’t need modern drums.
I did try to tell him. However, many of those tracks were only a single shotgun microphone with a lousy recording quality and he hated the original drum tracks.
Bunk Gardner told me he was physically sick when he heard the re-recorded version of Cruising With Ruben & The Jets!
You have said that Frank also recorded ‘piano people’ throughout the eighties. No recordings have been released, so just who did you record out “in the yard”?
Yes, I set up a big blanket over the Bösendorfer piano and taped the sustain pedals down with elaborate microphones. When anyone stood inside the ‘tent’ and talked, the strings would vibrate to their voices and it made them sound like they were in this giant cave. It was a remarkable series that I taped on the two track in boxes that I only labelled ‘Outtakes, one though 136’ reel numbers, or something like that. When musicians visited, we would put them in there and let them talk about anything. But the basic story was they were in search of ‘The Big Note’. I don’t think that the Zappa Family Trust even knows they have them as I am the only one that knows what they look like.
When did you cease working for Frank?
I worked from 1979 until about 1988 – eight and a half years.
So that would have included the time when Frank was making preparations for the Broadway The Hard Way tour? Did you see any signs of discord then?
Unfortunately his health was starting to fail and we was getting slower in making decisions. It was very sad.
You have posted a number of really interesting Zappa soundboard recordings and alternate mixes on your webpage. Any plans for any more...please?!
Yes, I have many hours of tapes that I have not transferred yet and I was hoping to maybe release some of them as bootlegs to someone.
Anything Zappa-related on the horizon for you?
Bobby Martin was trying to get me on the Hologram Tour, but Gail had soured the Zappa Family Trust relationship, so I don’t know if that will ever come to pass. I do think that Ahmet could obviously use my help with the archives as I was the one that did most of the recordings. I would love to do that if I could.
Your time with Frank coincided with the tenures of Marque Coy, Bob Rice and the late Bob Stone. Tell us about those guys.
I hired Marque Coy as he was a roadie for Helix, the band that Bob Harris and I had in Colorado. He got his nickname from me: ‘Marqueson’. We were living together in Boulder and when someone called and asked for Mark, we would say, “Which one – Markman or Marqueson?” We are still very good friends to this day.
Finally, any reflections on any of the other band or crew members during your time with Frank that you’d care to share?
Thomas Nordegg was a world class magician and a good friend. Tommy Mars and I shared an apartment for three years. Plus I had relationships with many of the musicians that played with Frank. Ike Willis and I are still good friends as well. You get to know everyone when you do so many albums and tours together.
Interview conducted on 24th August 2018.
Photo of Mark with Robert Martin at the 2014 NAMM Show used with kind permission.
[i] Frank’s guitar technician and also one Gail Zappa’s brothers.
[ii] As utilised for Steve Vai’s ‘Strat abuse’ throughout the You Are What You Is album.
[iii] It is widely believed that Chester Thompson’s drums from 1974 had been ‘enhanced’ for the album’s release in 1988.
[iv] As heard on Nig Biz from You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 3.