Podcast VOL 2: Scott Thunes — Musician, Educator, Frank Zappa Bassist
Narration: [00:00:05] Helping people enjoy amazing sounds and build satisfying lives in the field of audio. This is the CEntrance podcast. Hi Michael Goodman, founder and CEO of CEntrance, the leading manufacturer of audio products for enthusiasts and industry professionals. This podcast features stories and life lessons from people who dedicated themselves to a career in audio. This podcast was recorded using our own MixerFace R4 mobile recording interface.
Michael: [00:00:32] Hi, I’m Michael Goodman. Today, in this podcast we’re interviewing Scott Thunes, a musician and educator. You can find him playing bass with the Bizarre World of Frank Zappa hologram tour later this year. This interview was recorded with MixerFace R4. Scott had one on his end. He’s located in northern California and we had one here in Chicago in our studios MixerFace R4 makes it easy to set up by a high quality audio connection between two remote locations.
Michael: [00:01:03] Hi Scott how are you?
Scott: [00:01:04] I’m fine, sir how are you.
Michael: [00:01:06] Very good. It’s a pleasure and an honor to have you here on our podcast. A lot of people know that you are a distinguished musician and a well-known bass player. You’ve spent part of your career working with Frank Zappa and you were part of that band for a number of years in the 80s and then after that you did a lot of other things. So I wanted to ask you a number of questions about your experiences there but also about technology because CEntrance, were a technology company. I know that you were one of the first endorsers for our Axeport Pro.
Scott: [00:01:39] Oh yes, I loved it. I use it constantly. I have it in my hot little hands at this very moment.
Michael: [00:01:44] Now, you’ve had the newel recording interface called MixerFace R4 for a couple of days now. How did you like the MixerFace compared to the AxePort Pro? What kind of recordings have you made?
Scott: [00:01:54] I am in the middle of a Sibelius renaissance. I have been spending most of my free time in the past year, six months, seven months, working with the notation program Sibelius. What I have been doing for the past couple of days is excitedly testing out the two channel capabilities using iOS. This changed the way I would work in using the MixerFace. Not only did I find that the two-channel mixing is totally transparent, completely easy and exactly how you would want an iOS interface format to work. But I was able to get the Aux 3 and 4 input thing to work at the same time meaning if anything, I’m a mashup kind of a guy. I like to see what I can throw together thanks to my love of the American composer Charles Ives. I am able to not just record two things – bass and voice or guitar and of course same time, but actually the the the mixing of an aux signal into it at the same time is a game changer.
Michael: [00:03:12] It sounds like you are using the mixer capability of MixerFace as well as the interface capability of it, so that the name actually stands for two different functions that we tried to combine within the same box.
Scott: [00:03:26] It immediately brought up ideas in my head of what those possibilities would be because the idea of limitations is abhorrent to an artist, generally, unless you need certain limitations to create your art. Many artists do that. I’m not one of those guys, I want access to as much as I possibly can all the time.
Michael: [00:03:49] Now you’re seeing that ideas come to you more from the abundance of opportunity rather than the scarcity of opportunity.
Scott: [00:03:56] That is correct.
Michael: [00:03:58] Steve Vai at some point said that in order to play with a Frank Zappa Band you had to have blue hair, that was a quote actually from one of your interviews earlier.
Scott: [00:04:09] The idea is that Steve had been in the band for a couple of years at least a year and a half before this other bass player was hired and when this bass player came in it was obvious that he was absolutely more than competent. He absolutely did all the stuff that Frank would need, musically speaking. He would come in, he would play, he could sing and play at the same time. I mean these are important needs. I could barely sing and play at the same time, which is why mic got turned off eventually but I brought something to Frank’s music at the time that Steve was only hinting at with his own blue hair.
Scott: [00:04:50] He had died his, he’s got long hair and he’s got different colored streaks and he’s having some fun like a young musician would do. When I came in I saw what the possibilities were. I knew what I had been doing here in Marin County. And I brought a little bit of punk energy and one of the very first things I did was I went to a hair salon and I got my hair dyed pink. When you “put the eyebrows on your performance” you are enhancing the notes with hopefully an overabundance of personality. The idea is that you get it down so easily, so well, that you can twist it, tweak it, tweeze it. One of Frank’s favorite words — to “tweeze something a little bit”, now “putting eyebrows on it” would be to make a vocal gesture, like a growl or a snort or something like that that you wouldn’t normally need to do just to perform the music but it makes, it enhances the performance not just for what’s going on stage but what the audience perceives as next level stuff for want of a better term. And Steve looked at this musician and said: “I’m not exactly sure he’s going to be bringing any stage craft.” Steve was bringing that just by his sheer musicianship — it wasn’t being seen at that time, especially in Frank’s music. He invented the concept of the stunt guitarist: “We need to have some person who can play these riffs that are impossible for me to play, even though I wrote them”, and so I came in and I had “blue hair.” He didn’t know me yet but that was really what he was looking for. Ultimately, for Frank at that time, he didn’t mean “I’m not going to hire this guy just because Steve said he didn’t have blue hair.”
Michael: [00:06:32] You clearly had the chops to to get the gig. So obviously, you did a great job during that session.
Scott: [00:06:40] According to sources.
Michael: [00:06:42] And then a lot of abundance happened from there. Now when I listen to Frank Zappa and you know my favorite album is “Make A Jazz Noise Here”. It’s probably the most accessible album of all because it’s more mainstream you might say, and you played on that, right?
Scott: [00:07:02] That’s live recording from 1988. There are five CDs that came out of that tour. One album called “Broadway the Hard Way”, which were all new songs that he had written just for that tour. And then the two double CD sets of just purely live, no overdubs music. “Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life” and “Make A Jazz Noise Here”. It’s funny that you say “Make a Jazz Noise” is the more accessible one, because in fact that album was not necessarily b-sides and outtakes but more like the stuff that didn’t fit on three CDs worth of quote-unquote “normal music”.
Michael: [00:07:36] Speaking of the immense amount of material… When playing with Frank, have you ever felt that you’re overwhelmed? Because it seems like the amount of ideas that man had is just incredible. I mean, was it overwhelming?
Scott: [00:07:49] No. I have a tendency towards maximalism and I don’t know that there is a musical term maximalism, but my older brother Derek and I invented it as compared to the minimalism that was being apparently shoved down our musical throats at the time. We want to know and live inside of everything. We want to be thoroughly and utterly overwhelmed. Musically speaking, the way Frank looked at the world, everything that has ever happened or ever will happen is all happening all at the same time. You could think of it as the holographic universe you could think of it as time being of an affliction. It doesn’t matter, except how you perceive it. And Frank had all of these. He had an entire Universe going on all the time. So for him abundance wasn’t overwhelming. It was a natural state of affairs. For me, as a maximalist coming into Frank’s music and his world, i along with many of the other musicians, we were absolutely starving for this, we were absolutely famished for this form of communication. You literally could not get enough of it. So when we learned 400 songs over the course of a year or two years or something like that — that was nothing.
Michael: [00:09:16] I would like to stress that the level of courage has to come with an amazing musical ability, as well as the incredible degree of fearlessness.
Scott: [00:09:30] I think people are braver than we give them credit for. I know that when I walked up to Frank’s house that very first time when I was 21 years old I was kind of freaking out. I sat in a hotel room for four days learning all his hard classical music on the electric bass and then performing it in front of him. After that I was family. I was part of the scene. I had no fear. I was given free rein to be whatever I wanted to be and he requires that. He requires that you push any envelope that you ever had out into the universal non-existence. It’s literally the most important thing in the world is to be open to all things. And fear? I mean, I don’t know anybody who quit Frank’s band because they were afraid of it. We all took the leap. Having him turn to you and laugh at what you did — best feeling in the world.
Michael: [00:10:24] As somebody who studied the bass for a while, you know, one of the things that you learn is that the role of the bass player in the band is to be this ultimate pillar of support for the band. You support the other players. Some people are born with that ability and other bass players, myself included, still need to get out and break the rules every once in a while…
Scott: [00:10:46] I have absolutely no interest in being a bass player. None.
Michael: [00:10:48] Right, but I was gonna say — Is choosing the bass as an instrument, you know, the matter of reading your own character correctly?
Scott: [00:10:56] That is correct. And when I picked up the bass as a 8 year old, and a 10 year old, and a 12 year old, and I played it every day, I never said to myself: “Oh my God, this is my favorite thing in the world, I love playing the bass.” I just found myself into a weird pattern coming home whatever it was, sitting down with the bass watching the cartoons, reading the comic book, listen to music on the radio, watching the TV, playing the bass, practicing my scales. By the time I was 14, I had done all the heavy lifting. I was listening to all the good music that I wanted to listen to, I was studying all of the bass players that I wanted to study and I pushed myself to the place where I liked what I was doing. I never was, in my mind, a bass player. I never chose that path. I never decided that’s what I was going to do. I just was Scott Thunes, playing the bass. There is a vision of what it takes to be a bass player. Most people can handle that and most bands only need that. I can only be in a band where they need a Scott Thunes and fortunately, Frank’s music has a place for me. I can do all of the stuff that the music needs but the music has a space for me to say what I need to say.
Michael: [00:12:17] It brings me to a question about, you know, how do you shape your career? Because you know in some of interviews you’ve said that a lot of the happy moments in your career happened from being in the right place at the right time. And then you just kind of got lucky. Now a musician who I also like, Donald Fagen, referring to this, calls it actually a combination of serendipity and diligent preparation. He says that’s his approach to songwriting.
Scott: [00:12:52] It’s just the way life dealt me those cards. I have no ambition. I’m not looking to be the best. I’m not looking for the best gig. I’m not looking for the most money. I have an incredible family that I absolutely love spending time with. I love being here in the house. I’m about to go back out on the road and the only fear I have is that I will be away from my wife. That’s really the only thing that matters to me is the functionality of what I consider a good life. And I would never ever call “being a touring musician”, a goal of mine. If you are going to be playing with a Frank, you will do anything he asks you to do. He asks you to go on tour for six months? You go. As far as the the diligent preparation, I can tell you. Once I stopped, there was nothing to practice for. But if Frank asked me to play and in a way he is because Ahmet is asking you to and it’s going to be with Frank doing a thing I’m used to doing. It’s the next best thing to being with Frank. I am very excited to have the opportunity to play the bass to please myself, to please my band members, and to please the audience. But there is no amount of diligent preparation that will prepare me to accept the serendipity that – you have to go out and find your own serendipity.
Michael: [00:14:27] Reading about your history in the music industry I can’t help but be fascinated by the different periods that you had and the lows and the highs and it hasn’t always been rosy in terms of opportunity coming your way right. But you persevered you went through a lot of experiences and now you’re back. You know for a while you weren’t playing music…
Scott: [00:14:48] 17 years, 15 years or something like that, yeah. I hated what happened to me in L.A. and it was very, very easy for me to come back home and spend time with the most beautiful person I’ve ever met. Georgia saved my life and she is the most fantastic thing ever happened to me. We got these beautiful children, we live in a beautiful area. Why would I want to play music? It’s it’s horrible, but you’ve got to make some money and I was very lucky to have that for six years and I’ve been teaching music for the past year with some kids at a high school, including my own kids. And it’s been fantastic and I learned a lot. And out of the blue, another musical opportunity is going to present itself that they didn’t even think about asking anybody else. It was like: “We’re were only putting this together so that Scott Thunes can go out and have some fun.”
Michael: [00:15:36] You’d mentioned that when you returned to playing Frank Zappa music initially with with Dweezil, it felt like “falling into a bathtub filled with ice cream.” So essentially you were able to relive the pleasurable experiences from the past.
Scott: [00:15:56] That is correct. Other bands had issues with the extra musical stuff stuff that isn’t necessarily having to do with the music that would impinge upon your pleasure. Business bullshit or this thing that happened, or whatever.
Michael: [00:16:13] You actually talked about your relationship with John Hofer from Mother Hips as the “best experience playing with the drummer you’ve ever had.” Interesting to me, I guess, but I don’t know what’s interesting to the audience – why have you not clicked with drummers prior to that to that same level?
Scott: [00:16:29] What a great question. I have an idea that I’m not a real bass player. A) I never considered or thought about how to improve the groove. I think a lot of people love bass because it grooves and that’s never been my thing. But having a drummer whose most important thing in his mind was the time, making sure that the time was consistent, that was a brand new world for me. So I don’t know necessarily why I didn’t click with other drummers. Probably personality, spending seven years touring with Chad Wackerman didn’t improve our communication, in fact it fell apart at the end. I never loved playing with Chad Wackerman. Many people think he’s one of the great drummers of our time. That didn’t mean anything to me. I was looking for something else and he didn’t supply that for me and I didn’t supply it for him and playing with Josh Freese with the Dweezil band, we supplied a lot of stuff for each other. That was an amazing and very serendipitous meeting of the minds. Josh and I are still great friends. That is one of the great tragedies of my life is that he has found himself in such rarefied atmosphere that we can’t play anymore but I was staying at his house a month ago and we went into the studio, He said, “Listen, we got to jam.” And so we went into the studio and over his drum patterning I gave him 30 riffs. I didn’t play just to play with him, because that’s pointless, I played with him so I could give him something to use for songwriting. So I played a bunch of bass riffs one after the other and that was – it was composition, It was hanging out with my best friend, It was playing music, which is one of the things that I do pretty good. It was a lovely combination of all the things that I like about life, whereas playing with most drummers that’s – I don’t know. Maybe for most bass players the whole reason that they’re playing bass is so that it can play with a drummer. That’s not my… that’s not my thing. I’ve been so left to my own devices over the course of years that the idea of what the drummer is doing, what my other musicians are doing — it’ s not my job to verify that. You know, in the Frank Band, if Frank liked what Chad and I were doing then that’s fine. It’s not my job to tell him whether or not I love that drummer – I didn’t choose Chad. Chad was chosen for me. So from that point on you have to make a decision, what kind of a band are you going to be in, what kind of musicians you going to play with. I never, I very rarely got the chance to make – you know what, I never got that choice. I never got to choose who my drummer was.
Michael: [00:19:29] We’re here with Scott Thunes, an amazing musician and also a bass player, perhaps not entirely by his own choice.
Scott: [00:19:36] Thank you.
Michael: [00:19:37] You’re embarking on this amazing new adventure called the Frank Zappa Hologram Tour.
Scott: [00:19:44] It’s called the “Bizarre World of Frank Zappa”. That’s what’s going to be called “Bizarre World of Frank Zappa”.
Michael: [00:19:50] Will there really be a hologram on the stage?
Scott: [00:19:52] Not only will there be a hologram on the stage, there will be more than that. It is going to be a multimedia extravaganza. It’s going to be hilarious. I cannot wait to see what happens. So all of the music that came from the assets, the data of him playing are going to be available to us. So when we start rehearsals we’re gonna see how we can mix it up. It’s not just we’re drawing a cartoon of Frank onstage. This is all stuff that happened. It was an entire concert that was filmed that was never produced. So that is huge.
Michael: [00:20:31] As a Star Wars enthusiast, is it gonna be like they have communications in Star Wars when –
Scott: [00:20:39] No, no, no, that’s cheese. That’s cheese-o-rama. This is a brand new world. There is – the company Eyellusion is responsible for the Ronnie James Dio hologram tour that is being produced now and I think there is some visual content on the Internets that will give you an idea of what that will look like. But that is stage one hologram stuff. This is what Ronnie James Dio looked like. This is what he looked like on film. This is what we’re putting onstage. Frank is going to be different. Ahmet has a different vision for what’s going to happen there.
Michael: [00:21:14] I know we’ve we’ve been speaking for awhile. I really value time and very much appreciate the time. Two more questions with your kind permission.
Scott: [00:21:22] I will try to give quick answers.
Michael: [00:21:23] People who are getting into audio — anything in particular that you need to lock in early in your careers so that you can later rely on that in you know in the advanced parts of your career. Now you’re able to look back, what kind of work was most important in your earlier career that is influencing what you’re doing now?
Scott: [00:21:45] I don’t remember what it was like when I started playing the bass. I have a picture of me with my first bass. I have a picture of me with it on my lap. But how I got from there to only, I’m going to say, two or three years later, playing with my older brother’s very good musician friends and not only holding my own, but being the prodigy “small star”, I was in a performing band by the time I was 16. Most kids nowadays, they write a song, they learn a song and that’s all they want to do. So, A) practice your scales. Do all of the physicality that’s going to make that stuff easy and liquid for you — you need to be able to go into a new situation and not have jitters or a lack of understanding. The physicality of you and your instrument together needs to be rock solid. Equally important if not more important, is the reading of the music and the understanding of the fundamentals – inversions, all the key signatures, all this kind of stuff. Ninety nine percent of the kids in my class are extremely and utterly deficient in this regard. They do not care. They don’t look for it. They don’t aim for it, they don’t know what it is. First thing that we did was, we learned some Led Zeppelin. The next thing after Tom Petty died, I made them learn some Tom Petty. Every single last one of them balked — nobody wanted to learn these stupid simple songs but as soon as they learned them they understood that they were really good. At the beginning of this last semester I made my more advanced kids play some Frank Zappa tunes. They didn’t know anything about Frank Zappa and they finally learned a couple of tunes and they loved them. The final project for this year, everybody has to learn a Grateful Dead song and everybody hates The Grateful Dead and so it’s been an absolute joy for every single one my bands to be playing these songs with concern and interest. But none of them have- for the most part don’t have that basic musicality. They’re learning the songs by ear and they can tell me what a C sharp minor chord is but I can’t make them do it differently on the guitar. You have to be able to have all of your inversions ready to go on the guitar. It’s a piano with six strings and so most guitarists are like, I learned this chord. I learned that chord. No, no, no, no, no. You’ve got to throw all that away. Every single possibility has to be open for you all the time. It’s not a guitar, it’s six separate voices. You have to think of it in terms of six separate voices rather than one monolithic [pitched] instrument. Every note is possible – you can have only six note, s but you can have any note on any one of those things and so it’s a giant combination. Where do your fingers go? How can you make it work? It’s so much fun. And every time I tell them that their eyes either light up or glaze over and when they glaze over I know that they are not going to be playing with Frank Zappa anytime soon.
Michael: [00:24:40] We’re speaking here with Scott Thunes, a musician and an educator. Scott, thank you for spending time with us. A quick story maybe from the roads to close it off?
Scott: [00:24:49] I think I can tell this story. I was given about a minute every night in the first two tours. We played a song called ‘Envelopes’, a piece of music that Frank wrote called ‘Envelopes’. It was an instrumental piece, lasted about three minutes long but the first minute had no bass on it. And since I was playing all night every night for two hours, sometimes three hours, it was the only break I got. After, I guess maybe a month, I realized that I could do stuff in that time. I didn’t have much time but I had enough time that I could take the bass off, I could do some stuff on stage, put the bass back on and then come in with my notes. So sometimes, I did stuff like take a plastic knife and fork from backstage and pretend to eat Frank’s guitar cable as if it were spaghetti. I would juggle two oranges. I took my jacket and put it on backwards and wrapped a scarf around my head and wandered around the stage like Frankenstein. But in Salt Lake City something popped into my head. I have no idea what it was or why but I grabbed a deli tray full of mayonnaise from backstage and I brought it to my music station, my riser area. And when my minute came, I took my bass off, I took my shirt off and I took my hand – I always thought it was a spatula but in fact I recently seen video of it thanks to Alex Winter’s documentary that he needed to digitize all of the stuff in the vault. I tried to grab Ray White and he you know he ran screaming and then I realized that I had taken so long to do that part that I had to get back to my bass. I may have missed the first one or two notes but I played the entire rest of the song with my body covered in mayonnaise so at the end of that bit they had to stop and have Tommy Marz do a little bit of keyboard introduction while I got some tech people with some towels and they wiped me down. I put my shirt back on and played the rest of the show.
Scott: [00:26:55] Did you get a laugh from Frank?
Scott: [00:26:56] I did indeed. In fact I did not remember what happened. I only remembered the mayonnaise incident, but the video shows that he got involved. He didn’t touch the mayonnaise but he wanted to increase – He may have actually grabbed a spatula and put some on my back. I can’t remember right now I’ve got the video on my computer I haven’t seen in a while. But anyway yes, the mayonnaise incident- not only was it real, it is now fully documented and out in the world. It’s very awesome and I’m very proud of that.
Michael: [00:27:25] We’re speaking here with Scott Thunes. Thank you so much. It’s been a joy talking to you. You’re full of wisdom and humor and you’re such a great musician. I enjoy listening to you. We’ll talk to you soon.
Scott: [00:27:35] You’re welcome. Okay, Bye.
Credits: [00:27:43] Podcast music by Paul J. deBenedictis. Recording and production by Fred Villa. In this podcast we interviewed Scott Thunes, a musician and educator. You’ll find him playing bass with the “Bizarre World of Frank Zappa” hologram tour later this year. This was the CEntrance podcast. Until next time, I am Michael Goodman.