Zappa’s aging Grande Mothers still rock

Bands today that rap about "bitches" and "hoes" have Frank Zappa to thank for their musical freedom of speech. Not that the late Zappa would have approved of their lyrical choices.

Bands today that rap about “bitches” and “hoes” have Frank Zappa to thank for their musical freedom of speech.

Not that the late Zappa would have approved of their lyrical choices. The renegade musician was more interested in attacking institutions of thought rather than people, said longtime bandmate Roy Estrada.

But it was Zappa and the Mothers of Invention that pushed the envelope on what was allowed on the airwaves.

“When we started playing in the ‘60s, FM radio – which was underground then – wouldn’t even play our stuff,” said Estrada who, along with past bandmates Don Preston and Napoleon Murphy Brock, plays Whitehorse on Friday.

The three musicians came together in 2003 to play a concert in Leipzig, Germany, 10 years after Zappa died from prostate cancer. That’s when they dubbed themselves the Grande Mothers Re:Invented.

But more than 40 years after the band started shocking audiences with songs like Jewish Princess, Dirty Love and Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention (a song about the 1985 US Senate hearing in which Zappa refuted the government’s censorship of music), not much has changed.

“Society hasn’t got that much more broadminded,” said Estrada who played bass for the Mothers from 1964 to 1984 and later founded Little Feat.

“They’re still worried about cuss words and ‘reality’ words.”

And American security has only clamped down harder, he added.

“We used to be followed by the secret service,” said Estrada.

“A lot of times at the airport we would get pulled over. They would look for any reason to check us out.

“That’s how paranoid they were. Well, they still are.”

But the band was a minor threat when compared to other so-called “communists” the security service was after.

Zappa’s only vices were cigarettes and espressos and only once did he touch drugs, an experience that ended with him staying up for days, said Estrada with a laugh.

The Baltimore legend was trained as a classical musician and took his music extremely seriously.

“We would rehearse eight hours a day, seven days a week, including Christmas,” said Preston, who played piano and synthesizers for the Mothers.

He was so particular about how his music sounded that he would actually conduct his bandmates with hand signals.

“He would orchestrate certain sounds, like a high screech or a low crash,” said Preston.

It became an idiosyncratic trademark of Zappa’s.

One night while the band was playing at the Filmore, in San Francisco, the guys were approached by John Lennon who took over the band and started giving hand signals.

“It was amazing, I couldn’t believe how well he could do it,” he said, referring to Lennon.

But even though the band could play without Zappa, the chemistry between him and his bandmates was unique.

Onstage, the band never kept a set list.

“At the end of a song Frank would jump up in the air and when he landed, we would start playing another song,” he said.

“Nobody ever knew what the song would be but we never played the wrong song.”

Zappa had a theory about the band based on a book by Theodore Sturgeon called More than Human, said Preston.

The book was about six or seven people living together who had “X-Men like powers,” and communicated without speaking.

“Zappa, he always thought we could read each other’s minds while we were playing and that’s how he proved it, since we never knew which song we were going to play next.”

Now, without Zappa to conduct the Grande Mothers, the band has had to evolve on its own.

The Mothers play the same songs from the ‘70s and ‘80s that they became famous for but with a slightly different twist and, of course, new vocals.

The band has been criticized for not playing exactly the way Zappa arranged music for his records, but it’s an unfair judgement, said Preston.

“Dweezil for instance (Zappa’s son) prides himself on playing exactly the way Zappa did,” he said.

“And to him, anybody playing anything else is a complete idiot.”

But Zappa never played songs the same way twice, they would “change from week to week.”

“To try and play exactly what was on a record is ludicrous – Frank would have never done that!”

Now when the Mothers play, Brock takes lead vocals and the band still meshes theatre antics into their live performances, this even though the musicians are in their ‘60s and ‘70s.

“We don’t feel any older than when we played 40 years ago,” said Preston.

“I feel that my ability on the keyboard is better than it’s ever been.”

And as time goes on, the legendary status of the band only grows.

The Grande Mothers Re:Invented play the Yukon Arts Centre Friday evening at 8 p.m. Tickets are $32.

Contact Vivian Belik at

vivianb@yukon-news.com