Ed Mann

Ed Mann played percussion for Zappa between September 1977 and June 1988, appearing first on the album Zappa In New York (1978) – for which he provided overdubs.
    He can be seen in Baby Snakes (1979), The Dub Room Special! (1982), Video From Hell (1987) and The Torture Never Stops (2008), and heard on numerous albums – including Sheik Yerbouti (1979), Joe's Garage (1979), Tinsel Town Rebellion (1981), Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar (1981), You Are What You Is (1981), Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch (1982), The Man From Utopia (1983), London Symphony Orchestra Vol. I (1983) and Vol. II (1987), Them Or Us (1984), Thing-Fish (1984), Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (1985), Broadway The Hard Way (1988), The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life (1991), Make A Jazz Noise Here (1991), Halloween (2003), Trance-Fusion (2006), Hammersmith Odeon (2010), Chicago '78 (2016), Halloween 77 (2017), Halloween 81 (2020), Zappa '88: The Last U.S. Show (2021) and all but the second volume of Zappa's You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series of live recordings.
    Since 1988, Mann has released five solo albums, and toured and recorded with Rickie Lee Jones, Kenny Loggins, Banned From Utopia, Project Object, The Z3 and the Grandmothers.
    When I saw that Mann had signed up to play at Zappanale in 2004, I thought he’d be an excellent person to interview, having worked with Zappa for more than a decade.
    At that time he was a regular contributor to the alt.fan.frank-zappa forum. He responded to my request immediately and enthusiastically, saying, “It will be different than affz – that is more me probing the Zappa phenomenon than it is speaking directly about the man himself and our great experiences.”
We met briefly at Zappanale, and our correspondence continued. When I was asked to write a book about the 1988 tour (Zappa The Hard Way), Mann was eager to assist – saying “Fantastic, man. This is always what I hoped to see: people such as yourself who have become historians of the Zappa culture coming into a place of being able to document lots of stuff that is either twisted or misperceived or simply unknown.” He provided a major contribution to the book, for which I will be eternally grateful.
    In 2009, Mann co-produced and played on the album Listen by Asani, an Aboriginal women's trio from Edmonton, Canada.  He later moved to Edmonton and lectured on ‘Vibrational Sound Experiences: Healing Gongs and Found Objects Percussion’ at the University of Alberta.
    Mann returned to the US and, in Spring 2013, toured with Project/Object. He then briefly re-joined Banned From Utopia.
    In June 2014, he told me, "I left BFU and am playing instead with the most exciting FZ reworked material band ever, the Z3. It is more like a virtuosic Chili Peppers with experimental progressive funk extended jam characteristics than a typical Zappa band…for me, that pays far greater honour to Frank than verbatim interpretations of legacy performances.".
    In 2018, Mann toured as a special guest of the Grandmothers Of Invention on their EU farewell tour.
    In 2019, Mann was a part of the band for the The Bizarre World Of Frank Zappa hologram tour.
    In July 2021, Mann wrote an article for Gonzo Today, titled ‘Hired By Frank Zappa’, in which he described the Over-Nite Sensation album as “evil and demonic” and talked of the time Frank jabbed Gail with a fork in a Beverly Hills restaurant. After a second chapter the following month, his daughter tragically committed suicide and he understandably put his keyboard.
    Very sadly, Mann himself passed away on 31 May 2024, following the discovery of advanced pancreatic cancer.

When and why did you get interested in making music?
I always just played and sang and danced from the time I was about 18 months old...and I always said I would be a musician when I grew up. And I still say it. I never even considered anything else, which is not necessarily a good thing…but in my case it is, because I guess I was born an artist.

Tell me about World Consort, your early band with Tommy Mars. What sort of music did you play?
Ahhh – well that was a band with Tommy on Rhodes and Hammond Organ, Tommy’s brother Dave on bass, Harvey the bassoon player, Keith the multi-wind player, and myself on drums and percussion. We played old and new jazz, electric stuff and Hindemith, Bartók and Zappa arrangements. It was real progressive and chaotically jubilant music that seemed just right for 1973.

How did your first meeting with Zappa come about?
I met Frank in an alley behind Sunset Boulevard when he had that rehearsal studio there in 1975. Bozzio had just joined the band. My friend and teacher John Bergamo was there rehearsing some of FZ’s chamber music, and all of a sudden Frank comes walking up with a pile of music under one arm and says, “Hi!” with a big smile.
    Frank loved meeting new people I think, especially new musicians. I thought, “Wow, I just met Frank Zappa!” but I had already met Keith Moon while standing at a urinal at the Record Plant – so I was a little bit used to being around stars by then I guess.
    But Frank of course I looked up to as a musical genius and inspiration. Later on in April 1977, when John and Ruth Underwood and I recorded The Black Page, was when I next met Frank.

What training and experiences do you think best prepared you for being able to get the gig and play the music of FZ?
I think first would have to be the study of the South Indian drumming – Karnatic music. I studied the Mridangam and Kanjira for years, starting when I was 18 years old. The rhythmic structures used there are all conjugations of poly-meter and poly-rhythm. 3:4, 5:3, 5:4 etc, and the player has to learn to simultaneously keep track of what is essentially two or three different meters and sub-divisions. Plus it is fast and requires very precise execution.
    My study of this music coincided with the time of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra, whose music was also derived from those Indian rhythmic and modal structures. So that was a very intense time period learning to think and feel and play in everything except 4/4!
    Second I would say is the music of Lou Harrison and John Cage, which makes use of a wide variety of percussion instruments and – again – odd meters and rhythms – 7 over 9, that kind of thing. All of this experience for me was a result of encouragement and direction by my great friend and mentor John Bergamo – who also introduced me to Frank.
    John is a master musician and teacher, and has helped literally hundreds of successful players find their way in music. Finally – the influence of great mallet players who came before me – Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson, Dave Samuels, Emil Richards, Gary Burton and, of course  Ruth Underwood.

You kind of got a handover for the post from Ruth Underwood, didn’t you?
I can’t speak for Ruth, but I think ultimately yes. Ruth did call me late one night to ask if I knew any great keyboard players – Frank was looking for someone interesting and unable to find anyone. Tommy Mars had just moved out to California and so I said that I absolutely knew the guy for the gig. Ruth said, “Call Frank, RIGHT NOW!” It was midnight, so I did. Three hours later, I was in the band.
    The next day, when I called Ruth to tell her, she said, “I knew that would happen,” in kind of a dismayed way. But she was a supporter, and was gracious. She also did quit the band several years earlier and if she had not, the gig still would have been hers. But I think it is normal to feel attached. Her endorsement meant a lot to me.
    Later on, during the summer of 1977, I felt like I just was not getting some critical detail about how to play Franks’ music on the marimba – Frank wrote stuff that required your hands move in directions that was opposite of the normal way that the arms will allow. So I called on Ruth and went over to her house so I could watch her play some of the passages.
    She played a little bit of Inca Roads, a bit from The Black Page, and a lot of Bach. That was very kind of Ruth to accommodate me – and I know that she was doing it for Frank as much as for me – and it did help.
    I adore Ruth – you gotta love Ruth!  She is Frank’s eternal soul-sister, and you can see it.

What was your actual audition with Frank like?
When Ruth called me at midnight, and then I called Frank, he seemed only mildly interested in the keyboard player information. But he said, “I remember you – why don’t you come over here right now.” So I did.
    It was about 1.30 a.m. when I got there. Patrick O’Hearn and Adrian Belew were there too. Frank’s basement: red velvet walls, muted yellow lights; dark. A big marimba with music stand sitting in the centre of this poorly lit room.
    First Frank put up the chart to Montana and asked me to sight read it – which I did, but not really that well. Good enough to show that I knew how to figure stuff out I guess. There was some other bits and pieces – stuff that wound up in Wild Love. Then Frank put on his guitar and said, “OK – I will play a lick, and then you play it back to me on the marimba.” That went pretty well. The whole time I was thinking, ‘this is just entertainment for Frank,’ because when we had been in the studio recording The Black Page several months earlier, he said out of the blue that he no longer would be taking any percussion on the road.
    Anyway, then Frank asked me to improvise – play a little solo, et cetera. I did that for a few minutes and then Frank says, “Great – you want to be in the band?” I just thought ‘WHAT?!?’ – but I stammered, “Uh – yeah!” FZ extends the handshake and then outlines the responsibilities, the pay, the schedule, and the expectation that I would have to buy all my own gear – he was otherwise purchasing gear for the keyboard players and guitarists – but that he did have some stuff I could use…then he pulled a 6-pack of Budweiser out of the fridge and we sat around for a half hour. Then he told me to arrive at 9 p.m. the next night for further planning, et cetera.
    I got home at 4 a.m. thinking, ‘Wow – what a day.’

Did you enjoy playing the part of Sy Borg with Warren Cuccurullo?
Frank asked me to teach Warren to do the Sy Borg voice – that took four seconds – and then we recited the Sy Borg Manifesto together, which was a lot of fun, of course. By that time in a Frank production, everything was fun and Frank was making shit up left and right as icing for his sonic comedy-cake.

What was the London Symphony Orchestra experience like in 1983?
Great! The timpanist gave me a one-hour lesson that was the most insightful ever regarding the physical action of a drumhead and tuning. I walked out of that understanding even more that I am not a real-serious timpanist.
    The brass players were sceptical – just not completely committed to the whole idea. Frank and Mark Pinske had developed – and were experimenting with – really wild and unorthodox mic’ing methods, and had constructed these weird mic’d glass panels that were looming over people’s heads. But it sounded great, considering the recordings were made on an early digital machine.
    The orchestra was NOT used to playing music that was so difficult and that required homework – and there was some grumbling which of course made Frank irate because he was, after all, paying them. It did feel strange at first playing some of the band music with the LSO (like Strictly Genteel) – we were all used to it being so BIG. But what a great orchestra, and in the end I think that Frank was happy too.

How do you think you managed to work with him for so long – only Ike Willis comes close to matching your longevity!
At the core of our relationship, FZ and I shared a deep and unspoken affection for each other. That was the truth of it from the beginning to the end.

Where were you in 1984!?
I was touring with Shadowfax a little bit – beginning to write some, teaching at Cal Arts, and playing live locally in LA quite a bit. I saw that band play live at the Palace in Hollywood. They were good, but of course I thought it would sound better with marimba.

Me too! What can you tell me about the 1987 rehearsals with Flo and Eddie?
Oh God…not much. They were not there long. I think it was difficult for them to fit in – they were not band members (too big for that), but not the stars either (that is Frank only, and Frank was paying the bills).
    I think the most fun they had was on the first day – remembering old routines a capella over the mic with Frank. That was cool to behold…Jewish And Small [i] – I can say that – et cetera. They were just cracking each other up, and it was always so great to see Frank laugh like that.
    I think right after that, it hit home for them that ‘you can’t go back again’, and so they bailed.

The samples you played on the 1988 tour – the dog barks and bubbles – did you create them?
Yes. I did all that sound design. Walt Fowler vocalizes all the “Ooowww!” stuff – and then I modulated it with a pitch wheel.
    Bruce did the “Ooouuueeeouuugggg!”, not to be confused with Walt’s “Aaaahhhhhhhh!” or “Bep-Bep-Bep.” Those guys just make those sounds anyway – but when I heard it, I summoned them to “speak into the mic, please.” Ike did the Sam Kinison death scream.
    Those samples kind of became the signature sounds of that tour. The agony and the ecstasy: we laughed, we cried – it is all there in those samples.
    Usually Frank liked it. Sometimes not, though.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the 1988 tour, but are you yet able to listen to the recordings from it?
You can dwell on 1988, it does not bother me. Listening to Zappa recordings for me has nothing to do with 1988.
    I listened to Sheik Yerbouti once. I listened to Joe’s Garage halfway through – and then I never listened to another Zappa recording until last year when I had to relearn some stuff for ‘The Repercussion Unit Does Zappa’ show.
    The reasons being that nothing will ever live up to my mental sound-images of all the live performances, and we rehearsed and performed everything so much that to actually sit and listen to a recording just feels strange and unnecessary. I know how the music goes, and it is going all the time anyway in my head.

Any plans for a Repercussion Unit Does Zappa CD?
That is a good idea.

I know that Scott Thunes has a ‘unique personality’, but you worked okay with him for several years before the Broadway tour, so could you ever see yourself working with him again?
Of course! Scott and I are on fine terms and we correspond from time to time. I appreciate his unique sense of humour.
    I remember his second day in the band – Frank was giving some generalized direction and Scott interrupted and said aloud to me and Tommy, “Listen up! This applies to you!” I didn’t know him then, and I thought ‘what the fuck?’ – after all, WE were the vets and HE was the new guy.
    Of course that was arrogant thinking on my part, and over time I began to understand Scott’s safety-pin-in-cheek humour. Once you get it, it is pretty funny: almost like performance art.
    Yes of course I would welcome the opportunity to play with Scott anytime. As soon as the 1988 tour was over, I had no hard feelings whatsoever toward Scott. I kind of knew – even at that time – that the problem was something deeper and more troubling and devastating than a simple personality conflict.
    Frank’s bands had been historically full of personality conflicts, and Frank’s paternal-boss aura-of-power always came into play to get things ironed out and the bands moved on and played on.
    In 1988, it was almost as though the band was manifesting the illness that had already set in to Frank’s body. That may sound abstract and I do not mean it in a disrespectful way – but Frank was a powerful person and to do his gig you had to give 200% of your entire being to the realisation of his vision. You had to literally invest all of yourself in everything that was Frank, and you then lived for that which Frank would project back at you. Usually things would work out well.
    But in 1987/88, something was deeply wrong. It was just that no one knew what, and no one could figure out what was up, as Frank was real closed-mouth about everything.
    But Scott’s cool, and we are both very different people as a result of 1988.

Well, in spite of those problems, that band produced some wondrous music.
    When did you last talk with Frank?
I feel like I hear from Frank all the time. Vivid dreams every week – sometimes every night. Good dreams, always involving music – great music, and a larger-than-life feeling of being alive. I am not kidding, and it’s been going on for years. I can literally feel him speaking to me – and the ether is a great place to spend time with Frank.
    In physical form, the last time we spoke was June of 1988 in Italy. After 1988, I felt that we knew each other and the truth beneath all of the difficulty, and so I let it go at that – and to fate regarding circumstance that may bring us together again.
    I was always there for him when it came to music or anything else, that had been a code-phrase that was communicated since I began working with Frank. I wrote him several letters to re-iterate that after 1988, so he knew. I did not expect a response, as it was not necessary.
    In the years that followed, and up until his death, my first marriage fell apart. I was in deep grief over my son’s well-being as a result. I had no place to live for a while, and was generally in pieces for four years and in no place to communicate.
    Just at the time I had gotten re-settled, Frank died. So while that is sad, I have to accept it – and I do. I am sad that he suffered with such a devastating illness.

What is your favourite Zappa track?
I think my all time fave that I play on is Persona Non Grata. Steve Vai transcribed one of Frank’s more polyrhythmic solos – a near impossible feat, but Steve could do it easily – and so I learned it on marimba. I love the ‘high-wire without a net’ feel to the recorded result.
    I guess next would be Drowning Witch – I remember listening back to those recordings in the control room and the sounds were real nice.

What was the hardest thing Frank asked you to do – musically or otherwise?
‘Otherwise’, in chronological order:

  1. Telling Frank that I would NOT wear fake big tits and long frizzy hair for Baby Snakes. Frank replied, “Well then, wear something weird.” I said, “I am already wearing stuff that people think is weird.” Frank said, “Well then wear that!”
  2. Appointed – not asked – to be Clonemeister for the 1978-79 band. I did a good job, but I did not enjoy having the responsibility of being a disciplinarian.
  3. Telling Frank that I no longer wanted to be Clonemeister after the summer of 1978 rehearsals were over.

    Musically, none of it seemed that hard because Frank was always very supportive with an ‘I know you can do it – so now go and do it’ attitude. If I couldn’t do it, Frank would say, “Go practice and come back next week and do it.”

I know that you’ve played with Rickie Lee Jones and Mick Karn. Who else?
Don Ellis, Repercussion Unit, Mark Isham, Andy Summers, Kenny Loggins, Shadowfax, Bill Bruford, Ambrosia, and some great film composers in LA.

You’ve also recorded a few solo discs – any plans for more?
Yes, but I have been dedicating most of my time to being a father for the past 10 years – and my daughter’s birth kind of coincided with the time of the collapse of the indie record industry. So really there has been no reason to release any CDs, although I have been writing like a madman and creating a lot of music and sound for contract situations – interactive media and indie films, synthesizer engines, et cetera. But I do have many CDs of stuff basically ready to go…so perhaps soon.

Any news on the Banned From Utopia?

Ask Bruce Fowler, right?
Banned From Utopia is Bruce’s band, no doubt. Although it is Arthur’s name, and I think my re-spelling of Band as Banned (that may be arguable).

And what about Repercussion Unit?
Repercussion Unit has been playing together since 1973. We recently played an all-Zappa show at the Frankfurt Jazz festival, thanks to Guenter Hottman. It was tremendous fun – Zappa with African, Indian and Indonesian influences: tribal!

What sort of material will you be playing at Zappanale?
Some unusual Zappa selections, maybe some originals. Probably some Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington – all done up acid-afro-jazz style. That is my prayer.

The Grandmothers will be at Zappanale, too. Of course we see you with Roy Estrada in the Baby Snakes movie. And you worked with Don Preston in a be-bop quartet in 1991. But have you ever played with Napoleon Murphy Brock before?
Napoleon and I had a band in 1979-80 with Peter Wolf on keyboards, Jeff Richman on guitar, various bass players, and Mike Barsimanto and Chester Thompson on drums. We also did all the back-up vocals together on Sheik Yerbouti – that was about one week in the studio in 1978. I have sat in with Project Object with Napoleon. We see each other from time to time. He is a friend.

What are your plans for the future?
I love video games and game music. I am focusing intently on making inroads into the music-for-games world as a composer and sound designer. So far I am getting good responses – and this is absolutely at the top of my list, followed by jingles etc. My brand of weirdness needs a weird home, and I also need to make money.
    I plan on continuing to compose as much as possible – and begin to tour Europe again playing jazz and experimental/improvisational music. Good jazz!
    My daughter is old enough now that I can begin to tour again. I stopped completely when she was born so I could be there for her and my wife.

Good luck with that: you are a fun person. I like you. I want to kiss you always.
You know – I knew that girl! She issued that offer to Peter Wolf and not to me. That was one of my rare intelligent moments in an otherwise reckless youth: politely show her the door and wish her well. She was so young.


Interview conducted on Sunday 14th March 2004. Caricature of Ed by Antero Valério.

[i] Zappa song also known as Giraffe and Lola Steponsky, versions of which were eventually released on The Mothers 1970 in 2020.