Spencer Chrislu worked as a recording engineer, mixer, and editor for Frank Zappa from 1991 until his passing – then continued to work for the family until 1998. During this period, he was involved in digitally remastering The Perfect Stranger (1992), The Man From Utopia (1993), We’re Only In It For The Money (1995), Läther (1996), Tinsel Town Rebellion (1998) and You Are What You Is (1998); sequencing and editing Frank Zappa Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa (1996) and Everything Is Healing Nicely (1999); remixing You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore volumes 5 & 6 (1992) and Playground Psychotics (1992); recording The Yellow Shark (1993); remixing The Lost Episodes (1996), Have I Offended Someone? (1997) and Trance-Fusion (2006); and mixing Civilization Phaze III (1994) and FZ:OZ (released in 2002). Today he works for MQA, providing ‘master quality audio in a file that’s small enough to stream or download.’ He has lived in the UK for the last five years, so Corné van Hooijdonk of the Nether regions suggested I seek him out.
How did you come to work with Frank?
Through my association with Todd Yvega. Todd and I met within the first six months of me living in Los Angeles. I had moved to the Enterprise Studios and Todd was in the first session that I worked on over at Enterprise.
Where are you originally from?
I’m originally from Chicago. I had just gotten out of the University of Illinois. And then I was actually living in Nashville for a couple of years after school. Then I came up from Nashville to California to seek my fame and fortune!
So Todd introduced you…?
Well Todd and I had worked together for years. I think we met in 1986. We had known each other and had been working on and off on various projects. And then, in the summer of 1991, the Ensemble Modern had just visited Frank’s house. At the time, I was working at a different studio, and Todd had come to me and asked if I wanted to come in and interview for Frank. He and his engineer had parted ways, and there was an opening.
And I said, “No!” [laughs]. I couldn’t imagine taking the position as I had heard of Frank’s reputation for being a taskmaster. I knew of stories where he’d stop a concert in the middle of a song because someone had made a mistake.
I think Todd and David Dondorf between them had done the recordings when the Ensemble was there for the first rehearsals, and Todd asked me if I wanted to come up. He went over it and told me how great it was working for Frank – how he wasn’t anything like the person people thought and what a great person he was to work with. Todd also related that they had just installed a new console there which he thought might suit me. So I took him up on his offer and went up to meet Frank and, yeah, we went from there.
And what was the first project you worked on for him?
As you’re probably aware, Frank never worked on one thing at a time. During our interview, he asked me what I knew about the new console and what could I do with it. He seemed completely uninterested when I said yes to his various questions, but his ears pricked up when he asked another question and I said, “Oh, I don’t know that.” He thought that was more interesting than the things I did know. I felt that was kind of strange, and I didn’t know what to make of it.
He then asked me if I could build a digital reverb that sounded like the back of the live room. It’s a strange space with hard parallel walls, a wooden floor and a huge 25 or 30 foot ceiling. I said, “Sure, I’ll give it a try,” and that seemed to please him.
After the interview, he said to come back and he’d give me a try out.
The first thing he did was put on a recording of one of the eighties bands – one of the big bands: I think it was the 84 band. I walked in, and he told me to “pan this guy left, this guy right, put my guitars here” and then he said he had to go to the doctors and he’d be back in a couple of hours. I opened the manual and started mixing. He came back a few hours later and said, “Hmm, you seem to know what you’re doing.” So that was the first thing.
Besides the 80s band project (that became one of the YCDTOSA albums), he was mixing the first Ensemble Modern rehearsal, which then became part of the Everything Is Healing Nicely album.
I was gonna say, weren’t you responsible for compiling that?
Well, I shouldn’t say that I was completely responsible…he was sick at the time, so I would put things together and then we’d talk about them. He’d listen: he couldn’t be active at that time, but we found ways to collaborate.
So we were working on that, and at the same time he was still doing compositions for the Ensemble and we had the Synclavier set up, and on any given day we would be working on whatever struck him.
You were obviously aware of his illness when you first met him?
Yeah, he made it clear the first day that he was sick and had been sick. In fact, it was shortly after that that Dweezil and those guys made the announcement.
At the Zappa’s Universe shows?
That was literally the first week that I was there. In fact, he wanted me to go up and record those concerts. And again, Frank being Frank – he was amazing – he just decided that since I was on the team, I could do anything.
He said to the show organisers, “You’ve got your engineers to do it, but they’re doing it wrong and I’ve got my guy and he’s gonna tell you how it’s run.” He explained to me that he’d already gone over the show with them and since they didn’t have multiple machines, they didn’t know how to ensure they’d capture everything. And he was like, “No, I’m gonna send my guy.”
So you knew he was a hard taskmaster, but were you familiar with his music at all?
No, I wasn’t. And in fact, I think he enjoyed that a lot. He liked the fact that I didn’t come with pre-conceived visions of what it was supposed to be or how it was supposed to be. I wasn’t idol worshipping, and very quickly we both found out that we heard things the same way – we heard details in the music the same way, we liked things set up the same way. It became a very easy relationship.
I could easily understand what he was going for, and he liked what I was going for. He didn’t really have to give me a lot of feedback. On certain mixes, he could just leave me for hours and when he came back, in general, he’d like it.
He would throw a lot of stuff at me…the goal with Frank was just to stay super-flexible – to be ready. He could be in the middle of a rock and roll thing and then he’d just decide that he wanted to remix the Yellow Shark sessions. You had to then figure out what was going on. I’d sit down with the score for music that I hadn’t really known or been familiar with, and we’d sit and talk and laugh about it.
This is a question from my friend in the Netherlands who put me on to you. Does the UMRK have two echo-chambers: one on the right side of the house/studio? If so, where is the second located – and what was the difference in usage between the two?
There was the small chamber and the big chamber. The big chamber was back of the studio – a square-shaped room where the Bösendorfer grand was, 15 feet by 15 feet with a hard wood floor, and hard walls. But it had probably a 25 or 30 foot high ceiling. This was the room that he had me build in the digital reverb. It was very narrow cubicle. The large chamber was accessed through a door in that room that went down about 8 feet. It was a great sounding space.
And there was this other small chamber – I think it was under the studio. Between Dave Dondorf and me, we decided to resurrect those chambers – because when I started there, they weren’t in working order: the speaker that was driving them had been blown, and the microphones that were down there were old and were using tubed microphones that had long given out.
We re-jigged it, set it up, created this space and that became the source of a lot of the six channel reverb we were using for his mixes.
Have you seen what the studio looks like since Lady GaGa bought the house?
No, I haven’t. But I’d love to see it.
I know some of the equipment was sold during the auction, but she talks about using the studio – parts of the Star Is Born soundtrack and her Chromatica album were recorded there.
What was your proudest achievement, working with Frank?
I think that was the attention that he got for The Yellow Shark. In a lot of the audiophile and serious classical magazines, he had gotten some attention, but he’d really never gotten his due – kind of based on, “Oh, he’s a rock and roll guy.”
And the Jazz From Hell/Synclavier stuff they thought was interesting compositions, but they were dry and super-technical. And the fact that he himself had said that he doubted he would ever find an ensemble that could play his music as well as a Synclavier could. And yet, he did.
I’m personally really proud of that album, and the fact that we did it in a live situation, and some of those pieces contain edits between different venues – in Frankfurt, Berlin and Vienna: three highly different sounding halls. We had to meld them together and make it all work. That was a lot of fun.
Well, it’s a wonderful album.
You were also I think involved in archiving video for Frank?
Some video. What I did mostly was I helped out on some of the documentary things that were going on – I would lend a hand to them, when he and Van Carlson[i] were putting together videos. And I also transcribed a lot of video. He was fascinated with the LA riots in 1992. He had captured a lot of them on VCR and he asked me to transcribe a lot of the silly things the newscasters were making up on the fly. He found all of that social interaction very interesting.
Alex Winter has just wrapped up the Zappa movie and I wondered if you were asked for help on that at all?
I was not.
Okay. What are your reflections on Frank’s final recordings: Civilization Phaze III and Varèse: The Rage And The Fury?
The Rage And The Fury was again a fantastic session. I think in listening to all of the other Varèse recordings, even the one the Ensemble themselves did afterwards,[ii] there is nothing like the performance and the sound.
We captured it in an entirely different way. It was done on the Warner Brothers soundstage and so it is a much more intimate and detailed recording. I think it is an amazing testament to Varèse’s music, in a way that traditional recordings in traditional venues don’t capture. It was the way Frank wanted to hear it. Gail said that a lot. He was really, really pleased with that.
And Civilization Phaze III was just an ongoing project that went on for years. It was another album that he was really pleased with. He spent hundreds of hours editing and tweaking that album.
Yes, there was an early version that snuck out and he obviously reordered it all as he got closer to his final days.
That was the way he always worked. He loved to take things and figure out new ways to edit them and put them together. Frank was one of the first to own a Sonic Solutions editing system. And we were pushing that system…I think they were founded in 1990, and in 1991 we already had it doing six channels discrete edits and crossfades. He loved the ability to be able to reorder and cross-fade everything into everything else.
He did seem to leap on new technology. There’s a book that’s just been published, Zappa Gear by a friend of mine, and it shows just how much he loved to get new equipment and push it to extents that the people who had created it hadn’t thought it would be used for.
Yes, that’s correct – that was always something that turned him on. I’m not sure if it’s listed in your friend’s book, but the Sony PCM-3324 24-track digital tape recorder that he owned I believe was serial number 00008, and many of the circuit boards had not been finished – they were hand-soldering wires connecting points where the circuit board obviously had errors. He was on the bleeding edge of that kind of thing.
Yes, that’s in the book!
Talking about Everything Is Healing Nicely, tell me about some of the choices you made for that.
Those mixes were done with the idea of showing the behind the scenes of The Yellow Shark. Frank loved those improv sessions and would play them for anyone who came into the studio. As you can hear on the album, the letters to PFIQ made him laugh a lot.
And there were other performances like Amnerika that didn’t make the Yellow Shark album. Frank wasn’t convinced there was a complete take or sections that could be edited together enough to satisfy him. I took it upon myself to mix all the pieces and assemble a complete performance, because I really loved the piece and loved how they played it.
That album was just a number of those things where it was just a matter of gluing these various bits together. It was just kind of fun things, and the chance to show how his composing process worked, and an insight into how he worked and interacted with the Ensemble.
You also did some remixes for the Have I Offended Someone? album.
That’s true! [laughs] Yeah, again it was just every once in awhile he would throw me something, and I wouldn’t know what album they would end up on. The Disco Boy mix was a fun one because I had never come across that. And he left me alone with it and I went kind of Gonzo on it. And he looked at me and went, “What have you done?!” [laughs] I kind of backed off on some of my original over the top effects and brought it back to where it was. But I thought that album was hilarious, an absolute blast.
I’d love to have heard what you did with Disco Boy!
So anyway, you continued to work for the family after Frank’s passing. What nuggets did you unearth then?
Well, I was working with Joe Travers and Dweezil, and what we were trying to do was get in direct touch with the fans and say, “Okay, what have we missed? What is everyone hoping for?”
Just before his passing, Frank had signed a deal with Rykodisc who were also interested in doing something, and that’s when I looked at some of the feedback Joe had collected and we decided to do some pristine transfers of Apostrophe (’) and One Size Fits All, which became those audiophile Au20 gold discs.
The impetus for that really came from the fans, who told us, “the digital transfer of those sounded awful and the vinyl so much better – go back.” We used what were cutting edge A-to-D converters at the time, we found the best source of tapes, we went about baking tapes to make sure they would play back correctly. A lot of that we did together.
After that, Joe would come back and say there was this show, there was that show, there’s these things that we need to unearth. And Läther was one of those; in conjunction with Gail, we all felt that was an important album and one that Frank had started but hadn’t finished.
Obviously one of the things that the fans are still waiting for is The Rage And The Fury – we don’t know when or if that’s ever going to finally come out.
Well I’m telling you it’s the best version of Varèse you’ll ever hear! Hopefully, some day everyone will get a chance to hear it.
You also worked on Dweezil’s – well, Z’s album – Music For Pets. What was that like? That was right after Frank’s passing, so not a great time for the boys.
You can never tell someone how they’re supposed to feel – what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to live. I tip my hat to them both. They’ve got a big reputation to live up to and they want to make their own kind of music.
We were all just working on the album and trying to make it the best it could be. Mike Keneally, Dweezil, Ahmet were in the studio all the time working away.
It was good fun and a good collaboration, but you could see that Dweezil wanted to go in a different direction – he wanted to figure things out on his own. I think he was more interested in a smaller kind of set-up that he could control himself.
He actually spent some of his time with his own personal mix console in one of the drum booths. He would sit there and go through takes and work on parts, and new guitar sounds, and start piecing his own ideas together. He didn’t necessarily want to work in a big studio and maybe have to rely on an engineer to get what he wanted. He wanted a little more control. And again, I tip my hat to him
And did you work with him on Frank Zappa Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa: A Memorial Tribute?
Yes, but I only mixed the first track. The rest were pulls from master tapes that Frank had mixed. I did the editing and the mastering on that one.
For a second, I thought you were referring to Dweezil’s big guitar record where he had all of the other guitar players come in and I can’t remember the name of that one. Dweezil and I did a lot of work on that one.
He’s still working on that – to be called What The Hell Was I Thinking?!
Is he still working on it? [laughs]
Yep! I’ve spoken to him a couple of times about it. I interviewed him in 1991, and again in 2015: still being worked on! It’ll come out one day I’m sure.
How did you come to work with the SEED Ensemble recently?
Well, I currently work at MQA, where we’re carrying on a lot of the tradition that Frank and I both love, which is the highest possible fidelity – the highest possible music quality.
After I left the Zappas, I did some independent mastering until I found an opportunity at Warner Music. I was with Warner for close to 15 years doing a lot of high-resolution recording, mastering, mixing, surround sound, DVD-Audio and such.
And then in 2014 I started collaborating with Bob Stuart (then with Meridian Audio) on a new technology he was working on. Much like with Frank, Bob and I soon realised we were both pursuing the same goals in music reproduction and that we heard things in very much the same way.
The way MQA works is, we can take super high-resolution recordings – we’re working at eight times the sample rate of CD. And we can record at that rate, and then we can fold it down to something that’s small enough to stream without any loss, which is something Frank would have really enjoyed.
Lately we’ve been doing live sessions, and finding ways to make it sound better. We were recording it at 192kHz/24-bit but then folding it down using MQA to broadcast it in real time at 48K and 24 bits. When it gets to a decoder at the other end and back to its full 192K resolution.
As part of this project we invite various bands to come into the studio. I record them live using minimal mic techniques and we broadcast them live to audiences all over the world. SEED Ensemble was one of the bands we’ve worked with recently. I’d worked on one of band leader Cassie Kinoshi’s offshoots, called KOKOROKO, at the Nice Jazz Festival last year and I knew they were a great band for this project.
So was it coincidental, because just before coronavirus hit, they were preparing for a ‘Frank Zappa Songbook’ show in London.
Well, it was coincidental. But the funny thing was that when we finally got together at the session, they were on a break and Cassie was upstairs doing videos. I was talking to the band while still setting microphones, and they all decided they would jump on different instruments – so the bass player went over on the drums, the drummer went over on keyboards, etc. At one point, the keyboard player picked up the other guy’s bass, and he started playing a line I knew I was familiar with. And one of the other musicians said, “Oh my gosh, you’re playing Zappa!” And I said, “Frank Zappa? What Zappa are you playing – The Black Page?” And he said, “I could try to play The Black Page, but I know I couldn’t do it and close the deal.” Then I introduced myself, and they all went “You worked with Frank Zappa?!” And I went, “Yes, yes, yes – long time ago.”
Anyway, Cassie came back, they did the show, and I talked to her a day or two afterwards. She said, “I heard that you worked with Frank Zappa! I’ve been telling everyone: the guy who worked with Frank Zappa just did our live show!” She was very excited. Now I understand why they’re planning on playing Frank Zappa. That’s awesome.
You’ve already mentioned some of these guys, but your time with Frank coincided with the tenures of Marqueson, Dave Dondorf, Todd Yvega and the late Harry Andronis. Tell me about those guys.
It was just a great team. Dave Dondorf and I became really close…I mean, all of us, we were just really close personal friends. Those guys had all toured with Frank, and I was a touring rookie in ’92 and I didn’t know anything about anything – like how a live show was supposed to go down, and the first show I ever did was broadcast live on TV, which only added to the pressure. But they were great, they were fantastic and supportive. We all kind of hung out together. Dave and I spent the most time together because we were both in the studio. And Todd was there all the time. And then Marque, he was off at the other facility.
At Joe’s Garage?
Yeah, he was running that, and we would hear from him every once in a while. I think the other guys hung out with him more. They were all great guys and it was tragic to hear of Harry’s passing. I’m sure you’ve seen the video online that he did with his niece, I think it was, where he’s going through a real description of what ALS is and how it affects people; what it means and that he knew that his time was coming to an end.
No, I haven’t seen that. I did speak to Harry, because I wrote a book about Frank’s 88 tour and, just after it was published, I heard that he’d passed away. It was really quite shocking because I didn’t know he was ill, even.
Just do a Google search on ‘Harry Andronis ALS’ and it’ll come up. It’s very touching, and very moving. He’s very matter of fact about it. But he’s probably about 50lbs lighter in that video than he was when I had known him – you can see the ravages of it.
Again, they were all just great guys, long time relationship and everyone was of the same ethos. You’ve interviewed enough people now to know what it was like working with Frank. It was always a very inspiring and musical experience – he really, really cared about the music. That was the one overriding thing: the creativity should never go stale and the pursuit of technical perfection. The minute anybody started to get complacent, he’d stand up and say, “No, we’re turning left!” And that was the great thing about him. If there were guys that hung around that had been around him for a long time, you knew that they were guys who believed the same thing.
You left the Zappas’ employ in 1998 – was that just because you felt your time there had run its course?
Yes. But you could also see – and I want to be fully respectful of Dweezil and the family – but Dweezil wanted to run the ship, and to put it in his direction. And you could see that he wanted to go in a different direction. He had different musical priorities and didn’t need me in the same way that Frank needed me – he wasn’t sitting at the Synclavier composing one day and we weren’t doing all of those kind of things – and it just became clear that it was time to move on. And that’s what you do.
You then went to Precision Mastering, where you offered to do mastering work for the ZFT should the call ever come. I take it it didn’t?
There was some consulting work – they wanted to know, “Hey, do you remember this one?” “Can you help us with this machine?” “Can you help us get this up and running?” “Do you know where the tapes were for this?” “Did you guys ever finish that?” That sort of thing. I helped out with one or two technical things. And then a good friend of ours – John Polito from Audio Mechanics,[iii] who had worked with Frank – he came asking me some stuff.
When was the last time you had contact with those guys?
I saw Gail when the LA Philharmonic performed 200 Motels – The Suites at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in October 2013. I was at that show, and that was a lot of fun. I said hi to her. Dave Dondorf and I are in semi-regular contact, and Todd and I talk probably once a month.
Okay. Finally, any reflections on Frank you’d care to share?
I tell everyone that he wasn’t just a great musician, he was really one of the greatest humans – an empathetic, caring soul. A great guy who really cared about everyone. He cared about the family a great deal and was really caring about the guys who were around him. He always loved the music. I’ve seen it written that one of the great qualities of people is the ability to make you feel like you were the only person in the room: he was one of those.
And he did love to get people in a room to see what can happen. I’ve seen one of those videos of the Friday night salons, with everyone in the same room at the same time. I think that brought him so much joy, just to see everyone there, everyone having a good time, and this amazing collaboration of people. How many people can bring together the Tuvan throat singers, The Chieftains and Tom Jones into the same room?
Yeah, I think I saw the actor Peter Coyote there too.
Yes, Peter was there.
So that’s really my parting thought. I want everyone to know just what a great human being he was. He cared about everybody.
And funny as hell too.
I’ll give you one anecdote. There was one section in the original version of N-Lite on Civilization Phaze III – which at one point was 28 minutes long – there’s one little section, after it breaks down, where there’s a little synthesizer/horn line that goes “Ba-ba-ba baba.” He would always call that the ‘Matty told Hatty’ section. He would say, “Yeah, its right after the Matty told Hatty section!” [laughs]
It’s funny how these little things would recur – Denny Walley would sing Wooly Bully on stage – and that’s one of the fascinating things about Frank: the conceptual continuity.
There was one time, I was mixing something and he had me pull out one of the solos from when they were in Memphis.[iv] And he’s just wailing away, and in the middle of it he puts in a lick from Heartbreak Hotel – in the middle of this complex solo there’s this lick, and I just started cracking up. I said, “Did you really do that?” He said, “Of course. It’s appropriate.” Absolutely hilarious.
That’s the thing: I’ve been listening to his music since I was 13 – since 1971 – and even now I hear things I didn’t notice before. An amazing body of work.
Now I’m thinking of all the time I just fell about laughing. There was one time we were doing the Playground Psychotics material, and it was the first time I’d heard the Flo & Eddie stuff. There was one concert where for one of the encores they did Happy Together, but they did it absolutely note-for-note straight, without any irony or any parody. It was one of the best versions I’d ever heard them do, and they weren’t making fun of themselves. Of course that was the hilarious part of it: after doing two hours of comedy and complexity, for the encore they just played a Turtles song straight-up. And I laugh to this day just remembering it.
That’s brilliant. Thanks a lot for your time, Spence.
Interview conducted on 3rd June 2020. Photo shows Spence with the SEED Ensemble at British Grove Studios, March 2020.
[i] Van Theodore Carlson, three-time Emmy Award-winning cinematographer whose collaboration with filmmaker Henning Lohner started in 1989 with Peefeeyatko, and ended on his death in 2011. Frank said of Carlson's work: "The guy's brilliant!"
[ii] Kontinent Varèse, released by Col Legno in 2011.
[iii] John is credited with mastering and audio restoration work on the Joe’s Corsaga, MOFO, Lumpy Money, Greasy Love Songs, Carnegie Hall, the Road Tapes series, Roxy By Proxy, Meat Light and more.
[iv] Unfortunately, this quote was seemingly edited out of the track Good Lobna on Trance-Fusion (2006).