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Ed Mann

Interview by Sean Mitchell // January 02 2009
Ed Mann

Be willing to let it go. Nothing is in our control. Be cool, get with it, learn it. You gotta be ready to reinvent yourself, otherwise you can’t survive as a musician. It can be really exhausting. On the other hand, it’s vitalizing.

What can I say except to revert to a shameless pun; Ed is, in fact, “the man.” Not only is he one of the world’s most prolific percussionists, Ed is actually one of the percussionists on Zappa’s “The Black Page.” Ed is also one of the most gentle and humble human beings I have ever met. His passion for music extends well beyond the need for accolades and ego trips. In addition to an impressive list of stage and studio accomplishments, his work now encompasses healing and holistic pursuits. It’s not often we are able to sit face-to-face with someone who possesses the genius to have had an impact on the face of music-- as well as the resume to back up the status. Add to that the selflessness and good nature of a person you feel you have known your whole life. I honestly wish I had the dexterity and typing skills to transcribe the entire hour I spent talking with Ed, as I feel it pretty much equated to a full semester in college. Truth is, I walked away a better player and a better person, having soaked up Ed’s insight and humility. My hope for all of you is that you, too, will one day get to share the same privilege.



As a Zappa alum, what, in your opinion, set Frank apart from the rest of the industry?

If you just look at the lyrics, for example, you can’t take those lyrics literally. Ninety percent of it means nothing if you take it literally. It’s all like a form of code. His father taught him about this, and he developed it himself into a system where you have signatures. He invented his own mythology to accompany the music. That’s different than most rock musicians— to have the mythology be that deep, and then the belief system that accompanies it. So you take all these signature Zappa things that appear throughout the music. He talked about this once a little bit.

He said, “You know, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just like catalysts to give you a zing and upset your belief system, but to keep you into this mythology.”

Overall this is what I am starting to understand as I reflect back on all these experiences: Frank would never be happy if there was a comfort zone. His job as an artist, whether it was conscious or unconscious, was to upset that comfort zone. The comfort zones represented being satisfied with the status quo, and being satisfied with the status quo meant (good or bad) it was going to continue to exist such as it was. The artist’s job was to always move things forward.

With Frank, it went so deep, as he wasn’t happy if your comfort zone was “loving his music.” That had to be upset. There’s a piece he wrote for solo marimba called “Mo and Herb’s Vacation.” It hasn’t been realized yet; I can play it, it just hasn’t been recorded yet. It took five years [for me] to be able to play it accurately. It didn’t have any title. It was just a theme and he brought it in one day, handed it to me and said, “It’s this new thing I got that I’m working on. I just want to hear what it sounds like. I’m thinking of it as a solo marimba thing. Play it.”

So he puts it up on the music stand and I play through the first few phrases and we’re working it together, and after about fifteen minutes, when the phrases were connected, you could start to hear how it sounds. I said, “Frank, this is beautiful! It’s really nice. What’s it called?”

He pauses for a minute and goes, “It’s called ‘Blowjob’!” And he snatches the music away and puts it in his file. He’s like, “Okay, let’s start the rehearsal.”

That little example was a thing of, oh you like my music? Well that’s a comfort zone and comfort zones cannot exist and even if your comfort zone is “loving my music,” I’m going to upset it by giving it a name that’s contrary to the way the music sounds.

Can you give me an idea as to the type of mindset Frank had as an artist?

His family was the people he hired. He had two families: his biological family and his other family who he spent the most time with (except toward the end), all the technicians and band members. He loved playing host, and what he loved more than anything was playing his music. But everything always had to be about him, and it was about his music. You didn’t talk about anything else. If you did, it was only to be used so he could create new material about it. You’d bring up a subject and talk about it, next day, there’s a song. So he would gather this sociological kind of stuff.

At the risk of sounding too cliché, was Frank misunderstood?

He was such a genius at using his ego to generate this absolutely brilliant music. I don’t know anybody that could do what he did as a composer. His incredible range of music… he was such a great entertainer, and such an amazing band leader. So efficient and he had so much fun.

I can’t listen to the music y’know, and it’s not that I don’t like it; I think it’s just that I’ve heard it so much and played it so much. I listen to music from Africa, and from India—music that is more about this communal type thing. That’s what I am into. But when I listen to Frank, I feel like I am being backed into a corner. But playing it, there is nothing more fun than playing it. So [when we were onstage] I always felt like the people that are having the most fun at this concert are the people on stage. It’s so much fun to play that music, and I never laughed harder than being onstage with Frank.

I’m still trying to figure him out. I can see now, in various threads of the fan community, that people are just starting to understand it. There’s more and more people that aren’t interested in imitating Frank. They don’t have identity problems, they just dig the music and they understand him for the genius he was. They respect that like you would any other great composer. So here we are, years after his death, and I think people are just now starting to understand.

Was the Zappa gig an easy one to get? How did you get it?

For me, it was easy to get. I didn’t even try. Zappa asked for an extra percussionist on the recordings of “The Black Page” and my friend John Bergamo, who had already worked with Frank, just dragged me along. So that was just one night in the studio, and we just played and did the recording.

Then through a confluence of events, I met Ruth Underwood. [Frank] was looking for a keyboard player (and my friend Tommy Mars had just moved to California).

Ruth calls me at midnight and says, “Frank needs a keyboard player.”

I said “I got just the guy, Tommy Mars.”

So Ruth said, “Well, call Frank right now. He just got up which means he’s in a good mood. It’s midnight; he’ll be in a good mood ‘til like two in the morning. This is the time to call him. Call him right now.”

So I call him up and I said, “Frank, Ruth called me and asked me to call you regarding a keyboard player. I got this guy. He’s so great.”

And [Frank] goes, “Ed Mann, Ed Mann. Oh, I remember you. What are you doing right now?”

I thought he meant these days. I said, “You know, I’m just playing gigs here and there.”

He said, “No, I mean now. What are you doing right now?”

So I said, “Nothing.” He says, “Come up to the house right now. We’re having a jam session.”

So I went up there, and by the time I got up there it was one in the morning. Frank had this red velvet wallpaper and red lights, a marimba sitting in the middle of the room. Adrian Belew was there, Patrick O’Hearn was there.

It was too dark in the room to read the music and Frank’s got the music up on the stand.

He says, “Read this.”

I said, “Well, I’m telling you, especially in this lighting, I’m not a fast sight reader. I‘ll do what I can.”

So I kind of pieced it together, and then he said, “Now I’m going to play something on the guitar, and you play it back on the marimba.”

We did that not more than 90 seconds. The whole [jam] lasted not more than ten minutes. He goes, “Great. You wanna be in the band?”-- which is completely contrary, because normally there were cattle calls, and I saw them. Fifty people lined up for the keyboard position.

I was making my money playing drum set at the time not mallets. It took two days for it to sink in. I’m like, Jesus, I’m the mallet player in Frank Zappa’s band! I’d better get serious about this mallet shit, man.

What was your initial reaction when you saw the music for “The Black Page”?

I had played a lot of hard, what they called at the time, “contemporary music,” contemporary chamber music. Stockhausen’s “Zyklus” is one of the more difficult ones. But a lot of them had this difficult stuff, polyrhythms and polymeters and everything. I studied a lot of Indian music, so the idea of polyrhythm is a no brainer. That’s all the training you do in Indian music is polyrhythm’s.

I saw the music. I understood it’s like you gotta learn the opening phrase and figure out your stickings, and then you connect it to the next phrase and just keep going. It’s like choreography really.

All of Frank’s mallet parts, there’s parts where it’s just like, God didn’t make the hands to move in those directions. It’s not natural. I was a jazz player before then (on mallets), but it was just for my own fun. And still I get called to play Zappa festivals as a guest artist. I have to totally change my technique to play Zappa music. And then I have to bring my technique back to play my own loose improvisational stuff. It took a couple decades to do that quickly.

What is it like to play along side a drummer like Bozzio?

I was a good drummer when I joined the band, but then I saw Bozzio play and I thought, that’s it for me and drums, man! I had no idea anybody could do that. I’ve never seen anybody play like that.

Bozzio wasn’t there when I auditioned; he was still out on tour with the Brecker Brothers during that Heavy Metal Bebop tour. So when he returned (which was like a week later) we all got together at Frank’s house. I had met Terry when he joined Frank’s band and heard him play a little bit, but that was two years before. And I saw him play [that day at Frank’s house] and it was like, thank God I got the percussion position because, man, there’s no way. I thought I was a good drummer, and I guess I am within ranges, but I can’t do anything close to that. I just thought this surpasses even Billy Cobham in certain ways, and Billy Cobham was my hero!

I remember the first gig ever, first big rock ‘n’ roll gig in front of a lot of people, and Bozzio (a veteran in the band for four years at that point) just pounding it out like y’know, take no prisoners, every note like it’s the last one you’re gonna play, and coming off that stage, and just feeling like wow, man! It felt like being shot out of a cannon! As a percussionist there wasn’t room to interact [with Bozzio]. It was more like playing orchestral type stuff and then letting him do his thing, and, then when the music would lighten up into verses or more constructed sections, then there was room to interact as a percussionist.

Your musical background is actually very broad, and Zappa encompasses a very small part of your musical history. One person in particular who must have been interesting to play with was John Cage. What was that experience like?

One of the great examples of Cage’s music is this composition he has called “Four.” It’s written for four percussionists and they are multi-percussion parts. He had each part written, “have some metal, have some wood, have some dead sounds, have some ringing sounds, here’s high, here’s low, this kind of notation means short, this kind of notation means longer.” And it’s written out in what resembles traditional notation except that it’s not meter, and there’s no bar lines per se. There’s some but it’s not consistent.

He would always say, “This is as close as I can get in terms of notation because you have to create a score and pass it so somebody can get the idea.”

In celebration of his 70th birthday [there was a concert]. So for this piece “Four,” I was one of the percussionists, and I was reading [the score] literally. Y’know, big multi-percussion setup, really hard! I’m thinking, man, this is even harder than Frank’s music.

I finally got it together and we got together for the rehearsal. Cage flies in from New York. He’s very soft spoken, totally nice guy, the nicest guy you would ever want to meet. He says, “Okay, let’s hear ‘Four’.”

So we start. We’re not two bars into it and he says, “No, stop.” He goes over to me and says, “What are you doing?”

I said, “You tell me if I’m right or wrong, but I’m interpreting this like this.”

He goes, “No, no, no. It just goes like this.” And he just waves his hand in the air. He does this curve. “It goes like this.” He makes these graphic signs by waving his hands.

So I realize, oh it’s just improvising using these shapes as kind of a general road map. So I said, “Oh, you mean like this?” And I just played it improvisationally.

He said, “That’s perfect! Now I’ll play my part.”

This is just great insight into Cage. He’s got this case, I have no clue is it a Sousaphone? Is it a weird French horn? I don’t know what this case is. He opens it up and it’s a cactus and he’s got piezo elements mounted at the bottom of each needle.

It’s a dry cactus and he says, “Where do I plug in?” So he plugs into the PA and this thing just sounds amazing! All these needles had a different pitch.

You are also a gongologist. How would you define “gongologist”?

Gonogologist is a substitute term for gong master. People say, Oh, you’re a gong master. I don’t go for that; the gong is the master. This is to do with holistic gonging. I do gonging for schizophrenic patients. I go to the psychiatric units, intensive care units, autistic kids, and a lot of work with the blind. So it’s holistic gonging, it’s healing work.

The whole point of the gong is a chance to let go of your own inner holding and just let those tones be the master. You’re allowing yourself to be supported by those tones. Gongologist kind of doesn’t mean anything except I do it a lot. I have a life-long intention of taking this instrument and using it as a healing tool and expanding beyond musicianship and performance in a music business to take this whole thing into the healing arts world.

How is a gong’s holistic use applied?

A good gong will sustain. The reason it can do that is because it’s an efficient physical form. There’s very little resistance in the form. We hold resistance in our body. If we’ve had a traumatic emotional experience or been injured physically, that is a form of trauma, and you kind of hold it in your body. But when you hear the gong it’s a reminder of efficiency, and it shuts down the part of your brain that evaluates. You’re just feeling it at a cellular level. It’s used to work resistance out of the body, so it’s a very simple thing really.

I read recently that you are a big fan of Bob Dylan. Have you worked with him?

My friend has been his production manager for 25 years and [my friend] was with Zappa. That’s how I know him. Whenever [Dylan] is within a hundred miles, I go see him, so I‘ve seen all these Dylan shows. But my friend always says, “You’re amazing. You’re the only guy out of everybody that’s never asked to meet Bob.”

Because Bob doesn’t want to meet anybody, he’s introverted. It’s like what happened to Jerry Garcia. It’s like you can’t stand to be Captain Trips forever and having everybody projecting at you, oh your Captain Trips, and falling all over you. Because inside he was Jerry Garcia.

My friend says, “With Bob, we tried to go to a restaurant once. In 25 years, we tried once; it lasted seven minutes.”

They were mobbed. So what Bob does, he has a bicycle he likes to ride and he’s got many assistants. An assistant (at like two in the morning) will get a phone call, “Get the bike out.”

And Bob goes riding around the town wherever he is. Everybody’s asleep, he can go out. He’s not just enclosed all the time. That how he grabs his freedom, that and swimming. Bob chain-smokes and is 67 years old. See him on stage; no problem to sing and no problem doing whatever he does. He just likes to tour forever. He’s an amazing guy. He’s inspiring to me.

You play an incredible amount of instruments. How many instruments can you play?

I don’t know. Any hand drum, including all the stuff from Indonesia, Africa and India—the Middle Eastern hand drums. I am trained in Indian technique and Afro Cuban technique. All the mallet instruments, I play drums-- anything to do with sticks or percussion.

I’m pretty good on recorder and those block flute kind of instruments. I’m pretty good and getting better on lap steel. I’m an okay guitarist. Then the electronics, y’know, which is its own technique. Especially now that you can manipulate the control surfaces and inter-modulate things. Synthesis is its own art form. I’m always getting the latest gadgets and putting them in unique combinations.

They say it’s like the thing to keep the brain from going into atrophy. If you read [what the doctors say], they say do crossword puzzles, stimulate your brain, read a new map. For me what it is is always learning new music.

Speaking of electronics, it sounds like you had a very substantial career in sound design as well.

Yeah, for ten years I was E-mu’s primary programmer. From 1995 until 2005, all their synthesizers, I did all that, all that looping, recording all the samples, putting them together creating the sample sets. The Planet Earth modual, the MP7, Proteus... there’s others too, but it would depend who was the lead sound designer. Planet Earth was exclusively mine.

They were purchased by Creative which is a huge Chinese conglomerate. It was only 2006 they shut down their sound design department. All the work that I was doing is still going on. But now it’s happening in India and China, just like all the other work where they pay $50 per day.

After all these years of playing and performing, what words of wisdom can you share with us from your experiences?

The thing you gotta learn first is to always reinvent yourself every day. Not get attached to what you’re doing. Be willing to let it go. Nothing is in our control. Be cool, get with it, learn it. You gotta be ready to reinvent yourself, otherwise you can’t survive as a musician. It can be really exhausting. On the other hand, it’s vitalizing.


Visit Ed online: http://www.edmann.info/EdMann_bio.html



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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.

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