If you've never heard Scott Thunes
play the bass, you can't appreciate how far the instrument can be taken. Thunes
will dispute that notion, of course-he takes issue with the idea he's a great
bassist. The former Frank Zappa sideman (whose surname is pronounced TOOness)
is a contrarian of the highest order. He disagrees with almost any statement
of a declarative nature, at least when it concerns his role in music and his
approach to the bass. He' s of the opinion that much of the brilliant live
work he recorded with Zappa is riddled with mistakes, each of which he's apt
to point out in exacting detail.
Raised in San Anselmo, California, Thunes took up the bass at age ten, when
his mother and guitarplaying older brother decided the family needed a bassist.
His burgeoning skills earned him an early admission to the College of Marin
at age I5, where he studied jazz and discovered the works of classical composer
Béla Bartók. Simultaneously, he was exposed to the new wave band Devo-a revelation
that eventually knocked him free of his jazz-based moorings. Following a failed
bid to enter the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as a conducting major,
he parked cars and played in local rock and new wave bands, despite having
decided that classical music was "the supreme expression of musical art."
In 1981, Thunes contacted Frank Zappa at the behest of his brother, who
had himself tried unsuccessfully to audition for Zappa's group. Scott recorded
some tracks in Los Angeles and was summoned back for the formal audition a
week later. This session included improvising to arrhythmic tracks played
on a drum machine, as well as performing the same song with two other auditioning
bassists, the three of them competing face-to-face.
Once hired, Thunes toured and recorded with Zappa until 1988. During this
period, he also recorded several albums with Frank's son Dweezil, forming
a touring band with him in '89. In '93, Thunes left Dweezil's group, toured
briefly with guitarist Steve Vai, and recorded and toured with the punk band
Fear. In between construction jobs, temp work, and various local gigs in Los
Angeles and the Bay Area, he also recorded with the Waterboys, Andy Prieboy,
Wayne Kramer, Mike Keneally, and the Vandals, among others.
At the time of this interview, Scott Thunes was working as a doorman at
the Paradise Lounge in San Francisco. You see, his resume doesn't mention
that his musical career could be seen as one endless melee, or that he's been
fired from as many bands as he's quit. And Scott admits most of the people
he has worked with will never call him again.
Even so, from an artistic standpoint, Thunes would be quite a catch for
any group. Few bassists have played with his sheer scope and energy. If you
compare two of Frank Zappa's better live records, Does Humor Belong in
Music? and Make a Jazz Noise Here, for example, it' s hard to believe
the same person is playing the bass. Scott's greatest gift is probably his
ability to combine music theory with a natural exuberance on the instrument,
resulting in a melodic, improvisational, emotional, and absolutely free voice
that's unique and impossible to duplicate-despite his claims to the contrary.
Thunes reluctantly agreed to talk at his Marin County home, suggesting I
come hang with him for an afternoon before the formal interview. Some of his
former colleagues had warned me to beware of his abrasiveness, regaling me
with mindboggling stories of his antics on and off the stage. Although opinions
about Scott varied, one universal observation stood out: Thunes has an atavistic
loathing of stupidity and smallmindedness, an attitude that could hardly have
served him well in Los Angeles. At his house, we spent the first afternoon
drinking coffee and chatting about films, music, art, and travel. We read
aloud to each other from our favorite writers, went for a couple of walks,
and listened to some CDs. The actual interview took place two days later.
It was, sadly, without incident-although it was oddly thrilling to be called
"Pookie," a name he gave me after we had been together a scant I5 minutes.
As for the larger question, whether or not he's really through with the business...well,
Frank Zappa himself also stopped touring in 1982. And in '84. And in '88.
You've said you have a problem
being called a bass player. Can you explain?
Sure. When I learned how to play the bass, it was by default; I didn't really
choose it for myself. When my mom brought one home, I was too young to appreciate
any musicality about it-so I stopped playing within six months. I started
up again because I saw my brother and his friends having so much fun, and
playing the bass became a way to get into music-a way for my musicality to
Within a short time, I exhibited talent for the instrument. In college, I
was in the jazz band, orchestra, and wind band; I was learning tons of stuff.
But I never thought of myself as a bass player; I was a musician. The
actual role of the bassist does not interest me, and I don't know how it could
interest anybody else. It's the ultimate non- glory position. Singers, guitar
players, drummers, bass players-that's how it goes, in order of importance.
Though the function of the bass is very important in a rock band, I've never
ever been able to perform that function without irony.
But lots of people listen to your work and say to themselves, "Compared
to him, I'm not a bass player."
Well, I hate to call them fools, but they don't know anything about music.
What does it matter if you're a bass player? Pick another instrument you can
express yourself on. I express myself on the bass because I've been playing
it for 25 years. Visualizing its fingerboard is simple for me. It's simpler
than the guitar, which has that third between the G and B strings
that throws me off. The joy of playing the bass is having my voice come out
on an instrument; I don't understand how that makes me a bass player. I also
can't understand how that makes me a chosen role model, because it's the voice
that's important, not the instrument. Everyone's trying to make the bass the voice. Stu Hamm playing the "Moonlight Sonata?" It's an ugly sound-don't
do it! Step away from the bass! If you think the sound of the bass is more
important than your own personal voice, you've missed the point of music completely.
Couldn't what you do on the bass be considered as having the same impact
as Stu Hamm playing the "Moonlight Sonata" without the flashiness?
That's got to be impossible, because I was not the first person to do what
I do. I got it from somebody else. How come people don't listen to that person
So who is that person?
John Paul Jones. He was my role model in the meshing of riffing with a personal
melodic voice. When he was given a chance, he played melodies. And I know
he's not the best bass player in the world, but neither am I. He wasn't supposed to be a great bassist. Most guitar players don't want a great bass player
to play against, because they don't want the complicated dynamic interplay;
they prefer more of an orchestrated interplay. That's what I performed: an
orchestrated interplay with the other instruments. Most of the time guitar
parts are fairly rigid, giving me tons of room to be fluid. And it's unfair
I should be given even slight credit for something I don't feel pushed the
boundaries of the instrument.
Do you repudiate the idea that your playing is of any value, that young
bassists might look to you as a role model?
No. Yes. [Laughs.] I do not repudiate the idea that my playing has
any value-just that I'm a role model. I can't be a bass player, I don't want
to be a bass player, I have no interest in being a bass player; I don't want
to fulfill that role. I want to be Scott Thunes, who has a voice. The music
has always been my role model. And if there isn't anything juicy in it, I
don't have anything to play against.
That's what John Paul Jones did: his voice was heard in conjunction with all
the other voices. And that shouldn't have worked, because Jimmy Page, who's
one of my favorite guitar players in the universe, is not a very good guitarist.
But he's got great ideas, and he attempts to perform them.
Even if you're not a role model, there are people who would kill to play
on the records you've played on.
Then kill! Go ahead and kill! [Laughs.]
There are also a lot of people who think you're an idiot for throwing
it all away.
I didn't throw anything away! They threw me away. I didn't leave Los
Angeles until I couldn't get a gig for two years. I did stay after I wasn't
needed anymore, though, but I was with a girlfriend, I was in love, and I
was having a good time. But you don't kill for a musical gig- it's not worth
it! If you're going to school to learn how to be a musician, you're not learning
how to be a rock star, and you're not learning how to be famous. You're learning
to play music- that's it! It doesn't mean you get a band, it doesn't mean
you hook up with friends ... it doesn't mean dick! You spent $5,000 on school?
Great! That means you spent $5,000 on school. Now, get a job. And I don't
mean in the musical world-I mean get a job.
You referred to yourself a couple days ago as a "musical has-been." Since
you're a doorman at a club now and you're looking for work in the computer
fleld, can you see how some people might see that as a tragic waste?
No, because it's their fault. It's the audiences fault for being party to
rock bullshit-for accepting the false truths that leaders of rockbands present
to the world so people will think they're cool. If they only knew what these
people are really like ... nobody deserves anything, especially not these
people. I mean, I don't deserve what I got from Frank. I truly understand
for myself that it was an absolute fluke of timing and nature that Frank wanted
what I had to offer at that point in time. I'm a good bass player, fine. I'm
a great bass player, great. Think whatever you want. But I'm Scott Thunes
first and foremost, and that's where most of my problems come from. I deserve
the happiness I can get from my chosen life, but not musical glory. I do not
deserve musical glory. No musicians do, unless they are golden. And I don't
know anybody who's golden.
What about if you have ability and an original approach? Don't you deserve
to be heard just based on your skill?
Where? Where are you going to find a group of people I could work with and
express myself within the confines of happiness? All of these CDs you've listened
to were born from almost total emotional degradation, and I'd rather not touch
the bass again until I can be happy doing it. I would much rather make $8
an hour work- ing at a club than go out on the road playing Make a Jazz
Noise Here-type music and being, away from my wife. Anyway, music doesn't
pay. If I can make more money working at a computer company that's doing interesting
stuff, and if I can be happy at home every night, and if I've already played
with Frank Zappa, where else is there to go?
If you won the lottery today and never had to work again, would you
still be interested in music?
Oh, absolutely-but not the bass. I'd orchestrate. I would write pieces for
other people to play, and I would sit back and watch. And there would be no
bass player in my music. If I had my druthers, I would never, ever write for
a rock band. I have no interest in writing songs. Being in a band isn't worth
it. Most bands don't deserve to be together; they don't have enough songs
to present to the world, and they don't deserve to have their music presented
to the world. You are a lucky motherfucker to be able to stand onstage for
even five seconds and have people stare at you. Ninety-eight percent of the
bands out there do not deserve it for a sec- ond, let alone for an entire
Wouldn't it be a shame if people didn't get a chance to hear what you
have to offer?
They have a chance. Those aIbums are out, and you can buy them. What
else do they need to know? How many more recordings of my performances do
they need to hear before they get it?
As many as possible?
No. If people hear more albums, will they learn more? Would they even understand
it? Because all it is, really, is music theory. What I learned in music school
was that in modern music, you can play any note against any chord and make
it mean something. If you don't know how you're using it, or where it resolves,
you're an idiot-you shouldn't be in music. I learned a couple of simple laws,
and I utilized them. If you can't get that from two or three improvisatory
bass lines of mine, you're not going to get it in two years of schooling.
It's going to be shoved down your throat, and you're still not going to get
* * *
Thunes talks about the notorious 1988 tour of the
Zappa band, the demise of which he is reputed to have caused. It takes him
almost half an hour to explain. He describes a secret world of "Clonemeisters,"
"Magic Words," and smoking and nonsmoking buses-an exotic milieu spoiled by
unbelievable pettiness, mean-spiritedness, poor judgment, spite, and bruised
egos. He has no problem naming names, although it's clear that despite his
jocular tone he takes no pleasure in reliving the experience. The awful childishness
of the Mutilating of the Laminate and the Cake lncident, for example, illustrates
the inadvisability of working and touring with people for whom one feels nothing
but personal animosity. Ironically, many consider the '88 band to be one of
Zappa's best, strictly in terms of pure musical prowess.
Isn't the pleasure or release of playing in a great band enough to make
someone strong enough to take anything, no matter how bad?
Show me a good band, and I'11 tell you why there's tension in that band. And
for the people who perform it, music very rarely releases tension; it almost
always increases tension. And music does not help you to be a nice
person. Why should a good musician be a nice person? There's no connection
there. Tension increases; we all have our issues, and everybody's human.
Frank was a special case. He put up with a bunch of shit to allow the 1988
tour to work- but he wanted all the juice with none of the blood. All of those
albums I played on have blood on every track; there's danger inherent in everything
on them. Even during the standardized performances, there was danger lurking
behind every single note. I dig tension in my music, because I know from modern
classical music that tension can coexist with normalcy. Frank was a big fan
Once in Barcelona, someone in the band came up to me and screamed, "Don't
you know what a privilege it is to play with Frank? How can you ruin his music?"
I play a lot of lines; I pick chunks out of the air, and instead of playing
bass, I play Scott Thunes's part in the orchestration. And of course the whole
idea of being a bass player is not to overplay: you "play the bass." But I've
never done that-and if Frank isn't asking me to do that, don't you
ask me. So at that particular moment I got out my headphones and put them
on, and I started listening to classical music while this guy's mouth went,
[flapping lower jaw] Beh- beh-beh-beh-beh. It was delicious.
At the end of the tour, Frank decided he wasn't going to play anymore, because
the rest of the band had told him they wouldn't go out with me again. When
he told me that, I said, "I'll gladly quit." He said, "That's not the answer.
I like you, and I like what you do -except for all the mistakes you've been
making." Because every night onstage, I was surrounded by daggers and completely
lost my concentration. For three months I was a wreck, and the music suffered
because of my mistakes. Frank's only enjoyment was playing guitar solos, and
those fell apart; he ended up not doing any. We also ended up not doing any
more three-hour soundchecks. We'd play just two songs, and then he'd get out
of there. He could not stand being in the same room with us. It was the worst
possible combination of events for him.
If everyone had gotten along, would the music have been that much better?
Yes. We would have been happily intercommunicating.
How did you develop your ability to improvise?
I was given jazz lessons at an early age. One of my bass teachers taught me
how to listen to Ron Carter playing behind Sonny Rollins, and I later utilized
a concept I learned-adding tone chords-in rock. Most of the time when I'm
playing weird stuff against normal-sounding stuff, I'm adding a whole other
chord. That's similar to polytonal or bitonal classical music, and jazz, because
a lot of jazz chords are just one chord superimposed over a solo bass note
or another chord. It's the simplest thing in the world. I just gave away $2,000
worth of lessons.
I know I should be playing way less. I shouldn't even have this knowledge.
Bass players aren't supposed to have ideas; they're supposed to be functionaries.
If you're a bass player in a rock band, you are by definition a moron- because
you are doing nothing except what the song requires. With Frank, though, my
job was to serve him. Frank had different needs at different times, and that's
where the low-level functionaryism came in-and that's also where I was earning
my money. The moments of improvisatory freedom are when I was able to do what
nobody else was doing. The Scott Thunes Effect, baby.
Is this approach the sort of thing that led people to say you're hard
to get along with? Your insistence on going your own way onstage?
No, it's definitely in my personal life. Onstage, stuff was turned into
a negative only by people who didn't like that form of communication to begin
with-who didn't want people to step out of their pre-determined roles. They
didn't realize the unspoken bond Frank and I had in the string arena. But
if I told someone to leave me alone, I was [in Betty Boop voice] "being
abrasive." If you tell me what to do, I will get angry. If you say something
stupid, I will get angry. If you attempt to drag my conversation down to a
moronic level, I will get angry-and I will stomp out of the room. I need to
hear beauty in verbiage and musicality. That's my requirement.
You've said you had problems with drummers, but on lots of the live recordings
you and the drummer are very right. There's an echoing of rolls that's so
dead-on, it seems almost like telepathy.
That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard! I'm listening and reacting to
him-that's all you're hearing. As a matter of fact, I'm being led around by
the nose. All I'm doing is saying to myself, "What is there to react to? I
can listen to Frank, I can listen to the keyboards, but I know all the riffs.
The only strange thing might be the drums." On the other hand, you might be
hearing an orchestration we had worked out months in advance.
So how did you end up with Fender basses?
I heard Tom Fowler on Frank's album Roxy and Elsewhere [BarkingPumpkin];
he had a black P-Bass with a white pickguard, and he played with a pick. That
sound intrigued me: it growled, and it was ugly. Yet he could play all of
these complicated riffs, and it didn't sound overly technical the way he did
it. It sounded ... really cool. In my first couple of years with Frank, I
used Carvin instruments, but that wasn't my voice. The first year I used the
P-Bass was 1984; around that time, Frank started letting me do anything I
wanted, and what I did that wasn't rancid was good. And in '88, when he gave
me complete and utter carte blanche, I shone in the ultimate ways a
bass player can shine. I had the tone I wanted, I had the amplification I
wanted, and I had the performer's arena.
You told me earlier you don't view yourself as an artist but rather as
a flawed craftsman.
In the two days since we've discussed this, I've changed my mind. You're absolutely
correct: I'm an artist. I'm a naive artist, like Howard Finster, who did the
album cover for Talking Heads' Little Creatures. It's folk art-and
from the way he paints, it looks like if he attempted to build a chair, it
would be un-sit-in-able. My bass playing is un-sit-in-able. It's not meant
to functionalize the four legs of the bass-playing experience. It's folk art
in the most extreme and financially remunerative fashion. Frank chose me as
his local spoon player; all I did was rattle around on my strings, cross my
fingers, and hope I didn't get fired the next week.
What do you think of the idea that you saying, "I haven't done anything
special on the bass," is really just an inverted way of saying, "I'm the best
bassist in the world"?
[Blows huge raspberry and laughs raucously.]
What does that even mean?
Well, it's hard to believe you honestly think you're not a creative force
on the bass.
I did not extend the realm of the bass. No way. If you're a good bass player,
right now you could play everything I ever played, if it were written out
and you practiced for a week. Great bass playing can take you to the top-but
I'm not at the top.
My whole musical life has been one oddity after another. Everything I've tried
to do hasn't worked, and when I try to do nothing, things come to me. There's
no joy in being thwarted; there's no glory in the fight well fought and lost,
especially in music. Music has found me unnecessary, but it has placed me
here in happiness for the first time in years, so there's no sadness.
I have achieved something many musicians will never have: happiness. Everything
else comes second. I don't want to come off like a hibernating Zen monk; it's
not that I stepped down off the mountain. I spent ten years in Los Angeles
thinking my $300 a week from Dweezil was the best I could get. I was depressed,
but I did my job with as much aplomb as I could. And that's what most people
want. Most people just want to be in a rock band. They want their musical
ideas to be valid. I'd rather have my life be valid. My story isn't anywhere
near as bad as people who have lost everything, because I never had anything
to lose. I've always been searching for happiness, and I've found it. That's
about all there is to say.