Friday, June 1, 2018

Zapp and Roger Troutman - concert review / interview

ZAPP, live at the Hammersmith Odeon, London
Melody Maker, July 12th 1986
by Simon Reynolds

Zapp live were perhaps the most extreme spectacle I have ever witnessed, with both band and audience abandoning inhibitions more extensively than at any rock gig I've attended, for all rock's Dionysiac rhetoric. And yet the SHOW! was clearly rehearsed with military precision, as it was performed exact in every deranged detail the very next night.
What's fascinating is how this kind of excess has an everyday currency. Soul takes straight values, traditional gender protocol, and inflates them to epic, surreal dimensions – as in the Battle of the Sexes duet between Shirley Murdoch and Roger Troutman tonight. The SHOW! is all monstrously exaggerated sexuality, seriously saucy – full of ludicrous arse-shaking, mimed cunnilingus, Roger stripping to his briefs... Roger is an incredible SHOW!person – one minute goosestepping across the stage plucking blues guitar, the next reappearing on top of a stack of amps, then dragging a luckeee ladeee out of the audience for a cartoon clinch, or impersonating Presley, or venturing way out into the crowd on a bodyguard's back while playing a harmonica. Every so often he asks, rhetorically, "London, Englaaaand! Can I do anything I wanna do! Can I go crazeee?"
The music's fab, a fat, freaky, juddering funkquake. Zapp's unique ingredient is those dexterously vocoderised vocals, that extra ultra-tremulousness that simulates a meta-ecstasy, a bliss beyond imagination, let alone realisation. This is the dangerous utopianism of soul.
Best night out for years.

Roger Troutman of Zapp - interview

Melody Maker, May 14th 1988

by Simon Reynolds
Somewhere between George Clinton's scrambled egghead funkadelia and Prince's squirmstrutting hypersexuality, lies the funkquake nirvana that is Zapp. A family affair from Dayton, Ohio, but definitively the brainchild of chief clansman Roger Troutman, Zapp are funk turned on so deep it's turned almost inside out.
Over the last decade, Zapp and satellite projects like Roger have delivered a series of dancefloor classics like 'More Bounce To The Ounce' (funk as tantric mantra, with Roger's multi-tracked vocoderised vocal spiralling off towards the peaks of the mystic East, reminiscent of the involuted acrobatics of Tim Buckley's Starsailor, while remaining cartoon absurdist). Then there was 1986's delectable brace of 'It Doesn't Really Matter' and the impossibly luscious 'Computer Love'. And last week Zapp brought the high unreality and serious sauce of their live show to London.
Zapp's unique element is Troutman's talk-box treatment of his own voice, which (like their sound in general) is simultaneously a distillation of funk's essence and an exaggeration of its mannerisms: it conjures an ultra-tremulous meta-ecstasy. Where did he dream that up?
"I kept hearing Peter Frampton and Stevie Wonder using this talk-box, and I got intrigued. So I got one and soon saw why they weren't more popular. It's really hard to use, to manipulate it and to sing at the same time. So I spent hundreds of hours in my garage teaching myself to talk with it, like a child learning the alphabet and all the vowels. When I had that down pat, I studied real powerful black singers, so I could do anything a singer could do. When I put it on records, I had no idea it would be so hypnotic to people."
It makes you sound superhuman, extraterrestrial even.
"Fans, they want you to be BIGGER than life," he replies.
The only comparison I can think of is what Prince did with his voice on the Sign 'O' The Timesalbum. Another similarity is the way you and Prince pile it all on, saturate and overload your records with elements from all over black pop history (like funky Butthole Surfers), and from white rock history too.
"I'm a fan of all kinds of stuff. Led Zep, Hendrix, Steve Howe and Jon Anderson from Yes. And if I can present some of that in a black context it makes me seem a little koo-koo, different, y'know."
The Zapp live show exhibits the stunning span of Roger's versatility, encompassing comedy, guitar heroics, blues, George Benson-style virtuoso jazz languor, impersonations of Elvis, stunts and japes at the audience's expense. Does the idea of mixing it up stem from the days of hanging out with Clinton and Bootsy?
"Ah no, it's from the days of being a regional, nightclub band, 1965-79, having to play a lot of places to make a living. Some were all-black, some all-white, and often you'd get clubs with guys shouting, 'Rock'n'roll! Play some fuckin' rock 'n' roll'. So I had to beef up the repertoire with Top 40 rock 'n' roll tracks. Only way to keep 'em quiet, only way to succeed. Give the customer what he wants, give it to him and he'll make you rich. Look at me," he gestures at rings. "This stuff is real, y'know!"
As Roger, he's just had his biggest hit with 'I Want To Be Your Man', Top Three in the States, Top 40 over here. If he wants, the door to white America and couples-oriented soft radio is open now. He's a workaholic though, with numerous projects on the boil at once: the fifth Zapp album, the new Shirley Murdock LP, his son Roger Jnr (age 17) who's just signed to Capitol, and the possibility of producing a couple of tracks for Joe Cocker. He's also recently helped Green on a couple of tracks for the new Scritti platter.
"I love their stuff, I liked them even before the last album. Michael Jackson told me about them, in fact. They asked me to do stuff with the talk-box and I was tickled to do it. See, a lot of groups act like I don't exist. So when Green rang up, it was a sign of acceptance, respect."
Green described you as "a man who really suffers from the funk", permanently itchin' and twitchin' with polyrhythmic ideas.
"Yeah, they noticed they just had to start off the track and I was off, I didn't even need to know what key it was, I knew it instantly, I could just dazzle around Green's vocal and spruce it up. And that's how I do my own music — I just go in the studio and record. Throw down loads of stuff, then sift through this mountain and use only a small part of it. I'm spontaneous, that's just how I am."
These days, that groove approach to funk seems in the descendant. Tracks seem assembled. What do you make of house music and the post-electro stuff?
"Ah, well — it's great. If it sells. I'm not smart enough to know what I like about anything, I just know if it sells. If 10 people like something, I wanna figure it out and use it, cos then those 10 people will like me, ha ha! Makes sense to me. If it sells, it's great. If more than 10 people like it, I like it. I have to like it. Forced to. To hell with what I like. I can deal with what I like later... after I've collected."
The chicken-in-a-basket reflexes are still deeply ingrained, but for once pandering has led to SENSUAL PANDEMONIUM rather than pallid dilution.
Troutman's very keen to present Zapp as family entertainment, with himself as positive role model — no drink, no drugs — while in his home town Dayton, he's a local hero for ploughing Zapp profits into community-enriching projects. But against the grain of this upstanding temperance, the show is ultra-raunchy, all ass wiggle, surreally suggestive grimaces and kinky undercurrents: at one point, he drops his trousers to reveal black tights...
"Yeah, but if you're gonna do a show, you gotta have something to keep the fans interested."
So do you see sex as healthy fun, whereas drink and drugs just cause damage?
"No question about it. Sure, there's AIDS, but when I say sex is healthy, I mean, if you have a special lady, you should..." A near-epileptic flurry of levitating eyebrows and corner-of-mouth twitches indicate exactly what lewd extremes one should go to with that special lady.
Another side to the positive role model aspect of Zapp is Troutman's business acumen: profits have been reinvested into making Zapp self-sufficient, with three studios of their own, a construction company, a limo hire firm and a small school, plus a community housing scheme of some 200 once-squalid houses that the Troutmans modernised and then re-let to the original tenants at low rents. The clan also look out for themselves too.
"Everyone in the group — all my brothers, Jennifer my secretary — all live in houses that I built, elaborate, beautiful houses. I wanted to do that for them. I reckon if I can provide Jennifer with a new car and a new house, then her loyalty will be 101 per cent, even more than if I gave her the money and she had to give it to someone else to get the things she needs. You see, 'He who owns the lands, owns the man'," he says, launching into a maniacal, Vincent Price laugh.
How am I going to transcribe that, I ask? "It's the laughter of the man with control," he replies.
Well, it is all a bit feudal, giving land to vassals who have to swear fealty in return. So there's this Zapp business empire?
"Maybe. There's areas where we all live. I just built and bought my son and my nephew a house. Wow, 17 and he has a new house, a big house with loads of rooms! And he brings girls over, and..." (More suggestive gurning.) "What would YOU have done if you could have had your own place aged 17. You'd kill for that. You would have had a WILD time. And they don't pay any rent, all they have to do is play music and follow me, and do what I say. How easy!"
So you're like a good king, a generous ruler.
Troutman shows the first glimmer of wary tetchiness in an otherwise consummately charming interview.
"No, I'm just Roger, y'know. I don't know what you're trying to say there. No man is an island. I can't win on my own. I don't know any other way to encourage people to follow me than giving them whatever they need. Not a king, no, no. I just wanna win. Winning's important."
I've heard you're a bit of a disciplinarian in the James Brown style when it comes to the band being tight. The show is certainly superslick, almost military.
"Yeah, yeah. I mean, there's a concept to the show," he says with suspicion. "If a person understands the concept I tend to let him be, but if he doesn't understand, I'm constantly telling him to go here, go there, get with it. Entertainment is 50 per cent art, 50 per cent discipline.
"I watch TV cos it's organised, it starts and it ends and there's a climax. There's not a lot of fucking around. Musicians love to fuck around. Even when we're soundtracking, we're tight, everybody knows what they got to do and when. All other shit is bullshit, it's money shit. Musicians have their own little book of horseshit..." (he picks up my note pad) "...and somewhere right at the back..." (he rifles through) " says ENTERTAIN. But it should be all the way through it. Seriously, don't you think I could have done the interview in my slacks and jacket? But I made an effort, and it makes a difference."

Troutman PUSHES himself as hard as his cohorts, and there's a muso side to him that he won't indulge too much, because it's uncommercial. It causes him some chagrin that he can't play guitar as much as he'd like.
"I'm just a fuckin' great guitar player. But how can you market that? I don't know how to do it. I play jazz stuff like George Benson, I play blues, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin. I like to take songs that no guitar player could ever play and learn it note for note so I can make other guitar players' jaws drop."
During the soundcheck, he adlibbed an hysterical C&W pastiche: "ah betcha thought ah wuz a nigra".
"I've hung around with country players, broke the ice with them, so they'd teach me to play. Cos there's a real race problem between black people and country people. So I would approach country players…" (he drops into ridiculous hillbilly drawl) "...and ah talked to 'em lahk this, to make 'em feel comfortable, an' ah'd play 'em a coupla country licks, an' that would intrigue 'em, make 'em curious to show off to me, and ah'd watch, keep a tape 'corder real close, an' ah'd tape it, and then ah'd have two licks. So next time they'd be even more intrigued, and play me another lick."
Troutman may be a bit of a patriarch and a commercialist, but his obsessive desire to please as many people as possible, to have all shots covered and no market neglected has led to one of the most supersaturated, OTT sounds in funk.

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