Arthur Barrow: The Interview

Arthur Barrow Interview

Feature Photo courtesy of Arthur Barrow

Whether or not they recognize his name instantaneously upon hearing it, it’s safe to say that many are familiar with the work of Arthur Barrow in one form or another. The multi-instrumentalist has lent his unique touch to everything from Billboard hits to complex instrumental work, television and film scores, and everything in between. 

The amount of instantly recognizable work to which Barrow has contributed is undoubtedly impressive. The man has notched credits on soundtrack productions such as Scarface, The NeverEnding Story, and Top Gun, the latter of which would earn both an Academy Award and Golden Globe, as well as 9x platinum certification on the strength of the single, “Take My Breath Away.” He would be credited with atmospheric synthesizer work which can be heard throughout the song.  

Additionally, Barrow would record with an array of highly successful acts over the course of his career, including Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Joe Cocker, and The Doors. All this is in conjunction with the musician’s work as a solo artist, from which four full-length albums have emerged at the time of writing. He has even written a book, Of Course I Said Yes! The Amazing Adventures of a Life in Music, which was published in 2016 and is available for purchase through his website.  

The work by which he is most known to some, however, would also be some of his earliest enacted in a professional capacity – that being his contributions to the music of Frank Zappa. Barrow would record and perform as a member of Frank Zappa’s band from 1978 to 1980, and would continue to contribute in various capacities as a non-member during the early 1980s.  

Despite having achieved considerable success in the pop and rock fields, Arthur Barrow is undoubtedly a musician’s musician. After a period of playing with local bands throughout high school, he elected to pursue a formal education in music. By this time, he had begun to study the classical organ, which would be his primary instrument during his time at North Texas State University. He graduated Cum Laude in 1975, earning his bachelor’s degree in music with a major in composition.

Although he would carve out a place for himself shortly after as one of the most highly regarded bassists of his time, Barrow wouldn’t properly pursue the instrument until near the end of his time in college.

Arthur graciously took some time away from his compositional work to speak with about his musical history, his time working with Frank Zappa, and more.

How did you get your start musically and what was that progression like?

“I started off on the ukulele. My grandmother gave me a plastic ukulele when I was in second grade and a few years later I graduated up to a four-string tenor guitar. I could play with the same fingering on the tenor guitar as on the ukulele, so the same chords worked. I got my first electric guitar between seventh and eighth grade, and had my first bands in eighth grade.”

What influenced your decision to pursue higher education in your musical journey rather than diving right into the popular music scene?  

“Well, one factor was the draft. My dad, who was a very conservative Republican, did not approve of the Vietnam War, and sure as hell didn’t want to see me go over there and get killed. If you stayed in school, you could keep stalling, so that was a lot of it. But it was also because I became really interested in synthesizers at the time and I heard that they had music studios with Moog synthesizers at North Texas. That’s why I specifically wanted to go to college there, and I had always planned on going to college anyway. 

As someone who was primarily a guitarist at the time, what was it about the organ that drew you to the instrument as a primary area of focus for your studies?  

“My dad had purchased a Hammond organ, which I still have, and I had started taking organ lessons. So, my dad and I went up to Denton where I auditioned on the organ and was good enough to be accepted as a music student at North Texas. I didn’t buy a bass until maybe my senior year there. I started there in ‘71 and I was done by ‘75.” 

By this time you’re a guitarist who has just amassed a wealth of knowledge and formal training in organ and composition. What was it that shifted your focus to bass? 

“I was a huge Frank Zappa fan. I really wanted to play with him. I first saw the band in 1970 – the band with Flo & Eddie – they came to San Antonio twice. The first show was pretty good, and the second show was just fantastic. Frank was the only guitar player in the band at that time, so my thinking was, ‘Frank plays the guitar parts, so he doesn’t need a guitar player; George Duke is the keyboard player and I’ll never be as good as him.’ I thought, ‘I’ll pick up the bass and see what I can do on that.’ So, I started playing and that gradually became my main instrument. I only started playing bass maybe four years before I got into the Zappa band.” 

 How did you end up securing that spot and what the process was like?  

“I got in the band in the Summer of ’78. I went down and auditioned. I later learned that the day before my audition there had been 30 or 40 more bass players that had also auditioned. I was lucky enough to have gotten hold of Frank’s phone number beforehand. I called him up and told him I’d learned the melody to ‘Inca Roads’ by ear on bass. I don’t think he believed me, so he asked if I was familiar with the instrumental melody in the middle of ‘St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast’ from Apostrophe.

He told me to learn it from the record and play it for him at an audition a few days later. I came into my audition and said, “Well, here’s that thing you wanted me to learn,” and I played it for him. He says, “Well, I heard a few mistakes, but you have potential.” He asked me to come back the next day for some rehearsal and site-reading, and later pulled me aside and told me I’d gotten the gig.” 

Zappa was a notoriously prolific artist and was known for staying busy. Did you get straight to work once you joined the band?   “I joined in August of 1978, and there were originally only plans for a US tour in the fall. But Frank got an opportunity to play some festival dates in Europe so we cut rehearsals short and got over there. The first show I ever played with him was also the largest. It was an outdoor festival show and there were an estimated 70,000 people there. It was also unusual in that we weren’t able to do a sound check before we played because it was a big festival with lots of bands.”  

Were you nervous at all going into the show, or were you pretty confident by that point?  

“Oh, I was terrified, and the first thing that happened was that my bass amp stopped working. Luckily, the wonderful crew members came to the rescue and sorted it out. We made it, and that first show gave me confidence.”  

What were things like once you’d gotten somewhat established in the band? 

“Well, by 1979 Frank had made me the clonemeister, which was a term used for ‘rehearsal director.’ Here’s how it worked: Rehearsals were about 8 hours long and Frank would come in for the second half. When Frank was arranging the music, he would say to the band members, ‘okay, you do this, you do that.’ I had a cassette recorder and a notebook, and I would be writing and recording what I could to help my memory. Then after the rehearsal, I’d go home, listen to the tape, and transcribe the most important stuff and make notes.

Another thing about Frank is, I think a lot of people have the idea that he would go up on the mountaintop, compose this wonderful music, and bring parts down to us, and then we would just play the notes that he had written. It was not like that at all, really. In fact, there were very few things that were actually charted. Things like “The Black Page,” “Mo’s Vacation,” and those sorts of things were charted. Sometimes he’d bring in type-written lyric sheets with copies for each of us, like in the case of “Packard Goose,” for example.

Had Frank just come into rehearsals with charts for us to read through and learn every time, it would have gone a lot faster. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun, right? Doing rehearsals with him and seeing how he did it, really being a part of his creative process was just about as much fun as playing the concerts. He had fun doing that, too. You could tell he was happy, and that he was really happy with the band.” 

He seemed to have had a way of bringing the best out of the musicians in his ensembles.  

“He’d push the envelope to really see what you could do. A nice aspect of that is that he’d ask me to play something very difficult that I wouldn’t think was even playable. But then my thinking would be, ‘well, Frank thinks I can do it, so I’ll give it a try.’ With him there encouraging you, it made it more likely you weren’t going to give up on it and that you ultimately might be able to do it.” 

 How long did you end up staying with the Zappa band? 

“I did the band from mid-summer ‘78 through the end of 1980 and I decided, for my own reasons, that it was time for me to leave the band. Though I continued coming up to Frank’s house to record on studio sessions and helped out with rehearsals for the new band until 1982. If I’d known then that he would die so young, I surely would’ve stayed on longer. 

Despite his early passing, Frank managed to leave behind a vast body of work. Is there a particular project that stands out for you among his discography?  

One Size Fits All is my favorite Zappa album. There are so many great songs on that album like ‘Inca Roads’ and ‘Florentine Pogen,’ just all this great stuff. It was a bit of a letdown to hear the Zoot Allures album compared to that. I actually almost stopped being a Frank Zappa fan when Zoot Allures came out. Not that there isn’t good stuff on there – The ‘Zoot Allures’ piece itself is beautiful; I enjoyed ‘Wind Up Workin’ in a Gas Station;’ there’s things like that. But man, when I got to ‘The Torture Never Stops,’ I literally couldn’t listen to the whole track. I just lifted up the needle and said, ‘I can’t take this.’ I never have liked that song.’ 

You’ve maintained a working relationship with Robby Krieger of The Doors for many years now. How did the two of you start working together?   

“I met Robby through [former Mothers of Invention keyboard player] Don Preston. He and Don had been playing with Walt Fowler. It’s funny, because Robby didn’t even know I was a musician. But I was there in Don’s basement and he had a little studio there. Robby saw me at the controls of the console and asked me if I’d come mix sound for them, as they had a gig coming up at The Whisky [a Go Go.] I’d never done that before, but I mixed it. Later he somehow got wind of the fact that I was a musician, and when he found out I played with Zappa we started doing stuff together.

The first thing I did with them was The Doors’ American Prayer album where they hired me to come put some synthesizer parts on. I brought my synthesizers down and made some little eerie sounds for them. They liked it and gave me good credit on the album. Then, when Oliver Stone was starting to make the movie The Doors, they had The Doors rehearsing in their little place down in Venice. He wanted to keep it as true as possible to the original with the same instruments, keyboards, studio, and engineer. Only by this time, Ray Manzarek had managed to alienate Oliver Stone.

Robby called and asked me if I wanted to come to the studio and pretend to be Ray Manzarek. So, when you hear the scenes with things like ‘Break on Through’ and ‘Light my Fire,’ that’s me playing the keyboards on those. They record the music first and then, when they’re filming it, they pretend they’re playing and lip sync with that. But also, the cool thing for me was that he starts the movie with that track, ‘The Movie’ that I played on. So, the very first thing you hear in that movie – this eerie little sound – that’s me!” 

As a player who has worked with some of the best in the business, what are some fundamental elements of playing that you would say are essential for good bass technique?   

 “I came up with the concept of the three Ts: tone, time, and taste. You’ve got to have tone to start with, you’ve got to have time just to stay on the beat, and you have to have the good taste to know what to do.” 

You mentioned that you didn’t get a bass of your own until your senior year of college. What type of bass did you land on and how has your relationship with gear progressed since that time?  

“I bought a Fender Precision, but back then I played way too hard and I would break bass strings, which is really stupid. So, by the time I got in the Zappa band I thought, ‘I’d better have a backup bass in case I break a string or something.’ So, I went and found a used yellow Gibson Ripper. If you see pictures of me, I’ll be playing that on that first Zappa tour. I eventually got hold of a Fender Jazz Bass, which is what I used on most of Joe’s Garage.

My main axe right now is actually an Ernie Ball Music Man 5-string because I wanted to get that low B string in there. But as far as equipment, I’ll often have bass players ask me what kind of amps to go through; what kind of strings to use; what kind of bass; what kind of amp to use; Those things matter, but not all that much as long as the amp is decent. The tone is in the fingers, not in the speaker cabinet. It’s in the fingers, so it’s going to sound like me, and a lot of guys just don’t get that.” 

As a musician, who are some of the players you admire most?  

“I absolutely love Hendrix, and I got to see him once in San Antonio. My highest compliment is to say, ‘he was the Jimi Hendrix of his instrument.’ Bruce Fowler was the Jimi Hendrix of the trombone, and Vinnie Colaiuta is the Jimi Hendrix of drums, like Jaco Pastorius is Jimi Hendrix of the bass.” 

What are some of the things you’re working on these days?  

“I just recently put out a tune called ‘The Old Front Porch’ that Robby’s playing slide on. If you go to YouTube and search for ‘Arthur Barrow,’ it’s on there. There’s a musician named Tyler Bartram who does videos analyzing Zappa music. He did the video for it, which was made using home movie footage that my dad had taken in the 50s and 60s. He got in touch with me to do a video for his channel, I think it was ‘Wet T-Shirt Nite.’

When we were done, he wanted to pay me. I said, ‘ah, that’s okay. But I do have this tune, and I’ve got all these home movies that I think, if edited properly, would make a decent video for it.’ He called me up a couple of months later asking if I still wanted to do it. So, of course I said ‘yes,’ and I think it turned out very nicely. People seem to like it. Aside from that, I’ve got a lot of things that are almost finished that I’ve been working to complete, along with new compositions.”

Feature Photo courtesy of Arthur Barrow

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