Interview-Frank Cotolo

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Frank Cotolo........a man with many hats.  I first ran across Frank a year or so ago and I became intrigued.  The more I found out about him, the more intrigued I became.  His music seems to be as multi-hatted as his personality and I've enjoyed both quite a bit.  I recently asked Frank a lot of questions ranging from his stint with Wolfman Jack to his thoughts on the internet to his literary influences.  

 

Can you give me a quick synopsis of your musical history?

I learned guitar, made up songs, started a band, played cover tunes, learned piano and harmonica, made up songs, played original tunes, dabbled in recording, made up more songs, got some published, played with a club band, made up more songs, etcetera.

I know a bit about your show business past too. Could you talk about that a bit?

In Hollywood I became a professional writer and wrote for just about every medium to make a living. I didnít have any hits, per se, but I worked professionally on radio and TV shows, commercials, movies and some theater. I even acted a bit. Eye-blinking parts. Once I hooked up with Wolfman Jack I got into the Hollywood inner circle and opportunities to write for money became easier.  

In 1978, what happened to cause you to leave New York for California?

Me and a partner had a business in New York selling jokes through the mail to disc jockeys.  The business got hot and we made enough money to try to hit the big time, so to speak, and that meant going to Hollywood.

 

Did you know in advance you would work with Wolfman Jack or did that come about after you got to Hollywood?

After.  I was practically living on the streets in Los Angeles because I wasn't making the right connections.  My partner had gone back to New York.  Then I answered an ad for a writer, not knowing it was for the Wolfman.  And out of hundreds of submissions, he chose two.  I wound up one of the two he liked and hired.

 

What exactly did you do with Wolfman Jack?

Over the course of my relationship with him I wore many hats. I was, first and foremost, his writer for just about every function and medium in which he performed. When he did a syndicated radio show, I wrote it. When he needed jokes or banter for a live appearance, I wrote it. Even book intros and celebrity additions to novelty books. You name it, I wrote it.

I also produced some syndicated radio programs and became his on-air ĎA-man-Charlie.í I would do characters and be his foil for jokes. And on the road I served many purposes, from liaison to writer to confidant. I accompanied him when he shot TV and film parts and was always there to help him say something, if not the right thing, you know?

 

You are also a published author. I looked up a book once and was pleased to see it was written by you. I poked around a bit and found you'd written two books.

Yes. One is a book of short stories called ďPony Player.Ē They tell me itís a cult classic but it actually made a few bucks. Most cult classics donít make money until fifty years after they are published. My second published book is a textbook on handicapping race horses. I made money on that, too.  

Are there more? 

Not published, but there are more on the shelves. I have been working on getting one edited for some kind of distribution. Itís a novel called ďFlies To Wanton Boys.Ē

 

How did you come to write them? 

My book of short stories is based on a time in my life when I mostly gambled on horses to make a living. A small publisher in Texas loved it and published it. The second one came about when I began working as a sports journalist.   

You strike me as someone who generally does what he wants and does it how he wants to do it. How is it you are able to do that these days when a lot of people seem to NOT be able to do what they want or at least not how they want to do it?

Youíre right, I am like that. But anyone who wants to be like that has to realize there is a big price to pay for it. Iíve had two unsuccessful marriages, fought off drug and alcohol addiction, had a nervous breakdown and battled every demon tooth and nail to find any kind of peace of mind. I think people who do things they donít like arenít willing to pay the price that comes along with it. Iíve always been a risk-taker, but not without calculation or preparation for the consequences. 

 

When you moved from California, why did you pick a rural place to move to?

I left California for Nashville, where I wrote for the Nashville Network and ran Wolfmanís country music show over the TNN radio network. I got canned when they booted Wolfman from the network. Thatís when I decided I had had it with show business. So I picked up a journalism gig that was based in rural Pennsylvania. Work brought me here but I am glad it did. I am sick of cities and it ainít nowhere to raise children.

 

Tell me about Cool Noise Studios. What is it (equipment etc.), and is it just for you or do you have others come in and record there?

It was a name I used when I began recording in the 1960s. Back then I had just three reel-to-reels and a violent sound environment. So, I knew there was noise, but it was cool. So, in the mid-1990s, when I decided to end a long hiatus from writing and recording music, I decided to use the name again.

I began with a Tascam four-track cassette portostudio, some Shure SM 58s, a compressor and a Zoom effects unit. I got an Alesis amp and reference speakers, headphones and all sorts of wires and played catch-up. I hadnít recorded anything for going on 20 years, you see, and back then I was using, at best, a Teac sound-on-sound machine. I had percussion toys, a drum set, a Rogue bass, a Gibson Country Western acoustic, circa 1967, a Gibson SG electric and then I got two Fenders, a Strat and a Telecaster and a Danelectro. Then I picked up a Alesis keyboard synthesizer. Eventually I added an Akai 12-track digital machine, SoundForge mixing software and began to realize I had far too much stuff, so I stopped adding gear.

 

And what are your roles there, do you play, record, engineer and master all yourself?

Unfortunately, too many times I play the major roles, yes. But as much as I can, I get new and old friends to come by and play. I always produce because I am, simply, the only one of all my friends, at least, who knows how to get the most out of this hardware. That is primarily because one of the first things I do is toss out the manuals. All manuals do is tell you your limitations and I never want to feel like I am stuck. I know my own limitations, those are enough.

 Like before I had unlimited tracking ability with digital, I created a procedure to bounce up to 12 tracks on a four-track cassette deck, something the manufacturers said couldnít be done without making a track muddy and unclear. I managed to post productions of this sort on the internet and no was the wiser that these tracks were analog, no less pushed-to-the limit creations.

Cool Noise Studios has also done outside work, with other artists. We produced the first CD for a comic book and a 45-minute cassette of poetry and music. Also, I produced an upcoming CD by my friend Dom Cimei, called ďWhatís Up Is Whatís Down,Ē which will be available at Ampcast.com soon.

 

What is your feeling on the internet and the modern musician. Do you see the internet as a necessary tool, or a lure down the garden path for indie artists?

Itís not a matter of being necessary any longer; itís one of the obvious things that go along with the whole musician deal. If you are younger and you have grown up in the digital world, then you donít ask the question, ďShould I put my material on the internet? Should I have a website?Ē You just do it. Itís second nature, now.

But we have learned that though the internet is a great tool to get exposure, it is hardly a gold mine of marketing. Independent artists hoping to sell music over the internet are currently doomed. The internet is making some progress as a shopping place, but not with music. Anyone selling music over the internet is suffering. It appears now that no one wants to pay for music, by majors or independents, in great numbers, from the internet. Remember, Napster had millions of subscribers because everything was for free. No on-line music distributor has been able to produce those kinds of numbers by charging for music.

 

If you could talk to David Byrne about rare African art or David Lee Roth about drinking beer, which would you choose and why?

I would talk to Byrne about African art, something I know little to nothing about. But I imagine it would be a hoot, if he had half a sense of humor, which I donít know. I have had the opportunity over the years to talk to a lot of personalities and always the most fun conversations were those that had little to do with the direct issue of their celebrity. I once had coffee with Dudley Moore and we talked about the craziest things and laughed together like we knew each other for years. The subject of his fame never entered the conversation. Also, I have very little to say about beer to anyone, no less that Roth guy.

 

I was reading somewhere that your early musical influences were not rock, but were classical and film music as well as music from the 1920s-1940s. Does any of the classical creep into your writing or playing? 

Yes. I am not classically trained but I am a sucker for Mozartís melodies and arrangements and they were rolling around my head during the years I first heard Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. I was a TV baby from the Baby Boomer generation, so music was always there in shows and on the radio. Leroy Andersonís work moved me as a kid. There was something special about pieces like ďThe TypewriterĒ and ďForgotten DreamsĒ and those melodies stuck with me. Later, when I began to compose music, I lifted some of those changes and recalled the way instruments moved in Mozart pieces.

 

Did you ever play classical music at all?

I was never good enough to actually play the classical stuff, but I managed to use the classical feel in much of my older pop stuff. So in the Ď60s and Ď70s a lot of my material stuck out from what my peers were creating because my foundation of creation was based on the masters, not the rock and rollers. But I never abandoned the simple roots, the cowboy musicónot country, per seóand today I aim for simple music and poetic lyrics.

 

You spent years working in radio, so you know the ins and outs of it. Have you spent much time or energy trying to get your songs played on commercial radio?

None. Itís a waste of energy as I see it. Besides, my first and foremost motivation with music is to create it. I am prolific and I take advantage of that. It is more important for me to create than to distribute. I know that sounds snobby, but all the joy I get from music is at the writing and playing/recording levels. Besides, very little of what I do is commercial, so trying to get it played on commercial radio is like trying to find my way to an avenue walking down a dead-end street.

 

What are your thoughts on commercial radio these days? I've certainly hear a lot of criticism from people about what commercial radio is playing.

Commercial radio is playing whatís popular. That hasnít changed. If you donít like whatís popular, you donít listen. End of story.  

 

What do you think about it as someone who was involved in it during a great and happy time?

I donít think there ever was a happy time. Maybe the kind of radio Wolfman first did, you know? And all of the old renegade stations, like Radio Caroline in England. But commercial radio has always been just that. Believe me, the format and entertainment comes second to the money game. And it was like that even when you liked all the commercial product.

 

What radio do you listen to?

These days, little. Talk radio and news now and then. Sometimes a PBS show on traditional folk or classical. Nothing else.

 

I know that you are doing your own internet radio shot on Ampcast.com now.  What is that all about?

 The Ampcast show, Cotolo Chronicles, is the only live one-man talk show on the web. That makes it special and a piece of history. I admire anyone doing something on the cutting edge of things and this show is my opportunity to get in on a medium at the ground floor and do what no one else is doing. Or can do.

 Jim Waskowich at Ampcast chased me for months to do this show and I began to realize that he was pioneering something that years from now would be looked back upon and recognized as a trailblazing effort. I want to be a trailblazer, and it would be wonderful to be one of those guys people look back upon decades from now and say, ĎHe was the first to do this!í But thatís not a goal, mind you. I love doing the show because I have the ability to talk and cavort for two straight hours and keep an audience interested, informed and entertained. And it and itís a whole mess of fun. My opinions about the entertainment business, indie or pro, are not popular but Ampcast gives me an arena to express them. Thatís quite a gift. I get to address the other side of things, be the loyal opposition and muck up the pulp that the public all too often swallows as the truth.

 

A lot of people say to be successful in music you have to play live. As someone who doesn't play live what are your thoughts on that? Are you successful and therefore the exception that proves the rule or is that idea a bunch of hogwash?

Itís true, you have to. Certainly as an independent artist you have to play live. Thatís where you would get the most CD sales. As for me, I am going to be playing live again. I have a trio now, Henry Morgan & The High Grass Boys and I have the kind of material that can be presented live. Of course we will give our CDs away, to the extend that we can afford to do so.

I am an utter failure by the standards of the music industry. In the meager world of on-line communities I have not done nearly as well as most. 

 

I recently heard you talking about giving away the music. In general I agree with you on that too. I've heard some people say that when we indies "give away" our music, we're hurting ourselves and others by showing the industry and the public that our music isn't worth buying. What do you say to that idea?  

I say that anyone who feels like that is dealing with two problems. The first is fear. The second is ego. These people must still harbor some hopes that they will become sellable properties or else they wouldnít protect their music with a monetary value. They donít want to look cheap. Itís a stigma. Itís amazing to me how people who cannot sell their music are so protective of it. I think, also, they hide behind the money because maybe no one wants their music even if itís free. Thereís a concept bound to crumble a few egos.

 Look, I donít care what I show ďthe industryĒ or ďthe public.Ē I donít even know who these characters are, do you? As far as I am concerned, the world doesnít need one more piece of music, no less any of mine. So if someone is interested in my music, I let Ďem have it. If I can afford it, I will send you anything you want to hear. Whatís important is that you want to hear it, not that I look cheap or like an amateur for not charging you for it. Someone on the internet called me an amateur for doing this. Me? I have made more money in show business than most people in this independent artist game could in three lifetimes. I have been paid to write music and I have had music published. I have nothing to prove. I am free of all the ego-burdening bullshit.   

 

A lot of bands have their own CDs nowadays. What impact do you think this has on the music scene in general?

Whatís the difference how many CDs there are available if no one is listening to them? For money or for free? As I said, there is far too much music available, no less taking into account personal tastes. More than half of the people making CDs these days are doing it because they can. Period. Itís part of the landscape now. None of them, however, make a dent in the stream of pop culture.  

Your project The King Of Monkey Island (KOMI), I think I would call a concept album. I'm awfully fond of concept albums myself, my last one was a concept album even. Do you have any sort of hope that some listener will hear KOMI and have a big light bulb come on over their head and understand what you're saying with the album? Or if that light bulb doesn't come on, does that matter to you?

KOMI is a no-brainer. It speaks to listeners at a gut level. Itís not meant to ignite a light bulb. I am not a guru or a preacher and Iím not trying to enlighten anyone.

 You see, the circus of creativity in my mind is a raw and childish thing. All childish things come from the heart and thatís where KOMI comes from. It is a bridge between a childish heart and a fifty-three-year-old head. Itís where the adult and child meet, accept one another for who they are and go on with life negotiating. Everyone wants to build that kind of a bridge and walk over it without the fear of falling.

 KOMI music should make listeners feel good, is all. And when you feel good and you are at peace, you are healthy, wealthy and wise. You donít need for anything or anybody. If someone doesnít receive any good feelings after listening to KOMI, thatís all right with me. Because I am the King of Monkey Island, get me?

 

Do you think the public differentiates between indie music and non-indie music?

I really donít know. The so-called public, the demographic out there with the buying power, is an alien race to me. 

 

You are a word man. I imagine literature plays a large part in your thinking and writing. I know they do in mine anyway. What are some of the authors or works that most often run through your head?

Nothing plays a more important role in my music these days than does the lyrics and being a ďword manĒ I am always inspired by certain sources of literature. Anyone who is well-read can read through my lyrics and pick them apart with references, phrases and images from my sources, which run the gamut. Thereís Henry Miller, Thomas Hardy, Max Shulman, John Fante and Charles Bukowski. Thereís Shakespeare, Robert Service, Alan Watts, the New and Old Testaments, James Thurber, Groucho Marxówho was an excellent writeróJoseph Conrad, S.J. Perelman; the list goes on and on.

So, you see, there is an endless stream of words and music in my arsenal based on having a sound foundation of being exposed to expression. If I have any critique about any music I hear from majors or indies, it is that far too much of it has no substance when it comes to self-expression. Most songwriters seem to ignore the literal side of songwriting. They hear clichť and use clichť. And they have not learned to write well enough to have earned the right to corrupt the language into poetic form. 

Do you think artists, musicians in particular in this case, have any sort of responsibility to the music or to the public? Obviously, do the best job you can with a song, but is there more, do you think? 

Responsibility is not in the equation as I see it. The moment you feel you have to do what anyone else wants you to do, you sabotage your ability to create with any acumen, no less emotion. If you are lucky, you attain an audience of some number and they appreciate what you do, and thatís what you do for them. The bond you have with your music is the relationship you have with your expression and that needs to be nurtured, just as it does with any human relationship. You have to grow and keep growing. Itís a natural thing, it just happens. Unless you stop and say, ĎHey, I better do it this way or else no one is gonna listen.í

 

Looking back on it all, what's the most favorite thing you've done, either professionally or as a part of normal life?

Thereís a problem answering this. I have done and continue to do so much that I love to do that it is impossible to isolate one thing and evaluate it as the best. The creative process has always been the engine of my machine, though. When I am creating anything I am totally in that moment, embraced by the joy of it. Then again, itís the same feeling when I frolic with my kids or during a rare moment of privacy with my wife and me. As for my history, I have enjoyed more of what I have done in every aspect than I regret about any of it. 

 

 

© 2002 Bud Bennett