Dweezil Zappa on his father's music and the degree of difficulty of playing his songs live
Dweezil Zappa is on a mission, and it's a pretty personal one. Since 2006, the son of the late guitarist/composer/bandleader Frank Zappa has toured the world, playing his father's music in an effort to attract and educate a new generation of listeners. In leading the Zappa Plays Zappa project, Dweezil Zappa has covered songs from all phases of his father's nearly forty-year career. He's delved deeply into a catalogue that numbered more than sixty official albums at the time of Frank Zappa's death in 1993.
While in the past, Dweezil's touring band has included alums from his dad's touring ensembles, musicians like Terry Bozzio, Steve Vai and Ray White, Dweezil's pared down the band to six members for the latest tour. We caught up with him to talk about the dynamics of a smaller ensemble, the challenges of playing his dad's music and misconceptions that still seem to haunt Frank Zappa years after his death.
Westword: What's your touring schedule been like lately?
Dweezil Zappa: This is the second half of the tour. The first half was in Europe, and we did sixteen shows in a couple of weeks there. We're doing roughly the same in the U.S. before Christmas; we finish on Dec. 23. Then we'll be going out again in February. There's quite a bit of stuff going on.
What kind of new material from your father's catalogue have you included for this run?
We describe this tour as "The Decades Tour," because we wanted to be able to represent stuff from each definitive era of Frank's music. There are a lot of things to choose from, but we pulled in some things that are somewhat obscure, along with some fan favorites. That's what we try to do in general for the show. Every tour, there's always new material that gets introduced.
The past few weeks in Europe, one of the big things that we introduced there was "Strictly Genteel," which is a classical piece that my dad actually, in interviews, said was his favorite piece that he ever wrote. That's a piece that we like to put on display, and the fact that the band is now somewhat smaller than it has been in the past, it's quite a feat to pull off "Strictly Genteel" as we do, with the orchestral textures that are in it. The band is six people, as opposed to eight, which it had been since 2006.
In tackling something like "Strictly Genteel" for a six-piece band, are there arrangements that you look to? There are versions of that song from Frank's 1988 band and several bands in the '80s, in addition to the original version from 200 Motels. How do you finalize the way that it's going to be put together?
Well, Frank played it in different bands throughout the years. Some bands were smaller, some bands were bigger. For the bands that were smaller, virtually everything was done on synthesizers at the time. The textures that were available from the synthesizers at that time were somewhat limited. They couldn't represent some of the real timbre of some the things that you find in an orchestra, like real brass or some other things that I think are integral to getting the point across of that piece of music.
For example, the versions that resonate with me the best are the ones that I grew up hearing the most: the 200 Motels version, the Orchestral Favorites version, the London Symphony Orchestra version. Those have so many real instruments on them.
For our arrangement purposes, our lead singer [Ben Thomas] plays trumpet and trombone, and he's switching between both to create the brass textures. Scheila Gonzalez plays flute, saxophone and keyboards, where she will create a whole brass section playing keyboard and saxophone at the same time. Then we have Chris Norton on keyboards, who is covering the piano and mallet/marimba style stuff, as well as some string textures.
Out of the six of us, we're really playing more like there's twelve or fifteen of us. I'm covering stuff on guitar that was meant for piccolo, flute and other things. We've created an arrangement that sounds probably closest to the Orchestral Favorites version. The intention was to not have it sound like it's just out-of-the-box keyboard sounds.
In searching for some of the more obscure material and in looking through the catalogue, were there any songs that you hadn't heard? You mentioned being around this music since childhood, but have there been any surprises or revelations since you started the project in 2006?
We did that a lot over the past year. There were songs and one in particular called "Mother People" [from We're Only In It For the Money]. I was familiar with the song, but it started to really jump out at me back in February of this year. We did a tour that focused primarily on the early records, things from Freak Out!, We're Only In It For the Money, Absolutely Free, stuff like that. Those records were ones that I've been diving into more recently.
Since the beginning of this project, the real core of what we've been doing was anything from 1970 to 1980, with a lot of material that was heavily focused on the whole '70s decade. More recently, we've been branching out to things from the '80s. On this tour ... we're going to start playing a really difficult instrumental called "Moggio" that was from the Man From Utopia record. We try to mix it up as much as we can.
When you first started the project, I remember reading an interview in which you'd mentioned that preparing to play this music was like training for the Olympics. Do you still get that feeling after six years of doing this?
Oh yeah, for sure. The thing that still relates to the Olympics is that when you're put in a position to have to execute in front of an audience, you need to have the proper preparation. We don't have nearly the same amount of time or budget that Frank had to rehearse the bands that he went on the road with. He would rehearse for three months, even if the tour was even a month long. The purpose of that was he was recording every show. Those would become future records. Every tour that he did, actually, came in at a massive loss, because it cost so much money to prep for the whole thing. Then it would be made up for, hopefully, by selling records.
That business model doesn't work to make this work, so we do the most amount of preparation that we can on our own, then have a short bit of rehearsal before the tour. By the time we actually get on the road and we're playing material in front of audiences, it may be that we've only played the songs together as a band in final rehearsals a few times, but we've been working on all the parts separately.
A song like "Strictly Genteel," we couldn't really do that way. We had to get together multiple times over several months to listen to the song, to go over the score and say, 'OK, I'm going to cover this part.' The parts that we cover may be jumping around all over the place. They may not be a part that is consistent in one voicing throughout the whole thing. That kind of confusion, you have to be prepared for. Besides learning the parts and executing them, there's a bunch of organizational stuff that also feels like you're part of the Olympics.
Well, that goes to another point. Taking on this project hasn't only been about the musical side of things. You've also had to wear Frank's hats as a bandleader and a manager, even dealing with some of his former players. Was that a difficult role to take on?
Well I had had bands together before, and keeping bands together isn't always the easiest thing to do. Frank certainly had many challenges with that. The real challenges that come with Frank's music is that there's so much material, and you work so hard to learn it, and then if somebody who has an integral role in a lot of those songs leaves the band, and you have to get somebody new in, you have a very limited amount of new material that you can do. Somebody can't come in and learn forty or fifty songs in a short period of time, you know. Those kinds of exits create limitations for what you can do moving forward. We've had a few of those exits here or there, but we've been pretty well prepared for what would change within the band.
Generally speaking, the best way to keep a band together is finding people who enjoy their job and giving them opportunities to continue enjoying their job. When people get complacent or start to get some delusional idea that their role is more important than somebody else's role, that's where you come into problems. My dad had that all the time, where certain people would say, 'I want a raise because I do more.' It's like, 'Not really. Bye.' That kind of things happens a lot, but when you run into those kinds of personalities, you get rid of them.
You make guest appearances on a few of Frank's live records. There are duets on Does Humor Belong In Music, You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore and Trance-Fusion. Growing up, how often did you have the opportunity to go on stage and jam with your dad?
Not too many times. The very first time I ever played in front of an audience was in front of 5,000 people at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, and I'd only been playing guitar for about nine months. I played on a song called "Stevie's Spanking," which was a song about Steve Vai, who was in Frank's band at the time. I was twelve. The next time I played on stage, I was fifteen and then again when I was seventeen. In total, I think I only played about five times. Sitting around the house, playing guitar -- we would do that periodically, but not as much as one would think.
There's a difference between hearing a song and playing it. Has this project helped you discover parts of your dad's music that you weren't aware of growing up?
The thing about it is that many people who have a casual experience with Frank's music only know certain things on the surface. He gets put into a category of novelty music, but if you take the opportunity to dig deeper and listen to a large cross-section of his music, that's such a small part of it. I use that example for your question here because I had always had a pretty good overview of his music, but when you actually start to pull it apart and dissect it, or even further, do a complete vivisection, you are able to see the devices that he uses in his thinking process for composing.
That's when it becomes the most interesting. You see that he doesn't repeat his ideas; he's constantly changing. Where you think you might be able to predict the direction he's going with certain things, you find that you can't. There are parts in arrangements where you'll be playing a section, and it may be the same notes as a B section of a tune. The next time it comes around, he'll drop an eighth note. It's a small little detail, and that stuff is on purpose all the time. It just changes the rhythm, it changes the phrasing. There are weird, small things that you find.
The first ten listens, you might not hear that, but then you're like, 'Wait a minute. This is different.' There's constantly these land mines in all of this stuff, which makes it really challenging to learn, keep track of and document. The way that we learn everything is from our own transcriptions, from the recordings, from lead sheets and charts that exist. We always take them and reference them to the actual recordings.
When there's stuff that may be too dense to pull apart in the stereo mix, we'll go to the master tapes and listen to individual tracks. We'll transcribe the parts on that. We did that on the Grand Wazoo record when we were learning "Big Swifty." There was at one point some real cluster chord arrangements. As it turned out, every one of the twelve chromatic tones was being played at some point in some of these chords. It's just how much of it you hear based on the mix. That's how in-depth we get with this stuff.
And you have an advantage that would make any hard-core fan drool in the form of the vault, right?
Yeah, and another layer of what we do is that we try to create the same timbre of instrumentation from the era, so that it's evocative. We don't try to modernize the sound of it and say, 'Here, look at what we can do to Frank's music.' What we're trying to do is give people a chance to hear it. If we're the conduit for people hearing the music for the first time, if they hear this version and we're playing a live version from 1970, when they go to look for it, they're hearing the same thing. That's on purpose. He was an auteur; he did everything on purpose. He knew exactly how he wanted it. He put it out the way he put it out because that's how he wanted it heard.
When he played live, he would change things quite a bit, but that was always his discretion. We don't take something and make our own arrangements from the ground up. We would just use one of his arrangements. If we want to do an album version, we'll do an album version. If we want to do a live version, we'll do a live version from any number of live albums.
You know, a lot of people say to me, 'You've got to modernize it to bring in the youth.' What they usually mean by that is that you're supposed to get some kind of rapper to come out and go, 'Yeah! Yeah! Frank Zappa! Yeah!' I always say, 'You wouldn't have an orchestra play a Beethoven piece and have some guy come out and go, 'Yeah, Beethoven!' That's the point of this. Frank was a composer, and in the classical world, people take composers' work, and they carry it forward to preserve the traditions, to preserve exactly what those notes say on the page.
That's what we do with Frank's music, because we're more of an ensemble that plays everything -- classical, rock, whatever is in the music. We're trying to carry it forward with that in mind. I have no interest in saying, 'Look what I can do to Frank's music,' which is what a lot of people try to do when they do a cover of it. They change it, they change the rhythm, they change the melody. What's the fucking point of that?
There's been a lot of anticipation for the release of the film version of the concerts that were documented on the Roxy and Elsewhere album. What have been the hurdles in getting that movie out?
A lot of people ask me, 'How come it hasn't come out? What's the delay?' What is hard to explain in a few sentences is that the footage itself, when it was recorded in 1974, the film and the audio in those days, the synchronization process was in its infancy. Unfortunately, the audio and the film, the process didn't go so well on the night of the shoot. What it creates is footage that's really difficult to put in sync.
You would have to literally take the film and the audio and work on a computer and make micro edits to shift it all to be in sync. It's not necessarily a frame at a time, but it's pretty close to that. That's hours and hours and months and years of work if you have a small team, like we do. The people who are part of the staff are my mom, she has an assistant, and then there's Joe [Travers], who is our drummer, and he's the archivist. We don't have a team of people capable of working on all of this all of the time.
We have done a lot of work to get that more in sync, but it's taken years of time to do because it's a very tedious process. If it's not in sync, there's no point in putting it out. That's why Frank never did anything with it, because back in the day, there was nothing he could do. For example, audio tape runs at a different speed than the film rate. The problem is compounded when you have a tape machine that starts losing battery power or losing the ability to run at the right speed, the tape slows down, changing the rate drastically against the film. That's the kind of stuff that you have. It is beyond tedious.
But there have been hints about releasing a soundtrack, right? And you mom has announced plans to designate distributors.
There is a soundtrack of the actual footage from that. There are different tunes from the actual Roxy album. There were several concerts performed at the Roxy, all having different set lists. There's a lot of stuff that people don't know about from those shows ... The way that Gail has offered people a chance to distribute things is a different approach to today's delivery system for music.
People talk about Frank's music being ahead of his time. It seems like that's coming around in a way -- you won a Grammy for your version of "Peaches En Regalia." But it seems like there's still a lot of misinformation, like the Rolling Stone illustration of Frank smoking a joint. Do you have to deal with a lot of that?
I make comments about that Rolling Stone picture all the time. It's perpetuating these falsehoods and it's totally irresponsible and ridiculous for that stuff to take place in the media. It's so clear with him always being anti-drug -- it's in his music; it's in the movie Baby Snakes. But part of the process of what we do is a re-education. We select music that emphasizes what he should be known for.
That, in its simplest form, is the intriguing way that he mixes rhythm and melody. It's very different than other people, and he's got some very iconic pieces of music that represent that very well, "The Black Page" being a particularly noteworthy one. That one was a drum solo that he wrote a melody to afterwards. How many people do it that way?
When you first started, there were some songs you wouldn't play, just for emotional reasons. I'm thinking "Black Napkins" and "Sofa" and "Zoot Allures." Are those still off the table?
We've played "Sofa" before, and we're playing it on the tour. I have played "Black Napkins" and "Zoot Allures." The one that emotionally has always been the heartbreaker is "Watermelon in Easter Hay." That's one that I will play eventually. For many people, that is a devastating piece of music to listen to. It really is powerful and emotional.
How has this project has affected your own approach to playing guitar?
That's a whole other thing that took place to do this -- I had to basically get a guitar lobotomy in order to learn a lot of this stuff. What that means is that for more than twenty years, I've been playing guitar and utilizing certain techniques. I had to abandon that and reprogram new techniques for picking and stuff like that. That's something that not too many people would want to undergo, but it was necessary for me to accomplish what I wanted to do, which was to learn a lot of the difficult melodies on guitar that were written for keyboards and marimba and stuff like that. The whole purpose of that was to better understand the music and give the audience a different perspective.
When you see some of these difficult passages played on guitar at the front of the stage, you get a better appreciation for 'these guys really had to work hard to learn this stuff.' Playing "St. Alphonzo's Pancake Breakfast" or the interludes from "Inca Roads" or "The Black Page," all of those things we were playing the first year out, that was stuff that left a lot of guitar players speechless. They were like, 'Wait a minute; that doesn't seem possible.' It took years to ingrain it and make it possible.
Is the effort paying off? Are you seeing a new generation come to appreciate your father's music?
When I started this in 2006, when I spoke to people under thirty and they heard the name Frank Zappa, they said, 'Who?' That just seemed totally wrong, considering his contributions to music. Nowadays, we see a lot more diversity in the audience, a lot more young people. The young people who come to the shows and truly get it ... The music really means something to them, and it changes their lives; it changes their perspective on music and what's possible in music, especially when you look at it in stark relief against what else is out there.
One of the things that we've been playing is "Who Are the Brain Police." It's crazy to believe that that song is almost fifty years old. In came out in 1966, and there's nothing that sounds like that song. That's what's so crazy. It's almost impossible to believe that it's fifty years old.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.