It is with some trepidation that I am led to meet Dweezil Zappa, after all this particular guitarists father Frank Zappa once famously said;
[quote]Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.[/quote]
But these concerns instantly disappear when I enter his dressing room. Sat down noodling around on a replica of his father’s Gibson, Dweezil is relaxed, engaging and more than happy to talk about Zappa plays Zappa, his own band project bringing live renditions of his legendary father’s music to fans once again.
On with the show…
The first time I saw you doing your fathers material was Zappa’s universe, you played ‘Chunga’s Revenge’ and ‘Dirty Love’ with Steve Vai. Was that the first time you’d played your fathers songs live?
I’d played some of it in my own concerts with my band ‘Z’, but the thing was at that point we always chose tunes that were pretty much rock orientated stuff, that worked well with heavy guitar arrangements. It wasn’t really about trying to recreate everything exactly as it was, because he was still making the music as it is, but it became a different concept later on.
When did the first seeds of that take place, when you were like “OK, I’m going to approach it more seriously?”
I think it was really around 2004. I was noticing and talking to people and most people around my age or younger had no idea about Frank’s music, even the name: “Frank Zappa? Who’s that?” So it was just kind of weird to me, I didn’t think that was appropriate, considering his contributions to music; so I thought well if there’s a chance to do something that would potentially re-educate an audience, give them some special opportunities to enjoy the music and then they can propel it into the future.
The thing about it is that Franks music and his fan base, it started with his original fan base and pretty much stayed with his original fan base, but if you are looking at who that really is, they are all about seventy at this point, for music to continue into the future it needs a new generation.
Passing the torch to another generation…
Right, so when we started the tour back in 2006 the majority of the people that were at the show were 50 and up, lot of older, mostly guys. So my goal was always to bring it down and find the younger kids and have them have the chance to experience the music and realise that it’s relevant to their generation. Not only is the music something that is…
Timeless would you say?
Its’ definitely timeless, but its still, it’s from the future (Laughs)
It’s not only contemporary; it’s still ahead of its time.
[quote]People want to see something fail, more than they want to see something succeed.[/quote]
Where do you start? What’s the first thing you do? Is it guitar playing? Do you try and get people together?
Well the first thing I had to do was study all the music. I listened to all the records that he [Frank] made in his lifetime, front to back, all in chronological order so I could get a sense of his overall achievement in music and then decide what I wanted to emphasize, because one of the problems that exists is that people have this idea that “Oh I know Frank Zappa, he’s the guy with ‘Dancing Fool’ and ‘Valley Girl’ and ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow’ I know his music” well, if that’s all you’ve heard, then you don’t know his music.
That’s only a tiny, tiny percentage of his music…
Yeah, and that’s kind of one of the biggest problems, the thing that reached the most people, the casual listeners also gave them the wrong impression of what his music was, because he got relegated to the sort of comedy music spectrum, as opposed to recognizing his serious music.
Things like ‘The Yellow Shark’ and his classical pieces.
Right, yeah, but he’s been doing that since the very beginning, it’s just that people are not educated to what his music has always been, and that’s one of the tricky things about his music and the amount of music that he made; people can start at different eras in his music and think that’s all he does, so some people only like maybe the first ‘Mothers of Invention’ record from ‘66-1970, that’s their favourite period, some people like the early seventies, some people like the mid seventies to the late seventies, some people like the eighties, some people never cross and listen to the other eras.
Some people don’t even know they exist.
Yeah, because there’s over eighty albums.
That’s a massive undertaking, for you to sit down and listen to them, and stay objective as well.
It took a couple of weeks (Laughs). I wanted to identify what I wanted to emphasize and what I wanted to emphasize was his unique vision as a composer and as a guitarist. So the first year that we toured we didn’t really know if we were going to be able to continue it on, so my goal for that one was to really represent the music that I enjoyed growing up, and what made the biggest impact on me, so I focused pretty heavily on stuff from the middle seventies through the late seventies, because that’s the stuff I saw him working on and touring.
That was your entry point.
Yeah, so I had a lot of stuff from ‘Apostrophe’, ‘Overnite Sensation’, ’Live in New York’, ‘Joe’s Garage’ all kinds of stuff.
That’s got to be a massive kick up the rear for your guitar playing; you must have sat in the wood shed for a while?
Well yeah, that was huge; it was like getting a lobotomy (Laughs).
I first heard your playing on ‘Confessions’ and thought “This guy can play”, but dealing with polyrhythm’s and stuff like that, that’s got to be tough.
Well all that stuff was really tricky especially since I don’t read music. I have to learn everything by ear. Everybody else I have in the band can read music and that’s how they learn everything.
[quote]Frank would rehearse the bands for two to three months before touring even if the tour was only a month long and it was like a military operation.[/quote]
You still can’t read music, not at all?
I can technically make my way through a page, its way slower for me to try to read it. The real issue became how I was going to approach what the role of the guitar was in the band. I wanted to play more as part of the ensemble but I also wanted to feature some of the melodies that were written for marimba and keyboards and things on guitar.
I wanted to put them at the forefront, because if you’re in the audience and you see a guy playing marimba, you can’t really tell what he is doing and what happens is people are so numb to the fact they just see this thing happening up there and people think “Oh computers do stuff these days” so they don’t really appreciate what it takes to learn the stuff and play it, but then when they see it up front on guitar, and see how crazy that looks, that’s another element.
In that way you didn’t want it to be a nostalgic view, but still a contemporary view of the music?
I wanted to the music to speak for itself and I wanted my role in it to be seen from the stage so that people could look at it and say “Oh he put some time into this” because most people when they heard about the project had this idea, because as people are these days with all their free time on the internet, the idiots that are chained to the wall eating dog food (laughs) in their mom’s basement, pretending to be an expert on everything, they hear about something like this and they’re like “Oh great, just what we need, the son of a famous guy out to ruin his dads music” it’s that kind of attitude you’re up against right from the beginning. People want to see something fail, more than they want to see something succeed.
Rather than seeing it as a beautiful celebration of one of the 20th century’s most important artists. Did you find that at the first shows, people would be sitting there cross armed?
That was what I knew I was going to be up against, and so we saw that.
But the music would defeat that?
Yeah, exactly, I didn’t have to have any kind of argument I just said “Play”. We’ve been very diligent in terms of how we learn the music and the standards we try to uphold and people have responded well to it you know? We’ve gotten good reviews from people on every tour.
The fact you can do this for five years is a success in itself surely? I’m sure the audiences now, there’s some younger people, the internet in that respect has maybe been a good thing because people would be like “Ok, this Frank Zappa guy, let’s check out his music on YouTube”
Little by little all those bootlegs that people put up there does somehow spread the word a bit, but the message has been getting out there and we do have a younger crowd, we have more women, we have more diversity in the audience now that we didn’t have in the beginning.
When you started doing the shows, at the early ones was there any moment when you thought “They’ve got it” people are being receptive, I saw on the DVD in 2006 where you thanked the audience, and it was clearly moving for you.
It was that way everywhere we went and it’s always been that way. The effort that we put into it is apparent because learning all that, the stuff we did at that show alone there’s a lot of difficult stuff, ‘Inca Roads’ and ‘Black Page’, all that was never meant to be played on guitar, I learned that stuff and that took months.
[quote]..there’s a certain element of the tightrope act that we feel every night.[/quote]
Was there a particular piece that was ‘The Mountain’ for you?
In the beginning before I put the band together the first thing I did was I learned ‘The Black Page’ I figured if I could learn that I could pretty much tackle a lot of the other things because that has a lot of tricky parts, there’s one passage in it that has this really fast part at the end where if I play it slow (Plays passage on guitar) I had to learn a whole different picking technique, developed around trying to get some of these things, to get it up to speed (Plays again significantly faster).
That kind of stuff you have to be so well rehearsed, so that when that comes up you can execute it in front of people. Frank would rehearse the bands for two to three months before touring even if the tour was only a month long and it was like a military operation because it was supposed to be you could play the show even if everything blew up around you, but we don’t have the ability to rehearse as much as they did then because there just no budget for it.
How long did you rehearse for?
For that first tour we rehearsed for about seven or eight weeks, and we learned about forty songs, but since we’ve started we’ve learned over two hundred songs and our rehearsal time generally speaking is about two weeks or less before tour and so all of our time is done as homework and then we just pull it all together. Sometimes it really is a real challenge to be up on stage, when you haven’t been really playing it; the band would go at it like they were a well rehearsed machine. So there’s a certain element of the tightrope act that we feel every night.
So what’s that moment like, when you’ve put the band together, you’ve gone through the first rehearsal, there’s a lot on you, when you count people off into the first song.
We were really well prepared for that one and the show. We had run through the set list, we had a feeling for what the pacing was it was really more of a celebration type of thing. It’s just been good to see that people respect the music and want to hear it, and one of the challenges we had from the beginning too was that people had this impression that only alumni could play it, or should be playing it, and that’s just really not the right idea.
For us to go into the future you have to have kids that want to learn how to play it, and learn to play it right, so my initial goal was always to have a band that wasn’t filled with alumni to prove the point.
Because I imagine to some people the temptation would be to say “I’ll get people who have played with Frank, because they know the material”, but I imagine that was a temptation you had to resist?
Well promoters wanted all that, but one of the things that happens is that fans also get the impression that that’s the only way it sounds authentic, and it’s not, because there’s plenty of alumni that don’t play it well, that don’t rehearse it, and what happens too is that people start to put an emphasis on the role that the alumni had, that makes it more important than what Franks actual role in writing the music and conducting and orchestrating and all that stuff.
The music didn’t sound the way it did just because these people play it, it sounds that way because Frank wrote it and made them play it that way.
[quote]as if we need some guy to come up and say “Yeah, What’s up”[/quote]
He was famous for writing pieces of music for people, to spot that thing that person could do and amplify that.
So there’s a bit of that that needs to be re-educated to the audience too, that’s why I wanted to have a band that was like a clean slate, that just focused on playing the music, so when you hear it, you hear us playing it, if you a/b what we do versus the stuff on the records, if you’re hearing us play for the first time, or you’re hearing Franks music through us for the first time it should be representative of what you would hear on the record. A lot of people try to argue “Oh, you need to update it, you need to modernize it, you need to do stuff on it”
How would you modernize something from the future? (Laughs)
(Laughs) Yeah. That’s a good point. You got to look at it in the same context as an orchestra, if you want to call us a tribute band you have to call an orchestra a tribute band. The whole concept of an orchestra is regaled as the greatest achievement.
The highest format of music.
If you’re in an orchestra, you’ve really achieved status as a musician or whatever, but Frank always wrote his music as orchestral music and so my analogy usually is that if an orchestra was told they had to modernize a piece of music they would say “Our job is to preserve this music into the future, so you should respect what was done”, so that’s what we do, were not just going to decide to listen to some stupid critic that said “Oh, you’ve got to modernize it, you’ve got to make it for the kids, and to have some hip-hop influence” as if we need some guy to come up and say “Yeah, What’s up”
Why would you do that? It’s like crayons on the Mona-Lisa.
It’s the same point again, you’re never going to hear an orchestra go “Yeah Beethoven, yeah” it’s just not necessary.
Do you see yourself as the band leader, and by that rationale, do you do the things that Frank did, like gesturing?
I do that but there’s also pieces of music that Frank would conduct that I’m playing on, and I’m not a conductor anyway, so we have to work within the band for whoever’s got the best ability to create a cue or a strong downbeat for something, sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s the bass player.
In Cardiff I know you had some trouble with tunings and you let the band improvise. There’s an element of mentoring there.
Well that’s also just getting a feel for the audience and what they’re prepared for and if something’s going to take a long time because there’s an issue with tuning or something like that, lets entertain them, because in the end it’s all about entertainment.
[quote]There’s not that many people who would dare to audition.[/quote]
It has to be an enjoyable experience.
Yeah, if you want people to come back!
When you were gathering the group together I imagined it was like some ‘Mission Impossible’ deal, where you have this list of people you’re looking at, did you go through a lot of people and did you do a large amount of auditions?
There’s not that many people who would dare to audition. We didn’t have a big long list of people to go through we had a few people to hear for different roles in the band and really my choices came down to not only their skill required but the personality required.
Because you’re touring with this person.
Frank had issues a lot of time with people that would just want to be in the band to basically pretend like they had graduated from Zappa University. You need people that are inspired to maintain their role in the band so we’ve been pretty lucky with finding the right people for that kind of stuff, and where there have been changes they have always been for the best. The auditions were really hard, that was to weed out people.
How did you audition them?
I took the hardest pieces and gave them the most limited amount of time, and said “You are only going to play it with the drummer” then, there, just out in the open.
What were the pieces you gave them?
‘Inca Roads’, ‘The Black Page’, and for example Scheila Gonzalez, one of the things she had to do was play ‘Peaches en Regalia’ and so she had to play on keyboard, saxophone, clarinet and flute, all in one song and we were prepared to let her just play each section, separately, but she worked it out so she played the whole song and picked up every instrument and did the whole thing.
She just thought that was what was required. She is pretty remarkable in multi tasking, besides being really musical and great at improvisation.
The tour finishes at the end of this month and then you’re back in the states. I’ve seen you’re doing a guitar clinic there? Is that something you also want to do?
A lot of people ask me “Well how did you learn this stuff?” and “What are you doing here?” it’s fun to answer those questions.
I know as a guitar player, any time I see something that is interesting to me I try to find out about it, but if you can get it right from the source then all the better.
Dweezil Zappa Online: