Frank Zappa was one of rock’s most innovative artists ever, having composed thousands of songs during his 35-plus year career. He was also one of the most prolific musicians in modern times, issuing dozens of studio and in-concert albums per decade—and covering styles as varied as doo-wop, folk, symphonic, new wave, and jazz in his unending exploration of the emotional and intellectual benefits of “vibrating air molecules.” A renowned archivist, Zappa recorded everything and wasted nothing, stockpiling studio sessions and live shows in his “Utility Muffin Research Kitchen” studio for later use if the tapes weren’t fit for whatever project he happened to be working on at the time.
Accordingly, even after his premature death in 1993 (prostate cancer), new Zappa music continued seeping into the world, tickling ears and teasing the brains of his devoted faithful.
Given the overwhelming vastness of the Zappa catalog—not to mention its musical complexity—whoever took up the torch to deliver Frank’s oeuvre to the masses henceforth would face serious challenges.
Enter heir apparent Dweezil, Frank’s eldest son.
Even as early as 1982—when sister Moon Unit Zappa recorded her famous Encino-inspired verses on “Valley Girl”—Dweezil was honing his guitar chops under the tutelage of Eddie Van Halen, who produced his first EP, My Mother Is A Space Cadet. Other shred-happy releases followed, including Havin’ a Bad Day (1986) and My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama (1988).
But Dweezil also spent some time acting (Pretty in Pink, The Running Man), playing VJ on MTV, and guesting on albums by other artists (“Weird” Al Yankovic, Don Johnson). In the early ‘90s he teamed with younger brother Ahmet for the short-lived project “Z,” releasing the albums Shampoohorn and Music for Pets before retreating to cope with his father’s illness.
When Dweezil emerged in the mid-2000’s, he’d effectively relearned guitar, ditching cookie-cutter rock chops for the huge tones and technical nuance favored by his father in the ‘70s. If anyone was to propagate the Zappa canon, Dweezil decided, why not keep it in the family? Why should fans settle for the countless Zappa tributes and knockoffs when they could hear note-perfect renditions live in concert, created by professionals with first-hand knowledge of Frank’s songs and direct access to the maestro’s musical scores and source tapes?
Thus, since 2006, Dweezil has traversed the globe with Zappa Plays Zappa, the only bona fide, FZ-sanctioned ensemble dedicated to manifesting Frank’s music live on stage for today’s discerning audiences. Wielding Gibson SGs and Fender Stratocasters not unlike those brandished by his string-noodling father, Dweezil ensures that signature tunes like “Chunga’s Revenge,” “Cosmik Debris,” and “Echidna’s Arf” aren’t forgotten, and that younger listeners might yet revel in the glory of “Montana,” “Muffin Man,” “Pygmy Twylyte,” and “Cheepnis.” The troupe won a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental a couple years back with its spin on “Peaches en Regalia,” and in 2008 the issued the first official Zappa Plays Zappa live album.
Zappa Plays Zappa returns to House of Blues Cleveland on July 13th. We had the privilege of catching up with Dweezil at home, where the guitarist—now a 40-something father himself—was enjoying rare respite (notwithstanding a few pesky phone interviews) prior to the current leg of the tour.
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: So, Dweezil, the tour starts up in a week or so, right? First Canada, then down the East Coast?
DWEEZIL ZAPPA: Yes, it does.
EXAMINER: Are you still covering the 1974 live album, Roxy & Elsewhere, in its entirety?
DWEEZIL: No. We did several months of the tour for that record. I don’t know how many shows exactly we played for Roxy—I think almost 80 shows, maybe more. But this one is more of a combination of stuff from Frank’s whole career, which is mostly what we tend to do anyway. But we rotate the songs around and we’ve put in some new things we hadn’t learned before. So this time around we’ve got a couple hard ones we never learned before. We’re playing a few jazz festivals and wanted to get a couple things in the show that have some type of classical and brass-type of arrangement, because we have a couple people who play brass that will be featured. It’s a little different than some of the things we’ve played in the past.
EXAMINER: We missed you last time out. You did a gig at The Kent Stage, which was announced just a couple days prior to the actual event.
DWEEZIL: Well, actually we played at that same venue—The Kent Stage—when the Roxy tour started. I don’t remember exactly when it was. But we headed back on the same route less than a year later and played that venue again. It only really turned out that way because we had a situation where we ran into bad weather in Colorado and had to miss a gig. So we had to make up a gig as we were continuing our tour, and it turned out we had a day off that we could fill with a gig at the Kent Stage. So it was literally like, a week’s notice!
EXAMINER: If you wouldn’t mind going back a few years, to 2006 or so, what made you decide the time was right to form a band dedicated to performing your father’s music?
DWEEZIL: It was one of these things where a number of circumstances came together that really helped me make the decision. There were a lot of younger people whenever I would be around, or when I’d talk to people about music. If you mentioned anything about Frank, they’d say, “Who?” So to me, I found that younger generations really weren’t exposed to his music. And because he had so many accomplishments, I thought that was just a shame. I thought if I could do something, then that would be the time to do it. There was also a lack of exposure of the music in general, and I wanted to give people an opportunity to not only hear it, but hear it commensurate with the way it was played in the past. And that was a challenge in itself, because the music is very hard. You need people that are ready to perform their specific roles within the music.
EXAMINER: Frank was also keen on hiring the best musicians for the job, and had a reputation for not putting up with nonsense like drug abuse or rampant partying. Does Zappa Plays Zappa have a similarly rigorous audition process?
DWEEZIL: Yeah. One of the issues that was hard for people to understand is certain personality types, while they may have the skill to play the music, they aren’t the kind of people you want to spend any time with! So when it comes to being able to play the music, you can’t necessarily just hire someone because they can play. You have to find someone you can live with on a bus! So that really does narrow the field even more. And occasionally you have some delusional people that would come to an audition and think they can just say something to fool you into believing they have some kind of skill—but that is always quickly destroyed as soon as they actually have to play. Some people just really…my dad had this, too, where people would audition mainly just to say they auditioned, so that other people would say, “Wow, you must be really good!” And they might be terrible, but now it’s on their resume: “I auditioned for Frank Zappa!” Did you get it? “Naw, I turned it down!”
EXAMINER: Starting out with Zappa Plays Zappa, did you rely on sheet music when learning the tunes—or refer to the recorded versions of certain songs? Maybe a bit of both, given the quantity of material?
DWEEZIL: That was definitely the challenge. In learning the stuff, we found there were scores and transcriptions of things. But you still have to compare those to the recordings, and you find mistakes. And if there’s a mistake on the page, you have to verify with the recording, and then you make the change so that it goes with the recording. Because if there are multiple recordings that have THIS note played, but the page says it’s a different note, then the page is “wrong.” Otherwise there would’ve been…my dad was very specific about how stuff was supposed to be performed. That’s always a challenge, to get everything right, and making sure we have the best transcriptions possible. And whenever there aren’t things that aren’t things transcribed and checked, we’d have to transcribe and check it ourselves. So there’s a ton of work—always was and always will be—in that regard. Another huge layer of everything is in actually trying to recreate the sounds that are from the records and make them be as evocative of the era as possible. That’s something we’re conscious of, and it’s something we try NOT to do, which is to say, to NOT take the music and make it sound modern, or “of today.” If it’s from 1966, we want to be able to play it like it sounds like it’s 1966, because THAT is the version we’re playing.
EXAMINER: Frank recorded and released nearly 70 albums during his lifetime, and still more unearthed music is being released today. He covered, parodied, saluted, and otherwise incorporated so many different musical styles over the years that the body of work might seem intimidating to someone just dipping their foot in the pool. Are there any points of entry you’d recommend for the uninitiated?
DWEEZIL: Yeah. I usually tell people to start with Apostrophe and Overnite Sensation, and then go backwards—to Freak Out! and We’re Only In It For the Money, and Absolutely Free. Because Apostrophe and Overnite Sensation have so many great songs, and the recordings are so nice on those. And they give you a sense of what the real ingredients to most of Frank’s music is, which would be some complex rhythms, bluesy guitar parts, and other interesting harmonies. The textures and timbre of instrumentation. But if you go back to Freak Out! you’ll find that stuff is before technology allowed certain sounds, you know? So it’s interesting that in a ten-year period, there was just a dramatic difference in the sounds that were being produced, and what was possible in the studio. Then people listen to the classical stuff—like The Yellow Shark record. There’s just so much you can get from just a few records to see what the depth and variety of the music is.
EXAMINER: Right, Frank did a lot of orchestral music. And he turned to new technology as it became available. Like in the mid-1980s, I understand he did a lot of writing on the Synclavier.
DWEEZIL: The late ‘80s, early ‘90s.
EXAMINER: What were the challenges for you, as a guitarist, when you started learning your dad’s material?
DWEEZIL: Well, the challenge that made it most difficult for me was to learn parts that were written for other instruments, and then playing them on guitar. So I’ve learned some marimba parts and keyboard parts on guitar for several songs that I’d play, similar to melodies—these iconic melodies, like “The Black Page,” or “St. Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast,” or “Inca Roads.” That kind of stuff…it became a necessity for me because I wanted people to be able to see on the stage what it looks like to have to play all those notes, because they’re not able to look over the shoulder of the keyboard player or marimba player. There’s this visual that goes with those melodies. When you see them played on guitar, it shows people the dedication to learn this stuff. Because it’s very, very difficult. And I had to change my whole approach to playing and picking and all these things in order to do it.
EXAMINER: And like your father, technology always allows for new possibilities. Can you tell us about some of the innovations in your guitar rig that enable you to dial-up all these tones, so as to replicate what people have heard on the records?
DWEEZIL: Well, yeah. I mean, I started doing this in 2006. And year after year, more and more new things became available. So every year I’ve had to change my guitar rig in order to accommodate the kind of stuff I wanted to be able to do, and get closer and closer to the exact sounds from the records. When I started, it was with all analog stuff and pedals and amps and speakers. But that grew to a two-refrigerator sized rack filled with a bunch of effects and ways to be able to create different presets. And that just become too problematic, because it was too heavy and there were too many cables and things that kept breaking. So I switched to a whole other technology that uses amp modeling. There’s a piece of guitar equipment called the Axe FX, made by a company called Fractal. That allowed me to be able to do a lot of stuff just with one box. We plug multiple amplifiers and effects all in one box. Then I further developed that, so now I have a pretty extreme set-up that utilizes a lot of pedals along with those Fractal units. But now I have the equivalent of a recording studio as well as a dozens of amps and hundreds of pedals—all these things—in a self-contained thing where I can flexibly reroute any kind of signal path, and I have any kind of effect, from reverb and delay to percussion. But in addition to what you would get when you have the finished “record sound,” my guitar sound goes directly to the P.A. It’s not just the spill from the stage, so there’s a lot more definition. It’s made recreating all these sounds much easier, and more recallable.
EXAMINER: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your guitar class, the “Dweezilla” clinics you host in each city prior to the shows. What can someone expect to learn in your guitar classes?
DWEEZIL: A lot of what I try to do there…. First I get a feel for what people’s overall skill level is. Then I try to tailor whatever I’m going to talk about to work towards that particular group. If everybody’s basically a beginner, I’ll go for certain kinds of information that will hopefully help them improve in a fun way more quickly. But I try to give good examples of things can help you visualize the neck in a better way. Because a lot of ways you typically learn on guitar, it’s segmented into a few boxes—and people get stuck in those boxes and can’t see how to connect between them. So I have a different method of how to visualize the neck that really becomes a simple thing, because it’s about looking at the guitar two strings at a time: Top two, middle two, and bottom two. And I show some simple positions that, if you can learn the positions, you basically can play in any key. All the pentatonic shapes, and play them in three octaves. So instead of looking at the neck for three or four different little boxes, you start visualizing the neck as much bigger spaces to connect up through octaves. So instead of three-fret space, you’re looking at an eight-fret space. It really makes it much easier in the long run for people to connect their ideas. And once they’ve practiced this thing, because it’s so simple, it’s one of those “Ah-ha!” moments where it’s like, “Why didn’t I this learn this earlier?”
Zappa Plays Zappa. Sunday, July 13, 2014 at House of Blues Cleveland (308 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland OH 44114). Doors 7:30pm / Show 8:30pm.
Advance tickets available: http://www.houseofblues.com/cleveland/events/eventdetail/?viewNav=/event...
Dweezil Zappa Guitar Master Class. Sunday, July 13, 2014 in House of Blues Foundation Room. 3:00pm.
Advance tickets here: http://www.houseofblues.com/cleveland/events/eventdetail/?viewNav=/event...