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Zappa chats Zappa: The son also rises

Dweezil Zappa is on the Zappa Plays Zappa tour through March 4.
Dweezil Zappa is on the Zappa Plays Zappa tour through March 4.
Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

Whoever said “those that can’t do, teach” has obviously never witnessed the electrified musical brilliance of Dweezil Zappa on stage, much less attended his wired-up Dweezilla boot camp for aspiring axe wielders off stage. Of course, that uninformed “genius” probably also thinks that the most enduring musical contribution ever made by the son of Frank is, well, being the son of Frank.

But any and all fans of arrestingly frank music out there will likely beg to differ. It was inevitable after all that Zappa the Younger’s life would be filled with wall-to wall music – his father having listed his religion as “musician” on Dweezil’s birth certificate.

Since releasing his cosmic first single in 1982 with “My Mother Is A Space Cadet” – produced by “middling” guitarist Edward Van Halen – the versatile Zappa has spent time as a VJ, actor, celebrity session musician and gifted solo artist.

But fortunately for lovers of scholarly melody, Dweezil ultimately accepted his most challenging calling – bringing his father’s legendary music back to the concert stage – and in the spring of 2006 hit the road with his new live band Zappa Plays Zappa.

Playing ambitious sets of Frank Zappa favorites and obscure gems to big audiences of crazed Zappa fans, Dweezil has deftly led his expert musical charges in respectfully executing his father's music on a nightly basis – proving he is uniquely qualified to bring these compositions back to life with complete authenticity from the page to the stage.

Zappa chatted with me recently about his father’s musical legacy and his successful efforts to continue and expand it as he prepared for his show at Phoenix’ Celebrity Theatre. He conceded to some seemingly unavoidable challenges along the way.

“Well, I didn’t go into it with a preconceived notion of what it could or would be. I just wanted the music to have a chance to speak for itself. I was really aware of the fact that there were likely gonna be the armchair critics – you know, the people that just sit at home on the Internet and hear about some of these kinds of projects, ‘Oh yeah, the son of a famous guy, trying to take over the music. That’s gonna suck.’ And they just want to instantly hate it.”

“So the way that I decided to go about doing the thing was that the whole band would just do all the work, all the due diligence to make sure that what we were playing was commensurate with what Frank had previously played or believed. That way, if somebody was gonna make a direct comparison, they would really know what they were hearing.”

“And because we had done all that work, it wasn’t very much of a surprise to see that people appreciated it. They were probably halfway surprised that it wasn’t a greatest hits review where we only did so-called ‘hit songs.’ We dug deep and played a lot of the hard stuff that most people would never even attempt.”

While Zappa played on several of his celebrated father’s tunes throughout the years, he was relatively inexperienced with regards to most of Frank’s catalog prior to the mammoth musical undertaking.

“I didn’t really play too many of them through the years. I learned ‘Peaches en Regalia’ (which netted Dweezil a Best Instrumental Performance Grammy) and songs like ‘Dirty Love’ and stuff like that, but really almost nothing else. It was in 2004 that I started getting the idea to do this just because there were so many people that were under 30 that just didn’t even know the name Frank Zappa.”

“That was disturbing considering what I felt was his accomplishment and I wanted people to discover the music. My theory behind it is if you haven’t heard the music, then its new music. So many people think it’s nostalgia music. 'It’s from a different generation. It doesn’t apply to me.'”

“But there’s nothing that sounds like this music, so we’re on a tour playing a record that was basically a live performance from 40 years ago and there’s still nothing that sounds like this, this record. So it’s ostensibly from the future.”

Which brings us back to Dweezil’s remarkable musicianship. Given the countless hours of practice from an early age, his technical prowess shouldn’t surprise us. But the extraordinary intricacy of Frank’s music – “nothing that sounds like this” – presents a challenge for even the most accomplished guitarist.

“Oh yeah. This is not stuff that you can just walk up and play. I studied the music for two years before I put the band together and then in that process, I had to completely redesign my approach to guitar, especially from the right-hand picking standpoint. I had to deprogram more than 25 years of playing and transform it into a new way to go about it.”

“That’s not something most people would want to endure because it really is quite an arduous journey to put yourself through. But even since then, I've been adapting and making new techniques.”

“The thing about it is it’s required and you’re gonna try to play some of these really hard things in the music – like I intentionally learned things that were written for marimba and keyboards, things that were never meant to be played on guitar.”

“And the reason for it was if you were looking at the stage from the audience, you’re not seeing over the shoulder of the keyboardist. Or when we had a percussionist, you’re not seeing over the shoulder, so you don’t see really what they’re doing.”

“But on the guitar, you can see the intricacy of what it takes to have to play this stuff. So that was another one of those things that was the unspoken way of saying, ‘Hey, he put the time into this.’”

Putting the time into the music was more than just a desire for the unswerving professional – it was a necessity borne from a need for musical perfection. “Actually, a lot of it is in manuscript form. But it doesn’t mean all the lead sheets that have it are correct.”

“So what we had to do on every song is look at whatever we had from manuscripts and then check those against the recording and where they’re incorrect you have to make the changes and go with what was on the record.”

“When there are things on certain songs where the harmony is too dense, to accurately figure it out from the stereo mix we went to master tapes and got exactly what was played from each track. That’s the due diligence that we do to learn exactly what was in the arrangement.”

Zappa’s “due diligence” paid other dividends for the artist, providing him with insights into his father that go beyond mere written music.

“I've always had a great appreciation for his music. But learning it the way I have has heightened that because what it really shows off is the true mastery of what he could do as a composer and the depth and variety in his music. He wasn’t just re-writing the same kind of things. He had no boundaries in what he was doing either. He mixed all kinds of styles.”

“As a kid I only heard his music growing up. It wasn’t until I was about 12 years old that I started to hear other music. And when I did, I would listen to other things and say, ‘Where’s the rest of it? There are no other crazy, intricate parts.’”

“That’s always been the thing for me and for a lot of people that become hard core Zappa fans. It becomes the only music for them at a certain point because they find that as well. They’re looking for ‘Well, where’s the rest of it? How come there aren’t more sophisticated rhythms and intricate arrangements?’”

There is an exceptional symmetry to a second generation musician bringing the music to a second generation. But while Zappa spoke of the symmetry as being a motivator, it might be more accurately described as a responsibility.

“I never did to begin with but once it became up and running, there did become a certain responsibility to uphold a level of quality control. And the thing is, there are a lot of people that go out and try to play the music. I'm all for people wanting to learn the music and play the music, but I'm not very interested when people try to change the music.”

“And so the real distinction I make is that you have to really consider that an orchestra’s responsibility is to carry forward a tradition of what a composer wrote on a page. The instructions are right there on the page and they’re supposed to play what’s on the page. Technically, they’re a cover band, you know?”

“When people say, ‘Oh, Zappa Plays Zappa – that’s just a cover band or a tribute band’ and they use that term in a derogatory sense, it doesn’t make any sense. We’re more like a repertory ensemble – like an orchestra that’s just keeping this music going in a way that the composer intended.”

“My analogy that I usually tell people is you really aren’t going to increase the audience of people who like classical music by modernizing it. That’s what everybody always says when it comes to, ‘Oh, you’re gonna do a cover of somebody’s song. You’ve got to modernize it. Make it your own thing.’”

“You’re not gonna see a Beethoven concert and then have a rapper come out and say ‘Yeah, Beethoven, yeah!’ You’re not gonna need any of that stuff. Usually what people mean by saying you have to modernize it is you have to make a ‘hip hop inspired’ thing or some sort of ‘DJ trance thing,’ And it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re gonna take the least musical elements and say that those are the most popular things and that’s what’s gonna make it better?’ I don’t think so.”

It boggles the mind to consider that Frank Zappa’s music could be improved upon, providing perfect evidence that some music just shouldn’t be reinvented. And the seeming improvisational nature of Zappa’s musical inventions would seem to make recreation impossible – or does it?

“That’s one of the things that’s sort of misunderstood about Frank’s music. What is so completely ingenious about the way that he made his records and toured and wrote his music is that he had this great combination of structure where you have the difficult composed parts that you need to execute, and then they’re balanced out by elements in a lot of songs that are wide open for improvisation – and then you come back to the structure.”

“When it comes to the improv parts for me, part of the challenge and the goal is I don’t want to take a complete left turn and play out of context of the music in that sense. So when it comes to the solos, I usually learn quite a bit of Frank’s vocabulary so that I can use his guitar style as guideposts throughout the solo. I use some of those statements and I’ll fill in the blanks in-between.”

“I have that balance of my own ideas being infused, but still playing in context because I'm playing some of the same things he would play and I'm using a very similar sound that would be evocative of the era. That’s the other part that we do that is really time consuming and painstaking.”

“If we’re playing a record, we’re gonna try to recreate all of the sounds that are used on the record so that it sounds evocative of that era. And it’s not, again, a modernization of the thing. That’s a big part of what goes into all of this.”

“It’s not only learning all of the notes and the rhythms, it’s making sure that you get the right sound so that the actual mix of it for the audience comes together. On the record things are arranged the way they are so you can hear all the different instruments in their own little space like a jigsaw puzzle. And so if you are playing the wrong sounds, the music is not going to have the same impact.”

The challenge of mastering Frank’s sophisticated musical conceptions would be enough to make lesser guitarists wish they’d practiced more as a fledgling musician. But the younger Zappa professed to a slightly different wish list.

“Well, no because I did practice a lot. I practiced like eight hours a day (laughs). But the thing about it is there are certain things that I wish I would’ve spent time on – like I can't actually read music notation. I mean technically I could, I'm just really slow at it.”

“So I learn everything by ear, whereas the rest of the band, they all read, so they can see stuff on the page and they can start automatically adapting to learning it and knowing what the note values are, the rhythms and all that stuff.”

“I’ll memorize all the stuff and I’ll be able to play it before they’re off the page. But it’s still a very daunting task and if somebody said, ‘What’s going on in bar 34?’ I would say, ‘I have no idea (laughs)’ because I just know it as one continuous piece of music. It’s like a photographic memory thing. I just insert the piece into my play list and I play it.”

That “photographic memory” thing has certainly worked for Zappa. So much so that he attempts to teach it to participants in his Dweezilla guitar camps at various stops on the Zappa Plays Zappa tour

“I've really been enjoying the camp and the classes that I've been doing on tour. It brings me back to the point when I was first starting and I was looking for whatever information would be able to open up the next door to the next big idea that would make you say, ‘Oh this is so cool. I'm glad I finally connected this.’”

“I found a lot of little keys to giving people some fret board understanding and some options on how to use different finalities without having to memorize a million scales and all the note names and all this other stuff.”

“My approach is more like, ‘Use your ear and use some of these colors’ and ‘Here’s a few ways you can utilize some of this stuff.’ It’s fun to see the light go on for a lot of people and say, ‘Wow, I never thought of that.’ And it’s like, ‘I know, right?!’

“There’s a few of those where I've had a couple of things for the past eight years of doing this that were real ‘aha moments’ for me where it was like, ‘Why didn’t I think of this 25 years ago? It would’ve been awesome to put this into play back then.’”

The audinecs at the Zappa Plays Zappa shows have no doubt had their own “aha moments.” Frank Zappa’s music broke the rules. And Dweezil and his bandmates are certainly doing their part to uphold his creative legacy.

“The thing about it is if you’ve never heard it before and you’re hearing it for the first time, we’re recreating as close as we can to what is part of this performance. Whatever song it is that we’re doing, all those rules are already broken the first time around. We’re just following that template.”

“But there are certain things that we do that are – Frank would always include the folklore of whatever was happening on tour. That stuff would make it into the show here or there. So we keep up some of those traditions.”

“There will be things like last night. We played in Carmel, which is a beautiful town in California. And I was saying to the audience before we started playing, ‘You guys are so lucky to live in such a beautiful town. Tonight, we’re gonna totally f**k it up for you (laughing).’ That’s essentially what Frank’s music does whenever it hits the audience.”

Audiences, consider yourselves warned…

Following are the “Zappa Plays Zappa Roxy and Elsewhere Tour” dates running through March 4 and the “Experience Hendrix Tour 2014” that begins March 11:

Feb. 2 Santa Fe, N.M. Greer Garson Theatre
Feb. 13 Aspen, Colo. Belly Up
Feb. 14 Denver, Colo. Ogden Theatre
Feb. 16 Minneapolis, Minn. First Avenue
Feb. 17 Madison, Wisc. Barrymore Theatre
Feb. 18 Joliet, Ill. Mojoes
Feb. 19 Ann Arbor, Mich. Michigan Theater
Feb. 21 York, Pa. The Strand Capitol
Feb. 22 Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Bardavon Opera House
Feb. 23 Englewood, N.J. Bergan PAC
Feb. 26 Burlington, Vt. Higher Ground
Feb. 27 Concord, N.H. Capitol Center For The Arts
Feb. 28 Port Chester, N.Y. The Capitol Theatre
March 1 Westbury, N.Y. NYCB Theater at Westbury
March 2 New Haven, Conn. Toads Place
March 4 New Brunswick, N.J. State Theater

“Experience Hendrix Tour 2014”

March 11 Grand Prairie, Texas Verizon Theatre At Grand Prairie
March 13 St. Louis, Mo. Fabulous Fox Theatre
March 14 Chicago, Ill. Chicago Theatre
March 15 Ames, Iowa Stephens Auditorium
March 16 Milwaukee, Wisc. Riverside Theatre
March 18 Louisville, Ky. Whitney Hall
March 19 Charleston, W.V. Clay Center For The Arts & Sciences
March 20 Pittsburgh, Pa. Benedum Center
March 21 Glenside, Pa. Keswick Theatre
March 22 Atlantic City, N.J. Harrah's Atlantic City
March 23 Wilkes-Barre, Pa. F.M. Kirby Center For Perf. Arts
March 25 Red Bank, N.J. Count Basie Theatre
March 27 Hampton Beach, N.H. Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom
March 28 Albany, N.Y. Palace Theatre
March 29 Waterbury, Conn. Palace Theater
March 30 Washington, D.C. Lincoln Theatre
April 1 Buffalo, N.Y. UB Center For The Arts
April 2 Northfield, Ohio Hard Rock Live
April 3 Detroit, Mich. Fox Theatre
April 4 Milwaukee, Wisc. Riverside Theatre
April 5 Merrillville, Ind. Star Plaza Theatre
April 6 Peoria, Ill. Peoria Civic Center Theater
April 8 Minneapolis, Minn. The State Theatre

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