To Frank Zappa fans, the “hardcores” as it were, his music is the standard by which all other music is measured. These hardcores boast exhaustive collections of his music (on vinyl, bootlegged tapes and CDs, video archives and so on). They research minute details of Zappa’s folklore, make new connections in what Zappa called “conceptual continuity” (the many clues embedded in his music, cover art, movies, and interviews that connect everything he has ever done into one continuous piece of music he called “Project/Object”) and argue over what it all means.
Many of them — the elders, at least — have seen Zappa in concert several times, and some have even been recognized by Zappa in song. They’ve traveled thousands of miles to attend these shows and consider their ticket stubs badges of honor, proof that they were present for the infamous Berlin incident or the Italian tear gas riot or the Madison Panty-Sniffing Festival or the fire at Montreux (yes, the one documented in Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”).
Oddly, these are not the people to whom Dweezil, Zappa’s oldest son, wants to appeal with his decade-old touring project Zappa Plays Zappa. He says he wants to cultivate a new audience for his dad’s extensive repertoire, turning young people on to the vast well of music spanning nearly 50 years and literally all styles of music — from avant garde and classical to rock, jazz, blues, fusion, and even rap (“Promiscuous”) and heavy metal (the posthumously completed “Dragon Master,” co-written with Dweezil, to be released on Dweezil’s upcoming solo record).
The Zappa Family Trust recently released Frank Zappa’s last official album of all-new material, Dance Me This, bringing the total original Zappa releases to 100, unprecedented for a rock artist who died in his early 50s. Zappa Plays Zappa is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the classic Zappa album One Size Fits All on this tour, playing it from start to finish.
Folio Weekly recently spoke with Dweezil about learning his father’s music, getting the kids into the act and the touchy subject of Zappa tribute bands.
Folio Weekly: You took time off to prepare for Zappa Plays Zappa, learning your dad’s guitar style and getting the band together. How did that come together?
Dweezil Zappa: First thing was, before I even put the band together, I studied the music for two years. And I wanted to be able to present the music in a way that could show the audience a little bit more about the music. And part of that was, I knew that from an audience perspective they’re not going to be able to see over the shoulder of the drummer or the keyboard player or the marimba player, but you can see what the guitar player is doing. So one of the elements I decided to take on was to learn some of the really hard instrumental passages in a lot of the songs. To do that required changing my approach to guitar.
Basically I had to unlearn everything I had already been doing for 30 years, and then just create a new way to do it. And that really was quite a challenge. In the two-year process, I was studying the music and completely transformed how I approached playing guitar, not only from a technical standpoint, but also from a mental and visualization standpoint on the guitar, because Frank’s style of playing his solos was not the standard guitar-hero style of playing. So, not only did I have to learn all these hard parts of the music, I wanted to be able to learn the vocabulary of his improvisational style so that I could play in context to the music. It was a massive undertaking, which over the past 10 years has been a continuous thing. I learn new things all the time. You can listen to some of Frank’s music, and some new thing can be uncovered even if you’ve heard it a million times, you can be, like, “Wait, now I am just catching on to this part that is happening in there.” There are so many layers of detail in all of this stuff.
How many of those in the ZPZ audience are deeply familiar with Frank’s music, and how many are the newer people you want to appeal to?
In general, there is a core fan that comes to these shows who knows the material quite well, but they’re not the kind of people that are super-obsessive. Frank probably had a bit of a following at times in his career that, if somebody made a mistake in the performance, some deranged fan would come up to that musician later and say, “You messed up bar 38 in blah blah blah,” but we don’t really get that. The thing about it is, a lot of the intent is to be presenting this music to a new audience that’s not familiar with it at all, because if you really put it all into perspective, to core fans that grew up on the music, who saw Frank play a lot, they would have been roughly the same age as him. Some even older. So that puts them in the 70- and 80-year-old category, and those are not generally people who are racing out to concerts these days.
What we’ve seen is a change in the audience from when we started 10 years ago, those people were in their 60s. So it was more feasible, more viable, that they would be coming to a lot of shows. So we started to see the landscape change a few years into doing it, because my goal from the beginning was to get a younger audience — people under 30 — to be hearing this and adopting this music as current music. If you’ve never heard it before, it’s current music, so my attitude is even though we’re out there, we’re playing, in some cases, music that is 50 years old, there’s nothing that sounds like this music. To me, it’s music from the future. It’s not nostalgic music because it’s not part of people’s background music lifestyle in the way that say The Beatles, that some people say, “Oh, I heard that when I was a kid …” It was never on the radio the same way that this other stuff is. People are largely experiencing it for the first time, so when you have kids that are getting into it at 15 or 16 now, that music stands in stark relief than it ever did compared to what is popular music.
The people in your band are younger. When they’re preparing for the tours, how familiar are they with Frank’s music and what is their training regimen to get them up to speed?
When I initially put the band together, the goal was to create a core band of people that had no prior affiliation with Frank’s music. Again, the goal was to show that a current generation could be playing this music and inspiring people to get into this music, and I didn’t want to cloud it with this notion that only alumni [former Zappa band members] could play it.
On the first tour, we had a lot of alumni guests, because we didn’t know if were going to be able to do it for more than one year, and promoters were pushing really hard to have alumni. They wanted me to have only people that played with Frank, and me be the only one that didn’t. That was not my idea at all. I did not like that concept, because that wasn’t the vision. My feeling was for this music to move forward into the future, you have to have a younger generation get into it, and you have to have a younger generation want to be able to play it. And they’re not going to be inspired to play it if the average age of everybody on stage is over 60. That’s just not going to fly.
There were a lot of parameters involved putting the project together, but as far as people having familiarity with the music, most of the people that got into the first round of the band had very little knowledge of Frank’s music, but they had a crash course in it, once they were selected for the gig.
For example, Scheila Gonzalez, who plays horns and flute and keyboards and sings, she didn’t know hardly any of the music, but she fell in love with the music after learning to play it because, as a musician, the challenges set forth … are so varied, but they’re so rewarding. You’d have difficult, through-composed parts that you’d have to learn, and then you have improvisational things, always something to be paying attention to. You can never be on autopilot to play any of this stuff. There’s always something that will bite you if you’re not fully paying attention.
In July, the Zappa Family Trust announced an agreement with Universal Music Enterprises for licensing and distribution of new product. Your mother, Gail, and brother, Ahmet, said in a recent interview that this meant Joe’s Garage the musical, a performance of 200 Motels and, most significantly, The Roxy Movie would see release. Zappa hardcores have been waiting years for the release of Roxy, sustained by many continued promises by the Trust that it would soon be out. How realistic is the new proposed release date of “this October”?
As far as I know, the film has been finished for a while. There’s just been no specific release set up for it. I do not know why. I guess they had to wait for a while to make sure this Universal deal got set up. The challenge with the film was that the film footage and the audio were not in sync, and it wasn’t a simple process to put it back in sync, because there were issues with both the film and the audio in terms of the speed that they were running at. The way to sync film and audio hadn’t been fully developed.
Basically, when you discover this happens, what it amounts to is that you have to make thousands and thousands of video edits to slide and move footage to put it in sync with the music, and it’s all done by hand. We’re not a big organization, and we don’t have bunch of technical staff, so it took a long time to figure out what was wrong with the footage and find a solution. There was no algorithm that could put it in sync. It had to be done by hand. It was a very time-consuming process. Once it finally got put in sync, there was a way to make an edit. Now I have not even seen the finished edit of the film, but I hear it’s done.
Dance Me This came out recently. “Dragon Master” is coming out soon. Is there a chance that the Salon recordings Frank made just before he died will be released in a listenable format?
Well, I know that there are tons and tons of concerts that could be put out. As far as tracks that are from records, there’s not a lot of that that I am aware of. As far as new material goes, it’s going to be live performance-oriented. With Frank’s music, every live performance has something different with a lot of the songs. You take a song like “Inca Roads,” you could hear a thousand different versions of it, and it’s always going to have something different because the song has improvisation built into it.
That’s one of the ingenious things in Frank’s music. The structure of the music is intended to have a life of its own in the performance aspect, so when he was doing a lot of touring, he didn’t want to play a lot of the songs and have them sound the same every time. He built in ways to be able to play the same material, tour after tour, but change it up. I don’t think there is any artist who has rearranged their own material so effectively or so frequently as Frank.
Are you going to use any of Frank’s guitars on this tour?
I never take any of his guitars on the road, ’cause if something happens to them, you know, that’s it. I do have a replica of the guitar. I use that as my main guitar. It’s definitely useful to have when it comes to recreating most of the sounds from his career.
You host a guitar workshop before shows on this tour. What will the Dweezil boot camp cover?
I have a camp called Dweezilla, and I put that on hiatus. That’s usually a three-day immersive camp. What I did was I took a lot of those elements and put them into a one-hour class that people can take when I go on tour at a lot of the venues [before soundcheck]. I go over a lot of material that is helpful for getting out of a rut when playing. Some of it is related to some of the steps that I went through to learn my dad’s music, just a few simple ideas that grow into much more complex ideas. That’s sort of the nature of what my playing has evolved into, to have one basic simple idea that I use … then connect several ideas together, and the result sounds like a more complicated thing than what it is.
I really do simplify the guitar into looking at it as three sets of two strings, and there’s all these little ideas that you can use on these string sets. It just becomes a finger game at a certain point.
I have one more very personal question for you, if you are willing. In the interest of full disclosure, I used to play drums for the Zappa tribute band Bogus Pomp. When I played that music, I played with all the heart, passion and skill I could muster, because Frank’s music changed my life, yet the Zappa Family Trust has frowned upon certain tribute bands reproducing Frank’s music. Do you share that view and, if so, why?
The thing I think that people get confused about is that there is a certain sense of entitlement these days when it comes to music. People think that music is basically just supposed to be free and anybody can use it. And anybody can use anybody’s name and just go out and perform stuff. That’s the problem — there are performances that get set up, and they use the name and likeness and [Frank’s] music, and all this stuff that they don’t have the right to. People don’t go through the proper channels to get the proper permissions for it.
When it comes to when people rearrange stuff, and change the music so that it sounds nothing like the original, that’s also a problem, but it also requires — first of all, if you’re going to do an arrangement of somebody’s music, the arrangement is automatically owned by the composer. There’s all these steps that are related to copyright and permission that people just avoid. They think, “Oh, I am such a fan of this, I can just do it.” It just doesn’t work that way. It’s like saying, “I love oranges. Oranges should be free for me every time I go into a store.” That’s where there ends up being a conflict of some sort because, just because you like something doesn’t mean you have the right to use it how you want. There’s plenty of people who try to take Frank’s music and rearrange it and say, “Hey, look what I can do to it.” That’s not even necessary.
Believe me, I like when people play Frank’s music and play it well. I don’t like when people play it and make a bunch of changes to it and sort of say, “Hey, oh, we can’t really play it the way it really is supposed to be [played], so we’re gonna do this to it.” That has no appeal to me. I give people the analogy [when] people refer to Zappa Plays Zappa as a cover band or a tribute band, I say, well, that’s fine, but then you would have to take into consideration that an orchestra should be called a cover band or a tribute band. What we’re doing is treating this as a repertory ensemble that’s playing the music in the way that it’s intended to be played, with all the details of the composition and the performance intact. The reason is we want that version to be commensurate with what Frank was doing, to the best of our abilities.
You wouldn’t have an orchestra playing a piece of music by Beethoven and say, “Hey, it’s modern times now, we really need to get a new audience, so let’s get a rapper in here going [simulating hip-hop], “Yeah, Bay-To-Ven, yeah … ONE TIME!” You know? You’re not going to pump the music up by trying to modernize it or put your own spin on it. The goal is to take a respected piece of music and bring it forward for future generations to hear it as the composer intended.
I don’t view [Frank’s] music as being traditional rock music. It’s got its own unique form, and it’s much more akin to classical music than anything else. It really just has to be respected. That’s why I don’t make any changes to anything.
In the entire time I have been doing this, the only changes that I’ve made were giving a song an ending that was a fadeout on a record, or one time we took the approach of making a hybrid arrangement. For example, “Bamboozled by Love,” we did the slow version and the fast version in one version, so you got the best of both worlds, but they’re both completely something that Frank did, so putting them together wasn’t a stretch. We did the same thing with “Dog/Meat” where we did The Yellow Shark arrangement with the mid-’70s rock-band arrangement, to have elements of both. Other than that, I don’t change any of it. There’s no reason to.