Zappa on Zappa plays Zappa
By KENN McCRACKEN
Published in the Birmingham Weekly
Some fathers dream of their sons caring on their genetic line, their family name or, in exceptional cases, the family business. In the rarest of cases, those same sons, like Dweezil Zappa, ensure that the art and creations of their fathers live on.
Speaking with Dweezil on the phone, you get a real sense of just how much Frank’s music means to him. He’s intelligent and articulate, with a great sense of humor – common traits he shared with his father (prostate cancer claimed Frank in 1993), though he (thankfully) is much less cynical, especially with journalists (Frank famously said that, “Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read.”). During 20 minutes, Dweezil talked about the tour coming on July 24 to the WorkPlay Soundstage, and in almost every word you could hear respect and admiration for everything that Frank achieved.
Since 2006, Dweezil has been touring with his bandmates under the “Zappa Plays Zappa” moniker, and it doesn't get any more self-explanatory than that. Also known as “Tour de Frank,” the group plays nothing but classic Zappa songs. These songs are classic not necessarily in the well-known-to-the-general-public sense, as Zappa was more known for his political commentary and occasional satirical "hits" like "Valley Girl" or "Titties and Beer." Because of this, Dweezil says that most people have the wrong impression of Frank and his composition abilities. So Dweezil has chosen to seed his set-lists with what he feels are more representative of Frank Zappa the musician and composer (while still retaining the occasional well-known track or two). Frank's catalog covers a "broad spectrum," Dweezil says. "His work is rooted in many styles, if you're an inquisitive listener."
To ensure that the music would be front and center, Zappa put together a band of younger, relatively unknown musicians to play the parts. While there have been Zappa alumni onstage at some shows – the first tour featured appearances from Napoleon Murphy Brock, drummer Terry Bozzio and guitarist Steve Vai – Dweezil wanted to keep the tour from becoming a nostalgic curio. Again, in 2008, the philosophy is the same, and while Vai and guitarist Adrian Belew have made appearances at shows on the tour, the only personnel bridge between elder and younger Zappa bands is vocalist and guitarist Ray White.
This isn’t the first time that Dweezil has played his father’s music. Aside from putting his own hard-rock spin on “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama” on his second album, he actually played live numerous times with Frank. In order to bring the music to audiences as faithfully as he wanted, however, required years of practice, pushing his guitar-playing abilities and musical knowledge to new heights. Most rock guitarists, he says, rely on a trick-bag of pre-composed ideas and patterns that they can pull from in the middle of a solo, a mindset he had to train out of himself in order to play like Frank. “There’s no repetition with Frank’s guitar work, unless he was building on a theme,” Dweezil explains.
He’s even played some things on the tours that were once deemed “impossible for humans,” like “G-Spot Tornado,” which was originally played on the Synclavier sequencer because Frank thought it would be impossible for the piece as he envisioned it to be performed by an ensemble (though later, Frank was proven wrong by Ensemble Modern). Such an undertaking demanded a lot of work for both him and the band, which, he says, “Shows how I feel about the music.”
In bringing Frank’s work back to the stage, he’s also made sure to put a spotlight on things that – normally played on less up-front instruments – might be lost in the shuffle. He has learned and now plays those parts – “non-guitar parts, what Steve Vai called ‘really impossible guitar parts!” notes Dweezil – on the six-string, further emphasizing Frank’s compositional abilities.
Dweezil is still assessing how audiences of younger generations react to Frank’s music, given its complexity and depth.
“A short attention span is actually good,” he says. “There are so many details in the arrangements and unpredictable elements.”
Also, so many of today’s popular touring bands (particularly jam bands like Widespread Panic, Phish and Umphrey’s McGee) show their Zappa influences prominently onstage. Like these bands, Zappa plays Zappa strives to keep the music as the main attraction.
“The music is the focus of the show, of course, but elements in the show that are unusual, the improvisational elements, get propelled and built upon,” Dweezil says.
He adds that he’s been amazed at the way even the younger audients “get emotionally involved… The audience reaction is beyond anything I could imagine.”
It’s not a sense of obligation that brought Dweezil to these hours of relearning an instrument, to the rehearsals and shows, nor need for a career. He wanted to bring Frank’s music and legacy back to live stages for at least one more generation to witness, and has so far succeeded with fans both new and old.
“Audiences have adopted us in a way you couldn’t have predicted,” he says.
Like most fathers – though maybe more so – you have to imagine that Frank would be proud.