like father, like son
Dweezil Zappa brings his dad’s music to Hampton
By MATT KANNER
Published in The Wire - 30 July, 2008
Frank Zappa fans are always hungry for an opportunity to see the mustachioed maestro’s songs performed live. In 2000, I caught a show by a Zappa cover band called Project Object, which featured long-time FZ band mate Ike Willis (the group toured as recently as April, this time without Willis but with former Zappa collaborator Napoleon Murphy Brock). When I asked guitarist Dweezil Zappa if he keeps in touch with Ike and Napoleon, he surprised me by saying that many of his dad’s former band mates have played his music without permission and have fallen out of favor with the family. Hence the slogan for the 2008 Zappa Plays Zappa tour: Accept No Substitutes. One of Frank’s four children (along with brother Ahmet and sisters Moon Unit and Diva), Dweezil started the summer tour in 2006. His eight-piece band, which includes long-time FZ collaborator Ray White, has learned around 85 Zappa songs. “That really is a massive undertaking,” said Dweezil, who was 24 when his father died of prostate cancer in 1993. “You know, it’s not just four-chord tunes.” He spoke to The Wire from a hotel in Oklahoma prior to a show in Tulsa. His band returns to the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom for an 18-plus show on Wednesday, Aug. 6.
Can you say what your goals are with this tour and why you started doing it two years ago?
The goals really are pretty simple. I just felt like my dad’s music was not being discovered by new audiences for the past 10, 12, 14 years. It’s been coveted by the main core of fan supporters, which is always good, but if you were to ask any random teenager what they knew about Frank Zappa, it would be very little. That, to me, seemed just kind of sad. I wanted people to be more aware of his accomplishments and give younger audiences a chance to hear something that really would probably alter their thoughts about music in general. So I thought it was important enough to dedicate some time to try to make that happen. ... Now it’s our third year. We’re seeing a lot more young people than we did the first year, and a lot of people that come to the shows have seen us every time we’ve been there, and they keep coming back and bringing new friends and stuff like that. So, it really is kind of a grassroots thing. With Frank’s music, it’s never gonna get massive exposure. It’s not gonna be on the radio. It’s not gonna be in a bunch of magazines every time you look at the newsstand. So the only way to reach new people is by a fairly regular touring schedule. But fortunately there’s a ton of new material that we can always learn and include in what we’re doing.
You mention that most teenagers don’t know Frank Zappa, and it seems to me that even in his time he was largely misunderstood by the general public. People knew who he was but didn’t really know his music. They just sort of thought of him as this weird guy.
Yeah, another reason why I set out to do this was partially reeducation of who he was and what he was about. The casual exposure he did get to a wider audience, I think, confused people, because he was put into a novelty artist category where he was just a guy that had songs with funny titles and kids with funny names, and he occasionally made comments about political things. People just knew a general thing about him and knew songs like “Titties and Beer” or “Dancin’ Fool” or “Valley Girl,” and were wholly unfamiliar with his other great classical works and sophisticated instrumentals and all those things. If you were familiar with him, that would be the majority. Comedic songs would be in the minority.
It must be really hard to learn some of his more complex songs. Is it tough for the whole band to get a grasp on how to play these songs?
Yeah, it’s tough for everybody. In the rehearsal process, when we set out to learn a bunch of new material, that’s always a real challenge, because it takes so much concentration to learn the stuff and really just organize your thoughts. It’s the kind of thing that could drive some type of individuals totally insane, because you just have to practice things over and over and over until you get it. When we learn things like “G-Spot Tornado,” which is one of Frank’s hardest pieces, that one took several months. You’re playing it all the time, but you’re not playing it right. And then it gradually gets a little better and then finally you get to where you can actually play it. But that process can sometimes seem like a never-ending, uphill battle, and a lot of people would probably opt to quit, rather than forge ahead. But this band has a no-fear attitude and really tries to take on the biggest challenges.
Last year there were certain songs where you had videos of your dad performing projected up on the wall, and the live band was literally playing along with him. What’s it like for you to be up on stage with your dad?
Well, it’s really cool. I had the opportunity to do that a few times growing up, to actually play with him and his band onstage. And now that I’m actually playing his music and we’ve gone to the trouble of learning this stuff with all the details, having him actually be there and be part of it is really cool. I mean, it’s obviously melancholy. The whole audience gets that feeling, as well, but it’s really a celebration of his music. ... We haven’t been doing the video stuff on this tour. We’re gonna probably do some more of it next year, try to isolate a few more songs that we can do it with. There’s not a never-ending supply of that material, because to do it you need the actual isolated footage angles on Frank and the audio itself isolated, so there’s not that many candidates that have those elements.
Listening to the “You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore” discs, it’s clear that Frank improvised quite a bit and did a lot of creative things onstage. Do you try to add creative elements like that to your shows?
Well, it just really depends on the situation and the material that’s in the show. There’s always improvisational elements that occur. It’s built into his music to have improvisational sections. Those really kind of become whatever they become on the night. Occasionally there’ll be times when we’ll have certain things happen on tour that we’ll interject and it’ll become a theme for the evening, but that just happens organically. You don’t really try to force the issue.
Last year I heard you improvise a song about greasy babies.
Yes, that one was pretty hilarious. It was “Greasy Children,” and that was a Ray White special, one of the funnier ones from the tour. We don’t necessarily do that in every show, but he has a great ability to make up a song on the spot. That was definitely a really hilarious one.
Do you have any personal favorite songs to perform of your dad’s?
It really changes, depending on what’s in our arsenal at the time, but having spent so much time to learn “G-Spot Tornado,” that’s usually one of my favorites to play, just because it’s such a great piece of music. But it’s such an achievement to be able to play it, especially on guitar. It’s really hard.