Zappa Plays Zappa
Dweezil honors his father's great legacy
By BRIAN BAKER
Published in the Cleveland Free Times - July 25, 2007
Freak out - Dweezil's show is always evolving.
It's certainly not unusual for a son to follow his father's footsteps into the family business. It's not quite as common for the father's footsteps to be followed with an unerring exactitude that requires extensive learning and relearning. That's been the path Dweezil Zappa has laid out for himself as he embarks on the second iteration of his Zappa Plays Zappa tour, recreating the beloved work, note for glorious note, of his obscurely famous (and often infamous) father, Frank Zappa, for new and existing generations of music fans.
"The thing is Frank's music needs to be heard the way he did it," says Zappa from his California studio just prior to hitting the road with Zappa Plays Zappa. "He's got over 75 albums that he made. People just need to find them. What I'm doing is sort of a grassroots effort to bring new people to it, but also give fans that have been supporting him forever the opportunity to be around other like-minded individuals and have somewhat of a celebration. It has very little to do with anything but the music. I just want people to know more about what he accomplished in a relatively short period of time - but it will stand the test of time."
For Zappa to be playing music at all at this point, let alone the spectacularly complex and classically based orchestrations of his father, is somewhat fortuitous. After being exposed to his father's musical ideas from birth and then learning guitar technique as a teenager from both Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, Zappa began his career in 1982 at age 13 with a two-track 12-inch containing the songs "My Mother Is a Space Cadet" and "Crunchy Water." Zappa followed up four years later with his debut full length, Havin' a Bad Day, which led to more solo albums, the band Z (which also featured his younger brother Ahmet), and quirky cameo appearances in movies and on television. Dweezil and Ahmet became VJ personalities on MTV, giving them the kind of exposure and audience that even their father never enjoyed.
After 2000's solo album, Automatic, Zappa's disillusionment with the music industry led him to announce he was abandoning his career. He threw himself into tours and projects with his then-girlfriend Lisa Loeb (they hosted a cooking show together on the Food Network in 2004) and he continued to putter on a 75-minute piece of music featuring dozens of guest guitarists titled "What the Hell Was I Thinking?," but was musically quiet to the world at large.
Things in the Zappa camp changed quickly. He and Loeb broke up in 2004, he married fashion stylist Lauren Knudsen in 2005, and last year saw the birth of his daughter, the release of his first solo album in almost six years, Go With What You Know, and the launch of the inaugural Zappa Plays Zappa tour.
When Zappa first envisioned the concept of accurately replicating his father's music, he recognized that an enormous challenge would be involved. While his chops have always been impressive, Zappa knew that his genetic connection to Frank would only take him so far.
"I've always been somewhat of a technically proficient guitar player, so learning the hard things that I wanted to learn for the tour I knew were going to be a challenge," says Zappa. "As it turns out, there's a lot of emphasis in Frank's music on intervals of fourths on guitar. They're hard to play based on the way they appear on the instrument. It required a completely different picking style in order to accommodate playing this stuff. It's sort of the equivalent of when you hear of people like Tiger Woods, who's already great at what he does, changing his swing altogether, and people go, "Why would you want to do that?' and then he comes back and he's better than he ever was. The process of going through something you know very well and changing the small details can be very frustrating and time-consuming but the results at the end give you so much more than you ever thought you could do."
It shouldn't be concluded that Zappa has undertaken this homage to his father as a method of promoting his own work or an attempt to create a hybrid sound that encompasses both his and Frank's sonic concepts. Not only is Dweezil playing very exacting versions of Frank's famous catalog, but he's also playing very specific versions within that catalog.
"Occasionally we'll make a hybrid arrangement of a couple of versions of things, but what it's giving people the opportunity to hear is their favorite version from a record, like a version of "Florentine Pogen' or "Inca Roads,'" says Zappa. "We take the master tapes and listen to individual parts and we try to recreate the exact timbre of the instruments used or use the actual equipment used at the time, when it's possible to do so. And so we're recreating stuff that gives people the sensation of hearing it like they did the first time. It's not a modern interpretation, and it's not my interpretation. I think what people misunderstand about Frank is that he used a rock band the same way he would an orchestra. He made very specific arrangement choices and instrumentation choices and to randomly decide you want to do it differently does a disservice to the music, in my opinion. An orchestra, if they were going to play a piece of music by some standard composer, Bach or Beethoven, are not going to go, "Well, let me add a few little parts in here and make it my own.'"
If you were among the many who witnessed last year's Zappa Plays Zappa spectacle, rest assured that Dweezil has worked up an all new and, in many respects, even more challenging program for the 2007 circuit, including selections from The Yellow Shark, Frank's amazing work with Germany's Ensemble Moderne, and the exact version of "Call Any Vegetable" from Just Another Band from L.A., complete with improvised monologue and musical miscue.
"Once you get to the point where you're starting to be able to play it, you yourself are thinking, "Wow, I can't believe we're playing this,'" says Zappa with a laugh. "The band is always up for a challenge. We certainly set the bar very high with some of our selections for this year. It starts off being this Sisyphean task and then as the rock gets closer to the top of the hill, it starts paying off."
In the final analysis, the motivation for Dweezil Zappa to play his father's music is not merely an exercise in nostalgia to appease old fans, it's an outreach program to convert new ones. Frank Zappa's music was ahead of its time four decades ago when he burst into the public consciousness with Freak Out in 1966, and it remains as challenging and visionary today as it was then.
"It's been a very involved process, but it's still evolving," says Zappa. "The more I learn about Frank's music, the more I want to know about it. I feel like that's a very simple philosophy for anybody that's interested in his music - once they discover it, the more they're going to want to know."