Zappa on Zappa
By CHRISTIE FINDLAY
Published in DC Style Magazine - October 23, 2006
Frank Zappa raised the bar on cool. A technical virtuoso, the Baltimore native composed complicated rock pieces dripping with satire, running jokes and child-like glee—and that was even before he got to the lyrics. His song “Porn Wars” lambasted Tipper Gore’s music ratings proposal; he mashed together quotes from the infamous Senate hearings to point out their ridiculousness of the proceedings. His live shows came across as circus-like affairs, with poetry readings from random audience members, stuffed animals and admonitions to “put that down, it’s bad for you.” Zappa died of cancer in 1993, just shy of his 53rd birthday. A decade later, one of his sons, Dweezil, decided to bring his father’s music to a new generation. He spent two years gaining the technical skills, then launched the Zappa Plays Zappa tour with Steve Vai, Napoleon Murphy Brock and Terry Bozzio, along with a handful of young musicians who could keep up with them. “Frank’s music is very contemporary, even though some of it is close to 40 years old,” Dweezil says. After a worldwide tour that’s been enjoying monster ticket sales, Dweezil tells us ZPZ will become an annual tradition. I rang him up recently to chat about his upcoming show at Warner Theatre on Monday (Oct. 30) in D.C. —Christie Findlay
Q: When was the last time you were in D.C.?
DZ: I played with my former girlfiend, Lisa Loeb, about three years ago. But this will be the first time doing something like this. It’s a strange town, really. Depending on your level of enthusiasm for whatever administration is in office, it really changes your perspective of the city. I really like the sort of history of the place, and I like the monuments, and I think there’s good food. But I wouldn’t say I’m so comfortable with the current climate there. But it’ll be interesting, when we play Frank’s music there it’ll be a good contrast to the type of individuals who are running the show there. Frank’s music has a lot of freedom in it. It’s about not having boundaries, and blowing up the perception of certain things. There’s a lot of fun in it and creativity in it. It’ll be a good release.
Q: Although tribute shows are common, a tribute tour is fairly novel. Are you a man on a mission?
DZ: I don’t view it as a tribute tour per se, because when a tribute band plays something, they don’t always get all the details right. With the case of Frank’s music, because it’s so hard, if you’re leaving out parts or not playing the rhythms correctly, you’re not playing the music right. You can do that with other types of music, but it doesn’t really work with Frank’s music. I know there will be some people who will be hearing Frank’s music for the first time, so I want them to experience it as closely to what it’s like—obviously, without Frank—as possible.
My goal is to present Frank’s music to an audience live on stage, because I think that’s the best way for young people to connect to it … it will change their perception of music and move them beyond the boundaries of pop music.
I grew up watching frank doing all of this. At a certain point, it came out of fashion to be a virtuoso, and it became, “Let’s do something that has attitude.” I think there’s a lot of honor in being really good at doing what you do, whatever it is.
Q: You mentioned that Frank’s music is hard to play. But it also takes effort to listen to it. It’s not background music.
DZ: It depends on why you’re listening to music. Frank has a funny quote, where he said, “Music has become wallpaper for your lifestyle.” A lot of people have music on in the background, maybe because it may indicate something about their personality: “Oh, I like this kind of wallpaper music.” But with Frank’s music, there’s great repeat listening value because you can always find something new and interesting in it. I think people who are drawn to Frank’s music … are content to just sit and listen to it, because that’s the entertainment value.
Q: What’s been your favorite moment on stage?
DZ: There’s been a lot of emotional moments. Certain songs have been challenging to get through without having a tearful breakdown. And it means something to the audience, it’s not just, “Here’s this thing I’m doing for entertainment tonight,” it’s that they’re here to show real support. Every show we did [on the first leg of the tour] ended with a tremendous standing ovation. It was wild.
Q: Frank’s live shows were crazy. There was so much planned spontaneity.
DZ: That’s one of the most fun aspects of the show. The controlled chaos. In this world of music where everybody does the exact same show every time out, and the lights are all on a timer, you’re seeing something that happens in every city. But with Frank’s shows, there’s musical happenings that are unique to each night.
There are hand signals the band is trained to listen to. I can throw a hand signal into any song, and we can change it into something else entirely. There’s one song we do that has an open section where the background accompaniment can change rhythmically. It’ll still be in the same key, but the accompaniests will change the time and meter and even the style. It could go from reggae to hideous smooth jazz to heavy metal, depending on what kind of hand signal I throw, and it can stay there for 2 minutes or 10 minutes. It’s just whatever I’m in the mood for at that particular moment. That’s where it’s just funny, that’s where all the other band members get to improvise and do interesting things. That’s what Frank had a great time with—creating environments for people to do interesting things—and that’s what we like to do as well.