Dweezil Zappa Interview
By BRIAN D. HOLLAND
Published in Modern Guitars Magazine - July 27, 2007
Dweezil Zappa has been rather busy over the past couple of years. Both out of choice and out of need he decided to analyze and study pretty close to everything pertaining to the music of his late father, Frank Zappa, the legendary musician, composer, arranger, producer, film director, political activist, and bandleader. Shut Up N Play Yer Guitar became more of an ironic reality for him than just a title of a 1981 Frank Zappa album set, because that’s pretty much what Dweezil did. His determination to bring the music of his father to the people became an obsession born of love, respect, aspiration, and admiration. As he says on his website, "In order for me to play my father's music correctly I needed to understand the fundamentals of his music more thoroughly, which meant a lot of studying."
It’s undeniably by choice because Dweezil is an impressive guitarist in his own right, one who was in the midst of his own career before the obsession began. Comprehending the significance and importance of exposing the music of his father to new fans spawned the realization that he was the most logical purveyor of the message. He also had a strong desire to awaken the passion lying dormant in the hordes of fanatics still craving the music left behind when prostate cancer took his father’s life, at age 52, in 1993. Realizing the artistic value and magnitude of the Zappa legacy, one that spans four decades and encompasses roughly 60 album releases during his life and close to twenty posthumously, not even including the rereleases, previously unreleased material, remixes, and compilations, he’s also aware of the existence of a pervasive younger generation of music lovers who deserve to be introduced to, and acquainted with, the music of Frank Zappa. These young people owe it to themselves, to their psych, sense of humor, and to a higher perception of music precision and appreciation.
It’s out of need because Dweezil’s heavy metal guitar style, highly influenced by the techniques of Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, is quite dissimilar from the original and avant-garde guitar playing method of Frank Zappa. Out of need, and for the love of it as well, Dweezil took two years to study those methods. Simultaneously, he analyzed Frank’s quest for tone, recording techniques, stage habits, and garnered a complete understanding of his compositional and arrangement skills. It was a difficult task, to say the least, because anyone acquainted with Frank’s playing style knows that he rarely repeated phrases, which was an important consideration for Dweezil, primarily because it’s such an unusual attribute for guitarists. Frank Zappa’s approach to music in general was innovative and unusual, and he was very serious about every aspect of it. He was a Mother of Invention in more ways than one.
Eagle Vision recently released the Frank Zappa - Apostrophe (‘)/Over-Nite Sensation Classic Album DVD, one of the numerous album documentaries presented on the popular VH-1 television series. The man, the music, and the circumstances involved in the making of these two definitive albums are portrayed in an entertaining and informative manner. This is without a doubt a fine addition to the Frank Zappa music and memorabilia catalog, and it adds motive and enhancement to the shows coming to a venue near you this year.
Zappa Plays Zappa, or Tour de Frank as some like to call it, has been Dweezil’s outlet for presenting his father's music to the minions. Special guests like Steve Vai, Napoleon Murphy Broch, and Terry Bozzio occasionally make appearances, which is more than appropriate because they were acquaintances and members of various Zappa bands. Films of the man himself run in the background from time to time, bringing an atmosphere of stage presence to the diversified presentation. Though Dweezil does an amazing job replicating and staging his father’s music and guitar playing, the other musicians who make up the Zappa Plays Zappa band pay amazing homage to the Zappa musical brilliance in a respectful and capable manner as well. The second go around of the tour starts July 18, 2007, and continues well into October, reaching venues across the US, Canada, and Europe.
The interview below took place on April 25, 2007. Though we touched base on the Zappa Plays Zappa tour, we mainly spoke of the new Apostrophe (‘)/Over-Nite Sensation Classic Album DVD. The conversation was a little about Dweezil and a lot about Frank.
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Would you like to talk about Zappa Plays Zappa, Dweezil?
Dweezil Zappa: Sure. We can incorporate elements of that into it, but I’d mainly like to talk about the DVD that’s out. It’s part of the Classic Album Series, and basically a documentary about the making of Apostrophe and Over-Nite Sensation.
I’m curious about that as well. I’m a big fan of your father’s music, going way back.
DZ: That’s good to know.
I saw Frank live five times, each time at either Boston’s Orpheum Theater or the Music Hall, which is now known as the Wang Center.
DZ: Middle '70s or so?
Yes. Though my favorite and most memorable show was the Zoot Allures tour.
DZ: Okay, so that was about ’77.
Yes. That sounds right. I was about five rows from the stage, and it was just incredible. Musician wise and musically, it was a good time for him.
DZ: Yeah, well, that was a great period. Basically,’73 to ’79 is a great period in Frank’s music because he started to have bands that could play some of the more challenging material he was writing. Also, it was a great period because of the equipment that had reached the marketplace by that time, allowing for certain types of sounds, synthesizers, and all. The guitar sounds he was creating were really at their peak.
Without a doubt. Is it my perception, or does it seem as though the young and the unaware haven’t had the opportunity to take your father’s music seriously, or even a chance to become familiar with it?
DZ: It’s not just you. The main reason we’re in the middle of doing Zappa Play Zappa and releasing this DVD showcasing Apostrophe and Over-Nite Sensation is for a new awareness and education into Frank’s music for the younger generation who hasn’t had the opportunity to even come across it. I don’t think they know what they’re even missing. The DVD is a great tool to get people interested in not only the music but in the production aspects of what Frank was doing. It really shows how ahead of the curve he was, on a lot of levels, creatively and technically in the studio. Now is the time for the uninitiated to get a great education, and an understanding of the music that wasn’t possible before.
Right. But I think, even back in the day, basically because his stuff was so lyrically bizarre, that his music went right over the heads of many.
DZ: I think that’s true, but it really just depends on where you start with the music. Some of the confusion, I think, in Frank’s career comes from the songs that accidently became successful, things like "Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow" or "Valley Girl" or "Bobby Brown". They’re things with a sense of humor that make people think of Frank more as a comical artist like Weird Al Yankovic.
Some never understood how ingenious the music was. I’m basically talking about the general listener, people who may listen to music but aren’t inclined to get into it too deeply.
DZ: Yeah. There are various levels of attentiveness when it comes to musical audiences. The people who stuck with Frank his whole career couldn’t get enough of all the details. They really appreciated all the levels involved in the music. That’s what's so cool about this DVD. It uncovers the process of how he would put things together. There’s some interesting footage, because we basically pulled out the master tapes and listened to them, solely on certain tracks, also combining them. You get to hear the actual master recording, and we talk about how it was put together. It’s really sort of a forensic study of the records, and there are some good stories about the people who had worked with Frank. It’s fun to watch actually, and informative as well.
It goes with what we’re talking about. I think Frank had been misunderstood, mainly because he’s been portrayed in the media as something other than what he really was. He had a lot of integrity as a musician and as a person. He had this pursuit of excellence in what he did, but he also had a sense of humor. The thing that confuses people is that you can be serious about something and also have a sense of humor. People don’t think that’s possible. They tend to overlook his classical music and his guitar playing and all of these things because the only thing they can readily understand is the humor.
Right. You explained it well. He had a lot of respect for his fellow musicians, too. One thing that never ceased to amaze me about Frank’s live shows was that he’d often sit rear center stage, kind of in the shadows. He’d be drinking a cup of coffee or something. I know he didn’t drink alcohol.
He was never known to be a drinker. So, he’d just sit there with that cup of coffee or whatever, and he’d groove to the music as each member got into soloing and improvisational jamming. Then he’d stand up and walk over to the microphone when it was time to do so. He’d bang into a solo and just blow everybody away!
DZ: That’s the great thing about how Frank arranged his music. A lot of his instrumental music was written out, the parts written by him on paper. But there were often elements that were allowed to exist in the extemporaneous world, so soloists of other nature, keyboard, bass, or horns, were allowed to do their thing in context to the music. Part of the live experience was seeing people being able to improvise at a very high level of creativity. The people who played with Frank were tremendous players.
That’s one of the things nowadays that’s really missing from the live experience. You don’t often see bands with great players who can improvise well. I’m talking about on the popular music circuit, where you have big audiences of several thousand people or more. There are great musicians who get a chance to play in smaller venues, but back in the day there was the occasion that more people were informed about this kind of event and had interest in it. You were lucky that you got a chance to see that stuff at that time.
Yes. I put those Zappa shows at the top of my list of favorite concerts seen. I’m a guitarist as well, and I was greatly influenced by your father, especially his lead solo work.
DZ: I had to learn quite a bit of his style of playing for this tour. It’s been a real eye opener in a lot of ways. It’s so un-guitaristic, the way he approached rhythm and melody within his solos, and the way he would not repeat phrases. You know, like a standard bag-of-tricks guitar lick, the standard mentality of most guitar players. Oh, I’ve got my ten licks, and I can put them together in a couple of different forms, and these are my solos. [Laughing]
He was playing jazz fusion for years, long before many guitarists even knew what jazz fusion was.
DZ: Yeah, but he did it in a way that wasn’t stuck to a form. That’s the thing. Frank had no boundaries in his music, and often, people who are educated in music are confined to a certain style that they’re taught, and to the boundaries that are given to that specific kind of music. That’s why you’ll hear a lot of jazz guitar players who have very similar phrasing and sound, and they go for that on purpose because that’s what jazz is supposed to look, feel, and sound like. Frank didn’t think of things that way, you know. He would combine anything with anything. He’d have a ratty guitar solo over an orchestra way before it was even remotely popular.
Exactly. And the musicians who were involved with him throughout the years, guest musicians, too, like Patrick O’Hearn, Terry Bozzio, George Duke, Aynsley Dunbar, Lowell George, Eric Clapton, and Jack Bruce. All of these different people who played with him and wanted to play with him. Frank was kind of like the Woody Allen of rock music.
DZ: He definitely gave people an opportunity to be challenged and have musical triumphs in the live situation. As a musician there’s no greater thing to strive for than to pull off something in an improvisational way that really is musical, something that only happens right there at that moment. That was pinnacle of what Frank was trying to achieve every night, something extraordinary that would only happen at that particular moment, in that performance. Every chance each audience got to see him they’d see something that was unique to that show. And again, that’s a very high standard to achieve. But that’s what he was going for.
Is the younger generation starting to pick up on all of this?
DZ: Well, from my experience with last year’s tour, Zappa Plays Zappa, there were more younger people there than I had expected, but it still isn’t where it should be, in my opinion. The way people often come to Frank’s music is through a family member who grew up liking it. These days, people can research in various ways and find it, but you have to want to look for something like that.
It doesn’t get the exposure of other forms of popular music; so, until it has some sort of opportunity to be exposed to more people on a frequent basis, in a way that they can really understand it to the point that it appeals to them, then he’s going to be misunderstood for a long time. Part of what I was doing with Zappa Plays Zappa was, first of all, making it possible for the fan base to get into a public place and meet other fans. It’s a grassroots element. You’ve got to give people an opportunity to hear his music played in a way that’s as authentic as it can possibly be without Frank actually being there. In some cases we have skilled performances in which the band backs up Frank, who’s on a big screen. So, in some cases, he is actually there. But it’s really different than your concert going experience in the middle '70s.
My point is that to begin this process of re-education and getting his music out and seen, and hopefully respected in the way it really should be, it begins with a live concert experience. Through that, we have a chance to inspire people to learn more about the music. He made over 75 albums throughout his career. There’s so much music, and it’s not just songs that sound the same. There’s a lot of variety, a lot of serious music, a lot of fun stuff, experimental stuff, everything you could ever want or need, all under one roof. A lot of people just don’t know that it’s out there.
You’re a very proficient guitar player yourself. I’ve heard much of your material and it’s really very good, though dissimilar from your father’s. Was it a lot of work for you to sit down and learn all the guitar parts to do a live Frank Zappa presentation?
DZ: It was more than a lot of work. Basically I took two years to study Frank’s music. The process started with listening to every single one of his records in chronological order so I could get a sense of how he evolved, you know, where the ideas came from and which things were continually infused. He had a tendency to do that; there was some sort of thematic coherence, or repeating themes that would come and go in records. But getting very familiar with the music on that level was the beginning.
Deciding what I wanted to play out of that created a situation that made me have to completely alter my technique of how I play guitar. I adopted a new picking style, which is really sort of a style developed by Frank Gambale. It’s like learning how to walk all over again. I’d already been playing guitar for 20 years, and I had to learn how to do it all over again in a different way. The main reason for that was because I wanted to play parts on guitar that weren’t written for guitar, parts that were written for keyboards or marimba.
One of the things that can help the audience understand the complexity of the music is seeing it firsthand. If you’re watching a show live onstage and the keyboards and marimbas are in the back, and you don’t really see what’s going on with their hands, the consensus of the modern concert goer hearing this crazy music would be, "Oh, that’s probably programmed." So, if you see it played on guitar in unison with those other instruments, it becomes another element to show that it’s real people playing the stuff. You can see on the guitar how hard it is to play. [Laughing]
I spent a lot of time learning that stuff, and changing not only my physical approach to guitar but my mental approach as well. To play Frank’s music and to play the guitar solos within the songs, I wanted to imbue my performance with his idiosyncrasies and phrasing. I’m not playing his solos note for note, but I’m definitely playing within context not only to his style but to the music itself. We won’t play a song, make it sound as it’s supposed to, and then suddenly take a left turn into some other school or idiom that doesn’t fit.
Is specific gear crucial to the show? For example, your father used the Pignose amp for years, especially during Apostrophe and Over-Nite Sensation.
DZ: Yeah. We talk about that on the video.
The Marshall and Carvin amps, and the SG guitars?
DZ: Yeah. The thing about the gear is that Frank had a different perspective on how to use equipment than a lot of other guitar players. He had electronics built into his guitars that allowed him to equalize his guitar over the arrangement of the band. Basically, he had parametric equalizers in his guitars, and in most cases there were two of them in each. You could choose the frequencies you wanted for clarity, and you could also choose frequencies to add more gain for smooth sustain, like what you hear on Zoot Allures when he hits a chord. It goes into that nice feedback. He was using recording equipment technology within his guitars.
He was used to working in a studio, mixing, and doing these things, so he incorporated that into his guitars. Very high class, hi-fi audio concepts were incorporated into his sound. He wasn’t using high gain amplifiers in the way that other people were; he actually had more gain from his guitar and would use the power amp section from his amps. There was more headroom and more dynamics, because the actual output from his guitar was 18db louder than a normal guitar.
Do you use the Baby Snakes SG onstage?
DZ: Well, I didn’t want to bring any of his actual guitars out because they’re irreplaceable. I’ve got guitars that evoke a similar response. I have an SG that looks like the one from Roxy and Elsewhere. I have some Stratocasters for certain songs, but the main thing is that I definitely try to recreate those sounds to the best of my ability. Because I’m not using the same electronics in my guitar it has to be done in other ways. My guitar rig has been evolving to better suit that purpose, and on this next go around I’ll be able to get it even closer.
Will there be a Zappa Plays Zappa DVD?
DZ: Yeah. I’m going to Montreal next week to finish it. It should be out in middle to late July, available at our concerts at least, and then a wide release in stores about a month or two later.
Can you give me an idea of a typical Zappa Plays Zappa setlist?
DZ: I can tell you quite a few of the songs for the DVD. We have "Andy", "Call Any Vegetable", "Tell Me You Love Me", "Florentine Pogen", "Cosmic Debris", "I’m the Slime", and we do stuff from Apostrophe and Over-Nite Sensation, "Yellow Snow", "St. Alphonzo’s Pancake Breakfast", and "Father O’Blivion". We do "Inca Roads". There’s a lot of stuff in there.
Will there be special guest appearances on the DVD as well, like Steve Vai?
DZ: Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio, and Napoleon Murphy Brock are all on the DVD.
It was a difficult time for many of us Frank Zappa fans when your father passed away. It was no doubt a very trying time for you and your family. My mother passed away from cancer as well, and it’s never an easy thing to endure, and it never happens at a good time. I think if Frank lived he’d now be one of the frequenters of the jam band movement or something on that idea, maybe his own festival, like Zappafest.
DZ: Well, he would certainly be a major force in music, most likely politics as well. The jam band movement, to me, is sort of weird because modern day teenagers and twenty somethings are having this experience of what they think is this great freedom in music, but it’s nothing in comparison to the predecessors of all that. I don't think they have enough history yet to understand where that movement comes from.
Well, it definitely goes back to the San Francisco era, the ‘60s and into the early ‘70s.
DZ: But if you’re talking about a high level of musicianship, and there’s really no accounting for taste, some very popular bands that are from that sort of movement don’t appeal to me. Their musical ideas just aren’t my cup of tea. I grew up hearing what was possible through the context of my dad’s music; so, there are infinitely more possibilities than many of these other things. The whole point, again, is that I think people don’t even know what they’re missing, because they haven’t really had a chance to dig deep into Frank’s music.
You can’t depend on FM radio these days, that’s for sure.
DZ: No. But the new DVDs that are coming out will be an integral part in educating newer audiences. It’s great, too, for the fans who’ve always been there, but to really make the music live on it needs to keep being rediscovered by future generations.
You have quite an impressive discography yourself.
DZ: Well, it’s really been in the last couple of years that I’ve decided to take it in a different direction and do something I would be fond of years from now. I’ve achieved a different mindset and level of playing at this point, so any future recordings I do of my own music will certainly reflect the changes, and they’re huge changes. I do have one special project that I’m hoping to finish within the next year or two, which I actually started 14 years ago, called What the Hell Was I Thinking?.
How's that coming along?
DZ: I haven’t had a chance to work on it that much over the last few years. But now, with the changes in my playing, I’m going to go back over a lot of stuff and do some things that modernize certain elements of the project. It’s a really cool thing. I describe it as an audio movie, and it’s a continuous piece of music that’s seventy five minutes long. It has forty-five different guitar players on it, all with various guitar styles.
I saw a list naming players like Eddie Van Halen, Eric Johnson, Angus and Malcolm Young ...
DZ: Right. Brian May, Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, Warren DeMartini, Brian Setzer, Joe Walsh, Jimmie Vaughan, Robben Ford, all kinds of people.
DZ: Yeah. It’s one of those projects that has evolved into a lot of things. It probably could, in some way, be in the Guinness Book when all is said and done. [Laughing]
Yes. It sounds like something guitar fans, music fans in general, would love to get their hands on.
DZ: I think it’s going to be really cool. I just have to get the time to finish it. The tour is taking up a lot of my time, and my wife and I just had a daughter. She’s nine months old now, so she’s talking up the majority of my time.
Will there be a Dweezil or Frank Junior?
DZ: Well, there’s a Zola Frank Zappa.
Zola Frank, that’s cute. Congratulations!
DZ: Thank you.
I hope you have a lot of success, family wise and with the other ventures, Zappa Plays Zappa, "What the Hell Was I Thinking?", the tour and the DVDs. Would you like to mention anything else about the forthcoming DVDs?
DZ: I think anybody interested in Frank’s music who hasn’t yet had a chance to check it out, sort of like testing the waters, this is a great way to learn about it, and learn about other elements of his music as well. How it was to work with him, the kinds of techniques he was using in the studio, the advances that he helped make within recording. Those records themselves (Apostrophe/Over-Nite Sensation), I think, are probably the best records for people to discover Frank’s music, because they contain a lot of the elements of his serious compositional style, yet they’re arranged in a rock context with very memorable themes.
They exemplify the Frank Zappa persona.
DZ: I agree. That’s why it’s a good place to start. It’s a large part of what we were featuring on the tour from last year because of that. We’ll continue to play music from those records.
Though it’s one you don’t hear mentioned very often, I always liked "Chunga’s Revenge".
I love that record. I still play it all of the time.
DZ: That’s a great record. It contains some really good stuff. In fact, we made a record called Quadiophiliac that contains the very first recording of "Chunga’s Revenge" Frank ever did. It was in 1970 in the basement of his house, and it was recorded as a multichannel recording. You hear it in surround sound and it’s literally like sitting in Frank’s basement. It’s a really cool recording.