Dweezil Zappa reinvents his fatherís sound
By RICK MASSIMO - Journal Pop Music Writer
Published in The Providence Journal - October 22, 2006
Dweezil Zappa says that re-creating the music of his father, Frank Zappa, on stage was probably inevitable — “There was always something in the back of my mind that said it was something I should do” — but there were a few obstacles to creating the Zappa Plays Zappa project.
First, the younger Zappa had to educate himself. He’s had no mean career as a solo artist and studio guitarist, but there was a lot of work to do. He spent two years studying his father’s music — some of the most complex compositions of the rock era — and learning new techniques on guitar to play it.
Zappa says that he adds a guitar part for some of the more complicated instrumental parts that weren’t originally played on the guitar, while keeping the original instruments as well — a technique known as doubling.
“One of the goals of mine was not only to be out there playing the music, but I wanted to have an audience perspective that was a little bit different. For example, some of these really difficult passages in songs like ‘St. Alfonso’s Pancake Breakfast’ or ‘Inca Roads,’ the hard melodies are being played by marimba and keyboards, and you don’t necessarily see what’s going on, because those instruments are usually in the back of the stage.
“So I’m doubling some of those parts on guitar. It just brings it more to the forefront, to say, ‘Here’s some insanely difficult stuff that people are playing in unison.’
“It’s a different way of seeing it, but it also allowed me to understand the music more and appreciate it more, to have to learn those really hard things.”
One of the things he had to learn was a sweeping picking technique rather than the standard up-down motion.
“It’s kind of equivalent to saying ‘Hmm, I don’t like the way I walk; I’m going to change how I walk entirely and do that from now on.’ . . . It changes your whole outlook on how you play.”
Now or never
It was a while in the making, but Zappa says there were several factors in getting the ball rolling on the project. One was becoming a father this year. “I was thinking, ‘If I don’t do this, it really can’t be done in the way that I’m doing it.’ And I don’t know if I’ll always be able to do it.”
He also feels the musical climate is calling for a re-appreciation of his father’s music.
“I think there’s never been a more stagnant period in music. And there’s also a different perspective on music: Young kids now growing up just think of music as an accessory that they don’t value as much. Because often there aren’t a lot of examples of people being creative with it.
“There’s room for every style of music, but Frank’s music doesn’t have the same opportunities to be heard as some other music that you would put in the ‘classic rock’ category. Frank’s music was never on the radio like that, but I think it really deserves to be much more in the forefront.”
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Zappa Plays Zappa band is the relative youth of its members. According to the younger Zappa, that was a conscious choice for two reasons.
“I think a lot of people had expectations that I would put a band together that would have only members of Frank’s band, and that I would just step into Frank’s position and pretend to be Frank. That was this kind of cynical way that people were looking at it, and saying, ‘That’s gonna suck.’
“I wanted people to be able to recognize the dedication that I put in on a personal level, training a band from the ground up.”
He also cites the use of young players as “sort of a role-model situation. … I think his music is contemporary, but it will come off as even more contemporary if younger people are playing it.”
Keyboardist Aaron Arntz is 24, Zappa says, and “someone was asking him, ‘What does it take to play this music?’ And he said, ‘Well, you need a minimum of 15 years of training.’ And that’s coming from a 24-year-old. So the average 24-year-old who’s getting into music now would be in for the surprise of their lives if they had to play what he’s playing.”
The show covers a variety of material from throughout the elder Zappa’s career, but it concentrates on his ’70s material, Dweezil Zappa says.
“I grew up listening to Frank working on his music and playing his music in one of the most exciting periods of his career, which was the ’70s. He was blending rock, jazz, classical, funk — all of these elements. And unique arrangements, with very unusual instrumentation.”
There’ll also be songs from ’60s albums such as Freak Out!, Zappa says.
“I’ve tried to create some idea for the person who’s not that familiar with Frank’s music. I wouldn’t say it’s chronological, but we do start off in the earlier days and end in the later days...
“But the production on the albums, and the way he would wield his guitar throughout those arrangements — all that stuff through the ’70s, was my favorite stuff. It also was one of his most popular periods with fans.”
That’s also where Frank Zappa’s music was at its most complex. And that’s what Zappa says is really driving this project.
Often, the hook with Frank Zappa is his silly sense of humor. But according to his son, that’s missing what was most important about his music.
“What people don’t necessarily understand about Frank as a musician is that he really was a composer using a rock band for the most part like an orchestra. And all of the stuff is really written down — it’s notes on paper. So there are some really great melodic things to play in the ’70s that were complex and sophisticated.”
Three albums Zappa cites as prime sources of material are Roxy & Elsewhere, Apostrophe and Sheik Yerbouti. Zappa says they’re not ready yet to do anything from the iconic Joe’s Garage set, because “if you learn one song, you need to learn four or five others from the record.”
But he says there’s time to get to that. He hopes to make the Zappa Plays Zappa tours an annual event, and says there are 100 shows booked for next year.
Zappa isn’t the first to play the music of Frank Zappa, but according to him, he’s the only one who’ll be doing it right.
“I know of several incarnations of bands that go out and do it. And there are countless other ones I haven’t heard. But the ones I’ve heard, I haven’t enjoyed, because there are a lot of details that are missing. And the people who try to change arrangements and add new parts to songs, that’s really annoying to me. Because that’s totally unnecessary.
“The point I made before about Frank being a composer — you don’t have people taking a piece by Beethoven or Bach and saying, ‘Let me write this new part in here.’ But people seem to feel like that they should be able to do it with Frank’s music. ‘Well, I’m just making it my own.’ Well, not necessary.”
Zappa says he’s been painstaking in getting the notes and sounds just right — the show is being advertised as “heir-tight” — and he has the advantage of being able to consult master tapes to figure out what’s going on. Using those tapes allows him to isolate certain instruments in order to listen to them more closely, “so it really does sound like the right timbre.
“We’re putting all the details in there, because everything supports everything else. . . . There are nuances that were very specific to him, and a lot of people miss out on those, because they can’t figure it out, or because they don’t have the time to make it right. I mean, really, there aren’t that many people who can really play this music correctly.”
In Frank Zappa’s autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book, he downplays his own guitar-playing skill, calling it “wiggling [my] fingers.” Dweezil Zappa says that his father was being overly modest.
“He wasn’t a super technician on the guitar, but he had a lot of idiosyncrasies that made him a unique player. Because of his knowledge of rhythm as well as harmony, all of these specialized things that composers are aware of, the way he approached the guitar was unlike any other guitar player. He was able to play 7- to 10-minute guitar solos and not repeat himself, because he wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, here’s Guitar Lick Number One.’
“He was really reacting to the musical environment, and doing what he would like to call ‘creating air sculptures.’ He also had an ear for unique guitar tones.”
That required another period of work and study for the younger Zappa, who says he had to build a complex guitar amplifier system to re-create all the different sounds his father could get.
“I’m not playing the solos exactly the same, because that’s impossible. But what I have done is imbued a lot of the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of Frank’s — some of his phrasing — and I will incorporate that into what I’m doing.
“But it’s also one of the only places in the show where I get a breather from playing hard stuff, is when I get to improvise. But it’s great fun, as well as being challenging.”
Zappa Plays Zappa is at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St., Providence, Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $50, $39.50 and $34.50; call (401) 421-2787 or go to www.ppacri.org.