Photos By Vince Anderson
Since their 2007 Baltimore debut on the first annual Frank Zappa Day, Zappa Plays Zappa has consistently wowed Charm City audiences with outstanding performances in the finest and most compelling Frank Zappa tribute to grace the stage. Shockwave editor Jeanette Garcia Polasky had the chance to catch up with Frank's eldest son and ZPZ front man Dweezil Zappa before their Feb. 6 concert at Rams Head Live.
Shockwave: Thanks for taking time to speak with me before the show. There's a big crowd waiting on you out there, so let's get to it. A lot of people are really excited about last year's announcement of the reissue of 60 of Frank's albums. Given his vast body of work, how do you decide which songs to play?
Dweezil Zappa: Well, first, with the releases, the good thing about that is they are much more widely available because there are digital downloads available. But the records have been remastered, so if you're getting an actual CD copy, they sound closer to what a lot of the records would've sounded like on vinyl because many of them are from the analog master and the vinyl mix. [Back then] you had to mix differently for vinyl than you do [now] for digital formats because the vinyl could only have a certain amount of frequencies before it would cut the groove too deep and ruin the actual disk. Sometimes those things are more beloved...the vinyl mixes...they just have a certain magic to them.
When it comes to choosing what to play...from the beginning, my goal with this project was to represent the depth and variety in the catalog by choosing songs that emphasize what makes Frank different as a composer. The compositions themselves also have a lot of depth and variety within them, so it's kind of just letting the music speak for itself. One of the things we try to do in every show is have something from each era — you know, '60s, '70s, '80s. As a band, it's hard to make sure that you can recreate the sounds and textures from those days. We don't modernize the sound of it...we actually try to utilize sounds that are evocative of the era so that it's a bit like a time machine, so when it's from the '60s, it sounds like it's from the '60s, and so on and so forth. The challenge is not necessarily only about making the set list, it's about what gear you are going to use to make it sound that way, and there's also sound design and all that kind of stuff that goes into it. There are multiple layers of work that have to be done to pull it together in rehearsals and stuff like that.
Generally speaking, I like to make sure that, if there are new people in the audience — which, we always have some new people who haven't seen the band or haven't really heard that much of Frank's music — we want to give them some indication of some of the things they may have heard about...you know, songs like Montana...but we don't put the whole show together around the "hits." A lot of what we do is about trying to introduce things that people haven't heard. On this tour, one of the songs we're having the most fun playing is a song that's not very well known called "That Evil Prince" from one of Frank's weirder albums, Thing-Fish, which was kind of like a Broadway show on a disk.
I don't think I have that one.
It's a crazy one, for sure, you know, because it's about all these potato-headed creatures with duck lips that are called Mammy Nuns, and they speak in Ebonics, and there's a lot of craziness going on.
I'll have to check it out. Now, considering the wide range of instruments and the ensembles of various sizes that Frank would often use, how do you accommodate those factors when playing a selection from throughout his career?
It becomes tricky. We've scaled the band back from an eight-piece to a six-piece, and in doing so, we actually energize the arrangements because it ends up being that there is a little bit less instrumentation that you're hearing, so some of the parts are more defined. And we seem to have a bit more of a rock edge on some of the things that, before, maybe were more jazzy, but because of the energy on the stage, there's more of a 'rock' kind of feel to it.
Do you find it difficult to adjust the arrangements?
I don't think that it's difficult, because, basically, if we make any modifications in the way that the song is performed, it would really just be in attitude, not necessarily in changing rhythm or pitches or anything like that, so texturally, some of the sounds might be slightly different even though we're trying to maintain what's evocative of the era. I think that the hardest thing to do is...well, when you have a big, big arrangement of something like, say, "Strictly Genteel," which is an orchestral piece, and then we learned it as a six-piece...we spent probably close to 20 hours just listening to it and figuring out who was going to be able to accommodate which parts on which instrument, because there's a lot of multitasking going on. I'm playing parts on guitar that were written for piccolo, flute, and all kinds of stuff, and so I have to change octaves on the guitar with special effects.
Besides playing the notes, there's a lot of tap dancing to press buttons to change the sound, and so everybody's got a bit of that to do. Even if you had a 40-piece orchestra playing it, they are usually playing doubles and triples of parts in different octaves. So we're able to stack octaves in the sound design that we do to create a bigger ensemble sound, even though there are only six of us doing it. All of the major parts are represented...all of the contrary motion stuff and things like that. It really does sound like a full, orchestrated piece, [like one] with more than six people playing. So there's a lot of effort that goes into trying to make those things work.
It works. You guys really pull it off. So, your lineup has changed a little since you started seven years ago, but the band, especially the guys you're playing with now, you sound like you've been together for years. You've also played with some of Frank's former bandmates in the past. How would you compare those experiences?
Again, I think one of the main goals from the beginning was to give people a sense that Frank's music is inspirational, and if you're just beginning your career as a musician, and you're seeking something different, and you want to be challenged to be the best you can be, Frank's music represents a significant time [for you] as a musician. We've been playing this music live for seven years, but there was preparation that went into it before we started, so it's like a whole lifetime's worth of education when you play this music and really get into it. My goal is to introduce it to younger generations so that they can get that same kind of thing out of it, because I know that, as a kid, I listened to my dad's music, to what he was working on as he was working on it, and I never listened to the radio or other music until I was 12. By the time I did hear other music, even with the stuff that I heard and liked, I still thought to myself, well, where's the rest of it? Where are the other instruments? Where is the rhythmic diversity, you know? So that was my experience, and most of the people that grow into listening to Frank's music kind of have that same thing, where it changes their perspective on what's possible in music.
We don't try to change the music, we try to play it and respect as it is, in the same way that an orchestra's job is to play music that's hundreds of years old but written on the page. One of the things we always come up against is people trying to say, "Well, if you want a new audience, you've got to modernize it, or change it, or make it your own," and I don't agree with that. You don't see orchestras having rappers come out, going, "Yeah, yeah, Beethoven, yeah," because it just doesn't need to happen.
Getting back to who's played with us and what difference there is...my goal, originally, was to not play with any of the former members because too much emphasis gets placed on what their role may or may not have been in Frank's music. Some of the ones that are out there playing it are doing it because they're trying to draw more attention to themselves than to the music, and they're trying to rewrite history and say, "Hey, we had more involvement in this than you were led to believe." People like Ike Willis...he flat out lies to people, saying that Frank told him on his deathbed, "You go out there and carry this music forward, you're the one," and that never happened. That conversation never took place. The problem is that people want to believe it because he worked with Frank. And the point is, I wanted to put a band together to play the music, and also have it not suffer from the look of a nostalgia project, because if you want a younger audience, you don't want to have some 70 year-olds on stage playing this stuff — Frank would have been in his early 70s now — so his contemporaries and people that played with him are well past their 50s.
It's a consideration to say I would like this music to be recognized so that it can be contemporary and viable at any point in anybody's life, and it doesn't have to be relegated to a certain period. And using people that played with Frank pigeonholes the music as nostalgia. That was never my interest. But the first year that we toured, we didn't know if we were going to do it for more than one year, so I said, "Let's go ahead and turn it into an event for this tour and have some people that have done some good work with Frank, and we'll play this stuff as best as we all can."
I think that worked out, but I think that the band, as it is currently, is something that has a broader appeal. It's more in keeping with the original mission, which was to form a band to show that people can, through diligence and with a lot of practice and respect for the music, play the music and show that, in this day and age, in this generation, it's possible; so that, if other people who aspired to do that can do it, as opposed to thinking, "Oh, well, the only people who can play it are people who formerly played with Frank," when that's really not true.
With the current tour wrapping up, what's next for Zappa Plays Zappa?
One of the things that we're considering is another tour later in the year in which we'd play a full album, and it probably would be Roxy & Elsewhere, since it's the 40th anniversary. So that's something we're thinking about. I might have some time between now and the next major tour to work on some of my own music, and I'd like to work out a way, moving forward, to do some of my own music at some of the shows. We haven't decided how we're going to do it, whether it would be during the show or a separate event before the show. It's been a long time since I've had the chance to work on any of my own stuff because this takes up all of my time.
Awesome. I think the fans would love it. Now, tell me about Dweezilla and your master classes. Do you enjoy teaching?
The camp has been a fun thing to do. It really came out of so many people asking me how I did it, how I learned the stuff, because it's such a departure from what people knew of what I could do on a guitar before. It really was a major transformation that I had to make, in both my physical and mental approach to playing music, in order to do this project. So the camp was a way to give people insight into the steps I took and into what playing this music opened up for me as a guitar player. What I've been doing on this tour is, in some cities, we've arranged to hold guitar clinics where people can bring their guitars and ask a bunch of questions for a couple hours in small groups, and it's been fun.
Who taught you to play?
I listened to a lot of records, but I did get to see great players up close, you know...my dad, Steve Vai, Eddie Van Halen, Eric Johnson...all kinds of different people. When you see how they execute things up close, it makes a big difference in how you approach it, and so I've been able to take that amalgamation of stuff and apply it to what I do. The thing is, everyone else in the band can sight read, and they're really good at all that stuff, but I can't read [music], so I learned it all by ear.
That's incredible. I can't imagine how difficult it was. And here you are. We love seeing you in Baltimore, and I don't think that was ever more evident than on Frank Zappa Day in 2010.
Well, I would like to do more, ultimately, with Zappa Day and have something more to do with Frank's coming from here. I'd like to see a film festival held and something that allows more possibilities for other bands to learn and play some of Frank's stuff, and we can play as well. We could make a bigger deal out of it and have other events. Maybe we could do a Dweezilla.
I think we can make that happen. You beat me to it...I was going to ask you about coming back in 2014 for the 8th Annual Frank Zappa Day and the fifth anniversary of the installation of the Zappa bust in Highlandtown. We have lots of time to plan.
Yeah, I think it would be good. There are good things that could come from it. We took a trip to Partinico, Sicily, which is the place where Frank's family emigrated from, and I think it's cool to discover family roots. I think there's probably a lot of people who aren't aware of Frank's history here; kids who like his music, who might really get a kick out of it, like, "Wow, I didn't know he was from here," and it makes some difference in their sense of pride for where they live.
I think it does, absolutely, and not just for the kids. I know you have to get out on stage, so I'll stop here. Thanks for your time, Dweezil. It was great to see you.
You, too, thanks. See you afterward.