An Interview with Dweezil Zappa
With Zappa Plays Zappa it seems like you’re on a mission.
DZ: There are so many things that are misunderstood or not recognized about my father’s music because they’ve been filtered by people who work for magazines like Rolling Stone. For example, Rolling Stone recently printed a poor, artist-rendering of Frank holding a joint. Frank has always been well-known for being anti-drug yet they would rather continue to perpetuate a false image of him, even after death, so they can mutate and manipulate their readers’ perception of him. It’s irresponsible, it’s obnoxious and offensive. I think it’s time people know what Frank was really about, and they should discover it through his music.
I would love to expose multiple younger generations to Frank’s music. It’s not an easy task because it’s not ever going to be plastered all over the radio for the masses. Frank certainly found his audience but he did it through touring, recording continuously and interviews. There will always be people looking for an alternative form of musical entertainment and I happen to feel that Frank’s music is certainly worth a listen. I really think that younger audiences would be fascinated by it because it’s so different than anything they’re exposed to currently.
How do you get this music and this message to a younger, hip crowd? All those people who haven’t heard it before?
DZ: I don’t want to refer to Frank’s music as being hip. To me that trivializes it. His music carries much more weight than that. His music is an alternative to every other kind of music out there. It’s not “alternative” music in the current vernacular sense, it’s a markedly different option. Frank always liked to say he was providing “The World’s Finest Optional Entertainment.”
As far as getting the music out there to be heard, it’s going to be tough. With the younger kids, some might discover it through their parents who are fans. Or miraculously find they may have some special antennae for it and seek it out on their own. The third option is what we’re doing, a grass roots movement, systematically bringing it to people. What I, or we as the Zappa family, would like to do is bring the music live on stage to different places in the world, and give the longtime fans something to be excited about but almost more importantly, provide an opportunity for new potential fans to discover the music. Before the Zappa Plays Zappa tour there was no official way to do that.
It is not easy to play the music of Frank Zappa. Is that why the tour was rescheduled?
DZ: No it’s not. The tour was rescheduled for multiple reasons, not the least of which was to try to take advantage of a better tour routing and less conflicted time of year. People’s schedules changed, some for the better, some for the worse. Ultimately, it has worked out favorably.
As for Frank’s music being difficult, yes it is. Most people don’t understand that his music is very, very complex. A lot of people who have heard of Frank think of him as almost a Weird Al Yankovic-type character who did comedy music, stuff like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” or “Valley Girl.” While it is true that Frank had a great sense of humor, he was also very serious about composing music. In reality there are only a handful of skilled players who can play his most complex pieces. It takes a lot of patience to learn and requires a fantastic memory.
So where do you find musicians who can handle this stuff?
DZ: We’ve actually assembled the band at this point. It was great to have Joe Travers, the “Vaultmeister” and Drummer in the core band, on hand to help plan and execute the auditions. We were both familiar with Frank’s “potential musician” criteria and applied those guidelines to our audition process. One of the most important guidelines was that keyboardists, percussionists and horn players definitely have to be able to read music.
We were initially looking at music schools, checking referrals, and talking to friends. It was important to me to find young musicians. I really want younger audience members to see kids in their early 20’s playing Frank’s music and to be inspired to take things to a higher level themselves. I had estimated that we would probably get about 15 referrals total for musicians in various roles. I think it ended up being 17. The auditions were challenging to say the least. For example, the auditioning keyboardists had to be able to play “The Black Page” and “Inca Roads.” They were not given the music and they only had 3 days to learn both songs. We wanted them to transcribe it and play it the way they heard it. Obviously if they played wrong notes and rhythms we would be able to detect what they were really capable of instantaneously. Another reason for that was because we knew we had a limited amount of time for rehearsals and we needed to have players that were motivated and could diligently work on stuff on their own before the core band actually got in the same room together. You have to be familiar with “The Black Page” and “Inca Roads” to appreciate how difficult it is to learn to play those songs in such a short time.
I was particularly impressed with the young keyboardist Aaron Arntz. He transcribed and played the music pretty accurately, but he seemed to be having so much fun doing it. To me that was a really good sign. The thrill of the challenge and the fun of reaching the goal is what I am really looking forward to. We had some other stand out players come through and obviously they were hired. The core band will consist of Joe Travers on Drums, Pete Griffin on Bass, Aaron Arntz on Keyboards & Vocals, Scheila Gonzales on Horns, Keyboards & Vocals, Billy Hulting on Melodic Percussion and Jamie Kime on Rhythm Guitar. I will be playing lead guitar and possibly do some vocals as well.
We will have close to 3 months of rehearsals to learn about 30 songs. Frank usually rehearsed a band for at least 3 months. If it took him that long to be comfortable we probably would need double the amount, but it’s just not financially possible to do so.
For me, the most difficult thing is that I am learning melodies on guitar from some songs whose melodies were not meant to be played on guitar. Ever. They were intended mostly for keyboards or melodic percussion. The melodies aren’t easy regardless of the instrument. I’m talking about compositions like “G-Spot Tornado,” “The Black Page,” and interludes in “St Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast” and “Inca Roads.” I actually gave myself a guitar makeover in the past year. I’ve devoted myself to studying and implementing many new guitar picking techniques as well as adding more musical theory elements to raise my whole level of musicianship. It was absolutely necessary for me to do this in order to play Frank’s music properly but also allow me to improvise in a more sophisticated way. It has been both tremendously challenging and rewarding at the same time.
Are there any special guests that will be joining you?
DZ: Yes, I’m pretty excited about it as well. I think the fans will be too. Let me put it into perspective for you. When this whole tour began to be realized we all felt that it was important to try to create the most exciting show possible. We wanted to be able to bring out musicians who were an integral part of Frank’s past touring bands. But not just for the sake of nostalgia. We wanted musicians who became known for their musical prowess and somehow played unique roles in the folklore of Frank’s music. That is why I am so thrilled to be able to share the stage with Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio and Napoleon Murphy Brock. They will all be part of the show on a nightly basis. I don’t want to give away any surprises but, let’s just say there will be a “fine selection” of signature tunes.
Do you consider Frank’s music rock n roll?
DZ: Yes, but I view Frank’s music as fully composed. In other words, the arrangements can work for any idiom such as a rock band or an orchestra. Frank was a brilliant arranger and could make his music work in any context. He proved that tour after tour and album after album.
There was always an anarchist, circus-like atmosphere around Zappa shows...
DZ: That’s a result of the bands being as good as they were. Frank’s bands could play the hardest stuff and make it seem like no big deal. With Franks inclusion of certain themes, political ideas, or even having the “Secret Word of the Day” in the show, there was always an opportunity for the unexpected, musically and otherwise. You didn’t know what you were going to see. And that has not been part of anything I have seen recently in popular music or even really at the time when Frank was doing it. Modern bands, or shall I refer to them as “Artists,” perform their music with the intent to sound as close to their perfectly computer manipulated records as possible without deviation. They might as well be miming. In fact many are. One of my favorite quotes of Frank’s and I’ll paraphrase is, “Progress is not possible without deviation from the norm.” I would like to see more bands expand on the arrangements of some of their music and allow for some musicianship elements to generate excitement rather than dance moves or lasers.
What do you think Frank would say about all the digital sampling and computer-generated stuff that people are using to make records these days?
DZ: I think he would be a proponent of the use of technology but I don’t think he would be thrilled with all of the results. Computers are used to make virtually all aspects of records now and their rabid use is responsible for the de-humanization of music. I also believe they are in large part a major contributor for the overall decline of actual musicianship. Computers are mostly about instant gratification, that’s what they offer. Point and click and suddenly you’ve made music. This can be a fantastic source of creativity in many instances but in many cases people are merely arranging or re-arranging pre-composed pieces of audio including samples of catalog artists’ records, and acting as if they wrote them. Derivative works should be classified as such. I find it annoying that simply speaking or rhyming things on top of other people’s prior recorded work is considered music by many people.
You and Ahmet are very different. Will he still be part of the tour now that it has been re-scheduled?
DZ: I believe he will. He does have some scheduling conflicts since the tour was moved to 2006. He will most likely be performing as a special guest at different locations when he is available.
We definitely are different. I have more of a serious side in terms of the fundamentals of things. I am very interested in how and why stuff works in music, and in any skill-oriented thing. What are the ingredients that make it what it is? Ahmet is very much an entertainer. He has a great energy and stage presence. He has the ability to bring things into focus in a theatrical way on stage and to help people have a good time. In a way we’re both sides of Frank’s personality. With Frank’s music there is a fine balance to be struck. Execution is everything. It needs to have technical grace but with a sense of humor and spontaneity. Frank described it best. He had a saying, “You need to put the eyebrows on it.” His music is difficult but once you learn how to play it it’s really fun. I think we both excel at the attributes that are necessary to making a concert of Frank’s music enjoyable. We also both have Frank’s eyebrows.
We also both feel strongly about Frank’s music being heard by more people. The more the better. The more I learn about Frank’s music the more important it becomes to me, and the legacy of what it is. Because Ahmet and I share the same last name, we feel that we should do something not only to preserve Frank’s music but to expand it’s audience and it’s longevity. It’s also very important to us that it be heard and understood from the right perspective, Frank’s. We want people to dive in and discover it for themselves just by listening.