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Musical Frankness

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Dweezil Zappa’s latest project pays tribute to the music of his father, note for note

As a prolific American composer, guitarist and producer, Frank Zappa can be credited with expanding his listeners’ consciousness over his three-decades-long career through his provocative, multidimensional music that was a mix of lyrical outspokenness delivered through wildly varied genres. Since his untimely death in 1993, the world has missed out on the daring avant-garde rocker’s unparalleled flair, irreverent humor and all-around complex musical genius. Thankfully Zappa’s son Dweezil has come to the rescue. An accomplished guitarist and musician himself, Dweezil is respectfully resurrecting his father’s music onstage through the expert ensemble he leads called Zappa Plays Zappa. Devout Zappa purists and newcomers alike are able to experience Frank’s music performed live with methodical precision and respectful adoration.

To the thrill of devout Zappa fans, Zappa Plays Zappa recently released a double DVD set with a bonus audio CD that pristinely captures more than three hours of electrifying live performances from the band’s 2006 tour, including special guests Steve Vai, Napoleon Murphy Brock and Terry Bozzio, all alumni of Frank’s bands in the ’70s and ’80s. Dweezil’s intention for this DVD chock-full of mindboggling musical entertainment is that it will also serve as an educational tool and historical archive for generations of future fans. New Orleans Living hung out with the guitar virtuoso on his tour bus before Zappa Plays Zappa and their special guest Ray White played the House of Blues on June 11, a concert that undoubtedly wowed the crowd!

Dweezil, I’m a big fan of Frank’s music and now Zappa Plays Zappa, thanks to the dedication you’ve put into this project. But people who aren’t truly familiar with Frank’s diverse catalog are missing out on some excellent stuff.

With the casual exposure many have to Frank, they only know he was outspoken against censorship and other political things; he has kids with crazy names; and he has some songs with funny titles like “Valley Girl” or “Dancin’ Fool.” That puts people at a disadvantage because they’re like, “Oh, he’s just the guy that does the crazy music.” Those are great songs, but they don’t even scratch the surface of the over 80 albums that he made. So in the show, we play a broad cross section of all his different styles of music to allow people to hear Frank’s music done respectfully and as authentically as possible, obviously without Frank. The whole reason to do this is to serve as a conduit to get people to listen to Frank’s music.

Your father’s music goes beyond prolific, complex and expansive, so was it overwhelming when you first embraced the concept to put together a touring band of his music?

I thought about this massive undertaking for a long time. I had to study and listen to every single record Frank made in chronological order to hear the whole arc of his career, which is one of the craziest things you can ever do! It’s absolutely astounding and inspirational that one person could write that much varied stuff. Some things I had to learn that weren’t even meant to be played on guitar were enough to drive most people totally insane. Something that takes literally two seconds to listen to would take me six months to learn!

The musicians hired for Zappa Plays Zappa had to be able to handle difficult arrangements and understand the subtleties of Frank’s music. Some of the band members look too young to even know who Frank is!

Frank’s music seems very contemporary, and some of his songs are relevant to today’s headlines even though some of the music is 40 years old. He’s like Nostradamus in that way! [Laughs] But if you have some youth onstage it’ll appeal to a younger audience, and appearance seems to be everything to people these days. I don’t think a band filled with all guys that are pushing 70, because that’s the age of some of the contemporaries that played this music, would have the same appeal. But people under 30 have limited exposure to Frank’s music, so the prerequisite was that they could learn quickly and play parts correctly. It’s really been fun for us since 2006, and the band has gotten exponentially better.

Fans now know the individuals in this band, and they’ve come to it with open arms. The first year was like, “Ok, what you got?” They thought, “Oh, he’ll probably form a band of former musicians that played under Frank’s tutelage and he’ll pretend to be Frank and it’s going to suck.” But we put the time in, and the music speaks for itself. We try hard to get the same timbre of the instrumentation down, because the sounds are as integral to the songs as the music and the lyrics themselves. I think it’s that extra attention to detail that makes what we do head and shoulders above the other Frank Zappa cover bands that don’t play the music correctly.

Those are the same ones that claim they’re being creative but are really leaving out the hard parts they don’t know how to play.

Exactly. Or they play it really bad and don’t even know that they’re playing it wrong!

Zappa Plays Zappa recently released a DVD. There’s the sheer entertainment factor of it where you can just take it all in and be amazed. Plus the DVD also helps to fill the musical void that exists today thanks to the over-commercialized, hyperslick-produced pop gunk constricting radio airwaves.

I don’t think kids today even know what they’re missing at this point. They’re just not exposed to enough different music, and they also don’t have the same kind of appreciation for music and music history that previous generations had. They don’t know how things are really done. They’re used to music sounding completely synthetic and they think that’s the best sound, because everything on modern records is impossibly in tune; it’s been tuned with a computer. And they’re perfectly happy spending money to see a live show with somebody just faking it! I just don’t get it. This show is not about theatrics; our presentation is here’s the music, just listen to it! We don’t have a stupid troupe of dancers or laser light shows going on. You come to our show because you want to hear some music. And the DVD gives people a chance to see real people with actual musical interplay.

Now there’s a concept: Real people really playing real music!

It sounds simple, but there aren’t enough real examples of it in popular venue situations for people to see that kind of stuff. Almost every band today plays it exactly like the record, with no improvisation or no changes to the arrangements, so you’re not really seeing any musical growth.

The musical thoughtfulness on the DVD is nice for musicians who want to get up close and really check things out, like the camera attached to the head of your guitar.

I have a real pet peeve with most music videos because what you actually hear is not what you see on-screen. Like when it comes to the guitar solo, okay, let’s watch the singer dance! Let’s watch the guy in the audience! Let’s watch the bass player! Why? You’re hearing a guitar solo. Show the entire guitar solo! That kind of stuff makes me nuts! So I edited the DVD so you could see what else was happening at the same time integral things are happening. If I’m playing the same part on guitar that a marimba is doing, you’ll see a split screen cutting back and forth of both instruments so you’ll get an over-the-shoulder sense of who’s doing what, how this music is arranged and the accuracy and coordination it takes to play it.

It’s amazing. This DVD is great for aspiring musicians who don’t have a cool uncle or someone to introduce them to Frank’s music. You are doing necessary moral justice to today’s largely banal music landscape!

Thank you! Thank you! The newcomers that get bombarded with all this stuff are like, “Man! I need to go do my homework now!” [Laughs] Then they take the steps to delve even further into discovering Frank’s music.

What does your mom, Gail, your brother, Ahmet, and your sisters, Moon Unit and Diva, think of what you’re doing?

I think they’re pleased by it, but I don’t think they really know how all-consuming it is. I play guitar basically 10 hours a day every day because if I don’t, I can’t play this stuff! That’s a lot to keep on your mind. When I practice this stuff at home, believe me, my wife is like, “Could you go in the other room?” She hears the same thing over and over and over again! And if I have my wife and two young daughters come out on the road, I’m really splitting time.

Right, trying to see the giraffes at the zoo and doing hammer ons and pull offs at the same time … now that gets rough!

[Laughs] Oh, it’s so hard! But every day we have to keep moving this thing forward. If we loose any momentum on it, it’s going to be so hard to pick it up again.

This is Zappa Plays Zappa’s second stop in New Orleans since 2006. What have you done for fun this time in New Orleans?

We went to Herbsaint and had a really fun time. Traveling and trying food is always good for creating good memories, not unlike what we do onstage—we’re in the creating memories business! [Laughs] It was funny, because the waiter said, “I must recommend the green tomato pie for dessert,” and I said “I like taking risks with some food, but that doesn’t sound appetizing; it sounds savory. What makes it a dessert?” He says, “Look, I’m going to send it to you. Just try it!” He was right! It’s like a Hostess fried fruit pie with sweet filling and frosting and the ice cream has a buttermilk taste to it. I really liked it. And I don’t know much about the city except what the typical tourist would know, like there are lots of different foods you can eat.

Well, New Orleans is like your dad’s music; people only know one side of it, but it’s truly a multidimensional city.

Oh, I’m sure. And the city has obviously suffered through horrible tragedy in recent times. We all have a pretty irreverent sense of humor, and we were saying the people have to have a great sense of humor to still want to be here after all this stuff. We like musical jokes, but obviously you’ve got to feel something for the people that live in New Orleans. So we were saying we didn’t want to offend anybody, but what could we do that would be a little nod to all that? We were just goofing around, and I don’t even know if we’re going to do this at the show tonight, but we were thinking of pretending to lull the audience into an “Oh, you guys, you have suffered so much” sense, then say, “This song goes to you” and then play, “Rock You Like a Hurricane”! We might do it just to mess with everybody.

[Laughs] Oh, do it! New Orleans appreciates irreverent humor. You’d get a standing ovation for it if the House of Blues wasn’t already standing-room only! Speaking of standing ovations, you get an impressive one on the DVD. That’s a big testament to what you’re doing to uphold the legacy of your father’s music for both old and new fans.

We hear quite exuberant, enthusiastic responses from people because they recognize what goes into it. This stuff is hard to play! People are fascinated by it because it’s unusual that you’d work so hard to do something. People are so used to instant gratification that they don’t want to put the time in. The audiences will pick up on some great combinations of things onstage, and we’ll want to start the next song, but they won’t let us because they keep clapping. Even if we pull it down, they’re like NO! WE’RE STILL CLAPPING! [Laughs] It’s just great. When people see Frank’s music played respectfully and done well, it’s a dream come true for them, especially people who never got a chance to ever see Frank. It means a lot to people who love this music.