Passing It On: Zappa on Playing Zappa

When putting together Zappa Plays Zappa in 2006, Dweezil Zappa set expectations for himself and the musicians that clearly reflected his late father Frank Zappa’s exceedingly high musical standards. Shortly before the band embarked on a 40-plus-date tour this past spring that included stops across the United States, as well as in Mexico, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Israel, Italy, France, and the UK, Dweezil and I spoke about the challenges and the preparation that has gone into presenting his late father’s music to both new audiences and longtime fans. —DB

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Dweezil Zappa

David Brensilver: This “grassroots movement” in support of Frank Zappa’s music, as you referred to it in an interview on the Zappa website, was designed to give “longtime fans something to be excited about” but also to “provide an opportunity for new potential fans.” Obviously the bar had been set high. What did you learn personally in studying the music and Frank’s playing?

Dweezil Zappa: I studied the music for two years and just wanted to be certain that I could execute things the way that they needed to be executed on my part before I even bothered to put a band together. It was kind of like training for the Olympics. I practically had to change everything about the way that I played, even my mental approach to playing. Once I felt that I was going to be able to do what was necessary, that’s when I put the band together.

DB: You referenced Frank’s “potential musician criteria” in that same interview. What is the makeup of that and what did you need to see and hear from musicians auditioning for the band beyond being able to play the notes to “Inca Roads” or “The Black Page”?

DZ: It’s one thing to be able to play the stuff—there is certainly a very high level of skill that’s required. It’s another thing to have the right attitude in the sense that you’re going to respect the music enough to play the parts as written. A lot of times Frank had problems with people starting off playing the parts right, but then trying to do their own little additional harmonies or change things here or there because they were trying to draw more attention to what they were doing. I wanted to avoid any of that kind of stuff. The kind of people that I am lucky enough to have in the band are people who have the right dedication to learning and executing the parts but have enough self-restraint to not try to embellish something.

When we play, we choose specific arrangements or sometimes we’ll make hybrid arrangements of a couple different versions of things, but we don’t ever go out there and say, “Let’s just do something brand new from the ground up. Let’s do our own thing with it and let’s re-harmonize this or let’s change these parts.” That never happens, nor should it happen. We’re presenting it the way Frank intended it to be heard. Now, we have improvisational sections in the shows just like Frank did. That is where the band sort of gets to express themselves, and that’s one of the most fun parts of doing this—the chance to stretch out and spontaneously compose or spontaneously combust. But ultimately I’m pleased that within the band there’s enough discipline for people to learn the parts and stick to them in a traditional sense just out of respect. So, in the auditioning process, I needed to find people that had the innate ability but also had the right attitude and were also people that I wanted to spend time with. And that’s difficult.

DB: I assume it would have been relatively easy, hypothetically, to enlist players like Mike Keneally or Scott Thunes or Chad Wackerman, but you wanted younger musicians in the band. Beyond presenting a band with which new, younger audiences could identify, do you think that the gelling process was aided by what had to be a high level of intensity in those three months of rehearsing the music that might not otherwise have been there?

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Zappa Plays Zappa

DZ: I wanted to actually avoid alumni members because to me, I knew that I was going to be under enough scrutiny. To avoid any speculation that I was just coming in and playing a guitar solo and everybody else was doing all the work, I spent all that time learning the music—not only my parts but really familiarizing myself with everything else going on—and really taking up the role as bandleader. So this band is a band under my baton. The funny part is that, on the first tour, we really didn’t know how it was all going to go down, and so promoters really wanted us to use some alumni as special guests and they were sort of scattered in throughout the show. But, as I suspected, a lot of people sort of overlooked the core band. When we did away with the alumni stuff, which I couldn’t wait to do mainly because I felt that the band certainly was strong on its own, you’d literally hear people in the audience talking to the band afterwards and saying, “You guys are so much better than the last band that they had.” It’s like: Yeah, but we are the last band. You just weren’t paying attention.

DB: They just saw Terry Bozzio or Steve Vai. . .

DZ: Yeah, but that doesn’t happen anymore. Now people know this band as a band, and they’re interested in hearing it diversify. They want to hear more things that we’ll do with Frank’s music, but the majority of the time the thing that is being requested is for us to play new music, music that I’ve written for this band, which to me is very surprising because that’s not at all what I ever set out to do with this. But we’re also in our fifth year of doing it, so the majority of the people who come to see us have seen us multiple times. They are very familiar with the individual members of the band and are keen to see what the next step in the evolution of the project is.

We’ve done the last couple tours minus an additional keyboardist. When we started off we had a dedicated keyboardist and we also had a girl who plays multi-instrumental stuff, so she was playing keyboard, sax, flute, and all these different things, and she was taking up the responsibilities for a lot of that stuff, even at the same time—playing keys and horn at the same time.

Now we’ve just hired a new guy—it’s an interesting story. When I put the word out about the auditions, I put it out through my website and I said, “Okay, anybody who’s interested, here’s the parameters, here’s the songs I’d like to see you do, throw up some video clips and then we’ll see how it goes from there.” There was a kid from Tennessee who took up the challenge to put up the clips that I asked for, but then he went beyond that to some of the other hardest things that we’ve ever played, like “G-Spot Tornado” and some of these ridiculous things, and he put up videos that were not only good performances, but he had a good personality and they were entertaining videos. So I could sense from seeing that that he would be a good fit for the band. I wanted to give people a chance, and we brought in several people to come in and play in person, and he still ended up being my favorite. So we hired him. He’s only 23, and he got into Frank’s music from watching our DVD, the ZPZ DVD from 2006. So it’s the backwards way of getting in, but it’s exactly what this whole thing is designed to do—inspire the younger generation to be into the music.

DB: The Dweezilla music boot camp workshops: This is clearly not a Frank Zappa fantasy camp. It’s about, it seems, developing the skills required to play difficult music. It seems almost like the “grass roots movement” that began in ’06 has taken on maybe a bigger mission. So, I’m curious to know what kind of interest you’ve had among sort of the younger, new fans.

DZ: Well, the people that signed up instantly for the courses, the age range is kind of all over the map. You have parents signing their kids up, you have people over 40—some people over 50—that just want to be around the music and understand how we do it. Even if they’re never going to turn it into a music career for themselves, they want to have that experience. The whole goal of it is to give people an opportunity to have a chance at a different perspective. I think music is taught in a lot of different ways, but rarely is it really taught by people that are, day in and day out, doing it on the road. We all went through our own autodidactic cocoon to be able to do what we’re doing in this band, and we all have different areas of expertise. In a short period of time, you give someone the exposure to all these tools and then you present them with the notion of, okay, how do you implement these tools? The benefit that can come from it is that people will be more comfortable with their own abilities and be more adventurous. The tagline for the school is “Learn and Destroy.” So it’s kind of like: Learn some new stuff and destroy the boundaries.

I mean, just from a guitar perspective, I made so many changes in what I do that it’s not necessarily even very guitaristic. What I do now doesn’t even reflect what I used to do. Recently I was sitting with Eddie Van Halen—and he was one of my biggest influences if not the biggest influence that I had—so it was funny to me, where I was showing him some things that I had been working on, these different ways of playing quintuplets and septuplets. And he said, “You lost me there. I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” The fact that the fundamental concept of what it was didn’t register to him, even though he plays drums and he’s got an impeccable sense of rhythm and all that stuff. Intrinsically he knows what that stuff is, but he didn’t know the name of it. Even when I was showing it to him, he said, “Who’d have thought after all these years you’d be giving me a guitar lesson.” So it’s a very funny, full-circle type of thing.

I had been like that prior to learning what I had to learn to play this music. Now that I know the names of things, it gives me a lot more freedom to communicate with people. So the whole impetus of the school is to say we’ll give you some tools and what you do with them at that point is up to you.

DB: You’ve been introducing new, potential fans and longtime fans to Frank’s, dare I say, rock music. Is there any discussion or thought or consideration of a vehicle for delivering his chamber and orchestral music again?

DZ: Well, we’ve performed different versions within the rock band context, but we haven’t ever performed a show using instrumentation from an ensemble. It’s something we’ve been talking about. The only problem with it, really, comes down to what kind of venue, what kind of rehearsal time the ensemble would get, and just really making sure that it can come off the right way.

I mean, I’ve heard of many more requests for all those kind of projects and orchestras wanting to play Frank’s music more so now than in the past. And I think part of it has to do with the age range of conductors and people in the hierarchy of the foundations and things that put these kinds of shows on. I believe that the new generation of people that are coming in are familiar with Frank’s music and respect it in a way that the old guard perhaps did not. It’s the kind of thing where, if someone were just to look at the notes on the page, there’s no question that there’s validity within the music. But when people have a reputation that precedes somebody even looking at the page. . .

DB: Yeah, but I mean, some of the material on The Yellow Shark, that’s the real deal. . .

DZ: You don’t have to convince me.

DB: What you’re saying, though, is people who don’t know otherwise, they see Frank’s name and there’s a preconception about what the music may sound like.

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Zappa Plays Zappa

DZ: That’s what I’m dealing with on a grand scale anyway: People know the name, but they don’t know the music. And what they think they know of the music is incorrect. The majority of people who have just casual exposure to Frank’s music only know songs like “Titties & Beer,” “Valley Girl,” “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” “Dancin’ Fool,” all these songs that have little comical stories that go along with them. So people put him in the “Weird Al” Yankovic category. They don’t realize that he made records like The Yellow Shark and all these other things. Even if they do listen to that or find out about that, they don’t think that he actually wrote that stuff out himself. They think of it as the way most rock bands work with an orchestra: Oh, they got some other producer guy to come in there and do that. They don’t realize that Frank had that ability and could sit down on an airplane and write out a complete piece of music for all the instruments and know what it sounded like just from sitting there looking at the page.

That’s a whole other world. I mean, I don’t have that ability at all, but I wish I did. That would be awesome. So, part of what I do is try to give people a broad enough perspective, from the selections that we play, that can shatter the myth of Frank as only this guy. We have a DVD that’s going to come out later this year or early next year, and even within the 20 songs that are on it, it’s just astonishing to see the depth and variety within the music itself. We play some of the classical stuff, we play “Dog/Meat,” which is like a hybrid arrangement of The Yellow Shark and the rock version that he was doing from 1974, and we play “G-Spot Tornado,” but it’s mixed in with songs from the Joe’s Garage album and all these other things. And when you just listen to this stuff across the board, you’re thinking: How could somebody write all this music? You only have 12 tones in Western music. How did he do it? How did he make these things sound different—more different than everybody else?

DB: “Valley Girl” and Civilization: Phaze III are very different animals.

DZ: Exactly. And so I marvel at the fact that as a composer he never stopped growing. He never just settled in to say, “Okay, I’ve learned these techniques. I’m going to use these devices, and this is how I do it.” There was enough motivation for him to keep going and keep pushing it. There were no boundaries.

DB: Well even using the opening bassoon solo from The Rite of Spring on the (Cruising With) Reuben & the Jets record in “Fountain of Love.” I mean, even as someone who went to a conservatory, I wouldn’t have caught that unless someone—and that’s probably what happened—pointed it out to me, or I read it in his book, because it’s seamless and it’s not contrived at all. It’s learned and thoughtful.

DZ: There’s so much inspiration to be had in his overall body of work. We’re just scratching the surface. We’ve learned over 120 songs, and that’s just barely touching—out of the 80 albums that have come out—so there’s a ton of stuff. I mean, there’s stuff that we’ll never be able to play, there’s stuff that was never performed, there’s Synclavier pieces and all kinds of stuff. We’re just happy that there’s enough people interested to be able to keep it going.

DB: Since Go With What You Know, what plans do you have in terms of writing and recording new material? You talked about possibly writing for this band.

DZ: You know, a lot of that stuff was material that had been written years earlier. It’s probably been close to ten years since I’ve actually sat down to write something, so the process will be totally new to me and I look forward to it. There’s definitely things that I have learned in doing all of this that I would put to good use.

When it comes to putting my own music together, I think that it’s going to be interesting to see how much more people respond to it because now they actually have a sense of what I can do. Before they just thought, “Oh, it’s the kid of a famous guy. I heard he plays guitar but I’ve never actually heard him play.” Now they’ve heard a bit about what I can do, and they’re interested to see where I’ll take it next. I’m curious about it myself.

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David Brensilver

David Brensilver has contributed articles to a diverse collection of magazines, newspapers, trade journals, and online resources. He has degrees from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University (bachelor of music, 1992) and the Juilliard School (master of music, 1994) and studied during the summers of 1990, 1991, and 1992 at the Aspen Music Festival and School.