When guitarist Dweezil Zappa, son of guitarist, composer, bandleader, actor, social activist, and pseudo-comedian Frank Zappa created the Zappa Plays Zappa project in 2006, he intended it as a tribute to his father’s legacy, a one-off that might reconnect some old fans and breed some new ones in the process. Eight years down the road his project is more popular than ever. The band has continuously toured nationwide and internationally, continually changing song selection, arrangements, and mid-show shenanigans. When Grateful Web had the chance to chat with him right after two stellar Denver area performances, we put on our geek chops and went right for it. This time the band is celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the cult classic Roxy & Elsewhere Live album, which featured the Zappa band at its highest high.
GW: This is Dylan Muhlberg of Grateful Web here with guitarist and bandleader Dweezil Zappa. For the last eight years, his musical career has been focused around the Zappa Plays Zappa project. By performing the music of his father, legendary bandleader, composer and guitarist, Frank Zappa, his band has reconnected old fans and most importantly exposed younger generations to Zappa music that weren’t alive during the time. Rigorous touring and fascinating musicianship has earned them fan and critical acclaim. Dweezil thanks so much for joining us this evening.
DZ: Thanks for having me.
GW: Of Course. This tour, in particular, is celebrating the landmark Mothers live album Roxy & Elsewhere. Why is this recording regarded as quintessential Zappa?
DZ: Well it’s a fan favorite because a lot of the elements that you expect to find throughout Frank’s whole catalogue are here in large doses on this particular record. For example, there’s quite a few different styles on the record; there’s rock, blues, jazz, funk, sometimes all in the same song. But there are elements of Avant guard; there’s that sense of humor in the narration of some of the songs in the interplay and spontaneity that you hear in a live setting on the record. So I think all of those elements conspire together to make a record that is probably the grooviest and funkiest record in his catalog. That’s also another enduring part of it. It all comes together in a way that gives you a fantastic sampling of the totality of Frank’s music.
GW: As you said, all the elements were there. What I noticed from last night Ogden Theatre performance was there quite a bit of theatrics occurring onstage. In particular Shelia [Gonzalez] and Ben [Thomas] are hilarious. All of it was very engaging toward audience participation. Why is connectivity with your crowd such an important part of continuing Frank’s music?
DZ: Well I think it’s an important part of music in general. Live music especially is kind of a universal language. Even if there were no words to participate with or understand, a community experience could still be had by hearing musicians tell a story with their instruments. But to be able to feed off of a connection with the audience just makes for a better performance. As far as Frank’s folklore and the things we want to carry forward as a tradition, there is a fair amount that we will use as the framework, but we also want to create our own folklore on tour. Again a few doses of that would make it consistent with the tradition of how Frank would perform shows. So not every single aspect of the performance is going to be recreated to take away the spontaneity of something that might be appropriate for that particular night.
One of the things that people don’t know about the structure of the music is that there are specific moments for improvisation where you might have a very difficult structured interlude piece then it will be followed by something that’s meant to be improvised. So our improvisation it is really spontaneous. As far as my guitar playing goes though, many phrases that I learned from Frank’s guitar playing that is specific to the version of the song I am playing, because I want people to be able to hear the music in context. I don’t want it to take a complete left turn when I solo and sound nothing like Frank’s music. So I learn enough phrases that I can use as guideposts, and I fill in the blanks in between.
GW: It’s so interesting to put it into words since it’s a tribute project, yet so much of Frank’s music was each night it was something totally new and practically on the spot when he came up with themes and stuff of that nature.
So last night I saw you guys perform the insanely complex “The Black Page” composition. It got me thinking, was there any time in digging up songs that you and the band collectively decided a certain song was too challenging to take on?
DZ: There has not been anything that we’ve set our sights on that we haven’t been able to play. When you learn these very hard things you always do your best to execute it 100%, but even when best attempted you’re not going to be able to play it note-for-note perfect. I mean this is like training for the Olympics all the time, and you get up there and have to try to nail the stuff. And even Frank’s band was not always capable of making it 100% note perfect. So when you take a song like “The Black Page,” for example one of the best-known versions that exists on record is the Live in New York record, and for the uninitiated and those who are not super familiar or not music scholars, they wouldn’t even hear the mistakes on that specific version. Somebody once said to my dad, “Have you ever witnessed a miracle?” And he said, “I played the Black Page once correctly.” [Laughs] We have been playing that off and on since 2006. There’s a few couple of different arrangement that have come up over the years just to have it evolve into different things, in the same way, that Frank did. It is a very challenging piece, and I think we do a very good job at getting it as accurate as possible on a nightly basis.
GW: You guys did a great job last night. So since the band’s inception in 2006, it’s been eight years of really steady touring for a concept that theoretically never-ending. Did you anticipate this level of success when you started?
DZ: Well I never really thought past the initial tour. The initial idea was a celebration of the music and perhaps reconnect some core fans to the music, but more importantly to introduce new fans to it. I guess it occurred to me that it could be an ongoing thing, but I didn’t really know what the public’s appetite would be for this sort of thing and for how long. It’s had some surprising little side effects and one of them is because of the length of time we’ve been doing this and people’s familiarity with our performances, there is a generation of fans who are hearing this music live for the first time by us, and they’re attributing the music to this band more so than the original catalogue, which is not even something I even consider to begin with. But for example even within the band there’s a musician, Chris Norton, who joined when he was 23. He had never really heard much of Frank’s music. He got into it hearing us playing it. But he was more familiar with our versions that Frank’s versions. So there is a generation of people who are hearing the music in that way. They’re getting a chance to see live versions, but it’s our live versions. It’s their preference, our versions. That’s not anything I could have predicted or planned through but to a certain degree there’s a duality of the catalogue evolving where people are beginning to appreciate our efforts because they have been so ongoing. They have this secondary catalogue to experience and enjoy along with the other stuff and have direct comparisons to.
GW: Frank always pushed the envelope for what was considered controversial in music. It got people out of their comfort zone revealing everyone is uniformly imperfect. Are they certain songs that you omit from the show that are perhaps a bit over the top? Magdnelena for example comes to mind.
DZ: Well Magdnelena is definitely a crazy song. There are others too that in this day and age of ridiculous over-the-top political correctness might ruffle people’s feathers, and they did at the time but even more so now. For instance songs like “Jewish Princess” or a song like “Nigger Business” something like those. We don’t really want to add gasoline to a fire. But it’s not as though these songs are songs that don’t have value. I think these songs tell good stories or are entertaining. But at face value, even the titles are something that would make people skeptical. But there are things that you have to be able to be open-minded about. Frank used to say an old quote, “The mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work unless it’s open.”
GW: Absolutely. How rigorous is the rehearsal process before any given run, tour, or night?
DZ: The real challenge is how much rehearsal I can get in. The band can get in quite a bit of rehearsing because they have less restrictive home lives. Most of them don’t have kids. Only the drummer has a daughter. I have two daughters, and my wife is bicoastal because of her job, so she’s in and out of town. So there’s many times where I’m on daddy duty, and I won’t have any time in between tours to even pick up a guitar. I mean I can literally not play guitar for three months between tours. So when it comes to getting prepared for a tour I will use up any free moment I have, if I only have ten minutes or an hour, I will put that time toward learning the material. But usually, I am the one who has the least amount of time to be prepped. So it usually creates fewer opportunities to learn larger amounts of new music.
So before my kids, my first daughter was born in 2006, I was practicing, eight to ten, or even twelve hours a day learning this music and playing. I’m lucky now If I get four to five hours a day when it comes time to getting ready for a tour. And that might even mean like a week or two maximum of four to five hours a day compared to what it used to be. That being said, I still manage to learn quite a bit of material and get it to the point where I feel comfortable enough to perform it. So I would like to have more time, but I haven’t been able to. Generally, nowadays I will typically start putting that time in around ten days before a tour, and that less than Frank would. If they had a month-long tour, they would probably rehearse for three months before. And the reason for that was because he was recording every single show with the intent to make records out of it.
GW: Which is why the catalog is endless in some ways. And being a Dad is another full-time job.
Do you or have you considered composing originals to perform with your band in the spirit of Frank’s music and performing it as a small part of Zappa Plays Zappa? I know you had a successful solo career before this band.
DZ: A lot of people have asked about that kind of thing. I have considered that but just honestly haven’t had time to focus on it. It’s something that I would like to do at some point, but it’s just about finding the time to make it happen.
At this point, Dweezil and I got disconnected and had to expire the interview. Grateful Web was thrilled to have this chat with Dweezil who took time on his one day off to talk to us. Do yourself a favor and check out Zappa Plays Zappa performing Roxy & Elsewhere and much more on tour, which continues through the Midwest into New England through the beginning of March.