Dweezil Zappa on his father's music and the degree of difficulty of playing his songs live
Dweezil Zappa is on a mission, and it's a pretty personal one. Since 2006, the son of the late guitarist/composer/bandleader Frank Zappa has toured the world, playing his father's music in an effort to attract and educate a new generation of listeners. In leading the Zappa Plays Zappa project, Dweezil Zappa has covered songs from all phases of his father's nearly forty-year career. He's delved deeply into a catalogue that numbered more than sixty official albums at the time of Frank Zappa's death in 1993.
While in the past, Dweezil's touring band has included alums from his dad's touring ensembles, musicians like Terry Bozzio, Steve Vai and Ray White, Dweezil's pared down the band to six members for the latest tour. We caught up with him to talk about the dynamics of a smaller ensemble, the challenges of playing his dad's music and misconceptions that still seem to haunt Frank Zappa years after his death.
Westword: What's your touring schedule been like lately?
Dweezil Zappa: This is the second half of the tour. The first half was in Europe, and we did sixteen shows in a couple of weeks there. We're doing roughly the same in the U.S. before Christmas; we finish on Dec. 23. Then we'll be going out again in February. There's quite a bit of stuff going on.
What kind of new material from your father's catalogue have you included for this run?
We describe this tour as "The Decades Tour," because we wanted to be able to represent stuff from each definitive era of Frank's music. There are a lot of things to choose from, but we pulled in some things that are somewhat obscure, along with some fan favorites. That's what we try to do in general for the show. Every tour, there's always new material that gets introduced.
The past few weeks in Europe, one of the big things that we introduced there was "Strictly Genteel," which is a classical piece that my dad actually, in interviews, said was his favorite piece that he ever wrote. That's a piece that we like to put on display, and the fact that the band is now somewhat smaller than it has been in the past, it's quite a feat to pull off "Strictly Genteel" as we do, with the orchestral textures that are in it. The band is six people, as opposed to eight, which it had been since 2006.
In tackling something like "Strictly Genteel" for a six-piece band, are there arrangements that you look to? There are versions of that song from Frank's 1988 band and several bands in the '80s, in addition to the original version from 200 Motels. How do you finalize the way that it's going to be put together?
Well, Frank played it in different bands throughout the years. Some bands were smaller, some bands were bigger. For the bands that were smaller, virtually everything was done on synthesizers at the time. The textures that were available from the synthesizers at that time were somewhat limited. They couldn't represent some of the real timbre of some the things that you find in an orchestra, like real brass or some other things that I think are integral to getting the point across of that piece of music.
For example, the versions that resonate with me the best are the ones that I grew up hearing the most: the 200 Motels version, the Orchestral Favorites version, the London Symphony Orchestra version. Those have so many real instruments on them.
For our arrangement purposes, our lead singer [Ben Thomas] plays trumpet and trombone, and he's switching between both to create the brass textures. Scheila Gonzalez plays flute, saxophone and keyboards, where she will create a whole brass section playing keyboard and saxophone at the same time. Then we have Chris Norton on keyboards, who is covering the piano and mallet/marimba style stuff, as well as some string textures.
Out of the six of us, we're really playing more like there's twelve or fifteen of us. I'm covering stuff on guitar that was meant for piccolo, flute and other things. We've created an arrangement that sounds probably closest to the Orchestral Favorites version. The intention was to not have it sound like it's just out-of-the-box keyboard sounds.
In searching for some of the more obscure material and in looking through the catalogue, were there any songs that you hadn't heard? You mentioned being around this music since childhood, but have there been any surprises or revelations since you started the project in 2006?
We did that a lot over the past year. There were songs and one in particular called "Mother People" [from We're Only In It For the Money]. I was familiar with the song, but it started to really jump out at me back in February of this year. We did a tour that focused primarily on the early records, things from Freak Out!, We're Only In It For the Money, Absolutely Free, stuff like that. Those records were ones that I've been diving into more recently.
Since the beginning of this project, the real core of what we've been doing was anything from 1970 to 1980, with a lot of material that was heavily focused on the whole '70s decade. More recently, we've been branching out to things from the '80s. On this tour ... we're going to start playing a really difficult instrumental called "Moggio" that was from the Man From Utopia record. We try to mix it up as much as we can.
When you first started the project, I remember reading an interview in which you'd mentioned that preparing to play this music was like training for the Olympics. Do you still get that feeling after six years of doing this?
Oh yeah, for sure. The thing that still relates to the Olympics is that when you're put in a position to have to execute in front of an audience, you need to have the proper preparation. We don't have nearly the same amount of time or budget that Frank had to rehearse the bands that he went on the road with. He would rehearse for three months, even if the tour was even a month long. The purpose of that was he was recording every show. Those would become future records. Every tour that he did, actually, came in at a massive loss, because it cost so much money to prep for the whole thing. Then it would be made up for, hopefully, by selling records.
That business model doesn't work to make this work, so we do the most amount of preparation that we can on our own, then have a short bit of rehearsal before the tour. By the time we actually get on the road and we're playing material in front of audiences, it may be that we've only played the songs together as a band in final rehearsals a few times, but we've been working on all the parts separately.
A song like "Strictly Genteel," we couldn't really do that way. We had to get together multiple times over several months to listen to the song, to go over the score and say, 'OK, I'm going to cover this part.' The parts that we cover may be jumping around all over the place. They may not be a part that is consistent in one voicing throughout the whole thing. That kind of confusion, you have to be prepared for. Besides learning the parts and executing them, there's a bunch of organizational stuff that also feels like you're part of the Olympics.
Well, that goes to another point. Taking on this project hasn't only been about the musical side of things. You've also had to wear Frank's hats as a bandleader and a manager, even dealing with some of his former players. Was that a difficult role to take on?
Well I had had bands together before, and keeping bands together isn't always the easiest thing to do. Frank certainly had many challenges with that. The real challenges that come with Frank's music is that there's so much material, and you work so hard to learn it, and then if somebody who has an integral role in a lot of those songs leaves the band, and you have to get somebody new in, you have a very limited amount of new material that you can do. Somebody can't come in and learn forty or fifty songs in a short period of time, you know. Those kinds of exits create limitations for what you can do moving forward. We've had a few of those exits here or there, but we've been pretty well prepared for what would change within the band.
Generally speaking, the best way to keep a band together is finding people who enjoy their job and giving them opportunities to continue enjoying their job. When people get complacent or start to get some delusional idea that their role is more important than somebody else's role, that's where you come into problems. My dad had that all the time, where certain people would say, 'I want a raise because I do more.' It's like, 'Not really. Bye.' That kind of things happens a lot, but when you run into those kinds of personalities, you get rid of them.