Frank Zappa needs no introduction . . . Or does he?
Considered one the 20th century's greatest modern composers, much of his music, while applauded by critics, wasn't accessible for mainstream audiences. Songs like "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" and "Valley Girl," a duet with daughter Moon Unit, broke through, but only enough to present Zappa as a novelty act. His passion for music and composition that pushed the boundaries of modern rock by incorporating elements of jazz, rhythm and blues, disco, electronics, and classical, was lost on most ears.
That, however, is changing though a series of Zappa Plays Zappa tours orchestrated by his son Dweezil, who is determined to preserve his dad's legacy while simultaneously introducing it to a new generation of listeners.
Up on the Sun caught up with Zappa at his Los Angeles studio to discuss the creation and goals of Zappa Plays Zappa, what it took to learn the music, the intricacies of playing it live, resurrecting his own musical career, and contemplating growing his own iconic mustache.
When did the concept for Zappa Plays Zappa begin?
It all came from noticing people under the age of 30 didn't really know that much about my dad's music. They might have known his name, might have heard the kid's names [Dweezil and Moon Unit], but the majority of what his music represented was lost on that generation. I thought, in my lifetime I'd like to see that change. I always felt that his music and his contributions to music were under appreciated so I thought it's worth embarking at least on some journey to present the music to new generations to see what this music is like performed live. It makes a really big difference seeing it performed live as opposed to just listening to it.
Perhaps some of it was just misunderstood. Much of Frank's music was progressive and ahead of its time. A lot of it wasn't so accessible for the average listener, so hearing only a record might not have revealed enough.
One of the things is, if you're talking about popular music in general, things that are popular have a lot of exposure. If this music has a lot of exposure it would be easier to understand because you hear it and it becomes ingrained. But, a lot of Frank's music that did get on the radio was misrepresentative of most of his music. So "Valley Girl" and "Don't Eat Yellow Snow" gave people the impression that the only kind of music that Frank made was comedy music, some novelty type of songs. And that wasn't accurate either.
Part of what we do is try to educate the audience by giving a little background on the songs, telling some stories about things. That way, even the people who are familiar with this music a little bit can learn some insights into Frank.
I think it's been a good and successful venture because, for example, the keyboard player in the band is 26. He's been in the band for three years and never heard the music before he saw us play and thought, "Wow, I have to learn how to play this music, and I want to be in this band." That's exactly the kind of thing this project designed for, to inspire younger musicians who want to take it to the furthest lengths to develop their potential as musicians, and have an open mind to what music can be. That is a perfect example of how this works and why it works.
When this project originally began in 2006, a number of the members in the band were either members of original Mothers of Invention or Zappa band members. Is that still the case?
On that tour, I had a core band that was all unaffiliated [with Frank Zappa's bands], but then we added a few alumni because we didn't know if we'd be able to do it on an annual basis. [Maybe] it was just going to be one time around. And we were getting a lot of pressure from promoters to have that type of thing, but that never was really part of the original plan. It never was about playing with former members, but showing that the music could be played by people who had no previous affiliation, and still do it well. Once we did that one tour, I did change it so it was more about the core band.
I saw the video of the first Zappa Plays Zappa concert. You mentioned having to spend some time learning the music. You were already a really good guitar player, so was it just nailing the intricacies of it or the complex arrangements that took a while?
It was a number of things. Obviously, I had to familiarize myself with the music and the specific parts that I was going to play within the arrangements. But learning those parts meant learning new techniques that I wasn't familiar with, and mainly because some of things I was learning to play on guitar were written for keyboards and marimba. Those instruments are laid out completely different than a guitar. It meant I had to find an elegant solution for the problem of playing these parts. It required completely changing how I would attack the notes as far as picking was concerned.
This was back in 2004, essentially two years before we went on tour, and what I did was take everything I had already known about playing guitar for more than 25 years at that point and just said, "Forget that. I'm going to do it a different way." I had to reprogram all my instincts for playing to learn a new technique. Since then I've been further developing that. Every tour, it's been a continual process to try to keep expanding what's possible so I'm not playing the same ideas and same things over and over. It really was the equivalent of getting a lobotomy and then training for the Olympics. A crazy, crazy process.
You talk about expanding your sound and techniques, but when you're re-creating your father's music, is it verbatim, or is there room for you to expand upon what he created?
People have to understand that Frank's music, the way that he composed it, is much more in line with the way a composer would write for an orchestra. He used a rock band as an orchestra. The parts were all developed to be in specific arrangements. The orchestra's job is to perform the works on the page as the composer wrote them and carry on that tradition and arrangement as the composer wrote them.
The orchestra is basically a cover band. I use that analogy because a lot of people think when you're covering rock you're supposed to change it, modernize it, do all these things, and that doesn't necessarily improve it. It doesn't do anything other than say look what I can do to this music. And that's not what I'm trying to do with Frank's music. I'm not trying to change it.
But within his music there would be open parts. He would write specific music, but then there would be sections that were meant to be improv. So the improvisation sections change every night. If you saw the same show every night and we played the same songs, it still would be different because the improv would be different every night. To that extent, that's where the changes and development as soloists come into play.
Even so, I still will take many of the ideas my dad would use. Sometime I'll play his solos note for note, or take phrases from them. I want to keep it in context. I don't want to play a solo and have it go too far afield from what he would have played because then it wouldn't be in context any more. I'm just trying to learn enough of his vocabulary so I can use it as guideposts and then fill in the blanks in between.
On this tour, you're re-creating Roxy and Elsewhere. Why select this album?
We've played other records on the past, and this one happens to be 40 years old right now and feels like it's from the future. Gibson guitars made a replica of Frank's guitar from that era, the Roxy SG, so it all seems to have some sort of synergy to do that record. But it's also a particularly good record to introduce an audience to the music if they've never heard it before. It has a lot of variety. It's got funky stuff, it's good bluesy stuff, it's got melodic stuff, it's got avant garde things. It's really one of the most diverse records he made, but the core of it is funky and groovy and that makes it fun to play for an audience.
The fact that you're re-creating a live album, does that pose any particular challenges?
Most of Frank's records come from live performances so there's nothing really too different whether it was done in the studio or on stage. When it comes to recreating certain things, like some improvised dialogue that happens in a skit or something, which there is on this record on a song called "Dummy Up," we will use that dialogue as a main frame of reference. There may be a few additional things that creep into it that are modern folklore of being on the road -- certain reference may make it in there -- but we pretty much stick to the core program.
Generally speaking, when we pick an arrangement, we stick pretty close to it. However, there is an historical precedence that when Frank was on tour and things would happen, those things would make it into the show sometimes in the form of dialogue or a secret word or something. So there's an open door for that stuff to appear in a show. It does sometimes.
The original stage set up featured two drummers, a horn section, and vibes. Will have the same band setup?
No, we have a pared-down version of our band. Even percussion and marimba, that's being performed via keyboard. This is the version of the band we call the Rocking Teenage Combo. There's lots of multi-tasking happening, sometimes playing two instruments at once.
You have been doing a consistent number of Zappa Plays Zappa tours. Has this impacted your career? Are you still writing and recording?
I haven't had a lot of time to do that, but during all this time playing Frank's music, I've developed a lot more awareness of things compositionally I could use to write my own music. I'm getting more into the mode of beginning to write again and utilizing the experiences and techniques I've been developing for the past seven/eight years of doing this. My music will sound a lot different now then it did before I started playing Zappa. I have done a little recording over the last year and things are going to start coming out here and there. I think we might incorporate some of my own music into the shows. We've done that once or twice, but I think we might lean toward doing that more. I hear from people all the time that they really like this band and want to hear what they can do outside Frank's music as well.
On some of the Zappa Plays Zappa tours you use videos of your dad and that type of thing. Is that still in use?
It's only happened on a few tours and we don't want to overdo it. There's only a limited amount of material we can do that way. That would be something we're not going to do on this tour.
Finally, you have your dad's hair. Have you ever thought about growing the mustache to complete the look?
Oh, I occasionally toy with it. My wife likes it because I end up looking like a cop or something, but I don't usually keep it to perform with it. I can't take it to that level of detail because I think it's distracting actually. I'm not trying to impersonate my father, I'm trying to play his music and let the music speak for itself.
Dwezil Zappa will bring Zappa Plays Zappa to Celebrity Theatre on Tuesday, February 11.
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