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This year marks two significant Zappa family milestones. It’s the 40th anniversary of Frank Zappa and the Mothers’ astounding 1974 live album Roxy & Elsewhere — recorded mainly at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood over a three-night stand the previous December (the “elsewhere” were venues in Chicago and Edinboro, Pennsylvania).
It’s also been 10 years since Zappa’s eldest son, Dweezil, now 44, committed himself to holing up and learning his iconic father’s famously extensive, complicated, oft-breathtaking oeuvre essentially note-for-note in order to play it live, keep it alive, introduce new people to the music of one of the 20th century’s most important, vital (and weirdest and most hilarious) composers.
In 2006, two years after adopting his father’s music as his new life’s work, Dweezil hit the road with his new ensemble, Zappa Plays Zappa, to faithfully re-create those tunes. This year, the ever-mutating group is playing Roxy & Elsewhere in its entirety to celebrate the album’s 40th anniversary, and adding a second set of Frank favorites and obscurities.
We caught up with Dweezil over the phone the other day from a tour stop in the Midwest…
You’ve spent a pretty significant chunk of your life on Zappa Plays Zappa…what have you learned about yourself along the way?
Well, there’s a ton of stuff I’ve learned about the music that completely transformed my approach to guitar. My goal, initially, was to learn all of the most difficult melodies that I really liked in a lot of the music on guitar, but those things were usually written for marimba and keyboard. So in order to learn them on guitar I had to completely change my [playing] style and techniques, and some of these things don’t naturally all go together, but they’re required in order to play the music. So basically I had to take what I already knew for more than 25 years and abandon that to have a whole new approach. It was quite a lot of work to do it, but in the end it gave me a new perspective of the instrument and a completely new option for improvisation, so my own playing really came into its own. In the process of learning my dad’s music and learning to play more like him, and have more of his idiosyncrasies and mannerisms in my playing, it actually brought out my own style.
I guess with anything, some people try to follow in their parents’ footsteps and some people intentionally go in a completely different direction to form their own identity. Did you purposefully try to go your own way and not emulate his style for the first part of your career?
I didn’t specifically choose to do something different, it was just that the things that I was originally inspired to do were based on music that was already different than his music. It wasn’t a choice to say, “Oh I’m gonna be different,” it was more like, “I like the sound of this, I’ll work on this.” But I always knew somewhere in the back of my mind, you know, I wanted to learn a lot of these really hard things on guitar because I always liked hearing the music played. Having watched him do so many shows, I just knew that it required a lot of work and you had to know a lot about music in order to play this stuff. This wasn’t just four-chord songs.
So you just had to wait until you were at a later point in your life…
Yeah, that’s something I knew as a 12-year-old when I started playing guitar: “One day I’ll do that, but I can’t get that sound now.”
I was reading that the current incarnation of the Zappa Plays Zappa band, the collective age of the players is the youngest yet?
Yeah. The original goal with the band was to have a younger core band to show that this music can appeal to any audience. I think it shows that with this younger, energetic set, this is not nostalgia music. That’s one of the issues that has always come up when you try to promote this thing, people think, “Oh, it’s music of yesteryear.” People haven’t even caught on to the music yet. This is music from the future, as far as I’m concerned.
Was it comforting at first to know that because Frank did a lot of improvisation, it wasn’t just something you had to faithfully create exactly as it was when he did it?
Well, it’s like that in sections, but, more accurately, the purpose of the band was to be a repertory ensemble that’s trying to carry forward the tradition of trying to play the music as it’s written, in the same way an orchestra’s responsibility is to respect whats on the page. Frank’s music really was written more like classical music than rock music, but the distinction there is that sometime in the same song you might have something that’s very strict that needs to be followed exactly by the page, but then in the middle of it we’ll have a crazy improv section where you’re free to do stuff. That’s where it confuses people, like, “Wow, this stuff is wild and you can do whatever you want.”
Right, I get that. I meant more that when you hear Frank’s live recordings as compared to the studio recordings, there are different arrangements a lot of times, he didn’t necessarily stay true to the recorded version and there are these flights of fancy.
Yeah, and he would change the arrangements on tour based on the orchestration within the band. So when we go out to play something, we try to make sure we’re playing specific to the arrangement that we’re playing. So if we’re playing an album version of something, sometimes it’s been the case that the album version is something Frank never played live. So for example on, like, the Apostrophe album, the song “Stink-Foot, it only exists on the record, he never played that version live, so there are weird instances where the album version will be completely different than any live version he decided to do. So we will learn specific arrangements and be very careful to do exactly what that is. Occasionally we have done certain hybrid arrangements. We’ve done that with “Bamboozled By Love” — it had a slow version and a fast version and we put them together into one, but they’re still both Frank’s arrangements. So I never actually take something and just do my own thing with it from the ground up. That’s something I actually don’t like when people do. People think, “Lemme show what I can do to the music,” and they’re not really improving the music. If you’re going to have a Beethoven concert, they don’t hire some sort of a rapper to come in and modernize it and go “Yeaaaah, Beethoven, aww yeeeahhhhhhh!” You don’t need to add those things. Sometimes people get confused and think you gotta modernize the music and change it, and I just don’t agree with any of that stuff. The point of [Zappa Plays Zappa] is to play the music commensurate with what exists in the catalog, and if we’re the conduit for people to hear it, I want them to hear something that’s as close to the record as possible and show what the true content is with the intent of the composer and really be respectful to that.
What’s your overall feeling about Roxy & Elsewhere, and your favorite moments on the album?
Well, this record has such a great combo of styles. It’s probably the funkiest, grooviest record, consistently, of all of Frank’s records. I usually give people a list of a few records they should listen to if they’ve never heard his music before, and this is really high on the list because you have rock, jazz, blues, avant-garde, some comedy stuff – you have all of these elements all in one record. Sometimes even in the same song. There’s a lot to get into on this record. In terms of playing it, the hardest song on the record is the last song [“Bebop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen’s Church)”]. It’s impossibly difficult rhythmically, and the melody is so intervallic that people think that it’s just a crazy made-up thing where it’s not composed. They think, “Oh, this must just be random,” and it’s not. It’s written to be exactly what it is. And when you try to learn it, it’s like trying to memorize the phone book. It’s dense with notes and crazy rhythms, but over time, after you learn it, you start to be able to hear it as a melody. But it’s played so fast because at the time [Frank and the Mothers] were playing it, they had been playing this piece of music for about a year, and so they increased the tempo. We only had a couple of weeks to learn it before we went out on the road. It took a long time to get it up to the tempo they were playing it at the time.
What was the feeling like when you were playing it on stage the first time? Was it a feeling of terror, knowing it was looming in the set?
Yeah [laughs]. The thing about it, it’s similar to training for sports. You basically get it to the point where you have some muscle memory and you know that you can do it, but you haven’t been tested in every situation to react in the moment. And that’s the thing that gives you the nerves. But with any hard piece, it’s like the power of positive thinking — you have to know that you can do it. If you’re telling yourself you can’t do it, you’re not gonna do it.
Is it hard to enjoy yourself onstage when you’re hyper-focused on getting the music right?
Well, the thing is, everybody works really hard to get it right, but at the point where we’re actually playing it it’s fun because you know, you work so hard getting this together that when you play it you’re like, “Hey everybody, check this out, look what we learned to do.” That’s what I always remember from seeing shows of my dad’s, that they looked like they were actually having fun playing this really hard music. It wasn’t like they were all sitting there going, “Oooohhh, I dunnoooooo.” This stuff was designed to be played live and to be impressive.
Seems like after all these years of doing Zappa Plays Zappa, there’s still a lot of interest in it out there, which must be gratifying.
Well yeah, and the main thing is we’re seeing a difference in the audience makeup, there’s a lot more younger people who are checking it out. What it all comes down to is that people are thankful for the opportunity to hear the music because they wouldn’t get a chance to hear Frank play it, or a band play it as close to Frank’s music as what we do. We’re the ones that really take the time to learn it right. There are other bands out there that try to go out and play it, but they change things around and do all kinds of things that I’m not interested in.
It takes some musicians years to make just one album of 10 songs or whatever — it still blows my mind that Frank was so prolific, not only that he had all of these ideas but he had the discipline to make the albums, to bring those ideas to fruition.
Yeah, I agree. And then if you put it into perspective by saying that in Western music there’s only 12 notes, how many times he was able to rearrange those 12 notes with rhythm to have such variety that he did. It was like he had a whole box of other notes that no one else had. I don’t understand how he was able to do that, album after album and have it sound so completely different. There’s nothing like it. When people discover it, the people who really get into it, it becomes the only music they listen to because there’s nothing else like it. Once you like that stuff, you can’t find anything that comes close to it. Even as a kid, I only heard the music my dad was working on at home, so when I was 12 I started to hear the radio and my first reaction was, “Where’s the rest of it?” You know, “Why is everything so easy sounding?” The hard part is, how do you use technical proficiency and still connect with people and make it musical? Frank had the ability to do that because he really had this broad overview of music, and when he was improvising he wasn’t just playing guitar licks, he was spontaneously composing and really reacting in the moment to the music. That’s what gives it longevity, that you hear it more like a music conversation than anything.
Zappa Plays Zappa perform at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester on Feb. 28 and NYCB Theatre in Wilbury on March 1.