[5 December 2007]
“Wildly misunderstood” is the way Dweezil Zappa characterizes the public’s understanding his father, Frank Zappa who died in 1993. To any longtime fan of the elder Zappa, that verdict will come as no surprise, since he defined the term iconoclast with his exhaustively eclectic catalog of music. He started by making satirical rock with the Mothers (Freak Out, Absolutely Free), wound his way through instrumental jazz-rock (Lumpy Gravy, Waka/Jawaka), took a pit stops in noveltyland (Fillmore East 1971, Apostrophe) and hard rock (Zoot Allures) and ended by composing groundbreaking excursions into electronic music (Jazz from Hell, Civilization, Phaze IIII).
To the uninitiated, Zappa’s catalog can seem maddeningly confusing, if not off-putting because of its occasional scatological offensiveness. Without proper context, Zappa’s admittedly juvenile humor seems either obnoxious for its own sake or a concession to the most idiotic of his fans. Zappa could annoy (and offend) legions with semi-novelties like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” or “Jewish Princess”, but his landmark works—Uncle Meat, say, or Hot Rats—made fans out of Vaclav Havel, the German chamber music group Ensemble Modern, and the French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez.
Straddling the line between the sublime and the ridiculous and mixing up high and low culture was the essence of Zappa’s approach, as critic Ben Watson argues in Frank Zappa’s Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, required reading for anyone wishing to place Zappa’s work in a larger sociological context. Zappa was antidrug and antiestablishment, and railed at hippies as well as music business types for the conformity behind their rebellious exterior. Zappa took perverse delight in crafting exquisite melodies and giving them names like “Dog Breath, in the Year of the Plague” or “Mo and Herb’s Vacation”. And careful listeners picked up on the fact that songs like “Wet T-shirt Nite” and “Titties and Beer” didn’t necessarily celebrate those topics, but poked fun at those that did.
In short, Zappa’s music is deliberately bewildering in a way most rock musicians work hard to avoid. Though echoes of his ideas can be heard in work by artists as diverse as Phish, the Beastie Boys, Beck and Primus, these days Zappa’s music itself is hardly heard at all. Just as Zappa was starting to get serious attention as a modern composer, his life was cut short by prostate cancer, adding a sad irony to the quote he liked to put on his albums from avant-garde composer Edgar Varese: “The present day composer refuses to die!”
With that in mind, Zappa’s son Dweezil decided to spend two years learning to play guitar in his father’s oddball style (which blended R&B with jazz and a bit of Jimi Hendrix) so that he could put his father’s music before the public again via a series of concerts called “Zappa Plays Zappa”. PopMatters caught up with Dweezil after one of these shows in Baltimore, Frank’s birthplace. For the occasion, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon issued a proclamation declaring the concert date, August 9, Frank Zappa Day.
Dweezil (whose real name is actually Ian, because a hospital nurse refused to put Dweezil on his birth certificate) doesn’t have the prickly disposition his father had with interviewers. Instead, he’s laid-back and open, and his brand of California-speak doesn’t sound that different from the Ajax character he used to voice on the animated TV show Duckman. The current edition of “Zappa Plays Zappa” (subtitled “Tour de Frank”) is heading for Europe in September and has been extended to return to the United States for added dates in October.
What inspired the “Zappa Plays Zappa” tour?
It’s something I’d been thinking about for a long time, but I didn’t know where to start until I really became motivated on the musical side of it. And, really, what that entailed was listening to all of Frank’s records in chronological order, so I could really hear the evolution of his work and see all of the thematic coherence. I realized he always had a master plan—everything was connected in some way. And that gave me a better perspective of where I wanted to focus on—but that then meant I had to learn all this stuff.
Do you have a favorite Frank Zappa album?
I always loved Apostrophe, Overnite Sensation, and Roxy and Elsewhere, because I was little when he was working on those. I was hearing those things quite a bit between five and eight years old, so it made a big impression. But I loved Sheik Yerbouti and Joe’s Garage and all of that stuff. And as I’ve gone through this whole process of learning everything, I’m much more familiar with every record now. So I like something from just about any record.
As the eldest son, did you feel some sort of responsibility to do this?
Well, it wasn’t necessarily like, “Oh, I must carry the family tradition”, or anything. It was more like, I got married, and my wife and I had a daughter. I started thinking that since she never had the opportunity to meet Frank, she never would have the opportunity to hear his music played in a live situation. And I felt like people that were not that much older than her also didn’t have that opportunity. So I thought it’s important in my lifetime to do something that tries to bridge the gap for the people that lost the opportunity to see Frank play. I didn’t want to see his music fade away in my lifetime.
Why is Frank Zappa’s music important?
If you compare it to anything else in the world of popular music, there’s nothing that sounds like it. And there’s nobody that operated in the way that he did. I think he’s wildly misunderstood. He’s dismissed as almost a “Weird Al” Yankovic type of person, but the same person that wrote “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” also wrote “G-Spot Tornado” [an electronic composition] and “Dog Breath Variations” [a chamber piece], plus these amazing classical orchestral works as well as many other completely unique instrumentals, like “The Black Page” and “Peaches En Regalia”. This is a guy that made over 75 albums with wildly diverse music. My goal in doing this tour is to help emphasize the things that make him different, so it’s easier for people to have a more complete picture of who he was and what he was about, instead of people expecting to hear “Valley Girl” and “Titties and Beer”. We don’t play those songs. Not because they’re not good songs, but because those songs can be listened to at home. And they’re best listened to at home, because it’s Frank with his satirical delivery.
Frank’s lyrics were known to offend on occasion. Is there anything he ever wrote that would make you say “That’s pushing it too far, even for me!”
I’ve never been offended by anything that he’s written, but everybody’s gonna have their own tolerances or preferences. I can appreciate all the themes and things that he’s exploring. But “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” has a part in it that some people don’t know what to make of, which goes “smother my daughter in chocolate syrup,” and that whole business. But when you put it in context, he’s not singing about what he would do to his own daughter, he’s singing about things that have been in the paper, things that exist even now, where politicians who pretend to be one thing on the surface and then behind closed doors do all these other unspeakable things. So when you look at it from the right perspective, then it’s like, “Yeah, this is an important thing to actually be singing”.
Do you find it difficult getting across what Frank was about to a younger generation?
It’s amazing how often his material that pokes fun at society or has some sort of satirical element involving politics—or even regular human foibles—is still very contemporary. Nobody even bothered to touch on these subjects. So it comes off as being still completely unlike anything you’ve heard. I don’t try to do anything to update any of the material to make it seem more contemporary for a modern audience. There’s no reason for me to make any alteration in that way. When people do make those kind of changes, that just completely misses the point. Frank was a composer, and he wrote his music to sound a certain way. He made all the choices for the instrumentation and timbre of the instruments. You don’t have orchestras playing music by Beethoven or Mozart saying, “You know what, I’m gonna add this whole new part in the middle because I just feel like it”.
Your concert features some interesting synchronization where an on-screen Frank Zappa appears to perform with your band. How did you pull this off?
That whole thing is a complicated piece of work. You need separate audio and multiple camera angles so you can create a video that features mainly Frank. It doesn’t work well if you’re seeing a whole band onscreen and then another band onstage playing. Then we make a click track that follows the original performance, so the drummer hears the click track and we just sync by playing to the drummer. At that point it’s possible to play it as if it’s a live song and a new performance.
Was there any music you found too difficult to play?
Lots of things start off that way. Let’s take “G-Spot Tornado” as an example. We played that live last night. Having to learn that on guitar and having everybody learning their parts on that definitely took up a lot of our rehearsal time. The thing is a beast. It’s one thing to learn it, but it’s another thing to have to play it and try to execute it properly in front of people. We finally got to the point where we were like “All right, we can put this in the show! We can play this!” When Frank first wrote that, it was only on the Synclavier because it was too problematic to have people play because it would require too much rehearsal time, which is too expensive. But I had always liked that song and I learned a little bit of it back in 1991—we played a small portion of it, maybe 30 seconds of it. And my mom told me that when he saw us do that, he said that maybe there’s some people that might take the time to learn this. So when we play that song, a lot of people aren’t necessarily that familiar with it, but they’re still impressed by what it is. The people that know it are blown away that we’re even playing it.
Are you thinking of getting Frank’s classical work out before the public again?
Over the past ten years, there has been an increased awareness by orchestras of the fact the music is out there. They contact us for scores. It’s not on a large scale, but there’s that forward momentum there, and I think that’s because younger people are coming into power in those organizations that have a different view on modern music. But I would like to have certain shows in the future where we combine the rock and the orchestral elements. Because we have “G-Spot Tornado,” and we’re working on “Dog Breath Variations” and some other things. It would be a real cool thing to get all the textures together.
Your band is performing things that Frank never played live, such as “Uncle Remus” from Apostrophe. How has the reaction to that been?
People love that song. It’s wild, the reaction that it gets. They love that and “Willie the Pimp”.
Will there be a CD or DVD documenting the tour?
We did a DVD of the tour from last year, and I would love to shoot another one this year. We just have to figure out how and when. The tour last year had multiple special guests. As great as that is in concept, it’s not required to perform this music. It’s not about alumni stuff. Some people sort of miss the point and think it should be all about parading around people that played with Frank, but the tour doesn’t depend on availability of special guests.
Ultimately, what about Frank’s music do you think is important to get across to the public?
Frank played an important role in the world of music in so many ways, not just the music that he wrote but just in terms of music production, technological advancements in the field of recording and all of these things. I just keep trying to do whatever I can to shed some light on all of the accomplishments, because I just can’t believe some of the things he did. I don’t know how he got it all done.