Honor Thy Father: An Interview with Dweezil Zappa

Tony Sclafani
Dweezil Zappa, photo by Michael Mesker co Zappa Family Trust

Dweezil Zappa has spent the last several years of his life reviving the music of his father, the late Frank Zappa. Why now?

“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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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