Dweezil Zappa: Frank Zappa predicted the success of iTunes
The late, great Frank Zappa is heralded and revered right up there with Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein as one of America's greatest composers. Actually, no he isn't really.
Having such an enormous and varied body of work, the man has often been seen as a divisive artist. Either you love the man's music or hate it -- or have never even heard it. It's a tough sell for new audiences to come on board and wrestle with the 60 plus albums and thousands of songs and compositions Zappa has to his credit in the 52 years of his short life. Since 2006, Zappa's oldest son Dweezil has been bringing his father's music to the stage with his Zappa Plays Zappa project. With astounding accuracy, Dweezil has learned every note, every time change, and every sarcastic monologue to a truly gratifying effect.
Before setting out to Europe, where Zappa was often treated like a true musical hero, Gimme Noise was able to speak with Dweezil about Zappa Plays Zappa and what to expect from the current tour that stops at Mill City Nights on Friday.
Dweezil: It's a lot of work to maintain these songs, learn new material and keep it at a high level of execution. Each time we go on the road we try to learn new material and stuff that will represent the catalog in an unexpected way. The goal at any show we do is to introduce something that could have the potential to become your favorite new song you didn't know you were missing. There's so much to choose from and some people think they are experts on everything that ever came out and we throw some songs on the setlist and people are like "I liked everything they did except when he played his own songs." And I have to convince them that no, actually those are Frank's too.
How do you decide what to play? Is it coming from the audience requests? Is it coming from personal favorites of the family or songs you know Frank really always liked to play?
It's a combination of all kinds of things ultimately. We started not knowing if we would be doing this on a continual basis. So at that point I focused on my own personal favorites. Things I grew up listening to a lot or was around when he recorded some of them. So they were songs I really had a strong connection to. But also in the process the whole time was to de-emphasize what they think they know about Frank, the comedy side of things. To give much more emphasis to his ability as a composer in the classical sense and with that compositional style that translates through all his work. The thing we've tried to be consistent on was to always showcase what made him unique as a composer and the depth and variety within his compositions.
Since 2006 we've probably learned over 220 songs and a lot of them are really huge in scale and scope. We've done "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" which in of itself is a beast but we did it like it was on the Absolutely Free record. Frank never played the "Suzy Creamcheese"/"Brown Shoes Don't Make It"/"America Drinks and Goes Home" live like it is on the record and we did that as well as other crazy things like learning "Billy the Mountain," These aren't just four chord songs. That's over a half hour's worth of music and over 3000 words of dialogue to remember.
I'd imagine more so than anything the setlist gets dictated on what you can actually pull off a lot of times. Are there examples of anything you or your band mates had to come to terms with not being able play?
Everything we've put on the table to go out and play we've been able to play. We wouldn't attempt something we couldn't execute because we'd be doing a disservice to the music. There are certain areas that I'll listen to and think I'm not sure about how we can make that work. There's certain challenges but for example one thing we are working on for this tour is "Strictly Genteel" which is one of Frank's major orchestral works and we've spent several days listening to it and pulling it apart trying to figure out how the six of us are going to be able to cover the orchestral textures and changes in the arrangement with what we have. So dissecting the parts we probably spent twelve hours over several days and listening and figuring out how with technology allowing for certain things to happen where we can make multiple instruments on keyboards so you can play multiple parts at the same time. But it's still a real challenge to pull this stuff apart and figure out who is going to do what. And that's before even learning any of the notes.
Wow, I'm looking forward to hearing that. How are things coming together with the material for this tour?
We are in pre-production stuff now but I think it's going to be really cool because we are learning some other stuff that's some tricky poly-rhythms like this tune called "Moggio" that was done in the 80's and that's a beast of a composition, especially on guitar. It's one Steve Vai said he used to have horrible fear on stage of playing and every time it came up it made him feel queezy.
Haha, I can imagine. With the response you've gotten being so great do you see yourself doing this for a while? Do you see this going beyond the rock band format and presenting the orchestral stuff like some of The Yellow Shark or Uncle Meat?
We have actually played "Dog Meat." We did it as a hybrid arrangement of the way it was on The Yellow Shark as well as pieces of it the way Frank did it with the rock band. We've taken all kinds of stuff from the catalog and learned it. As far as playing it with an orchestra, that'd be cool to do but it's a whole another challenge because you know, people aren't exactly racing to see orchestral concerts these days.