Here are some quotes from a real conversation that took place at a real rock club.
“That’s a totally awesome Barking Pumpkin Records T-shirt, dude. I saw Dweezil live last year in Redondo Beach!”
“Cool. What’s your favorite Frank Zappa tune?”
“Who’s Frank Zappa?”
“Hmm ... no foolin’? Is that a Sears poncho?
[Fade to black.]
And so it remains difficult to know the real reach and influence of one of America’s great avant-garde composers. Frank Zappa would be nearly 80 years old if he was alive today.
While the straight edge, chain-smoking iconoclast bandleader and musical magician may have passed from this earthly realm close to 30 years ago, his difficult but intensely rewarding oeuvre lives on through his son Dweezil.
Dweezil, an accomplished guitarist in his own right—he’s studied with Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai among others—has been paying homage to his late father’s temporal glory for the past 15 years.
In that time, he’s turned the next generation on to the elder Zappa’s quirky, complex and insolubly sarcastic sonic emanations while also making a name for himself as perhaps the only one who can rock the dirty boots that Frank wore so damnably well.
As Zappa Plays Zappa, he garnered a Grammy Award for his performance of the old man’s classic funk-jazz romp “Peaches En Regalia” and now he’s back on tour, playing the inimitable 1969 record Hot Rats—Zappa’s first album after disbanding the Mothers of Invention—to sold-out audiences across the USA.
Clearly, Dad would be proud. And grateful,too. In the years since his transcendence of Earth, Frank Zappa has gone from a quirky novelty act with a cult following to an artist standing in league with the great composers of the 20th century.
Weekly Alibi rang up Dweezil Zappa on his day off, between gigs in Cali and Arizona, to find out where he stood in relation to subjects like foaming goo and reaching nirvana tonight. Here’s what he told us.
Weekly Alibi: Hello, Mr. Dweezil Zappa!
Dweezil Zappa: Hello.
What’s the deal with the Hot Rats tour?
My father played songs from Hot Rats in concert, over the years. But, in particular, I know there are two songs that were not performed live until now, “Little Umbrellas” and “It Must Be a Camel.” So when putting together the show, we were trying to be sure we’re able to present the album in a way that is evocative of the original work. You know, there were a few challenges, including the music, but also trying to recreate the sound of the record. [Creating] that sound is a multi-layered process, from the instrumentation to the front-of-house sound design.
Tell our readers more about Hot Rats, please.
It’s been an important record for a lot of people and we wanted to make sure that the experience of hearing Hot Rats live would be similar to listening to the record, but to have it expand on that, have it do what it does in a live situation, too. The key element of learning this music is deciding which parts we learn—to be exactly like it was on the record.
What do you mean?
Well, on “Mr. Green Genes,” my dad’s guitar solo on the record is essential. That song is what it is because of his solo. So I decided to learn that for the tour, to play it like he did on the record.
But didn’t Frank improvise that solo?
Yeah, he did. But if he were to play that song live, he would definitely not play the same solo that’s on the record. But for me, recreating the Hot Rats album means to play all the parts as they are on the record. But on other songs where he improvised solos, like on “Willie the Pimp,” I want to improvise my own solos. The same is true on “The Gumbo Variations.” Those are the sorts of challenges we had with this tour—should it be note for note or do we improvise and make it our own?
It sounds complex. But, then again, this is challenging music. How long have you been working on this specific project?
I’ve been playing my dad’s music on tour now for just about 15 years straight. So I have a group of musicians that I work with. We have a system of figuring out which songs we’re going play and how we’re going to approach them. It requires quite a bit of rehearsal. But a lot of that is individual rehearsal before we even get to actual band rehearsals. We knew what we were going to do to attack Hot Rats when we got together. Then it’s a question of trying to dial in the right frequencies for the instrumentation. When we play it live, every time, it’s a little bit different due to the improvised parts. But ultimately doing this record is not that different from anything else we’ve done. We always approach things the same way, for every number we’re playing. We’re playing it so that it represents the right era. We’re very diligent.
Like your father before you, you are also an accomplished guitar player. Discuss.
At least for me, I try to keep my guitar playing in context to the music. I try to play in a way that is similar to what my dad might have done.
Frank Zappa was a very important American composer. He was also beloved by many Boomers and Gen-Xers. What are your audiences like now and how do they react to his music?
Since I’ve been doing this for about 15 years, we’ve seen a lot of changes in the audience that comes to the shows. Initially, when I started in 2006, it was mostly a male audience, mostly 50 and older. But 15 years later, we’re not talking about audiences filled with 60- and 70-year-olds. We have a lot of younger people coming to shows and experiencing Zappa live for the first time. They might have been listening at home, before, and that’s been my goal. I want to give young people a chance to have this music brought to them.
Besides the entirety of Hot Rats, what else is on the musical menu?
The stuff that we generally play is from deep within the catalog. We’ve never looked at this as a greatest hits revue; my dad didn’t have that kind of career. There’s a huge amount of music to choose from. Over the years, we’ve learned over 500 songs. We do something like 80 to 100 shows per year and each time we go out, the set list changes. The point is there is so much to choose from that the challenge becomes how to balance it all, how to keep that energy flowing in an arc that is moving and gives people a sense of hearing new things, things they haven’t heard yet. People always want to hear “Montana” or “Muffin Man.” We keep such things handy.
Why is Zappa still important?
Well, basically put, it’s music that you’ve never heard before. My dad had a lot of music—so much that you’d need a lifetime to examine all of it. If you’ve never heard his work before and you come to a show, you can derive a lot of entertainment from that experience. There’s a lot of music to enjoy. I look at this as promoting new music, not old music. His work is still very much ahead of its time. He took a totally different path from other people when it came to being a musician. He’s unique in many ways, from how he composed his music to the vision that he had. The way that he was able to bring that to life is heroic. I think people need exposure to the broader range of styles within Western music.
I recall that Zappa did have some popular success.
Yeah, but the music that might have gotten on the radio a few times is actually the least representative of his work. People think they know my dad’s music because they heard “Valley Girl” or “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” Those are part of a handful of comedic narrative songs, but he was an amazing avant-garde composer, too. I like to let the music speak for itself.
How would you characterize your father’s work?
There are only 12 notes in Western music. My dad used those notes in a million different ways. How he reconfigured and rearranged those notes is baffling to me. He had the ability to do it so differently from song to song. When you consider the fact that he only had 12 notes, it makes me suspect that he had another, secret bag of notes hidden somewhere. They weren’t the same bag of notes that everyone else had.