by Jeremy Morrison
Frank Zappa’s music is a lot of things. It can be compositionally sophisticated and complex. It can jump between genres and styles. It can be loud. At times raunchy or absurd.
For about 50 years now the late guitarist and band leader’s offerings have graced the catalog of American music. Always living in the deeper waters beneath the mainstream’s veneer of pop, yet cultivating a rabid, multi-generational pool of music listeners hungry for something of more substance.
But a while back, Zappa’s son, Dweezil Zappa, began to notice that a younger generation was less familiar with his father’s music. In an effort to bring that music to a new generation, Dweezil has spent more than a decade performing selections from Frank Zappa’s vast body of work.
In addition to paying homage to his father, Dweezil is also a musician in his own right. He began his career at 12-years-old, with 1982’s “My Mother is a Space Cadet,” (produced by Eddie Van Halen, who also plays on the track) and continues to turn out solo work today. Throughout the years he has also dabbled in acting, lent his voice to the cartoon series “Duckman,” co-hosted the Food Network’s cooking show “Dweezil and Lisa” with then-girlfriend musician Lisa Loeb and has spent the better part of two decades working on an ever-growing 75-minute piece of music entitled “What the Hell Was I Thinking,” which features recordings of some of the most celebrated rock guitarists of the latter 20th century.
Dweezil opens his latest tour — a celebration of the 50th anniversary of his father’s debut album “Freak Out” — this month (January 11) at Vinyl Music Hall in Pensacola. Looking forward to getting out on the road again, the musician took a few minutes to talk with SANDSpaper in December.
In addition to discussing his upcoming tour, Dweezil dove into his father’s musical legacy, his family’s current drama (there’s an attempt to trademark the name Zappa) and why pancakes were popular in the Zappa household.
The full interview follows. For information on Dweezil Zappa’s local engagement — January 11 at Vinyl Music Hall — or to purchase tickets, click here.
SANDS: Is this another leg of your tour or would this be a continuation of the runs you’ve been doing this past year?
DWEEZIL ZAPPA: It’s a continuation of the tour. You know, we’ll probably add a couple of little new songs into the show at some point, but it’s still a continuation of the celebration of the 50 years of “Freak Out,” and we still have the Cease and Desist element to it.
SANDS: If you can kind of summarize your current show, what can people expect? And maybe even if they’ve seen you before in the last few years, what can they expect with this show?
ZAPPA: What’s different about this show compared to any other tour we’ve done is — we’ll there’s a few things. Number one, we have a few people in the band that are new that haven’t been on the road with us before. So, there’s a great female singer that’s been added, her name is Cian Coey, and then there’s also a guy named David Luther, who plays baritone saxophone, and he’s got a baritone voice as well, so he’s doing the Frank-parts vocally, and playing other instrumental parts. He plays keys, sax, and guitar, so he’s a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. And so with the new dynamics we have much more of an ability to focus in on some of the vocal details from records like “Freak Out,” the early Mothers’ stuff, as well as records like “You Are What You Is,” which has a ton of vocals, and “Joe’s Garage,” so we have more vocal range in the band than we’ve ever had before. Cian adds a great rasp element and can sound like Tina Turner or, you know, she can also have her voice be very sweet and she has a lot of range in terms of her delivery of the material. So, on stage there’s a new energy for sure.
But, besides all of those things, we’re playing a lot of music that we’ve never played before, particularly stuff from the early-Mothers era and, you know, when you play that stuff it’s very different than when you listen to it. You know, there’s a spirit to this music that’s so fun and energetic, but it’s also, when you think about it being 50-years-old, it’s so ahead of it’s time, especially when you compare it to music now. It was then, but it’s still just — it stands in stark relief against modern music. So, there’s just this spirit of anything can happen within the show and within the music.
SANDS: Why do you this? You’ve been doing this for a while now, why do you carry on your dad’s music? Why do you think that’s important and valuable?
ZAPPA: Well, I sort of relate it to the old Italian tradition of any family business, you know? Back in the day, in medieval times, if you were a shoemaker, you would learn the traditions and you would carry it forward. And so I’m proud of what my dad accomplished musically and I feel like it’s worth carrying on the tradition so that future generations can check it out.
So, for example, you know, for me I don’t describe his music as being nostalgia music or music from the past. I describe it as music from the future, because it is still so ahead of it’s time. And you have other legacy artists, like the Beach Boys or Elvis or someone like that, who sold many more records than my dad, but their music isn’t being carried forward by a segment of the population to say, “Hey, this is current, this is modern, we should make more music like this.” It really has been relegated, unfortunately in those instances, to nostalgia music, but for me I feel like my father’s music has been under appreciated or misunderstood and largely undiscovered. So, it is for all intents and purposes brand new music to a generation that’s never heard it. So, that’s the main thing that I want to do is expose people to the music and give them a chance to hear it.
Because the thing I hear over and over and over from people — and have heard for years, ever since I was a kid — is that when people get into my dad’s music, they thank my dad for making the music that he made, and they all say “It changed my life.” And it’s not just because of the notes, it’s because of the intent and the thought behind it. There’s so much on offer in the music. So, when I do these shows, I hear these stories from people over and over about “Thank you so much for keeping this going, you know, this music really did change my life.” And they tell me when they first heard the music and they say how it got them through tough times and all these things, and so to me it’s a valuable thing to do to be able to continue to offer this opportunity for people.
SANDS: You kind of just touched on this, but my next question was where do you see, you know — how is you dad’s music regarded by this current generation of music listeners? And where do you see his influences? What was his contribution?
ZAPPA: Well, there’s a few questions in there, but ultimately what I see with the younger generation that discovers the music is it’s the same as with any generation that’s ever discovered the music. They get into it because there’s this amazing, creative force behind it. And they think to themselves, “How did that happen? How did somebody make this? I want to do something like that. I want to get into it.” You know?
And they become inspired by the musicianship, the compositional qualities that are really unique. And, so, it’s great to see a younger generation pick up on it and adopt it as their own, because so much of modern music is dehumanized in the sense that it’s not really played by people anymore. It’s put through a grid and computerized and there’s so much of it that’s just made and constructed with the same attributes. You know, people are using the same equipment, the same producers, the same everything, so there’s so much of this homogenized thing out there and my dad’s music is exactly the opposite of all of that. It’s real people, playing real music that’s really hard in many cases. And, so, it just shows — it highlights creativity.
So where do I see that in modern music? I don’t see a direct influence of people saying “Oh, you know, Frank Zappa’s my biggest influence and I’m gonna go out there and sound just like him.” I do see it in certain instances where people take risks in their music and they have some interesting rhythms and stuff.
So, one of the artists that has become pretty popular — and rightly so, because she’s really good — is St. Vincent, and I feel like that there’s elements in her music that are Zappa-esque, with some of the rhythms and creative choices that she makes that are definitely not standard. You know?
SANDS: As a kid, what are your earliest memories of hearing your dad play or seeing a live performance?
ZAPPA: Well, I was pretty young, watching him do work at home or on stage or at the studio, and it all blends together. But there are songs that, as a kid, when you hear a song like “St. Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast,” you’re like, “Yeah! That’s a great song! A song about pancakes, and then it’s got this crazy music.” And, so, it’s like the pancakes come alive in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise. You know?
ZAPPA: Pancakes have always been popular in our house.
But, I can remember that my dad had some equipment that he had made for his touring. And they were these loud speakers that were covered in this sort of fuzzy red material. So, on stage you’d have these side fill monitors, and as a kid I would sit on top of some of the side-stage side fills, which were loud speakers that were giving audio to the performers on stage. But I would sit on there and it would vibrate. I remember hearing all sorts of songs that were favorites, such as “Peaches En Regalia,” and stuff like that, but I liked sitting on the vibrating speakers.
And, of course, I always liked the sound of my dad’s guitar and watching him play and, you know, it just always seemed like a magic trick, to watch all the people play this music, because it’s not just standard music, it’s really classical music played by an electric band.
So, if you put it in a perspective this way: how many times in your own life do you find in difficult to get multiple people to come together at the same time on one idea? Such as going to dinner — “Let’s go to dinner. Where should we go? What time should we arrive?” All of the issues of something like that, which is pretty simple, yet you can’t get people to agree or arrive at the same time. Now, try putting that in the perspective of multiple people on stage having to arrive at the same downbeat at the same time. You know, this is like a very concentrated effort to play some tricky and sophisticated rhythms and, you know, this stuff is written for orchestras and even if you had a hundred piece orchestra trying to play that stuff that only multiplies the difficulty of arriving at the same time at the downbeat. So, you know, it’s a really complex thing that my dad was doing.
SANDS: How did it impact you as a musician? What effect did his work have on you, and growing up in that environment?
ZAPPA: Well, initially, of course I was very inspired by his music, but I also knew that it was complicated and hard, so I didn’t find myself saying, “Hey, I’m gonna start with that.” I knew I had to graduate to an understanding to be able to get to that point.
So, initially I was playing mostly rock’n’roll guitar that was inspired by Edward Van Halen and Randy Rhodes. Because I started playing in 1982 and at that time Van Halen was the biggest band in the world.
And so over the years I continued to study music and have appreciation for all different styles of music. All those influences made their way into my playing and when I started doing my dad’s music, the biggest focus for me as a guitarist was to try to be able to do what my dad did so well, which was to be extemporaneous, and the reason that he was so good at it was that he had a very vast vocabulary, rhythmically and harmonically, so he could have as much variation as he wanted at any given time. And so to build that vocabulary takes a lifetime, and so when I wanted to start playing live on stage and play his music and then play within the style that he played, but still have my own voice, you know, that was a challenge.
And, so, I kind of systematically studied what his vocabulary was and what his tendencies were rhythmically and harmonically, and I would go ahead and try to learn some specific things that he plays in songs so that I could have guideposts that would be literal things that he played, but then I would fill in the blanks with my own ideas, but still filtered through this vocabulary of his. So, the point was that I wanted to be able to play in context with the music in a way that he might have played himself and not just take a huge left turn and have the music become something else during the improvisational section.
Z, featuring brothers Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa, 1993
SANDS: So, if we can shift gears here a minute — your family is going through a little bit of a drama right now. Can you explain what’s going on there?
ZAPPA: Well it’s a bit of a ridiculous situation ultimately, but my mother created a lot of problems when she was the one running the ZFT. So, when I started Zappa Plays Zappa, she filed a trademark for the name, without me ever knowing it, for the name Zappa Plays Zappa. And she also never paid me for the merchandise for the entire time that I had been doing the tour, which was 10 years before she passed.
And so when she passed, she left Ahmet and Diva in charge. And when I said, “Hey, listen, Gail never paid me for this stuff, you know, we need to rectify this.” They said, “No, we’re not going to change it. We’re going to continue to take a hundred percent of the merch and if you want to keep using the name Zappa Plays Zappa we’ll let you have that name for a dollar, but we’re taking a hundred percent of the merch.” And I said, “That’s not acceptable.” So I changed the name — no, before I even changed the name they sent me a cease-and-desist letter that said I couldn’t use the name anymore.
And so I changed the name to Dweezil Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa. And they sent me another cease-and-desist letter, saying that I couldn’t even use the name Frank Zappa in any way to promote anything. Meanwhile, there’s bands all over the world that use his picture and his name in performances nightly, all around the world, but I’m the one getting a cease-and-desist letter.
The other thing about that too was that of course I’m able to use the name Frank Zappa in describing what I’m doing on stage, the same way that a mechanic that owns a garage can say “I fix Volkswagens” or “I fix Mercedes.” That’s the same exact legal right of use. But rather than going down this ridiculous rabbit hole of legal stuff, I said “Fine, I’ll change the name to Dweezil Zappa and I’ll play whatever the f@%k I want.” And I called it the Cease and Desist Tour, Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%k He Wants” just to shed some light on the absurdity of it all.
But now they have taken it to the point where they’ve filed for a federal trademark to own and control the name Zappa on its own. So, they seek to prevent me from using Zappa as my own last name. In the field of music, entertainment, public speaking, teaching, anything. They wish to prevent me from using the name Zappa to identify myself in all of those areas.
I have launched a Pledge Music campaign today called Dweezil Zappa and the Others of Intention, where I have invited the public to band together with me to raise their voice alongside mine to oppose the trademark.
SANDS: And you’re launching that today?
ZAPPA: Yes, it’s already live on Pledge Music.
SANDS: That’s, you know, wildly unfortunate. And it seems like it hasn’t, obviously, always been the case. You and your family have made music together and so forth. Do you see this being reconciled?
ZAPPA: Uhh, no, because when you’re dealing with unreasonable people this is the outcome.
SANDS: Have y’all talked recently?
ZAPPA: No, it just goes through lawyers. You know? You can imagine — I gave them the opportunity to continue to sell Zappa Family Trust, Frank Zappa merchandise at the show. I said, “Let’s do a 50-50 deal.” And they said, “Nope, we’ll take a hundred percent.” So they cut themselves out of it, you know, stupidly, and they’re not willing to see the error of their ways and they keep digging their heels in to do this kind of stuff, like try to prevent me from using the name Zappa at all.
SANDS: Why — and I know there’s side-drama as well, such as the guitars that are in dispute — but why do you think this is?
ZAPPA: You’d have to ask them. You know, I couldn’t answer — obviously people speculate that it’s greed and jealously, but I don’t know why they would be so incapable of acting in a way that benefits the entire family. It would obviously be more beneficial for the whole family to get along and work together to continue to promote Frank’s great legacy. But they’re doing everything in opposition to Frank’s integrity.
Like, for example, they’re doing all this stuff against me, yet Diva Zappa is able to use the name Frank Zappa any way she wants and put his name and likeness on yoga pants. And the first pair she put out was with Frank’s “We’re Only In It for the Money” album cover, and she didn’t see the irony in doing that.
Ok, well, let’s shift again here. What are you doing, I know you have an album out —
ZAPPA: I have a record that’s called “Via Zammata” that came out last year and part of the Pledge campaign is we’re actually doing a special vinyl release of that. But I’m making a new record of instrumental guitar stuff that’s coming out. One track is already available that’s called “Dinosaur,” that’s on Pledge campaign. And then, you know, I’ll be continuing to make my own music over the next several years here.
Pledge Music is a good way to get it out to people because it’s really — the people that get involved with Pledge are real music fans that like to support artists directly, so that’s why I chose Pledge to do this campaign, Dweezil Zappa and the Others of Intention.
SANDS: On your upcoming, your next album, are you releasing it gradually or will it all be released at once? You said one song was out now.
ZAPPA: Well, the one song I’m referring to, “Dinosaur,” that one will be on a more complete record of guitar-instrumental stuff that I will complete later next year, but before that one of the other items that’s on the Pledge campaign is a guitar-solo compilation album that is — I have one in a series that I began a while ago and it’s called “Live in the Moment,” and it’s live guitar solos from the tour. And these are front-of-house recordings, so these are stereo recordings of the band performing live and so the next version of that is something that will come out in the next couple of months. I don’t have the exact release date yet because I’m still finishing putting the album together and getting the artwork going.
SANDS: I was reading about something online called the “What the Hell Was I Thinking?” project.
ZAPPA: Right. Uh-huh.
SANDS: Tell me a little bit a bout that. Are you still working on it?
ZAPPA: That one is a record I started more than 20 years ago and the idea began as I wanted to make — I just randomly selected a number, I said, “I want to make a 22 minute song and I want to make it have all these different styles of music and then maybe I’ll have some friends play on it.” So, I created this piece of music and then it just kept growing until it became 75 minutes long and it had all these different styles of music and a lot of very famous guitar players ended up playing on it. So, that piece of music, I’m definitely going to add some things to it because I have some stuff that I do now that’s very different than what I did 20 years ago. And there’s guitar players that I’d still really like to get on there —
SANDS: Who’s recorded thus far?
ZAPPA: Well, I’ve recorded Angus and Malcolm Young from AC/DC, Edward Van Halen, Eric Johnson, Brian May, Steve Vai, Steve Morse, Albert Lee, Warren DeMartini, Steve Lukather, Brian Setzer, Joe Walsh, you know, there’s Yngwie Malmsteen, a bunch of different people, all different styles.
SANDS: Is there recording ongoing? Or is this like a fixed set of recordings that you are working with?
ZAPPA: There’s definitely still more recording that I plan to do. But one of the things that I’m most excited about is I want to mix the whole thing in Surround Sound when it’s done, because really it’s an audio movie and I want it to just be a special movie for your ears.
SANDS: Interesting, interesting.
One last question here and I’ll let you go. I was reading on your Pledge Music campaign link where your father, on your birth certificate where it asked for religion, your father wrote in “musician.”
SANDS: What do you think he meant by that?
ZAPPA: Well, my father’s sort of the rock’n’roll Nostradamus, you know, he’s been very well documented as having a vision into the future. So I think he definitely was mocking the system by putting that on there, but he probably could, you know, foresee that I would become a musician, or that might have been a hope of his and, you know, being that that’s on there, of course I want to honor that. And I have been doing that to the best of my ability.
SANDS: Well, we look forward to hearing you when you come to town.
ZAPPA: Appreciate it, thanks.