Dweezil Zappa is currently on tour in the UK playing his father Frank’s music as Zappa plays Zappa. A few weeks ago, ahead of his gig at Edinburgh’s HMV Picturehouse this weekend, 17 Seconds called him at home in California to find out what we might expect, and why this is not simply a tribute act or an exercise in nostalgia.
When I call Dweezil Zappa at home in California, and ask to speak to him, it’s the legend himself who answers. Very laid back and happy to chat about what he’s working on, Dweezil’s a genuinely lovely person to talk to, even though we’ve never met.
So how’s it going?
‘I’m doing well, we’re getting ready to come,’ he says, cheerily. ‘ We love coming over and playing in the UK.’ He adds that he also likes Scotland having travelled here and come over to play some golf in the past. ‘We’ve been doing [Zappa plays Zappa] on an annual basis since 2006. The band has pretty much stayed the same except for a few variations,’ he explains. They have a new keyboard player called Chris Norton.
Given all those who played with his Father in the Mothers of Invention and as a solo artist, it must have been a matter of consideration as to who he would want to play his father’s music with himself. ‘When I started this whole project,’ he recalls, ‘it wasn’t my intention to include alumni, but in 2006 we did do a tour and thought we might as well do something that had the frosting on the cake.’ He didn’t feel too tied to this, though. He points out that his Father’s music ‘ is contemporary music, it doesn’t have to be alumni to be viable, it doesn’t have to be connected to the (mothers) band. I worked hard tyo put a band together that can make the band contemporary.’
Given the unique nature of Frank Zappa’s music, how did he approach learning the parts and how it was going to be performed?
‘There’s always the ability to improvise [with Zappa Snr’s music],’ he says, pointing out that sometimes those parts can be harder than others. ‘Songs like ‘Inca Rose’ we have done using the video, even though there’s parts that are structured and parts that are wide open.’ Given the limitations of this, they have a click track for the drummer to follow and stick to.
Frank Zappa was a prolific artist and over the course of his career released over eighty albums. So this must make choosing what to play an interesting consideration for tours and shows, and how does he approach this, I ask.
‘Everytime it’s different…it comes down to ‘What haven’t we played? What are we trying to emphasise?” He explains that it also comes down to balance it between the songs that are familiar and those that are buried deep in the catalogue. This tour, part of the show will feature on the 1974 album Apostrophe ‘.
‘ Apostrophe’ is the album that I encourage newcomers to listen to,’ he says, describing it as a ’45 minute album with some of his most inspired arrangements. The Apostrophe tour is good because it gives people the chance to hear [an entire album] but still have an hour of other material.’
Not surprisingly, Dweezil tries ‘not to play the exact same show every night.’ In fact it appears that if you heard the same song on different nights on the tour it would quite possibly be different. Always referring to his father as Frank he tells me that ‘Frank would have chunks [parts of songs] that could be put into different places [of other songs]. We take that into consideration when we’re choosing the songs.’ Added to which, all this material has to be learned ‘St. Aphonzo’s Breakfast Song’ might only be two minutes – but it’s a hard two minutes to learn!’ he chuckles.
As with most offspring, Dweezil clearly has a sense of reverence and wonder for what his Father achieved with his music, often wondering ‘How did he come up with that?’ He equates learning the material in some ways as being ‘like training for the olympics.’ It’s also clear that he’s politely keen to refuute any idea that this is simply just a tribute show, another attempt to squeeze money out of rock fans (I didn’t make this accusation, by the way, but it’s clearly something that’s been put his way before). The tour has admirers – he’s clearly pleased as punch that on a recent tour they had the legendary Chick Corea sitting in with them on a nightly basis. ‘A lot of people don’t know how to describe Zappa plays Zappa,’ he says, clearly puzzled at what it is that people aren’t getting. ‘In the lack of a good description, they call it a covers band. Is an orchestra a ‘covers’ band?’ he asks, hypothetically. ‘To play Frank’s music is the same thing as being in an orchestra,’ firmly insistent that there is skill involved in playing this music. ‘What we’ve tried to do,’ he tells me firmly, ‘is to elevate the level of music as best we can.’
Five years on since its inception, Zappa plays Zappa has become a big success. Back in 2006 he had no conception of how long he would be doing this. ‘We’ve just scratched the surface! he exclaims. ‘We’ve learned 160, 170 songs – and some of those are the hardest ones!’ As a band they have to figure out what’s best suited to an audience, maybe people who haven’t seen a Zappa show before. What clearly pleases him is the way that the audience coming to Zappa plays Zappa has changed. It started with audiences who were fifty-five plus males, now he sees a bigger cross-section in his audience.
Most important to him, is the way in which both his Father’s music and the show is viewed by the public. ‘I want it to be viewed as contemporary, not nostalgia,’ he says. ‘In many ways, his music is ahead of its time.’
Dweezil Zappa plays the Edinburgh HMV Picturehouse on November 19. For a list of the remaining tour dates, see here.