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.
Gimme Noise: What you guys have been doing with Zappa Plays Zappa has been really great.
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.
Yeah, of course, I suppose. Just getting that many people involved I know was really difficult for Frank back in the day as it's not a cheap thing to do. Probably being that level of composer and maintaining that much control over the music was probably really difficult then let alone now with the audience for that type of stuff. I've been to some of the shows and you definitely see some of the old hippie types that have been on board since day one with this stuff but how do you see the audience growing for this music now that you have been doing this for a few years?
Well the goal was always to introduce it to a younger generation and let them in on the music in a way that let's them know that it's not only contemporary music but it's really from the future. There's nothing that sounds like this now.
The issue we always have is that a lot of people have this perception this is a nostalgia project or it's just a cover band but that does a disservice to the music because the music speaks for itself. When you see it performed live you understand you really have to work hard to play this music. That's one of the key elements that makes it worth being a repeat viewing kind of thing. The majority of people who have come to see us play are people that have seen us before. We have seen an quite increase in the amount of young people coming out and women. In the first few years you really didn't see any women.
Yeah, I know..total sausage fest. Right?
Yeah, girls were being dragged to this by their husbands or boyfriends. But we've seen a lot of women of all different ages getting into it. Even back in the day Frank did not have a huge female following because a lot them were under the impression that the music was misogynistic or something.
There's probably a bit of history for mistaking the satire for being an overriding ideology that Frank had. I would guess he treated women like he treated anyone else. So I know when you started out doing ZPZ you had some of the Zappa vets in the band; Terry Bozzio, Steve Vai, etc., are you keeping the group more to the core of musicians you have chosen and work with?
The idea at the beginning was that this music was for any generation at any time. A lot of people have had this impression that the only way this music can sound authentic is to have people who formally played with Frank. That's really not the case. For this music to go on into the future it needs to be performed by a new generation of people. My goal was always to create a band of people who had no previous affiliation with Frank and just have the music speak for itself. In the beginning when we were doing this we didn't have any idea if we could do it on a continual basis. The first year, promoters were wanting us to create a situation where there was some former members to make it a celebration kind of thing. But we've tried to get away from that. It's really about making the music the focus. It's not about other things people seem to want to have in a concert going experience. We don't have the lasers, we don't have dance troupes, we don't have rappers who come out and go "Yeah, yeah, oh yeah!!"
Haha, right. About contemporary music and what Frank was in tune with at the time. Not necessarily influenced by it but was definitely aware of everything. But I also admired his approach to media which I find interesting and like you said the future of music. Especially the way music was delivered. There's no denying he predicted a lot of things that are happening now with how people get their music.
Well yeah, he really foresaw the future of that. He had applied for a patent for a digital music system that was essentially what iTunes is today. [ Note: Zappa's music was introduced on iTunes in August.] He knew because he was always very astute with technology in the studio and using equipment past what the design usage was and he knew when it came to digital technology there was a possibility to do something totally unique and different. The problem with doing what he wanted to do was he wanted to maintain the bandwidth quality. Everything that we all know about music these days is so degraded in terms of the audio fidelity.
People are used to listening to an MP3 or worse and they don't know what they are missing because they didn't come from a generation where they had better fidelity. The reason he couldn't do what he wanted to do was because they couldn't maintain the same bandwith to have the same audio listening experience because of something called the "baud rate." It was something that just wasn't developed high enough to transfer over the telephone which would have been the way to do it at the time. So it wasn't something that could be done to the specs that were required. The younger generation doesn't know what they are missing in terms of a listening experience with music. They just have it on in the background and they don't often don't have any respect for it because they don't think they should have to buy it.
Right, it becomes more of a fashion thing than it has to do with music.
The thing is a kid today will spend $3 on a fart noise app but wouldn't ever actually buy any music!
Haha, well. Actually I think that's something that might make your father proud. I mean when you compare it to the quality of much of the music that's made these days I might rather pay for that too!
It's just a weird thing in the industry and society in general. They expect that musicians should just give their work away for free.
Music has become much more of a service just like you might expect a waiter to give you food. It's not anything you keep forever. It's like a service industry. It's hard to commodify anything and selling it as an object. Ironically enough, I think that's what your father was going with that idea and getting past the issue of having to ship all this "cardboard and plastic" around. I remind myself all the time 90 percent of people don't listen to as much music as we do. But in the end I think it favors an artist. I think it's raised the bar making musicians have to perform at a level that actually will maintain an audience to come see them.
That's hard to prove since people have to find an artist that can captivate an audience and the younger generation is so dumbed down for what to expect from music they can't tell the difference when something is exceptional quality versus complete mediocrity. That's the weird part of it. If they were to be quizzed on the level of musicianship of Justin Beiber to Jimi Hendrix they wouldn't know that big of a difference as they are just used to whatever the current most modern thing is.
Well, it's kind of always been that way. But yeah, now everything is driven by celebrity and fashion and having the most attention for youself and not necessarily the music. Going back to Frank, he didn't really use his celebrity as the impetus for what drove him.
It really wasn't about "Hey, look at me!". He drew attention to topical things that were important but he didn't go out to there to create a big image for himself. If he wanted to speak about something he would be one of the few to really go out and there and say the truth.
What do you think Frank would think about the political state of the world? I kind of feel like he really wouldn't be too surprised.
He was always trying to motivate people to be a part of the process. Over the years with things that happened with elections. It really effectively put the nail in the coffin for a lot of people because I feel like apathy is at it's highest point. I know with myself I would rather just spend time with my kids.
I think guys like Frank or Bill Hicks, who I always admired, were onto some pretty prescient things that seems to be happening now.
Yeah, Bill Hicks was amazing and hilarious.
Yeah man, so was Frank.
Zappa Plays Zappa performs Friday night, December 7. 8pm doors. 18+ $30. Tickets
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