Dweezil Zappa – Interview Exclusive
Written by Tazz Stander
Monday, 02 August 2010 05:00
“Putting the eyebrows” (a favourite saying of the late, great Frank Zappa) onto the beginning of my High Voltage weekend, I’m lucky enough to start my hectic weekend early on a Friday on the phone to none other than Dweezil Zappa.
He sounds like his father Frank, only higher pitched.
Some people may want to say that he’s only cashing in on his father’s music because he can, so over the next twenty minutes he puts the record straight on why he feels Zappa’s music was so timeless, the effort and ability of his incredible band of multi-talented musicians and also clears up a few things that I’ve always wanted to know about being a Zappa. He’s collaborated with his brother, he’s a well respected solo artist and he’s also a much loved Zappa fan who might just have a surprise for you if you read on…
Zappa Plays Zappa has never struck me as a festival band due to the iconic elements in Frank’s music. What measurements are you putting into place to shave off time of such short sets?
There is plenty of material that works great for festivals. We have played numerous festivals around the world and when it comes to choosing the material for a shorter set, we generally try to choose instrumentals that have some of Frank’s most iconic features in his compositional style with the arrangement and all the syncopation and the different specialised rhythms. There are certain songs that allow for really good improvisational things to happen so it becomes a thing where we can easily feed off the crowd’s energy. Most of the time the crowd always feel that the shows are too short and they would like to see more (laughing) but that’s not up to us.
You’ve recently added an additional keyboard player, Chris Norton, to your current line-up. What effects will this have on your sound overall?
When we started the band we had an additional keyboard player but for most of 2008/9, we did not have one so it changed the material that we were focussing on around. Adding it back in gives us many more opportunities to go through different periods of Frank’s music. We have definitely enabled ourselves to add specialised textures and go in different directions than the past. Generally what we try and do is when we go on tour, we learn a whole bunch of new material so that the show is never the same. A lot of the people that see us see us every time we come to town.
Zappa Plays Zappa is predominantly mistaken as the ultimate covers band with few people actually realising that you guys have won a Grammy. At what point do you think people will realise the full brilliance of musicianship in your band or is there no point?
I don’t really know any real way of describing what this band actually is because you could call it a lot of things but ultimately my feeling is that the most important thing is, is that the music is not nostalgia music. Cover bands are typically representing a nostalgic period. Franks music is very current and timeless; in fact, it’s still ahead of its time in many ways. For us, we just let the music do the talking along with the fact that all the musicians in the band all have very high levels of skill that should appeal to just musicians who like to see musicians as a whole other quadrant of people that are hard to market to. Whether they know the music or not, they still will appreciate the musicianship.
Saying that Frank’s music was so far ahead of its time, what would the perfect era be for its release?
Ultimately I think that anything has the ability to become popular or successful if it’s given enough exposure. When Frank was touring a lot, he was playing in venues that held 10, 12, 15 000 people. Those people that are his core fans are in their 60’s or above at this point. To give a newer generation a chance to be exposed to the music, we are out and playing it live but they don’t really know about it because it’s not really exposed on the radio or mass media. For them to discover it takes a process of them first of all knowing about it or being inspired to check it out. That is the real challenge but the music like I said is timeless so any moment is the right time especially if you compare it to the current state of popular music right now. It is a great alternative to see what else is possible. Frank described his music as the world’s finest optional entertainment.
You’ve studied Frank’s music at an incredibly in-depth level. Do you think you now understand him a lot better through his music or has it left you with unanswered questions?
I think I definitely have a better understanding of a lot of the things and why he was so focussed on working all the time. He had so many detail involved in what he did and he had a complete vision on how it was to be done. It took the time it took to make the music the way is. That is a large reason why we took so much time to scrutinise it and perfect the way that he ideally wanted it to be heard by people. What I mean by that is the way that we go about it is, we are playing things that exist on records, things that he released because he wanted you to hear it that way. There are plenty of things within these arrangements where you have improvisational moments and those are really the moments where you discover what this band is really about. Besides that, we pay very close attention to the details within the music. I think I definitely have learnt a lot more about Frank and it’s a way to continue a relationship with him. The thing that is most over looked about Frank really is the fact that people thought he was just a comedy act because the only songs that may have made it onto the radio generally had some sort of comedic content. People disregard it with the rest of what they would hear because they would say, “Oh he’s the novelty guy. He’s like Weird Al Yankovic”. It is a shame because there is so much amazing stuff that is really yet to be discovered by a lot of people and that is kind of why we chose to focus on songs that are previously not so heavily emphasised. We want the casual person who is just discovering the music to get an in-depth look at the variety.
Factoring in a sub-sense and a visual sight, do you think that music videos are a necessity or an accessory?
I grew up in probably the last generation that used to buy music just to listen to it as opposed to watch it. I’m 40 and anyone slightly older than me knows what I’m talking about but anyone much younger than me has no idea, they never had any chance or option to just listen to it. I think the visual element has fooled a lot of people into thinking that some musicians are better than others (laughing) or better than they actually are. Music is one of those indescribable, powerful things. I think the stuff that really seems timeless and classic to a lot of people seems that way because it’s somehow attached itself to pivotal memories in their lives and that doesn’t really happen when you just watch a video.
It’s an interesting concept knowing that if a music video is poorly done, it could put you off the track completely or vice versa.
It can work both ways where a video can make you like a song that is not very good. There are pro’s and con’s to all of it but the reality of it is that music has been so devalued by the consumer at this point that they are not even willing to pay for it, they want music to be free and they have this bizarre notion that record companies just hand over buckets of money to people that make the music and the industry has completely imploded. The reality for musicians is that the new bands starting aren’t going to make money in record sales or song publishing, which is the way that the industry used to work. Their only chance is to try and make money by going on tour and what that ends up meaning is that most bands will end up making most of their money on t-shirts. Music to sell t-shirts is the equation and that is pathetic. There is no real reason in many cases to even print CD’s. The industry is completely destroyed.
You released ‘Go With What You Know’ in 2006 as part of your solo career. Can we be expecting any further solo albums or are you totally focussed on Zappa Plays Zappa now?
It’s been 5 years of consistent touring with Frank Zappa’s music and I honestly haven’t had a moment to even look into writing any of my own music. I have been listening to what the fans have been saying. Typically, after every show, I have the opportunity to meet virtually everyone in the audience. I stay on stage and sign stuff and talk to people after the show is done and the thing I hear a lot of these days is that the fans have really adopted this band as a band and they consider it a band that they would like to see the evolution of and they want to hear what it can do beyond playing Frank’s music. I’m hearing that enough now to make me consider spending some time to write some music. I’m curious to see what my music will sound like now anyway after all the technical advancements I’ve made in my playing and all the knowledge I have (laughs).
Awesome, we definitely have something to look forward to then. Which is your favourite Zappa song?
That is really difficult because as we go out and play it, there are certain songs that we just really enjoy the energy of. There are so many songs to choose from but the ones that I am most impressed with compositionally are ‘The Black Page’, I love the melody of it and how it was constructed – it was written as a drum solo and then Frank wrote the melody after the fact. There is a piece of music called ‘Dog Me’ which I think is an amazing piece of music, one of his more classical works. I also really like ‘G Spot Tornado’, it’s another great one but there are so many to chose from it makes it really hard.
How much ‘trouble’ has the Zappa name caused you?
It’s never really caused me any trouble. Despite what people probably thought our family might have been, it was fairly conservative at home. I never got myself into any trouble, I was always had pretty good manners. In most situations, if people take you at face value, there is never any…. you know, people were never concerned, “here’s the Zappa kid”.
I was always been curious as years ago I read an interview with Frank and the journalist asked him why he named his kids such odd names and he said something like, “Lets look at the name Ralph for a minute, there is no warmth in a name like that. It doesn’t matter what I’ve named my kids, it’s the surname that is going to get them into trouble”.
I think more so what he means by that is that his whole life and his whole career was like a Sisyphean task, always pushing the rock up the hill because nobody got what he was about. It wasn’t like suddenly you were going to have all these doors opening or giving you these opportunities of a lifetime, there is no free lunch, and you really are going to always have to work. When people always used to ask me if I was afraid of being compared … well, if I was afraid of being compared, the last thing I would do is do a project like Zappa plays Zappa.
(Laughing) The only difference I can tell between you and your Dad at the moment is that you’ve got a slightly higher pitched voice than him.
(Laughing) He is hilarious.
I used to listen to Stephen Fry to fall asleep to but I think Franks taken over on the tone of voices for me now.
(Laughing) Nice, he would have loved that.
Finally, can rock music move forwards without leaving its fans behind?
On one hand, you look at the possibilities with what the Internet can give people meaning now, you don’t necessarily need a record company, you don’t need all these other things that you previously needed. A band can create their own music and distribute it digitally and get the word out that way. It’s just a matter of how many people they can reach and how they can do that. Theoretically it’s the Wild West, you can go ahead and create a whole new category and genre. There are people who can be as experimental as they want and find an audience but I think gone are the days of new acts that come out and sell 20 million albums. What is replacing that is people having to create a much more personalised relationship with their fan base through networking. The possibility that interesting music can be made and an audience can be found, it’s just not really very easy to get the exposure. You see these things on youtube where someone has 30 million views on something called ‘The world’s greatest guitar solo’ (laughing) but when you look at it, you realise that it’s really not the world’s greatest guitar solo. If that was for sale, would they have sold 30 million copies of it? I don’t think so.
Dweezil, thank you ever so much for taking the time to speak with Uber Rock.
Ok great; see you guys at High Voltage Festival.
And so began my journey to the show you’d hope would never end.