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The art of sound shaping, hologram dodging, assertive listening and family fortunes.

27th September 2017

andy rawll
Interview: Andy Rawll

dweezil zappa

Frank Zappa's eldest male progeny and musical prodigy is back in the UK in less than two weeks' time to celebrate the legacy of his father's music. The tour is fifty years on from the unholy trinity of 'Freak Out', 'Absolutely Free' and 'Lumpy Gravy' and the first visit by the Mothers of Invention to these shores.

MetalTalk's Andy Rawll spoke to Dweezil Zappa in an exclusive extended interview about what fans might expect at these landmark shows. He was also provided a fascinating insight into how he and his band mastered his Dad's frighteningly eclectic and complex music and also his own creative processes. He also reveals the latest on the infamous unfinished seventy-five minute guitar symphony, featuring Vai and Van Halen, and his latest solo album, 'Via Zamata'.

On the subject of the ongoing dispute with the Zappa Family Trust (ZFT), administered by his younger siblings Ahmet and Diva and relating to the use of the Zappa 'brand', Dweezil remains resolute and focused in asserting his right to perform his birth-right under his birth name.

On reading last week's announcement that Frank was 'doing a Ronnie' and being brought back to life, he cheerily declared 25th September as 'Happy Hologram Day'. He also calmly disavowed the cynically-timed ZFT press release that suggested that he could be involved in the all-star band being assembled to accompany what Dweezil describes as Fake Frank on tour next year.

Leading up to the five-date UK tour in October you had a spoken word tour called 'What's in a name?'. How did that go and did it allow you to recharge and refresh before you focus on this 50th anniversary series of shows?

"Well, it was like a story telling tour and it went well. Over the years, having played almost 2,000 shows of Zappa music, we got a chance to meet a lot of the fans. They have a lot of questions about what was it like growing up with Frank Zappa as a father and how I got into playing music and those kind of things.

"It did, to some degree, also promote the fifty years of Frank tour, because I talked about similar things that I cover when I'm doing a live show, whether about the music, little details or why I like certain songs.

"The other side of it was to a add bit of comic relief, which helped when people were asking about what was going on with the Zappa family trust."

I noticed that the Others (AKA the Otters) of Intention Pledge Campaign was going very well at over 120% of its target, but how about now with only a few days to go before the closing date?

"Well actually, we're going to extend it, because one of the things that we're about to announce for the Pledge campaign is music from a DVD that the trust won't currently allow me to release.

"However, I've found that I can put the audio out without the visuals. The DVD is a live on-stage version of the entire 'Apostrophe' album. I'm just finishing the mastering of the audio verision and I'm going to put that up as a Pledge option.

"So, we're going to keep the Pledge campaign going for a while. We're still sending out things that have been Pledged for already, pedals, posters, t-shirts and the vinyl from my current album 'Via Zamata' is also just about ready to ship.

dweezil zappa

'Via Zamata' is a great eclectic record with everything from the Beatlesque 'Just The Way She Is' to the instrumental of 'Truth' and MetalTalk favourite 'Dragon Master'. Is there any space on this tour, because you can play whatever the hell you want, to play any songs from the album or will it be Frank Zappa songs?

"Well, we have talked about it and at some shows we've done a couple of songs. We've played 'Nothing', 'Dragon Master' and some other things like 'Funky Fifteen' and 'Truth' so we may consider including those again. I'm not exactly sure, as I've not decided the full setlist for the upcoming European run.

"In the future, I'd like to make more of my own music and tour a different setlist, but just haven't had time to rehearse the stuff."

Coming back to 'Via Zamata', there's the intriguing 'Dinosaur' that uses a recording technique coined by Frank as 'Xenocrony', where a recorded musical sequence or solo is removed from its original context and inserted into a totally alien (xenos in Greek) composition that can create unexpectedly pleasing results. Was this just a successful studio experiment (melding Frank solo guitar parts from a 1977 tour into a new Dweezil composition) or is there a chance that you will perform it live?

"Sure, we could potentially learn it to play it live. It's got some fun elements to it. It's just one of those things that when I get the chance to really dig into my own catalogue then that would definitely be one of those songs to think about playing.

"On a related topic, I'm doing another thing in Holland in November, where I'm debuting some of the orchestral music that I've written with the hundred-piece Northern Dutch Orchestra (NNO). There will also be special arrangements of some other things like 'Truth' and we're going to play the song 'Shampoo Horn' from one of my past records, arranged for orchestra. We're also going play a little bit of music from my Dad and one piece by Steve Vai, just for that concert."

That sounds excellent. Any opportunity to bring that over to the UK would be great as well. One observation about 'Dinosaur' and the way that it came together is that it appears to be a microcosm of the 'What The Hell Was I Thinking' [the extended opus, featuring a multitude of guest guitarists, that Dweezil has been developing and extending since the early 90s]. Is that something that will finally come to fruition in 2018?

"There's a good chance that much more of it will get put together now, because I didn't have studio space of my own to work in for a long time. I definitely want to do some more work on that. It's like a jigsaw puzzle to put together.

"There are parts of it that were originally going to contain parts of my Dad's music. I don't need to have that stuff in there now, as I've been playing his music for twelve years now, so there are some gaps that I'll need to connect with some other newly written material.

"Also, there are more guitar players that I'd still like to be part of it. Some of the classic guitar heroes I'd like to have on there would be like Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Tony Iommi, Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour...

"There's already a ton of people already on there including Angus Young, Edward Van Halen, Eric Johnson, Brian May, Steve Morse, Steve Vai, Joe Walsh... there's probably already forty different people that I've recorded. It probably already has the World Record for most guitar players on one piece of music."

That leads onto the penultimate area that I wanted to cover, which is your writing process. Talk me through about how you write and your approach to improvisation?

"The composition element is particularly interesting because I've not been in that head space for so long. I've been so busy working on learning and performing Frank's music, there hasn't really been any kind of writing ritual in the past. Even then, when I would have written music it would have largely been based on something that would have come straight from the guitar. I would just sit down and play guitar and if there was something that led me somewhere I would follow that path.

"These days it's actually a little different. For example, with the orchestral music I do it all on the computer and I don't even use the guitar at all. The process for that is similar to what my Dad did when he was a kid. Before he actually learned how to do all the music notation he used to just draw pictures of music, that he felt resembled the look and feel of the music.

"I've adopted a similar approach. Let's say you start off with a minute's worth of sixteenth notes. I will take those and represent those on the computer as a contoured shape, listen to it and adapt it to change the notes until I decide that I like what this sounds like. Then, I'll write a new part and either create a counter-point or harmony or something else, but it's all based on just taking a certain amount of time and making a shape and then building the pieces in succession.

"I might do a minute of music if I'm making a classical piece, but it will have elements included because I can just stack them in the project and hear every instrument that I want to hear for that duration. It's like a jigsaw puzzle, but you complete one thing before you move on in the timeline.

"It's very different and it makes me write in ways that I wouldn't if I did it on the guitar. The guitar offers me certain preconceived patterns and things that I'm familiar with, whereas doing what I've been doing on the computer offers total freedom and I've no idea what it's going to sound like. I just make a start and then I listen to it."

dweezil zappa

Do you find yourself listening to other instruments, rather than the guitar, to pick the patterns and shapes that inspire other melodic ideas?

"For orchestral compositions it can be anything, as I can flip through different sounds, create the shape and then decide, for example, if they would be best on a viola or a flute. I can hear it in different ways, get inspired and let that lead me to the next idea. In some ways, it's similar to what happens in improvisational situations.

"There, I generally have no idea what it's going to sound like before I start to play. Sometimes, I might have a certain idea where I say, 'OK, I'm coming up to the end of this chord progression and I want to be able to target the down-beat of the outro with this particular note'. So, I might have a strategy to get to one place at the end of a progression, but generally, I play something and listen for what happens right afterwards and let that inform the next decision.

"The way that I approach it is a like a kind of sport, where you have to be ready to move in either direction. If you were playing tennis, you would have to really be ready to go to either side of the court, depending where the ball lands. So, if the drums play a certain kind of rhythm or fill, you need to be ready to respond to that.

"One player plays a particular line and you think 'maybe I can add something to that'. A keyboard player plays a chord voicing and you think 'maybe I can pick up on that' and then it sounds like a conversation between the instruments, as opposed to just saying, 'oh, I'm only going to be playing scale parts and arpeggios and everyone has to follow what I'm doing'.

"There's an interplay between all musicians and I actually have a note on my pedalboard that says 'Listen'. It sounds like a simple concept, but it's actually much harder to do than it would seem. As guitar players, we learn how to play scales and certain licks and we have pre-conceived and pre-composed patterns and phrases, so I'm trying as best as I can to stop using that process and be as extemporaneous as possible.

"That's what my Dad was so great at. He was really able to play in the moment and freely execute a response to whatever he heard and that is really the hardest thing to do. You first have to understand the mindset and then you have to have the discipline to stay focused in that zone."

How long did it take you to reach that same level where you no longer had to think and just play in the moment?

"Even if you would have asked him, he wouldn't have said he was completely in that zone all the time. In fact, only the best elements of his playing would be released on record. Fans would probably enjoy all the things that he played nightly, but he was a pretty harsh critic of his own playing.

"I think that many musicians are self-critical when they listen back to an improvised solo, but there's a strange thing that often happens. After the show, I might think: 'I'd like to hear that solo', because I felt that some good things were happening and you listen back to it and it's not at all what you thought was good. And then there's the night when you think: 'I don't know if I even want to hear that, as I didn't think that it was in-the-moment at all'. And then you listen back and it's the best playing you've ever done.

"So sometimes you can be totally thrown off because you might have executed something with some technical precision, but that may not convey a feeling as much as something that was completely off-the-cuff. Also, I find that if I listen to a show from last week I can hear it with a clearer perspective than if I hear it ten minutes after the show is done. The point is that it's always surprising what happens when you think that you're doing something that you intended to do and then you find out that you didn't do it as well as you thought. And then when you thought you were doing something that wasn't quite what you were planning to do, that's the one that just seems to connect.

"It's that weird place where you have to be willing to lose control and that is when I find that the best things happen and you truly are in the moment. I'm not thinking about anything, I'm just reacting to what's happening and it's just a natural flow. The moment you're trying to manipulate the contours, you still may get a good result, but it doesn't end up with that magical element.

"If you listen to my Dad's record 'Shut Up And Play Your Guitar', it's just completely freeform. He's just expressing his musicality and there's a lot happening rhythmically in the interplay between the guitar and drums. What's happening there is what I grew up listening to, thinking 'wow, one day I'd love to try to be able to do something like that'. To get anywhere in that ballpark is a real triumph.

To round that out, I remember reading, that on your birth certificate he put his religion as being musician?

"That's right."

And what about on your kid's birth certificates - did you put the same thing?

"We just left it blank."

dweezil zappa

If we then come back to the tour and the band that you've got with you. You've clearly got incredible focus on how you create and how you improvise. How do you get the guys that you recruit to be on the same wavelength?

"When it comes to putting a band together to play this kind of music, the challenge when I first started the band was: am I going to be able to find younger musicians that have enough experience with multiple styles so that they can play authentically in all of the different styles required by my Dad's music?

"You might have somebody that's a straight-up jazz player, but they can't play rock or they can't play country or they can't play other stuff, because they don't have any exposure to it. To play my Dad's music, you have to have had exposure to every style of music because you'll find that from song-to-song there's a bit of everything.

"So, in the first years of having had the band I've found some musicians that were pretty good at that and they were on the younger side, which was important to me because I wanted to showcase that this music can be played by any generation of musician.

"It's also important for it to be seen from that perspective so that it's perceived as forward looking and it's not just regarded as nostalgic music. If people were just going to see a bunch of seventy year olds on-stage, they're not going to think that it's the most modern, current music around. They're going to be seeing it as something from a different generation for sure.

"So that was always part of the equation to make sure that there was a set of younger musicians in the band that had no previous affiliation with my Dad.

"The current version of the band is my favourite version of the band because it has all of the requisite skills and attributes to play the different styles authentically, yet it also has a fun and relaxed feel because the rhythm section gets along so well. There's just a lot of range that can be covered with this version of the band, where can go further and deeper than any other version of the band that I've had."

Finally, in terms of the setlist, the first part of the set is based largely around 'Freak Out' and the Mothers' and then you stretch out to relatively more recent material. Are there any pointers or indicators of what you've chosen from the later material?

One of the differences of this show from other tours is that it's almost a chronological representation of the music. Yes, it does start with the early years, 'Freak Out', Mothers Of Invention stuff and then it takes you into '200 Motels' and some early 70s stuff and just keeps trucking along.

"It then jumps around a little bit between mid 70s, late 70s, early 80s and back and forth. The challenge is always to put things into the show, surprises and deep tracks that maybe Frank never played and then also some fan favourites. Generally, there's going to be some people that are coming to the show for the first time and first-time fans usually have certain songs that they hope to hear. Popular songs like 'Zombieworld', 'Montana' or 'Inca Road' are always a good option, but I think that we're going to mix it up a little bit and see what happens.

"We have a guy in the UK, for whom it will be his first tour, a guy called Adam Minkoff and he's a very talented musician and singer. Just to give you an idea, he played a couple of shows with us on our last tour. He's from the New York area and he came to a show and he was going to sit in on a couple of songs, but he ended up sitting in on virtually the entire show. He is the only person that I know of that could fit in unrehearsed on twenty-plus songs in our show and nail it. The guy's really, really good. So that will be fun to have him be part of this particular tour.

"The show is also designed to showcase the different skill sets within the band. It moves you through different songs that highlight maybe a vocal or it might be a saxophone or it might be a keyboard thing, as part of the natural flow of the show.

"In particular, we'll be featuring a singer that's in the band who's done a few tours with us called Cian Coey. She's got a great range, but what's really fun is that she can do Flo and Eddie style stuff and then she can sound like Tina Turner and then she can sound like Ricky Lancelotti with a razorblade rock'n'roll voice. She has all these different personas that she can bring forward for the audience.

"So, we're going to do a little bit more to bring that out of her on this tour. She's also fun to watch. She's brought a lot to the band from that perspective, just because the way that she sings and performs is authentically herself. It's not a put-on, she has a lot of energy."

To encapsulate it all, I can almost quote the tag-line from your 'Dweezilla Classes' which is 'Learn and destroy'. It sounds like your band you have learnt the material and when they come over on tour to the UK they're going to destroy. It sounds like it's going to be a great tour and we're really looking forward to that.

"Well, we're looking forward to coming back. We've had a lot of great experiences playing in the UK and it's been a while. I think this particular show is going to be very exciting. One other thing that I'm pretty sure is going to happen there is that we're going to have the Norwegian Wind Ensemble play with us, which will add a huge horn section to the show and I think it will add a striking element to the arrangements."

And on that, I remember a quote about your approach to guitar and listening, which was that horn players have to breathe, whereas guitarists don't, so that will be a good reminder.

"Yes, the hardest thing for a guitar player to do is to pause. When you play, it's like you're telling a story. If you have too many run-on sentences and there's no punctuation, the story's not as fun to listen to. It might actually be annoying to listen to.

"If you relate that to playing guitar lick after guitar lick and connecting them all up, it's like having too many ideas that start before they actually finish. It's a common problem for guitar players, because we don't have to breathe, we can just keep playing. That's one of the challenges and one of the things that I try to work on is to be more deliberate and taking more time between phrases.

"I've heard solos that my Dad has done, where he's taken ridiculously long-time spaces between phrases and the impact is actually pretty spectacular, because when he does play again, it's 'man - that sounds pretty bad-ass'.

"When I think about the times when I've heard him do that he must have been specifically thinking about it because the pauses are so much longer than normal. Even longer than a horn player would do. And it's not like he was messing with broken equipment or something, I think he was just 'OK, I'm really only going to play when I feel like playing something'. So that's just another approach to something that I'd love to improve on."

UK tour dates are as follows:

Sunday 8th October: Gateshead, The Sage
Monday 9th October: Salford, The Lowry
Tuesday 10th October: London, Royal Festival Hall
Thursday 12th October: Birmingham, Town Hall
Friday 13th October: Bexhill, De La Warr Pavilion

Tickets are available right here.


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