Dweezil Zappa, eldest son of legendary musical pioneer Frank Zappa, has committed much of the past fifteen years to preserving and furthering his father’s storied legacy. For some, Frank’s work and ongoing influence upon the musical landscape may require no introduction – his monolithic back catalogue of over sixty albums touched many; covering a spectacular musical range from psychedelic rock to jazz fusion, music for orchestra to entirely synthesised pieces.
He played a bicycle on television in the early sixties, jammed with The Beatles and discovered some of the most influential musicians of the 20th century – from ‘stunt guitarist’ Steve Vai, to King Krimson’s Adrian Belew, and drum maestro Terry Bozzio. Others may recall his political activism – speaking before the US senate in opposition to Tipper Gore’s PMRC music-censorship campaign in the late 1980s, years before countercultural heroes such as Marilyn Manson and Eminem were to follow in his footsteps. Sadly, Frank never made it through the nineties.
Thankfully, the breadth and depth of Frank’s tremendous oeuvre has kept die-hard fans occupied ever since, and remains a rich, absorbing world for new listeners to explore. From experience, however, I can attest that finding a foothold in the world of Frank Zappa may be an intimidating task. My father remains a devoted fan to this day, and took pleasure in introducing me to a wide range of Frank’s albums in my infancy. Eventually something clicked, and it certainly wasn’t the complex deep cuts found on Make A Jazz Noise Here (disc #2) that had somehow become a mainstay during long car journeys. No, for me it was the surrealist rock narrative of Apostrophe, the NSFW humour of Sheik Yerbouti, and witnessing the searing power of his late 70s band in the Baby Snakes concert film. But where to begin for any newcomer not blessed with a father like mine, or a household littered with Zappa CDs? Personally, I’d try Dweezil.
Having spent years perfecting Frank’s idiosyncratic guitar style, and immersing himself in his father’s dense, musically-challenging pieces, Dweezil committed to taking his father’s music on the road. As one of the few, at that time, permitted to perform in an official capacity under the family name, Dweezil’s ensemble toured as Zappa Plays Zappa (ZPZ) for the first ten years of its existence, wowing first generation fans and newcomers alike with their note-perfect, rip-roaring revival of many Zappa classics that may otherwise have been lost to the ages.
Now touring under his own name, Dweezil is taking Frank’s seminal 1969 record Hot Rats on tour, in honour of its 50th anniversary. Despite only featuring one vocal cut – the sleazy, electric violin-driven jam ‘Willie The Pimp’, featuring Captain Beefheart – Dweezil explains that the record has nonetheless remained a fan favourite. “There is something pretty unique about the sound of the record” he explains, “it’s lauded as one of the very first to have a stereo drum sound, and when you think of how ubiquitous stereo is at this point, I think that’s probably one of the things that hooked people – this expansive new character to it.”
Whilst more casual fans will likely be pleased with hearing favourites such as ‘Peaches En Regalia’ (2009 Grammy winner for Best Instrumental Rock Performance) in a live setting, others may be excited to know that this tour will feature the debut live performances of Hot Rats album cuts ‘Must Be A Camel’ and ‘Little Umbrellas’, a half century after they were first committed to wax, since Frank never attempted these pieces in concert during his lifetime.
Whilst Hot Rats live may see some firsts for Dweezil, he has been no stranger to touring entire albums before, having previously tackled One Size Fits All, Apostrophe and Roxy and Elsewhere. Yet despite spending years on the road he now feels as if he has finally perfected his touring lineup – an intimidatingly talented group of musicians he affectionately refers to as a “rocking teenage combo”. “It’s a combination of the skillset and the attitude” he tells me, a faint tone of amusement in his voice, “there are people who can play the music but aren’t socially capable of… interacting. You have to find the people that can do both.”
Besides Dweezil, multi-instrumentalist Scheila Gonzalez is the only remaining player from the band’s inaugural lineup, and all who have witnessed her perform can attest to why – seeing her effortlessly juggle keyboards, saxophone and vocals, occasionally slipping into solos during which she plays two instruments at once, is an electrifying spectacle. “She’s rarely ever made any mistakes on stage – and we’ve played well over one thousand shows,” Dweezil acknowledges, yet this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any precautions taken in case of onstage slipups.
Frank’s music is notoriously difficult to play, with portions of his catalogue taking on near-legendary status as virtually unplayable. The drum solo in ‘The Black Page’, for example, was so-called because of the minimal remaining portions of white page visible behind the tune’s dense musical notation. Dweezil notes how his father deliberately “doubled or even tripled the hardest parts, so if someone falls off a line, someone is there to keep it going,” with guitars, horns, and mallet percussion often all carrying the same melodies as a kind of mutual safety net.
As Dweezil continues to dig yet deeper through Frank’s catalogue – from which he estimates they have so far covered around 500 songs – he is aware he does so at a cost: “Occasionally we’ll listen back to things and have no recollection of doing it” he tells me, matter-of-factly, “I might spend months learning how to play something, play it on our tour, and if we don’t play it again, I will have no recollection of having played it or how to play it.”
He also struggles to block out time to concentrate on solo projects, often instead choosing to comb through the band’s extensive live recordings, selecting standout songs and passages for future releases – a method very much pioneered by his father many years before. When quizzed about plans for the future, Dweezil expresses an interest in working with singer-songwriter St. Vincent, well as finding time to master Frank’s Revised Music For Guitar and Low-Budget Orchestra. For a man forever on the brink of musical overload, he seems uncommonly positive about the future. His hard work in bringing Frank’s music back into the live arena seems to be paying dividends – he has noticed that crowds at his shows are getting younger, not older, a rarity for any tribute act. He mischievously speculates that “it would be funny to infiltrate some pop music, to see what would happen with an established pop artist. Reconfigure this pop formula to include some of these more subversive musical elements.”
Dweezil, throughout our conversation steers clear of mentioning his ongoing, very public family disputes. Since the passing of Frank’s widow, Gail Zappa, in 2015, the Zappa siblings have been locked in a bitter dispute over the estate – with everything from Frank’s exhaustive vault of recordings, to his trademark moustache emblem in contention. This perpetual infighting over trademarks and percentages eventually lead Dweezil to dispense with the ‘Zappa Plays Zappa’ moniker following legal threats, instead choosing to tour for a time under the fabulously-inflammatory – ‘Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever The F@%k He Wants - The Cease and Desist Tour’. Meanwhile the Zappa Family Trust (now under the control of Ahmet and Diva Zappa) mounted their own tour – The Bizarre World of Frank Zappa – featuring a holographic avatar of Frank created through motion-capture, and no involvement from Dweezil, ironically the only living member of the Zappa clan actually capable of playing his father’s music in the first place.
“As far as a hologram or something like that… I’m not interested in any of that, for my dad or really anybody”, says Dweezil, “the only way I think a hologram would work, is in the context of a current performer who could double themselves and make themselves larger than life – like Beyoncé could make herself 100 feet tall and put herself in the middle of an arena, that might be a good use of a hologram. Deceased artists being puppeted… I don’t have an interest in that.”
Frank once infamously advised Gail, that in the event of his passing she was to “sell everything, get out of the music business and go get a house at the beach”, and despite everything, I for one am glad that he was resoundingly ignored by his successors. Dweezil’s profound dedication to his father’s music continues to reach new listeners to this day, as well as acknowledge his dedicated first-generation fanbase. He confesses to me that these days, without access to Frank’s vault of recordings (another asset controlled by the Zappa Family Trust), he has taken to digging through the extensive catalogue of live bootlegs that are available online, hand-picking “specialty, mystery riffs – things that were only played on rare occasions” to add new, exciting elements to the live show. It is evident that for Dweezil this has always been a labour of love, with no obstacle proving too large, no musical passage too complex, and no familial lawsuit too restrictive to stand in his way. Simply put, and in the words of Frank himself: “music is the best”, and I predict nothing less than the best come December 8th at Oxford’s New Theatre, as we welcome Dweezil Zappa to the stage once more.