It might be the case that the only person who can truly play Frank Zappa’s genre-bending work is another Zappa. The legendary oddball’s eldest son, Dweezil Zappa, has spent the past decade continuing his father’s unique legacy with the Zappa Plays Zappa tribute act. The project didn’t just keep Frank’s music playing in concert halls — it gave it new life. Dweezil made the material his own while still staying true to his dad’s singular talents, performing with a revolving roster of Zappa alumni, unsung session greats, and on at least one occasion, a tap dancer. (“That was a pretty big highlight,” he recalls fondly.)
With a catalog as extensive as the Mothers of Invention’s, Dweezil — an accomplished musician in his own right — had plenty to keep himself occupied with. His most recent album, 2006’s Go With What You Know, dropped the same year Zappa Plays Zappa kicked off, and at the time the homage wasn’t expected to be a ten-year venture. But this Friday, November 27, Dweezil is making his long-awaited return to original composition with a new LP of his own, Via Zammata, and now he’s armed with untold amounts of experience and insight gained from mastering his father’s genius. The resulting record, named for the Sicilian street that the Zappas once emigrated from, is a fitting mixture of legacy and creation. SPIN spoke to Dweezil over the phone from his Los Angeles home about the new record, defining himself as an artist, and Frank Zappa’s legacy in the modern music scene.
So, this is your first original album in a decade. Why now?
Well, I’ve been doing Zappa Plays Zappa for ten years, which is not something I set out to do — but it’s been like going to university for ten years. I thought about making music of my own but I just didn’t have time, so I finally put some time on the calendar and said, “All right, I’ll make a record and start it on this date.” But I had no idea what I would be working on until literally maybe a week before we went into the studio.
Did you learn something from playing your dad’s music for that long that you didn’t necessarily know before going into this album?
Absolutely. I don’t read music. I learn everything by ear and memorize all the crazy hard parts in my dad’s music, but I learned a whole new vocabulary and rhythmic bag of tricks from really studying his music. Before I thought of composition as the guitar basically sitting on top of the house, and now everything’s part of a big unit, much more like an orchestral concept.
Listening to the album through, it definitely sounds like you, but you can tell it’s coming from a place of Zappa history. The song “Dragon Master” is just now getting a proper release, but you started working on it a long time ago — it’s the only one you ever co-wrote with Frank, right? What was that like for you as a musician, and what’s its place on the album?
I was in Sweden in 1988 while Frank was on a European tour and I played at that show, but during sound check he said, “You gotta hear this,” and whenever Frank says, “You gotta hear this,” you know you’re in for something. I don’t know what prompted him to write such a ridiculous heavy-metal song, but he didn’t write a riff; he just put it to a chord progression and said, “You know, you should write the music to this.”
And I thought, “What’s the best way to make this song really what it should be?” I played a version of it live in the ’90s and it was a parody of what metal was at that time. So what I wanted to do with it on this record was to not really make it a parody of anything — I wanted to actually take the music really seriously and let the joke live only for those on the surface; if you’re not a metal fan, you can hear the preposterous concepts happening, but if you’re a metal fan, this is legit.
What’s it like trying to actually create new sounds? I feel like one of Frank’s strengths was that he was always finding innovative ways to make new sounds wholesale or arrange them in unexpected ways. How do you find that process?
I agree with you on that, but one of the things that probably helped him along those lines is that he didn’t have any boundaries. He had a saying — “Any thing at any time for any reason at all” — so if you have that open mind, you can put things together that other people might not consider.
I grew up around that. Before I ever really heard popular music on the radio, I only heard the music that my dad did or what he was listening to. So when I listened to the radio when I was about 12, I heard stuff and thought, “Where’s the rest of it?” because it didn’t have all these layers of things that I was used to. It sounded too simple. Over the years now I have an appreciation for the simplicity of things as well — I just wasn’t used to it.
Ultimately, my experience with how I grew up with music is reflected in this record, in that I tried to make every song sound different, yet have some sort of thematic coherence. I did whatever I could to try to bring out the textures in these songs, and one of the sounds that is on the record in different places is fretless guitar, and most particularly on the song “Truth.”
You say you found pop music simple in comparison to Frank’s music. Now that it’s been several decades, what type of impact do you think your father’s music has had — especially in pop music?
Well, to be honest I don’t hear his influence in any other music. I mean, some people say, “That sounds like Zappa,” and when I hear it it’s like, “Doesn’t ring a bell.” [Laughs.] I still think he’s a very underestimated or misunderstood person in music, which is really why I created the Zappa Plays Zappa project.
There are lots of bands out there that are in [what] people would call the “jam-band scene,” and sometimes people say, “There’s lots of stuff that sounds like Zappa.” It doesn’t really sound like it to me, mainly because Frank’s arrangements are very, very precise and have very intense interaction between instruments. I don’t hear that in the other music. Frank was a legitimate classical composer, and he was working on a very deep level with how the music had counterpoint and all these crazy rhythms.
But, there are artists out there that do things that, whether or not they’re influenced by Frank, have a certain quality that I think my dad would’ve appreciated just in terms of the chances that they take inside the boundaries of what’s popular music. Like, St. Vincent is a good example of somebody who makes music for the sake of music, but also in a popular format. She’s pushing boundaries in ways with her guitar and production. I wouldn’t say it’s Zappa-influenced per se, but there’s a certain path there that is maybe similar in the sense of trying to bring together different influences.
How has it been balancing continuing your dad’s legacy and also creating music for yourself as an artist in your own merit, or has that never really been a source of conflict for you?
I never really think of any of that as a conflict except in terms of actual time to dedicate to my own music. I had to force the time to make this record. But more to the question — I wanted to start doing some more things of my own, and I’m not sure that people will be expecting this kind of record from me. Because in some ways it’s almost a singer-songwriter record, but the guitar kind of takes a backseat to a lot of the things on the record.
My dad is a huge Zappa fan, so he asked me to ask you — I think somewhat self-servingly — how many more “treasures” are there waiting in your dad’s vault?
Well, there’s tons and tons of concerts. I mean, he recorded almost every show he ever did. It’s always been a challenge to get stuff out because my mom actually made things very, very difficult, so it may potentially be easier in the future, but there’s not a big staff of people that work on this stuff and it takes a lot of time to mix a Frank Zappa concert. You know, there’s a lot going on to get the details right. So I don’t know, but there’s definitely things that people have not heard before.
HBO aired a documentary about Kurt Cobain earlier this year and, a few weeks ago they released an album of unheard Cobain demos, and it got criticized for being needless and exploitative. Do you have an opinion on that or is that something that you worry about with your dad’s archives?
[articleembed id=”170319″ title=”Review: 'Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings' Is a Reminder That Kurt Cobain Is Dead” image=”170321″ excerpt=”Kurt Cobain died at age 27 in 1994 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound; unlike Elvis or Tupac, even his conspiracy theorists don't think he’s still alive”]
I don’t. If someone’s a popular artist and people are interested in what they do, it’s sort of expected that people are gonna go digging through the archives and find stuff. But the flip side of it is, if the stuff wasn’t ever prepped for release before, there could’ve been a reason, you know? So I think that’s a valid argument for whoever is a family member for a musician of that nature to be able to be the arbiter.
The biggest problem with music today is that it’s been so devalued. Years ago, you would stand in line to buy a record and spend all day or weeks listening to it. Now people just flip through two seconds of things and that’s it. But if you bought a record, you got to know it. You might not like a couple songs at first, but then later on they become your favorites. So that’s the frustrating part, especially if you take an artist like Kurt Cobain or Frank Zappa and put something out that gets relegated to this disposable category because it’s “not my favorite thing that ever came out of them.”
Is there anyone else out there right now, actor or musician who you’d really like to collaborate with?
Actually, I would like to something with St. Vincent. I think that would be cool. I like what she does with her weird fuzz-tones and funky little rhythms and stuff. It would be fun to sort of orchestrate something, and make it even more twisted.