Dweezil Zappa – The Next Phase of Zappa Plays Zappa

If you’ve ever heard more than a few notes of Zappa Plays Zappa, you know that the band transcends the “tribute band” label. More akin to an orchestral performance of selected works than an imitation of the Frank Zappa sound and look, the band have carved out a comfortable space in the live music world, performing for Zappa-starved fanatics and curious newcomers all over the world. 2010 is setting up to be an eventful year for the band with the addition of new keyboardist Chris Norton, a DVD and CD release in the works, a gigantic tour starting soon, their own musical “boot camp” called Dweezilla, and – perhaps most intriguing – the possibility of adding original music to their normal Zappa program. I spoke with the very forthcoming Dweezil Zappa to learn more about these grand plans and the current state of the band, plus other topical divergences.

How was the recent LA show, with you opening for Jeff Beck (4/17/10)?

It was good! It was a lot of fun. The place was pretty much full, and its good that close to 6000 people want to come see a show like that. We got several standing ovations, which is good for an opening act.

It’s hard for me to imagine ZPZ as an opening act.

It was a challenge to put together a show that was 50 minutes long. We typically play for almost 3 hours, so for us 50 minutes is just getting warmed up. Trying to get the right balance of some of the iconic instrumental things that make Frank’s music what it is, as well as give people a chance to hear things they might recognize, I have to try to keep in mind – especially at a show like that one – that there could be quite a few people in the audience who have never heard any of this music before. So we tried to make it a balance of some things that are digestible to a "new" audience member.

It looks like you’re just warming up as you prepare to cover a lot of ground this summer. The first week of the tour is Mexico to the Ozarks to Colorado.

Yeah! I mean, we’re going to some crazy places throughout the year. We’re going to Israel for the first time. We’re going to some other places in Eastern Europe that we haven’t been to. We have a crazy trip from London to Tokyo and then back to LA all within the space of 3 days. That’s basically around the world.

You’re playing some interesting venues, such as casino, festivals, and unique rooms overseas. Are you ready to get going?

Yeah, yesterday we had auditions for an additional keyboard player because we’ve wanted to try to expand what we’re doing sonically within the music (Editors note: On May 6, Dweezil announced the addition of keyboardist Chris Norton). We used to have an extra keyboard player (Aaron Arntz) but he left the band at the end of 2008. I think we’ve got somebody that we’re going to implement in there and see how things go. The process of what we’re going to do this is year is go over some stuff that we haven’t played in a while, learn some new stuff, and maybe even explore the possibility of playing some of my own music within the show at certain points. And other little surprise things. The band has become known to the audience that likes us in a way that I didn’t necessarily predict would happen. What I’m saying is that the majority of people that come to see us are repeat customers and they like this band as a band, regardless of the fact that we’re playing Frank Zappa music, they actually really like this band and want to hear them expand in different directions and play other things. We’ve been hearing a lot, especially on my website (www.dweezilzappaworld.com), from people saying "It’s time, play some of your own music and make some stuff for this band to see what they can do!" Because there was never the impetus to do that in the beginning, I wasn’t even considering it. But because I hear it so often and from so many people now, it’s something I’m going to think about. I’m not going to suddenly change the balance of everything so that it’s not what we originally set out to do, but it might be nice to have a little left turn here or there.

The process you’re going through to find the keyboardist is interesting because of the way you’re using your website to take video submissions, and how there’s a list of certain songs you want to hear performed. It seems like the new website is a concerted effort to create a community and reach out to fans in a way that Frank probably never could have envisioned.

If he had this set of tools available to him, I think he certainly would have used it to great effect. The industry has imploded in such a way that there’s really a challenge to reach and maintain an audience, especially on something that’s not going to get airplay and typical exposure. We’ve been playing and touring consistently for the past five years, which is unusual. Most bands can’t tour annually because they don’t have enough material to keep it fresh and interesting, and the audience says ‘I don’t need to see that again.’ We have the repeat customers, but we also get a lot of newer and younger people, which is what we’ve been working towards. I think the music is something that has been unknown to people for a long time, especially the younger fan base that isn’t educated to the music, that have only heard a couple of things here or there. So as we do what we do, part of the way that we present it is intended to give people more of an overview and sort of an opportunity to, in a way, get a bit of a musical education about the stuff because we’re not focusing on the so-called ‘hits’ or the comedy elements that people typically associate with my dad’s music. The website is good because I have instant access to the most enthusiastic people to bounce ideas off of, and I have ways of gathering information, through polls and such, that is important to really get an idea of the consensus of what people are really interested in. The amount of people joining the site increases every week, so eventually what may be possible is some type of subscription thing, and giving people the opportunity to have regularly released items, things that they’re interested in, through downloads and whatnot. But it’s a challenge.

The music can be a bit daunting for newcomers to get into and wrap their brains around.

The thing is, once you find a place that you’re comfortable with, where it starts to make sense, your other little excursions into the outer reaches of what’s out there within the music…(pauses). Once you have a firm foundation of the elements that you like, it’s easier to jump out. Ultimately the goal is to be able to be in touch specifically with the people who are most interested and keep growing it that way, in a real community-style effort. Those are the people that are going to continue to support it.

It seems that you’ve stepped up the band’s presence at festivals over the last couple of years. Is that directly related to getting those new fans?

We’ve been trying to do that all along. The funny thing is, the reality of perception for a lot of people is that they just think it’s a cover band, that we’re just a bar band that plays some tunes. There’s not enough information out there for people to see what the real difference is between what they think we do, and what we actually do. We won a Grammy, so that, in certain ways, confirms to people that there is a level of quality that is recognized by others. It just depends on how much you respect the Grammy as to how much credit you’ll give the band for that. Ultimately, I think Frank’s music is misunderstood, and what we do is often lumped into a category that is misunderstood as well. The elements that we stress in our performances are really just the musicianship. There’s a certain quality within the music itself that, when you see it performed live, whether you’re familiar with it or not, there’s no doubt that you can take in the fact that the band has worked really hard to do what we can do. On that level, I think there’s been a lot of converts, people that previously didn’t like Frank’s music, or didn’t know that much about it, that have seen what we do and come in through the backdoor saying ‘oh, I like this.’ Oddly enough, sometimes people like our version better than the original version, which is totally bizarre to me.

Some consider ZPZ, as far as presenting the material, as skilled and even tighter than some of Frank’s bands.

As much as we all appreciate those things, I would never say that we have done anything to surpass or improve upon the original. What we try to do is give people the opportunity to hear something as authentic as we can make it. That’s not to say that we get up there and do a note-for-note cover of something. We definitely try to recreate the textures and play the arrangements as they are on the record. We’ll play the right notes. But there’s plenty of things in the music that give us the opportunity to improvise and view it with our own personality, so I think people are getting a good combination of us having done all the research and putting the time in to, as Frank would say, “Put the eyebrows on it,” and we also get to infuse it with our own energy and spin, but never to the point where we’re trying to turn it into something it was never intended to be. That’s really the difference. A lot of people cover music and say “oh, I have to make it my own thing.”

 When it comes to Frank’s music, I strongly disagree with that philosophy because Frank’s music is much more akin to classical music, and you don’t have orchestras rewriting entire sections and saying “hey, let me do my own thing with it.” That never happens, so I prefer to take it very seriously. So if Frank had specific harmonies and rhythms then that’s how it’s supposed to sound. He wanted it to be that way, and that’s why it’s on the record that way. If you’re going to change it because you can’t play it, or do some other thing with it, I’m not interested in it, personally.

Ultimately, I really appreciate people’s recognition of what we do, because we do work hard, but the entire goal of this is to introduce people to Frank’s music and give them a chance to explore all the things that he did. If they also like what we do and want to have versions of what we do as well, that’s great. But I never set out with the mindset of “OK, I’m going to record our versions and make DVDs and stuff.” It just came to be because people were requesting it. I thought, “What would be the point of that?” But like I said, people really like this band and people are coming to this music, enjoying what we do on the same level or more than the original versions. Everybody is obviously going to react differently to it, but it’s nice that people like it enough that they want to have a memento. This year we have a double CD coming out called Return of the Son of…

Is that going to be a physical release?

It is, which is an interesting thing here. I debated on whether any future releases were going to just be digital, or if we would actually get them into stores and whatnot. So we’re going to see how it all goes with that.

I think a good portion of your fan base still likes an album they can hold and see.

We’ll see how it all goes. It’s not like we sell millions of these things. Depending on actual sales, the cost of manufacturing can be prohibitive. We do have another DVD that’s coming out probably in the fall. I’m still finishing up mixing the audio for it. So we definitely have a lot of things that people are going to be able to check out.

How did growing up around your father and the countless amazing musicians he employed change the course of your musical development?

The thing is, I could always tell that what my dad did was on a different level than other music that I heard, so I always had this sense of, you know, “I could never do that.” So the music that got me inspired to play guitar was different from my dad’s music. My first biggest influences were Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen. I never got to meet Randy Rhoads, but I did get to meet Eddie Van Halen. So seeing how he did things up close really changed my abilities quickly, because when you can see how somebody does something up close, if you’re the type of person that’s going to spend some time practicing, it’s like I had all these images that were burned into my mind forever that started that whole thing.

 It’s kind of funny, because I’ve recently been spending some time with Eddie Van Halen after being out of touch for a while. He was playing me some new stuff from his record, and I was playing him some stuff that I had been working on for this project, you know, playing Frank’s music. He actually came to the Jeff Beck show the other day too. But one thing that was actually a pivotal and hilarious thing to me was that I was showing him some stuff, these different ways I had worked out to play quintuplets, and he said "Uh, you lost me there. I don’t even know what you’re talking about. Who would have thought after all these years, you’d be giving me a guitar lesson." To me, that was hilarious because I couldn’t have envisioned that myself, and also the flipside of him coming to a show of mine when I had been to so many of his. There he was, in the dressing room before we went on, and we saw him after the show and everything, and it’s just such a role reversal. But it’s definitely a strong and good memory for me because I think it would have to be really be rare for anybody to have the ability to have that kind of communication with the thing or the person that inspired you so much to begin with, and have this mentor type of relationship and have some common ground in a different way after all these years. It is a unique and cool experience to have.

Dweezilla, your "musical boot camp," seems to be another way of bringing the band closer to other musicians and fans. How intense is it going to be for the attendees?

The thing we’ve learned in doing this is that there are practice routines, and then there are skills that each of us have that make it possible for us to work as a unit and do what we do. Individually, everybody has different strengths, and I thought, there must be a way to put this all together and give to people who are interested in taking their skills to the next level – just like we all did in the process of doing this project (ZPZ). Wouldn’t it be a great thing to be able to share this information and open up some doors, because that’s really all it takes, is to have the information presented to you in a way that maybe you’ve never heard before. Now, you’re hearing it in a different way that makes sense to you and inspires you. If I had this kind of thing 20 years ago, it would have been the greatest thing that ever happened. So I feel like, as far as young musicians, or really any musicians go, that something like this is a great opportunity. It’s fun to be able to impart some knowledge, some life experience stuff that can potentially help somebody. In this day and age, to be able to do something positive is a really beneficial thing.

As far as musicians go, there’s not a lot of other ways you can really give people the "real deal." It may feel like a fantasy camp in a way, but the goal of it is to give people a chance to be immersed in ideas. It’s not about playing Frank’s music, or saying, “this is how you learn these songs and this is how you do this and this.” It’s an open forum for people to ask questions and learn as much as they can take in during the 4 days. Personally, I would be interested in taking all of the courses from everybody in the band. I know what all their skills are, and everybody has such an interesting way of conveying the messages. It can only help learning how a saxophonist or multi-instrumentalist approaches the different instruments they play, and the harmonic content that’s there, versus guitar players, who have a pretty limited approach to most things. The average guitar player is going to stay in a sort of blues based pentatonic idiom, and never really venture that far outside rhythmically or harmonically. I think it’s an exciting process and I look forward to getting it off the ground and seeing if we can take it to other places and other countries.

It seems like a lot of people in bands wind up being each other’s biggest musical influences. Do you think that is true of the band?

Well, there’s a very big diversity in terms of what everybody likes and listens to. We may not all agree on the best thing to listen to, this, that or the other, but we can all appreciate the concepts involved. It’s funny, because I have such a hard rock background, most of the stuff I grew up really liking doesn’t really appeal to Billy Hulting (percussion/mallets) or Scheila Gonzalez (sax. keys). They can appreciate some of the technical skill required to do it, but it might not be what they would go home and listen to, and vice versa. Some of the jazzier things that they all really enjoy, I can totally appreciate, much more so now that I did 20 years ago. But it still might not be the thing i would go home and listen to. To take some of those elements and infuse them into what I do is much more appealing now. I am still very much interested in learning more and more and putting the new knowledge into play. If you’re going to learn stuff, the only way to remember it and be able to use it is if you implement it into what you do. Because we tour fairly extensively, I have the opportunity to experiment and try stuff out. Sometimes it might be really cool. Sometimes it might not sound good at all. It’s all just going to depend on the moment in time. But I love the fact that I have the chance to take a risk musically and then see what it sounds like.

So you’ve got a huge tour coming up, a musical boot camp, a DVD release to mix, an album coming, and a new keyboard player. You’ve probably been spending a lot of spare time working on What The Hell Was I Thinking (a piece he’s been working on since the 1990’s featuring solos from dozens of famous guitarists), no?

I haven’t spent ANY time on that in a while! But that’s next! I plan on getting back to that as soon as I can. I still want to record Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page and a couple of other people. But, we’ll see.

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