The son of legendary rock guitarist Frank Zappa, Dweezil has dedicated his stage career to performing his father’s music, backed by a virtuoso band, in pure tribute fashion—much like a symphony orchestra might perform Beethoven, note for note exactly the way it was written. On Wednesday, February 19, Zappa Plays Zappa will perform a full set at the Michigan Theater spanning 30 years of Frank’s discography. Current Magazine had a chance to sit down with Dweezil and discuss his new guitar workshops, writing original music and the importance of rehearsing to prepare to play complex material.
So what is different about this Zappa Plays Zappa tour compared to past tours? I know when I caught you at the Rothbury Music Festival in 2009 the setlist was all over the place.
Well every tour, the challenge is always how to find the balance between what will be surprising for the audience and what will be desirable for the audience. The good thing about this tour is that they can be expecting a full album, which is "Roxy and Elsewhere". But then we will also be playing a lot of stuff from other eras. The first hour will be our rendition of Roxy and Elsewhere and the rest of it will be tunes from all over — the 60s, 70s and 80s. The band is also different this year, I refer to it as the "rocking teenage combo." The line-up is stripped down but we have the same instrumentation in the arrangements. We aren't carrying a percussionist anymore but you will hear a marimba part being played by the keyboardist, stuff like that.
So will the setlist stay the same each night of the tour or will you change it up?
It changes. We move things around, and generally speaking, the show is between 2 and a half and 3 hours long and has between 22 to 25 songs in it. When we go out to tour, we are prepared to play 30 to 35 songs, so there are alternatives that come in and out. But the challenge with that is both the flow of the show and accessing the sounds that you need. Its hard to make a whole lot of changes because its difficult to program the sound changes for both the keyboards and my guitar equipment.
How much rehearsal goes into to playing Roxy and Elsewhere?
We generally don't have enough time to rehearse as a band for extended periods of time. My dad used to rehearse his bands for 2 to 3 months before a tour, even if the tour was only 1 month long. He was recording everything and expecting to make records from it, but we do most of our work as homework and then get it together with a week’s preparation before the tour. For the more complicated songs, we try and spend as much time on those as we can. Every day there are also sound-checks that we use to do more rehearsing.
Any plans for after the tour ends?
I'm actually leaving right after the Zappa Plays Zappa tour to go play on the Experience Hendrix Tour, so I have quite a bit of music I'll be playing for the next few months. Experience Hendrix is a tour that is set-up by Jimi Hendrix's family, where they get famous musicians to perform a concert of Hendrix material. Over the years a lot of different guitar players have joined the tour, like Eric Johnson and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
Lets talk a little bit about the guitar workshops that you are hosting before the shows. Are those a new thing or have you been doing them for a while?
Its something that we have been experimenting with, and as the word has gotten out we have expanded what it is. Ideally, it started as an opportunity to answer questions for people. People were wondering how I got to this point where I could play my dad's highly technical music—how I changed my technique and what not. That's how I started my 'Dweezilla' boot camp, which we have been doing annually. This (these pre-show guitar workshops) is an offshoot of that. It's an hour long class before soundcheck that has anywhere from 15 to 20 people but has had as much as 50 people at times. I try and make the information as broad as I can so that players of all levels can benefit from it. Its really a meeting of like minded individuals—certain epiphanies can take place when you get a bunch of guitar players together. It is not a performance based thing, its me trying to get to know these people and zone in on what will help that specific group.
So you tailor it based on the skill level and personalities that come to each class?
Yea, and people are free to bring their own instruments so they can test out the things I am explaining to them. It has been a lot of fun to do, and teaching helps me re-focus my own pursuits on the instrument, because to explain something you really have to think about it.
Dweezil, are you recording any original music this year?
I do have some original tunes I'm working on. I made a record based on my Dweezilla boot camp where I had some different guitar instructors come to my last camp to help teach different things. I decided it would be fun to do a song that included all of the instructors, and then we took it a step further to include a song written by each instructor. It's a guitar record that will come out as a Dweezilla record that is just a lot of different guitar perspectives. Each of the different players play on each of the tracks. For example, my track is called ‘Dinosaur’ and it is nearly a 12 minute song, because it allows a minute for all 7 guitarists to take an extended solo. It is an interesting instrumental record—it runs across so many different genres.
What style of music do you focus on when you write your own stuff? Progressive rock like your dad's music?
Well the song 'Dinosaur' is very much experimental rock because the song itself travels through many different styles. I haven't had a lot of time to really explore what my own music will sound like after all of this time playing my dad's music. There is going to be some obvious influence there, but I have also been working on an orchestral piece that I would like to be able to play with my rock band and an ensemble. So I have been doing different things, things that I wouldn't have been able to do before Zappa Plays Zappa, but I now have the experience from learning and playing this music. Before I would have just said that I was a guitarist but now I am a musician—I can play through many different styles and in an ensemble where I have a more focused idea for creating arrangements.
When you go to compose an orchestral piece, do you write it on guitar? Or transcribe it to sheet music? I'm curious as to the creative process.
I always used to write things on my guitar, but with the way that technology has progressed I tend to look for opportunities to create something from nothing. I'll take a MIDI program where you program in notes, and I will just program two minutes of straight 16th notes on the same note. And then I will start moving them around until it sounds like a melody that I am interested in, and then I'll compose a counterpoint to that melody. But I will start off by putting in a bunch of notes that are meaningless, so it is kind of like crafting a jigsaw puzzle.
So you build it up, put the pieces together and figure it out.
Yep, and that is typically what you would do if you were writing music on a guitar anyway. You listen to how certain things fit together and then write it on paper. This way, it really easy to change how things sound like because I can just move the MIDI notes where I want.
How did you pick who was going to play in Zappa Plays Zappa? Was there a rehearsal process or did you already have musicians in mind?
In the beginning there were a few people who were locked in without auditions. The rest of the band was all through rehearsal and audition. The audition process was created to weed out anybody that didn't have the right attitude. Basically, I would take 2 or 3 really difficult songs and make it a requirement to learn these songs. But they had to transcribe it themselves, we didn't give them any sheet music or notation. They usually had around 48 hours to learn the tracks. In my own experience for learning the songs, that is nowhere near enough time, so the people that would take it seriously were the ones who had the right attitude. The ones who didn't get very far didn't make the band.
That's what is you need when playing music that is this complex though.
Yea, its what you need. One of the issues my dad had all the time was people trying to do their own thing within the context of what they were supposed to play. If they did that, they would get fired. His music was very specific and he would write out all the parts. He was a composer—this isn't just normal arrangements, and it isn't a band where everyone makes up their own part. That is why it is important for members of the band to know their role.
When did you start learning your dad's music and how long did it take to master it?
I started the whole thing because a lot of people under age 30 don't know about my dad's music. The stuff that got played on the radio was the stuff that is least representative of my dad's music career, for example 'Yellow Snow' or "Valley Girl' or 'Dancing Fool.' The majority of his other guitar work is completely unknown to most people, so my goal was to create an opportunity for an audience to hear this stuff in a live setting without the so-called hits. So the challenging instrumental stuff. Basically we are using this opportunity to bring his music to a new generation. I studied the music for 3 years on my own just to make sure I could play the material on guitar myself. We started touring in 2006 but I started working on it in 2003, so it has been at least 10 years of dedication. In terms of creating an opportunity for people to hear a variety of Frank's music live, we have reached our goal. We've seen a big change in the audience, because when we first started it was mostly the older crowd. They wanted to see if my performance would be commensurate with what Frank used to do, and that is what we wanted to do. It wasn't about, lets modernize this or make this seem like something that it isn't. A lot of people get the wrong idea and think that I am supposed to do my own thing with the music. I think thats a terrible idea—I liken myself to an orchestra, I am trying to preserve a certain style of music and perform it the way it is written on the page. You wouldn't have a classically trained orchestra performing Beethoven and then have a rapper come out and spit on top of it. You don't need that to make the music continue on to the future. It should be respected for what it is—I don't try and change the music to be contemporary. In many ways, Frank's music is still way ahead of its time.
Thank you so much for talking with me Dweezil and we’ll see ya at the show.
Zappa Plays Zappa performs at the Michigan Theater on Wednesday, February 19 at 8pm. $33-$55. Guitar master class takes place at 2:30pm and costs $87 (only 15 slots available).
Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St. 734-668-8463. For tickets, visit michtheater.org or ticketmaster.com