It was back in 2006 that Dweezil Zappa, eldest son of the late Frank, first took the Zappa Plays Zappa band on the road with shows in Europe, Canada and the US. Proving to be a popular live attraction the band won a Grammy in 2009 in the Best Rock Instrumental category for "Peaches En Regalia" and continued to perform around the Globe. Mid-way through their latest batch of live dates and having just released a double live album Return of the Son Of, Sea of Tranquility's Dean Pedley caught up with Dweezil for a chat.
SoT: Hi Dweezil and thanks for taking some time out to talk to us here at Sea of Tranquility. So, did you play a show last night?
DZ: We did, we played in a place called Verona, New York in a casino. We've played at this place before and the venue is really nice but the thing that's a little bit funny about it is that it looks like it would be more used for Dinner Theater and it looks like the audience are about to have their meal. People aren't actually eating while we are playing but it just kind of looks that way and from an on stage perspective it is very different looking from a traditional place
SoT: When you started the ZPZ band did you see it as a long-term project...and that it would become the main focus point of your career?
DZ: I didn't really think about it like that... my intention for starting it was to re-focus people's attention on Frank's music because I had the feeling that his music had started a decline that it might not come out of. I didn't want to see my Father's music disappear in my lifetime because there were plenty of people under 40 if you said the name Frank Zappa their reply would be "Who?" I think that my Dad's musical contributions are far more valuable than having those generations miss out on his music so my goal was to give people the opportunity to see it in a live situation. There's nothing I can do about getting it on the radio or magazines...there is no mass marketing....so I felt the only thing I could do was to learn the music really well and give people the chance to see it and do a grass roots campaign. In the process I gained so much as a musican and learning the music transformed my playing abilities. I was already a technically proficient guitar player but I graduated far beyond anything that I ever dreamed I could do on a guitar.
SoT: In the early days you spoke of Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen as being your primary influences as a guitarist so it must have been quite different when you first set out to approach Frank's back catalogue.
DZ: Well Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads that is very technical stuff to play but with Frank's music that requires you to know a lot more about the fundamentals of music and there are a lot more syncopated rhythms that people just don't use. Frank was really a Classical composer that used a Rock band as his orchestra and to learn some of the things that I wanted to learn...I specifically chose to learn some things on the guitar that were never played on the guitar in any of Frank's bands but were played on marimba or keyboards. I have learned to play parts that even Steve Vai tried to learn when he was in Frank's band and he said that he pulled his hair out because it just wasn't possible...but I made it possible by changing my whole physical and mental approach to playing. So it's been a great journey, a lot of hard work...like constantly training for the Olympics for the past eight years but what it will do to my own music I don't know yet because I haven't had chance to write anything but eventually I will and I'd like to get into Film scoring at some point so there is all kinds of evolution ahead.
SoT: So you had more than 60 albums to listen to...that must have been quite an undertaking.
DZ: Well the very first thing that I did was listen to every record Frank had ever made...and it's actually over 80...and listen to them in chronological order over several weeks and the purpose was to get an overview of his entire career and see how many connected themes there are and find all of the first appearances of certain things. Frank had a lot of little fragments that got developed and were used in different songs until they became their own thing and a great example of that is the song "Wild Love" on Sheik Yerbouti and it has an instrumental section in it that later became one of his big Classical works "Sinister Footwear". So unless you are familiar with the whole catalogue these things are not apparent to you and we found dozens of instances where he developed a theme in one song until it becomes a complete idea. And a lot of people don't create music in that way bit Frank's music was evolving all the time so when he put out an album and went out on tour he didn't play the songs from that album in the way they had been recorded...the songs were almost alive and were constantly being played with and had this evolution. So we do that to a degree but we only adapt them to make hybrid arrangements of various versions of a song but we never take something and completely arrange it ourselves. The point of what we do is to give people the most authentic version of what Frank wanted people to hear. So we don't modernise anything stylistically...some people think it's basically a covers band but it's beyond all of that for various reasons but if that's the biggest challenge we have then it's not the worst thing (laughs)
SoT: I saw you for the first time last year when I was over in the US for the Progressive Nation tour and you got a great reception from what was primarily a Dream Theater crowd...how were those shows from your perspective?
DZ: Well Frank's music is pretty universal and the Dream Theater crowd have appreciation for the musical skill level and I knew that they would be able to recognise that in Frank's music. But there is a certain characteristic in Frank's music that translates from the technical side to the improvisation in some songs where you have these wide open spaces and the audience has the chance to see something that is unique to that moment. I think that the audience of today is not used to seeing something unfold in that way...most things are so completely predictable and set up within guidelines...you have concerts from the big acts where it's like "make sure we hit all of our lighting cues" and the songs are going to be exactly the same every night and so for things to be able to change on a hand signal is new to an audience even though Frank had been doing it for years no one else had. And so to be able to bring that back to an audience is one of the things we enjoy doing...this isn't nostalgia music I think it was very much ahead of its time and it has that appeal whether you like Metal or Jazz what people appreciate is the skill required to play it.
SoT: You'll be over here in Europe in July for some shows including High Voltage Festival in London...do you enjoy coming to the UK?
DZ: I do...I have been to the UK for various reasons either work or travel and I do really like it and we're really looking forward to playing the material that we have on this tour; we learnt about 14 new songs that we had never played before. We only discovered in the last few days that a lot of the material we are playing are connected through the theme of Groupies and there is a different energy to the songs and the audience responds and gets really into it. We've also noticed there are a lot more women at the shows which is good timing (laughs)
SoT: You've just released a double live album "Return of the Son Of"...
DZ: It has performances from the band in its state of evolution so most of the performances have vocals from Ray White while he was doing some special appearances with us and there are a couple of songs with our current singer Ben Thomas so I was glad to be able to have that balance between the band as it was and in its more current state so when people come to see the band they will be familiar with Ben and can already hear him instead of an alumni person. The combination of stuff that's on there is a really good song selection and good performances..I really like the version of "The Torture Never Stops" and "Zomby Woof" which is from Manchester a couple of summers ago.
SoT: So my last question is not related to ZPZ but your own project "What The Hell Was I Thinking"...it's taking on mythical status with your fans...so will you ever get it finished?
DZ: (laughs) I know I definitely will finish it but it will probably be in the Guinness World Records for longest time taken to record an album or something alongside most guitar players on one song. But the thing about that one is that I haven't had the chance to really work on it over the last few years and also because my skills have changed so much there is more stuff I would like to include or change. I had been putting little pieces of Frank's music into that project which at this point I would like to take out because I've been doing enough of Frank's music in its entirety so I don't really need fragments of it and so there will be some alterations to the arrangement. I'd also still like to get Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck to play on it...as it currently stands there are about thirty guys on it like Brian May, Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Steve Morse, Albert Lee...the list goes on and on but its best described as an audio movie it's a continuous piece of music that is 75 minutes long and is constantly morphing into different styles and you have these cameo appearances from different guitar players that start falling out of the speakers but nothing like it that I have heard has been done before so I do still plan on finishing it one day.
SoT: Well let's hope we get to hear it in the future. Thanks for your time and look forward to seeing you in the UK soon.
Zappa Plays Zappa are touring the UK and Europe in July and have just released "Return of the Son Of". For full tour dates and more info check out: