Zappa on Zappa

Dweezil Zappa brings the Zappa Plays Zappa tour to the House of Blues Wednesday. As technical and musicianly as Frank Zappa’s music is, for me it pointed to a life outside of the mainstream in the mid-1970s and, along with Captain Beefheart, opened me up to punk. It hasn’t endured for me the way punk has, but over time, I’ve reconnected to some of it with a lot of pleasure. And he has become a more intriguing figure, someone who could create such complex, experimental and often lyrical music, then could write such stupid, smutty songs that radiated self-satisfaction. That central, complicated personality is the absence at the center of Zappa Plays Zappa, a two-DVD set of the live show. It’s well-performed and a compelling treatment of the material, but rather than reflecting someone, it’s the product of the proud son saying, “Look what my dad did!” Here are excerpts from an interview with Dweezil Zappa:

How big of a songbook do you know for this tour?

We can probably really only accurately play about 40 or 50 songs, although we have learned at this point close to 90 songs. It’s just when you’re not playing them all the time, you can’t remember every little nuance. They can all be relearned and played again; it’s just the time that it takes, and that’s what is so remarkable about this whole thing—the sheer man hours required to do any of it.

Even before I put the band together, I spent two years studying the important pieces of music that I needed to learn on my own just to see if it was possible for me to do what I needed to do, which was to play this stuff as accurately as possible. And, I was learning things on guitar that were never meant to be played on guitar, really hard stuff. Certain things, I had to practice probably eight to ten hours a day for almost a year to be able to play something that goes by in under a minute. That’s the kind of time and effort and focus that goes into this.

We’ll get together and rehearse for generally for as long as we can before a tour. Almost two months, and then, it’s usually five or six days a week, at least five hours a day, and then there’s always more homework afterwards. Now that I have two kids, I have a lot less time to keep working on the things I need to so it puts me on even more of a disadvantage than everyone else. They get time to go home and keep working on it.


One of the moments in the DVD that caught me was your solo in “Black Napkins” because I’ve got three or four versions of it, and I realized there’s something you did that would never occur to Frank, where you played something that wasn’t in his musical vocabulary.

I try to imbue the elements of Frank’s idiosyncrasies as a guitar player and his personality as a guitar player into what I do, but I still am my own person when I’m improvising. I still have my own ideas that I’ll be throwing in there, but I do try to tamper them by using phrases that Frank would use in a way. I don’t play too many of Frank’s solos 100 percent, note for note.


Can you?

I can, but it really takes time. It’s much harder to memorize those kinds of things than the actual music that he wrote on paper because when you’re improvising, it’s a feel thing. When he improvised his solos, the timing and the feel of what’s going on, it’s very peculiar. His phrasing is among the most bizarre of any guitar player ever. So that’s the hardest part, getting the phrasing.


Are there periods of his career that are easier or harder for the band to step into?

There are definite periods where there are some really, really hard stuff, and it takes a lot of work.


Which ones?

Well, like last year we were doing “G-Spot Tornado,” and we did a hybrid arrangement of “Dog Meat” which is “Uncle Meat” and “Dog Meat” put together, and those are fully orchestrated. These were scores for complete orchestra that we were playing as a rock band. There are really hard parts in there.

Certain eras of the music, getting the sounds to sound like the right timbre of instrumentation to recreate the era that the record came from is another part of what we do to make stuff really sound right. To me, the character of the record is every bit as much a part of the song as the song itself, so we try to create those elements as best as we can, as well.

One of the hardest elements is to then also get all the vocal things happening because it’s hard to find really, really good singers. None of us are the world’s greatest singers, but combined we can make it sound pretty good. That’s where some of it gets a little trickier because at times Frank had at least four or five really good singers in certain bands; if you do material that comes from that era, it’s hard to recreate what’s going on there because the vocal parts are so hard.


I was thinking specifically of Mothers of Invention material, the original band. The DVD only has “Call Any Vegetable” from that period.

The first year we really had no idea if we were going to be able to do this on an annual basis or not, so, the first year’s tour focused mainly on my favorite period, which was the middle ’70s. I grew up listening to that music and watching Frank work on it—Over-Nite Sensation, Apostrophe on into some stuff from Zappa in New York and Sheik Yerbouti, and a few things like that. That’s a real fan-favorite period. But now that we’re doing this on an annual basis—this is our third year—we definitely have spread out in both directions, earlier and later periods. Last year, we were doing something that Frank never did, which was play “Suzy Creamcheese,” “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It,” and “America Drinks and Goes Home”—exactly as it was on the record.


I was wondering if you did “Brown Shoes.”

That one is one of my favorite songs that he ever did mainly because you listen to it and think, “How did he come up with this thing?” It’s so insane. And, it’s 40 years old now and it still actually relates to headlines. He had this uncanny ability to write these things that are crazy, but timeless. I was pretty proud of that arrangement because it has all the classical instrumentation and the real ’60s-sounding guitar sounds and synthesizers and keyboards. To me, it’s so iconic that we really wanted to capture that, and that actually took a good month-and-a-half of rehearsals to get altogether.


Have you taken a swing at “King Kong”?

On the first year we did it. And, we later did a version of it which had a reggae theme, and this year we’re doing it like what the original, but we’re playing it with a little faster tempo, which is what he did back in about 1979. That’s one of the vehicles where we take a really heavy left turn for improv and then it comes back into the theme. But, yeah, that’s going to be a real fun one for us. We were just working on that one yesterday.


And anyone who has ever played an SG has to know, how do you keep it in tune?

You know, fortunately this SG that I have stays in tune pretty well. I’ve usually have more problems with Les Pauls not staying in tune. I’ve had over the years probably four or five different Les Pauls that the G string would never ever stay in tune. Ever. In the case of this SG, I’ve rarely had times onstage that I have to completely stop and retune because it’s really badly out of tune. I can knock it out of tune a little bit and then change it after a song or two, fix it up. But, I’ve been fortunate with that one. Hopefully the airlines won’t destroy it. It’s a really well-made guitar, that one that I’m using.