Dweezil Zappa and his band The Others of Intention are coming to Australia playing a run of shows celebrating his dad’s music. He’ll be playing everything from the deepest album cuts to cult favourites (check out some of the show setlists here). Dweezil and I spoke last week—enjoy!
Why is music important to you?
DWEEZIL ZAPPA: From my upbringing and the generation that I was part of, music was a different kind of experience than it is now. You used to be able to just plan your activities… like if you said, oh I’m just going to listen to music now, that’s what you did; that was your activity, you sat and listened to a record or two. It was something that you’d do without having distractions. My father’s music and the way that he talked about music and the way he felt about music, definitely rubbed off on me—I see it as the most important art form. It is the foundation that is used in films to really support the emotional content of stuff. I really think it attaches to people’s lives in that way, for good experiences, sad experiences, whatever, music becomes a very visceral, reactive thing—it’s powerful.
Often kids rebel against things their parents like, music included; have you always been a fan of your dad’s music?
DZ: Yeah, that sort of comes as a surprise based on the general idea that seems to be true where as you said, generations usually decide not to take interest in the previous generations music… my dad’s music was always an inspiration and exciting to me, and it continues to be. The more I learn about it, the more I get into it. It’s like a perpetual motion machine in that way [laughs].
I know that your dad would have turned you on to a lot of different music and bands; was there anything that you felt you showed him?
DZ: Occasionally there were things… musicians that I would be inspired by or interested in. I would play him music and occasionally we’d get the chance to meet and talk with some of these musicians. I got really interested in the music of Van Halen, in particular Edward Van Halen’s guitar playing; at a certain point in time he ended up contacting my dad and came over to the house. That was a really cool thing to happen at 12-years-old, before the internet or anything like that… you could be listening to your favourite artist’s album and then out of nowhere they call your house and come over! That’s the craziest.
When you first started playing your dad’s music as Zappa Plays Zappa in 2006 one of your main goals was to bring his music to a younger audience, you’re now doing the 50 Years Of Frank tour; is the goal still the same?
DZ: The goal has always been to introduce the music to as many new people as I can, and newer generations that would never have had a chance to see it live, that’s a great way to get into the music. These days people are so used to what’s possible with technology, it would be easy for someone to listen to one of my dad’s records and if they didn’t know much about it, to think that it was computers doing stuff; it’s actually really hard music played by humans [laughs]. When you see it played live on stage it does make a difference in terms of how you become aware of the music and in that live experience it just gives you a new way to appreciate it than just listening to a recording of it. My goal has just been to give new audiences a very broad variety of my dad’s music.
One of the biggest issues for me… so many people thought of my dad’s music, after his passing, he was being describe as a novelty act, a guy who wrote jokey songs. That wasn’t an accurate representation of my dad’s music, part of my goal was to correct that, to show what he really was about, with his compositional skills and guitar playing and all these things… as opposed to just songs like “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” or “Dancing Fool”… we do play those songs but they aren’t the majority of things that get focused on. You get a broad variety.
That’s one thing I’ve always really loved about Frank’s music. I didn’t know that much about his music until about a decade ago and my husband would make me mix tapes for the car and a Frank song would come on and I’d be like, who’s this? He’d go, Frank Zappa. Then another totally different song would come on and I’d be like, who’s this? And he’d go, that’s Frank again. I thought it was amazing how the songs could sound so different and jam in so much and be by the same person.
DW: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s good that you got to hear it like that ‘cause a lot of times people start with a particular record and because all the records are wildly different, you may hear one record that has a certain style of my dad’s that might not be your favourite version of what he does. I always talk about how there’s a few gateway records that if someone’s never heard the music before are a good place to start. That’s the other challenge, there’s over 60 records made when he was alive then another 40+ posthumously, there’s a lot of music to choose from. I usually tell people the first couple that would be a good option would be, Apostrophe and Overnight Sensation, then some of the earlier stuff like, Freak Out and We’re Only In It For The Money. If you start at Apostrophe and Overnight Sensation it gives you a real good idea of the musicianship, the guitar playing and the composition; they have a very cinematic type of atmosphere to them. You got to hear a lot of variety it sounds like, something from one record then another, that’s what the live show does for people—it gives them a taste of all the different things.
I’m excited for the shows! I have an interview with you from when you were 22 and mentioned that you had spent a couple of days playing with your dad and of how you don’t get to do that too often, that you’ve only played together live onstage about a dozen times – you commented that he was intimidating; in what way? After playing it for many years now do you still feel intimidated by your dad’s work?
DZ: His ability to be in the moment as a musician and to be able to spontaneously compose and not be… for example a lot of guitar players, the way you learn to play the instrument is through a lot of repetition and patterns, they become your building blocks for the things you do but, they are still very repetitive. It’s typical of guitar players to play their standard riffs in every song, my dad didn’t do any of that. What that meant is that he had this giant vocabulary and ability to have depth and variety with the instrument because he was a composer. He understood how to make use of all of the elements in the music. When he was playing a solo for example, he was listening very intently to what everybody else was doing underneath the solo and he would be playing off of that versus him just playing and they follow. It’s a different way to use your mind and you have to have a way bigger vocabulary musically to be able to even enter that space. To me that was like, wow—a lifetime’s worth of work. And how you can just unleash your creativity in that way.
Over the past twelve years of me playing his music I’ve gotten closer and closer to being in that environment, which is really just a true state of spontaneity and extemporaneous ideas. I have a great appreciation for his music and what he accomplished just by going through that process.
Is there anything interesting that you learnt about yourself during the process?
DZ: It appears that I have more patience than most other people [laughs]. The thing is, to do what I did, to take on learning the music and playing, I had to change my guitar playing from a technical and mental standpoint. That is something most people would never endeavour to do. Most people if they already know how to do something… you’ve been doing it one way for thirty years and you say to yourself, you know what? Forget all of that, I’m going to start over… a lot of people would think they don’t have to do that but, that’s exactly what I had to do to play the music well and do what I needed to do. In doing so it opened up a lot of things for me that I can now do on guitar that I never thought I could. It also made it so I can do other things, I recently did a few concerts in Holland where the NNO Orchestra played some of my classical music that I wrote with a hundred piece orchestra. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I had not done the last twelve years of work on my dad’s music.
It must have been amazing to see and hear your work being played by an orchestra!
DW: Yeah it was a great, a very cool experience but, if you would have asked me ten years ago if I would have ever done orchestral work and classical concerts I probably would have said, nope! [laughs].
It’s been a few years since you’ve released your own music with album, Via Zammata; when will we see new music from you?
DZ: I’ve been thinking about stuff and the thing that will help me in the coming years to make more new music is that I will finally be able to have a space to work from. I haven’t had a music studio space that has been my own space before. Over the last year I have been building a place that I will be able to work from. I’m definitely looking forward to doing some of my own music and some collaborations with all kinds of other musicians.
Has your daughters shown an interest in music?
DW: Little by little they do. They haven’t specifically said, hey, I’m interested in playing an instrument. They like to sing songs though that they hear on the radio. I did make them sing background vocals on the song “On Fire” on the Via Zammata record. When they get exposure to it in different ways, like if I’m recording at home, I’ll see what they want to get up to… maybe they want to write a song or band around on instruments. It’ll be more of a possibility when they can see that environment in front of them.
Was it like that for you, being in an environment like that?
DZ: Yeah. I got a guitar when I was six, I really just made noise on it, I didn’t know what to do with it. When I was twelve, I got it into my head that it was really cool and that I wanted to do this. It was based on hearing the sounds of other guitar players other than my dad. I was always inspired by him but, I knew that you had to know a lot of stuff to do what he did. There had to be an initial starting point; what really got me into it was Van Halen’s music and the guitar playing of Randy Rhoads who played with Ozzy Osbourne at that time… it was 1982 when hard rock and metal were the most popular forms in the world [laughs]; it was very guitar-centric at that time.
Is there anything that you do to nurture your creativity? Do play every day?
DZ: Sometimes it’s the exact opposite of that, sometimes I don’t play at all for a while and then when I pick up the instrument I start to see it in a different way. Technically I have certain routines and things I use to warm up but I try to keep looking for things that I might not have even ever attempted on the guitar, there’s so many different things you could do with the guitar in terms of how you phrase things, or the groupings of notes—it all becomes a way to tell a story. If you have a different vocabulary, a number of different colours to use when you’re painting a picture and telling a story, that’s what is the most exciting thing for me. I won’t repeat ideas.
Previously you’ve mentioned that you’d be curious to know how your dad was able to write so much stuff with so much depth and variety without repeating himself…
DZ: Yeah, that is still very fascinating to me. Generally speaking, popular music is based on things that do repeat themselves and artists that become popular make records that sound very similar from one to the next… generally speaking it’s what people associate with branding. For example AC/DC is one of my favourite bands, they have a sound and from record to record it’s very consistent without changing styles and that’s something most people appreciate about AC/DC. Then there’s other musicians that you want to hear variety from like The Beatles, they had plenty of variety. Led Zeppelin’s a bit like that too. There’s a few different perspectives on how that all goes but, my dad ultimately probably is the one that if you look at his body of work, the change in direction from song to song, album to album is unsurpassed. It’s quite remarkable that he doesn’t have any songs that sound strikingly similar.
The Young brothers from AC/CD that you just mentioned, they’re on your “What The Hell Was I Thinking” project you’ve been working on for 20 years, right?
DZ: Yeah. That will hopefully be something that I will get to finish now that I have my studio space, I’ll get time to finish that up. There’s probably more modern players I’d like to include too and a few of the classic guys I’d still like together on there too, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, Tony Iommi, Mark Knopfler… all the people that inspired me in various ways to play guitar. I’d like to include some newer generation guitarists that people may not be familiar with also.
What feeling do you get when you play guitar?
DZ: It really depends because if I’m on stage and there’s a solo section on a song that feels particularly in my wheelhouse, something that is comfortable that I can have totally freedom on, that’s the most fun that I can have really. That’s where I can just be painting a picture that has never been made before, that’s what I used to see my dad do and that’s what he used to talk about loving so much—being in that moment, playing the right note at the right time.
Create forever, B x