Photo: Dweezil and Frank Zappa axe-to-axe in the late '80s
Dweezil Zappa has spent the last decade keeping his famous father Frank’s musical legacy alive with his Zappa Plays Zappa band.
He’s bringing the show – now rechristened Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever The F%@k He Wants – to Australia next month for a tour which will undoubtedly astound and bamboozle onlookers due to the technical intricacies of the compositions, and possibly offend some with Frank’s risqué lyrical wit.
The tour celebrates 50 (and a bit) years since Frank Zappa released his debut album (as The Mothers Of Invention), Freak Out, in June, 1966. Another 61 albums followed before his 1993 death, and there have been another 40 since – which poses the $64,000 question: What makes Frank’s music so enduring?
“Well, I think it's always been unique in and of itself,” Dweezil opines. “I mean, it really can only be described as ‘Zappa music’. There are many different influences and styles and things that he put together in one specific recipe, and… it’s as fresh now as it was then, it blows your mind – especially on first listen. It's all about his skill as a composer and an arranger, the musicianship and the quality of the recordings.”
As fans well know, Frank was not just a rock’n’roll musician. He loved jazz and R&B, was heavily influenced by doo wop, and was lauded as a ground-breaking classical composer. He never let genre constrict him at all.
“I think that part of his M.O. was to have no boundaries,” says Dweezil. “He sort of coined the phrase, ‘anything at anytime, for any reason at all!’”
With such a staggeringly huge back catalogue, Frank Zappa's music might be daunting to a newcomer. Dweezil generously agrees to suggest a few suitable entry points for newbies to start listening.
“There's a few records that I would call gateway records,” he starts. “There's probably a half dozen of them that could give you some subtext that would guide you through his entire career.
“I would think that, if you've never heard anything, the first couple of records to start with would be Apostrophe, Over-Nite Sensation and One Size Fits All. That era is about 10 or 11 years into his music career, and it gives you a really good balance of getting an understanding of the complexity of the music. He's got so many different styles on those records - jazz, avant garde, funk, blues, sometimes all in the same song.
“There's a bit of humour sometimes as well,” Dweezil continues, “but once you get a sense of it, the musicianship is the real hallmark of his sound. Using marimba and all these other classical instruments within a rock’n’roll context, I think that's the best first place to get used to that sound.
“And then, you could go backwards to the earliest records - to Freak Out!, Absolutely Free and We're Only In It For The Money - and you can hear some of the psychedelic craziness and the hints of where all the musicianship was heading.
“Then I would say jump forward to The Yellow Shark record, which is my favourite classical album of his. The German ensemble that is playing the music, is recorded in a way that is more akin to a rock’n’roll band - it's a really exciting sounding classical recording. I think that gives people a good sense of the music, outside of the rock’n’roll context.
“There's obviously a few other records - Joe's Garage and Zappa In New York, for instance - that fill in some other areas. If you are into it, from that little guided tour, then you will find stuff that you can enjoy from any record, in his entire catalogue, for years.”
Frank’s unique sense of humour permeated his entire career, from bizarrely titled instrumental tracks, to political satire, to smutty road tales that would make a roadie blush. I asked Dweezil if he thinks that ever detracted from some people's perceptions of the quality and the skill behind the music itself.
“I think, what could be more distracting is to think you know my dad’s music from just hearing a handful of songs that have comedic narrative,” he declares. “If the only songs that you've ever heard are Dyna-mo Hum or Cosmik Debris or Don't Eat The Yellow Snow or Valley Girl - that's a handful of songs from literally over a thousand songs, on more than 100 albums. It's a small percentage of what he did.
“But anybody that's easily offended,” he adds, “is probably not going to automatically like my dad's music!”
Dweezil was playing guitar at a young age, guesting onstage at Frank’s concerts at 13 or 14, and released his own debut album, Havin’ A Bad Day, in 1986, just before his 17th birthday. His most recent solo album, Via Zammata – his first in nine years – was released in 2015.
“I haven't had a lot of time to make my own music, for a number of reasons,” he elaborates. “Mainly having to do with learning my dad's music and continuously playing it. It takes a lot of time to learn the stuff, it takes a lot of time to maintain what we have learned. If we play 80 to 100 shows a year, that's basically about six months out of the year.
“The rest of the time, I'm trying to balance spending time with my family, and getting other things up and running. I think one of the things that will help me make more music is having a dedicated work space. I haven't had a place to work from at home, so I've been working on trying to create a space where I can record and get back into doing that on a consistent basis.
“I would think that will mean I’ll be able to do more things. One of the key things that I am looking forward to, that is different from anything I've ever done in all my time, is that I've been approached to write some orchestral music. I am debuting a few of my orchestral pieces in Holland in a few weeks with a 100-piece orchestra.”
Frank’s music is often extremely intricate and involved, and requires intense rehearsals. Dweezil gives a glimpse into how they approach recreating the material.
“We do our due diligence on learning the music, we have such great reference material. We listen to it while we're working on something, and then compare it to the original, my dad's stuff. We really listen with an open mind and say, ‘okay, what can we make better? What's missing from this?’ We're trying to have it so that it's as consistent with the original as possible.
“We work real hard to do the sound design, using the instrumentation, and sounds that are evocative of the right era. I think that goes a long way to making it sound right. For example, if we were playing songs from the album, Freak Out!, we wouldn't try to modernise it and make it sound like it just came out last week. There's a certain special quality to the early Mothers recordings, so you really need to pay attention to the sound of those records to give it the right personality. We focus on learning that material, but we also focus on trying to get it in a way that, like I say, is very evocative of the era, of each recording.”
Recent family squabbles following the passing of Dweezil’s mother Gail in late 2015 resulted in a court injunction ordering him to cease and desist using any reference to Frank. As a result, he’s unable to tour as Zappa Plays Zappa, and the Australian tour will fly under the banner, Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever The F%@k He Wants – The Cease & Desist Tour.
It all stems from Ahmet and younger sister Diva receiving 30 per cent shares each of the Frank Zappa Family Trust from Gail’s will, while Dweezil and elder sister Moon were only bequeathed 20 per cent each. The fact that their mother left the business millions of dollars in debt further compounds the issues. The two camps have fundamental differences of opinion as to how it should be run, and it appears unlikely they will manage to sit down as a family and find a compromise.
“Well, there haven't been any chances to do so so far,” Dweezil says with a weary sigh. “Even before it became having things to do with attorneys, there was really just more of a strong arm, ‘you will toe the line and do as we say’, approach from Ahmet and Diva. That doesn't go very far with me.”
There are public statements from Ahmet and interviews with Dweezil that delve into the details of the dispute, so we won’t go further into them here except to say, surely Frank’s music should be the most important thing?
“Well, that's true, I've always felt that,” says Dweezil. “You know, there is a lot of misinformation that is being spoken by Ahmet, because he's found himself in a position he doesn't like, where people are judging him based on his actions. He tries to back-peddle, tries to make himself seem a little more appetising.
“The reality is they're still pressing forward with all of the legal stuff that they're doing. They're still trying to block me from using my own name. They're still doing all the stuff that they say they're not doing, but they're actually doing. If they weren't, then everything would be resolved and fine.”
One can’t imagine that Frank would be very happy with the situation.
“No, he definitely wouldn't!” Dweezil agrees. “It's also very telling that he had a different way that he envisioned how things would go in his will. My mom actually had hidden his will, until the Statute of Limitations ran out. Then she was able to have her own will take its place. She changed a bunch of things. It would be very wrong to say that the way things are being handled now, are the wishes of both of our parents.”
Legal morass aside, Frank Zappa remains one of the most prolific, influential and unique composers in modern music, and Dweezil his most faithful acolyte.
Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever The F%@k He Wants stops by the Astor Theatre on Tuesday, February 27. Bookings via http://premier.ticketek.com.au/shows/show.aspx?sh=DWEEZILZ17&v=AST#