You are what you is
Zappa Plays Zappa at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre
Although his father passed away in 1993, Dweezil Zappa interacts with his work and spirit on a regular basis. The eldest son of composer and musician Frank Zappa, Dweezil is the leading force behind Zappa Plays Zappa, a tribute act firmly devoted to performing the music of his father and his extensive catalogue of songs. Zappa Plays Zappa will take the stage Thursday, June 28 at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts in Wilkes-Barre. We spoke with Dweezil about his upcoming tour, stripped down band and feelings about sharing his father’s music for audiences.
What is your approach to the Zappa Plays Zappa show?
My approach has always been that I wanted people to see the band and appreciate the music for what it is. We perform it the way it is on record and the way he did it in live arrangements. We don’t try to modernize it or do anything to it other than present it the way he did, because ultimately that’s the way he wanted it to be heard. So people ask: “Why wouldn’t you try to modernize it or make it appealing to a new generation?” It’s because his music was already ahead of its time. He made over 80 albums. There is still so much that people don’t know about his music. The general population seems to think of his music as novelty music (“Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” “Dancin’ Fool,” “Valley Girl”). That doesn’t even scratch the surface of the rest of his music. My goal is to be able to present the music, reeducate the audience and give them a fresh perspective. Let the music do the talking by playing some of these iconic things like “The Black Page” and the other difficult instrumentals that really showcase what made him different as a composer. In western music, we all have twelve tones to deal with, and the way he arranged those twelve tones is very different than anybody else. It sounds like he had a whole lot more in his tool kit than we all do. What is constantly amazing to me is how he could take the same twelve notes and just keep putting them in different orders that made something so unique and different.
How has playing your father’s music affected you as a musician?
Before I even put the band together, I had to study the music for two years. I had to change my approach to guitar completely on every level. Technically, I was already very proficient with certain kinds of things that are fundamentally required to play challenging parts. I had the ability to play fast things, the ability to play some tricky rhythms, but what I needed to work on was even more of that ability to have a better understanding, but also have a better vocabulary harmonically. I had to basically go through my own version of Music College by taking lessons, studying and reading books so I would be prepared. Since 2006, I’ve continued on that process of the evolution of my own guitar playing; it has progressed in leaps and bounds. Playing the music has improved what I can do technically and creatively by more than 10 fold.
How has playing your father’s music affected you on a personal level as his son?
It’s been bittersweet. On some level it affords me the opportunity to have a continuing relationship with him. Even the audience gets to do that. We’ve done things where we’ve used video where he has performed with us live, singing and playing. He’s performed with us on several songs over the years (we don’t do it on every tour) but we bring it out here or there because it’s a good thing for people to experience.
Talk about the musicians playing with you on the tour.
This year we have a scaled down version of the band. Normally we have eight people in the band, this year is six. We are focusing on a lot of material that reflects the instrumentation in the band in the same way that Frank would do whenever he would have personal changes. This size of band, he always referred to as his “rocking teenage combo.” I think it’s going to make for a really high energy show with the material and the way the stage will be presenting itself.
What are you looking forward to on this current run of summer shows?
We have a lot of things that we are doing differently this tour, besides the band being smaller. One of the elements I’m working into the show is a storytelling element with some songs that we’re playing. I have personal stories when Frank was working on certain things from seeing it as a kid, things that could make a different kind of connection with the audience. We also have some surprises that will enter into the show through the storytelling process. I think the tour is going to be a fun one because the material we have on hand are full of fan favorites and cool stuff that we never played.
What can audiences expect to see?
The show tries to give audience members a chance to hear as many different textures and flavors within my father’s compositions as possible. I try to choose music that reflects every style he performed in and things that are well-known to the fan base and really obscure things as well. The people that know the music really well will get some surprises. It’s a good combination of rock stuff, special instrumentals and improvisational things that will happen. That’s really what seeing Franks show was all about. Seeing a lot of different music all in one night and seeing things that were intended only for that point in time and that audience.
— tom graham