As the son of avant-garde rock composer Frank Zappa, Dweezil Zappa has dedicated himself to keeping his father’s music alive. On Saturday, a host of Central PA musicians endeavor to do the same as they band together at Lancaster’s Tellus360 for Conceptual Continuity: A Tribute to the Genius of Frank Zappa. This interview with Dweezil Zappa ran in the February 2014 issue of Fly Magazine.
Many a father hopes their child looks up to them. Dweezil Zappa founded Zappa Plays Zappa in 2006 to bring Frank’s music – some of the most complex and difficult-to-perform modern songs ever written – to younger generations. Over the past seven years, the band has been working its way through Frank Zappa’s massive catalogue.
This year, they bring his classic album, Roxy & Elsewhere, to the stage for its 40th anniversary. We caught up with Dweezil by phone at his Los Angeles office to discuss his inheritance of the Zappa legacy.
Fly Magazine: It’s amazing how many different styles your dad could blend into a single composition while also incorporating his strange brand of humor.
Dweezil Zappa: He had an ability to make things work on a lot of different levels, with very complex things and very stupid things all happening at once.
FM: This is challenging music you’re playing.
DZ: It’s like training for the Olympics. We’ve learned about 300 songs since we started in 2006. But we couldn’t play all those songs. For me, even if I spent six months to learn a song, if I don’t play it for a couple of weeks, it’s gone. I would have to learn it again – maybe not from the ground up, but pretty close.
FM: Roxy & Elsewhere is a really cool record.
DZ: It’s probably the grooviest record of Frank’s. It’s got a lot of great material that showcases a lot of styles, like really cool blues guitar playing and intricate rhythms that are insanely hard.
FM: Do you think this will be a lifelong project?
DZ: There is enough music to continue and keep learning and playing more of it. It’s just whether or not there is a demand for it to continue in a live situation. The other part is for people to get a sense that this is not nostalgia music. This is music that is contemporary and from the future. People still don’t get this yet.
FM: You occasionally would join your dad on stage as a kid. What was it like to be 15 years old and playing with your famous dad’s band?
DZ: The first time I played with him was when I was 12, and I’d only been playing guitar for nine months, so that was terrifying. But it was inspirational. They were playing all this hard stuff, but they made it look fun and easy. It’s kind of the same thing we’re doing. You work hard to make it playable and then you have fun.
FM: Did your dad teach you a lot of guitar?
DZ: He had an idiosyncratic style of playing, so he wasn’t really all about technique. He said, “If you want to learn about technique, I’m not the guy.” To play like him requires changing your perspective of what guitar is all about because he was thinking about rhythms first and then notes afterwards. That became a whole different approach that I had to reprogram my brain on, and it will be a continuing process.
FM: What did you learn from you dad about leading a band?
DZ: He knew exactly what he wanted and how he wanted it done. It was a great challenge, and it was fun and rewarding. But at the same time, if you didn’t do your job, you would be out.
FM: What was one of the best non-musical lessons he taught you?
DZ: Don’t be an asshole unless you’re getting paid a lot of money. And even then, don’t be an asshole.
FM: Your dad had a lot of sexual innuendo in his lyrics. Did he have the “sex talk” with you, or did he just put on [the famously filthy song] “Bobby Brown” and let you figure it out?
DZ: When we heard that song as kids, we just liked the melody. But we were the same as other kids when it came to learning about these things. Our folks gave us the information that we needed to know, but we certainly had a sense of humor about songs like “Bobby Brown.” What’s funny about that song is, even now in Europe where English is spoken but isn’t the main language, you’ll still hear that song on the radio. And we’ve played it where the whole audience will sing it. Half of them don’t know what they’re saying when they’re singing lyrics like, “with a spindle up my butt ‘til it makes me scream.” They just like the melody.
FM: Your dad had so many great quotes. Do you have a favorite?
DZ: One of the best ones is, “The mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work unless it’s open.”
Conceptual Continuity: A Tribute to the Genius of Frank Zappa features UZO, The Heavy Push, Husky Pants & the Rail as well as members of herbie., The Green Onions, The Andy Mowatt Trio. Catch the performance at Tellus360 (24 E. King St., Lancaster) on Saturday, August 2. 8:30 p.m. doors. $10. 21+. Advance tix here.