After years of venturing out on his own path, guitarist Dweezil Zappa has more recently become, in effect, the curator of the large body of challenging music his father, iconoclastic composer Frank Zappa, left behind when he passed away in 1993.
Dweezil’s tribute band, Zappa Plays Zappa, returns to the Gathering of the Vibes this year for a Main Stage performance at 1 p.m. on July 21. They’ll perform faithful recreations of Frank’s music, based upon the younger Zappa’s extensive studies of the different eras of Frank’s output: the late ’60s original lineup of the Mothers of Invention; the various jazz- and progressive rock influenced bands of the early to mid-’70s; and the multi-limbed, often-satirical rock and avant-garde directions FZ branched into throughout the ’80s. By phone from his home in Los Angeles, Dweezil talked about returning to the Vibes stage, keeping a band together and the place his father’s music holds for the average festival-goer.
[Note: this interview has been condensed and edited.]
The first time Zappa Plays Zappa performed at the Gathering of the Vibes was in 2008. What do you remember about that Vibes, how has the band changed, and what are you looking forward to this year?
I remember it was a fun festival to play. There was a really good, seemingly knowledgeable fan base that was excited about the material, and it was a young fan base, which was pretty cool to see. There was a really good energy within the audience that day, which made it a really good event to perform at. But as we have done since 2006, we’ve changed up the material we play. We try to introduce some new stuff. We rotate stuff around. But to create a show, especially if you’re playing for an audience that doesn’t know the material well, you have to give a well balanced presentation, and also introduce them to some stuff they haven't heard. Our fan base runs the gamut from obsessed crazed fans that know all the records to people who don’t know anything about Frank Zappa’s music. You have to strike that balance in between. So this year we put together a storytelling thing — I tell stories about certain elements of the music and what’s gotten me interested in them. The band has also decreased in size from eight to six members, and when Frank has had bands of that size he’s referred to them as his “rocking teenage combos.”
How does the smaller band affect the songs you choose?
It does change the material we can play and the arrangements of the material. We still have the same amount of instrumentation but some parts have to be covered by other people. As an eight-piece band we have percussion and marimba and an extra guitar player. The elements of percussion and marimba are the classic staples of the timbre of some of Frank’s arrangements and instrumentation. But there are plenty of versions of songs that have marimba on them played by Frank’s bands that didn’t have marimba in the band. It depends on the era we focus on, and that makes it exciting and fresh and new. We choose versions of different eras of songs. We cover what exists in that arrangement and instrumentation. We always go about recreating the same timbre and arrangement so that it’s reflective of the era. It’s like a musical time machine.
Assembling, rehearsing, managing a large band can be daunting. Frank had a very particular way that he handled that responsibility and managed to get his music played faithfully. What have you learned from the way he handled it, and how do you do things differently?
We don’t have the ability to do it the way he did it, and what that requires is that if he had a tour that was one month long, he’d rehearse them for two or three months... But we don’t have the budget to rehearse that long for a short tour, so it’s difficult to do all of that. We mostly do stuff as homework and get together for a short period of time. Since 2006 we’ve learned over 200 songs, and a lot of them are really, really hard ones: classic instrumentals like “The Black Page,” which we’ll do at the Gathering of the Vibes. So when it comes to the music, Frank wrote his music in a way that makes it pretty clear what’s required. He always had the ability to write it out in manuscript form, and each part was a strict part. If someone is given a part, that’s what he’s supposed to play. Sometimes he would have challenges to keep people focused on what their role is. Over time, people think they should be overgrowing their role and have more spotlight. He called that “body commercials.” When people got out of line, they lost their jobs. There was no shortage of people to do this. It is a pain in the ass to do that and bring in a new player, but ultimately the band I put together has a lot of respect for the role they are here to accomplish. Our goal is to go onstage and let the music speak for itself. It’s about drawing attention to the music.
What are the particular areas of crossover, in your mind, between the music of Frank Zappa and the kinds of music that are enjoyed by, say, fans of the Grateful Dead?
I think that one common denominator is that there is improvisational music during guitar solos, during instrumental solo sections, and also an element of the appreciation of musicians performing live, and having it be this thing for a particular audience, not a recreation of a hit single that has no connection to the audience. [A lot of popular acts] don’t take any care to change [their songs] for the audience. It might as well be a playback or miming. I think a festival crowd is wanting to connect with music on a pretty base level... From an audience perspective, to see this music performed, the audience gets to observe that there’s a lot of attention to detail. For the audience to see the twists and turns, that’s appealing. I think the Grateful Dead had a different, other appeal that doesn’t necessarily reflect Frank’s music. A lot of people wanted to be tripping on something to enjoy it in a certain way, and Frank didn’t have any real interest in having his music showcased for that behavior. He was against the use of drugs.
A little bit geeky: As a guitarist and improviser, in my mind, Frank was almost unparalleled at improvising over a relatively static harmonic, rhythmically charged environment. What is it about that particular mode of improvising that appealed to him, and perhaps to you as well?
That was also one of the hardest things to grow into. I had to learn to play within the idiom that Frank was most comfortable in. That wasn’t my comfort zone. I had to recreate that. Ultimately the band has the ability to really support the ideas that are being developed in a different way when you have a limited role for the harmonic background. If you have a two-chord, vamp, Frank could take any idea on top of it and develop it in a different direction. It’s a little more specific than if you have a full chord progression. It can take sharper turns and sustain more interest. I think it’s harder to improvise over a static harmonic environment because you have to have more vocabulary. I had to work on quite a bit, to learn a lot of his phrases and ideas and superimpose them, to use them as a guidepost. I didn’t want to take a left turn and suddenly introduce my own thing. That was a real challenge.
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