Playing for dad

Dweezil Zappa comes to Israel with the tribute band that aims to immortalize his father Frank’s diverse music legacy.

Dweezil Zappa 311 (photo credit: Zappa Family Trust)
Dweezil Zappa 311
(photo credit: Zappa Family Trust)
Dweezil Zappa arrives on our shores this week with a septet of musicians, and he comes on a mission. Zappa, the second of composer Frank Zappa’s four children, has been playing guitar on his dad’s albums since the mid 1980s; in the 1990s he released several albums of his own, some in collaboration with his younger brother Ahmet.
But since 2006 Zappa has devoted his time to performing the music of his father around the world (the show is aptly named Tour de Frank), in an effort to expose it to a younger audience. His mission is to show that the music of Frank Zappa is as relevant now as when it was first produced – and even today remains, as Dweezil says, “ahead of its time,” paraphrasing the name of one of Frank’s albums.
While looking for a place to shower in New Hampshire before a show, facing one of the surreal kinds of situations of touring life which inspired Frank Zappa to write some of his cleverest pieces, Dweezil managed to squeeze in the time to explain by phone to The Jerusalem Post why he decided, at the age of 37, to establish the band Zappa Plays Zappa and take it on what seems like a never-ending worldwide tour.
“Many people think [my dad was] just a comedy musician with kids with funny names,” he said (apart from Dweezil and Ahmet, Frank called his eldest daughter Moon Unit and the youngest Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen).
“I’m trying to reeducate the audience,” he said, so that they realize that Zappa was a serious composer – even when his lyrics or even the timbres he chose were humorous.
Even today, 17 years after Frank Zappa passed on, Dweezil believes this is the prevailing norm. The songs people know, he said, are “the things that have gotten more exposure because they were on the radio… [these are] the only songs people are casually familiar with, like ‘Valley Girl’, ‘Dancing Fool’, ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow’,” and even a favorite of latenight radio shows, “Titties and Beer.”
The crowd that comes to the shows, he said, is quite diverse – from Zappaphiles who know almost every album (not a small feat, considering the catalogue includes some 80 full length records) to young listeners who, it seems, are his true audience. The Zappaphiles have been converted long ago, but the next generation are the ones who will eventually see that the Zappa legacy lives on.
But this diversity makes selecting which pieces to perform a difficult task: “It’s always a challenge to choose what to play, especially in new places where we never played. We try to make sure to change it as often as possible. I have to find the right balance between songs that are recognizable and songs from the deep albums.”
Some pieces will never be performed by ZPZ, since they are scored for ensembles outside the scope of the band. (Frank Zappa’s compositions range from pieces for a single drum kit to pieces for a full symphony orchestra.) And in some songs, the humor is inherent in Frank’s vocal delivery, something Dweezil prefers people get directly from the source by going to the original recordings.
There have already been quite a few tribute bands performing Frank Zappa’s music, including some featuring musicians who played with the master himself.
But ZPZ, Dweezil told the Post, is different in its reverence for the music.
“There’s a lot of bands out there … The only one that I heard that I liked was a band in Australia… I forget their name now… that did versions of some of Frank’s stuff. As for the alumni, I don’t care for what they do because what they do is try to draw attention to themselves,” instead of giving the compositions the space they deserve.
This is also why he chose to put together a band of young musicians – some of whom were even not particularly fluent in Zappa in the beginning.
“I wanted to put a band together that is entirely made of younger players, so I can combat the notion that Frank’s music is nostalgia music.”
Even today, he said, the music “stands in stark relief against the musical landscape.”
All players “went through challenging auditions.
The majority of the people in the band had pretty limited knowledge or exposure to Frank’s music, but became much more into it through their positions in the job.”
The measure of Dweezil’s seriousness about the endeavor is attested by the strict adherence to Frank’s notes. Zappa was one of the pioneers of actually notating rock music – he was one of the first intellectuals in a rock ‘n roll culture that in a sense reveled in its apparent ignorance – but there are some pieces which were not notated, and when the notes are not there, “we even pull out the master tape and listen to the parts track by track,” Dweezil said, laboriously notating the tapes into scores and then rehearsing them.
Another part of the project is looking for obscure songs that never got much exposure – “new” compositions, in a sense. One of the songs in the setlist, “Imaginary Diseases,” has gone “unreleased, and was performed once in 1970 but never again.”
Like his father did on his many tours, Dweezil is coming for the music; unlike some much publicized cancellations by big acts who were recently expected in Israel and left crowds frustrated and angry, he told the Post he is excited to arrive and has no plans to pull out at the eleventh hour.
This will be his first performance in Israel – and, indeed, the first live performance of this music here by any musician with the surname of Zappa.
“A show in Israel will be something unique for us,” he said. “We haven’t had a chance to play anywhere close to that region of the world. It’s a bit of an exotic adventure for us. I’m not concerned about political issues,” Dweezil said. He has friends in Israel and they assured him that what he will see here is absolutely “not what you might expect based on news coverage in the US.”
Dweezil Zappa plays guitar and sings. He will be playing with Jamie Kime on guitar; Scheila Gonzalez on sax and vocals; Ben Thomas on vocals, trumpet, harmonica and assorted percussion; Chris Norton on keyboards; Billy Hulting on percussion; Pete Griffin on bass; and Joe Travers on drums.
Zappa Plays Zappa – Tour de Frank, plays at Hangar 11 in Tel Aviv on July 14 at 8:30 p.m.