BY FRANK DE BLASE
Frank Zappa was a musician whose approach to music was unconventional, humorous, free, and consequently maligned by those who clung to the predictable safety of mainstream music’s teat. Zappa explored the fringes as a composer and as an incendiary guitarist. In 1966 he formed The Mothers of Invention and tested the boundaries of avant-garde music as well as polite society with the band’s irreverent explorations of both music and humor. Frank Zappa broke the mold and continued to break it until his death in 1993 at age 53.
Since 2006, Dweezil Zappa — one of Frank’s sons — has taken chunks of his father’s catalogue and painstakingly re-created them note for note, word for word, ad hoc, verbatim. As much as we know of Frank Zappa —his enigmatic genius and off-color, off-tempo, off-beat humor — there is plenty we don’t. His project Zappa Plays Zappa tackles this reverently and referentially.
Frank Zappa once said talking about music is like dancing about architecture. Dweezil Zappa called up from his home in California, and we did just that for 10 minutes or so. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.
CITY: How did you choose which songs to tackle?
Dweezil Zappa: There’s so much music to choose from; it’s a constant challenge to see what we’re going to focus on.
Was Zappa Plays Zappa inevitable?
It’s something I didn’t know was going to be totally possible until I put some effort into learning the music. I didn’t want to do it unless it was done to the right standards.
It’s a daunting catalogue. How did you approach it?
The real key to all this stuff is the music itself is inspirational — not only to me but to other people. The idea would be, if you’re inspired to learn the music the way it is written, future generations will have the opportunity to be exposed to it and be inspired… not just perceiving the music as living in the past, or having the people who formerly played it being key to it.
So you needed the right mindset first? How about the audience?
Part of the whole process of doing this is to kind of re-educate the audience to have a different perspective, because it’s very easy for people to think of this as nostalgia-based entertainment. Frank’s music is very contemporary and, in fact, way ahead of its time. Future generations should want to learn this music and play it correctly.
What has Frank Zappa’s music taught you?
There’s so much, it’s hard to tell. The main thing — and what people probably don’t know about Frank’s music — is he started writing orchestral music as a young teenager. He studied on how to be a composer from books at the library. He sent music he had written out to orchestras with no one taking him seriously.
So over the years, his music was developed by rock bands under his baton. He would use his rock band as his orchestra. He did work with orchestras in his career, but his music was more along the line of compositions than a rock band writing four-chord songs.
When I was young, a lot of things appealed to me in the music. When I was younger, I didn’t know what the names of those things were. So when I studied the music, I had to discover the devices — not equipment, but the things Frank used in his compositions.
This is clearly more than a Zappa tribute or cover band.
People may say Zappa plays Zappa is a cover band. Well, technically an orchestra is a cover band.
And Frank Zappa is virtually a genre at this point.
The problem we perpetually run into with this project and with his music was, people want to take the easy route and say, “I could see any cover band play this stuff.” But you really can’t, you know? To hear it played correctly, it takes a lot of time and effort. It’s like training for the Olympics to play this stuff.
Do you think your father’s humor overshadows the music a bit?
I think it has over the years. It’s just one of those things. Some people think if you have a sense of humor, then you don‘t take yourself seriously. Frank took what he did very seriously. He just also liked to have a good time. People who have a very pompous view of what they do and what their music is supposed to represent tend to be taken more seriously. But Frank didn’t really care for that kind of presentation.
Where does the Dweezil get interjected amid all the Frank?
Since I started this in 2006, I stayed away from that for a number of reasons. In the beginning, I didn’t want to have any recordings available of what we were doing. That didn’t seem to be part of the process for me. The reason I started this was to be the catalyst to a new generation of people to experience this music — not just the long-time fans, but new people.
Upon first listen, I wanted what we did to be as close to the original as possible, so when they got to the original they knew what they were in for. So adding my own thing to it would be opposite of that goal.
But over a period of time, people have grown accustomed to the band, and they’ve been interested in hearing it deviate from the goal of the original project. It gives life to the music. People are aware of the different versions out there already, and this gives them a few more.
Dweezil Zappa performs Zappa Plays Zappa Tuesday, June 26, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Tickets cost $40-$95.