Q&A With Dweezil Zappa, Playing Georgia Theatre Wednesday

For the last decade, Dweezil Zappa has toured with his Zappa Plays Zappa project, which celebrates the music of his late father Frank. The group hits Athens this Wednesday, May 6, for a show at the Georgia Theatre. Flagpole caught up with Dweezil for a phone chat.

Flagpole: For an additional ticket price, people can sit in on your guitar clinic the day of the show. Where did that idea come from?

Dweezil Zappa: I did a lot of work before I did Zappa Plays Zappa to change my approach to guitar. I had already been playing guitar for nearly 30 years. But then I decided that if I wanted to play the music that I wanted to play in my dad’s catalog, I needed to learn a bunch of new techniques, things that were unfamiliar to me… Basically, it was like getting a lobotomy and then training for the Olympics: take what you already knew and then replace that with something new.

There was a noticeable difference in my approach, and a lot of people were asking, “What did you do? How did you do it?” So, I put a camp together called Dweezilla, which is a three-day event, and did that for a few years. I had to put it on hiatus for a while, because I got too busy with touring, but instead of doing the one-location, three-day thing, I just took a lot of what I did and and put it on the road doing a little 90-minute class. That has also turned into me doing some instructional video courses for A lot of what I am teaching in the classes can be referred to in these video lessons, which is helpful for people, because they come to these classes and can easily forget 90 percent of what I am talking about.

FP: Have you developed a new appreciation for your father’s catalog? Are there times when you find compositions that surprise you?

DZ: A lot of the stuff that I’m talking about learning, it’s all written for marimba or keyboard, which is laid out very different than for a guitar, harmonically. When you add tricky rhythms and weird intervals, you start to have a lot of issues… When you play a marimba, you strike the note and you have an immediate connection to the note that you are striking. You have basically one attack, but if you want it louder, you hit it harder, so it is about velocity. But you really only have one destination when you hit that note. Keyboard is the same: You press a key, you get the note. With guitar, you have your hand go to the note and then you have your picking hand go to the right string. So, there’s a different correlation to how you get there…

At the same time, in learning about my dad’s compositional style, I wanted to take things that he would use, compositionally, and improvise with them. So, rhythmically, I started to come up with things I called “phrase generators,” so I could come up with a new vocabulary of stuff to do on guitar… It was like trying to play the drums on guitar, attaching notes to rhythms. In a nutshell, my thought process was to attach notes to pre-designed rhythms as a modular component in soloing. I joke about it and say that it is “IKEA for guitar.”

FP: Is most of the challenge in translating a composed piece into the interpretation that you perform live?

DZ: When it comes to the pieces that we play, I treat the music like we are a repertory ensemble. Some people have the idea that it is a cover band or a tribute band. So, I would say to them, “You’re going to have to call an orchestra a cover band or a tribute band.” The distinction is that, to carry the music forward, you need to play the music as it was written… so that the work of the composer is the focus. When it comes to transcriptions and things, when we have transcriptions to work with, we will always double- and triple-check them to any recording, even to the extent that we would pull out the master tapes from the tape vault and go track-by-track to make sure that the parts that we are playing and the arrangement that we are doing are what exists in the recording and what Frank released.

We never take something and do our own thing with it, which is what people try to say. “Hey! You’ve got to modernize it! To get a new, interested audience, you’ve got to modernize this and make it appeal to them!” Again, I’d reference an orchestra—it’s not like an orchestra will do a piece by Bach or Beethoven and [have] a rapper come out… That’s not going to make the music better. If it does draw a new audience, that’s not the audience that’s going to want that music anyway.

FP: You’re suggesting that the audience for Zappa Plays Zappa is already established.

DZ: That’s not really the case. The goal with what we do is to present the music as it is intended to be played, with the idea that anything can be popular if it has exposure. We’re just out on the road exposing it to other people. We’ve seen a younger audience grow over the past decade of doing this. The thing about it is, if you’re hearing something new for the first time, it doesn’t matter if you’re hearing it the day the record came out or 40 years later. You’re still hearing it for the first time. This happens to be way beyond current—it’s from the future. Nothing sounds like this music. When people get into it, they get into it on a deep level…

One of the guys [has] been in the band five years now. He never heard Frank’s music, but he saw a DVD and he saw us playing it and started learning it and transcribing it. When it came time to look for a keyboard player, he auditioned, and is now in the band. He was only 23 at the time. That’s exactly the thing that I’m talking about, where you can make the impression on someone. The goal of what I wanted to do is represented right there in one of the band members.

FP: That’s fascinating. One the one hand, the project is an homage, but on the other, it’s about projecting this music into the future.

DZ: In the oldest Italian tradition of running the family business, it’s kind of the same thing. If my dad were making marionettes and I was passionate about making marionettes, I would do it the way that he did it. This is the same thing. It’s not for me to say, “He did it this way, but I have this way better idea of how to do it.” No. This is something that needs to be recognized for the achievement of what it is, and so I don’t go out there and change stuff. 

FP: I know that you’ve acted in the past. Are there any plans to continue with that line of work?

DZ: I just really haven’t had any time to think about that… In my so-called “career,” I’ve really just done whatever is appealing to me at the time. That’s life. You should try some things out. I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve done some TV. I did a cooking show. All kinds of stuff. These days, people seem to get totally confused if you do more than one thing. People want to brand you. “This is the one thing I do. Here’s how you know me.” But I don’t care about any of that. I just say, “I’m going to try this out. If it’s good, I’ll do more of that.”